June 8, 2023 | Rome, Italy

‘Breaking shit’

By |2020-08-06T13:25:51+02:00December 7th, 2014|Area 51|
Whitman meets Weimar, minus poetry.

e live in an era in which both written and spoken language gets most attention when formulated in the shape of a wrecking ball. Hormonal issuances, not critical argument, give speech its clout. Militant if not militaristic intercourse shapes the tone of news and how adults respond to it, many aroused by its emotional contents.

Investigative journalist Glenn Greenwald, a key figure in the Wikileaks scoop, recently advocated the need for “aggressive adversarial journalism” pushed beyond “obsolete stylistic rules” through unbridled passion. He has since joined a website called The Intercept, intended to root out government secrets and malfeasance. The site is aggressive to a fault, ready to indict and scrap at a moment’s notice.

The trend mesmerizes old school magazines under new school management, many eager to transform themselves from “conventional” magazines into “digital media companies,” a hoop the The New Republic just leapt through as pledge of allegiance to ongoing coliseum-style combat.

Guy Vidra, the former Yahoo executive named The New Republic‘s general manager, allegedly labeled himself a “wartime CEO” raring to “break shit,” the coveted and self-gratifying terms of anti-gentlemanly existence. He has in fact broken a great deal, but not stories — not yet. Vidra once worked with a “user personalization company” called Oddcast, a name by itself in keeping with a raft of online publication whose comic book monikers exist to provoke (just as rock band names — Led Zeppelin, Pink Floyd, and kin — did decades ago). There is Buzzfeed, The Daily Beast and The Onion, all positioned, intentionally or otherwise, on the fringes of caricature.

What all these new publications share, even in comedy, is an eagerness to tap into polemics and hostility. They disseminate real or ironic alarm in keeping with an easily piqued sense of national willfulness that swings between the indignant and the wrathful with few soft spots in between. Reality television, cable news and cyberspace jumble real and staged emotions to hold onto viewers, ignoring the consequences of the blurring. Debate often collapses into verbal brawling, which can spawn (much prized) virtual mobs eager to participate in almost any kind of voyeuristic fight.

Vidra’s “wartime CEO,” “break shit,” anti-Cary Grant harangue was in that combative spirit, a Leviathan-like expression of 21st-century male beer-hall leadership — Walt Whitman with a pinch of Weimar — fortified by neo-macho conceits that brazenly trivialize or mock all things serious so as to leave all paths open.

But my brief here isn’t to dissect male managers, mass media propensities, kitsch crudeness, or cyberspace decorum. I want instead to open a rabbit hole into the insidious if unconscious collusion between new-age adult male arrogance and fraternity-age rape.

Civil society in democratic states doesn’t exist independently from the emotional tone it creates for its citizens, particularly younger ones in throes of hormonal rushes. Restraint, better judgment, and basic respect for others are all part of a social contract that exists to confirm and reinforce the existence of an enlightened membership. The adversarial, “breaking shit” side of hormonal passage — in which the breakage is more literal than the stories — is, one would assume, eventually set aside in favor of saner protocols that ensure civility and basic politeness, both between men and women and within the confines of the larger social order.

The emerging dilemma, instead, is in the way adult tastelessness unintentionally encourages boys-who-will-be-men to park their characters in a state of permanent adolescence, one in which they tacitly refuse to surrender the confused and arrogant recklessness associated with puberty because their “breaking shit,” decade-older elders suggest through word and deed that such mischief might be socially acceptable and, even when order is violated, that moral responsibility can be postponed.

To some impressionable teen boys, rudeness and depravity can seem less like circus theatrics and more like means to form an affirming link with this brash, neo-macho side of male adulthood. Add copious amounts of alcohol to gargled mix and the result can be, has been, and often still is, literal breakage with literal casualties based on a literal interpretation of words many adults use with foolish abandon: aggressive, wartime, beast and buzz. Increasingly, the urban adult male message to the young of their gender is the opposite of rousing endorsement of a grown-up state that sets aside roiling and reckless adolescent anger.

In its place, anger is openly advertised as a virtue that some male (and female) adults swear by as an attacking mantra in a society in which such attacks and disruptions can be central both to personality and advancement. If these “reboot-enabled” adults do make civility-shattering mistakes, even coercive ones, they are compelled to apologize, often publicly, or are pushed into therapy, their crude blunders minimized by a social reset button that ignores the original source of the vulgarity.

Social rancor does not exist in a vacuum. Boys and girls formulate schemes based on the contours of events around them, often advancing the worst, or the most risqué, as proof of holding adult-like power. Something ominous is afoot, and understanding it starts by listening to rudely boyish boasts about the eagerness to break shit and the desire kill off obsolete style, particularly when the words come not from frat boys but from presumably accomplished adults.

About the Author:

Christopher P. Winner is a veteran American journalist and essayist who was born in Paris in 1953 and has lived in Europe for more than 30 years.