Friday, July 17, 2015

Now Boarding Zone Four

I'm sitting in a hotel room on a Friday night in Florida, the torrential downpour that my flight beat by three hours rattling against the metal of the suicide-proof windows and defeating my hopes of trying out the outdoor pool after hours. The current forecast is for thunderstorms until just after I leave Monday morning. The lobby has free popcorn, however, so I have that going for me.

The hotel is in a 55-and-over gated community built around golf courses and on top of numerous historical lies involving the civil war. This senior citizen wasteland is notorious for acts of public debauchery - such as golf-cart quickies and Viagra parties - and the real-estate mogul who created this miniature elderly Disneyland is supposedly under investigation for tax evasion. My GPS dragged me through a cul-de-sac labyrinth of manicured lawns and sun porches for fifteen minutes to get to the hotel, during which speed-demon golf-cart racers nearly clipped the rental car twice, and a cliche elderly woman - complete with head below the steering wheel - mounted the curb trying to turn into a parking lot and diverted traffic through a shopping plaza complete with golf pro outlet and hearing aide repair. Exactly what I need after eight hours of air travel and an hour-long introduction to the Florida Expressway.

(While writing the above paragraph, I Googled cul-de-sac to see if it required hyphens, and discovered that there was a serial killer of Nigerian descent dubbed the "cul-de-sac killer" due to his penchant for killing elderly people on quiet suburban streets. It reminded me of the poet I bumped heads with at the hippie school where I got my BFA, who argued that there were no documented cases of black serial killers, and that serial murder was solely a white male enterprise. My argument was that criminal justice may still be influenced by institutionalized racism, but murder has always been equal opportunity. Which proves not only that I was right about the serial killer thing, but that there is an undeniable futility in debating crime statistics with somebody who writes poems about whales.)

Whenever I fly to southern states, the racial disparity never fails to shock me. Georgia, Florida, North Carolina, you name it. The vast majority of travelers are white, but the workers of shit jobs at the airports are always black. I have yet to purchase a bottle of water or a breakfast sandwich from a white person. In Charlotte, while legging it to my connecting flight, I passed a shoeshine bench with three seats. I didn't even think shoeshine stations existed anymore, but there it was, like some ghostly remnant of the depression era haunting a modern airport to remind us that there's still a class structure to be maintained so we can pay people shit wages to do personal chores we're too good to do for ourselves. All three chairs were filled by white men in their twenties or thirties, no suits or briefcases. I think one of them was wearing work boots. The three young women working on their shoes/boots/whatever were all black. There's a racial divide in that image that this country is still doing its best to pretend doesn't exist.

Speaking of racial inequality, the Charlotte airport is the first airport I've been in with a bathroom attendant, complete with tip jar and tray of meats. Another antiquated career path. The cigarette girls must have been on break when I walked through the terminal. I'm half expecting there to be an elevator operator at the hotel, bellboy cap tipped jauntily to one side. Of course, the bathroom attendant is black as well. As I'm waiting for a stall to open, he nods at me and says, "You look like The Dude." I beg your pardon? "The Dude, from Big Lebowski. You look just like him." I'm thinking that I bear a closer resemblance to Walter than Jeff Bridges' titular character, but don't bother attempting to correct him or seek clarification. He hands me some paper towels after I wash my hands, and I take the time to slip a couple of singles into his jar. I don't take a mint.

There was a guy with his teenage daughter in the Allentown airport waiting for the same flight. They sat opposite me. Her slumped in the airport bench seat wearing a pair of daisy duke shorts and a midriff, tanned legs splayed wide open as she plays on her tablet or kindle or nook or whatever. Him striking up conversations with random strangers about where they're going or how they got to the airport. Me trying my best to pretend I don't notice either of them, reading a nineties horror novel that I just two chapters ago realized I've already read. The gate keeper is halfway through calling groups to board the plane when the father decides it's my turn to converse with.

"What group did they just call?" I'm not sure, probably zone two or three, I didn't catch it. "Man, I remember when they just used to say 'the plane is here, get on.' How many different groups are there?" I don't tell him he's right. Between the four boarding "Zones" and all of the different Priority, Premier, Advantage, Gold, and other special classifications, it feels like it would take just as long for them to call us each by name. After all, what fun would it be overpaying for glorified public transit without assigning enough arbitrary class distinctions to help remind us that some people are just better than others. I guess First Class and Coach wasn't enough, or maybe they're just bitter over not being able to call it Second or Third Class anymore because that was a bit too blatant. The funniest part is when they call for the Gold or Advantage Members to board using the "Premiere Ramp," but it's the same ten-foot stretch of carpet that everybody else crosses over to board the plane as well. Calling it different just adds to the special feeling, I guess. The funny becomes sad when they actually have a separate red carpet for the Special ones, and after they've boarded the gate keeper will block it off so the lesser passengers don't use the same carpet. My distastefor an d bewilderment at this practice is not bitterness because I'm usually in Zone Four.

I don't tell the man that I agree with him, but he decides that a conversation has still started. "What seat are you in?" I answer without thinking, reflex more than anything. Not that it's any of his business. It isn't exactly privileged information, either. I could have lied to him, but to what end? So I could snicker at him when he passed me in my assigned seat later and realized that he had been duped? Anyway, I tell him my seat number. He shakes his head in response. "We bought our tickets yesterday, and we couldn't get seats next to each other." He's trying to find out if I'll be sitting next to his daughter. He should probably be more concerned about who she is sitting across from.

