Taken from the new print issue of THE FACE. Order your copy here.
These days, everyone’s thinking about hell. Social media platforms are “hellsites”. Capitalism is a “hellscape”. If previous generations were worried about going to hell, we’re worried that we’re already there. The sins of the world are more visible than ever, broadcast live to your iPhone, and nobody knows how to deal with it.
Of course, we’re hardly the first generation to be obsessed with sin. In 1962, James Bond creator Ian Fleming published a collection of essays by British writers called Seven Deadlier Sins. Fleming proposed that the classics – pride, greed, wrath, lust, envy, gluttony and sloth – were insufficient to describe the failings of a supposedly brave new world. He suggested a new set: snobbery, moral cowardice, hypocrisy, cruelty, self-righteousness, avarice and malice.
Six decades on, we think an update is in order.
I consider most of the new “sins” I’ve created here to be cultural rather than individual failings. To be numbed by an increasingly chaotic and meaningless culture, for instance, is certainly not a crime. Momentarily participating in overconsumption or performativity doesn’t mean you ought to be damned to hell. It means you, like all of us, were raised in a society built on greed, exploitation and insincerity [Having fun yet? – Saintly Ed].
Perhaps the original seven deadly sins have left such an indelible mark on humanity precisely because we’ve all, at some point or another, seen ourselves in every one. In fact, each can be understood as exaggerated versions of fundamental human experiences: hunger, sexuality, anger, self-confidence, desire and the need to rest. These 21st-century sins can be understood in much the same way.
“No ethical consumption under capitalism” has become a buzz term, sprinkled into discourse to justify everything from fast-fashion hauls and instant food delivery to “problematic” art. Interpreted one way, it’s a call to dismantle the system that makes us all complicit in imperialism, labour exploitation and environmental destruction. Now, though, it’s been bastardised into an ad campaign for apathy – a call for shrugging your shoulders and adding-to-cart. “If everything we consume is at least a little bit wrong,” it whispers, “then why care about what we consume at all?”
That a critique of consumer culture has been warped into an endorsement of mindless consumption should come as no surprise: consuming is the West’s greatest vice and most universal culture. Any criticism is tantamount to treason. Shein, uploading 1,000 items to its website daily, has dominated the clothing world by perfecting the fast-fashion model: stocking every outfit you could possibly want and using unethical labour to produce it all at dirt-cheap prices that make it feasible for people to buy endless new fits.
Cheap clothing and home goods, bought so easily from Amazon, AliExpress et al., aren’t our only mass-consumption vices. If Shein and Amazon provide overconsumption for the body, addictive content-based apps like TikTok offer overconsumption for the mind. The infinite-scroll promises that you will never be bored, understimulated or deprived of “content” when you crave it. You’ll also never have to engage with that content for long enough to be challenged by it, moved by it or inspired to do anything other than buy the product it recommends.
Similarly, Netflix’s normalisation of the binge-focused streaming model has marked a shift towards the overconsumption of television that many critics consider detrimental to both the consumer and the creator. (Joe Hoeffner wrote on Collider of Netflix’s binge-model: “The point is not to enjoy but to consume.”) They may seem like unlikely allies, but overconsumption and numbness go hand in hand. An obsession with instant gratification dulls the senses, limits passion and prevents us from earnestly enjoying what we already have.
Bloodlust here doesn’t mean a desire for physical violence (although it certainly can escalate to that). We’re referring to the libidinal desire to consume – and participate in – the suffering of others. This impulse thrives on the internet, bolstered by click-hungry algorithms and users starved of stimulation. If overconsumption has made us numb to pleasure and excitement, perhaps it’s also left us hungry for more intense forms of public entertainment. When reality TV starts to feel too low-stakes, what could be more entertaining than a public flogging?
The most obvious examples aren’t hard to find: misogynists who led Gamergate and other harassment campaigns; Twitter accounts directing audiences to hunt down trans people online; the Daily Mail’s hateful “Sidebar of Shame”. It may be easy to feel like only the worst of us would ever indulge our bloodlust. But if the massive public-facing takedowns of women like Amber Heard prove anything, it’s that it doesn’t take much for the average person to partake in wrathful harassment in the name of entertainment.
