Posts Tagged ‘culture’

Media and Murder: Why “fixing” violence in popular entertainment won’t stop mass shootings, but we may want to do it anyway.

In No Particular Path, PeaceAble, Politics on February 28, 2018 at 12:39 pm


In the aftermath of the Parkland, Florida, school shooting there has been a new round of discussions about how to prevent such tragedies.  And one of the ideas being pressed by people who really don’t want to talk about things like gun control is the old claim that we need to do something about violent video games and movies.


The available evidence, however suggests two seemingly contradictory ideas: first, violence in video games and movies (or any other media) does not cause people to commit mass murder; second, we should nonetheless work to reduce the amount of graphic violence in entertainment media.


The idea that video games or movies are to blame seems to surface only when the killer is a teenager or very young adult.  The average age of U.S. mass shooters, however, is 35.  And, although the average age of video game users is around 31, the largest number (29%) of users are under 18; but that percentage is not significantly higher than 18-35 (27%) or 50+ (26%).  In addition, only 20% of video games are “shooter” games, and as video game sales have increased significantly, violent crime rates have remained steady or shown decreases.  And even in individual cases, there has never been any clear link between the actions of any mass shooter and his consumption of violent media.  In other words, there is no evidence that suggests the use of violent video games or watching violence in films or on TV has any causative relationship to mass shootings.


Most media studies seem to suggest that entertainment reflects popular attitudes and serves to reinforce them, but does not directly cause them. Think of it this way: if you are going to make a movie or design a game that will appeal to as large a segment of the population as possible, you won’t try to change what they want, you will try to discover what they already want and give them more of it.  In other words, people aren’t expressing themselves violently because popular entertainment is violent; popular entertainment is violent because people are expressing themselves that way.  And there are a great many social and cultural factors involved in that. 


It has long been observed that movies, in particular, reflect the times in which they are made.  During World War II, for example, Hollywood made a lot of movies showing the heroism of our fighting forces, the evils of our enemies, and the courage of Americans on the home front.  Following the Vietnam conflict, an unpopular war, there were a lot of films that showed the horrors of war, the physical and psychological effects of war on both troops and the general populace.  When Ronald Reagan was elected and the country seemed to be shifting back in a more conservative direction, we saw more movies about the cold war and home-town heroes rising up to defend against Soviet invasion, and movies that revised the Vietnam narrative and the idea of the super-soldier.  As things improved and the cold war ended, film began to reflect more positively on human relationships.  But since 9/11 amid renewed fears of terrorism and attack, we have seen a great many more movies about superheroes and the military, with ever increasing amounts of violence.  When people are afraid, Hollywood gives them superheroes of all kinds.


But there is in that realization cause for concern.  If the violence of our entertainments is a reflection of who we are, is this who we want to be?  And what is the danger in that?


One lesson of the women’s movement and its attempts to deal with misogyny in American culture has been that media is extremely important in the reinforcement of cultural norms, and that culture changes much more slowly than social awareness or changes in law or individual behavior.  Much has changed with respect to the role of women in the workplace, but events of the last two years have shown that the culturally normative idea that women exist subservient to the power and fantasies and physical needs of men remains firmly in place.  And just as the cultural norms cling to archaic views of men and women, it also clings to normative fantasies about the military, American exceptionalism, white supremacy, and violence as a solution to problems of violence.


American culture continues to tell us two things of relevance here.  First, it tells white, heterosexual, Christian, American males that they have reason to be afraid, primarily of the “other.”  And, second, it continues to try to frame the solutions to that fear in fantasies of superheroes and militaristic violence, weapons of enormous destruction, and personal heroism.  Notice, as something of an aside, that greater awareness of the ubiquity of violence against women has coincided with an increase in the number of movies involving female superheroes, females in the military, and female characters equal to men in their capacity for violence.  Our culture, as reflected in our popular entertainment, values the capacity for violence as a measure of our ability to respond to our fears.


The graphic and excessive violence of popular media shows us, in other words, that we have a much deeper problem of violence embedded in The American culture, and we need to address that.  So, what can we do?  How do we change the culture?


Media in America are profit driven.  They respond to what media consumers tell them they want.  If we tell them, through our purchase of video games, our attendance at movies, our TV habits, that we want more militarism, more police action, more superheroes, more personal heroism, more graphic depictions of more violent responses to conflict, more reinforcement of our fears about those who are different from us; then that is what  we will get, and we can expect that there will be more and more incidents of people trying to solve their problems by taking large, extremely deadly weapons to places where they can kill as many people as possible.  There is no reason, except the public’s appetite for it, that superhero films, or vigilante films, or action video games need to show scenes of extremely graphic, extremely destructive violence.  If the public were to decide, in large enough numbers, that they no longer want to be told that the solution to violence is more and greater violence; if they were to stop paying good money to go to the latest big-budget superhero blockbuster; if they were to not go out to get the latest version of Grand Theft Auto; then the media would stop making those things.


But that’s a hard thing to do.  Most of the people I know really love the latest dark manifestations of Marvel fantasy characters.  They like a good action movie with lots of enormous guns being fired, lots of big explosions going off, and lots of hugely muscled heroes killing lots of ugly, despicable villains.  And real cultural change would require us to give some of that up.  We would have to dial it down.  We would have to start playing games that require more nuanced solutions, we would have to start patronizing films, even superhero and military films, that require less graphic on-screen violence to arrive at a climax.


It is a myth that watching violence purges us of violent feelings.  Do you leave a violent game or a violent movie thinking, “wow, that’s great; now I don’t feel like I need to do that in real life,” or do you leave thinking, “I am so energized, so pumped up, that I think I could (or wish I could) be a hero like that in real life”? 


There is no single solution to the problem of violence and the increase in the kind of mass murder we have witnessed in Parkland, in Las Vegas, and in so many other of our schools, our malls, our concert venues, our churches and our public spaces.  We need a comprehensive approach that combines a variety of strategies.  Most of those strategies are well known, but cannot work in isolation from one another.  Certainly, passing a lot of new laws and regulations about violence in entertainment won’t make a huge difference by itself.  But all of these things can make a difference if we begin to take a hard look at how our culture, through it’s entertainment, its other public media, its politics and its policies, reinforces the idea that our problems can be solved by more and greater violence.


