Monthly Archives: April 2012

The Perils of Protagonism

I’d like to clarify my ideas on victimization now. What do I mean when I say that people want to make themselves victims? How do these “self-described” victims differ from an “actual” victim? Where do you draw the line between the two? How can you discuss this without pissing everyone off?

I realize I’m getting into a minefield here. In this political climate, it almost never pays off to put your foot down on what something means. Disagreement is bound to arise, and I understand that. If any of you have a different idea on the nature of victimization, I’ll be glad to hear it. I’d love to have a rational, reasonable debate about this. I won’t assume that my argument is infallible, but we have to start somewhere with this, right?

There’s no denying that bad things happen to us all at some point. In fact, with the way things are going it’s quite likely we’re all struggling right now in some way. The truth of the matter is that most of us, no matter how hard we work, won’t get to meet the goals we’ve set for ourselves due to circumstances beyond our control. It’s something that’s difficult to reconcile, but it’s also the state of our society right now. Some of us don’t have the access we need to money, education, a good support network. It’s unfair that we don’t benefit from these things that seem to come so easily to other people.

Each of us in a certain social or economic group struggle in different ways. Stay-at-home moms have to deal with a cultural lack of understanding for how hard they work to raise their children. Poor white people have to deal with the illusion of privilege that surrounds them, just because they’re white. I’m black, gay, and non-Christian. There’s a litany of disadvantages my upbringing, orientation and religious choices get me. I won’t get into them here, but it’s safe to say that life is different for me than it is for a middle-class white man with good connections.

Here’s the thing, though. The unique challenges we face as members of a sub-community don’t make us victims. We all have things we need to deal with, problems that we need to solve, just to make it in today’s world. Just because my problems are different from yours doesn’t necessarily make mine any more important. Even though the system is stacked against most of us in different ways, the fact remains this: the system is stacked against us. And even though we arrive at that fact from all kinds of places, we’re still in this same place together.

A victim, however, is someone who’s endured extraordinary hardship at the hands of someone or something terrible. This leaves them damaged, challenged in a fundamental way that most of us will hopefully never have to overcome. If you’ve been raped or sexually molested, you’re a victim of that experience. If you’ve been the victim of a violent crime, you’re a victim of that experience. If you’ve lived through a hurricane, tornado or earthquake that destroyed your home or community, you’re a victim of that experience.

If a public figure says something disparaging about your demographic, that doesn’t make you a victim. It doesn’t excuse what a celebrity or politician says, but come on — have a sense of perspective. Yes, a comment may point to a lack of respect or understanding about a group you belong to, but it’s hardly the same thing as losing your house to a flood or being nearly beaten to death. It doesn’t compare at all.

So, where does all of this outrage come from? Why do people act as if they’re victimized by a comparatively mild hardship?

One answer is that we live in a culture that encourages us to be self-centered to the point that we see our problems as more important than anyone else’s. This might be misanthropic of me, but I think it’s true. It’s tough to reconcile that view with the need to be empathetic with everyone we meet, but I think it’s important to be honest about the situation *and* believe it can be solved.

Let me put it this way: most of us consider ourselves to be the heroes in our own stories. We construct a narrative of our lives so that our beliefs are objective rather than subjective truths, and that our ideas about good and bad, right or wrong, are not constructs of our moral systems but the way the world actually works. In other words, if we believe it’s wrong to curse in public, it doesn’t matter what everyone else thinks — it’s objectively rude to drop f-bombs in a restaurant. If someone believes that homosexuality is a sin, the thought that others believe it’s simply the way some people are born is irrelevant. It’s objectively wrong, a sin, something that should be avoided. The people that agree with the narratives we construct about the world are our allies, our supporting characters. The people who try to get us to challenge or change it are our antagonists. The more tightly you cling to your beliefs, the more entrenched you are in this story you’ve woven for yourself, the more you cling to this paradigm.

It’s natural for us to see the world in this way, I feel I should point out. Our brains are wired to make sense of the world. We need reasons for things being the way they are, after all, and the phenomena we experience have to be categorized somehow in order for us to be comfortable, to have some semblance of consistency in our lives. However, the world exists apart of our perception of it. There is an objective reality out there, something with its own set of rules and influences that we don’t understand or see. When the ‘real world’ reminds us that our stories are really just constructs, it’s uncomfortable. It creates a dissonance that disrupts the order we’ve imposed on our lives. Some of us deal better with that dissonance than others, and those that don’t retreat further into the comfort of their stories.

This is natural too, but it’s also damaging. When we retreat too far into our own stories we start to believe everyone’s living the same one. We think that the stakes for us — what’s important, what’s irrelevant — are the same for everyone else, and we think that the challenges we have trouble facing (and the ones we find easy) have the same level of difficulty for everyone else. So if some of us think homosexuality or sexual permissiveness is causing the downfall of our society, then it legitimately dismays us to find out that other people don’t feel the same way. If we hold the belief that we really need to be paying attention to the environment or eating way healthier than we do, it boggles us when someone says it’s just not that important to them.

