I have a problem with non-ironic emotional expression

I’ve always had a morbid curiosity with stalking dead strangers on the internet. The first dead stranger I remember stalking was Anna Svidersky. Svidersky was a 17-year-old girl who lived in Vancouver, Wash., and was originally from a small town in Russia. She worked at a McDonald’s and was stabbed to death at work less than a week before her 18th birthday by a random schizophrenic man who was also a convicted sex offender.

I found out about Svidersky’s murder during the summer of 2008 when I was 12 and had made a habit out of watching sad videos on YouTube, specifically videos set to Avril Lavigne background music — I was very moody. I watched as many slideshows of Svidersky set to pop-emo music as I could find. After that, I scoured her MySpace page and consumed unhealthy amounts of news stories about her murder.

I don’t know why I still know so much about Anna Svidersky. It’s really weird, and it actually makes me feel sort of gross. But what’s even more unsettling is that I still do things like this: I have an informal list of dead people I don’t know whose Facebooks I go to when I’ve run out of live people to stalk. Looking at dead strangers’ Facebook pages feels like a kind of pseudo-coping: I use others’ tragedies in order to simulate my own sadness. But I don’t actually know the people, so I don’t actually care. It’s like poverty porn, only it’s others’-pain-and-suffering-in-order-to-give-myself-an-artificial-and-controlled-emotional-response-and-also-assuage-my-distasteful-curiosity porn.

This strange (and potentially offensive) habit of mine probably has something to do with the strangeness of internet immortality. But it likely has more to do with me as a person and with my socialization in a culture that’s incredibly uncomfortable with non-ironic emotional expression.

Emotional expressions make me feel awkward: crying in front of people, grieving, expressing gratitude, admiring beauty, admitting love, etc. Sometimes when I’m about to cry in public, in order to avoid it or deflect attention away from myself I say — ironically, of course — that I’ve built a reputation for myself as someone who doesn’t outwardly express her emotions. Emotional expressions make me uncomfortable because I have a hard time “doing” my emotions in a way that feels honest. Usually it feels like an “Am I actually feeling this? Or am I just doing this because we have a greeting card industry and I watch a lot of TV and when everyone else performs this emotion it always looks like this?” sort of way.

I’m thinking about all this because last Friday my really good friend had a stroke, and I’m having a hard time “processing.” Among other things, this friend and I have oddly built our relationship around this distaste for emotional expression. Neither of us are “huggers,” and usually instead of saying that someone hurt or upset us we say they’re “being a fuckhead.” We have an almost pathological aversion to sentiment, and I don’t think that makes us unique. In fact, I think an aversion to sentiment is actually a uniting factor for people our age in this specific cultural moment, and I think meme culture best exemplifies this.

Memes are about heavy stuff: racism, sexism, breaking up with partners, feeling like you’re wasting your life, being overworked, underpaid and exhausted, etc. These are serious things that we have serious feelings about. But memes are also ironic. There’s no such thing as a serious meme — I mean there is, but it’s ironic about the fact that it’s serious. Memes take our emotions about heavy things, which at times can feel debilitating and all-encompassing and even embarrassing, and pairs them with a silly photo in order to make us laugh about our pain, in order to make the emotion digestible.

The use of irony as a coping mechanism is nothing new, and it’s nothing that’s necessarily problematic. I like irony a lot of the time, but I worry that our use of irony has become too layered, that it’s become a totality: And by that I mean that we literally can’t say anything serious anymore. (Also, I’m not the first person to worry about this. Check out David Foster Wallace’s essay E Unibus Pluram: Television and U.S. Fiction.)

When people say serious things, they (we) worry about sounding cliché. This is a hard thing to worry about because it’s mostly true: Almost everything that isn’t ironic can sound cliché. We have too many behavioral referents, too many cultural examples of people acting out this emotion and this situation for us to feel like we actually decided how we wanted to have and feel and show this emotion. So it feels phony and dishonest to say anything serious, even if you mean it, because you’re unable to articulate if you really feel this way and want to do this thing to express this emotion, or if you’re just doing it because that’s how you’ve seen it done before and how you feel like you’re supposed to do it.

It’s a crisis of authenticity. It’s an alienation from the self where we don’t see ourselves as human individuals with agency, but rather subjects within an ideology that says feelings and sentiment are lame, and there’s no way to not be cliché except by being ironic. We see no other way out, so we oblige.

Consuming dead strangers’ Facebook pages doesn’t require me to have serious emotions; in fact, I can list it off as an ironic activity I do when I’m asked about that sort of thing. But I think I use it as a way to prove to myself that I can do emotional expression, that I can privately, genuinely feel a thing and that it’s not all just a performance. But when an actual sad thing happens in my life, I don’t know what to do with all my feelings. I get stuck in a cycle of wondering if I actually feel this way or if I’m just performing my sadness this way because this is what it looks like when other people do it. So I don’t cry and I try to avoid talking about the fragility of human life. I say stupid things about meme culture and stalk dead strangers on Facebook. I get stuck in irony.

Originally published by The Michigan Daily on 10/02/2016