As consumers of public media and popular entertainment we can change the culture if we have the will to do it.  It won’t be quick and it won’t be easy, but long term effective solutions rarely are.  What ideas about violence are you helping to reinforce by how you spend your entertainment dollar and your leisure time?








How Could It Happen Here?

In PeaceAble, Politics on February 19, 2018 at 11:40 am

After yet another mass shooting like that in Parkland, Florida, last week, there are always the same responses. But I’m not talking about the calls for banning certain guns or the calls to arm even more people; I’m not talking about the thoughts and prayers; and I’m not talking about those who want more locks and scanners and cameras and armed security guards; though I will show a connection in a bit.
I’m talking about the “how could it happen here” response.
Why are people always so surprised that the same violence that has happened in so many other places is possible where they live?
The reason is simple. We need to believe that all kinds of bad things happen to other people, and (as the President suggested in his first reaction to the shooting) that the victims share some responsibility for what happened. There must be something different, we tell ourselves, about those people or those places where these things occur.
The reality, unfortunately, is that the difference more and more seems to be only that it hasn’t happened here . . . yet.
But the response is an indication of several problems with how we approach serious issues and tragic events.
First, it is an expression of unconscious assumptions of privilege and specialness. It suggests that there are places where we might expect such things to happen, even believe that it is acceptable for them to happen there. People are currently harking back to the Columbine shootings of 1999, but that was not the first time there had been a shooting in an American school. In fact, in January 1989, a lone gunman using an AK-47 killed five children and wounded 29 in Stockton, California. From 1992-1999 there were more than two hundred homicides in school shootings in the U.S.

What changed with Columbine was the erroneous perception that those sorts of things only happened in cities like New York or Chicago, and mainly among groups of non-white, poor populations. Columbine brought it into a middle class community in middle America. The other thing that happened was that the television age caught up with the shootings. Columbine was an instance of children shooting children, there was no obvious cause or reason for it, and the news media, reinforced by the rise of twenty-four hour cable news, ran with the story.
Second, it suggests that there is some way to isolate or protect ourselves from the things that are happening to others. After Columbine, schools started installing metal detectors in schools. Since then, we have seen the imposition a host of security protocols, installation of a variety electronic devices, and the introduction of both armed and unarmed security and police. But the number of incidents, the number of deaths per incident, and the deadliness of the weapons have all increased. What we have not seen is any real attempt to understand why these things happen or to deal with the real problems. We need to understand that turning our schools into prisons and fortresses or arming ourselves to the teeth won’t stop the carnage.
Third, the response suggests that there is some moment in time, some singular incident, that will finally mobilize us to do something, anything, to prevent these things; though there is no consensus as to what that might be. While I commend the actions of Parkland students to organize a national walk-out, to call out the NRA and politicians who offer platitudes instead of solutions, I have difficulty hoping that these actions will prove ultimately effective in making the Parkland students, as expressed by student Emma Gonzalez, remembered as the last students to die in a mass shooting at a school. If Columbine led only to more security and no long-term solutions, if Sandy Hook didn’t lead to lasting change, why should this? As long as people believe that it won’t happen here, and only do what they think will protect themselves, lasting change won’t happen. Until every community, especially those that have not yet suffered such a tragedy, can come out in forced to demand change, it won’t happen. Until people stop waiting for it to happen to them before they demand change, it won’t happen.
It isn’t unreasonable for people to be shocked when events hit close to home. We have been far too accustomed since at least the 1950’s duck-and-cover drills to living in fear. Far too much of our national life is lived in fear, far too many of our national policies are motivated by fear, and far too much of what we are sold by both politicians and corporations is based on fear. Part of the shock of these events is not that we thought we were safe, but that we feared we weren’t; and our fears have been realized. But to find our way to effective solutions to the things that divide us, that make us afraid, that move so many to violence we need to be fearless. We need to dare to stand up and stand out, to take to the streets, to make our voices heard. And we must do this before it affects us directly, before we become directly victims. We need to understand that we are all already victims. Our society is already a victim, our democracy is already a victim, our way of life is already a victim. And we must stand up to the forces that tell us to be quiet.
Instead of asking ourselves, “How could this happen here, to us?”, we should be asking ourselves, “How do we keep it from happening anywhere, to anybody?” But the answer to that question will require a whole lot more than just banning a few weapons or building some new defenses.