These two fundamental beliefs — that everyone should have the same priorities we do, and that every challenge faced carries the same level of difficulty for everyone — lead us to discount the experiences of other people. We force the template of our stories onto the experiences of everyone, and that simply doesn’t work. The more we cling to our experience as some kind of objective truth, the less we’re able to comprehend other perspectives, other ways that people move through life. Anyone outside of our lifestyle is there because of choice, not because of the difficulties of circumstances. It’s these two beliefs that cause us to look at a homeless person or someone on welfare and wonder “Why don’t they just get a job?”.

When we believe that our own lives are what is “normal”, we focus on our problems as the most important ones. Something that offends our beliefs or interferes with our way of life is not only what we need to fight, but what everyone should be fighting. Problems that we’ve never run across — even the ones we see as important or tragic — are easier to diminish because it doesn’t affect us. And if we think a problem is easy to overcome? Those that struggle with it aren’t struggling because the problem is far bigger for them. It’s because they’re lazy.

It’s this dichotomy that has strangled our ability to empathize with people. It’s a fallacy to think that our stories, our priorities and problems are the same for everyone. The stakes in each person’s life is different, and the challenges we face require incredibly varied levels of effort. We cannot assume that because it’s easy for us to make $40K a year or so and live in a good neighborhood, that other people don’t because they don’t want it badly enough. For other people, our lives and the lives of the middle-class, is so impossible it might as well be a dream.

I think most of us don’t realize how automatic filtering everything through that lens has gotten to be. And that has very drastic consequences for how we relate to other people. It makes us selfish and cruel. It also makes us cast ourselves in the role of the victim whenever something goes wrong. For other people, their problems are likely their own fault. For us, it’s the catastrophic effect of a universe that isn’t looking out for us.

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Posted by on April 19, 2012 in Uncategorized


We’re All Victims Here

On February 26th, 2012, George Zimmerman fatally shot Trayvon Martin. Trayvon was walking from the convenience store to his father’s house inside a gated community, and George was the member of the neighborhood watch patrolling that night. George claims that the shooting was in self-defense; that was good enough for the police, and no charges were filed. Trayvon’s parents pressed for a deeper investigation, and their crusade was picked up by the media. The outrage built for weeks until Zimmerman was charged on April 11th.

Between Trayvon’s shooting and George’s arrest, everyone formed an opinion on what happened and spoke about it. Loudly. Some people said that Zimmerman’s only apparent reason for shooting Trayvon was the fact that he was a black man wearing a hoodie in a place where that was unusual. Others countered with Zimmerman’s claim that Trayvon was attacking him, and they bolster that claim by painting him as a troubled kid with a history of drug problems. Still other people are focusing on the controversial “Stand Your Ground” law that allowed Zimmerman to walk free in the first place, and that whole line of the argument comes with a ton of baggage. There was a similar “Stand Your Ground” situation where a black man shot a white man and is now serving life in prison, leading to accusations that the law is selectively applied — to put it mildly. Zimmerman got away with it, in other words, because Trayvon was black and he was not.

The arguments raging back and forth are certainly interesting, but what really rivets me is the undercurrent in the discussion. Everyone with a stake in this argument speaks out like a victim of an unjust society, and their outrage is the only means they have of fighting back. The black community, obviously, links Trayvon’s shooting to the fact that so many people view black males as suspicious entities, and whenever they’re away from inner-city ghettos they’re up to no good. The people who defend Zimmerman claim that he’s a martyr of political correctness; we’ve developed a hyper-sensitivity to racial issues that makes it impossible for fairness to be applied to incidents that have a racial component. To them, Zimmerman is the victim of a minority group that’s hijacked the national discourse to their own ends. By identifying with him, they share his victimization.

Gun-rights advocates feel like they’re protecting the freedoms given to them in the Constitution against a society that seeks to repress them. Gun safety advocates feel like this is a justification for their perspective — that if someone carries a gun with them all the time, it’s only a matter of time until they use it. But no one listened to them, and now Trayvon is a victim of a society that prizes an individual’s right to bear arms over an individual’s right to be able to walk somewhere without being shot for being suspicious.

In all the noise about who the real victims are, we’ve forgotten the people at the center of this story. Trayvon Martin is no longer a black kid who may or may not have been targeted for vigilante justice. He’s a symbol, appropriated by people who desperately want to use his death to bolster their feelings of being victimized. There’s a reason that his parents wanted to trademark “I Am Trayvon”, and that photo of the Miami Heat in hoodies, head bowed, is so powerful. Trayvon is an extreme example of a reality for just about every black male, including myself. If you dress in the wrong clothes, or go to the wrong neighborhood, you will be viewed with fear or distrust.

It’s something that needs to be talked about, but it’s terrible that Trayvon Martin had to die for us to do it. It’s also terrible that George Zimmerman had to shoot someone for a closer examination of the “Stand Your Ground” law to gain traction. And it’s awful, at least to me, that so many of us are using either of them to justify ourselves as self-described victims.