The Heard trial was a public spectacle on par with the Lewinsky scandal of the mid-1990s. Then, a 22-year-old woman became a lightning rod for the fears, prejudices and misogynistic impulses of a bloodthirsty public. If Monica Lewinsky had any shred of luck, it was that she didn’t have to deal with the internet when her morality, over President Bill Clinton’s, was put on trial. In Heard’s case, the participatory nature of online discourse made everyone arbiters of vigilante justice and even provided a profit incentive for those enterprising enough to turn her vilification into a content mill. Views for body-language readers and amateur “trial analysts” skyrocketed – proof of a consumer base champing at the bit for blood.
Even if you’ve never participated in online harassment, the exhilaration of watching the spectacle unfold has its own pull. It’s a purposefully addictive form of entertainment and one that can feel almost righteous to a properly primed consumer, even as it devolves into misogyny, harassment and non-consensual surveillance. The comparison to witch trials and public executions, both inspired by moral crusades, is fitting: the desire to violently punish those who we believe to have sinned – to make them pay to elevate our own righteousness – is a form of bloodlust as old as time itself.
I can’t count the number of times I’ve caught myself scrolling mindlessly on TikTok, Twitter or Instagram, feeling totally unsatisfied but strangely helpless to stop. Occasionally, when I realise I’m somehow four minutes into watching a Family Guy clip superimposed under Minecraft gameplay, I’m struck by a dissociative self-awareness. I see myself from above, slack-jawed, blank-faced, empty-eyed. I have become uncomfortably numb!
Numbness is, in some ways, a principal appeal of the algorithmic content stream. It promises a neverending string of bright lights, visual stimuli and familiar sounds, brief enough so we never get bored and forgettable enough to keep us wanting something new.
When social media isn’t flavourless and placating, it can be disturbing and graphic. I know people who saw their first beheading video before they’d finished puberty. True crime content abounds online and has engaged a massive community of fans who consume real stories of murder, sexual assault and traumatisation as a way to liven up their online life of ASMR and Mukbang videos. Desensitisation is a negative feedback loop: the more numb to suffering we are, the more shock value we need to scratch that dopamine itch.
Sometimes, shocking or upsetting content is shared online in pursuit of social justice. Women tell their stories of their domestic abuse and assault. Journalists report international human rights violations from on the ground. Videos of racist police violence proliferate. Often, this content produces numbness just the same. It’s understandable, in a landscape of incalculable injustice and unbelievable horrors, to learn not to feel anything.
But in the end, it only serves the interests of those who want suffering to go unchallenged.
It’s especially understandable in a world where overwhelming emotion is constantly pathologised as a problem to be fixed rather than a natural part of the human experience. But numbness isn’t the same as healing, and feeling nothing only keeps us from fulfilment.
I know what you’re thinking: listing “entitlement” as a sin sounds a lot like an overdone Gen X diatribe about how all millennials want participation trophies and pity marks. As an “entitled” 21-year-old myself, I get it – boring!
That’s not what I’m talking about, though (at least, not really). “Entitlement”, a term of criticism, is too often used to disparage a group that’s advocating for what they deserve – think of right-wing complaints about the fight for universal healthcare, student debt relief or racial justice – and not used often enough to describe how the ruling class feels about their power. There is no entitlement purer or more dangerous than that of someone who’s spent their whole life being told that they deserve unrestricted access to everything they can get their hands on.
Do we even need to count the ways that we see entitlement? Vast communities of men online are consumed by a culture which teaches them that access to women’s bodies is their birthright, and to be denied it is an act of violence that demands retribution. Right-wing news sources dedicate numerous articles to white students lamenting that they weren’t admitted to the elite college of their choice. Abortion bans in the US, meanwhile, are nothing less than legal manifestations of the patriarchal entitlement to women’s most fundamental bodily freedoms.
A different kind of entitlement thrives online. It’s less severe, but notable nonetheless. When people perform their lives online, they’re turned into objects for the consumption of others and this dehumanising effect seems to have made us feel entitled to nearly every aspect of each other’s lives. “Gatekeeping”, which once referred to institutional barriers that withheld information or resources from the public, has become a catch-all to describe the experience of being denied anything we think we’re owed.
I wonder, too, if the improving precision of algorithms is contributing to this phenomenon? Almost everything we see on the internet is curated specifically to please us. Maybe that’s why being denied something we want can feel like a targeted attack.
As I’ve begun to move through the world as an adult, I have found myself struck by the uneasy feeling that I’m being lied to. It rarely feels like a response to anyone or anything in particular. Rather, I’ve begun to understand it as my body’s reaction to the constant deluge of contradiction that’s built into every cranny of our culture.