A Message for Men Who Feel Compelled to Say Something About Sex Abuse

In Politics on December 8, 2017 at 12:11 pm

I will begin this with a personal revelation. This is hard. It should be hard. It requires me to take as honest a look as I can at my own past and my relationships with women. I offer this as neither explanation nor excuse, but only as background.
I grew up in the 50s and came of age in the 60s. I could see, even as a young teenager, that my male friends and acquaintances were treating the girls in their lives abominably. I could see the destructiveness of cultural stereotypes and norms that asserted the superiority and dominance of men over women. I have always thought of myself as a feminist.
I was also a young man who was shy and awkward around women, who was trying to grow up in a culture that sent me a lot of harmful messages about what a man was supposed to be and what I should expect of women. Like most other young men I was stupid about such things. My early experiences with the opposite sex involved awkward and embarrassing attempts at physical intimacy, including some groping and what I’m certain now was at the very least unenthusiastic making out. I felt afraid, unattractive, undesirable, powerless and desperate.
By the time I was in my twenties, I was in a marriage that was already on a self-destructive path. In my thirties I became a college professor, and a leading figure in local theater, and I suddenly discovered that there were women who found me attractive and wanted to have sex with me. I had affairs. All the affairs were consensual and initiated by the women, so I was able to dismiss the element of power. I compartmentalized. I allowed myself to think that the attraction was based on my charm, my intellect, on all sorts of personal qualities other than the fact that I held a position of power and status. I never asked the question of whether any of these women would have found me attractive just for myself if circumstances were different.
Throughout this period of my life I was, again without seeing it, a bully and a tyrant, selfish and insulated in my struggle to become something like the man my culture had put in my head. And all the while, because I supported women’s rights and argued for women’s issues and talked about how badly women were treated, I was convinced that I was a feminist and an ally.
So how can I now claim any credible standing to speak about what women need?
As more and more men in positions of public power and influence are being accused of inappropriate behavior towards women, everyone seems to be talking about the problems associated with powerful men and sex.
Can we back up a moment here and acknowledge that when we are discussing relationships between men and women the phrase “powerful men” is redundant? In America (anywhere, really, but let’s stick with our own culture for the moment) there has always been a power imbalance between men and women; and that imbalance has always been to the advantage and benefit of men. This isn’t simply about outing and punishing public figures in the movie industry, or politics, or the news media. That will quickly get tiresome for some, overwhelming for many, and eventually fade into the fog of the 24/7 news cycle that shapes our current experiences.
If you have grown up in America, you have been daily bombarded with messages about men, women, and power. For men, power has always been attractive and expected. For women, power has always been unnatural and dangerous to the social order.
Men have always been told that power over women is essential to being a real man. If a man can’t demonstrate his power over a woman we have a large lexicon of emasculating and feminizing insults with which to attack him. If a woman demonstrates power over a man, that same lexicon has words that de-humanize and de-feminize her, and make her ugly.
If you are an American male who has reached puberty, you have been raised in a culture which has encouraged and rewarded this kind of power-imbalance behavior. Most have never committed rape or the grosser forms of harassment, but all have taken advantage of the privileges associated with being male in our culture, and hurt women in the process.
If you are an American female of any age, you have experienced an often overt, sometimes subtle, but constant stream of messages about yielding power to men, regardless of the consequent injuries to yourself. You have also been taught that sexual power is the only power you naturally have over men, but that using that power is forbidden. If you have sex with a man, regardless of the circumstances, any negative consequences are your own fault. At the same time, if a man doesn’t want to have sex with you it is also your fault, and you need to do more so that some man will want to have sex with you.
This double bind is why women spend billions of dollars every year to conform to a male-normative ideal of attractiveness, to wear carefully crafted make-up, to dress provocatively, to learn how to be what the masculine culture tells them they should be, often through the voices of other women; only to be told that they have only themselves to blame if a man is unable to control himself around them. If you are a woman in America, it is likely that you continue to follow at least some of the cultural rules that give men power over you.
If you are, like me, a progressive American male; if you consider yourself an ally, an advocate, a feminist; if you have been making or are about to make some statement about those powerful men now being brought to accountability for their actions, I suggest you stay quiet for a moment and check in with yourself about two important considerations.
Before I pay much attention to your declarations or praise you for your positions, I want to hear you explain the following:
In what ways have you, as a product of this culture, as a man who has been given the power and privilege of being male, taken advantage of that power and privilege in your life; and how has that hurt any woman or women?
I’m not asking if you have ever raped someone, or abused a partner, or even if you were once a serial groper. If any of those are true you should probably just deal with them and shut up about other people’s bad behavior. I’m asking when was the last time you laughed at something that contributed in some way to the culture’s misogynistic and demeaning attitudes toward women, like a “dumb blonde” joke. Was there ever a time in your life when you had lots of reasons with which you could defend misogynistic pornography or coercive prostitution that caters to male fantasies about women and sex; such as lofty arguments about how every sexual interaction is an exchange for value of some kind, or how there’s nothing inherently wrong with people choosing to have sex on film for other people to get pleasure from? Have you ever assumed that the fact you had sex with a woman is evidence that she freely consented to that sex, regardless of the circumstances? How carefully and honestly have you looked at your relationships with women – personally, socially, professionally, romantically – and understood the role that cultural norms of maleness and femaleness have played in those relationships?
Why do you feel compelled to make your statement now?
It is, of course almost always a good thing to make a statement in support of an important movement or action. I’m not questioning whether something needs to be said or whether men ought to be saying something. But I think that we need to be clear about our motives. So much of what men have historically said about their support for women, their admiration for them, what’s good for them, and how we want to help them has turned out to be self-serving for men and hurtful for women that I think we at least want to be honest about how we see our purpose in this. There is little reason for women to trust what we say and we need to make an effort to earn that trust. What do you want? If you’re a politician or public figure, for example, are you concerned that your silence implies that you don’t support women in this struggle? What other commitments are you making with this statement to actually work toward change? How does this statement square with other positions you have held in the past and how will it inform your behavior henceforward? If you are not a public figure, but feel the need for a public statement, what role do you see for yourself in the struggle to change the culture and bring women fully into their rightful place as human beings and members of society? Why should your opinion be considered valuable or important?
After you’ve addressed these questions, wait a moment longer. Let women speak. Let them say what they think about your answers, perhaps give them the opportunity to ask for your input or give you permission to speak. Address their concerns, rather than assume you know what they want or need from you. Be careful that you aren’t mansplaining or talking over, or interrupting.
When I was younger I was a feminist because I knew that it was right. Now I’m a feminist because I can begin to see where I was wrong. I’m not a feminist in spite of my past or out of guilt about my past. I’m a feminist because looking at my past has helped me to see that the struggle is not just a women’s struggle, it is also mine. Men cannot fix this for women. We can, however, follow their lead and become part of fixing it for us all.

