Thursday, October 12, 2017

IMHO

Everybody's Entitled to Their Own Opinion
Everybody's Entitled to Their Own Opinion (Photo credit: Wikipedia)
There are several phrases that set me on edge when used in a discussion, conversation, or debate:

“Let’s agree to disagree.” No.

“Both sides do it.” No they don’t.

"You just don’t understand” I do understand. That’s why I disagree with you.

But out of them all, the one that irks me is the inevitable:

“People are entitled to their opinion.”

No. They are not.

First of all, the concept that people are ‘entitled’ to anything is a fallacy, and I don’t mean in a right-wing “entitlement programs” or left wing “white entitlement” sense. We’re talking about the concept of universal entitlements, or rights. People are not automatically imbued with inalienable rights, regardless of what your two-hundred-year-old country’s rulebook says. People are not naturally free, do not automatically deserve respect or equality or happiness or privacy, and definitely not their opinion. There is the potential for all of these, but this potential is not a universal constant as much as it is a possibility based almost entirely on the individual’s surrounding environment, be that environment natural or societal. As a society we can dictate that people SHOULD be treated equal and fairly and decently, but that has nothing to do with nature. In fact, nature repeatedly goes out of its way to show us that she couldn’t give a shit about us or our social contracts. If these assumed “rights” were actually some sort of natural law, would we really need so many human laws, laws we barely obey in the first place? Natural Law boils down to eat or be eaten, Human Law is just there to prevent us from eating each other, and Ape Law is meant to prevent Human Law from fucking up Natural Law. You can’t argue with Ape Law.

So, if people aren’t truly “entitled” to anything, then they can’t be entitled to their opinion, can they? 

Now, for even more clarification, let’s look at that popular generic term “opinion.” What is an opinion? According to a random dictionary, the main definition is:

“…a view or judgment formed about something, not necessarily based on fact or knowledge.”

To drill down even further, an opinion is basically a belief, and beliefs are not based on factual proof or evidence, but instead are contingent on the personal rationalization of the believer. Simply put, believing something, or having an opinion about something, is done so when there’s no proof or evidence to back that belief or opinion. For example:

“I believe in God.”

“I believe in ghosts.”

“I believe that severed rabbit paws bring me good luck.”

“I believe that my race is the master race.”

All of these statements, while possibly involving some degree of anecdotal experience or general knowledge, cannot be definitively proven. Granted, there are some exceptions to this rule. The first example could also be meant to imply faith instead of opinion; when somebody says “I believe in America,” they aren’t stating a belief in America’s existence, which can be proven, but rather a faith in what it stands for, which – of course – is also based on opinion rather than fact.

Of course, you could argue that the words Belief or Opinion could conceivably be used in factually provable statement, but while this is a sound theory, they are not generally applied this way in practice. You could say “I believe the Earth is round,” but you typically would not feel the need to do so, as the rest of the statement is not only provable, but generally accepted as fact. On the other hand, you are more likely to say “In my opinion, the world is flat,” as this statement is provably false.

Map of the Square and Stationary Earth, by Orl...
Map of the Square and Stationary Earth, by Orlando Ferguson (1893) (Photo credit: Wikipedia)
In fact, God and a Flat Earth neatly encompass the entire scope of the need to designate something as a belief or opinion. In the case of God, even though a large group of people share the belief, there is still no quantifiable evidence to treat God’s existence as a fact. This same principle is adhered to by the scientific community as well, as concepts agreed upon by a large group of scientists – gravity, for example – are described as theories rather than facts. In the case of the Flat Earth, not only is no evidence to prove the belief, there is also no majority to support it.

So, now that we have a better understanding of entitlements and opinions, I think it’s safe to restate that people are NOT entitled their opinions. You have the potential to form an opinion and have it accepted by others, but no guarantee. You can have an opinion, but that does not make it valid, nor does that make it equal to all other opinions. Instead of “Everybody is entitled to their opinion,” you might as well say “Everybody has the potential to be wrong.” And if you are the person espousing a belief in entitled opinions, your potential to be wrong is greater than most.

