2018.04.19 : In defense of Cynicism

The opposite of optimism is pessimism; the belief that everything will go wrong, all attempts will end in failure, and happy endings are impossible. This is the diametric opposition of the optimist, who believes that things will be okay, things will work out, and happy endings are always possible.

I am not a pessimist.

Two weeks ago (maybe more, maybe less) a friend and I sat down and started discussing philosophy.

I struggle to get along with optimists. Not to denigrate or dismiss them, because I think it’s beautiful to be able to believe in the best possible outcome. It is simply not something I am always able to entertain or understand. For me, optimism takes work.

The opposite of optimism is pessimism; the belief that everything will go wrong, all attempts will end in failure, and happy endings are impossible. This is the diametric opposition of the optimist, who believes that things will be okay, things will work out, and happy endings are always possible.

I am not a pessimist.

I consider myself a cynic. What does that mean exactly? It can’t be the same as pessimism, despite the fact that the words are often used interchangeably. Why does cynicism feel apt, where pessimism is grating?

The cynic, in my mind, is one who is ever hopeful, someone who dreams of happy endings, who wants things to work out. But. (And there is always a “but” with the cynic, it’s true.) Despite all that wanting, despite the dreaming, they’ve been frustrated too many times to believe that things will work out. The cynic reads the paper in the morning and weeps, because every morning they hope that the news will not be a litany of tragedies (though they know, every morning, when their feet touch the floor, that they should expect something terrible).

The cynic has taken a bad bet. Because the cynic will bet on the underdog, the new-comer, the good man knowing that they will lose. This is where the cynic and the pessimist differ; the pessimist has no desire to be surprised. The cynic is ever hopeful that this time, things will be different (despite knowing the odds).

So who is the opposite of the cynic? It is not the optimist, for they are static, just the same as the pessimist; they both look down the long uncertain road ahead, and see the light at the end, one sees sunlight, the other the on-coming train. The cynic is waiting, hoping for sunlight, and expecting the train. Who sits with them in that uncertainty?

My friend said, “Faith.” And she was correct.

Faith is that which sustains people in times of uncertainty. Faith is not optimism; it doesn’t promise that everything will work out for the best. Faith is an abiding belief in the future, that when the road is long and dark, something warm and safe awaits at the end of the road. Faith never promises a journey absent of strife, danger, and suffering. Faith promises that one can always take another step; look how far you’ve come.

The cynic and the faithful sit together in the dark, they know the odds. They know that the road is long and dark, and they both hope for the best. The difference is that the faithful knows the strength of hope. They know that hope is capable of sustaining someone, so long as you are a true believer.

The cynic, by contrast, is not quite strong enough. The cynic knows what hope tastes like, but doesn’t know how to make it grow, does not know how to harvest it, how to bake it into what they eat.

On days when I have to attempt great works, I sometimes wish I could have the strength of the faithful. There is a certainty to faith, to optimism, to pessimism that can seem enviable.

On every other day, I welcome the spark of doubt that lives within my cynicism. It is a balancing act, a middle path. The cynic can dream of heaven and keep their feet on the ground. One must be able to see clearly to know what is broken and one must have tasted hope to know what is possible.

Without cynicism, I would not be able to do the things I dream of doing. Cynicism is both that which arms to me examine how we have failed as a people, as a species, and where we have done wrong, it is the expectation of being beaten down, of being lied to, of finding victims and perpetrators. But it is also cynicism that makes me believe that we can do better, that we can improve, that we can apologize and heal.

I’m not sure I recommend it. The cynic is always expecting disappointment and, unlike the pessimist, they are not ready to accept it. But it’s a fighting spirit; still hoping for the best, despite their expectations.

Ride share Profiles I

L.

08 October 2017, Lyft.

It’s dark, and I don’t notice what kind of car she drives. I think it’s silver, and I know it’s some kind of four door sedan. As always, I’m entranced by the weird little bulbous LED screen that Lyft provides its drivers. The tail end of my friend’s name scrolls across and I inform her that I’m not Eric, although I am the person who will be taking the ride. In the dark, I spot a flash of a tattoo on her arm; it’s the triforce from the Legend of Zelda games.

