P(HONY)

I hate Humans of New York. The first one or two photos I ever saw shared on my newsfeed warmed my heart a tad, but since then each successive encounter I’ve had with the photoblog has made me feel a rancid combination of frustration, anger, and even despair at times. 

I didn’t understand why I felt this way, especially considering that, despite my characteristically prickly, sardonic exterior, most people who know me know that I’m a pretty optimistic, emotionally stable dude and it takes something really special to cheese me off. What essential feature of HONY was getting to me? It had to be something more sophisticated than smarm, which always sticks in my craw but with which I’m quite capable of coping. 

A little friendly back-and-forth on the topic with a buddy of mine in recent weeks dredged up the answer. HONY is phony. It's not just fake. Fakeness and fiction take many forms, but phoniness is the most insidious. While basic fakeness at least pays people the modest respect of lying to their faces, the phony works its devilry by exploiting our aversion to what we know, in our heart, makes us most uncomfortable with reality. 

In the 'About' section of HONY's website, its creator, Brandon Stanton, waxes humbly on his original intention to create an “exhaustive catalogue of New York City's inhabitants,” a mission that's now garnered over nine million followers, and presently provides a “worldwide audience with daily glimpses into the lives of strangers.” And indeed, a quick flip through HONY might give the impression that there's some objectivity to the mission of compiling unflinching, honest narratives that would otherwise get erased by the more predominant and privileged stories that clog Big Media. On their surface, the portraits present themselves as earnest slices of the everyman’s life that bravely challenge Big Media’s commercial story of the American Human Condition. 

But it stops there. The more I read HONY, the more uncanny and eerie it feels. The portraits and the stories reek of a selective bias towards what approaches a true counternarrative, something honest and awesome, but always fall just short of what might actually challenge the beliefs of the target demographic. All that HONY actually challenges is some vague, strawman, institutional vision that we already have learned to dislike. 

So what does HONY actually do? HONY presents people with a comfortable fantasia of reality while loudly wearing the mask of authentic realism. That’s what makes it so sinister (and so phony). Over nine million people have gone to HONY as an escape from fiction and subsequently found themselves immersed in yet another fiction, albeit one that wears smoother gloves. 

Because, after all, as anyone can figure out, if Stanton were truly sincere about publishing the real private lives of New Yorkers, there would be a lot more variety, turpitude, and dullness. There would be stories that are seriously racist or homophobic, frenetic conspiracy theorists, women who have sex with dogs, and parents who resent their children (instead of just children who resent their parents), pro-Lifers with good points, et cetera ad infinitum. There would also be plain old boring people who don’t have anything interesting to offer at all. 

Such profane stories, however, push the limits of what even the most earnest of us are willing to tolerate in our vision of the world. What's more, they do not generate torrents of likes, notes, or comments pleading the Nobel Peace Prize and Pulitzer for Stanton. Nor would they help Stanton’s career as one of the most popular visual artists in the world, nor, ultimately, would they bring in much cash for book deals. 

It doesn’t take a lot of genius to realize that the Humans of New York fanbase is basically yet another subculture of people jerking off to the smell of their own farts. The (P)HONY Effect, as I'd call it, can be found wherever and whenever people take great pride in triumphing over Goliath by some kind of cheating David. In other words, the PHONY Effect is when a small lie dethrones a big one. But it's still a lie.  

What's a lot easier is to miss is the PHONY effect as it plays out in our daily lives. We fight hard to avoid pain, anger, sadness and material loss. But it’s a suppressed secret that the most powerful feeling of all is awkwardness. We would rather endure a great deal of suffering and tragedy than admit to anyone that what we hold most sacred, including our personal beliefs, religious, political and philosophical values, visions of humanity and human nature, are all just Byzantine cover-ups, engineered to protect us from what might actually be the agonizingly awkward truth: we are far less special than we believe. 

For example: the last five of my friends to be broken up with by a significant other were always the more dominant member of their relationship: more popular, better grades, more emotionally secure, better career prospects for the future. Each of the ex-partners, the one who cut things off, did so with justifications that seemed to come straight out of a B-movie, or Cosmo, or just the universal soup of lazy break-up language from which everyone draws:

“I feel like we’ve become different people.”