Last year a kid ended up sitting next to me, separated from his parents on the other side of the aisle. The kid was about nine or ten, I think, and they didn't bother introducing themselves to me or anything before abandoning him between me and the window for a three-hour flight. It seemed weird for them not to try and size up the large man who would be obscuring any visibility of their child for the entire flight. I remember him turning to me during takeoff and saying that this was the best part of flying, and me responding that this was actually the most terrifying part of flying, because takeoffs and landings are usually when something goes wrong. I wasn't trying to scare the kid, and he didn't react to what I said, but there's a part of me that hopes that our conversation resulted in some delayed night terrors that would convince his parents to shake hands with the next stranger they stick him next to on a plane.

My impulse is to be annoyed by the father as he continues to talk about his delayed travel arrangements, but who am I to begrudge him the polite familiarity that I've complained that public places seem to lack these days. I've often wondered why nobody talks to the other people standing around them waiting to board when there's a good chance that they will be sitting with one another for the next few hours, sharing drinks and armrests in the most communal activity they will participate in outside of shopping on Black Friday. We should all be asking each other for seat numbers while the airline whittles us into manageable caste system so they know who to give the free pretzels to first.

Still raining. The lady at the front desk said they put free cookies out in the evening. I wonder of there are any left.

Monday, May 18, 2015

I'm Not White

The Argument Sketch
The Argument Sketch (Photo credit: Wikipedia)
Over the past couple of years, I've found myself at odds with a growing portion of people on the left as well as the right. Ironically, most (if not all) of the people on the left who have taken exception to my comments or arguments hold very similar (if not identical) views regarding topics such as civil liberties and social justice. This has placed me in the unenviable position of being vilified by both liberal and conservative crusaders when discussing things like the whole Ferguson debacle, resulting in me being simultaneously labelled as a racist and a cop-hater in the same day. No small feat, I imagine.

I'm willing to take the blame on this, mind you, but only as far as acknowledging that I know why I get this kind of reaction. The truth is that I have gone through some major evolution throughout my life when it comes to philosophical ideals and world views, having run the gamut from right-wing conservative to left-wing hippie. I now feel that I have landed comfortably somewhere in the middle, that "middle" dictated by a conscious effort to remain neutral or average, but merely based on where other groups or parties tend to fall in comparison. Okay, to be fair, I'm probably a bit more left from center, but you get the idea.

One thing that I have gained from this rather full-rounded personal journey is an appreciation for how membership to a group or idealistic movement can influence beliefs rather than the other way around, and so I make it a point to be somewhat skeptical of rationalizations and arguments regardless of where they come from or whether or not my instinctive reaction is to agree or disagree. A healthy dose of skepticism is more than necessary to get to the truth behind anything, including our own motivations. So occasionally I will question or disagree with some major (or even minor) point or argument put forth by someone, and since this is taken as a personal challenge of somebody's deep-seated ideological beliefs, I find myself attacked for being "insensitive" or "antagonizing."

Just so we're clear, I am not implying that I am not capable of the same knee-jerk reactions when my own beliefs are challenged, nor am I under the assumption that my way of thinking is the only correct one. This isn't about claiming that I am right and everybody else is wrong, even if that is how most belief systems tend to work. What we're talking about is the actual public discourse of debating or discussing how certain views or beliefs are being supported. You can believe in the right thing for the wrong reasons, and you can also question your behavior or understanding without decimating everything you believe in. Skepticism, if healthy and honest, is applied to not only to others, but to oneself. Which is, of course, where it all falls apart.

I personally think that one of the biggest mistakes being made by many of these civil rights and social justice movements is that they try to rectify the problem of people being dismissed or demeaned for participation in certain groups by defending the status and feasibility of the perceived groups. For me, the logical way to combat prejudice towards groups is to remove the focus on groups and place it on the individual, instead of lending credibility to the idea that membership in perceived groups should be the way we identify people, as collections of specific traits rather than individuals. The true fight, after all, is not to create equal groups, but to ensure that people are treated equal despite of any perceived group they actively or involuntarily belong to.

Let me take a moment to explain why I keep saying "perceived groups." My intent is not to question the credibility of any specific group, but merely to acknowledge that some groups seeking equality are more rigidly defined than others. In fact, sometimes I have found such lines drawn by groups with the direct intent to prevent other groups from sharing the victim spotlight, as it were. I've had it explained to me, for example, that you cannot compare the plight of "genetic" groups claiming prejudice to "non-genetic" groups complaining of the same, because the "genetically oppressed" cannot change their stripes, as it were. I reject this argument on the grounds that it assumes that people who belong to "non-genetic" groups are either not capable of experiencing prejudicial treatment to the same degree (or even worse), or are somehow more deserving of such treatment because they are technically capable of somehow avoiding that treatment. I find this argument detestable on several levels, including the fact that it implies the problem is whether you can avoid being mistreated, rather than arguing that nobody deserves such mistreatment in the first place.

So this is where I tend to piss people off despite our shared beliefs. Like the problems I mentioned having during the whole Ferguson thing; we would be in total agreement that there is clear evidence of institutionalized racism in the Ferguson police (and others) that needs to be addressed, and that the specific example of Michael Brown's shooting left way too many questions about how black people were being treated by the local police and how much cover-up took place directly after the shooting and throughout the trial of the cop that shot him. But then I would raise a polite objection when people said things like "It's hard to talk to white people about this," point out that it is an arguably prejudiced thing to say that does nothing but ignore the multitude of white people in agreement with their position on the Ferguson debacle, and POOF, now I'm the asshole.

