The enemy of joy is coolness.
So says Jim Cooper in an excellent post on his blog, Jim and His Camera. The post talks about witnessing the dancing and revelry of Shanghainese people of all ages in Fuxing Park, and ponders why in the West we don’t embrace such joyful behavior. The conclusion Jim comes to is that rather than embracing our impulses toward joy, we worship cool, a tendency that acts like a “joy police” to tamp down uninhibited displays and enforces this restraint with humiliation and ridicule. Jim writes:
Our lowest level of hell is embarrassment from being deemed uncool. When did we begin to worship this false god: the God of Cool? The God of Cool forbids spontaneity, silliness and innocence. He encourages snickering not belly laughter, he allows crotch grinding, and ass-shaking but not the smooth arm extended glide of romance – romance is patronized, smiles must be condescending and arrogance is encouraged.
What an evil god the God of Cool is.
I think Jim is right on here. The extent to which joy and coolness are opposed is striking, even if not really surprising. Joy is inclusive and embracing; coolness is detached and superior. Joy is energetic and abundant; coolness is muted and scarce. Joy is warm, and coolness is well, chilly. Coolness is a rigid code of self-control that thrives in a climate of judgment, while joy is at its purest before we learn to judge. At its root, coolness is a status-conscious system, while joy is non-hierarchical, oblivious to rank and prestige.
We’re certainly not without our joys here in the West, but this particular kind of quotidian freedom to move and play is something we accord to children, not ourselves. We think too much of the potential judgments of others, and not enough of the pleasure and companionship we might find in the behavior itself. We’ve made it taboo and risky to be silly, playful, and vulnerable. Why do we only dance in the streets at festivals and parades, at places and times where such activity is sanctioned and corralled?
There’s an evident tension between the freedoms enjoyed by Westerners and our abstention from many public joys, and the repressive constraints endured by most Chinese, and the way they give themselves to this kind of pleasure. Jim observes:
People in Fuxing Park have had lives harder than we in the West can ever imagine. They’ve survived revolution and cultural change beyond our comprehension. They twirl, jiggle, sing, fling and sometimes waltz with strangers – eyes closed, living in a perfect self-created moment. There’s a beautiful heartbreaking dignity to it: a dignity found in heroic uninhibited innocence.
Where do we find permission to recapture that joy? Because it is a kind of dignity, a much greater dignity than coolness’s hauteur, a dignity born of authenticity rather than condescension. It makes me wonder how design might better support the collective liberation of our playful tendencies. Where are the oases where we let the mask drop, where we risk awkwardness for joy? One place that occurs to me is amusement parks – but are there less extreme environments that break down our need to be seen a certain way, and allow us simply to enjoy ourselves together?
March 19th, 2012