Saturday, June 25, 2011

Real False Alarms

Imagine you are a studio head in Hollywood. After a few of your recent films have been "misses," you feel pressure to have a hit. The next one you put out better be good, or it could be your job. You listen to pitches warily. A producer sits down across your desk and gives you this spiel:

In this Pixar age, the public has shown an appetite for smart, moral children's films. And as we've long known from Disney, there is less risk involved when making an adaptation of a somewhat known commodity. I've got the idea to adapt a story that is already in the public consciousness to such a degree, that perhaps 100% of the movie-going public, including children, has heard the title already. It is a story that has resonated across cultures for centuries, first a favorite with ancient Greeks, and then adapted in children's publications in Europe as early as 1484, with subsequent re-tellings in 1574, 1687, 1692, 1867, and most notably in America in 1965. To say that it has stood the test of time and has mass appeal is an understatement. And most exciting of all, the story has never been adapted into a long form motion picture. There is no previous adaptation we'd have to live up to or compete with. We would be filling a gap, providing an unmet need in the public's appetite.

So do you go ahead and give it the green light immediately? Or do you insist on knowing a few more details, such as the title? And if the latter, what effect would it have if the producer told you it's a story that has had many titles through the centuries, but the contemporary public knows it as "The Boy Who Cried Wolf"? Could a story that grade schoolers can tell in 1:45 be stretched into a full-length narrative?

Obviously, in an adaptation-happy film climate, the fact that this story has not been made into a movie implies that it works better as a short parable than as a full length exposition. And yet, I think there is something to be said for its ubiquity through the ages and its continued ability to penetrate public consciousness. Of all of Aesop's Fables, arguably the only one that rivals it in terms of popularity is "The Tortoise and the Hare." But a search of the latter term on Twitter reveals that it has been mentioned three times in the last three days (as of this writing). The phrase "The Boy Who Cried Wolf" has been tweeted in various contexts 58 times over the last 24 hours. Although it may never be a "trending topic," it is amazing how consistently this millenia-old story is invoked in ultra-modern media.

So are there any lessons to be learned from the popularity of this story (aside from the patently obvious one that Aesop hits us over the head with)? I think it's fair to say that it reveals a fear of sending off false alarms, and a condemnation of those who do (for example, one Tweet compares weather forecasters to the boy, a comparison I'm sure did not originate yesterday). And this makes sense. This alone could account for the story's appeal across cultures. Nobody wants to live in a society where alarms can't be taken seriously. The uselessness of the car alarm is a particularly absurd aspect of our culture that Aesop could have never imagined.

But I would like to propose a difference between false alarms generated from humans and those generated from mechanical devices. I would argue that the former, unlike the latter, are incapable of generating false alarms. To be sure, they can give misdirected alarms, as I think is the case with Aesop's boy. I'm not suggesting there really was a wolf when he first yelled that there was. But when the townspeople found that there was no wolf, they should have realized the boy was sending an alarm of a different sort. In order for him to engage in such an act, there had to be something not right with him, or with his society, or with the system for protecting sheep. Perhaps the boy was pathologically ignored by those who should have given him attention, and he was acting out in the only way he knew how. Perhaps he should have been given a companion to help keep him company. Maybe, to replace one platitude with another, the town shouldn't have "sent a boy to do a man's job." In any event, I can't help but condemn the townspeople equally if not more for the tragedy that eventually occurred.

And come to think of it, maybe exploring these unconsidered aspects of the story could make for a good movie.

Sunday, June 19, 2011

In Defense of Regret

Despite Andy Warhol's famous pronouncement that in the future everybody would be famous for 15 minutes, and despite the emergence of mediums that he couldn't have even imagined, we are still a long way from realizing such a vision. In a nation of 300 million, a minuscule percentage of individuals ever speak to an audience in the thousands, much less millions. And most of those who do get an opportunity to address mass audiences, such as celebrities or people in position of power, are well prepared for the task. But a minuscule percent of the minuscule percent of those who are given fame and attention, however fleeting, are people plucked from obscurity. And a fair number of these people are mentally unbalanced, criminals or social misfits who are given attention only because of an abnormal action that they have committed. And a fair number of others are given attention only because of some kind of victimhood, commanding attention only because they have survived a particularly unusual form of trauma, an experience that most likely gives them a unique perspective on life. So it is only a handful of individuals who truly represent something resembling a "common person's perspective" who are given a spotlight.

