Posts Tagged ‘Social Issues’

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.

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.

“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.

The Fallacy of “Liberal Guilt”

In PeaceAble on March 24, 2017 at 7:53 am

There is an idea circulating that liberals seek things like civil rights, women’s rights, religious tolerance, LGBTQ rights, Native American rights, and so on, out of guilt; guilt about being male, about being white, about being Christian, about being whatever is the opposite of whatever they are championing.

Claiming that people act out of guilt is nothing more than an attempt to delegitimize their actions.  If you are doing something out of guilt, we are told, then it’s a bad thing to do, it’s dishonest, it isn’t genuine.  And it says to those who benefit from the work that the liberal activist doesn’t really care about you, it’s just guilt, so you should resent what they’re doing.  And you should be glad that I, who am doing nothing for you, am not demeaning you or being dishonest to you out of guilt. 

This idea of guilt is also associated with accusations of colonialism, of a supposed sense of superiority and entitlement.  In discussing the social safety net, for example, it works for the liberal activist this way:  1. You feel guilty about the fact that you have plenty of food and a home and a comfortable life when others don’t; 2. This guilt is derived from your belief that you are privileged and therefore superior; 3. When you advocate for the poor you are acting out your superiority, telling the poor that they need your superior largess because they can’t do it themselves; 4. This makes them dependent on you and deprives them of some of their freedom because they believe they are entitled to what you want to give them.  For the recipient it works this way:  1. The liberal doesn’t really care about you, he’s just feeling guilty because he has stuff you don’t have; 2.  What the liberal is telling you is that he is superior to you and you aren’t good enough to do what you need to for yourself; 3.  You should resent the liberal for his guilt and imperialism; 4. You need to learn to take responsibility for yourself instead of feeling entitled to help from guilty liberals; 5. We’re your real friends because we don’t feel guilty about our privilege and our wealth, and we want to give you the freedom to do it on your own, because we respect you.

In other words, if someone helps you they aren’t helping you, and if they don’t help you they are helping you. 

What a crock.

Guilt is an illusionary emotion.  It reduces complex events of cause and effect into simplistic arguments of blame. It masquerades as responsibility when it is really fear; it pretends to be empathy when it is really ego.  Guilt imagines that if one suffers sufficiently, then the wrongs of the past are atoned for.  And guilt doesn’t actually motivate action; rather, it seeks absolution and forgiveness. 

Guilt is a much more showy and public condition than responsibility.  Private, unexpressed guilt is a poison that slowly kills its host.  The only way to rid oneself of guilt is to make it known, and by making it known seek forgiveness.  On the other hand, we don’t seek to rid ourselves of honest and genuine responsibility, nor do we feel the need to make it public. Guilt emotes, responsibility acts.

Is it so hard to believe, especially among those who claim the mantle of Christianity, that any person, regardless of their political, religious, ethnic or other standing, might just have empathy, compassion, concern for another human being?

Is it not possible to feel a responsibility to correct historic wrongs without feeling guilty about the wrongs themselves?  A white person who recognizes that people of color have been enslaved, oppressed, discriminated against, disenfranchised and marginalized by white people can certainly also see that something needs to be done to correct those things without feeling personal guilt.  A man who sees that women have been disadvantaged and disenfranchised by a male-dominant culture can certainly also see that these things need to be corrected without feeling guilty.  A heterosexual or cisgender person does not have to feel guilty about the historic treatment of LGBTQ persons in order to want to correct the injustices.  When a wrong can be clearly seen, guilt is not necessary to motivate the desire to make it right.

If you feel guilty about something, examine it.  How is the guilt helping you?  What is it getting you?  Replace the guilt with understanding and knowledge about what the real problems and issues are, and what can be done about them.  Let your compassion come from empathy not from debt.  Let the past, both cultural and personal, put wind in the sails of positive change, not throw out an anchor that keeps us from moving forward.  And don’t listen to those who try to tell you that not feeling guilty means not having to do anything.

A Warning About the End of Life as We Know It

In PeaceAble on March 7, 2017 at 1:40 pm


Life as we know it is in danger.  If we are to prevent the end of life as we know it, we must all remember these basic truths:


The Others are not like us.