The other version of this that annoys me even more is when somebody attempts to finish a discussion, debate, or argument by saying “Well, that’s YOUR opinion.” Ironically, the person who launches this gem is usually the least able to factually support their own opinion, resorting to labeling the other person’s argument as inarguable, despite whatever argument has already been provided. Logically, if the person who this statement is directed at actually has no factual basis to support their opinion, the person claiming it as just an opinion wouldn’t need to do so, as their factual evidence would theoretically be able to prove it as such based on its own merit. In the case where neither party has enough factual support to claim victory, the “That’s your opinion” person will invariably resort to the aforementioned “Let’s agree to disagree,” which is code for “I know I’m wrong, but I’m not going to admit it.”

Beyond that, the other major problem with telling somebody that something is just their opinion is that most of what people say is opinion-based to begin with. In fact, so much of our daily communications with others are based on personal opinion that we typically don’t even bother saying it. This is why most casual discussions about anything subjective don’t descend into heated debates over whose opinion is more valid. We understand - at least subconsciously – that its all a load of opinionated beliefs, and so we all just forge through most dialogues with the unspoken agreement that our opinion is accurate, and everybody else with a differing or contradictory one is simply full of shit.

At least, that’s my opinion.


Wednesday, October 11, 2017

Is America Good Reader?

The End of Books - page 229
The End of Books - page 229 (Photo credit: Wikipedia)
Ten or fifteen years ago, the company I worked for laid me off after ten years for essentially not being happy enough.

Spoiler: A little over a year later, the owner would call me to apologize and beg me to come back to work for him, as it took him nearly a year of doing my job to realize exactly how much of the work I was actually doing. This has absolutely nothing to do with this story, but sometimes you need to flaunt your victories.

In an effort to ease the blow (most likely because even at that point he realized how fucked up his reasons were for firing me), my newly former employer put in a good word for me at the company of one of his business owner friends. Apparently, this is what small business owners do, They make friends with other small business owners, and occasionally meet for breakfast so they can bitch about labor laws and share cigar bar locations with one another. Anyway, the business he introduced me to was a company that tested underground fuel tanks and fuel lines, and they hired me based solely on my newly former employer’s recommendation. I’m not exactly sure how you recommend an employee you just fired to somebody else for employment, but I digress.

The job lasted a month, the traditional probationary period, at the end of which they called me on location and informed me that they would not be keeping me on as an employee because I did not have “a passion” for testing gas station pumps for leaks. I wholeheartedly agreed, and that was the last time I ever worked with gasoline or set foot in the Bronx. But I digress.

This fuel line and tank testing company was based out of Pennsylvania, but provided its services to a number of states along the East Coast, so a typical day would include three or four hours on site, but with an additional four to six hours travel each way. Driving a truck six hours each way in itself is a monotonous and soul-withering experience, but this was compounded by a company policy that restricted passenger employees from sleeping while en route. The official reason for this rule was that a second pair of eyes on the road was a safety precaution that would help prevent accidents, but the more obvious reason was that somebody didn’t like the idea of paying employees for sleeping. That’s what you call “corporate morality.” But I digress.

The End of Books - page 226b
The End of Books - page 226b (Photo credit: Wikipedia)
Because of these lengthy daily commutes, and the restrictions against napping as a passenger during a fourteen-hour work day, I got into the habit of bringing along books to read when it was my turn to be the wide awake passenger. To set the record straight, I didn’t bring along any reading material that might be misconstrued as an attempt to be an intellectual show-off. In fact, at the time of this little story, I was reading one of the Wild Cards anthology paperbacks, a collection of short stories about superheroes, and way before superheroes were mainstream cash cows.

So, anyway, it was during a lunch break one of these trips, which I spent sitting in the work truck reading this paperback. There were two other workers on site with me, and one of them approached me as if they intended to start a casual conversation. This was one of the company foremen; I had ridden with him several times already, and had no issues with him other than his tendency to fully enforce the company’s no-sleep policy, yet repeatedly bypass it himself by wearing sunglasses and pretending to be “deep in thought” during return trips. I lowered the book as he approached, and when he reached the truck he placed a hand casually on the open passenger side door, motioned to the book with his eyes, and said:

“So… You read.”

This is an exact quote. He didn’t ask if I read a lot. He didn’t ask what I was reading, or what I usually read. It wasn’t even a question, but more of the cautious statement of an observation. Not quite knowing where he was taking the conversation, or what “you read” was actually supposed to mean, I paused before responding with a nod and a non-confrontational “Yep.”

And with that, he turned and walked away. There was no follow-up question or springboard into a conversation about a lateral topic. He didn’t even respond to my acknowledgement of his statement. He just turned around and walked back to other on-site worker and joined him staring into the hole we currently couldn’t do anything about.

