“Ugly Flash Mob Empties La. Mall”, ABC News reported this morning. Details remain sketchy, but the Mall of Louisiana in Baton Rouge was evacuated on Saturday night when a flash mob turned violent. One mall patron said that someone had a gun, but no weapons or injuries were reported.

The phenomenon of flash mobs and, in general, the heavy emphasis on dancing in popular culture in recent years is interesting. Not interesting on its own artistic terms, of course; in that respect it is thoroughly uninteresting, bland and shallow, like nearly all of popular culture. To me it’s fascinating because people seem to equate dancing with freedom, or at least to regard dancing as an expression of the desire for freedom. Clearly it bears the media’s (and, therefore, the government’s) seal of approval, because not a day goes by that television doesn’t drub viewers with some absurd, intended-to-be-humorous-yet-painfully-unfunny depiction of a flash mob or an uncoordinated geek letting loose on the dance floor because the music just moves him so profoundly, baby. Look at those people in the Applebee’s commercial! The food tastes so good that they’re breaking into a dance, now ain’t that funny? Or the little girls in school uniforms, dancing around with their MacBooks (or whatever they are) and looking all frowny and serious for the camera. Goodness, but I get a big ol’ belly laugh from that! Don’t you?

Well, too bad, because this kind of silliness is as close as you’ll get to officially sanctioned self-expression in the United States of 2013. Want to be part of the political process? Then by all means, vote for one of the two major parties. But don’t you dare point out that their agendas are virtually identical, or tell anyone that you’ve considered casting your vote for a third party candidate: you’ll be mercilessly criticized, laughed at and consigned to the lunatic fringe by your friends and obnoxious, gap-toothed talk show hosts alike. And don’t even think about organizing or attending a protest! That’s downright dangerous, and most assuredly does not meet with the approval of government, law enforcement, the media or your peers. But dancing your fool feet off at the mall? Go ahead, knock yourself out. (Bearing in mind, of course, that if even one or two similarly violent incidents follow this one, there will soon be a crackdown on flash mobs, too.)

No, my point–if I seem to be making it in a roundabout fashion–doesn’t have much to do with the “ugly” flash mob in Baton Rouge. My point is that oppression is not meted out only with guns and nightsticks and tear gas. It seeps into the culture in a hundred small ways…subtly, gradually, until we demonstrate tacit acceptance of the limitations that have been imposed on us without even consciously realizing it. You might say that the media has always encouraged conformity, and you’d be right, but it’s worse now than it’s been in a long time. In the 1980s, Pepsi was “the choice of a new generation” and, yes, it was a pretty dreary decade, but at least we still spoke and wrote in complete sentences. Today, verbal communication has been reduced to a few TV catchphrases and terse abbreviations, and if we want to convey our coolness, our only option is to dance, dance, dance with a fixed, dull-eyed expression…an expression that, no matter how fervently we hope to transcend (if only temporarily) the frightening world in which we live by moving our bodies, betrays resignation and despair.