Friday, December 26

A somewhat depressing reflection on the world

If you choose to read this, thank you. If you choose to read all of it, kudos to you. This is not a rant, but a rather weary reflection on the state of what we seem to be becoming.

The Start of It All
I started to write a blog post about The Interview, the Seth Rogen film that garnered tremendous attention after a hack at Sony that was somehow blamed on the North Koreans because the North Korean government was allegedly displeased with the premise of The Interview. But the more I started thinking about that incident, the more I realized my reaction to the situation was symptomatic of something more as I began thinking about the juxtaposition of reported stories—I can’t really even call it “news” any more—and what seems to happen in the world.

I’m old enough to remember when the news anchors were more than news readers. I grew up on Walter Kronkite. He had the most amazing voice. The old news guard were journalists who were often out in the field—embedded, if you will—chasing the story, living the story. There are names that might be familiar to some: Eric Sevareid, Edward Murrow, Douglas Edwards, even Dan Rather. But then news was different when these men first started. With the advent of sound bites, snappy jump cuts between stories, and the need for commercial breaks and rankings, the “news” became info snippets. I can’t be sure that those trusted voices actually reported the “news” any more objectively than whatever we get today that we call the news. I do know we have less depth and more concern about ratings than objectivity and I know we struggle with objectivity.

As I was writing the blog post, I started to think about The Year of Outrage posted by Slate. I started thinking about how inured we have become to the less sensational and how we rise up with righteous indignation over and over and over again until we can no longer know what caused our indignation and outrage, but we feel the need to be indignant and outraged.
Over the past decade or so, outrage has become the default mode for politicians, pundits, critics and, with the rise of social media, the rest of us. When something outrageous happens—when a posh London block installs anti-homeless spikes, or when Khlo√© Kardashian wears a Native American headdress, or, for that matter, when we read the horrifying details in the Senate’s torture report—it’s easy to anticipate the cycle that follows: anger, sarcasm, recrimination, piling on; defenses and counterattacks; anger at the anger, disdain for the outraged; sometimes, an apology … and on to the next. Twitter and Facebook make it easier than ever to participate from home. And the same cycle occurs regardless of the gravity of the offense, which can make each outrage feel forgettable, replaceable. The bottomlessness of our rage has a numbing effect.
It’s worth taking the time to read the whole story on Slate. Especially before the start of the New Year. And perhaps it’s worth making a resolution you’ll try to stop being so outraged over trifles and without any information. Of course you’ll break the resolution in the first week of the new year like the rest of the world, but maybe, just maybe, you’ll recall the resolution often enough throughout the year to rein in the outrage.

The Original Blog Post
Was there really a Sony hack? I can't tell any more, though based on some of the news I suspect there was an actual hack. And who did it? Even the experts on such things can't tell. Even they are a bit suspicious. A story on CNN suggests the hack could have been done by a disgruntled employee.

The cancellation of the showing of The Interview became national news and fodder for conversations and tweeting around the world. I am enough of a cynic and TV watcher to imagine Frank Underwood-like machinations behind the scenes trying to figure out how to take advantage of the situation. Then the Eli Gold-like plan to latch onto the idea and put it into play by making it seem like the North Koreans were behind it, maneuvering to create a national conversation, then doing a reverse to allow limited release, which guaranteed ticket sales would be off the charts, and also making it available to stream.


I wasn't going to see the movie anyway. I think the premise is absurd, I'm not a big fan of James Franco, and have limited appreciation for Seth Rogen's humor. But I'm not his target audience anyway so he doesn't care that I don't care about his movies.

But I'm willing to bet there were hundreds if not thousands of people who weren't going to see his movie. There were some big deal movies opening on Christmas Day (and I have issues with that, but whatever): Into the Woods, Big Eyes, The Imitation Game, and Unbroken were some of them with big press and, for some of them, with big names in the films. And yet, The Interview garnered tons of media attention.

Well, I guess if you can't sell tickets best on the quality and merit of your work, finding ways to bamboozle people into promoting your film for you and then buying tickets is a trick as old as humanity.

Early reviewers have panned Unbroken. If you've read the book, you know it's a big story to try to tell. I haven't seen the film, but I'm sure I'll be somewhat disappointed because of the story I think I want the movie to tell. The title of the book and the film speaks volumes. I'll see it. I may wait until it's in the second run theaters or on DVD, but I will see it. I mention Unbroken because the essence of the story is so different from the gimmicky, adolescent humor that seems prevalent in Seth Rogen films and seems to be a part of The Interview

There's nothing wrong with humor, even adolescent humor, but part of me really wants the whole world to stop for a few minutes, shake itself, and gather up its wits to realize how completely out of control we all are.

And that’s when I started thinking about the news, about social media, about outrage. It was at this point I started thinking about the stories in The Year of Outrage, about how we take the smallest things and they become enormously out of proportion when someone inadvertently or deliberately misreads something on Twitter or some other social media format, though Twitter seems to be the best breeding ground for the absurdity of our judgmental outrage.

