Tuesday, October 05, 2010

Straight People, Listen! The Pervasiveness of Cruelty In Mass Culture

Tessie Hutchinson was in the center of a cleared space by now, and she held her hands out desperately as the villagers moved in on her. "It isn't fair," she said. A stone hit her on the side of the head. Old Man Warner was saying, "Come on, come on, everyone." Steve Adams was in the front of the crowd of villagers, with Mrs. Graves beside him.

"It isn't fair, it isn't right," Mrs. Hutchinson screamed, and then they were upon her.

                                          Shirley Jackson, The Lottery (1948)

Last weekend the Radical household went to see The Social Network (David Fincher, 2010), otherwise known as "The Facebook movie."  Starring the eerily enigmatic Jessie Eisenberg as Mark Zuckerberg, it is a must-see, a fast-paced drama about the birth of the social networking site that any fool can use, and any fool does.  I left the theater feeling slightly soiled, in part because scriptwriter Aaron Sorkin leaves enough of the story line unresolved that at the end of the movie I was unsure about exactly how treacherous Zuckerberg was and why.  That he is brilliant is clear; that he is on the Asberger's spectrum is certainly implied; but whether he betrayed everyone he knew (including his soul-mate, Napster founder Sean Parker, played brilliantly by Justin Timberlake) and everyone who was ever kind to him, is a question the film also never answers.  One of the most highly interpretable lines in the film is when Eduardo, Zuckerberg's partner and CFO, says accusingly in response to being forced out of Facebook just prior to it becoming a Big Deal:  "I was your only friend."  Which is true -- and yet we, the audience, have seen breathtakingly cruel moments in which Zuckerberg has expressed a bitterness towards Eduardo that no normal person would express to a friend, moments that Eduardo himself has overlooked.

Needless to say, the urge to run home and open your Facebook is overwhelming, in part to see if it feels like Switzerland.  You know what I mean:  kind and pretty on the surface, and relying on a lot of confiscated wealth from depositors (who "mysteriously" never returned to get their money) to maintain its lovely appearance.  I've always thought that Facebook features like Farmville were creepy, but now it's hard to rid myself of the feeling that the whole thing is creepy.  I'm staying on it, but it's creepy.

Facebook also feels creepy because recently, at Zenith and at Rutgers, it has been the preferred method for a young person to leave a suicide note.  The Rutgers tragedy has underlined the capacity the internet creates to enhance everyday cruelties that people visit on each other.  As multiple reports describe it, fellow students Dharun Ravi and Molly Wei taped freshman Tyler Clementi making out with a new boyfriend and posted it to the internet.  Clementi, overcome with shame, jumped off the George Washington bridge.  Hence, the internet itself is both the beginning of the Clementi story and the end, the medium and the message

Coincidentally, "The Social Network" also begins with bullying.  The narcissistic Zuckerberg unrolls his plans for fame and fortune at Harvard to a girlfriend, who (sensibly) breaks up with him.  Zuckerberg's response is to go home and, shall we say, "unfriend," the woman through a vitriolic post on his blog.  Hence, a movie that shows the historical process by which "friend" will become a verb begins by demonstrating the power of the internet to destroy and to give virtual life to the most vicious of human emotions.  The movie that follows is punctuated by lightly coded moments of everyday brutality  in which Zuckerberg sees his status as an outsider graphically demonstrated by others who casually take their own superiority for granted. What you don't know until much later is that behind his enigmatic, expressionless face, this code-writing genius is also hatching elaborate plots for revenge.

And yet, is it really technology that has created new possibilities for social cruelty?  As our friends at Roxie's World noted last Sunday, in their post mourning Tyler Clementi, "Technology hasn't made humans less kind than they were in some non-existent machine-free past. It has only amplified the sound and accelerated the speed at which our unkindnesses circulate. We shouldn't disparage any act of kindness or any effort to foster greater kindness in the world. Instead, we should commit ourselves to creating a world in which kindness travels as quickly and gets as much attention as its opposite."

I agree.  I also think that, when older generations criticize the young for how horrible they are to each other, it is worth remembering that teenagers didn't invent homophobia, and they didn't invent the cultural fascination for shaming that traditional media are currently using to keep their tottering financial ships afloat.  From the magazines that inform us about every detail of Ashton Kutcher's betrayal of his (older) wife, to the endless commentary about why Shiloh Jolie-Pitt insists on wearing boy's clothes (and why Brad and Angelina permit it, thus driving a two by four into the gender system with their awesome social power), to Jerry Springer's endless "transsexual surprises" (in which apparently "heterosexual" couples are brought out on stage for a "confession" that is invariably followed by a transphobic brawl), to prime-time reality shows in which people agree to be shamed on public television for having bad pets, being fat, depressed, unclean, hoarders and/or single, we are a nation of criticism and wagging fingers.   In fact, much like our forebears, who thought that a day in the public stocks would set things back on track, we seem compelled to separate the few sheep from the mass of unlovely goats.  Shaming is the first step in setting our national house in order.