I suppose it is arguable whether Traci Nobles can be considered a "common person," as it is not a common thing to have an online sexual relationship with a congressperson. But then again it's really only the last word in the previous sentence that makes her actions particularly uncommon. She still does not have a Wikipedia page, but for about two minutes last week, she was given an audience of millions. She appeared on the NBC Today show to discuss her online relationship with now former U.S. Representative Anthony Weiner (interview starts at 3:07 in the clip below).

I can only imagine how surreal it must be to go from a typically mundane life to having one's words broadcast for millions. I would imagine the experience to be so psychologically overwhelming that one's self-awareness would be at a minimum, particularly since these interviews usually only take place in the immediate aftermath of an event, when there has not yet been time for honest reflection and analysis. So I suspect that in an interview setting, even with a few hours (or at most days) of preparation, the answers that a person gives will be superficial and instinctual, which is to say representative of a worldview or mindset that exists among the culture at large.

I think this was very much in evidence during Nobles' interview. She repeated the cliched tautology "It is what it is," not once but twice, indicative of the fact that she wasn't particularly interested in finding any meaning in her experience. When asked what she would say to Weiner's wife, she made a statement both understandable and totally irrational: "I don’t even like to think about that, really, because at the time I didn’t really think about his wife." Obviously, she means "I don't like to think about that because the fact that he is married is inconvenient," but the construction she uses is fascinating. In effect, she is saying that because she willfully ignored the situation in the past, she is more or less condemned to follow the same path accordingly, for as long as is required. She cannot answer that question because she is blocked from thinking about his wife, since that is simply the entrenched status quo.

Though Nobles was tentative and hesitant at point during the interview, she does not hesitate one second when answering whether she regrets anything: "I don't regret it. I don't regret it. It's part of my life, it's changed me in some way or made me who I am today, so I don’t really regret anything." Note how vague the changes have been ("in some way"). This is actually a common sentiment that I've seen or heard multiple times before, paraphrased as follows: "I can't regret any experiences, because I am the sum total of my experiences, and to want to change prior experiences means that I would somehow cease to exist." But such a belief does not admit for the possibility that one could acquire any perspectives without direct, first-hand experience, a position that I can't imagine a reasonable person holding.

So why would people hold such a contradictory mindset? Part of it might be our natural human tendency to want to avoid accepting guilt for wrongdoing. But part of it might be even deeper. Notice what all three of these sentiments have in common: "It is what it is...I can't think about that now because I didn't think about it then...I can't regret anything because it's part of my life." The common undercurrent is a kind of fatalistic determinism. In a sense it's a denial of free will, a belief that events and occurrences are outside of our responsibility or control. I don't think this is an attitude that one acquires in the immediate aftermath of a dramatic life event, but one that had been present long before, perhaps even helping contribute to the occurrence in the first place. And in a nation where hardly any of us become famous enough to attract attention, even for fifteen minutes, perhaps it becomes easier to be lulled into thinking that we don't act, that we are acted upon by forces that are what they are.

Sunday, June 12, 2011

Vandals in Amber

Five years ago, there was a new X-Men movie in the theaters and the Dallas Mavericks and Miami Heat were in the NBA Finals. Since these occurrences have repeated this summer, I have had the occasion to reflect back upon the summer of 2006. I was living in Kentucky at the time, but I was able to take a couple weeks in June to come back to Wisconsin for a visit. So I was in the Badger state on June 6th, which happened to be the date that two young people, in commemoration of the numerical happenstance of 6-6-06, decided to spray paint Satanic graffiti at a prominent Catholic Shrine (Holy Hill).

