Capitalistic societies tend to have extroverted popular cultures, because introversion and introspection are bad for business. The idea in business is to prey on customers’ weaknesses, to maximize profit amorally, by steering the customers into an impulsive purchase. You want them distracted by your fallacious associative advertisements, so they’ll react emotionally to your product instead of thinking critically about it.
Roughly a third of these societies, then, namely the population of the more introverted individuals, typically feels alienated from public life. The trouble isn’t just the inanity or tackiness of having to be so professionally disingenuous, nor is the problem that pretending to respect these conventions for extroverts is emotionally taxing. No, introverts are also annoyed that so much of public life is about pretending, in turn, that introverts don’t exist, that keeping quiet and thinking before you speak and showing humility and depth of character are secular sins that ought to marginalize you.
To fit into these cultivated playpens for adults, the introvert has to practice her fake smile, learn to think on her feet, and keep her opinions superficial and inoffensive. She has to reduce the scope of her mind to engage only in “small talk,” since extroverts prefer to keep it light. Behold, then, what extroverts and their unwilling servants have wrought, the Muzak of public discourse!
This is one reason philosophy in general is so unpopular, because philosophical scrutiny is death to this whole extroverted way of life, to the cult of submitting to the degrading capitalist norms. To be sure, capitalism has philosophical justifications, but the culture produced by the engines of capitalism is far from high culture; the latter is for sophisticated thinkers, while the former consists of kitsch, drivel, and mass-marketed fraud, and keeps us alienated from our enlightened, authentic self.
Quarantine as Torture for Extroverts
In any case, one curious effect of the COVID-19 pandemic is that the tables have turned: now the extroverts are forced to live more as though introversion were the norm, whereas hitherto the opposite has been the case for at least a century. The global quarantine has confined us to our quarters for months on end so that many people have little to do but sit alone with their thoughts.
The saving grace for extroverts in this crisis is social media. Had this outbreak occurred a few decades ago, before the invention of smart phones, extroverts might have rioted out of boredom and out of disgust with their mental shallowness. Without the immediate gratifications of social media, extroverts might find the prospect of being trapped within their minds unbearable.
Introverts inure themselves to the superficialities of popular culture, because they’ve had years to practice and to become accustomed to lowering their expectations. How would adult extroverts — who are used to being kings of the world that’s been made for them — cope with months of forced solitude and self-reflection, without the baby rattlers of their smart phones?
The isolation inflicts double damage on the extroverted personality, since not only is she more liable now to engage in unwanted meta-reflection, to think about her thoughts and about herself, but the extrovert is deprived of direct contact with the crowd. The quarantine prevents the social butterfly from losing herself in the multitude, from flirting and flitting between bogus encounters, and living out her real-life soap opera.
The Fantasy of a Culture of Introversion
What shall we ponder, condemned as we are to be more or less alone at home now in our late-modern caves? What thoughts will predominate as the weeks and months tick by? Will we begin to grasp the absurdity that even when, in our former life, we were keeping busy and doing what society considers the opposite of wasting time, we were in a larger sense likewise doing next to nothing, since the rest of the universe is as indifferent to our business transactions as to our enlightened meditations?
Shall we reckon with the hollowness of our personas or flee to the distractions of our hobbies that go nowhere and get lost in the sea of digitized cries for help? Perhaps we should mourn the loss of the extrovert’s childlike innocence as she learns to replace it with the introvert’s morbid rumination?
What would the popular culture of a herd of introverts look like? Could the self-reflective bulk of a society conceivably succumb to populist politics, to crude scapegoating and to electing an obvious false messiah like Donald Trump (or Barack Obama)? Or could those hypersensitive souls sully themselves with the act of participating in a plutocratic sham democracy?
What would pass for popular entertainment if the millions of extroverts had to twist themselves into pretzels to adapt to the norms of introversion? Would the infantile celebration of superhero movies fade to oblivion in exchange for book clubs’ literary assessments blaring from hot-take websites?
Above all, would we no longer have to pretend that people are just super, that we deserve to be heard and to be happy and to wallow in our petty self-deceptions? Would we have to side with Sartre’s judgment that other people are Hell, knowing after a moment’s self-reflection how ruinous the Anthropocene is shaping up to be?
At any rate, I imagine the philosophical, introverted minority may wish to allude at this juncture to that moment in the movie Die Hard, when the Bruce Willis character, John McClane, shouts at the cop who finally arrives at the scene of the ongoing crime, after John’s been singlehandedly holding down the fort that’s been overrun by a crew of armed and organized criminals. John shouts, machinegun in hand, “Welcome to the party, pal!”