They speak a different language and when they learn our language they speak with a strange accent.  They think that we should learn their language.  They dress differently and strangely, they eat strange food, they worship false gods and they have strange customs and habits.  They have their own laws that are not exactly like ours.  You can recognize them because they look different from us.


The Others hate us.


They hate our laws, they hate our customs, they hate our beliefs.  They may even hate us because we have things they want to take away from us.  They hate our culture and our way of life.


The Others are trying to destroy us.


Because they hate us and want what we have, they are determined to attack us, go to war with us.  They want to destroy our culture, our country; they will kill our people; they want to destroy us and everything we have.  They want to steal from us all that we value and take it for themselves.




But if we are to prevent the end of the world as we know it, we must also forget some basic truths:


Whenever we leave this place and go elsewhere in the world, WE are The Other.


We want to believe that The Other must always be The Other, because WE are WE.  There can be no greater truth than this:  as I look out onto the world, I am at its center; all else is Other; and wherever I am is where the center is.


When WE are The Other, everything stated above is still true.


This is life as we know it.  This is the world as we wish to preserve it.  It is this we will prevent the end of by remembering the truths above.


When all The Others have been destroyed then life as we know it will end.


And what will be left will not be what we thought it would be.  We will find no life-as-we-know-it paradise.  Whenever there are at least two people in the world, there will be I and there will be The Other. And perhaps then we will learn that if we destroy The Other, WE destroy ourselves.


Perhaps it would be better if we stopped trying to prevent the end of the world as we know it and started working together to build a better one.


Cultural Normalization and “Manchester by the Sea”

In PeaceAble, Uncategorized on January 30, 2017 at 11:48 am

Aspects of the norm in any culture are expressed and reinforced in small, subtle and pervasive acts of acceptance.  There are innumerable ways in which our cultural norms are transmitted, with public media an important part of the whole.  My intent here is to use a personal critique of the Oscar-nominated film “Manchester by the Sea” to illustrate how we are led into unconscious acceptance and reinforcement of cultural norms.

First, let me say that media do not, for the most part, create norms or cause cultural change.  The media, including the artists who work in the media, reflect more than create subjective reality.  Films are created at least in part with an intent to make money.  They will only do that if they appeal to a significant part of the available audience.  The best way to ensure that is to reflect the feelings, attitudes, ideas, and perceptions the audience already holds.  Films that challenge our perceptions may achieve critical success, but rarely achieve box-office success.

Also, it is entirely possible for a film to be artistically successful but culturally problematic.  When that happens, it is useful to point out both the artistic quality and the cultural problems.  Failure to do that, in my opinion, reinforces the expressed norms and inhibits cultural change.

“Manchester by the Sea” is in many ways a very well made film.  There is some remarkable acting, though I did not find Casey Affleck’s performance equal to the over-the-top hype that so many reviewers seem intent on propagating.  It’s a solid performance, but hardly revolutionary.  And the film is not without its flaws.  I was especially disappointed in the script over all.  Despite some nice moments of dialogue and character interaction, the story is slow to get started, keeps wandering off into side stories that are never adequately resolved or clearly connected to the main thrust of the narrative.  And the resolution at the end of the film seems hurried and not well developed.  The final decisions of everyone involved seem nearly a deus ex machina rather than a clear consequence of the characters’ earlier choices.

But the larger objection I make to the film is not about the quality of the production.  In fact, the quality of the production actually exacerbates the problem I have with it; for the higher the quality of the art, the easier it is for us to overlook the cultural issues it raises and the problematic norms it reinforces.

The film’s characters, who are faithfully and authentically portrayed, represent a privileged masculine norm that goes unrecognized and unquestioned.  The men are uncommunicative, shallow and misogynistic.  The female characters are all treated badly, either directly abused, or ignored and dismissed, or left hanging in unfinished side stories.  The 15 year-old boy, Patrick, is sleeping with one girl and plotting to sleep with another; and his uncle blithely and without comment agrees to keep everything a secret so that the girls’ parents don’t find out about the sex and the girls don’t find out about each other.  Patrick’s mother is presented as unfit to raise him because she is portrayed as a frightened, somewhat dim-witted and hysterical woman under the sway of a “Christian” fanatic in a side story that is unnecessary, stereotypical, and unexplained.  Lee Chandler blows off his ex-wife’s attempt to come to terms with the past in a particularly cruel way and the whole thing is just passed over, providing no closure and no attempt at understanding.  Several smaller female characters are introduced for a moment to offer criticisms or critiques or some small incident, but their contributions are either ignored or trivialized.