Mastercard tells me that they support gay rights while my queer friends, like almost all of the young people I know, sit in poverty, shackled by an ever-increasing burden of debt. “INTERSECTIONAL FEMINIST” is emblazoned on a $15 T‑shirt in the window of a fast-fashion store whose goods are likely assembled by an underpaid, exploited woman of colour in the Global South. We’re supposed to be living in a technological golden age and yet everything I buy looks like shit and falls apart within a year.
The cultural theorist Mark Fisher wrote that “anti-capitalism no longer acts as the antithesis to capitalism.”
He was describing how our inability to imagine a system to live under other than capitalism has made it so that critiques of it are now easily integrated into capitalism itself. Anti-capitalist movies regularly earn millions in mainstream box offices, for instance. A grad student studying activist methodology can get a socially conscious grant from a major bank. An oil and gas company sponsors a gallery that’s putting on a photography exhibition about wildlife pollution. These aren’t crimes, necessarily. But they are symptoms of a fundamentally duplicitous society. One in which nothing is as it seems, and no choice is as simple as it appears.
I said that consumerism is the Western world’s most universal culture, but it has a strong competitor. Individualism has shaped every part of our lives, whether we recognise it or not. It influences not only our politics but our commutes, our free time, our cityscapes, our social lives, our childhoods.
Consumption itself is often fuelled and validated by toxic individualism. If the way we engage in retail consumerism, from fast fashion to the delivery of groceries, is any indication, even progressives find it difficult to sacrifice their individual privileges and comforts for the good of the collective. As capitalism has adopted a socially progressive facade, it’s even worked to convince us that individual advancement – like becoming wealthy or gaining institutional power over others – is a solution to systemic oppression.
A culture of Western individualism is a tragedy not only because it is cruel but also because it is painfully inefficient. The investment in cars rather than public transport has clogged our roads, lengthened our commutes and poisoned our air. The destruction of free public spaces and dense community living in favour of sprawling single-family suburbs has left us less supported and more alone. A secret goal of wealth, it seems, is the desire to live as independently as possible, without having to rely on public transport, parks, socialised healthcare or community support. Rarely does anyone ever stop and ask: what’s the point?
Even our social culture has arrived at a crushingly individualist point, with “wellness” influencers encouraging us to cut off our friends, keep our circles small and focus on our own growth in isolation. The tragedy here is that being surrounded by people who challenge us is the best possible way to grow. But if we had a strong community around us, why would we need to pay for personal growth seminars and self-help fads? Would we need to spend so much money on self-care if we took care of each other?
This is individualism’s greatest trick: in an individualist culture, every need that could have been fulfilled by our relationships is forced, instead, to rely on capital exchange.
Self-delusion, like duplicity, is a necessary actor in a world full of staggering contradiction. It’s what happens when social duplicity is applied to the self, and it is both unavoidable and aggressively understandable. I say this without judgement: it is certainly difficult, often painful, to deal with reality head on. Even if reality is not terrible for us, it’s undeniably terrible to many others – full of suffering, regret and double-binds where nobody comes out on top.
And so we lie to ourselves. We convince ourselves that dragging other people through the mud improves our own moral value. We think that we can escape oppression by submitting to its demands. We are told that it’s feminism when individual women work their way to the top of the pyramid and become oppressors themselves, or that we can “escape capitalism” altogether by becoming housewives and performing a different kind of undervalued, and unpaid, labour. We describe the work of becoming “beautiful” as “self-care” and pretend it’s not being sold to us.
Finally, we trick ourselves into believing that any awareness of our own self-delusion is enough to absolve us of it. In this way, it’s possible that this sin may just be the most fundamental one of all – for it allows us to continue on in perpetuity, never changing, never growing, certain in our belief that discussing our faults is the same thing as bettering them.
AND THE SINNER IS...
Is the world more sinful now than it was in the fourth century when “eight evil thoughts” were first conceived by a monk? Was it worse in the 13th century when the eight thoughts became seven sins? What about when Fleming published his 1962 version? It’s hard to say, although the internet has definitely made everyone’s wrongdoings more visible than they’ve ever been.
But while today’s sins may feel modern, they’re also inextricable from the classics. We couldn’t have bloodlust without wrath, self-delusion without pride, overconsumption without greed. The fact that we’ve been making the same mistakes for thousands of years could be depressing. But there’s something about it that feels almost comforting: 2,000 years ago, people were just as greedy, prideful, wrathful, gluttonous, lazy, lustful and jealous as we are. Maybe all we can hope for is to be redeemed.