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In Praise of Superficiality

Seeing is believing if you don't look too closely

Beauty is only skin deep. Don't judge a book by its cover. All that glitters is not gold.

These well-heeled sound-bytes of conventional wisdom warn us against granting value to appearance, form, and externality. They assert that depth and substance are the determinants of genuine value and true worth. They teach us to look behind every facade and eschew form over content.

Obviously, the people who composed these popular aphorisms were themselves unattractive, moodily self-conscious, or terminally unpopular — quite possibly all three. Yet somehow they succeeded in foisting upon Western Civilization one of the great propaganda victories of the ages, convincing the masses that physical form is quantitatively less important than such insubstantial qualities as character, aptitude, and integrity.

Astonishingly, this shameless hoax continues to shape our outlooks and attitudes even though we all know better. After all, no one would dream of visiting Washington D.C, without seeing the National Gallery, Paris without taking in the Jeu de Paume, or Croatia without experiencing the Muzej Turopolja. And what are these meccas of cultural sophistication? Art galleries — collections of paintings, sculptures, and countless testimonials to aesthetic form and external beauty. When was the last time you visited a metropolitan museum of internal organs or auto parts?

True, beauty may be only skin deep, but that's precisely the point. Where would Julia Roberts's career be without her skin? She may be a fine actress, and I'm sure she's a very nice person, but her movies wouldn't draw much of an audience if she had her skin surgically peeled away before production.


Modern psychology has begun to recognize the fallacy of substance over form. In his bestselling book Blink: the Power of Thinking Without Thinking, Malcolm Gladwell marshals compelling evidence in support of superficiality. In one study, college students concluding their semester courses were asked to evaluate the quality of their teachers. Other students, who had not attended these classes, were shown three ten-second videos of the same teachers in action. Their evaluations matched closely those of the students who had actually attended.

The experimenter then shortened the video samples to five seconds, and then to two seconds, each time with comparable results. And this was with the sound turned off! Unfortunately, Mr. Gladwell does not pursue his train of thought to its logical conclusion. If two seconds is just as good as five seconds, ten seconds, or half a year, why do we need any seconds at all? A picture of the teacher should be enough to determine his competency or, even better, merely his name. It should be obvious that Mr. Sunshine, Professor Smiles, or Ms. Summer will create a more positive classroom experience than Mrs. Stern, Dr. Gaunt, or Miss Winter.

A rose by any other name would smell as sweet, observed William Shakespeare, but let's remember that most historians now believe that those revered plays and sonnets were not actually written by William Shakespeare, the merchant who lived in Stratford-on-Avon. For all his great literary work, Shakespeare wasn't really Shakespeare, and no one knows who he was. Imagine if the real author stepped forward today and claimed credit for his writings. Nobody would believe him. Of course, hardly anybody would care. We've all moved on to reading more relevant novels about teenage vampires.

Consider the last presidential election. Almost the entire Republican Party establishment agreed that Arkansas governor Mike Huckabee was the best candidate to lead the country. But he never had a chance. Can you imagine the elites of vote-laden New York, New England, and California ever voting for someone named Huckabee? If he'd been clever, the governor would have changed his name to Mike Skywalker-Sanchez, thereby establishing himself as an epic hero while attracting the critical Hispanic vote at the same time.


Consider also the recent economic collapse. Everyone was perfectly happy until someone found that all those companies enjoying soaring stock prices weren't really making any money. As soon as the media started uttering words like downturn, recession, and pyramid scheme the entire market dove into a tailspin. Wouldn't we all be better off if those misguided people obsessed with digging beneath the surface had simply satisfied themselves with the illusion of prosperity?

Of greater consequence is the effect of our misguided quest to bring depth, complexity, and meaning into our personal lives. Human nature as it is, how much anxiety do we cause ourselves through self-help books that teach us to look for inner peace, and through therapy that prods us to resolve neuroses of which we weren't even conscious? How many relationships would flourish if we accepted physical attraction and physical gratification as the ideal rather than pursuing fantasies like "self-actualization" and the search for "soul-mates"?

Further evidence can be found in America's obesity epidemic. Our subconscious minds, confused by the contradictions implicit in the rejection of two-dimensionalism, leave us with no alternative than to impose our misguided objective of becoming three-dimensional upon our physical bodies. The more we seek depth, the more three-dimensional we become — which may be good for the diet-book industry but not for our wardrobes.

So why don't we all stop pretending? If superficiality is bliss, and if depth and meaning cause only confusion and discontent, it should be a no-brainer.

Here's the problem. Superficially, depth is "in." We don't want to appear shallow because shallowness appears superficially inferior. Of course, on deeper reflection, we understand that superficial appearance is infinitely preferable to the complexity of depth, but our superficiality doesn't allow us to admit this fact because it seems too obvious to be significant. Get it?

But today we find ourselves poised on the brink of a new era. Ours is the generation of change! Let us seize the moment and rise up as one people with one objective. Let us cast off our superficial adoration for depth and substance. Let us not be afraid to declare our commitment to all that is two-dimensional and raise up the banner of simplicity and externality. Let us purge our worldview of the pernicious urge to discover meaning in our existence, and let us join hands in our conviction that everything worth having should be available to everyone without any effort, thought, or accountability.

Well, aren't you feeling better already?

Originally published in 2009 in Jewish World Review

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