And the men don’t fare much better from this version of what it means to be a guy.  Lee’s brother apparently never told Lee just how close to death he was, nor asked his permission to assign him as guardian for Patrick, nor provided any clue as to how that could be managed.  Given Lee’s emotional state and the conditions of his life, those failures are cruel to both Lee and Patrick; and have the potential for absolute disaster.  While that is part of what creates the core conflict in the film, it is never addressed honestly for what it is.  Lee and Patrick communicate mostly through grunts and shrugs, although Patrick often seems the closest to an adult in the room; and most of the really consequential communication Lee has with his brother’s friends and associates seems to take place off-screen, while the on-screen exchanges are fraught with unspoken emotions.  This, we are to accept, is how these men communicate.  And that’s true, but the possibility that that might just be the real problem here is never explored and nothing about it ever changes.

I bring all this up not because I want anyone to not see the film.  As I have said, it is over all a well-made film, with much about it that is worth seeing.  And the characters, however flawed, are portrayed honestly by talented actors.  I am really talking here about culture and how norms are established and reinforced.

Day by day, we all encounter situations where we are presented with examples of cultural norms in action.  We see advertisements all around us for cosmetics for women and power tools for men.  We see magazine articles that propose to tell men and women separately what the other really wants and how to “win” them.  We click on a FB link because we are teased by a sexy body or a provocative headline.  A co-worker tells us a joke involving a dumb blonde woman or a grotesque caricature of a “Mexican.”  And we hear people “man-splaining” and “white-splaining” and “straight-splaining” why things are as they are.  And if we do not, whenever possible and safe to do so, point out the cultural norms inherent in those things, or fail to say why they are a problem, then the normalcy of them is reinforced.  Every time we fail to question the logic in the ads, every time we buy the magazine and read the articles without response, every time we click on the link or smile politely at the joke or fail to see things as they really are, the norms are reinforced.

I know that movies are fiction.  I know that they are portraying real things.  And I know that we are all capable of convincing ourselves that we have the maturity, the insight, and the self-awareness to consume these things without being corrupted by them.  But cultural norms aren’t fixed by our opinions of our own virtues.  If there are things about the culture that you feel need to change; if you believe that women, non-whites, people of other nationalities or religions or ethnicities, the disadvantaged and disenfranchised need to be included, given equality of representation and opportunity, and given a chance for economic equity; then the culture will need to change.  And cultures are most permanently changed by the small, everyday reactions we have to the constant onslaught of normative messages.

Do you think that our culture is too violent, too warlike, too quick to attack and too slow to seek more peaceable solutions to our problems?  Then look for the violence in your own life, in your entertainments, in your myths and heroes.  Acknowledge that it is there and question its place in your life and in the culture.  And look for the opportunities you are given to choose the peaceable route.

Do you think our culture makes second-class citizens of our women?  Look in your own life for the small things you do or fail to do that are consistent with that.  Recognize how your own life has reinforced those things in you.  Know that you are not immune, and that changing the culture requires constant checking in with ourselves to see how we are falling prey to norms we claim to disdain.

Do you want to support equal and fair treatment of non-whites, non-Christians, and the LGBTQ+ community?  Take note of your own internal reactions.  Do feel you afraid, even slightly, in encountering the other?  Can you acknowledge that the racism or xenophobia or homophobia of the culture that has raised you has affected you, that you are not completely free of its influences?  Can you recognize and own those times when you have behaved badly, perhaps without intent or awareness, but badly all the same?

And did you go to see a film like “Manchester by the Sea” and not at least make note of the fact that what you just saw was filled with misogyny and male privilege and a cultural perspective that is exactly what we need to change?  And did you say anything?

Art is one of the most powerful purveyors of cultural norms.  Film has a way of drawing us into the reality it seeks to portray.  Indeed, the suspension of disbelief, the acceptance of the terms a film sets for itself is central to its success.  But after the viewing, take the time to talk about more than just whether Casey Affleck is the best thing since Brando, or who might get the Oscar nod, or how interesting and beautiful the cinematography was.  Talk about what the film has to say about all of us as human beings, and what it has to say about what is normal in our culture.  Then ask yourself what you want to do about it.