And I'm not blind to where some of this reaction comes from. There are people out there who defend racist actions and attempt to deflect any attention to them by pushing the "Cops shoot white people too" argument, which ignores the specifics of the situations at hand by painting a broad enough picture to obscure any realities beyond racial identities. It's an underhanded trick using semantics, but it's good enough that people on the other side of the argument use it as well, so that anybody who does offer alternate viewpoints can be accused of not being the right color to have an opinion, or that they're blinded by "white privilege," which while is arguably a real thing, doesn't help further awareness of the direct problems of prejudice involved, especially when used as a blanket excuse to ignore or devalue the thoughts and opinions of an entire segment of society. See how that works?

But again, I think all of this stems back to the issue that people are adhering to the groups (and their dogmatic platforms) as opposed to the argument for the individual. We're so aware of the prejudices that exist against certain groups (be they genetically assigned or not) that we lose site of the true goal, which is to ensure that people are not abused or oppressed for ANY trait or allegiance or affiliation, no matter how large or how small. The more we argue who can or can't belong to which groups, or who is or isn't allowed to defend or support a group - which, honestly, has to be the dumbest side effect of this line-drawing - the more we're marginalizing anybody who doesn't fit into these groups based on whatever guidelines those shouting the loudest feel the need to impose. By trying so desperately to define these "legitimate" minorities or "underrepresented groups" or whatever we're calling them this week to try to fit yet another group under the umbrella, we're only creating more minorities, more groups of people being considered less valuable or less deserving of respect and kindness. The cause is just, but the argument ends up becoming circular.

I'm not saying we shouldn't recognize the origins of oppression and prejudice, or expose them when they take place. What I am saying is that if we cling to these groups as the ultimate definition of who we are, we are enabling the initial actions of those who chose to define us based on their opinions of whatever group it was they decided was less human than them. You don't abolish labeling by redefining the labels. You need to acknowledge that they are just that: labels. Otherwise, we stop defending individuals and end up defending our groups, and the individual we are trying to help gets lost in the worship of an ideal.

What it comes down to is this: I'm not white. I'm not fat, I'm not a man, I'm not Gen-X-er, I'm not an American, I'm not a race or a size or a gender or a demographic or religion or a political party. I can be described using these terms, but I do not let them define me, and I certainly don't let others who want to use them to define me do so without an argument. We are all more than the sum of our parts, and we are far greater than mere parts of some larger sum.

Wednesday, May 13, 2015

Ideology as a Spectator Sport

An attempt at a discrimination graphic.
An attempt at a discrimination graphic. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)
It feels more and more these days that people aren't developing philosophical viewpoints as much as they are choosing up sides, and I'm not sure where that's going to leave us in the end.

I tend to be pretty vocal in my viewpoints, be they political, religious, or otherwise, and I rarely shy away from defending what I feel is right, or just, or important. It isn't a unique trait; most people tend to do the same thing to a certain extent. Belief is what guides us, and whether that belief was achieved through deliberation and inner turmoil or adopted willingly from others as a comfort, it's how we pattern our own behaviors, or at least claim or attempt to do so. So I'm not some kind of special crusader standing up against a sea of ignorance. I'm just that annoying guy spouting off occasionally on the internet, just like all of those other annoying people. You know who you are.

But sometimes it feels like people aren't defending ideologies or beliefs as much as they are defending the home team, rooting against anybody that isn't rooting for them, and maybe our ability to process information and objectively discuss our difference on any level whatsoever is being jeopardized by this kind of Us vs. Them mentality.

It struck me the other day when I was cracking wise about the latest George Zimmerman news eruption, and somebody I don't know (unlike most intelligent people who actively avoid conflict, I still have a public Facebook page) briefly commented on my post "So I take it you are Pro-Trevon." The phrase caught me off-guard. Pro-Trevon? Pro is usually the prefix you attach to high-profile controversial moral/legal topics, like Abortion or the Death Penalty. Trevon Martin wasn't a medical procedure or form of corporal punishment, he was just a kid. A kid who was shot and killed by a man who many people, including myself, believe shouldn't have been allowed to do so without criminal repercussions.

Now, on the surface, I know what the guy meant. He was trying to assess which side of that controversial incident I am aligned with: those who defended the actions of George Zimmerman, or those who condemned the action of George Zimmerman. However, he phrased it as if the question was whether I sided with George Zimmerman or Trevon Martin, and I'm not sure if being for or against Trevon Martin is a rational standpoint to be making. Trevon, after all, is dead. His part of this equation is, unfortunately, over. There's nothing to be Pro or Anti in regards to his situation, unless the question is whether or not you are happy that a young man was shot and killed. And to be perfectly honest, I don't know Trevon, never met him or anybody else who had. Defending him as a person, as being wholly PRO or ANTI him as a human being, is probably way beyond any judgement calls I should be allowed to make. If I was called as a character witness I would be thrown out of court, I have no basis for being PRO or ANTI Trevon. As much as I have a personal distaste for George Zimmerman based on the facts surrounding the case, I can't even say I'm firmly Anti-Zimmerman.

What I AM against is the shooting death of an unarmed kid who was chased down by the person who eventually killed him with no provocation whatsoever. I'm also against the police not fully investigating the shooting death of a kid under such bizarre circumstances, and the possibility that the racial identity of the dead kid points to a pattern of behavior by law enforcement when it comes to how situations like this are handled. There are actually a lot of things I'm ANTI about in this entire clusterfuck of a tragedy, so many that I'm not even sure that there's anything I'm PRO about at all regarding the whole thing.

(Just to put the Zimmerman thing to bed so I don't end up debating THAT all over again... Yes, I think Zimmerman was in the wrong, that everything was handled incorrectly by both him and the authorities, and I will not shed a tear when he finally eats a bullet to escape what his legacy as a human being has become. But do I think he's the pure embodiment of evil walking among us, a monster to be hunted down and destroyed the way he hunted down and killed an unarmed child? No. He's not a monster. He's a fuckup, and the only tragedy about him is that he couldn't stick to fucking up just his own life. Now, moving on...)