God with a Lowercase “g”

In A God of Infinite Possibility on October 14, 2017 at 8:18 am

In our grammar and composition classes we are told that “god” is supposed to be written with a capital “g.” When I type on my phone, autocorrect tries to do that for me. If, however, we write “a god” then the lowercase “g” is acceptable.
In English, we capitalize proper names, the major words in titles, the letters in acronyms, and the pronoun “I.” The only one of these that would apply to the word “God” would be the first. It is a proper name.
So, when one is referring to the god named “God” one should definitely capitalize the word; just as one would capitalize the name Allah, or Hera, or Krishna, or Diana, or any of several other names for one god or another. I mostly try to do that.
There are two reasons that I mostly, however, do not capitalize the word “god” when I am writing about matters of belief, particularly my own beliefs, or about religion.
The first is that I am usually not talking about the specific god named God. That is, more specifically, recognized as the name used by the Judeo/Christian religious traditions for the god they worship, the God of Abraham. So, when a Christian or a Jew refers to God, they are using the formal name, and it is, therefore, proper to capitalize it. They also, of course, capitalize every use of a pronoun or any alternative word such as Almighty that refers to this same God. This has less to do with grammar, however, and more to do with the particular rules and customs of their faith.
Second, I’m a Deist. I believe that there is, at the core of everything, god. In my personal creed I state that I believe that “Everything that is, is god.” Since that is a significantly different concept and definition of god than the Judeo/Christian God, and since I don’t consider god to be a being, I don’t capitalize the word. I also avoid pronouns for god as much as possible, since I believe that god transcends gender (and other human-like characteristics). I could use “it,” I suppose, but that sounds awkward in the writing and the speaking.
Of course, an accurate reading of the Bible will reveal that “God” is not actually God’s name. His name, using the masculine pronoun most common in Christianity, is also not Yahweh, or Jehovah. Those last two names (which are actually the same name) come from the story of the burning bush. When Moses encounters the burning bush, he asks the name of the god who is speaking from it. The voice replies, “Yahweh,” which seems to mean, “I am.” Note that it isn’t “I am ‘called,’ or My name is ‘I Am.’” Some Biblical scholars take this to mean that God was deliberately not giving Moses a name. This would be consistent with a general belief at the time that if a god told you its name, it gave you control over it.
The only purpose and consequence of having to capitalize “god” every time we use it is to perpetuate two flawed ideas: first, that we are always talking about god as defined and worshipped by those who follow the God of Abraham; and second that use of the word is always intended as a formal name.
Cultures and cultural norms are established by how we communicate about ourselves and the world around us. They change when people begin to consciously reject the cultural messages and challenge the culturally prescribed norms. And when it comes to culture, even small things matter. The “Christian Right” in this country continues to insist that the United States is a Christian nation. The insistence that every reference to god is a reference to “God” reinforces that inaccurate belief.
When, for instance, we argue that the word “God” in the Pledge of Allegiance, or the phrase “so help me God” in a pubic oath are neutral expressions and not religious, we are reinforcing the idea that “god” and “God” are the same thing. They aren’t. (This leaves aside, for the moment, the obvious point that neither “god” nor “God” is a neutral term for an atheist. Constant use of the term also reinforces the idea that belief in any god at all can be assumed.)
Those who would promote this idea that “God” can be a neutral concept should also, perhaps, consider the consequence of that claim for their God. Overuse of any word or set of words weakens their power. Push God into public life as a neutral term, throw it up everywhere, and it becomes less and less meaningful. You may think that everyone knows what you mean when you use it, but you would be mistaken. Eventually, it becomes background noise, just another word that is part of the common lexicon, with a meaning that seems quaint and anachronistic, but whose purpose is more connotative than denotative. It comes to mean “sincerely,” perhaps, or “good fortune,” or any of a thousand different ways of indicating a kind of general importance. Notice how often people already say “for God’s sake” or “God damn” or “oh my God” without any sense that they are actually talking about God at all.
If you want to preserve the specialness, the particular divinity, you want your God to have, the best thing you could do would be to get it out of the secular realm. Stop insisting that every use of the word needs to be capitalized. Stop telling people that its meaning is neutral. Start insisting that every time someone refers to “God” that they must mean specifically the god you believe in. Copyright the name. Make it your brand. Make people pay a royalty if they wish to use it anywhere except in the context of your churches, your prayers, your sacred texts. Insist that it should only be used in respectful and reverent ways. If someone writes the word “God” in any publication and capitalizes the word they must be ready to certify that it references the God of your faith and no others.
Sometimes I will use the lowercase even when it seems clear that the discussion does, in fact, have something to do with Christian beliefs or dogma. When I do that it may be because I am trying to expand the discussion to include all such beliefs, rather than saying that the issue is only about Christians. It may also signal that I do not agree that the issue accurately depicts what Christian tradition teaches, and I don’t want to dignify these flawed claims by reinforcing the idea that they represent “God.” (I have read the Bible and other Christian texts, and was raised in a Christian church.)
So, if you read something I have written and notice that I have not used the capital “g.” there is no need for you to correct me. You may assume that the usage was deliberate and purposeful.