“You don’t validate my emotions.”

“We’re going in different directions.”

“Our lifestyles are incompatible.”

… all “reasons” which, to any third party familiar with the broader, softer details of the respective situations, were abundantly bullshit. But both partners chose to earnestly believe the baloney. Why? Because recognizing that the fundamental problem was the subordinate partner’s extreme anxiety over his or her relative inadequacy would have been, after all, terrifically awkward. The pain of a traumatic and heartbreaking separation from someone you love is worth it, compared with the pungent uneasiness of admitting the embarrassing and distinctly unromantic truth. 

Or take the play Antigone by Sophocles, as an extreme illustration of phoniness: 

King Creon, who’s just assumed the throne of Thebes following the recent civil war, impiously decrees that the body of the defeated general cannot be buried. Antigone, a princess of Thebes and sister to the political traitor, challenges Creon, citing the supremacy of divine law over human law. What follows is a lengthy exchange in which both craft stupendously powerful arguments orbiting around a timeless ethical dilemma. But the argument itself isn’t what makes the play so great.  

Sophocles’ ingenious insight into human nature shines through in two parallel remarks in each of their speeches. Just before she’s led away to her death by the guards, Antigone admits she would never have challenged Creon if it had been her child or husband he was refusing burial, since she could always get another (whereas brothers are irreplaceable when your parents are dead, as Antigone’s are.) Later, after Creon is finally forced to change his mind, he laments the dire choice between sending his niece to her death and relinquishing his “cherished resolve” and “smiting his pride with ruin.”

So all that grandiose speech about human and divine law was but a gigantic cover-up, a great, phony, dramatic charade aping two clashing forces of righteousness. While all along, the true nature of the conflict was rather pedestrian: old man, insecure about his new political power, bickers with an impetuous fourteen-year-old girl, both affecting intellectual tantrums set in terms that are fundamentally irrelevant to their actual, prosaic, selfish motives.

And all pay the price for the sham-debate: Antigone dies, Creon’s son and wife kill themselves and ultimately Creon looks like an asshole, not a strong leader, to the citizens of Thebes. Perhaps if they'd admitted the truth to each other and themselves at the outset, all that death could have been avoided. Their consensual choice, however, to perform the great charade instead of making the awkward admission of gross insecurity and childish selfishness represents the PHONY Effect at its most dangerous: the temptation to play the false hero overpowers the long-term consequences of being true to oneself. 

Online arguments about social justice almost always replicate the Antigone / Creon breed of phony debate. Two people make a very public commitment to radical positions and very quickly throw their integrity out the windows, warring viciously over minutiae, abusing statistics, flagrantly embellishing personal anecdotes, switching the focus, making ad hominem attacks and more, all in a phony fuckfest that mocks Justice in its own name. The tragedy is that actual human concerns for the welfare of people remain untouched, while the final champion  is simultaneously rewarded and determined by the plurality of likes. 

Our aversion to awkwardness is deadly, as is our preference for self-righteous indignation and phony realism. If Big Media erases the stories of immigrants, gay adolescents kicked out of their houses, men whose life’s goal it is to be a clown, and “cool aunts,” HONY and its smarmy ilk erase the stories of the really bizarre and boring, and compound the already massive social discouragement that compels each of us to keep the odder, uglier, plainer angels of our nature under wraps.  

We should resist the pleasant feeling that PHONY Effect gives us. It is a feeling that blocks out the awkwardness, guilt and embarrassment we might feel if we took a good hard look at ourselves and discovered how often we are perverse, selfish, insecure or below-average in all the least fashionable ways. We ought to embrace awkwardness and overcome it by becoming better people, not better story-tellers. I don't think that you should endure awkwardness and value truth just because that's somehow valorous or noble, but because you can do the most good for yourself and the world if you work only to fix the problems we actually have, not the ones we wish we did.

****

N.B. I am grateful to Dartmouth Professor Dr. Pramit Chaudhuri for calling my attention to the significance of Antigone’s final remarks in a lecture given on July 11, 2014.