It's human nature to try and simplify things, but I'm not sure that a situation as complex as this, with the racial/social/political/cultural/judicial ramifications stretching far and wide, should really be reduced to "Whose team are you on?" As a matter of fact, I'm pretty sure that this Us vs. Them mentality is exactly the reason why shit like this goes down in the first place. So how does it get to this? Why would a situation that evokes such passion and concern in almost the entire population motivate people to give less thought to the complexity of the situation rather than more? Can we really trace the causes of this muddled cacophony of human frailties and find a mutual solution that involves all of us living together in peace and harmony by demanding to know who is Pro-Dead-Kid and who is Pro-Kid Killer?

Taking a step back, it seems like this is how all of our big philosophical battles are being waged these days. You can't enter a discussion about Israel and Palestine without hearing "Antisemitic." Disagreeing with business owners refusing to cater gay weddings becomes "Christian Persecution." And lets not forget the chest-thumping "You're with us or against us" patriotism the minute someone questions American foreign policy or brings up our proud history of killing and enslaving other races in the pursuit of Freedom and Liberty.

And don't let it be said I'm only picking on the right. Not everybody who espouses a moral objection to same-sex marriages is "Homophobic," and I'm not exactly sure why we can't rally against institutionalized racist policies without "White Privilege" getting thrown into the mix. Is every white person a racist? Is every Republican a bigot? Is every Christian a Homophobe? Is every liberal a Communist? Are there any really absolutes when it comes to the complexities of the human mind and spirit?

I'm not saying that we shouldn't be choosing battles, shouldn't be rallying for causes, shouldn't be speaking out for or against things we feel are important, whether for just ourselves or for mankind as a whole. But do we need to reduce it all to black-and-white, us-or-them, team-spirit posturing? Because the problem with that approach is that we're making up the teams as we go along, deciding for ourselves who the opposition is, stating their own arguments for them, and setting them up as the straw men we need to win our battle, and wouldn't you know it, they're doing the same damn thing. I get it, true objectiveness is a myth, we're all guided by our own beliefs. But we don't have to be blinded by them as well.

Maybe it's all too much to ask. Maybe it's too easy to cherry-pick our own facts and ensure that any argument that contradicts or questions our chosen realities is defined as victimization rather than disagreement. All I know is, I'm not Pro-Trevon. My ideologies are not cannot be defined by a prefix and a proper noun, and it doesn't involve being on the winning team. If that's the way we go, my guess is that we'll all lose.

Tuesday, May 12, 2015

The Warm Embrace of Madness

Rorschach (comics)
Rorschach (comics) (Photo credit: Wikipedia)
"Days like today remind me why Rorschach was always my favorite Watchmen character."

That was a Tweet I posted earlier today, partially in jest, but it got me to thinking about the attraction of mentally unstable characters in entertainment.

I've always been drawn to crazy characters in stories, even during my childhood. My favorite A-Team character was Murdock, comic book characters like The Tick and Ambush Bug appealed to me more than any brooding crime-fighters, and even when it came to classic comedies I was always partial to the Marx Brothers, who defied authority figures and high society with their own brand of madness. Even when steering away from humor, insanity was always a desirable trait in characters for me, like the aforementioned Rorschach. Is this healthy? I mean, should I really be feeling some sort of emotional connection with Matthew McConaughey's character Rust from the first season of True Detective? What is it about mentally fractured characters that touches me in such a personal manner?

Of course, I'm not the only person who feels this way. This is why The Joker is still one of the most popular characters in the DC Comics universe, and Harley Quinn's cult status is finally being confirmed with her inclusion in the upcoming Suicide Squad film. Insanity isn't exactly the status quo for leading roles and superheroes, but it comprises enough of the popular culture to prevent it from being dismissed as a niche or minor following. There's just something about the loss of an individual's descent into madness that is not just entertaining, but appealing.

It makes me wonder what I would be like if I had gone over the edge at some point in my life. Would I be a madcap smart-ass or a brooding figure of philosophical contemplation. Would my madness drive me to violence or destructive behavior, lashing out and perceived threats and preaching Armageddon? Or would my disconnect with reality be more amusing and playful then sad and antagonistic? Would I dress up in colorful costumes, or just stop bathing and wear plastic bags and tinfoil armor? Would I be paranoid or fearless? So many possibilities.

It's probably a dark place to take that train of thought, but maybe that's the appeal of the crazy character, the fantasy of unshackling oneself from the restrictions of the real world, or even responding to the flawed logic that can often seem to control the world around us by adopting our own illogical viewpoint. If we can look at the world through rose-colored glasses, to coin a phrase, why can't we choose to color our reality in a more daring kaleidoscope of delusion? If ignorance is bliss, is madness ecstasy?

There's also the flip side to insanity as portrayed most popularly by H.P. Lovecraft, the idea that excessive knowledge can drive someone beyond the brink of sanity, the corrupting power of absolute knowledge. There's something both anti-authoritative and self-destructive about being attracted to the idea that actually understanding how or why things work would prevent someone from being able to function within the confines of reality. There's the theological aspect of this as well, the idea of the human mind being incapable of handling divine knowledge, that looking directly into the face of God is impossible without dire consequences. After all, did we not learn anything from Raiders of the Lost Ark?