English: All 24 John Griham novels as of June ...
English: All 24 John Griham novels as of June 30, 2010 (Photo credit: Wikipedia)
If there’s a point to this story, it’s that I don’t believe there is an actual push-back against literacy in America, as much as there is a vast divide those who actively read – whether for pleasure or enlightenment – and those who not only don’t read, but don’t really understand the nature of reading. And despite bizarre moments like this, I’ve rarely been the victim of direct hostility over false perceptions of presumed intellectual superiority. The employer who fired me, got me the wonderful gas-line job, then later hired me back (FYI – He laid me off again a few years later when the business almost went bankrupt) was not “a reader,” and not only did he not give me any grief about it, he often asked me to proof-read his emails, and was very supportive when my first book was published. Another former employer wasn’t what you would call well read – his house was decorated with randomly arranged John Grisham hardcovers – but one of my jobs was to write instruction manuals for the software he sold, so that was rarely a source of contention.

The closest I ever came to being harassed or singled out for being literate was when I worked for this evil motherfucker that openly broke payroll laws and had no problem with verbally or physically attacking employees. He was a blatant functional illiterate, only used his computer watching YouTube videos, and the only (obviously unread) book on display in his office was Trump’s ghost-written Art of the Deal. It was an overwhelmingly hostile and demeaning work environment, and during my measly half-hour lunch breaks I would hide out in the company “lounge” (i.e.: extended kitchen) and do some journal writing. One lunch break I looked up to find him hovering over me with this stupid smirk on his face.

“What are you doing?” He asked. I responded that I was writing, even though the pen being dragged over blank pages sort of implied that.

Then he asked “You write in that often?” Again, my current spot in the middle of the thick journal was evidence enough, but I responded with “Yes.”

He just smiled at me again, nodded, then walked away. It wasn’t until five or ten minutes later that I realized he was, in his own way, making fun of me for writing in a book, and it only occurred to me at all because of that idiotic grin of his that he always wore when he thought he was smarter than the person he was talking to. Essentially, the jackass was standing there laughing at me for writing. He didn’t even know what I was writing, mind you. It was the act of writing itself that he found humorous.

As jarring as that moment was at the time, it still manages to support my previous observation that the challenge towards literacy in this country is just basic understanding, and not some kind of intellectual class warfare. The abusive idiot mentioned above (years later he would make the
English: Soviet propaganda poster by Elizaveta...
English: Soviet propaganda poster by Elizaveta Kruglikova advocating female literacy. The top section reads: "Woman! Learn to read and write!" The bottom (meant to be said by the daughter): "Oh, mommy! If you were literate, you could help me!" (Photo credit: Wikipedia)
 local news when he was arrested for giving his effeminate son – who he once referred to at work as a “walking fallopian tube” – a loaded gun and daring him to use it) wasn’t threatened by my literacy. He wasn’t motivated by feelings of inadequacy or a belief that I was somehow attempting to appear superior to him. The truth is, he was not only convinced that he was smarter than me, but he saw my tendency towards reading and writing as proof that he was better than me. (The reality, of course, is that I was definitely smarter and better than him, but that had nothing to do with literacy, and everything to do with him being an arrogant, racist, abusive, labor law breaking soulless cocksucker slum-lord idiot).


So we’re in a weird area when it comes to promoting literacy in country where a predominant portion of the population is mired in a culture that embraces the idea that books aren’t just stupid, but practically alien.

I’m not a book snob by any stretch of the imagination. I think that film and television are just as capable of providing worthwhile entertainment and thought-provoking learning experiences, and I don’t believe that not knowing how to read or being well read automatically implies ignorance or stupidity. I tend to look at reading like most people regard physical exercise or eating healthy; it’s a good thing to do, and everybody should do it, but not doing it doesn’t make you a bad person. Of course, we also live in a country where the last First Lady’s desire for children to eat healthier was seen by many as controversial and “anti-freedom,” so maybe I should get used to being asked stupid questions during my lunch breaks. 