Driving through the greater Boston metro area at night is one of my favorite experiences. I say I’m trying to catch the last train to Providence, because I have work the next morning. She asks me what I do and I explain that it’s a part time gig working in a bookstore. I’m looking for work, I tell her. What do you hope to do? I studied journalism, I say.

I assume she doesn’t drive for Lyft full time and ask what she does outside of this work. She corrects me, kindly, and I apologize. It’s good money, she says.

I ask her what she would be doing if she could do anything, and she tells me she studied to be a jeweler. She had an agreement to take on an apprenticeship, but it fell through, because the jeweler she would have been apprentice to is moving into the holiday season and doesn’t have time to take her on.

I tell her I’m also hoping to get experience before moving into a more freelance position. We’re both newly graduated, although we both seem like non-traditional graduates. She tells me that she’s completed all her classes and walked in the spring, but that she couldn’t pay for the last two classes, so her degree is being held hostage by the university.

Without a degree, she can’t find work. The car is dark, and we’re both facing forward, and under the passing street lights we take confession. We share our fears about moving to a big city, without a job, merely because we know that’s where the jobs are. Even entry level positions require 3 years experience, she says. In the dark, I nod. As we’re getting on the freeway, Fall Out Boy’s Just One Yesterday starts playing on her radio, and I think about the time I spent away from school.

Making rent in Boston is scary, she tells me. I tell her that I think I’m going to have to find work in Idaho. Maybe it’s time to do things that scare me, she says. Maybe so, I think.

Her degree was more theoretical, than practical. Though she studied jewelry, her program had no prerequisites, and so she would find herself in advanced classes with a bunch of beginner students, which would stymie her opportunity to learn more technical aspects. She spent her education making fashion jewelry, the showy, and sometimes cumbersome, pieces that we’re might be familiar with from the runway, or in galleries. It’s not the sort of thing one would wear in a regular situation.

She had hoped to start her apprenticeship while still in school. But at the time she was working part time, going to school, and driving for Lyft, which was already difficult to manage, adding the apprenticeship would have been impossible.

If she can’t get an apprenticeship, there’s a school in San Francisco she is interested in. Without the apprenticeship, she can’t get a job. If she can’t get the apprenticeship, more school will have to do.

When we pull up to south station, we wish each other luck.

The Female Corps(e)

Our audience—those same friends, family, sales associates—will always assure us that our flaws are either not as noticeable as they might appear, or that they cannot see those things that are so obvious to us. But we know they are there.

One of the two, either the eyes or the audience, has to be lying. Which to trust?

The dressing room has a brightly lit pedestal, and we look back at ourselves from three walls. We stand on it and twist our shoulders and hips, crane our necks, examining ourselves from all sides as infinite, increasingly crooked copies of ourselves list sideways and disappear into the murky darkness of the mirrored mirrored mirrored reflection.

We’ve all done it; fourteen-year-old girls and married women and middle aged women and old women do the anxious, preening dance that the mirrors inspire. But our gaze is always critical – how does the cloth fall? Does it show too much? Does it cover the right things? Is it really me?

The perfected female form – handed down to us through fine art books and museums from the Ancient Greeks – is a sculpted, smooth, white body without a head.

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perfection, discarded.

This paragon of beauty reminds us that our bodies are just objects: mere vessels for that which truly makes us human.

The eyes are the windows to the soul – it is no wonder then that the mannequins in the storefront have smooth, anonymous faces.

But that’s no different than the statues in the museums, their features weathered away by time and rain and nature, making lepers of the ones that still have heads. Otherwise, smooth, marble shoulders sweep up into elegant stumps, and we make eye contact with empty space.

Historically, young English lords made off the easily carried heads of the statues in Greece—the pillage of the Classical by the Romantic—and doing so, took with them whatever expressions those statutes might have made, the rest of us have to make do with what was left.

Friends, family, sales associates are always quick to remind us: the lights in the dressing room are unnaturally unflattering. But the critical gaze, the self-critical gaze, the critical self-gaze, knows every imperfection. We seek them out and itemize them, exacerbate them, magnify them, and when we gives them voice, we are met with confusion and incomprehension from our audience. There is nothing that will more quickly imbue us with a sense of alienation, of insanity, than attempting to explain our physical imperfections. Our audience—those same friends, family, sales associates—will always assure us that our flaws are either not as noticeable as they might appear, or that they cannot see those things that are so obvious to us. But we know they are there.