Does all of this mean that there is a part of us that wants to lose control, give into the dark or wild side of the soul, sever the ties that bind us to society and swing free from our own strings? Or perhaps, just perhaps, it is a subconscious acknowledgement that the only way to truly exist as an individual is to separate from society, to live outside of the system not just ideologically, but emotionally and mentally as well; the realization that to break from the global community is in itself an act of denial in the face of the hive-mind of society, and therefore to truly be ourselves, creators of our own paths, is in itself an act of madness?

Anyway, just a thought. I don't think I'll be going mad anytime soon. Unless I already have. Hard to tell sometimes. Maybe that's the point.

NOTE: This contemplation about the appeal of insanity in fictional characters has no direct bearing on actual mental illness affecting real people in the real world, and is not meant to belittle or trivialize the emotional pain and suffering experienced by those afflicted with serious mental health issues. So if you find yourself offended in some way by this blog post, you really shouldn't.

Monday, May 11, 2015

Internet Shaming & the Limits of the Social Contract

English: Infographic on how Social Media are b...
English: Infographic on how Social Media are being used, and how everything is changed by them. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)
Recently in the news, there was a story about a Colorado resident that came across a family allowing their children to carve their names onto the hand rail of a state park. When confronted about allowing his children to deface federal property, the father of the group was rude and dismissive, and the person eventually took a picture of the people and posted it online, where the story and picture "went viral" and elevated the incident to national news status. Currently, state authorities have indicated that they've used the picture to gain some leads towards tracking down the responsible family, as defacing state park equipment is punishable by hefty fines and possibly jail time, and so the story has - on the surface, at least - a happy ending.

My initial reaction to this story got me thinking about the pervasiveness of Social Media these days, mainly because my immediate response was "Good." I'm sure most people reading the story felt the same way. What's there not to cheer about, after all? Everybody hates assholes, as this family appeared to be by the description given by the person who outed them, and they were committing a crime, so on the surface it really feels like justice was served. But there's a larger question behind this, and I'm not sure if we're fulling considering the ramifications of our overwhelming acceptance of incidents such as this one.

Government surveillance has been an ongoing concern for as long as there has been government oppression, up to and including the current controversies surrounding Homeland Security's collection of public cell phone records. It's even been turned around as a tool against corruption, with the recent surge in questionable police tactics resulting in an increased desire to have police recorded in action by both themselves and others, with many states now passing legislation both for and against the latter. More than ever, the average citizen is aware that he or she is being listened to or watched.

There has also been more attention to invasion of privacy between citizens. Loopholes in voyeurism  or "Peeping Tom" laws are being closed to include "upskirt" videos and "revenge porn" in the the language regarding what is and is not considered an invasion of privacy. But there's a gray area that continues to avoid scrutiny, and that comes with the territory when we consider our growing acceptance of the increasing practice of publicly displaying videos and pictures on social media and media sharing sites like Facebook or YouTube.

It could be argued whether this is a communal advancement in communication or just an increased narcissism encouraged by the proliferation of high-quality digital photography equipment. After all, people took pictures of themselves and shared them with others way before Selfies and Vine shorts. It's just the ease with which this can now be accomplished that we find it happening on such a grand scale. But there's an off-shoot of this cultural phenomenon that has a much larger social impact, and it involves incidents like the State Park one mentioned above.

More and more, we find people using the internet to "expose" or "bring attention to" someone or something that they find unacceptable or reprehensible. We probably don't think twice about it, because usually it's something that we can find ourselves agreeing with in some way, whether it's Ricky Gervais mocking big game hunter selfies, or commuters sharing videos of road rage bullies. We are all asked to shake our fingers as a community at somebody we generally agree should be ostracized to some extent, and short of defending the act or behavior being exposed, we can so little but nod our heads in agreement and move on to the next link.

Alarm bells don't ring instinctively because this doesn't feel like surveillance or oppression. It isn't a government or organization seeking to defame an innocent person, after all. Then again, the news these days seems to do little more than engage in gossip and character speculation with political figures or well-known celebrities, so even if that were the case it is questionable if we would protest to much at that kind of behavior. And aren't we fed a regular diet of public spectacle on prime time television now, with Americans singing or dancing or displaying other talents for our communal approval or, more popularly, derision?

Beyond all of this, however, is the real dilemma posed by actions like this. Social media is indeed being used as a tool for social justice. The question is, how comfortable should we be with this? Technically, this could be considered an extension of the social contract to which we all silently bind ourselves. Society expects certain communal behaviors, certain spoken or unspoken rules to be followed, and those that aren't adhered to cause a retaliation by the rest of society. The loud, disruptive theater goer, if not silenced by the management, will eventually be confronted by the other people being disturbed in the audience.

We see this kind of thing happening to some degree through social media outlets like Twitter, where thousands of users will suddenly flood the system with reactions to something they have deemed as outrageous, usually a quote from a public figure of authority or celebrity. Even when posted under actual names, there is a level of anonymity - or at least distance - that emboldens us to speak out actively, and in many cases belligerently or in an abusive manner, against statements or actions that why might have simply shrugged off in the past.

But then there are the instances that can be more accurately described as Social Vigilantism, like the Colorado case I mentioned before. Every couple of weeks there's some "viral" campaign that winds up drawing national attention to some action or event that has garnered outrage. Everything from pizza shops refusing to cater gay weddings to acts of violence finds its way into the public eye and becomes the focus of what might be described as public shaming. Its the digital equivalent of dragging someone into the town square and presenting their crimes to the public for open debate.

On the surface we could agree that this is a good thing. People coming to the aid of others, or taking more of an interest in the world around them, that is a positive move away from the detachment and apathy that the internet has been predicted by many to instill in the populace. And if this "power of the people" is used to expose dangerous behaviors or punish crimes, then what could possibly be the harm?

