Basement dwellers. Trolls. We’re all familiar with this personality type: Matthew Rozsa offers an explanation as to why they exist in the first place.
“Cellar dwellers.” That was the expression that my friend’s husband used when referring to the trolls who posted misogynistic comments under her latest article. After laughing at the generation gap revealed by that statement (the youngins like me prefer the term “basement dweller,” although the rhyming “cellar dweller” has an undeniable ring to it), I began to reflect on my own experience. After all, several of my closest friends fit the general description of being a basement dweller: They live with their parents, have failed to continue their education, languish in matters of romance and love, and are either sporadically employed or remain stuck in dead-end menial jobs.
For a very long time, these friends were like a second family to me. During the summer of 2010, as I recovered from a devastating break-up, they provided me with much-needed comfort and fun; the parties we threw in those months will almost certainly remain among the cherished memories of my twenty-something years. To a man they are intelligent, generous, and friendly individuals, so much so that the prospect of them not realizing their potential summons to mind the classic Allen Ginsberg verse:
“I saw the best minds of my generation destroyed by madness …”
It is this madness—the madness of a society that has produced a generation of basement dwellers—that I wish to dissect in this essay. While I’ve written about the so-called basement generation in the past, I’ve generally done so in reaction to a position they have taken (usually on gender politics) rather than by trying to bring about a better understanding of their plight. This was a serious oversight on my part, and one that needs to be corrected. There are many great minds trapped in America’s basements, and while even one lost soul is tragic enough, the fact that there are millions of basement dwellers (as a quick glance at any message board should indicate) represents a staggering waste of human potential … and, perhaps more importantly, an incalculable amount of terrible suffering.
As I see it, there are three underlying causes for the basement dweller phenomenon:
1. The economy.
This line from a recent CNBC story sums it up best: “Turning 30 used to mean hitting your stride as an official adult. But for many of the country’s millennials, it feels like being stuck in perpetual late adolescence.”
It wasn’t always this way. Back when Adlai Stevenson ran for president in 1952, he could tell an audience of college graduates that “one worry you are spared is the worry of finding a job. When you finish college and military service, you will enter a world which wants and needs you. This seems a natural thing—when you have it. It is a terrible thing when you don’t ….” More than sixty years later, the vast majority of millennials have had to struggle mightily to obtain even marginally sustainable employment, much less the kind of work that can enable the meaningful autonomy that is a prerequisite to adulthood. For those who didn’t further their education beyond high school, the job market has been even more abysmal. This is why so many millennials have become “boomerangers” who move back in with their parents long after their teenage years have ended. For men, the bleak situation is rendered downright damnable by the social stigma attached to lacking economic independence during one’s early adult years. Inevitably they become depressed and seek a form of escape, which brings us to our second point …
2. The addictions.
During the Great Depression, countless young men who had been left emasculated and desperate by America’s harsh economic conditions became compulsive gamblers. While many social critics of the era viewed this development with understandable contempt, today psychologists understand that gambling addiction is a real and serious medical condition. Although addicts don’t use mind-altering substances to artificially induce a high, they nevertheless develop a very real dependency on gambling, one that is part neurological (the brain released dopamine and other chemicals that “reward” the user) and in part psychological (people need to escape from terrible realities, and being swept up in gambling allows them to do exactly that).
When future historians look back at early 21st century America, they will most likely classify video game addiction and Internet addiction as the great scourges of the millennial generation. Like drugs and alcohol (which are often used while playing video games and/or surfing online), these addictions provide their users with an escape where they can feel good about their lives. Although harmless when indulged in moderation, it is easy to become dependent upon them when everything else in one’s life seems hopeless or burdensome. Of course, the fact that one turns to these venues for escape doesn’t mean that the anger, bitterness, and other negative emotions are left behind in the real world; indeed, the reason basement dwellers so quickly become trolls is that trolling offers them an emotional outlet that is safe (read: anonymous and thus unaccountable). So why can’t they find a more constructive way of dealing with their troubles? Perhaps it is because they are faced with …
3. The indifference.
Make no mistake about it: When basement dwellers leave racist comments on message boards or create sexist online campaigns like Gamergate; when they engage in hyperbole over their favorite pop culture properties (e.g., asserting that George Lucas raped their childhood by making bad Star Wars prequels, calling on President Obama to step in and prevent Ben Affleck from playing Batman, that sort of thing); or when they in general behave like boors … Well, they are absolutely wrong, and need to be called out on it.
At the same time, someone who finds himself in the plight of a basement dweller has legitimate emotional needs that are not being met, and if we wish to be a compassionate and rational society, we owe it to ourselves to address them. For example, much has been written about how Men’s Rights Activists depict women as prizes to be won and then complain when a woman spurns their advances as if she owes them sex. Again, when it comes to the underlying ideological issue, the feminists are right and the Men’s Rights Activists are wrong; no woman owes a man sex ever, for any reason. At the same time, heterosexual men do face enormous social pressure to not only “get laid,” but to settle down in long-term romantic relationships with a suitable partner. Indeed, even if these social pressures did not exist, men have a basic psychological need for companionship that is no less strong than the one commonly attributed to women. While they don’t have the right to sleep with or date any woman they choose, they certainly have a right to eventually wind up with someone they find attractive; to argue that it is morally acceptable for them to remain alone against their wishes is not only cruelly indifferent to their needs, but a recipe for disaster. After all, a moral code that only protects the interests of other people but is comfortable letting them suffer doesn’t have much of a case for commanding their respect.
Although the last point used dating and sexuality as its prime example, it really applies to the whole gamut of issues facing the average basement dweller. Ideally, every human being should have the opportunity to maximize his or her latent potential and thereby flourish in the type of career that Mark Twain aptly described as one’s “true work”—i.e., “the work that is really a man’s own work is play and not work at all.” Barring that, they should at the very least have the ability to obtain employment that will allow them to achieve economic independence, and with it the psychological foundation of feeling like a true adult. From there, it stands to reason that no one who honestly seeks genuine romantic companionship should be denied that for reasons they can’t control (physical appearance, economic insolvency, etc.)
While I don’t have any solutions to these problems, I think it’s high time that we not only acknowledge their existence, but actively search for solutions to them. There are many great minds being destroyed by the madness of having to live in a basement—figuratively as well as literally—and I have been privileged to know a few of them. They deserve advocates who will help them out of this slump, just as they should be held accountable when they behave in a juvenile or hateful fashion. If we continue to fail them, we will also be failing ourselves.