Thursday, October 28, 2010

Accidental Profundity, or, How a Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtle Makes You Realize Horror

I've played violent video games my entire life which, according to the Parent's Television Council makes me something of a monster. While some of my more cherished video game memories include harvesting tomatoes and tending to my cows, I've also killed thousands and thousands of men, women, maybe some children and quite a few dogs. My tools have been jack knives, katanas, FAMAS rifles, proton torpedoes and probably a nuke or two. By the numbers, I'm a genocidal maniac.

Even so, every once in a while I realize how not desensitized I am, even to fictional violence. Playing
Heavy Rain on the PS3 put me in some uncomfortable situations of killing: I killed a man I had every right, as an officer of the law, to shoot. I felt really bad about it.

This guilt compliments a similar stress I felt when editing the final shootout of
The Wild Bunch into 2 1/2 minutes of pure carnage. It's tough to watch, and it seems bizarre that video games and movies should make me feel the weight of violence so heavily.

That is, of course, the power of visual media. The neat thing about narratives is they can enhance who we are, freeing us from the bad wiring we have in the monkeysphere. Which is to say, it's hard for us to wrap our minds around human suffering not immediate to us.

Allow me to demonstrate. These are the statistics of how many Jews were murdered during the Holocaust.

Polish-Soviet area






Czechoslovakia (in the pre-Munich boundaries


Hungary, including northern Transylvania










The Netherlands




Romania (Regat, southern Transylvania, southern Bukovina)






Total Loss


This table is from Judah Gribetz with Edward L. Greenstein and Regina S. Stein, The Timetables of Jewish History: A Chronology of the Most Important People and Events in Jewish History. (New York: A Touchstone Book, Simon and Schuster, 1993.) p. 479.

Keep in mind, this doesn't include gays, gypsies or any other victims of the Holocaust. Now, just imagine how many people died in military actions (not combat, as many civilians died, too) during WWII.

Can you wrap your mind around that? If you can, it's not easy since these are numbers, the kind we learned in high school. Now, a visual.

That cattle car is full of paper clips. Around 11 million (11,000,000) paper clips.

That sort of idea hits me pretty hard, but I recently saw this and it stopped me cold:

Yup. Raphael socking Hitler. See, when I described this to friends, I stopped and said, "because, Jesus, Hitler killed millions." It struck me. And worst of all, the worst punishment meted out for something like this is paltry violence.

"...for the millions!"

It's absurd, but a Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtle comic made me a little more human.

Monday, October 18, 2010

Go Ahead and Piss Them Off (for Jesus!)

When I was in high school I went to youth group at a local church, spending my Sunday evenings learning about God, the Bible, Jesus and their apologetics (defense of a faith). One night we watched a short film about a man on death row for Jesus saying goodbye to his wife and son, encouraging his son to fight the Good Fight despite his father's death at the State's hand.

By virtue of the filmmakers setting it in the near-ish future, the movie looked hokey. The music did little to help, because if it was any sappier and you could put it on a pancake. Acting? Please. Even so, this film certainly got its point across: heathens and blasphemers will soon control the (United) State(s), so you had better be ready to die for Jesus. For Jesus!

There's a scene in Five Easy Pieces in which Jack Nicholson's character is trying to order toast, but it's lunchtime so they don't serve toast. So Jack orders a sandwich on toasted bread, hold everything. He's kicked out and his friends congratulate him on sticking it to the waitress. "Still didn't get my sandwich." What the movie's message and this scene have in common is that taking the defining characteristic from something ("sandwich," "Christianity") and using it asininely ("hold everything," "Us vs. Them") defeats the purpose, dismisses the crusader and sends the poor, downtrodden hero away hungry.

There was an amazing amount of hubris in Die for Jesus in the Year 2000 or whatever it was called. See, it thought that in the near future, someone, anyone in the US will be threatened by Christianity. Maybe they figured the USSR would take over and outlaw religion and were hedging their bets, but I doubt it. No, these people honestly thought the government would be worried about a group of people who:
  • are naive enough to watch Fox News.
  • bored enough to argue over Harry Potter's devilry.
  • complacent enough to hole up in the suburbs.
  • demure enough to allow atrocious wars in US's name.
  • gullible enough to elect a man to start those wars because he's "a Christian."
  • Buy, consume, bitch and buy some more.
It's as if the government decided that since waitresses could, maybe, someday spit on their food, better throw them in prison now. Next time, bitch'll give me my sandwich. Right?

American Christianity has removed the point of the faith: rockin' the boat. Jesus asked the rulers of His time, "why are people poor?" "Why are you still wealthy?" "Is that what God wants, or are you using God to get what you want?" "Will you carry your cross (sign of a criminal) and follow me?"