Of course, the problem is that this kind of media-based vigilantism is prone to the same flaws as those posed by the classic vigilante. As soon as we let individuals take the law into their own hands, the fine line between Charles Bronson gunning down street hoodlums in Death Wish and Bernie Goetz doing the same to underage muggers becomes blurred. And when the public begin dispensing its own brand of justice instead of the individual, it becomes a case of "mob rule," which is rarely shown in a positive light.

But are these acts of public shaming Mob Rule or Vigilantism? The acceptability of these online attacks began bothering me when I noticed the irony involved in instances where bullies were filmed harassing people - everything from schoolyard pummeling to homophobic slurs and sexist catcalls - and then subjected to public assault and ridicule online. As a childhood victim of bullying myself, it is hard for me to find fault with publicly denouncing such behavior and forcing those who would prey on others to answer for their deeds. But then there is the irony, the idea that the punishment for attacking someone in a demeaning fashion should be to demean them publicly. It's an eye-for-an-eye mentality that feels good but leaves much to be desired in a civilized society, and it comes with enough moral pitfalls to deserve a closer examination.

And sometimes the punishment may be worse than the crime. Take the woman who posted a picture of herself screaming and flipping the bird next to a sign demanded quiet and respect. She thought it was funny, but since the sign was posted at a veteran's memorial cemetery, the picture offended some people and was sent "viral" by angry posts sharing the picture. The end result of the media attention that followed was the loss of her job. A fair result? You could argue that she had only herself to blame, and maybe those seeking to be controversial shouldn't be surprised when people respond. But if there is to be a penalty for bad taste or poor decisions, are we comfortable with our own actions being held to such a standard?

The idea of public approval should also raise more questions. It always feels good when we find ourselves in agreement with like-minded individuals, and raising our voices in defiance or retaliation with others is the foundation of our laws protecting freedom of speech and public assembly. But then, that always comes down to who is defining the gathering as a protest or a mob, and which end of the dissent your find yourself on. Raising concerns and addressing injustices can be argued to be the responsibility of the community, of society as a whole, but that usually also involves some to of governing structure or organizational body behind the scenes lending order and civility to the communal actions.

It's a balancing act behind most discourse that one doesn't necessarily see in the realm of Social Media. We have an increasingly insignificant amount of control over our public visibility; anybody can create a "meme" using your image or post a video of you doing something you'd rather not have others see, and beyond the limited legal resources you might have to restrict that usage, there's practically nothing you can do to prevent somebody from turning your life into a viral campaign against whatever it is about you they don't like.

We have a growing awareness of "cyber-bullying," yet only seem willing to acknowledge it when it involves teenage girls (or their parents) driving the intended victim to self-harm or suicide. We don't make the same connection to the family carving initials into a railing or the drunk frat boys harassing the gay couple on the street because... well, because we don't like them, and defending people whose actions we deplore isn't a popular pastime.

I'm not saying I have an answer to all of this, or a solution to whatever problems this kind of debate raises. But it doesn't appear to be a conversation that we are having, and that could prove to be disastrous in the long term.

Monday, March 23, 2015

Rejecting the Dialogue on Race Relations - or - Taking Your Coffee Black

Redesigned logo used from 2011-present.
Redesigned logo used from 2011-present. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)
I hate being forced to defend Starbucks. I still remember when the overpriced coffee franchise first spread across the country like a fast-moving virus, quickly and efficiently forcing so many independent coffee shops out of business that the Starbucks logo soon became the textbook example of corporate infiltration and cultural destruction, so hating Starbucks and everything it seems to represent comes easy.

At least, it used to come easy. But then Starbucks had to go and support same-sex marriage, and offer tuition aid to employees, and other progressive acts (like supporting Planned Parenthood) that don't necessarily conform to the presumed image of an evil corporate empire. It's easy to hate somebody for charging you $8 for a cup of coffee, but even I have to stop and admit that even corporate entities are allowed to try and have a positive impact on society. After all, aren't corporations people too?

So once again I find myself defending a company I do not financially support (I don't boycott Starbucks, I just prefer cheaper coffee), and as seems to happen more often these days, from the very people that should be supporting them as well.

By now it is already cemented as a legend in PR Catastrophes alongside New Coke and Bill Cosby's "Meme Me" debacle. The company that loves to write stuff on the side of your coffee cup decided that it wanted to get involved in race relations in America by having baristas scrawl #RaceTogether on outgoing orders, and therefore inviting customers to engage in an open discussion about race. If you are a rational adult with any honest perception of how the world works, you are already headdesking in disbelief. Next to religion and politics, race relations in America is the topic most guaranteed to aggravate/offend/anger somebody when mentioned in mixed company. Race relations in America is an ongoing discussion that can devour hours of heated and passionate debate without forging an inch of new ground, and here we have a corporate policy openly encouraging employees to enter into conversations about this hot-button topic in the time it takes to fill a cup with hot liquid and write something on the side. I think the general rule of thumb is that no topic you would be hesitant to bring up at Thanksgiving is suitable for casual chatting for any occupation in the services industry.

Now, the initial problems with this PR brainstorm are obvious. Beyond Starbucks employees having no formal training on discussing sensitive issues with a wide variety of personalities, and no mandated historic or social education on race, the company has no way of preventing the possibility that either the employee or the customer will have views on the subject that aren't a) Too complex or underdeveloped to understand, b) Inherently racist, or c) Batshit crazy. And let's be honest, who has time for lengthy discussions on ANY topic while getting a coffee to go. So, yeah, bad idea all around.

