Qualls: Meaningless dystinctions


Yes, the title is misspelled. That’s to make it special. Set it apart. Like all of us want to be: distinguished.

There are lots of shortcuts to distinction: ink, piercings, clicking the “thumbs-up likey” thing on Facebook. Our attitudes, interests and opinions combine to make us the distinct individuals that we are. I know some people who express their individuality by insisting upon precise dietary requirements. Others are set apart by what sports teams they love or hate. Same thing with music. (Bruno Mars rocks and Justin Bieber sucks, in my honest opinion.)

Problem is, at the end of the day, when the fat lady sings, where the tire hits the pavement and when the cows come home – all of these accomplishments are meaningless other than functioning as data points targeting you for a potential sale.

Our attitudes, opinions and interests are so solicited that we actually begin to think these preferences are meaningful. But that’s all they are – preferences.  And it’s OK to have preferences. I certainly have mine and you have yours.  They may be shared or opposite.

But it seems shallow to define a life based upon entertainment choices.

So, then, what are meaningful distinctions? Honor roll, anyone? Being on the dean’s list? Maybe some fine character traits like integrity, honesty, hard work and dependability? Generosity, kindness and decency come to mind.

If you really want to set yourself apart, try being selfless. That’s an increasingly rare virtue. The mainstream is selfish and self-absorbed.

It’s OK to take that selfie. Just don’t drown in a sea of selfies.

Here’s a hard truth: getting to the next level in a video game is not real achievement. It might feel like it in the moment you get there. But it’s fleeting and probably not resume material.

Same with that kitten picture that garnered dozens of likes and a few shares. Like a piece of candy it offers immediate gratification that quickly dissolves.

I wonder how obituaries will read in the not-too-distant future.  “So-and-so was an avid gamer who had more than 5,000 friends on various social media networks.  He is noted for having watched every popular movie at least six times.  He is survived by a Playstation 4 and an iPhone 6. He was a virtual Renaissance Man.” Not what I want on my tombstone.

This is not to say the things mentioned above are inherently evil. Rather, they should be peripheral. They should be ancillary to a robust, purpose-driven life. Maybe that’s why I like artists so much.

Artists do. Think about it. The various arts are named with action verbs like paint, act, sing, write, invent, sculpt and create. These are not passive activities. Or, better written, “these activities are not passive.”

In the 1980s, Neil Postman wrote a book titled, “Amusing Ourselves to Death:  Public Discourse in the Age of Show Business.” Yes, it’s entertaining. And informative. Prophetic. I dare you to read it.

In part, Postman posits that we live our lives vicariously rather than vivaciously. It is worse than he imagined. Our interactions with others are increasingly mediated in a conversational cacophony that is as asynchronous as it is impersonal. Hard to stand out in that environment.

Maybe it’s time to kick it old-school. We need an app that approximates the talking stick. The legendary talking stick was a tradition used by Native Americans. The stick was passed around. Whoever held it had the right to speak. Everybody else listened. If you have nothing to say, give the stick to someone who does. Maybe we could get a big stick and talk softly. That means no more typing in ALL CAPS.

But this is not the time to be online.  It’s time to get down to it. Embrace some other action verbs like “study” and “prepare.” Finals are upon us.

I sincerely hope that you enjoy the satisfaction that comes from actual accomplishment.

Go Racers!

Column by Kevin Qualls, Professor of mass communications