One of the two, either the eyes or the audience, has to be lying. Which to trust?

We know to doubt our own vision of ourselves, just as we are not as smart as we think we are, as commanding as we hope to be, or as confident as we pretend, we must equally not be as ugly as we imagine. But if we are not ugly, then how come the clothes never fit? How come we cannot find pants or shirts or sweaters that flatter our bodies? Our audience must be lying, because clearly we were made wrong, a store full of clothes none of which fit like they should, someone must fit into them…

If only it were easy for the secret to reveal itself: we are all built wrong, or rather, our bodies, as imagined—smooth, white, hard, all angles and swooping curves, no softness, no quiet surrenders to gravity or time, limited by musculature and tendon flexibility—are beyond the alchemy of elastic underwear, liposuction, gym memberships, early morning work outs, calorie counting, and anorexia. Our pathetically human flesh can never compare to life-like marble. We can only glitter in the sun with the help of expensive, mass manufactured powders, salves and elixirs that promise that lit from within glow.

All we can do is catalogue all we see when we stand on that pedestal and hope for the time, money, and energy to manufacture our best selves; rigid, stony perfection, on a box, inside a little velvet rope enclosure with a sign that says Please, do not touch.

 

After Orlando

Though I am against a culture where people keep guns in their homes, I would happily lose the philosophical battle to win the political war.
We have left behind a question of whether or not guns are a right, and we are faced with the absolute, undeniable, overwhelming, painful evidence that a society with open access to semi- or fully-automatic handguns and rifles, and other military grade equipment is one where its citizens are not safe.

There is very little to say about what happened in Orlando, FL.

There is so much to say about what happened in Orlando, FL.

The noise that emits from your TV and your radio, the words that appear on your Facebook feed, the rainbow flags, the rainbow profile pictures, the prayers, the moments of silence, the platitudes, it is just noise.

My only response to this nightmare—both the one we woke up to on Sunday morning, and the one being perpetuated by the politicians and the media—is to try and find the nuances I believe we all need.

First of all, we need to talk about who the victims are. If we do not understand who the victims are, we are easy prey for the machinations and manipulations of every person with an agenda.

A few broad statements are true: the victims were “American” in that they lived on American soil and engaged in activities made possible because of the political landscape of the geographic area known as “America”. The victims were members of the LGBT*Q*A*/Queer community, because they were in a space dedicated to that community.

But we have lost a particular specificity: these were Latinx Queer individuals.

Let me say that again:

THESE WERE LATINX QUEER INDIVIDUALS.

I cannot speak to the experiences of that community, I cannot speak for that community, I can neither know nor imagine how that community feels. It is not my community. And I will not add to the voices trying their best to do those things.

This massacre may not have been intended to target specifically Latinx LGBT*Q*A*/Queer identified individuals or their community at large. Neither I nor anyone else can tell you whether the perpetrator’s plan selected Saturday night because it was a Latin night at Pulse, maybe it was simply the best weekend for him to commit mass murder. I do not know if, when planning an action intended to inspire fear and grief, when planning to violently manifest hatred and prejudice, you stop to inspect the calendar of events for the sanctuary you are intent on violating. I do not know if this individual’s plan was to strip the LGBT*Q*A* community at large of their sense of safety, or specifically to wound the Latinx community in particular.

Ultimately, as we take time to think about the victims, the perpetrator’s intention does not matter. What matters is what he did: he stabbed a blade made of petrified hatred through the heart of the Latinx LGBT*Q*A* community. He robbed, not generally but specifically, the Latinx LGBT*Q*A* community of their sense of safety, and his act will reverberate most strongly through their community.

Second, we can begin to ask questions about what could bring a person to commit an act of violence so heinous it is the worst act of mass murder in American history. This is where we must be extra vigilant about the narratives promoted by people with an agenda.

We must take a moment here to discuss a specific kind of noise coming from your television, in the form of a debate about nomenclature, centered on “radical Islam”. An agenda is the only thing that could explain why, in the wake of the worst act of mass murder in American history, you have the time or the energy to quibble about whether or not any person is using the term “radical Islam” to describe the unknown motivations of a pathological, anti-social individual.