However, the amount of blowback received by Starbucks from people on the left regarding the failed PR campaign feels extremely out of proportion to me, especially considering that what the company was trying to do is, for an corporation, commendable. Critics immediately flooded Twitter (heaven forbid) questioning the diversity of the company's shareholders, complaining about imaging blunders like the hands in all of the #RaceTogether promotional pictures presumably belonging to white people, and criticizing CEO Howard Schultz for closing down his own Twitter account once the barrage of angry responses hit him.

But can we take a step back and look at the "WHY" behind the anger over the Starbucks failed hashtag campaign? Was it poorly thought out and haphazardly executed? Oh my, yes. But apart from there being too many white hands holding coffee cups and collecting the profits (both of which I feel are debatable arguments themselves), what was the big crime perpetrated by Starbucks? Trying to instigate thoughtful dialogue? While I would argue that it isn't a good idea from a business standpoint, I can't think of anything overtly negative about asking people to talk about a subject, or implying that doing so might be a good thing in the long run. And while it's hard to profile an individual's ideology from a Twitter profile, the majority of people that expressed outrage with the campaign appeared to be mostly those in the anti-racism or pro-equality camp. Aren't these the very people who should be supporting an open dialogue about race relations in America?

There seems to be a growing disconnect between what we say we want and what we are prepared to accept. Can we logically claim that we want greater social awareness and understanding if the minute a company says, "Hey, let's talk," the immediate response is "How dare you!" Is the problem that Starbucks just attempted to encourage an open dialogue instead of promoting or supporting an established argument or slogan? If that's the case, then we aren't promoting understanding, we're assigning a specific dogmatic ideology, which doesn't really seem that progressive to me.

Then you have the complaints that Starbucks was trying to "lecture" customers or "solve" racism altogether, proof of which I could not find in any of the #RaceTogether marketing. In fact, Starbucks didn't appear to be pushing any specific agenda - oddly enough, even a more simplistic "Racism is Bad" stance, which might have gone over slightly better - and seems to be more of a knee-jerk reaction to having racism even mentioned in a commercial environment. These were the few reactions that seemed more conservative in nature - complaints about being served white privilege with their black coffee and other such clever bon mots - and come off more defensive than anything else. Which, of course, is what you should normally expect from people when suddenly plunging them into a discussion on race relations. Welcome to America, home of the sarcastic retort via social media.

The other arguments feel even less progressive or rational to me. If the complaint it really that the white hands holding cups in promotional images were somehow contradictory to the message, or that the executives aren't racially diverse enough to promote tolerance and acceptance, then the logical conclusion from that complaint is that discussions on race relations in America aren't valid if they involve white Americans. That's where you really lose me. Because in order for race relations to improve in this country - and I think we're all in agreement that they need improvement - white people are going to need to be a part of that equation. In fact, they're an essential part of any movement towards ending racial oppression and discrimination if the ultimate goal is to get all white people on the bandwagon, and shutting them out of the discussion based solely on the color of their skin isn't exactly the best wat to get that ball rolling.

So, just to recap: Should Starbucks have tried to engage it's customers in a discussion about race relations in America? Hell no. Was it a bad idea? Yes, but not for any reasons that we should feel good or comfortable about. Is this emblematic of how hard it is in this country to even discuss important social issues anymore, regardless of which side of the debate you stand on? Sadly, yes again.

Monday, May 19, 2014

Don't Get Me Started (A Much-Deserved Rant)