Tuesday, October 10, 2017

Taking a Stand on the Controversial Knee

I don’t follow football. I don’t watch it, I have no opinion regarding the people who play it, and I exert very little energy towards even acknowledging it as a cultural experience. Outside of the occasional Super Bowl commercial, I have never spent as much time reading about it or listening to heated debates regarding it until the past two weeks. Even when Colin Kaepernick first made the news by kneeling during the national anthem, I didn’t give it a second glance. After all, it isn’t like this country doesn’t get itself all worked up over patriotism and acts of protest. I grew up during the height of the whole flag burning thing. Nothing new to see here. So why am I actually writing about Football players and patriotism? I think you know the reason why.

English: Dorothea Lange picture of Japanese-Am...
English: Dorothea Lange picture of Japanese-American children reciting the pledge of allegiance (Photo credit: Wikipedia)
Before I touch on that reason, a little backstory on my dog in this hunt. I attended high school at Bloomfield High School in Bloomfield, NJ (And for the record, yes, BHS can go fuck itself). The standing rule at the time (late eighties, early nineties) was that students were required to stand and place their hand on their chest during the Pledge of Allegiance, but they were not required to actually recite the Pledge of Allegiance. I have no idea how or why this specific rule came about, but I do know that I followed these guidelines by standing every morning, but never actually reciting the pledge.

I assure you, I was not protesting anything specific at the time. My reluctance – I can’t truthfully say refusal, since technically nobody was trying to force me – to verbally pledge allegiance to my country of birth had nothing to do with the multiple rational (or even irrational) reasons one might choose to give America the silent treatment, as it were. My reasoning had more to do with the logic, or lack thereof, involved in the entire production. As a fat kid, I had already spent years being emotionally and physically assaulted with constant reminders that I was not considered part of whatever group bullies and their enablers assume to speak for. My pre-high school experiences in communal exclusion made it even harder to swallow the concept of “school pride,” and exposed the hypocrisy in asking me to actively support and root for a group of people that at best didn’t give a shit about me, and at worst actively bullied and shunned me. It wasn’t just the actions of my fellow students that made school spirit a joke, the school itself was often criminally negligent and openly apathetic towards individual students like myself. Forcing me to spend an hour in a crowded auditorium “supporting” the school’s football team (fuck the Bengals) was not just a joke, it was a bad joke.

SECOND GRADERS PLEDGE ALLEGIANCE IN ROCKPORT E...
SECOND GRADERS PLEDGE ALLEGIANCE IN ROCKPORT ELEMENTARY SCHOOL - NARA - 548243 (Photo credit: Wikipedia)
It wasn’t much of a leap for my teenage self to correlate school spirit with national pride. It wasn’t that I didn’t have any national pride than it was that I didn’t see the logic in a daily mandatory public display of it. As high school students, we had already been taught about the ruthless dictatorships that demanded unwavering allegiance, and how America was so much better than other countries because we were allowed to publicly dissent. As American’s we were allowed to believe in anything we wanted to, even if that meant not believing in the government. Yet here I was, being forced to stand and salute every morning. Not only did this morning ritual of ceremonial worship contradictory to the concept of freedom of speech and thought, it also didn’t make sense in the regard that it didn’t accomplish anything. There is nothing educational about reciting a pledge to avoid punishment, and for the casual observer (which there never was), it would be impossible to discern which students actually believed in the pledge, and how many were just following orders. By the way, you know who else followed orders? That’s right, the Nazis. But I digress…

So fast forward to 2017, in an America where football players are kneeling during the national anthem, and the country is waging yet another heated debate over how free our freedom of speech truly is. And let’s clarify the situation here: This was all originally about ONE ATHLETE kneeling during the national anthem to protest the national trend of unarmed black men and children being killed by law enforcement officers who frequently go unpunished. It wasn’t until the President of the United States decided to weigh in on the whole thing by tweeting that American citizens should be fired from their jobs for exercising their constitutional rights, as well as publicly calling peaceful protesters “sons of bitches,” that dozens of other athletes started taking a knee during the national anthem in support of the first guy that started doing it. In short, all of the kneeling going on now is in support of the right of somebody else to take a knee during a national anthem in protest.
Crazy, huh?

And so, as usual, the original reason for the controversial action is forgotten, and the reason behind the increased support is lost or ignored, by the majority of the people both attacking and defending the most benign act of public civil protest you could possibly imagine. Seriously. Kaepernick kneeling during the National Anthem is no greater a gesture than me not reciting the Pledge of Allegiance in high school. Of course, to be fair, I was just a stupid white kid in a classroom annoyed at being told what to do, while Kaepernick is a wealthy black athlete being watched on national television by an audience that is at least (statistically speaking) partially comprised of bigoted racists. Oh, and the President of the United States didn’t use his platform as a world leader to call me names and demand my expulsion. So there’s that.