Uncle War and Sister Peace

In PeaceAble on September 22, 2017 at 7:18 am

Yesterday, September 21, was the International Day of Peace. Did you know that? Did you care? We’ve had one every year since 1981, but I’m not surprised if you missed it.
Why is it that we have such a hard time not just celebrating the ideal of a peaceful world, but even acknowledging it? I think there are two basic reasons.
First, when we talk about Peace we really have no idea what we are collectively talking about. War is clear. There’s an enemy, there are battles, there is clear and sometimes horrifying sacrifice, there is victory or defeat, and we have simple and uncomplicated ways to identify the heroes and villains.
And in this age of seemingly endless War, most often for vague political reasons seeking ill-defined and often highly deceptive goals, we are getting to know War as an old friend, as that troublesome relative who sits at the table and says outrageous things, farts and burps, flails his arms about, spills food and wine on the Persian carpet, and breaks the good china. Nobody really likes him, most hate to see him show up for the holidays, but he’s family so what are you going to do? Besides, we can all wait until he goes home, drunk and swaggering from his excesses, and congratulate ourselves on how well we handled him.
But Peace is the “Lost Child” in this dysfunctional collection of humankind called the family of nations. Peace sits quietly in the corner during all the chaos and says, “don’t worry about me, I’m all right.” We love Peace, but don’t expect much of her, really. Once in a while, a few of us will go over and encourage her.
“You have real potential, Peace; we want you to do well; someday you will spread your white dove wings and fly; and we will all be so proud of you when that happens. What’s that? What did you say in your soft, nonconfrontational voice? You’d like a little actual help from the rest of us? Don’t be silly. Isn’t it enough that we tell you all the time how wonderful you are? Don’t you see that proclaiming how much we love you every Christmas is helping? Now stop whining and come sit with us while we deal with Uncle War and praise your brother’s noble sacrifice of the last pork chop.”
Then War finally goes home and we all go out in the front yard and celebrate with explosions and flags and songs about our bravery and sacrifice. We give each other medals and accolades and mourn the loss of Grandma’s heirloom vase and Brother’s one good shirt.
I have, elsewhere in these essays, described some of what I think Peace would, or in my opinion should, look like. But what answer would you give? If the world were to achieve something called Peace, what would it look like? How would it work? And, importantly, what would it require of you?
The second reason is that we have no working vocabulary for Peace. No way to celebrate the work of Peace. And our collective response to the International Day of Peace is illustrative of that. The day passed and there were no big parades down Main Street, with bands playing “Give Peace a Chance.” There were no elaborate, nationally televised award ceremonies; indeed, no idea to whom we should give awards for Peace. We have no way to collectively understand, never mind celebrate, the sacrifices of the peacemakers among us.
Where are the markers, the obelisks inscribed with names, the statues that celebrate the peacemakers? What are their names? What did they suffer in their quest for a more peaceful world? Where is the memorial for Rachel Corrie? Don’t know who that was? You see the problem, then. What were the names of the students who defied the tanks in Tiananmen Square? When was the last time you flew your flags or had a barbecue or wore a special bracelet in honor of those who rode the buses, those who were attacked with water cannons and dogs and nightsticks, those who were killed and buried in remote fields or lynched from very public trees in the struggle for civil rights? Beyond Martin Luther King or Gandhi, how many names of peacemakers – global, national, or local do you know? Which of the young men and women in your community have served in the Peace Corps?
You see the problem.
We all claim to hate War, but we keep inviting him to dinner, feeding him, encouraging him by our attention and our willingness do what he asks. We feed War’s ego and think ourselves heroes for it.
We all claim to love Peace, but we let her sit alone in the corner and wait her turn to speak, but to please not speak too loudly or too much. Can’t she see that we are exhausted from dealing with Uncle War? Can’t she respect the fact that we can’t deal with her right now because we have to prepare for War’s next visit? What does she want of us? Peace is so selfish.
I suppose we could ask her to help us clean up the mess left by War, but she’d probably just spend the whole time reminding us that we don’t actually have to invite him back, that maybe we could all work together so that we could find the courage to tell him he’s not wanted.
We want to hate War, but we can see very clearly what it is and what we get from it. And we tell ourselves we can give it up anytime we want. No, really, we could. Really. We want to love Peace, but don’t understand her. What does she really have to offer to replace War? What exactly is it that she does, anyway? We know that the greasy, disgusting casserole and the special home-brew that War brings to every gathering are killing us: but we aren’t quite sure we’d like the taste of that healthy dish Peace keeps trying to serve. It looks kind of bland, or perhaps it’s just that it has all those weird, exotic spices and herbs that we are hesitant to try. Maybe getting healthier wouldn’t be as much fun as what we’re doing now.
So that is our dilemma. Or perhaps it is more of a paradox. We certainly don’t want to go so far as to call it a hypocrisy. Do we?