RANT, this way
RANT, this way (Photo credit: Nesster)
There's only so much of it you can choke down before the bile has to rise. There's only so much of it you can absorb without reaching a breaking point, especially in the age of Facebook and Google and Smartphones. And so you hit a point where you can't take any more. How can you? You've got kids being sent home from the prom for being too sexy and removed from the yearbook because girls shouldn't be wearing tuxedos while elected officials run around blaming women for rape and saying that women deserve to earn less than men because they don't work as hard and should be devoting themselves to home and family instead anyway, and access to birth control is suddenly an issue again as a large segment of the population is trying to wish this country's female population back into the nineteenth century. Slut shaming has ceased to be an adolescent bully tactic and has instead become an accepted life lesson by the same adults who defend bullying as a rite of passage and then defend their own kids when they cyber-bully a classmate into a suicide attempt or rape an underage drunk girl at a party by claiming she was asking for it anyway as towns rally behind jocks and run rape victims out of town because popular high school football players are more important than protecting young girls from date rape because our daughter doesn't behave like that so its really not our problem, is it? And the kids are fucked anyway because childhood obesity is becoming a massive epidemic and you've got people blaming the kids for for being lazy and eating too much while completely ignoring the fact that their diet consists of the poisonous crap being sold as food these days, with something like 80% of processed foods containing added sugar or even worse corn syrup because the food manufacturers just had to go out of their way to find a more harmful sweetener than cane sugar, since the pathetic state of the FDA where they can't even inspect a fraction of the food industry and level wrist-slap fines that don't even put a dent in the profit margin that the unsafe preparation of food offers still isn't killing people in this country fast enough, and they still haven't figured out how to turn mercury into a flavor-enhancing additive. Which shouldn't be so surprising since this country excels in intentionally poisoning itself with an unending supply of cigarettes and alcohol while the government hypocritically spends billions combating the recreational drugs that don't have corporate sponsorship, and so our government is still attempting to protect it's people from ingesting potentially harmful recreational drugs while eagerly allowing the food companies to shovel shit down their throats, and they care so much about American lives that we're the only industrialized nation left that still has the death penalty but is repelled by the idea of socialized medicine, because nothing says Freedom like being free to die a slow and painful death because you can't afford treatment for your illness in the richest fucking nation on the planet, so the lower class die in emergency rooms and the middle class lose their houses to pay for a week-long hospital stay after a necessary procedure while other people and politicians alike scream about the inequalities and dangers of providing healthcare to all Americans and talk shit about other countries with socialized medicine while the U S of A sports the highest mortality rates and is beat out by Cuba for quality of medical care provided, and this outcry against giving something to people for free, God forbid, doesn't even include the constant attacks against programs designed to assist poor families with shelter and heating and helping them feed their poor children, starving children for fuck's sake, because what kind of a moral Christian nation would we be if we allowed our hard-earned tax dollars to go towards feeding starving innocent children because what kind of commie pinko nation is this that we're so afraid of letting the poor and inform die in the streets and clog up the gutters which are clogging up on their own anyway since the richest country in the fucking world can't be bothered to even maintain its own infrastructure, so at least the US government isn't that hypocritical since it doesn't even believe in maintain its own health, let alone the health of the people the government is supposed to be serving, not exploiting and ignoring. But why bitch about the government when you can just wait a few minutes and listen to the caterwauling insanity of the growing portion of the population dead-set against any kind of humanistic or empathetic world view, the mewling asshats who live in constant fear of anything happening that they don't personally approve of, shouting out against gay couples being allowed to marry as if it was an affront to anything more than their own myopic world views, arguing against shit that doesn't affect them on any level except what could only be referred to jokingly as an intellectual level, these soulless motherfuckers that compare immigrants and poor people to animals then look around for a high-five as if they'd just said something urbanely wise and clever, like they're some kind of modern day Jonathan Swift instead of just another unsympathetic asshole more concerned about somebody else getting something they didn't than any heartfelt consideration for other human beings, rallying against lowering costs or interest rates or god forbid offering free higher education because they want to make sure we have enough stupid people to flip their burgers and dig the ditch they want to shit in because by their reasoning if everyone has access to affordable education then nobody will drive a garbage truck, and they don't like their tax money going to education anyway because they're constantly bitching that the public school systems are a joke and don't teach anything, which is usually an awkward argument because most of the time the people saying this are products of public schools anyway so by their own argument they just might be too fucking stupid to be listened to if they were products of the public school system, but of course they were probably just so smart to begin with or they don't mean their schools but "other" schools which means schools in poor and urban areas which should be gradually shut down by implementing voucher systems so we can revert to the good old days when only the children of wealthy families got any schooling so these greedy bastards can be sure that there is enough of an uneducated workforce to keep the cost of their Egg McFucking Muffin down, and of course this goes right into their reasoning against raising the minimum wage, because not only will their plastic cheap-ass Walmart patio decorations cost them fifty cents more if a multi-billion dollar corporation actually has to pay its workers a living wage, but because they claim you need to underpay laborers less than they can live on otherwise they won't have any incentive to work harder even though the working poor are working harder than these loudmouthed motherfuckers have ever worked in their miserable lives just so they can pay the skyrocketing rent on their shitty one-bedroom apartment and make sure their kids can eat corn-syrup-injected processed crap that keeps them simultaneously fed and malnourished because some fucknut managed to get the meal programs budget cut at the school they won't even be able to go to once the new voucher system allows them to go to a really good private school even though studies have shown that private schools aren't that much better just because they turn a profit and free-market economics doesn't work when you're not producing an actual product asshole, but in reality that voucher is not going to cover the entire cost so the father working three shit jobs and paying payroll taxes on all of them won't be able to pony up the cash for the voucher difference and will the dickhead greedy taxpayer want to spring the bill for shipping kids two hours each way to the nearest public school crappy enough for an equal voucher exchange, why of course not what are we commies or something? And these assholes are everywhere, and they are loud and obnoxious and the symptom of a larger disease, the growing Apathy of the American public, not a physical apathy or even mental apathy but an emotional apathy that is increasingly removing any desire of people that are otherwise active in getting involved in ideas and philosophies and debates and arguments but cannot be bothered to actually attempt to feel anything for anybody but themselves and their ideological viewpoints that are the new religion of a country supposedly founded on Christian morality but is actually serving the deities of money and vanity and won't even consider any kind of concept that doesn't involve an increased profit margin or confirmation that they are everything that is right with the world, this shallow unsympathetic fucks who bitch about tax dollars funding art students or poor children but couldn't give a rat's ass how many innocents are killed by the flying killer robots their tax dollars bought or anything else except how much they have to pay the pool guy or tip the waitress or pay for anything because what the hell are we except cash receptacles and if you don't have enough to make you count as a real person than its your fault for not being smart enough or lucky enough because we don't want public schools teaching evolution while we force survival-of-the-fittest economics theory into common practice instead of using the collective wealth of a nation to benefit all of its citizens, and not just the ones that can afford to live the American Dream, what a fucking joke, the American Dream has become the world's largest Ponzi Scheme that will bankrupt the ones defending it as well as the unappreciated masses they dismiss with contempt, and I can't debate fuckwits like this anymore and pretend that their arguments are valid and treat them with even a fraction of the respect they refuse to show the people they dismiss and denigrate and even blame for everything wrong with this vast social experiment gone vastly awry, and I can't go on playing nice with these vile fucks, they need to be shouted down and cursed out and treated like the soulless bastards they are, because there is only so many times I can be fed "let's agree to disagree" before I have to refuse to pretend their inhumane and narrow-sighted ideas are relevant in any rational sense of the word, and maybe if we stopped playing this he-said-she-said let them think what they want and we don't want to sink to their level game and lashed out against the idiots screaming offensive ideologies into the wind as if greed and arrogance were noble traits, perhaps the sooner we just call out these people for being the scumbags that they are, then maybe we can all vent this growing frustration that results from dealing with this level of ignorance on a daily basis.

Fuck it. I need a nap.
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