Here are some questions you should be asking if you are actively debating this kerfuffle (be sure to do your own research, and please cite your references):


  • Why is the National Anthem played before sporting events?
  • Is it legally mandatory to “respect” a public display of Nationalism?

Here are some additional questions you should ask yourself (research isn’t required, but it is recommended):  


  • How does someone else’s Patriotism, or lack thereof, directly affect you?
  • If your opinion actually matters, does it matter more than, less than, or as much as the kneeling Athlete?
  • Exactly how involved should our country’s leaders be involved in the behavior of professional athletes?
  • Would you be less outraged if the person in question was a white football player kneeling during the National Anthem in support of Cliven Bundy?
  • If a football player kneels during the National Anthem in a forest with nobody to witness it, would Trump still tweet about it?
  • Does someone else’s lack of Patriotism strengthen or diminish your own Patriotism?

For those upset that I have yet to definitively state a binary opinion on the issue that they can easily reject or claim victory over, I defer to my teenage self for an official statement, as I seriously doubt the logic involved has changed much in the last twenty-five years or so:

Being forced to pledge allegiance to something is dumb. Denying someone the freedom to choose how to react to a symbol that stands for freedom of expression is dumb. Being upset because somebody doesn’t worship something the same way you do is dumb. 

But, most importantly, football is dumb.  

Monday, October 26, 2015

Yes, Black People Can Be Racist. Here's Why.

Definitions are important. Words mean something for a reason, and when they are misused, the result is confusion. When you attempt to rectify the confusion by changing the definition of the word instead of choosing a different word, things just go from bad to worse.

First, let's start with the definition of the word Racism. I'm going with Oxford on this one, just because. First, we have:

Prejudice, discrimination, or antagonism directed against someone of a different race based on the belief that one’s own race is superior:

The second definition is:

The belief that all members of each race possess characteristics or abilities specific to that race, especially so as to distinguish it as inferior or superior to another race or races.

This is pretty straightforward. Racism is when someone (or a group, organization, government, etc.) sees or treats someone as inferior or superior based solely on their race. The first definition covers being treated differently based on this belief, the second definition is the belief in itself.

Let's also get the definition of Prejudice so we're all on the same page:

Preconceived opinion that is not based on reason or actual experience.

And:

Dislike, hostility, or unjust behavior deriving from unfounded opinions.

In this case, if you are prejudiced, you believe something that is technically illogical, or treat someone negatively because of this illogical belief. Personally, I am not comfortable with this definition, as having a preconceived opinion not based on reason or experience could be easily applied to religious belief, which is a faith beyond reason or experience. But, this is what we've been given, so let's deal with it.

Before we go any further, let us dispense with the term Reverse Racism. This is not a real thing. Not for the same reasons that some people are claiming that black people can't be racist, but for the fact that it does not adhere to the definition of racism. Reverse Racism implies the opposite of racism. Going by the definition of racism as quoted above, that would mean NOT seeing or treating someone differently based solely on their race. Claiming that a black person being prejudice against a white person is the opposite of racism implies that racism is only when a white person is prejudiced against a black person. Reverse Racism is a racist term in itself that further confuses the issue, and is not based in any kind of logic or reason. Now that we've got that out of the way...

My first point may seem a bit inflammatory, but if you're patient you'll see that I'm not just trying to piss people off. The argument that black people cannot be racist is not new, but it has been gaining a strong foothold lately with Black Lives Matter, a necessary and mostly reasonable civil rights movement created in the wake of a rash of (sadly not uncommon) unjustified killings of unarmed black children by police officers, as well as injuries and fatalities resulting from overly excessive force used by police when dealing with black people. There are literally way too many to list, just do a Google search and be prepared for some very depressing results. So, let's start this by pointing out the major flaw of the Black Lives Matter movement that is compounding all of this confusion:

Black Lives Matter is not trying to stop Racism.