Groups portraying themselves as beleaguered — regardless of the reality of the situation — has become a worryingly common thing in our social and political discourse these days. There are countless causes, occupations and organizations that love to think of themselves as victims who are having their rights impeded by the tyranny of the majority. Never mind that some of them would tyrannize others if they had their way — that’s irrelevant to the fact that they aren’t allowed to say or do whatever they believe, without challenge.

We tell ourselves these stories, of all the ways that we’re victimized by the people around us, or by a monolithic society where the people in charge aren’t looking out for our best interests. It’s a myth we’re weaving into the fabric of our increasingly fragmented, disconnected society. And it’s something that’s destroying the melting-pot potential of our country. We see ourselves as a bunch of people without power, forced to defend our interests from a hostile environment. That story is poisoning us against the society we live in. We have to stop believing it. We have to stop repeating it. But in order to do that, we need to understand it. That means knowing the nature of the story, knowing the emotions that drive it, and knowing the ways we can better use those emotions to build something positive. It’s not an easy thing to do, but I think it’s absolutely necessary if we’re going to stop screaming at each other in this country and start talking to one another.


The AFI Top 100 Movies: Rebel Without a Cause (#59)

Rebel Without a Cause (1955)
Starring James Dean, Natalie Wood
Directed by Nicholas Ray
Written by Stewart Stern (screenplay), Irving Shulman (adaptation) and Nicholas Ray (story)

At first glance, Rebel Without a Cause is one of those old 50s-era melodramas that don’t age too well. If you look past the over-acting common to dramas of the day and take the movie on its own terms, it’s actually a surprisingly sensitive portrayal of teenagers coming to grips with their own identities, their thoughts on how society views them, and what values are most important to them. It sounds kind of basic, and the territory has been well-mined it’s true, but what makes it interesting is how maturely the subject is handled. Given the nature of the style director Nicholas Ray is dealing with, it would be easy to fall into a preachy kind of melodrama that chastises the wayward kids or a sensational soap-opera where kids are all noise with no meaning. Instead, the rebelling kids have logical, sympathetic grievances that make sense even if you can’t agree with them.

The movie opens with three youths spending a long evening in the local police office for various transgressions. Jim Stark (Dean) has been brought up on charges of public drunkenness, Judy (Wood) has been caught running away, and Plato (Sal Mineo) was caught shooting puppies. We get a basic sense of the troubles for these three kids, but we spend the most time with Jim and his parents. After that, we learn the Starks have been moving around a bit because of their son’s problems, and this is just the latest in a long line of restarts for the family.

The kids all find their way back to each other eventually. Plato quickly latches on to Jim as a best friend and possible father figure, and Judy doesn’t take long to catch Jim’s eye. Their flirting gets him in trouble with the popular kids, which leads to altercations and finally a rather intense game of chicken featuring fast cars and a looming cliff. What’s interesting is that once you get to know the bullies, even they have a reasonably affable nature. They’re not terrible people; they’re filled with an existential emptiness that they struggle to mask with bravado and any excitement they can manage.

I don’t want to give anything away, but the drag race brings with it a surprising consequence that the new trio has to work through. Jim and Judy both go to their parents for solace and guidance and come away wanting, so they turn to each other with Plato in tow. In an abandoned mansion they discuss the things they most want to see in other people (honesty and a sense of resoluteness) and play at the kind of adults they want to be. All of this could be pretty inconsequential if taken at face value, but if you stop to think about what they’re playing at, why these kids are doing the things they’re doing, it reveals a surprising…yearning in all of them for something they feel they lack.

Jim wants a father who’s strong enough to teach him what it means to be a man. Judy wants a father who is affectionate and close. Plato just wants…any sort of father at all. These are children who feel they’ve been wronged by the previous generation, and have given up hope on ever being understood by them. They’re smart enough to see what’s wrong with the world, but they’re too impatient to really consider how their parents and teachers have turned out that way — they just know that when they’ll get older, they’ll fix it. They won’t make the same kind of mistakes, they’ll be better.

Director Nicholas Rey uses cinematography, lighting and the serious acting chops of Dean and Wood to make these basic ideas much richer and subtle than they would be otherwise. Even though it doesn’t have any right to work, it really does. Dean imbues Jim with the uncertainty and earnestness of a high school student — this is a good guy who makes bad decisions, and has no one to teach him how to navigate the consequences and learn from his mistakes. He’s all but crying out for someone to teach him how to stand up for himself, and it’s a lesson that his beleaguered father and bullying mother are ill-suited for.

Plato, whose parents are absent through the length of the movie, fares the worst. His need for a stabilizing influence is so great it appears pathological, and his emotions are so forceful they overwhelm him almost all of the time. Because none of these children have the insight to explain their issues or needs to the adults around them, they’re forced to wander through their lives angry and unfulfilled, but unable to say why.

It takes a little patience to see this underneath the dialogue that can come off as coarse and hokey. But like the children it follows, Rebel Without a Cause is definitely worth sticking with and making an attempt to understand. If your tolerance for 50s melodrama or the plight of upper-middle-class white kids is low, you might want to skip this. Otherwise, give it a try — you may find the Technicolor world of these children surprisingly rich and deep.

Rating: 7/10.

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Posted by on April 2, 2012 in AFI Top 100, Movies