Specifically, I have two major points of contention with the argument that “radical Islam” is the clear source of this man’s actions, regardless of whether or not he called the police ahead of time and declared his allegiance to the Islamic State.

  1. I do not believe the man to have been stupid, unfortunately.
    Anyone who has lived in this country (or been aware of the politics of this country) for any number of the years following September 11, 2001 and during the subsequent, still ongoing wars in the Middle East, can tell you that if you want people to pay attention to what you’re doing, make it about “terrorism,” specifically “radical Islamic terrorism”.
    Our news media and politicians have proven that we will not care about anti-gay, or anti-woman, or anti-reproductive rights, or anti-Black, or anti-Islamic, or anti-government terrorism. If you shoot up an abortion clinic, you will not be labeled a terrorist, even though the label is appropriate.
    If this man wanted to insure that his act of anti-gay violence made headlines and stayed there, declaring allegiance to the Islamic State is a very easy way to do so.
  2. Even if he is really a “radical Islamist” he’s still pathological. No one decides to open fire on a roomful of unknown strangers (or even a roomful of friends/family/acquaintances) because they are of sound mind. Just as anyone who travels to Syria to decapitate “infidels” is unlikely to be deemed in full possession of their faculties.
    The tie between politics and individually perpetrated acts of excessive or mass violence is psychological imbalance, not religion or affiliation or identity.

This was not an act of violence undertaken against the whole of American society. This was an act of violence perpetrated against the LGBT*Q*A*/Queer community, and potentially the Latinx community within that community. To use it to promote a rhetoric of hatred against Muslims or immigrants or some other American minority, is to avoid the undeniable. Homophobia, violent homophobia, is alive and well in America, and we have more than enough “legitimate” anti-gay rhetorics and politics to incubate it.

Because I am not interested in becoming someone with an agenda, I will not look at the courts, or the filibusters, or the Constitutional debates. I will instead ask that we, as a society, consider the murder rates among trans*women of color, the assaults perpetrated against members of the LGBT*Q*A* community (hate crimes), and the bullying, the rates of homelessness among LGBT*Q*A* youth. We cannot deny that there is a precedent for violence against the LGBT*Q*A* community, and especially the minority communities within the LGBT*Q*A* community. To side step that precedent is to create a false image of reality, and to deny a reality composed not of individual experience but of statistical fact.

Third, and finally, we must ask ourselves about how to solve the problem of acts of mass violence perpetrated with guns. Living in a country where we have to even attempt to demarcate the importance of one act of mass violence, and furthermore have to spend time ranking them, is to live in some Twilight Zone reality.

Here we reach an impasse, because here our politics has ejected the means of objective quantitative reality. The NRA has ensured that collecting the necessary data to develop a statistical reality—that is, a reality which, even when compelled by emotion, is formulated within the bounds of consistent, universal standards, and is independently verifiable by anyone with access to the same data—is impossible. Without that basis of concrete, verifiable conclusions, any argument can be denounced as purely emotional/subjective/rhetorical.

With that in mind I can only repeat that which has been deemed un-Constitutional, weepy liberal bullshit, but which I can only defend as common sense: it is very hard to murder people, especially in large numbers, when your access to weapons and/or ammunition is limited and/or monitored. Though I am against a culture where people keep guns in their homes with the idea that they may well be used against other human beings (guns for “protection”), because I believe it promotes fear and violence, I would happily lose the philosophical battle to win the political war.

We have left behind a question of whether or not guns are a right, and we are faced with the absolute, undeniable, overwhelming, painful evidence that a society with open access to semi- or fully-automatic handguns and rifles, and other military grade equipment is one where its citizens are not safe. We allowed the massacre of school children to pass without action, and maybe it is time, if we will not change the law, to admit that we do not care that people will continue to die.

Without a change to the law, it is time to do away with the noise. Without a change to the law, we should do away with outrage, with moments of silence, with acts of solidarity, with open displays of grief, with a sense of community, with love, with empathy. Anyone who opposes changing the law should make it clear that they are as against civil society as the people who perpetrate these acts of violence, and that they are against us, and they are with the terrorists, whom they are happy to arm and enable.