Normalization and the Norm

In PeaceAble, Politics on December 14, 2016 at 10:28 am

There seems to be some confusion out there about what we mean when we use the word “normalize,” and how that is related to the word “normal.” Allow me to clarify.

When we talk about normalizing a particular behavior or idea, we are not saying that the person exhibiting that behavior or expressing that idea is not “normal” in the common sense of that word. We aren’t, for example, saying that the person is deranged, or intellectually deficient, or pathological. Some might actually think those things, but that is a different discussion and I would appreciate it if you did not engage in that here.

We are, rather, using the word “normal” as the adjective form of the word “norm.” A norm is a behavior or idea that our culture or society tells us, in both subtle and more obvious ways, we should expect from each other. We are trained from early on to regard these things as “the way it is.” Now norms are not necessarily the most common or most acceptable or most likely behaviors or ideas, which is what the word normal usually suggests. For instance, American culture has, for its entire history, been dominated by the behaviors and ideas of straight (at least openly), male, Puritan/Christian (at least publicly), powerful warrior men. In other words, the straight, white, Puritan/Christian, powerful male warrior is the norm. And we are socialized to view the world from that perspective.

Now, there are, in fact, more women than men in the population; there are far more people among us more who have no more than modest power, and we are quickly discovering that LGBTQ+ people are much more numerous than we have been told and the non-white population may soon outnumber the white population. And any one time, the number of people who are veterans or serving in the armed forces is less than 15% of the population.  But that only states the demographics, not the norm. The norm remains primarily straight, white, Puritan/Christian, warrior men of power (especially economic). And that means, that despite our attempts to change things, the perspectives arising from that norm continue to pervade the society.

Distrust, bigotry, discrimination and disenfranchisement of people who do not represent that norm is “normal.” Misogyny, racism, homophobia, and the Christianization of society are “normal.” The dis-education and miseducation of those not part of the norm is “normal.” Using the very genuine fears of the working class, minorities, and women to divide the masses of people and thus more easily rule over them is “normal.” The idea that success is to be defined in terms of wealth is “normal.” The idea that everyone has the same opportunities to achieve that mythological thing we call the “American Dream” is “normal.” The idea that problems can be best resolved through force is “normal.”

Now we have tried over the years to change some of those things, but progress is always slow and still fragile, as the recent election demonstrates. The things we do to create greater equality for all, to promote justice and protect the rights of those who have less power to protect them for themselves,  and to seek more peaceable solutions to our problems, are called “normalization,” or “normative behaviors.” That is, they are things we do to create new norms that better reflect our diversity, our stated American ideals, our rights, privileges and responsibilities as members of society. But our social behaviors, our laws, our public images of ourselves in the media and our demographics all change more quickly than our norms do.

So electing a non-white President did not change the norm of whiteness as the perspective through which we see things. The Supreme Court decision on same-sex marriage, Roe-v-Wade, and the striking down of laws that would require the teaching of “Intelligent Design” in public school science classes, for a few examples, did not usher in a new secular norm. Women still have less access to power, non-whites and non-Christians are still marginalized, and it is still “normal” to proclaim one’s patriotism while waving the flag of a nation that went to war against the United States, and lost. We still think that the more firepower we have, the safer we are.

When we try to normalize something, we are trying to create it as a norm. We are saying that this behavior or this idea is to be expected, that it defines us as a society and a culture, that this is now the perspective from which we will evaluate and express our public and official actions.

So, what we are really seeing around us now is not the normalization of bigotry, of white supremacy, of male dominance and privilege in the affairs of the nation; we are seeing an attempt by that “normal” perspective to roll back the normalization of those things that threaten it. It is not the normalization of racism that threatens us, it is the de-normalization of diversity. It is not the normalization of misogyny, it is the de-normalization of the idea that the feminine is in all ways the equal of the masculine. It is not the normalization of xenophobia or homophobia or religious prejudice, it is the de-normalization of acceptance, tolerance, and cooperation. It is an attempt to say that who we are becomig is not who we are; an attempt to say that who we are is embodied in the worst of who we have been all along.

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