Cyberbullying is an old phenomenon with a new set of tools available, tools that are only sometimes employed by the young.  And of course, as Shirley Jackson pointed out in 1948, when somebody else is chosen, the rest of us are often impatient to "finish quickly" and move on, shaking our heads sorrowfully about the unpleasant excesses expressed by a few deviant souls who made the mistake of hitting "post" when other, more civilized folk, were just sniggering behind the victim's back.

Straight people, listen!  Why it is that otherwise "normal" teenagers are so profoundly insecure as to look for ways to lord it over their peers, and what kind of behavior has been modeled to them that makes them think it is ok? Why do they choose gay kids? Are they expressing the homophobia that you have come to take for granted?

Straight people, listen.


Roxie Smith Lindemann said...

Thanks for the link, TR. I like the web of connections you weave here -- from one of the creepiest short stories ever written, to Facebook, to bullying, and to the likely causes of bullying. Too bad it means I am going to have the creepy last lines of "The Lottery" banging around in my head all day, but I'll cope.

PhysioProf said...

Fucke facebook and fucke Zuckerberg. He's a clever sociopathic asshole who was in the right place at the right time. The fact that some asshole can stumble into becoming a fucken bajillionaire is lauded as some wonderful "anyone can make it big in America" is just a big fake fucken lie to keep the rubes quiet while the ultrarich continue to loot the fucken country. You think it's a coincidence the fucker went to Harvard? Those of us teaching at elite institutions are just servants to these morally bankrupt greedfuckes.

JoVE said...

Another thoughtful post making an excellent point that the focus on the technology misses the point.

Speaking of disturbing cases, did you hear about the recent case in a Vancouver (BC) suburb where a teen girl was drugged and gang-raped and then photos were circulated by e-mail? I was profoundly disturbed by news reports in which police were asking other kids to stop circulating photos. They went so far as to charge one of the teens involved with circulating child-pornography.

It made me wonder what these kids are being taught is a "prank" and what they think rape really is.

Daniel Goldberg said...

Stigmatization is certainly as American as apple pie; the increasing tendency since the late 19th century to medicalize difference has also accelerated, IMO, the ease with which difference slips into attributions of deviance (largely because of the status of science and medicine as great epistemic and social legitimizers).

But I also wonder if there is not something human about shaming and stigmatization. This is not to assert specious claims of universalism, but rather to note that the cognitive processes by which we mark out others as different and subsequently judge them as deviant seem to me to be unlikely to be cabined solely within American or Western cultures.

But I do wonder about this in general, because while stigmatization is hardly unknown in Europe, the sharpness of the shaming and stigmatization seems qualitatively different in intensity if not frequency in the U.S. than in other Western communities.

If this observation has the slightest whiff of legitimacy, then I begin to wonder what are some of the peculiar aspects of American culture and society that shape such intense shaming and stigmatization (and why they so often settle on sexual orientation, of course).

Anonymous said...

Do you think the issue is sexuality or sex in general? Maybe it is Puritan prudishness at the root of our nation's attitude.

Insecure people have always made themselves feel better at the expense of others.

I like the idea of making FB spread positive ideals faster. We should each try to focus on that.

Urban Exile said...

I have noticed that my younger students are often surprisingly lacking in affect. They are short of compassion for people they know, while long on compassion for large groups that they don't know (Haitian earthquake victims, African orphans, etc.) I am not trying to say that it isn't worthwhile feeling compassion for orphans, but I am saying (at the risk of sounding like one of the oldsters that complain about "young people today") that an emotional dulling seems to have taken place. I would even suggest that the entire population is growing slightly autistic, asocial and amoral. And that in a time of social networking? Yes.

Anonymous said...

@Urban Exile: According to a recent study at U-Mich, "college kids today are about 40 percent lower in empathy than their counterparts of 20 or 30 years ago, as measured by standard tests of this personality trait."


Urban Exile said...

Brililant, Anon. Thanks for pointing me in the direction of that study. For all interested, go to http://www.ns.umich.edu/htdocs/releases/story.php?id=7724
where you will find out, as I suspected from my anecdotal experience, that growing up saturated by electronic media makes Jack a mean boy.

This media poisoning has affected all of us to some degree, not just heterosexuals. It is worse for the younger among us who've been on the internet since they were born. So while I am usually completely on board with you TR, I do wonder why you chose to address straight people in your commentary? You know I am aware of the special nature of this crime (see my last blog posting) but it is not as if straight people have a monopoly on cruelty. People of all stripes become bullies and victims of bullies. We've got to go deeper, it seems to me.

Queer Rhetorician said...

Thank you TR. Great post. :)

Leslie M-B said...