The Expendables: death and gender on TV Tropes

The gist of the entry was that, actually, the death of female characters (prominent, recurring, anonymous, or otherwise) is played for emotional effect. Male characters, especially the nameless and often faceless ones, get their tickets punched more often and to less emotional effect, therefore proving that male lives are valued less female ones.

There is nothing, superficially, wrong with this argument; with only the facts presented above, the conclusion is not unreasonable.

TV Tropes could easily place amongst the greatest contemporary tools of media criticism, especially with regards to portrayals of sex, gender, and sexuality. After all, TV Tropes is the place to go for a quick summary of ambiguously gay or hide your lesbians (or even the old favorite heterosexual life partners). But the combination of crowdsourcing, obsessive fan behavior, and the increasing prevalence and acceptance of media criticism as both academic and entertainment practice have banded together to identify any number of tropes and catalogued examples across media (literature, film and television, graphic novels, videogames, et. al.). It is the collective documentation of the nagging suspicions and memetic discoveries that plague any regular consumer of narrative media.

Generally, TV Tropes has felt like a haven of good humored, progressive commentary in a sexist, and heteronormative (as well as increasingly violent and vitriolic) media culture. At their best, discussions or critical engagement with representations of gender and sexuality in film and television (the bread and butter of TV Tropes, as one might guess from the website title) are sent into the void. At their worst, in the course of addressing these questions, women–and only women–are chased out of their jobs and their homes by threats of violence, stalking, and public smear campaigns. Meanwhile, possibly due to TV Tropes’ public and semi-anonymous set up (by no means a neutral or objective system, as shown by WIKIPEDIA), has allowed the identification and dissemination of critical tools for addressing the stilted gender representations pervasive throughout the media industries.

On a recent visit, after an unnecessary character death on Hawaii Five-0, I was searching for the article on stuffed into the fridge to send to a friend. This particular trope is close to my heart. It refers to the death or assault of a (usually female) character for the sole purpose of motivating another (usually male) character. It may seem like an unnecessary term, after all, everything in a story happens to motivate the characters so that the narrative can move forward and evolve. But, as the article explains, this particular form of plot development is so easy as to be considered “lazy writing”. Or, in a more political context, it can be considered “institutionalized sexism.” The characters being victimized are usually female and, for the trope to be applied, are not developed enough for the audience to feel pain on their behalf, instead, the audience is empathizing with the impact the event has had on a more developed, more central, usually male, character.
We do not mourn because the victims are dead or violated. We mourn because their death or violation has caused emotional distress to their husband/brother/boyfriend/uncle/male associate.

All of this sets the stage for the disappointment I felt in seeing the link to Men are the expendable gender. The gist of the entry was that, actually, the death of female characters (prominent, recurring, anonymous, or otherwise) is played for emotional effect. Male characters, especially the nameless and often faceless ones, get their tickets punched more often and to less emotional effect, therefore proving that male lives are valued less female ones.

There is nothing, superficially, wrong with this argument; with only the facts presented above, the conclusion is not unreasonable.

Unfortunately, the argument is an outgrowth of the sexist logic that already governs our commercial narrative media. First, because of statistics. Second, because of the implicit sexist assumptions. Third, because of the explicitly sexist arguments put forward.
Statistically speaking, of course there would be more male deaths on television, and in film, because there are more men on television and in film.

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From the New York Film Academy blog, November 2013.

It is impossible to make a value equivalency between the genders when they are not equally represented. In terms of pure visibility, male lives are valued more highly, because they are represented as existing in all capacities (as captains, doctors, engineers, plumbers, heroes, villains, extras, red shirts, science officers, Pirates, etc). Meanwhile women can only be found when the lack of diversity would be otherwise overwhelming, or when someone needs to die, so that the hero can go kick some bad guy ass. It matters more when you kill a woman, because there are so many fewer of them (about 1 to every 2.25 men, according to the New York Film Academy). It is, in fact, possible to make films that barely feature women at all (see: The Eagle, a film of which I am actually quite fond).