Considering the extent of the damage (over $30,000, since it involved fragile old statues) and the popularity of the shrine, this qualified as a big crime. It is hard to get away with big crimes in small towns, even moreso when you are the type of person who spray paints things like "Hail Satin" [sic]. So the culprits, a 17-year-old (David Groth) and his 21-year-old cousin (Tyler Groth) were apprehended just days after the vandalism. What was already a sensational story for the local news media went into overdrive when the 21-year-old agreed to an interview with a Milwaukee TV station. When asked why he did it, he was quoted on-camera as saying "I'm a punk. It's what I do." And since the concept of a "budget repair bill" had not been hatched and the Green Bay Packers were not making a Super Bowl run, this became the hottest topic of conversation in the state of Wisconsin. For about two weeks or so, anyway. But in those two weeks, the topic was inescapable. People went beyond talking about these two "punks" to discussing youth and the decay of society. Columnists were inspired to come up with grand theories about the overall meaning of this incident, one of which inspired me to write a blog post.

After awhile the story faded away, then resurfaced briefly a few months later when the two were sentenced (the younger cousin received 18 months in prison, the elder six months in the county jail). Holy Hill briefly resurfaced in the news a couple of times, once when the Vatican upgraded its status, and again in 2009 when someone stole over $200 dollars in coins that had been thrown into a pond (this story did not lead to heavily philosophical newspaper columns about society).

So five years on, I found myself curious to know what the two culprits have been up to. Are they incarcerated? Are they in a punk band? Do they still commemorate anomalous calendrical occurrences? Are they now on Twitter, live tweeting acts of vandalism? Google isn't a lot of help. The summer of 2006 is preserved in amber, multiple news accounts easily accessible. But their electronic trail since then is sparse. A search of Wisconsin court records turns up some information. Tyler, the one who gave the TV interview, has managed to stay out of trouble for the most part. He was apparently sued as the result of a car accident, but has not faced any criminal charges. David started his 18-month prison term in January of 2007, meaning he must have been released in mid 2008. Since then, he has received two separate jail terms (of two and three months) for resisting an officer and illegal possession of prescription drugs.

Digging a little deeper into Google results, I did manage to find a particularly fascinating nugget. In a blog post dated exactly five years ago, entitled "Tyler Groth, Worlds Biggest Dumbass" [sic], a blogger put forward the pretty standard argument that the vandals are irredeemable reprobates that should be prosecuted to the full extent of the law (in so many words). The fascinating nugget is found in the comments section, in a comment posted nearly a year later (presumably the author was conducting the same kind of Google investigation that I did). He wrote: "Tyler is a friend of mine. All I've got to say is that drugs were involved. But it was not an attack on Catholicism. It was a dumbass thing to do and he realizes The thing is he has trouble saying "No" to people. Painting stuff was David's idea but Tyler was the one with a car so David had him drive out there."

Three things about this post intrigue me:

1. While it was widely reported in the media that David already had an extensive criminal record at the age of 17 and Tyler didn't have a rap sheet (which became the attribution for their varied sentences), the media essentially portrayed them as co-conspirators. I realize it is presumptuous to take a blog comment at face value, but assuming it is an accurate account, it strikes me as provocative that for all of the media attention on the case at the time, it is only a fleeting, obscure blog comment almost one year later that captures a central aspect of the situation that was otherwise unreported. This makes me wonder--how much are we missing with any news story by focusing so heavily on the initial glare? Given time for stories to breathe, how much deeper and fuller could we understand things? (I actually wrote about this not too long ago).

2. The author of this comment is not anonymous. He posts his real name. But nobody in the media would have known to contact this person for his perspective. How many people are out there who have knowledge that would be of interest to the public, and are willing to share that knowledge, but are never contacted? Given the technology and ways of communication at our disposal, should our media outlets be doing a better job attempting to locate these people?

3. If this version of the story is true, it puts Tyler's TV interview in a whole new light. It comes across as false bravado by someone who knows he too easily gave into peer pressure. He didn't do it because he was a punk, he did it because he was weak. And that's an awfully difficult thing to admit to the world. It's much easier to present an attitude of smugness. And in the short term, it's probably easier to be cursed and scorned than laughed at and scorned, or even pitied and scorned. But perhaps now, with more perspective, Tyler would do a different TV interview. Maybe he would even tell us things that we could learn from. I'm sure that many of those closest to him would want the media to leave him alone, that his reputation has been damaged enough, that we should leave the Google searches frozen in amber. But if we all wanted to know what he was thinking five years ago, why wouldn't we want to know what he is thinking today? And if we aren't interested in knowing what he is thinking today, should we have been interested five years ago?