The Maniacal Twitter Spiral
There are numerous examples to cite of this absurdity and how quickly something potentially benign spirals out of control. Then what seems to be a jubilant moment of intolerant judging becomes a horrible moment that has the potential to ruin a life.

We can harken back only a short while to Elan Gale and his live tweeting of what was deemed an “epic battle” between himself and another passenger. As he was tweeting, people were responding. Many were cheering him on and piling on the individual who was completely unknown to them except through the perspective of Mr. Gale.

In the alleged live-tweet event, Mr. Gale didn’t relent. Though the woman in 7A was upset, Mr. Gale seemed to feel the need to prod and provoke, sending her alcohol and notes. It was as though he didn’t want the episodic event to end.

And then the world learned that the event was faked. There was no such passenger in 7A; the epic battle never occurred. Mr. Gale fabricated the whole thing. At some level you have to give him some credit for working so hard to have the right kind of props to support his story.

But the world wasn’t paying attention any more. The Twitterverse had moved on to other more important attacks. Sure there were stories posted and some of us knew about them; some of us even read them. But that kind of thing just doesn’t attract the kind of attention on social media. Who cares about that kind of mea culpa? Come on, give us a better kind of apology. One that’s attached to a possibly real scandal of some sort.

In an interview Gale did with ABC, he wondered why no one did any fact checking and seemed surprised anyone took him seriously. Seriously? That is ponderously disingenuous. Claiming not to be a liar but a storyteller, Gale stated
I didn't see how this was news. I was telling a story, I didn't feel a particular responsibility to address what other people were making of it. I never claimed it to be true. I never said, "this is news, please read it." And I honestly I liked the message.

I wasn't trying to paint myself as a hero. I said horrible things in those notes that I would never say to a human being. That nobody would ever say. In fact, in all of my live tweets, I try and portray my character as an anti-hero -- as kind of a jerk with good intentions.

Nice spin, but impossible to believe. Gale is an experienced social media user so he knows exactly how Twitter works. He was trying to make a name for himself and everyone who has any sense knows that.

At one point in the interview, Gale said he didn’t know the whole thing went viral until late that night. But in the interview he also says When I realized people were paying attention, I tried to think, "Wow, I can really say something here."

The interviewer did not hold him accountable for that rather insincere two-step, but that’s another problem we have today. We want others to be held accountable for their actions, especially those we deem unacceptable, but we do not want to be held accountable or have the responsibility of demanding accountability.

Another example is of Justine Sacco. Her nightmare started on December 20, 2013, when she posted this tweet: “Going to Africa. Hope I don't get AIDS. Just kidding. I'm white!”

Out of context, anyone might think this Sacco chick is an insensitive idiot. And that, my friends, is one of the inherent dangers of 140 characters. That and it is really hard to convey humor or sarcasm effectively in writing; that’s a different conversation and I’ll resist the temptation to follow that particular diversion for now. I will say, however, that when writing with only 140 characters, it is crucially important to consider your intent but also to think about how those who don’t really know you might read that tweet. Justine Sacco didn’t think and paid for it.

What’s interesting and terrifying to note is that Sacco had fewer than 500 followers when she posted that tweet. That single tweet was picked up and created an irreparable situation for Sacco. It was bad enough that she posted the tweet, but what happened after that could have been prevented.

Individuals started poking through earlier tweets and, as a result of that and their own tendencies towards castigating complete strangers, Sacco was characterized in the most malodorous terms. After reading some of her other tweets, it’s easy to see why complete strangers would think badly of her. Ill-tuned pot shots of an entire culture is just bad form.

Sacco lost her job. Rightly so.  She was a communications director for a company and should have known better than to post something that could so easily be taken out of context and become its own meme.

While Sacco has had to work hard to recover her reputation and to rebuild any kind of life, this incident will follow her for a while. She chose to speak of it with Jon Ronson for his book So You’ve Been Publicly Shamed. In the book, Sacco states
They’ve taken my name and my picture, and have created this Justine Sacco thats [sic] not me and have labeled this person a racist. I have this fear that if I were in a car accident tomorrow and lost my memory and came back and googled myself, that would be my new reality.
She has a point, and in a later quote seems to realize that if she had not posted that ill-conceived tweet, none of the subsequent events would have happened.

What we see is that social media opens our lives. Period. Whatever we post lives forever. Even if we delete a post or an account as Sacco did, there is a trail somewhere. Forever.

What we also see is that there are those who will take potshots, who will be judgmental, who will be cruel, and who will think it is great fun to make jokes at the expense of someone else. Without their permission. Without their knowledge.