I've been thinking about this topic a lot lately--not just because of the recent news, but because of my move from Davis, California to Boise, Idaho. I now live about a block from an LDS temple; I can see its spires from my home office. Having gone through the crappiness of Mormon-funded Prop. 8, it's hard not to nurse a big grudge against my neighbors, even though I'm not usually prone to unforgiveness.

I was raised on an especially gay street in a very gay-friendly neighborhood in Long Beach, and I did the whole cultural studies Ph.D. thing, so I'm more than happy (as I did yesterday) to play the part of a straight ally, to talk to my public history students (~30% of whom are LDS, and I'm guessing ~60% politically conservative) about gay rights and about framing queerness in public history projects, about making queer Idaho more visible. I'm profoundly worried for my students, the ones who are gay and can't come out safely, and for the straight students' children, many of whom have parents who don't know how to talk about gay rights or even human rights more generally, except in the most shallow ways. I worry for my 5-y.o. son--if he's gay, I'm not thrilled he'll be coming out in Idaho, and if he's straight, I worry his peers will influence his understanding of gays and gay culture more than I will.

My spouse and I are really playing up the anti-bullying rhetoric, emphasizing the importance of speaking up when he sees injustice--and you can bet I'll be monitoring the kid's technology use pretty damn closely. Mostly, though, we're teaching him the only people worth ostracizing are the bullies and bigots themselves.

Comrade PhysioProf said...

This lack of empathy is being intentionally spread by scientific techniques of mass communication paid for by insane far-right-wing greedfucke billionaires who profit from all the little people losing their ability to empathize and translating that into political power for the "everyone for themself; personal accountability" political insanity that has gripped the United States.

Token Straight Breeder said...

I've been interested in when socially learned homophobia starts, and followed my own kids.

The subject first came up in our family when my son was 6. There was a recruiting tent for cub scouts, and I had to explain why I would not sign him up. They do interesting things, I said, but they don't let in people like us and our friends. At six, when explained that some people grow up to discover they fall in love with the same sex, and others grow up to discover they fall in love with the same sex, he found it entirely reasonable that one wouldn't know yet at the age of 6 whether to join, and the whole exclusion based on whom one would grow up to love was bizarre. Of course, I expect other families didn't explain it the same way.

We also didn't qualify because we are atheists. I left that discussion for later, since I know that very few atheists kill themselves in high school because they don't think they'll ever find a way to find happiness. Atheists don't despair, they just wonder when the rest of the world is going to figure it out.

I did give the cub scouts a chance: I asked the mother of another boy, who was in the scouts, whether the local group had disavowed the national policy on excluding people based on homophobia. After looking puzzled, a light went on, and she said, reassuringly, that I needn't worry, all of the leaders were family men.

Yes, I was reassured that I did right in keeping my kid from the influences of a mother like that, but was disappointed in this small town near Zenith.

Fast forward from age six to age 10. Fifth grade (middle school) is where Gay first became a generic negative term, as in "that's so gay". When asked, my kids admitted they never challenged the kids who used the term, because nobody else did, and they didn't want to stand out. It was hard enough being the kid of a troublemaker, who did things like ask questions about things like that at the parent information night. (Didn't get much of an answer, except generic "of course we accept all" but another mother, in the tour of classrooms afterward, came up and said that her son was already being harassed. He came out a few years later.)

And this is supposed to be one of the better school districts.

How much should I have asked of my own somewhat nerdy kids, who didn't join in but didn't have the nerve to speak up? They agree that silence implies consent, but peer pressure at that age is horrendous.

Token Straight Breeder said...

Sorry for the double post: I got an error message, and thought is had been rejected. TR, can you delete one?

Anonymous said...

"Straight people, listen! Why do they choose gay kids? Are they expressing the homophobia that you have come to take for granted?" Uh-oh...seems like a little finger wagging to me... First of all, it's not just straight people. Secondly, it's not just gay kids. It's all people who remain silent and it's against all sorts of kids (and adults)who exhibit any sort difference; clothes, culture, finances, looks. I loved your whole piece - a magical mystery tour ('web of connections you weave') until the end when you made it into just a gay issue and sort of blindly pinned the tail on the donkey, blaming it on straights. The gay kid being bullied is just one of many cases of bullying. It's not about the gay kid or the poor kid or the fat kid: it's about "why otherwise "normal" teenagers are so profoundly insecure as to look for ways to lord it over their peers, and what kind of behavior has been modeled to them that makes them think it is ok?" I think the issue is regarding all bullying. You start with an all-pervasive issue and make it into just a gay one.

Token Straight Breeder said...


My kids don't even know most of the nasty epithets for people from different countries and ethnic backgrounds that I had learned in school by that age. (Call a spade a spade just means a shovel to them.)

That means that what is acceptable to pick on people for does change over time. Yes, middle school is hell on everybody, and one's best hope is to survive with as few scars as possible.

But I agree with TR that within the generalized nastiness, it is indeed worse for gay and lesbian teens.

Have you looked at the stats on teen suicide lately?