A trope of the family-friendly Hollywood movie is that of the dead-eyed, “whatever”-sighing teenager. This teen is apathetic, bored, and nihilistic. They roll their eyes at family fun and take pleasure at resisting their parents’ values. Think of John Bender of The Breakfast Club, Lindsay Lohan’s character in Freaky Friday, Kristen Stewart’s character Bella Swan in the Twilight saga or Hyde from That 70s Show. The list is long. Although these characters have their nuances, their archetype is that of a person misunderstood and disillusioned with the world as they perceive it. Sometimes, alarmingly, I recognize myself in this character.
Professor Anders Kraal of UBC’s philosophy department defines nihilism, in the most basic terms, as the belief that “there is no objective meaning in life, there is no way things ought to be in an objective sense.”
This means, at the root, that life has no inherent meaning or code. When tragedy strikes and people search for deeper meaning, maybe seeking the design plan of a higher power, nihilists shrug. Their answer to the meaning of life: nothing.
Born in the early 19th century out of Europe’s rejection of religion, nihilism claims that nothing has value. German philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche best articulates nihilism in his book Thus Spoke Zarathustra. Zarathustra, the book’s main character, “sees the dark clouds of meaninglessness on the horizon.”
As Kraal notes, “I don’t think it takes much imagination to see that there could be a lot of pain in seeing things this way.”
Anecdotally, I see nihilism all around me. But it’s crucial to recognize the specific subset of youth who embrace nihilism.
“There are liberal youth,” said Kraal. "There are conservative youth. There are Christian youth, Muslim youth, Buddhist youth, secular youth, Korean and Danish and American and Pakistani youth. Your generation is not a monolithic whole.” This is important. There are “various other kinds of youth that don’t show up in Hollywood movies or CBC discussion panels.”
From my own vantage point, nihilism seems alluring to highly-educated, politically left-leaning millennials. Often those brought up in worlds of Western privilege, much like the people at the movement’s inception. Can all of these nihilists be people in pain?
Nihilism as Liberation
Some people see a lack of objective meaning as freedom. An example: transgender and non-binary folks may look at the construct of gender and, with a healthy dose of nihilism, determine that there is no inherent meaning to the concept. Thus, they are free to define themselves how they please.
This is a looser version of the philosophy. It posits that there is no objective meaning to life but there is subjective meaning.
For those, like myself, who need a refresher on the difference: objective values are unbiased and can be proven with concrete facts and figures, otherwise known as the capital "T" Truth. A non-nihilist might state an objective fact: The sun is shining, the birds are singing, so it’s a beautiful day. Who can disagree? But a nihilist would call the meaning of “beautiful” into question. Does the day have any inherent and objective value? To them, no. Subjective values, on the other hand, are coloured by an individual’s experiences and beliefs. These values can’t be verified with concrete facts, but they reflect that person’s version of reality. For example, my subjective opinion is that pineapple on pizza is delicious.
So, nihilists can embrace meaning, but that meaning is particular only to them.
“Many nihilists consider various things to give them a sense of the meaning of life and they subscribe to values they are comfortable with. But they deny that these values have any objective validity,” said Kraal.
Nihilism as Comfort
Kraal mentions a student who revealed to him that she sees “no objective meaning in life whatsoever,” and thus was unmotivated to study hard in school. I can relate. Grades and academia as a measure of intelligence feel wrong and unfulfilling. And yet, I still strive to get good grades and often measure my own worth by them. For me, the small belief in the back of my mind that grades and school don’t really mean anything is a comfort on a day when I get a crummy grade or just don’t feel like working. I will choose to invest imaginary meaning in the importance of school, but ultimately, I won’t beat myself up about it.
Nihilism, then, in a strange reversal to the “clouds of meaninglessness,” can be a kind of protection. In 2017, as political destruction, human suffering, and the terrifying effects of climate change filter in to us, often through social media, the backlash against this toxic negativity comes in an unlikely form: memes.
The Facebook page titled Nihilist Memes has nearly 2 million followers. Jokes about “the void” and being “dead inside” are abound across the internet. Depression, anxiety and existential angst are suddenly somehow trendy, at least in its Twitter-joke format. From an outsider’s perspective — say, someone from my parents’ generation — this sort of humour is alarming. But to those who like it, this humour is both funny and strangely uplifting. It is a kind of comforting buffer between ourselves and the pain of the outside world.
Nihilism as Profit
It is worth questioning, however, why we young people who subscribe to some form of nihilism are so heavily represented in media. Why is the list of nihilistic film characters so long? Kraal, who reveals that he does not believe in nihilism, thinks “it would be good if we showed some resistance to this stuff.”
“In each generation, there is always this ‘in group’ that wants to set the norm for others, and this ‘in group’ is partly determined by who has the big money, and who has the means necessary to project a public image of what young people are like today.” Cue the image of the gum-popping and eye-rolling teenager. “Hollywood and music companies are examples of entities with this sort of money, and who do this sort of thing.”
By painting nihilism as “cool,” and linking nihilism to their products, are companies able to sell more to young people who very desperately want to be cool? Think of those multi-colored “Whatever” t-shirts at Forever-21, or the artist The Weeknd, who sells out stadiums with his brooding and self-destructive lyrics.
How would Hollywood and other wealthy, consumption-based industries benefit from a generation of youth who don’t care about anything? Do nihilist youth buy more of their products to fill “the void?” Do nihilists lay down and accept the inevitability of war and the earth’s destruction?
Nihilism, like any other philosophy, serves a myriad of purposes, some more harmful than others. Its purpose depends entirely on the degree to which you embrace it.
Professor Kraal recommends reading some of the serious philosophers who argued both for and against nihilism; Kant, Leibnitz, Kierkegaard are a few.
Kraal’s note of warning is simple: “If people want to embrace nihilism, then do so. But don't do it until you have first studied the other side seriously. Otherwise you might wake up one day with deep regrets.”