Tuesday, November 27, 2012

When Values Collide

I like Bill Murray. At least, I liked Bill Murray. When I was in second grade, our teacher asked us to tell the class who our hero was. Most kids said one of their parents or a sports star. I said, much to the amusement of my teacher, Bill Murray. I was seven. Whadda'ya want?

So Bill Murray gives me a good perspective on people who apologize for rapists, attackers, murderers, and otherwise antisocial people. We don't want to believe that people are capable of these crimes. We have never experienced these crimes. Nothing in our experience tells us that a particular person is capable of these crimes. It's why men who have experienced sexual assault are much more likely to accept that it happened than men who haven't.

I'm sure that you have figured out without my saying that Bill Murray is a thundering asshole. He's abusive and mean. And while no one escapes his wrath, he is especially mean to women. There are dozens of people in entertainment that have managed to get something of a free pass for their abuse because they are good at being entertainers. As this article at Cracked, a website that produces articles far too good for its name, points out regarding Sean Connery,
It's always interesting to see the double standard we have for different categories of celebrity. If Sean Connery had been, say, a pro athlete or a politician, he'd get tarred with this reputation until the day he died. But he's so fucking suave. His accent wears a tuxedo. It's so impossible to connect that voice with the image of a drunken man slapping around a woman that we wouldn't believe it even if we had it on video.
Precisely. We wouldn't believe it because we don't want to believe it. It so clashes with the rest of our programming that we simply reject it.

For someone like me, it's a slightly different problem. I've more or less managed to push my social biases into the background. They are still operating, and likely will for the rest of my life, but I've overpowered them. This isn't a brag. It's not something worth bragging about. It's something we should all do, and as such, bragging for doing something any decent human would do seems rather counterproductive. It's like demanding recognition for not being an asshole.

My problem is that there are certain characteristics that, for lack of a better phrase, make a person dead to me. Being an asshole is fine, but being aggressively abusive to other people is not. It's the primary reason for not finding out too much about your favorite artists or actors: they are frequently such mind-blowing jerks that it negates one's ability to enjoy their work. Woody Allen, Quentin Tarantino, and Mel Gibson all come to mind.

It doesn't necessarly even need to be artists or actors. It can be anything. And so it is with The Salvation Army. In these contentious times, there are many things that can make an entity dead to me. Misogyny, racism, global warming denial. Homophobia is another. It indicates both ignorance, fear, and hatred, but also blind religious dogma. And boy howdy, has The Salvation Army dropped the mother of all homophobic bombs.

They have literally said that homosexuals deserve to die. An organization built on feel-good concepts of caring and helping has said that homosexuals are not just second-class citizens, but they actively need to be killed. Obviously, the organization on the whole has distanced itself from these statements, but it would be foolish to think that this kind of behavior coming from one regional director isn't representative of wider views held within the Army. Those at the top realize that what they say must be more measured, and it becomes a minor catastrophe when someone actually says what everyone thinks.

This is a difficult thing for me to digest. About a decade ago, when my family was in seriously bad shape and had been evicted from our house, the Salvation Army paid our medical bills, which were not insubstantial. I like the Salvation Army. Even though I'm an outspoken atheist and they are an explicitly religious organization didn't much matter to me. They helped me, and I tear up even now thinking about it.

This is causing serious cognitive dissonance. There is basically no way for me to reconcile the problem. With artists and actors, I can at least say that their work is distinct from them. There are many artists who created great art while also being psycho-arsonist-sheep-rapists. But for people and organizations where their actions are so tightly intertwined with their views, I cannot ignore it. I want to!

I know how it feels to want to apologize for the behavior of someone or something you like. You don't want that conflict in your mind. It doesn't matter. Bigotry is bigotry. Violence is violence. Nothing in the past changes that.

Sunday, November 11, 2012

There Is No Discussion

Andrew O'Hehir is one of my more well liked writers. He reviews movies, writes on a variety of subjects, and has a well-measured attitude on most things. As such, it's not surprising to find him as the most recent addition to the pantheon of writers and thinkers who ask "can't we all just get along?"
If we think we can understand this division better by using cute demographic shorthand or by trying to claim that it’s fundamentally about religion or abortion or sexual morality or the role of government or whatever other hobby horse we choose to ride, we’re kidding ourselves.

Defining it as libertarian vs. communitarian, for instance, or as a religious view of society set against a more secular one always simplifies or overlooks some aspect of the problem. It involves values or mores that people hold on a primordial or unconscious level, which are not easily expressed in language and not readily subjected to rational inquiry. Translated into the political realm, these fundamental cultural mores become entrenched ideological positions, modes of expressing the unshakable conviction that my side is right and yours is wrong.

We just had an election that was a de facto contest between America’s competing cultural factions, and one side won a narrow but decisive victory to the intense amazement and anger of the other. More name-calling isn’t going to help. If there were ever a moment to talk about this stuff dispassionately, this would be it.

If we can’t find a way to address the American cultural divide, beyond insults and quadrennial beauty contests, it is sure to destroy us.
And so is O'Hehir's point. While he blunts the false equivalency attack at a point early in the article, he misses another point: the uselessness of the discussion. I don't mean to say that understanding the conservative movement is useless, I mean to say that a discussion about dealing with them as humans is useless.

Even though both sides have abdicated logic and reason, at least to a degree, it is the conservative side that has abdicated it, and any hope for cogent language, to the extreme. They are relying entirely on nebulous, emotional concepts, and if we attempt to address these issues rationally, contradictions and problems are sure to arise. The instant that happens, and stress is thus caused, we have lost the people with whom we are trying to argue.

It is unfortunate, because I appreciate his feelings regarding the referenced video very well. I do feel bad for those who have been duped by the cynical patriotism of the modern Republican party. But at the same time, while I do not judge them, I will cast them aside without worry. They must be defeated in whatever way possible, because they represent the claws of the past, terrified by a brave new world, desperately trying to impede the future.

Moreover, I do not look at this battle in apocalyptic terms like O'Hehir does. I do not think that it is sure to destroy us. If the Civil War didn't, neither will this. Change comes, bit by bit, with every funeral. No matter how angry or contentious our current issues may become, and even if we accept that there is no way to resolve these issues, we will continue our march into the future as each generation rejects elements of the value system of those that came before.

We do not need to reason with the bigots, since they will die soon enough. And with few great works, with few marks in the sands of time, their sound and fury will be remembered as little more than a tale, told by an idiot, signifying nothing.