Making fun at the expense of someone else isn’t new. Rodney Dangerfield might best known for his complaint about not getting respect, but much of his schtik was about his wife. A lot of comedy is because someone is making fun of a family member. But when we hear it in stand-up or we see it on television, we know it is comedy. We can see it and we can hear it. None of that timing nor that voicing is possible with mere words written in a post. And typing “JK” at the end the post seems more a reflexive safeguard than a truth.

The World is Out of Control
“Peace on earth, good will to men.” Those words have been sung over the past several days, probably weeks if your town is like mine and the Christmas decorations were up and the music playing long before Thanksgiving.

The movies about Christmas are warm and fuzzy. It’s a Wonderful Life tries to remind us that every single person has value and that the good, well-meaning, and tender-hearted will overcome the avariciously cold-hearted meanie. Holiday Inn. Miracle on 34th Street. The list goes on and on, and the message is generally the same: that good will win out, that kindness matters, that it’s important to have faith and hope.

But every day it gets harder to have any faith in humanity or any hope that it will be able to “shake it off.” We cannot seem to get beyond our need for self-righteous indignation that explodes into outrage and clamors for “justice” and that “someone has to pay.” We cannot seem to get past the need to be right, to insist on tolerance even as we are intolerant, to reject the possibility that the other person’s opinion or position or even their thoughts have value. We have become selfish and ugly individuals.

It’s easy to try to mend that for a short stint this time of year. Everyone can be kind and thoughtful for a few hours. And we have to hope our kids will be reasonably satisfied with whatever gifts we’ve gotten them; I fear being grateful for what they’ve gotten might be too much to ask.

We worry about cyberbullying and how cruel kids can be to each other. I wonder why we wonder where they learn that. They don’t have to pay attention to politics to see adults behaving impossibly badly—blaming someone else, pointing fingers, playing one upmanship, refusing to listen, calling someone else names, trying to make themselves look better than someone else. It happens everywhere and because our public figures seem to get away with it, it should be no surprise that everyone else begins to think that’s acceptable behavior.

And so far too many of us have stopped being nice, being considerate, being kind. Far too many of us do not listen to others’ opinions with an open mind or with any respect. Far too many of us refuse to take responsibility for our own actions. Far too many of us refuse to expect our children or our families to take responsibility for their actions. Far too many of us are worried about our appearances and our reputations with little concern for our self-respect.

We seem to be afraid of being nice, being considerate, or being kind because somehow being rude, selfish, and ruthless have become much more acceptable, perhaps even admirable. And how horribly pathetic is that?

Sure, plenty of us are still nice, considerate, and kind even as others make fun of us for being nice, considerate, and kind. And how horribly pathetic is that?

So yes, I think the world is out of control. Just trace the trajectory of the kind of programming that’s become acceptable on television and that will tell you something of the world we’ve become. We excuse it because we claim that’s “real life.”

I admit that I’m both fascinated and repulsed by House of Cards. Kevin Spacey and Robin Wright are brilliant, but I hope those roles exhaust them. I understand we need to know wrong to understand right. I get that, and I don’t pretend to have an easy solution for any of what ails us.

I don’t want moralistic pablum on television or in film any more than anyone else does, but I also wonder why we’re so willing to accept that which clearly crosses all kinds of moral boundaries unless it is to excuse our own behaviors or give us permission to behave in such ways.

I worry that we are careening down a steep and slippery slope, but that we think it’s all great fun and that we’re cackling and chortling on this ride, imagining it’s going to end well. And I don’t think it will.

I worry that if we don’t stop behaving badly and excusing it, that what we imagine is the remnant of some great society will be in unrecognizable tatters far sooner than anyone might believe possible. Yes, I know it requires some balance, but we seem to have lost so much of our capabilities to behave in ways that aren’t mocked or that, incredibly, are deemed heroic because they are so exceptional.

The fact that everyday kindness, politeness, and consideration are often considered exceptional should be sounding the most extreme of alarms.

I worry that if we don’t start attempting to pull ourselves from this precipice, that if we don’t start attempting to reverse some of the characteristics of bullying that have become commonplace in our society and our lifestyles, that many of those societies so grimly characterized in post-apocalyptic films will become reality. After all, it’s not as though humanity hasn’t been capable of such behaviors in the past, so why should we be surprised if we devolve to those kinds of behaviors in our hyper-progressive and technology-tuned society in which we can be crueler bullies faster and with anonymity?

It really doesn’t take much effort to police ourselves individually, to think before we speak, to be kind. It really doesn’t take much effort to remember that others matter.

Unfortunately, that kind of behavior is mundane, even banal. It doesn’t sell magazines or pictures; it doesn’t get attention on social media and jack up hits or followers; it doesn’t get it’s time in the news cycle. Instead too many chase the chimera of a social media following, too often they abandon relationships that are meaningful and have value.

Unfortunately, I have little hope that many will care enough to try to make any changes in the way they think or they behave. What I see in the media leads me to think our society continues to become more rapacious and more intolerant. 

I hope I'm wrong.