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.