The Joy of Bigotry and Violence

In PeaceAble, Politics on August 30, 2017 at 10:59 am

A young blond, blue-eyed white man at the Charlottesville alt-right rally was asked why he was there. He responded that he was not, himself, a white supremacist, he was just having some fun. Running around shouting about white power was fun. He thought of himself as a “rebel,” and that was fun.
Setting aside for the moment the generally accepted truism that our actions speak louder than our words; that whether or not he sees himself as a white supremacist, he is at least someone who is willing to stand in solidarity with them, shout their slogans, support them as they wave their flags; I would like, for just a moment to take him at his word. I will allow him his truth. I’m sure he’s worked it all through in his own mind. He isn’t “political,” he supports “free speech,” he has a few friends who are black, he works with black people at his job and has no problem with them, and so on. I would like to focus instead on his other point, that he was there because he thought it would be fun.
And I have to say he had a point, though I doubt that it is a point he knew he was making.
American culture has always had a fondness for fun at the expense of the other. There has always been the sense that picking on the weak and the different is “just a bit of fun.” It is the larger context of “boys will be boys.”
Especially when you are part of the cultural norm, part of the group of the white, male, straight, Christian norm, then you have been encouraged to have fun that is based in debasement, dehumanization and mockery of the others. We have lots of jokes about “Mexicans,” about Chinese, about Muslims, about Jews, about “dumb blondes,” about the handicapped, about homosexuals, and so on. How many jokes do we have in which the central character is considered funny precisely and simply because he is a white, heterosexual, middle class, Christian, American male?
Laughing at those who are different from the norm is a time-honored tradition. We use such humor to reinforce the norms themselves. Making fun of the others reassures us of our own inherent superiority. We tell ourselves through our humor that we have nothing to fear, because the other is less powerful, more ridiculous, even less human, not to be taken too seriously. Why should we fear those we have the power to mock?
And our humor is becoming more violent, both in language and in content. There seems to be a general sense that something is funnier if it contains a slur or a vulgarity. More and more of our humor is “in your face” humor. We can use humor not just to mock the other, we can use it to attack him. Humor can be a weapon.
None of this is new, of course. None of us, I would suggest, can remember a time when these things weren’t true. Our culture has told us what to laugh at, and we have laughed. Do you want to see where a society’s biases lie, want to know how they treat those who deviate from the norm? Look at its humor.
American culture also has a fondness for violence, or the possibility of violence, as fun. Americans consider professional wrestling to be family entertainment, and WWE trademarked toys are marketed to even very young children. Americans go to hockey games hoping there will be a bloody fight or two. We spend enormous amounts of money watching boxers and MMA fighters beat each other up. We go to NASCAR events with at least a small twinge of excitement at the possibility of a spectacular crash. Football, one of our most popular national sports, is seen as a metaphor (and a psychological substitute) for war. We don’t really want anyone seriously hurt or killed, but the possibility adds to the thrill we get from the sense of danger. The injuries, both short and long term, suffered by our sports heroes are accepted as part of the sport, and by extension, necessary to the fun.
Look at how our media, television, films, popular literature, the graphic novel, have all turned terribly dark and violent. Take a quick look at all the “cop” shows, with less and less thoughtful policing, and more and more tough talk and violence, both in the crime and in the response to it. Look at all the superhero movies; the war movies; the large, loud, impossibly destructive weapons; the mass destruction; the explosions and gun fights and bloodbaths of all kinds depending on your choice of fantasy. Look at the most popular fantasy video franchises, in which anyone can take on the persona of a superhuman hero, or villain, and can slaughter hordes upon hordes of whatever enemy they choose.
It has also been argued, of course, that the violence of our entertainment is the reason for so much violence in real life. Of course we have children shooting children, we are told, look at what they see on television, listen to their music, play their video games. But our entertainment has developed as a consequence of what we have wanted, of what we found entertaining. The entertainment hasn’t made us violent, we have made the entertainment violent.
We tell ourselves that these outlets are good for us. When we play a violent or dangerous sport, or when we watch others play it, we’re purging our natural violent impulses, we’re making ourselves less personally violent in some way. It’s purgative, a release, a way to express our darker desires. But violent sports and societal violence have coexisted and supported each other for as long as history has been recording human activity. How do you really feel when you leave a violent sports event or a violent movie; are you feeling purged, or are you feeling enervated, like you’re ready for anything?  When will all this substitution and purgation finally get it out of our collective system?
When we tell a joke that contains a lot of vulgar language or uses a bigoted slur, we tell ourselves that we are being “politically incorrect,” that we are somehow making things less bigoted or less violent by turning things into a joke. But does a joke about a Muslim having sex with his goat really make you feel closer to his culture in a positive way?  This humor has been with us and part of us for centuries. Is it making things better, yet?
A culture expresses what is normal in many ways. Our culture is constantly telling us that bigotry and violence are literally normal. But cultures can change. They change slowly, but they do change. And the change happens not when we embrace the norms and act them out, but when we begin to reject the norms as they are, reject the normalization of bigotry and violence, of white supremacy, of misogyny, of the dehumanization and hatred of the “other,” and begin to speak up loudly and consistently for a new normal. There is some value in laughing at, rather than with, the things we would change. And there are times when we have failed to find other ways to solve our problems and violence enters in. But like all the tools we are given to change our lives, these things have to be handled responsibly, with care, or they become more destructive than transformative.
If you really want to change the culture, end the violence, end the hatred; stop having so much fun with it.

Why I’m a Pacifist

In PeaceAble on August 26, 2017 at 3:55 pm

Nobody WANTS war! Nobody LIKES war!
Well, except for SOME people. And are you so certain you’re not one of them?
When I was in my twenties, I had a habit of congratulating myself on how I dealt with the violence of my temper. I was slow to reach the point of losing my temper, and I had a strict rule against striking out at people. There were times when I would have had enough frustration, fear, grief or other forms of anger so that I would punch a hole in a wall, kick something, break something; but I told myself that these were inanimate objects, just material things, at least I wasn’t hurting anyone.
What I did not know at the time was that you don’t have to hit someone to hurt them with your violence. I didn’t understand that the potential or threat of violence is already violence. To be in the presence of violence is to be hurt by it.
I have spent a considerable part of the past forty to forty-five years learning about my anger and trying to become more sensitive to the impact it has and has had on those I love, and on my friends and acquaintances. And as part of a culture in which violent solutions to problems is often encouraged and even celebrated, a culture whose language has far more ways to create metaphors of war and violence than of peace and non-violence, I have become aware of the part, however small, my own violence has contributed to that culture.
I feel as though America is at a point where we can collectively, culturally, choose to continue down the road of violence as a solution, or we can begin to mature toward a more peaceable way of life. The path of peace is not an easy one, or without danger, but I don’t know how the human race survives if we do not take it.
Even during my most violent periods, I considered myself a pacifist. Even now I can appreciate that there have been times when violence and war have become unavoidable, even necessary. But that inevitability, that necessity is always a failure. War and violence are always a failure to find other solutions to our differences and our conflicts. No matter how noble or moral we believe our goals to be, war itself is neither noble nor moral.
Whenever I have tried to talk about my pacifism, about the need to resist the temptation to answer violence with violence, someone will ask something like, “Do you really think we could have stopped Hitler by being nice to him?”
No. But pacifism isn’t about being nice, it’s about finding ways to solve problems before they escalate to the point of war. The problem is in knowing when to start. How can we learn to recognize the danger before violence or war becomes the answer?
Pick a starting point, any starting point.
I remember, studying history, how easily the books divided things up. There were eras, and periods, and decades. There were significant events, and seminal moments, and turning points. And there would be a brief discussion of causes that usually served as a transition between one significant something and the next, but the focus was on whatever the next chapter title was about, whatever point the timeline had reached. We were expected to understand the great sweep of history as we might follow the plot in War and Peace.
We would examine the years between wars and look for connections, discuss causation, but always stayed in the line of the narrative.
Life isn’t like that, though. It doesn’t really follow any linear plot, no matter how many subplots or expository passages we might insert. The progress of life is messy; and without a sense — genuine understanding is not possible without a much deeper analysis of the scope of western civilization than most people who are not dedicated historians can manage – without at least a common sense that the second Iraq war, and the current problems in Yemen and Syria and Afghanistan and North Korea and the Sudan, to name just a few, are connected to things like the invasion of the Goths and Visigoths into ancient Europe, to the Crusades, to Columbus’ decision to sail out in search of an ocean route to India, to the decimation of the First Nations of the Continent, and so on to the violence in Charlottesville, how do we begin to understand the place to which violence and war have brought us?
And how do we change that trajectory?
Perhaps we can start with the personal. It is a commonly understood concept in human behavior that things often don’t become clear or important to us until we can make them personal, connect them to things that are integral to ourselves.
That’s why I began by talking about my own violence. I can look now at the great sweep of my life (and I am only just about 70) and I can see how it is manifested today in my relationships with my children, my extended family, my friendships and my communities. I don’t always like what I see. Each violent act, each hole in a wall, was part of that.
In the same way, each time we answer our anger, our grief, our frustration, our need not to be hurt any longer with violence in any of its multitudinous forms, we help create the next necessity of violence. Each time we fail to denounce violence even when it seems to accomplish ends we yearn for; each time we use the language of war and violence to describe our reality; each time we allow ourselves to believe that there is no other way, that the “enemy” cannot be defeated, the problem cannot be solved, the conflict cannot be managed without violence; we set up the conditions of grief and anger and hatred that are the building blocks of the next violence, the next war.
There are those that say we have already reached a point of the necessity of endless war. The President still proposes that we can bomb and kill our way to the end of terrorism. We can’t. Neither can we solve the problems of ignorance and crime and poverty and all their associate evils by going to war against them.
I still get angry. I still have fantasies of violence and the defeat of the other. But I have, I hope for the rest of my life, learned to stop and step back from the brink, to eschew violence for acceptance, tolerance, empathy, and at least the outward trappings of peaceableness. It’s a journey, not a place.
Non-violence works, but we have to start sometime, somewhere. Let’s not wait until it is, once again, too late.

