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FIRST PERSON

Articulating Emotions and Concepts Is, Uh, Um, Whatever

November 19, 1995|MARK EHRMAN | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

W hatever, OK?

It doesn't matter anymore what the question is. The answer is still whatever . Susan Smith, Vince Foster, Ruby Ridge--what do I think? I think whatever. Ditto Colin Powell, health care, controlling the deficit and any other hotly debated issue.

We should call this the Whatever Decade. Let us be Generation Whatever. Not for nothing did Nirvana's most famous lyric, "Oh, yeah, whatever, never mind," strike so responsive a chord. Part of Kurt Cobain's genius was in making poetry out of our non-articulation. Mining a similar mind set, the ad for nihilist filmmaker Gregg Araki's latest movie, "The Doom Generation" bears the slogan, "Sex, Doom, Whatever." You hear the word uttered often by the current crop of dissolute young Hollywood actors and with greater frequency by their less glamorous on-the-street counterparts.

A friend of mine, a soon-to-be-teacher in her early 30s, hates the word. "Oh, that's all part of that, you know," she says, rolling her eyes and letting her body sag in a physical expression of Gen-X ennui. She is part of a constituency that has noticed whatever's creep to ascendancy in the contemporary lexicon and would rather it had just stayed put. Humanity, she believes, needs to take a more proactive approach to verbal expression instead of just giving up.

I used to agree. Whatever is, after all, an abandonment at any effort to create coherent meaning. But what is the average human to make of anything in this media-saturated world where events spin so far out of comprehension and control that retranslating them back into human terms has become an industry--a job for professionals? Laymen are left to just wring their hands and listen.

The real question is: Is there any point in articulating anything anymore? Every position has already been staked out. From the extreme left to the extreme right, from the egghead pundits to the just plain folks, it's all been said, codified, deconstructed and, when possible, copyrighted. Our redundancies seem only to add to the din.

Sure, we can stand up and say, "This is outrageous! This is sick. This is immoral/grotesque/unconscionable beyond belief." We can even reach for greater, more powerful adjectives. But our indignation, our horror, our revulsion, have already been so closely studied that it has long ago been simulated by politicians, lawyers, Madison Avenue, public relations representatives and the various spin doctors who think nothing of calling something relatively trivial an "emotional holocaust" as long as it furthers some agenda.

Having been raised in a society that's been Balkanized into special interest groups that react with simulated passion according to pre-determined guidelines, we now refuse to react. The language has been irrevocably cheapened. We've truly seen and heard it all, and whatever is the only thing left to say that is our own.

Take O.J. Simpson. The big Whatever. It would take a lifetime and then some to sort through every opinion that's weighed in on every aspect of the case. Why should anyone be bothered sifting through it just to come up with something novel? What can you say to the evidence, the Mark Fuhrman tapes, the whole race issue? Lawyers have said it all with all the apparent force and sincerity that someone with real convictions could generate. Our nation may be racially cleaved, but Johnnie Cochran is a legal superstar and Marcia Clark answers questions through her agent.

Most upsetting to the anti -whatever faction is the fact that the word short-circuits passion, this generation's eighth deadly sin. Lately, passion seems better left to the people who know how to use it--actors. How sad it was to watch Fred Goldman plead with the world to share his outrage. He might as well have been shouting at the end of an LAX runway while a 747 takes off. So many voices and victims compete for our attention that Goldman is one of an unimaginably long line of grieving parents (both fictional and nonfictional, although lately the line gets blurry) beseeching the cameras to bring forth justice.

And anyway, once he's finished, we're going to cut away to Cochran. And after that, it's back to the studio for the Menendez brothers, Bosnia, sports and weather. It's one endless cascade of information till finally we go to a commercial. It's too much to process. So how do I spell relief? W-H-A-T-E-V-E-R.

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