If you think my opinion in this case doesn't matter because I am white, just stop reading and save us both the hassle. What I'm saying is that racism is a personal belief or opinion OR actions applied based on that belief. If we're being totally logical here, we have to admit that we cannot prevent people from being racist. Racism and prejudice are both a belief or opinion. Behavior based on those opinions is covered by their definition, but it is still behavior based on a belief, and the belief is not dependent on the behavior. You don't have to act out on a racist belief in order for it to be racism; all you need to do is believe it. To think that we can actively alter what people believe is foolhardy to say the least. Governments in the past that have attempted to outlaw religious faiths or political movements have proven this firsthand. People cling to opinions and beliefs and defend them passionately, often times in the face of reason. Sure, you can slowly, gradually, with time and patience, change someone's mind. But just demanding that a specific opinion be abandoned based solely on your opinion? Good luck with that.

So, when I say that Black Lives Matter isn't trying to stop racism, I'm not selling some bizarre Sean Hannity conspiracy theory that it's a Muslim hate group comparable to the KKK. What I mean is that the Black Lives Matter movement is really trying to stop institutionalized racism on a judicial and political level. It doesn't fit well into a hashtag, but it's the reality of the situation. The movement was born out of the fatal shootings of unarmed black children by police, shootings that were covered up by police, governments officials, and in some cases, even the media. These acts have pointed to a still-present racism inherent in a system that treats black people as lesser individuals, ignores basic human rights, and then systematically tries to hide this bias when it results in inexcusable injuries and/or fatalities.

Obviously, the injustices don't stop there. From disproportionate criminal punishments and prison populations to shady laws - such as Stop & Frisk - designed to bypass civil rights, the racist undertones in many judicial and legislative actions can be easily demonstrated. This needs to change, and Black Lives Matter is the latest movement dedicating itself to doing so. They are trying to address the issue that black people are being treated unfairly, negatively, and often oppressively, by our government and law enforcement.

What they aren't trying to do is make you like them. They aren't trying to say "You can't hate me just because I'm black." What they are saying is "You can't treat me as an inferior just because I am black." And this is where the confusion sets in. Because even though what they are fighting against is institutionalized racist policies and behaviors, they've decide to cover it all under the umbrella of the word Racism. And the fun begins.

So Black Lives Matters comes out against institutionalized racist policies and behaviors, but says it is fighting Racism. Within their arguments are a lot of references to white people, some of them not so nice, but possibly deserved if you consider the actions of the past being perpetrated by the white race as a whole. The response by some, and logically so, is that if you are speaking out against judging people based solely on their race - the definition of racism - and in doing so judge me based solely on me being white, then you are being racist as well.

I will argue, for the record, that this is a logical argument. This is not to say that many who use it are not doing so just to avoid the real topic at hand, institutionalized racist policies and behaviors, but despite the motivations of the person making this argument, the logic is sound. So, in choosing a simple word with a broad definition to combat a much more complex situation, the Black Lives Matter movement has stumbled into muddy waters. They've given their detractors a way to claim hypocrisy on their part and avoid the issue at hand. The correct way to solve this confusion would have been to say "You're talking about racist beliefs. We are talking about institutionalized racist policies and behaviors that effect our entire community on a social, economic, and politic level." Instead, what they did is change the definition of the word Racism and declare that white people can't be racist because they aren't being systematically oppressed by the law and government by the black population.

Now, Black Lives Matter is technically correct in using the word racism for stopping institutionalized racism on a judicial and political level, as that is covered by the definition. However, they are technically incorrect in claiming that black people are not capable of racism against white people based solely on the specific aspect of the definition that they are using. Yes, definitions can gradually change over time, but this is usually a gradual and unanimous within a culture as a whole, not an on-the-spot change made by a specific group to make their arguments easier to make in twitter posts. And beyond that, this is a change in definition only being applied to one specific situation. Under this new warped definition of the word Racism, a white person could say to a black person, "I hate you because of the color of your skin, and what that color represents on a genetic and historical level," and that person would be (rightfully) declared a racist. Now reverse the people in this same situation, and the argument is now that the black person saying this to the white person can't be racist, despite the exact same wording and intention, because of white privilege and slavery and anything else that black people have had to endure in this county's sordid history.

Now, I understand the desire to make allowances in these cases. It can be safely assumed that the white person in this example is basing their racist comment on antiquated prejudices, and the black person on personal experience under white racist authority. However, if we are willing to make this argument, then we are weakening the definition of the word even further. If we are going to give my hypothetical black person a pass on being called racist because he has past experience to inform this opinion, then what if I give my hypothetical white person a past history in which fate conspired to only bring him into contact with black people who treated him or acted around him in such a way to support, or even create, his prejudice. Do we give the white person a pass as well on being racist because he has historical evidence for his belief? Common sense usually dictates that the answer is no, that you still shouldn't treat someone poorly just because other people belonging to the same group have treated you poorly in the past.

