What is nihilism — and does it matter?

The MIT Press Essential Knowledge series offers accessible, concise, beautifully produced books on topics of current interest. In this edition on Nihilism, author Nolen Gertz offers an examination of the meaning of meaninglessness: why it matters that nothing matters.

Nothingness quickly becomes somethingness as soon as we try to talk about it. And yet, we talk about it all the time. “What have you been up to?” “Nothing.” Exchanges like this are so common that it has become something of a reflex, as we frequently respond to such mundane questions with the answer, “Nothing.”

But to most people such an answer would not be an example of nihilism. Nihilism is supposed to be something dark, something negative, something destructive. Saying you are doing nothing, however, is perfectly normal, as of course everyone knows that you are not literally doing nothing, which, as Seinfeld suggests, would be nearly impossible, but are simply indicating that you are doing nothing worth mentioning. Yet, if we do have these sorts of exchanges as frequently as I have suggested, then that would mean that we are frequently spending our time doing nothing worth mentioning. And if we are spending so much time doing nothing worth mentioning, then perhaps this exchange is closer to what we think nihilism means, perhaps this does indicate that our lives are not worth mentioning, that we are doing nothing with our lives, that we are nothing, that we believe in nothing.

To believe in nothing in this sense would then require not that we have a specific belief about nothingness that we could identify, but instead that we are living lives that accord with the belief that life is nothing. Nihilism as an “ideology of nothing” would mean not that we adhere to a discernible system of beliefs about nothingness, but rather that the beliefs we have, or think we have, are equivalent to nothing. For example, if we believe life is meaningful, and yet we spend our lives doing nothing worth mentioning, then our actions reveal that our belief about life is nothing worth mentioning, that it is worthless, that it is incapable of motivating us to do something rather than nothing.

It is here that we can begin to see why nihilism is typically viewed as something dark, negative, and destructive. For if we understand someone who is self-righteous — think of Holden Caulfield, Howard Beale, or Lisa Simpson — to be someone who would accuse others of nihilism, who accuses others of living nihilistically, then someone who is self-righteous is someone who believes that what others believe in is nothing. A self-righteous individual is therefore a critic, a skeptic, a heretic, someone who sees as nothing what others see as something, for which reason the self-righteous are often associated with smugness, sanctimony, and superiority complexes. And it is this reduction to nothing of the beliefs of others that leads those others to see the self-righteous — the ones who not only do not share but actively reject the beliefs of others — as the ones who actually believe in nothing.

To be self-righteous is to see what is normal, what is accepted, what is popular, as nihilistic, as nothing, as meaningless. But to accuse others of being nihilistic is to be seen by those others as the one who is truly nihilistic, as the one who is truly a nihilist. This confusion about what it means to be a nihilist is important, as we will see, for example, when we get to Nietzsche, as he criticized what he saw as the nihilism all around him, and yet he described himself as a nihilist, leading people to criticize Nietzsche for advocating nihilism. These are distinctions that we will need to work out. There are the nihilating tendencies practiced by nihilists and there are the nihilating tendencies practiced by the self-righteous. Nihilism and self-righteousness are similar in that they are destructive, but they are opposed in the methods and purposes of their destructiveness.

Between the self-righteous and the rest of society there arises a war of beliefs. However, such wars are typically short-lived if they even take place at all. For as often happens in war, the side with the overwhelming numerical advantage simply wipes out the numerically disadvantaged side. This need not entail that the self-righteous are destroyed by society as more often than not they are simply ignored. Just imagine someone suddenly shouting in the middle of a mall about the absurdity of shopping in a mall. Though others would surely stop to see what is happening, it is far more likely that, rather than engage in a debate over the value of shopping or defend spending time and money in malls, the other mall goers would instead merely lose interest in the spectacle and return to their shopping unperturbed.

Yet the self-righteous, discovering that direct confrontation rarely leads to revolution, are likely to turn to whatever media are currently available in order to spread their critical, skeptical, heretical views. And it is for this reason that we can see why nihilism has become a topic of greater and greater concern as traditional media have been replaced by social media and shouting has been replaced by tweeting. Whereas previously the success of the self- righteous depended upon social, economic, and political conditions leading people to question the status quo, with the rise of radio, television, and, of course, the Internet, questioning the status quo has become the status quo.

Nowadays, to question the status quo, to rail against the system, to challenge the powers that be, is to be seen not as worthy of derision, but as worthy of acclaim, for if there is one thing on which political pundits agree, it is that whoever is popularly identified as the “change candidate” is the one who is most likely to win. At the same time, nihilists have become a mainstay of pop culture, as television shows like Seinfeld and True Detective and movies like The Big Lebowski have turned nihilists into icons and have turned meaninglessness into moneymaking machines. To be countercultural is now to be embraced by the culture.

At the same time that nihilists have become increasingly popular, so too does it seems that it has become increasingly commonplace to accuse others of being nihilistic. The charge of “Nihilism!” can now frequently be found not only in classrooms and on social media but also in op-eds and on cable news programs. Atheists are called nihilistic for not caring about faith. The religious are called nihilistic for not caring about facts. Conservatives are called nihilistic for not caring about social progress. Progressives are called nihilistic for not caring about social norms. Vegetarians are called nihilistic for not caring about farmworkers. Carnivores are called nihilistic for not caring about farm animals.

However, these trends would appear to be in conflict with each other, for how could being self-righteous become so popular at the same time that nihilism has become so pervasive? If the self-righteous are the enemies of nihilism, then why would a self-righteous culture put so many nihilists on TV? Or in the White House? Is this an indication of revolution or of hypocrisy? Is the current wave of self-righteousness really just an excuse to accuse others of nihilism without caring about what nihilism actually means?

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