A friend of mine recently posted as her facebook status, "God, keep us safe from the police." I responded, "God, make us the kind of people of peace whom threaten the police." Let's think about what's wrong with the social order and mess things up a little. Let's get sent to the Death Star's death row. Let's earn all the promises of suffering Jesus made by doing His will on earth.

What would Jesus do?

Tuesday, October 12, 2010

Kids can be Terrible People, just like Everyone Else

When I was four years old
They tried to test my I.Q.
They showed me a picture of 3 oranges and a pear
They said, which one is different?
It does not belong
They taught me different is wrong
-"My IQ" by Ani DiFranco

I was reading up on cyberbullying in Newsweek this morning, reflecting on how we train children to think and act a certain way, then are shocked when they exceed a suicidal society's wildest hopes and dreams. The article opened with the tale of Phoebe Prince who was "bullied to death" over Facebook and in real life (IRL). The poor girl was fighting a two-front war and decided to surrender with a rope.

The article goes on to call into question the logistics of punishing Phoebe's (and other victims') tormentors. It points out sticky spots like Phoebe's history of suicidal tendencies, her attackers' good academic standing (as if that matters), and the fact that it's difficult to hold people responsible for actions they did not directly perform. I'm sure those girls didn't want Phoebe to kill herself; that would have ended their awful little fun.

Those of you who know me very well may be familiar with my own experiences with the shitheadedness of children. To this day, there are a few things that just bug me, hurt me or shut down my coping mechanisms thanks to a slight breech by some unwitting person in my life reminding me of something said when I was 11. These things, they happen. Certainly I had mornings I didn't want to get up, let alone go to school, and some times I got that wish. Sometimes not. I look back on those days with a slightly better emotional framework, so I'd like to offer a couple of ideas on the cyberbullying conversation. Maybe I can even contextualize it in the human condition.

Cyberbullying, and the whiplash reaction to it, occurs at the intersection of at least two of three phenomena in human sociology/psychology:
  1. Different is wrong: how interesting this possibly evolutionary trait should be applied within a species.
  2. Pattern-finding: while this determines "different," it also leads to the decade sentences over some of these bullies' heads. Check out the Historian's Fallacy.
  3. John Gabriel's Greater Internet Fuckwad Theory: or, to quote Oscar Wilde, "give a man a mask, and he'll tell you the truth." Not that calling someone a whore is truthful, but it does release the caller from a modicum of responsibility.
While I can't determine which of these occur within our minds and which we've created, or a mixture of the two, I do know these cause of lot of this conversation's talking points.

The US government legislates against homosexuals, many churches decry their "lifestyles" (because you are who you fuck, right?) and in general are given the scarlet word of "other," so people shouldn't be surprised when children treat gays like subhumans. This was the case of two boys in California and a college student named Tyler Clementi who threw himself off George Washington Bridge.

The problem lies in a culture which trains children to think in terms of exclusivity and entertainment: Clementi's roommate streamed a video of him and a lover. Children, even college students, have a hard time separating degrees of what society considers acceptable levels of hatred. It's generally okay in the US to support "Don't Ask, Don't Tell" (you won't lose friends over it, probably), but it's wrong to out and out ostracize LGBT people.

Furthermore, when a culture values entertainment like "Flavor of Love," which operates like "Lord of the Herpetic Flies," children are going to think the "other" is there for entertainment. If we want to stop cyberbullying, this would be a good place to start.

Breaking the human's idea of pervasive patterns would be something to consider as well. Newsweek, hoping to elicit some sympathy for her torturers, points out that Phoebe Prince had already attempted suicide. The idea is that since she had the problems anyway, there is less responsibility on the bullies' part. If Jessica Bennett (the article's author) really thought it through, she'd realize it would make more sense to hold them more responsible (you don't give an alcoholic a fifth of Jack).

She is right, though, in asking whether bullies can, as a policy, be punished for their victims' actions. The Historian's Fallacy and people's... interesting use of cause and effect make us work backwards. So while two bullies post the same sentence on Facebook, the one whose subject commits suicide becomes the media's pariah. It reduces the question of causality and responsibility to moral luck. When you factor in the fact that one of Phoebe's bullies had her own emotional demons, this takes on a whole other facet of culpability.

As for the intersection of anonymity and responsibility, Facebook disallows most of that problem, but this has become part of human's approach to interaction online. Couple that with how analogous using a computer to socialize is with gaming, where moral rules are often suspended, stark realities focus. Again, people should not be surprised when "just a video game" thinking leads to "just a wall post" actions.

I hope this will give you something to consider, and maybe even help around the water cooler when and if this comes up. And let's have some sympathy for our devils.