PRESIDENTIAL LIMBO: How low can he go?

In Politics on June 30, 2017 at 8:59 am

“Limbo” has two common meanings. One is a game in which people try to wriggle under a bar that is gradually lowered until even the best players can no longer go any lower. The last player to get under is the winner. The other is a state of existence between Heaven and Hell where lost souls get to contemplate their sins in the hope of salvation and the fear of eternal damnation.
Both meanings apply to the current President and his government.
It seems as though every time the President sends out another tweet, issues a new proclamation, makes a public speech, engages with a foreign government, or agrees to an interview there are subsequent cries that he has reached a new low, that the bar is already subterranean and still he surpasses himself.
This is the game of Presidential limbo, and it would seem that President Trump has no rivals.
But remember the second half of the meaning. The one who goes lowest wins. This is the current state and direction of politics (and much of the rest of life) in the United States of America. The one who goes lowest wins. The President’s race to below the bottom is not the cause of this phenomenon, but he is its current chief beneficiary. The lower he goes, the more his supporters see him as winning. And this applies to Congress as well. The harder the people’s representatives work to benefit the wealthy and powerful at the expense of the poor, the disadvantaged, the powerless and the needy; the more they use dirty tricks, draconian laws, gerrymandering, denial of demonstrable reality, and legal gymnastics in their quest to establish, in the words of Karl Rove, a permanent majority; and the more they proclaim moral certainties they are already violating; the more they win.
One result is that we have become a nation in limbo, applying the second meaning. We are spending precious time focusing our collective energies following the President’s ever more remarkable contortions as he wriggles his way lower, and not paying enough attention to the real damage being done. We are having to contemplate our collective sins and decide whether we will follow him down or strive to raise the bar again. We are lost souls, torn by a lack of agreement as to which way is Heaven and which Hell. There may be some consensus forming, the President’s approval ratings are at or approaching historic lows as he does, but there are still formidable forces working to drive us lower and far too many citizens who either are willing to go to hell, or don’t believe that’s where we’re headed.
We have, of course, been living in fear for a long time. Making us afraid makes us controllable. The people who tell us we should be afraid also tell us that only they can save us from the fear they are creating.
Uncertainty is a necessary element of our system of government. The greatest enemy of democracy is complacency. The moment we think we have won is the moment we stop paying attention to those who are already planning to beat us the next time. We cannot and should not ever assume that what we have achieved will always be. And some of what has been achieved needs to be undone. Rigid, moralistic, self-satisfied certainty is the second enemy of democracy.
So, here we are; playing limbo in limbo. Trying to see how low it can go risks getting our heads stuck in the sand. It is time to stop playing the game. It is time to set our sights higher and move upward out of this limbo. Good and evil aren’t places, they’re directions; and the farther you go in either direction, the harder it is to turn around and the longer the journey back. And while it is tempting, when one is rolling downhill to just let go and keep rolling, because the climb back up gets ever more daunting; turning around and making the climb is what we need to do.

“It’s Just a Joke”: “Humor” as deflection and excuse.

In PeaceAble on June 24, 2017 at 9:47 am

I think that I can claim a sense of humor. I can’t imagine that those who know me would not acknowledge that I can be wry, sarcastic, outrageous, droll, slapstick, sometimes vulgar and perhaps even an above-average punster. But that doesn’t mean that I will find humor in everything you think is hilarious.
So, if I criticize a meme or take exception to a “joke” please do not respond by telling me it is just a joke or telling me that I need to get a sense of humor. And I will promise to continue not telling you those things if you criticize a “joke” of mine.
“It’s just a joke” is not an excuse for being offensive. “Lighten up” is not a defense of inappropriateness, pointlessness, or trolling. “Get a sense of humor” does not address actual issues raised by objections to humor or attempted humor or the harm they can cause.
Humor is one of the most telling aspects of the norms of a culture. We are either laughing at those things which are not “normal” or we are laughing at those things which are so normal as to be indicators of our common foibles or faults. And it is usually possible to tell the difference. When we laugh at the “other” we are doing something very different from when we laugh at ourselves.
I have recently been seeing a new emergence of “humor” based on prejudice, bias, and the kinds of racism, misogyny, homophobia, xenophobia and downright meanness that we seriously need to marginalize, not re-normalize.
So, a few suggestions from the point of view of my sense of humor.