However, the actions of the film industry operate on an implicitly sexist logic, one unaddressed by the author(s) of the expendable gender entry. Men are the human “default”. Women are cosidered a deviation from the norm. When male extras die, the audience is seeing the death of “people”. They are undistinguished, and undifferentiated, it is true, but we are seeing large scale violence, not the interpersonal kind. The emotional impact of those deaths depends entirely on how you, as an individual, view the redshirts or the henchmen, and if the death of innumerable, anonymous people is something you find affecting.

The death of a woman, by contrast, is the death of the Other, the death of something we treat as different from the death of “people”. (See: Men are generic, women are special.) At this point, the author(s)’s argument takes an explicitly sexist turn. Furthermore, the choice of evidence–or, more accurately, assumptions–is more pernicious than willful ignorance of pure statistical probability. It concerns what the difference between the male “default” and the female “Other” is determined to be.

The author(s) argue that the value of female human existence comes from their ability to produce offspring. “In purely biological terms, men are more expendable than women because in the event of near-extinction, one male and ten females can produce ten times the offspring of one female and ten males.” This argument is part of the sexist philosophy prevalent in many internet communities, and has encouraged the violent reactions to female critics.

You may be familiar with its kissing cousin: “There are no girls on the Internet” (here on TV Tropes, or Know Your Meme). Though it hails from the early days of the internet, it was 4chan, a undisputed bastion of incivility and child pornography, that codified it for the present generation. Many would argue that any major association with 4chan so fundamentally undermines legitimacy that it neither bears repeating nor address. However, the cross pollination of 4chan with more legitimate communities, like reddit or imgur, mean that it has participated in the codification of cultural and social norms and behaviors online. “No girls on the internet” (or “Tits or GTFO”) appears without fail when a unique female perspective is articulated in an Internet forum, comment section, or message board.

At its most fundamental level “No girls on the Internet” asserts that women are accustomed to receiving preferential treatment in social and intellectual arenas because of their sex. Specifically: because people (read: men) wish to sleep with them, women are given undue respect, attention, or concurrence in social situations.

In an ironic twist, the people who say that sex appeal is a means of getting others to submit to your opinions, are often the very same ones who will threaten to come to a woman’s house and rape her for daring to express an opinion with which they disagree, or if she wins in a video game.

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(a softer world: 914)

To say that female lives are more valuable because of their ability to produce offspring is to reduce the woman, as a social, political, or narrative actor, to a walking uterus, perhaps with some caregiving abilities. (Nevertheless, more sympathy or nobility is bestowed on single fathers than single mothers.) The argument attempts to naturalize the view of women as sex objects by tracing their “Otherness” and their social value to their reproductive abilities, while simultaneously, couching the assumption in biological/evolutionary, and therefore presumably “scientific” or “objective,” terminology.

The larger effect of the argument is how it undercuts the potential for women to be seen as rational, independent agents, particularly with regards to public political and/or social transformation. It supports a reductive view where “women’s issues” are limited to topics like birth control (or not), abortion (or not), child support (or not), rape, and domestic violence. This largely ignores that women also have a stake in how poverty, access to healthcare, the rising price of college tuition, the stock market, fair trade goods, the second amendment, the price of oil, and the deaths of family members and beloved family pets are addressed. (It performs a further occlusion of male investment in “women’s issues,” by implying that men have no stake in the debates about BC/abortion/child support/rape/domestic violence, et. al.)

Most disappointing is that of course we know men are the expendable gender, there was a major motion picture about it. It starred Sylvester Stalone, Arnold Schwarzenegger, Jet Li,  Dolph Lundgren, Jason Statham, Terry Crews, Mickey Rourke, Bruce Willis, and Randy Couture. The second one had a slightly different cast, the third another different one again. Yet, all of these men can be “expendable” and we will still know their names. But the girl who is raped or killed at the beginning of the Criminal Minds, or Law and Order (any of them), or CSI (any of them), or the death of the girlfriend or wife or sister or mother that propels the hero into action, can be nameless, and faceless, and the actress will be quickly or easily forgotten.

Which leaves the question less about who is or isn’t expendable, but who will be mourned by the audience, and who will be remembered for their participation.

(This essay is limited to a binary gender system, but there is so much more to be said on the propagation and reification of the gender binary by the media establishment.)