I hope the distinctions I am making here are apparent, because they are what is keeping this racial discord at the forefront of the movement, and obscuring the true fight that needs to be fought. Let me clarify some points that I am in agreement on with the Black Lives Matter movement. This much is true: White people are not having their children systematically killed by law enforcement officials who then cover up their unjust murders with the help of government officials. White people are not being disproportionately arrested or imprisoned (or sentenced to death), are not receiving disproportionate sentences for possession of drugs found (disproportionately) in poor black communities than rich white communities, or find themselves being detained, harassed, or questioned by police on a daily basis due to the color of their skin. White people don't have to live in a country in which people are still living that remember when it was illegal for black people to use water fountains or date white people, and was technically legal to lynch the black person for doing so. White people have not had to struggle with their self-identity after centuries of being forcibly removed from their homeland and attempting to reclaim their own cultural identities after existing for so long in a country that barely considered them human, let alone equals.

The above is what should be taken into account, and what needs to be addressed and understood. Here's what we also need to admit and come to terms with in order to avoid further conflict and confusion where it only distracts: We are all human beings, and all human beings are capable of both rational and irrational behavior, both in group mentality and on an individual level. We are all capable of love and hate, of compassion and prejudice, of doing the wrong thing for the right reason, and saying one thing when we really mean something else.

This is where the Black Lives Matter movement is losing white people that support them, and where their dependence on their own definition of a word is causing them more harm than good. You can tell somebody that their group is not dealing with the same economic/social/political situation that yours is, and they will most likely be able to be convinced of this when the reasoning is explained to them in detail. But tell that person that they are inherently wrong as an individual based on the color of their skin, and in the same breath tell them that saying the same thing about them is impossible, and you are not only insulting logic, you are insulting the individual.

No doubt I'll be seeing some backlash to this opinion. These days opinions are like Gods; heaven help you if you question the validity of someone's deity. So let me clarify, for the record, that while I might not agree with some of the tactics used by the Black Lives Matter movement, I am in support of their overall message about erasing institutionalized racism on a judicial and political level, and I agree that black people are still treated unfairly by certain components of our culture and society, and that bringing these to light is the only way to address the problem. All I'm saying is that attacking people for their race alone, and then arguing that they are speaking from an inferior position based solely on their race, is detrimental to the cause. Agree or disagree with my logic, but just don't dismiss it because I'm white.

Tuesday, September 29, 2015

Film Review: The Visit (2015)

Image result for the visit 2015I find myself defending M. Night Shyamalan more than I'd like to. I make no excuses for Lady in the Water, The Happening still gives me migraines, and even though he wasn't as in control of studio films like The Last Air Bender or After Earth, he still has to answer for his involvement as a filmmaker. Those are the rules. But his twist endings (show me a film that doesn't have a third act revelation) and distinctive directing style have become more of an excuse to bash him and his body of work, and it has reached the point where you can predict the complaints about his films ("I guessed the twist right away," blah blah blah) before they're posted in the IMDB message boards. M. Night has had the unfortunate task of having to live up to the hype created by the overwhelming success and acclaim of The Sixth Sense, and the decreasing quality of his work after The Village (some would argue sooner; I disagree) has done nothing but fueled the ire of his detractors.

Which is why I am so glad that The Visit has proven to be a sort of redemption for M. Night. Don't get your hopes up too high - this low-budget found footage thriller isn't out to break new ground or redefine the horror genre. Instead, it's doing what it set out to do, which is make an entertaining low-budget found footage horror film. Of course, you're going to have to deal with M. Night's trademark emotional soul-searching in between jump-scares, but that just comes with the territory. Beyond that, there is little here to hate (rationally, at least). The premise is plausible enough for a horror film, the characters and dialogue are as realistic as you are willing to allow (more on that in a moment), and M. Night drops hints and shuffles scenes of tension and levity back and forth enough to be textbook examples of storytelling.