1. Any joke which is not funny unless you make the butt of the joke a “dumb blonde” (or any other hurtful stereotype) isn’t funny to begin with. Any joke that is funny already is made less funny by making the butt of the joke a “dumb blonde.”
2. Any joke that uses an outrageous caricature of a Mexican or an Arab or an Asian or a person of color any other race or nationality in order to mock their culture, their customs, or their pronunciation of words in a language which is not their first, is not funny.
3. Any joke that marginalizes or grossly distorts the reality of any culture, nationality, race or group of any kind is not funny.
4. Any joke based on belief in a conspiracy theory, a deliberate untruth, or a misleading and debunked claim is not funny.
5. Any joke based on shaming of any kind is not funny. Any joke that targets the fundamental humanity of any individual or group, that furthers destructive stereotypes or keeps us from seeing each other as equally deserving human beings is not funny.

What is funny?

1. Jokes that point out the human frailties we all share are funny.
2. Jokes told by those on the inside of a group about themselves are funny when they tell them (but not when outsiders do).
3. Jokes that speak truth to power are funny.
4. Jokes that play with our common language, both verbal and non-verbal, are funny.
5. Jokes that point out the absurdities of life or create their own absurd universe are funny.

There are, of course, occasional exceptions to these “rules.” But those can be accounted for by differences in where individuals see humor. I don’t really mind if you don’t find something as funny as I do. And long as you focus on what is or is not funny about it, I won’t mind if you tell me it isn’t funny. I might even, on reflection, find that I understand or even agree with your perspective. I have no problem apologizing for “humor” of my I own if it has hurt someone, however unintentionally.
The problem I see here is that humor is becoming a dodge, a way to be mean-spirited, bigoted, and even cruel without taking responsibility for it. “It was just a joke” is simply another way to say, “I didn’t mean it.” But that’s a cop-out. It’s a deflection, a way of making the other person the problem rather than the action itself. This is what bullies do, and “humor” is becoming a way of bullying.
I love a good joke. Humor is an art form, and like all art forms it exists along a scale from simple, vulgar humor to sophisticated, complex humor. And at every stop along that line we can all find something to relate to. And like all art forms it has its genres, its specialties, its in-jokes, and it’s avant-garde, so that not all of it is equally appreciated even by its greatest artists or most astute critics. But I value genuine humor enough to call it out when it becomes hurtful, when it reinforces the stereotypes and biases our culture would rather keep in place.


Go Ahead and Overthink It

In No Particular Path, PeaceAble on April 14, 2017 at 10:55 am

I have often been accused of “overthinking” something.  So, naturally, I cannot help but think about that.

Usually, the offense is committed when I have encountered something that is either intended as a joke, or a clever analogy, or a meme with a narrow scope and that has, I admit, a very clear intent.  But I will see something in whatever it is that seems to need further thought, a bit more careful examination, perhaps something that takes the meaning in an entirely different direction.

So.  Guilty as charged, I suppose.  I do “overthink” things.

And I will continue to do so.  I will proudly overthink things whenever I feel like it.  And I encourage you to do the same.

We currently live in a culture in which we are repeatedly told, both directly and indirectly, not to think very much at all.  We’re told to feel, to react, to seek truth and profundity in 140 characters or less.  Reason is too slow, analysis is the same as bias, facts are whatever we declare them to be and they mean, like Humpty Dumpty’s words, whatever the source tells us they mean.  We’re told to choose our side in any dispute and hold our position against all attacks.  Intellect is suspect, emotions are power, thinking wastes valuable time.  We must act, we are told, and thinking isn’t action.

Culture, however, is not created mainly by the big things, but by the ordinary.  We tell a joke, sing a song, use a common expression we picked up somewhere, buy a product because we remember the ad for it, click on a hyperlink, watch a television show or go to a movie, leaf through the tabloids in the checkout line.

People are amused, they’re shocked, they’re enthralled, they’re outraged, they’re inspired.  And they move on.  they let it go, get over it, wait for the next shoe to drop, shake their heads.  They react; then it’s on to the next meme, the next chuckle or shock or inspiration or outrage.  Lather, rinse, repeat.

But they don’t think.

Often, they don’t even know how.

How many common logical fallacies can you name?  Do you know the order of operations in solving a simple math problem?  Are you proud to tell people that you never use algebra?   Do you understand the difference between a hypothesis and a theory, between a theorem and a law, or between argument, persuasion, and propaganda?  Do you know the structure of a deductive argument and an inductive argument; or why the differences between them are important?  Would you be able to distinguish an empirical study from an experimental one, or know the appropriate use of each?

Does all of that sound boring to you?  Do you think that none of that has anything to do with you or your life?  The fact is that you either use or encounter all of those things, or their direct products, every single day.  They have consequences that affect you, for both good and ill.

Academics and intellectuals are often accused of not knowing anything about real life, as though thinking prevents us from experiencing the things that affect all humans.  Thought and emotion are not, however, enemies.  When properly applied they complement each other.  Problems that are solved with just logic can be dry, unfeeling, even cruel.  Problems solved with only emotion can be rash, clouded with bias, and even counterproductive.  When, however, we apply both reason and emotion, we have the opportunity for both pragmatism and empathy, for solutions that address the human condition realistically and practically.

There is no aspect of human activity or experience that does not require both the mind and the heart for its best expression.  Music is mathematics, sculpture is physics, art is geometry.  Planting a garden is both chemistry and aesthetics, biology and design.

Choose anything that either delights or disturbs you.  Take a moment to examine it.  Try to step away from your initial reaction.  Think about it.  Overthink it.  Practice patience with both ideas and emotions.  Don’t copy, share, like or comment until you have taken a least a few moments to try to understand it, and to understand your relationship to it.  Resist the urge to stop at feeling and go no further.

Hate, prejudice and discrimination are literally thoughtless.  They rely on the triggering of emotion, not of reason.

Compassion and empathy require thoughtful understanding, and the ability to both feel and reason.

There is far too much over-emoting these days.  A bit of overthinking would be a welcome change.  The best answers will usually be found, of course, somewhere between the two extremes.  But you can’t find the center unless you can recognize the poles.

So go ahead.  Join me.  Overthink a few things, or even a lot of things.  Do it for a saner, less polarized, and better understood world.

Or tell me I’m overthinking it.

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