Saturday, June 04, 2011

Words and Drama

Many contemporary philosophers believe the maxim that "language creates reality." They would argue that if there was no word for "freedom," we would have no concept for "freedom," and would therefore never demand freedom. A similar but less dramatic philosophy would be that language and reality simultaneously shape each other. The abstract desire for freedom gives rise to a concrete representation (in the form of a word), which solidifies or accelerates a demand.

Another scenario would see existing words re-fashioned to serve a different function. For example, I used a word in the preceding paragraph ("dramatic") which has taken on an additional function over the course of my lifetime. When I was in high school, if I had told a classmate that I "had drama last hour," I would be communicating that I had just come from a specific English class (where I would perhaps be studying Sophocles or Moliere). If a high school student were to say the same today, what would be understood by the listener was that there was some type of interpersonal conflict, in which somebody's feelings were hurt.

When I first heard the new application of this word some years back, I immediately approved of it. I felt that it was a well-understood, succinct summary of a kind of common phenomenon, particularly in youth culture. I felt that by naming a thing, it could be better understood, and perhaps better corralled. It's one thing to advise teen-agers to avoid getting caught up in complex interpersonal rivalries, but it's likely much more effective to suggest that they avoid "drama." But apparently not everybody was so approving. I found this post on an Internet message board, dated June 29, 2007:

I have become frustrated with the current usage of words in our language. I hear statements being made that make absolutely no sense. The standard excuse is that the person is speaking slang. Well, Im tired of it. I realize slang has been around for years but if you ask me todays slang is really dumb.

For example the use of the word drama in our society has become a major annoyance. I often hear people say, "I dont need the drama". "He/she has too much drama." The meaning of the word drama can be found at . If you look it up the definition basically refers to poetry or writings that paint a picture of human life. It also refers to people acting out sitautions in plays and on movie/tv. How people started using the word drama as a negative description of a person with a volatile personality is a mystery to me.

This post betrays a fundamental misunderstanding of how language works, but I'm not sure it is the poster's fault. Our society treats the dictionary as a Bible of language, when it really should be considered a Kelley Blue Book of language. Rather than authoritatively fix the definitions, the purpose of the dictionary is to reflect current usage. And since our language is "living," it will naturally change.

But there is something else about the above quote that interests me. It starts out with "I have become frustrated." I can see one becoming frustrated with offensive use of language. But why should an altered use of the word "drama" frustrate someone? Even if it is an offense against the dictionary, it's not like the dictionary actually is placed next to Bibles and hymnals in churches. Is this person a member of a "church of the dictionary" dedicated to the preservation of the purity of language? If there is such a church, their high holiday must be New Year's Day, since that's when the Lake Superior State University list of "banished words" is released (annually since 1976). The list gets a lot of media attention, though nobody takes it seriously to the point where they readjust their vernacular habits. If anything the list is regarded as an interesting compilation of additions to the language. To truly banish many of them would at best leave gaps between our culture's practice and our ability to talk about our practice, and at worst lead to regression. Many of the words and terms on the list are related to technological advancements, and to still maintain opposition to them now would be embarrassing. Banishing the word "blog" might have sounded like a good idea in 2005, but I would like to think it's garnered acceptance by now. And this year's list seeks to banish the use of "google" as a verb, an entry that already seems embarrassing.

Reading the "rationales" for words on the list is like reading the diatribe against "drama." The tone is the same--resentment and indignation. So what is the root cause of this aggression toward additions to a language that we all agree is "living"? Is it simple elitism, a resistance to vulgar dialect? I don't think so. I think the explanation has to do with the connection between language and reality. Our language is changing only because our world is changing. And a lot of change makes a lot of people uncomfortable. So when somebody submits the word "blog" for banishment, under the auspices of disliking a word that "sounds like something your mother would slap you for saying," they are really expressing anxiety over the existence of a word that "your mother" never would have heard growing up. But it's not only the existence of the word that provokes anxiety, but the existence of a new concept that changes the world (i.e. alters reality) for both better and worse.

Who knew that a few little words could cause so much drama?