Image result for the visit 2015The setup is straightforward and to the point: A single mother hasn't spoken to her parents since she fought with them about marrying the father of her two children, and who eventually left them. The grandparents contact her online asking to see their grandchildren, the kids agree, and so she reluctantly ships them off to a week with mom-mom and pop-pop at her childhood home while she goes on a Royal Caribbean Cruise (insert blatant product placement here) with her new boyfriend. Becca, the older daughter and film enthusiast, decides to make a documentary of the visit, giving us our excuse for the found-footage nature of the film. The situation is simple and setup early on, giving us plenty of time for slow tension-building and character development as Becca's cameras record far more than she had ever intended.

Yes, regardless of the setup, a found-footage horror films is already far from original. But that doesn't mean it is bad from the start, and compared to some of the dismal recent entries into this genre - such as The Gallows, or whichever Paranormal Activity film we were subjected to last - The Visit works at the top of the form. Less gimmicky than most, the POV nature of this film is actually used to develop the story and immerse the viewer in the main characters' perception, something a lot of the more recent found footage films have abandoned for slight-of-hand optical tricks and repeated jump scares. In short: it was fun, and I enjoyed it.

Not that I didn't have issues with the film. The Title, for starters. M. Night has never excelled at naming his films, seemingly opting for the plainly descriptive titles that actively describe the main plot or location - the worst of these being The Happening, which might as well have been called Vague Plot Description, and the best of these being Signs, which actually manages enough of a double meaning within the film to pass as clever. The Visit has that same problem, and at one point during the film I found myself wondering he didn't call the film Sundown, which for reasons evident upon viewing would have made a much better title. To his credit (and mine), I discovered later that the working title of the film was originally Sundowning, so it's probably safe to assume that the title change was a corporate marketing decision, so I'm ultimately neutral on that point.


Image result for the visit 2015Then there's the location. Yeah, I get it. You really like Pennsylvania. Enough already. The specific location itself doesn't actually have any bearing on the story, but just being actively aware that I'm being subjected to something for no other reason than the filmmaker's personal obsession makes this irritating to me. It's like watching a Tarantino film. Okay Quentin, you have a severe foot fetish. Very Nice. Back to the film now, please.

And on a personal level, I always hate it when a filmmaker introduces a filmmaker as a main character. There's something a bit myopic and narcissistic about this setup, as it always feels like the filmmaker is begging for understand. M. Night was guilty of this to such a major degree with Lady in the Water - introducing an evil critic character who admits to giving negative reviews out of spite and then killing him, an obvious reference to his own negative reviews - that I still feel he needs to stay as far away from this type of setup as possible. It didn't have a negative impact on the film itself, but it still left a bad taste.

So altogether, most of my issues with The Visit were minor and cosmetic. Much of the other negative criticism I've seen that isn't Shyamalan-centric is mostly nitpicking about stuff that shouldn't need a back story explanation ("Where did they get the tripods?" I'm guessing they packed them with the cameras...), and much of them aren't worth discussing. The one I feel needs some attention is one that I had issues with initially while watching the film, the dialogue spoken by the main characters, Becca and Tyler. Throughout the film, the older sister Becca is overly erudite in her speech patterns, while younger brother Tyler is incessantly uses slang ("Swerve.") and gives impromptu rap numbers more often than anybody is probably comfortable with. And yes, after an hour of this even I'm thinking that the girl is using way too many fifty-cent words and hip-hop lad needs to tone it down a bit. Most people complaining about this are resorting to the overall argument that the dialogue for the kids is "not real" or sounds "phony and unnatural." And at first I was probably in agreement.

But M. Night doesn't make normal films, and in the case of this story, these are NOT normal kids. It is explained very early in the film that the father literally picked up and left one day, severing all contact with his wife and children, and that at least two of them (the mother and Tyler) sought out therapy to cope with severe abandonment issues. In a film that involves a subtext of people playing parts - hinted to by a couple of random characters in the first act who begin reciting Shakespeare as soon as the camera is pointed in their direction - we are dealing with two children who are coping with abandonment issues by constructing personalities around their true selves, something that most children do at one point or another without a severe psychological trauma to trigger feelings of inadequacy. So in this situation, yes, we are watching two children who are not necessarily acting "naturally," whatever that is. Becca purposely attempts to act and sound important and intelligent, and Tyler seeks out attention through popular cultural signals and actions. So, in my opinion, this is more a creative decision than it is the poor screenwriting that many have labeled it as, like it or not.
Image result for the visit 2015

As someone who recommended I see the film said to me, if you aren't expecting something completely original and groundbreaking, you're going to enjoy yourself. I wasn't, and I did, much more so than many of this year's horror film offerings.