Shame, Shame, Shame!


“You should be ashamed of yourself,” is a line all of us have heard at one time or another in our lives.  The words have a powerful effect, no matter how much we hate to admit it. When said with a dash of harshness, that’s not harsh enough to provoke rebellion, these words can break us down, make us feel foolish, bad, and ashamed.  Whether we are guilty or not, they can also touch such a sensitive core that makes us feel like children, again, being scolded by our grandmother.  We don’t like feeling this way, no one does, and we all know this when we use it on others.

Reveal to Justine Sacco, Lindsey Stone, Jonah Lehrer, and the cast of others that have been recently experienced worldwide shaming, via the internet, the basic plot of the 1973 version of the Wicker Man, and how it involves (spoiler alert) villagers sacrificing a man, by burning him alive, to provide for the coming harvest, and they may tell you that they would not be able to sit through such a movie.  The correlation may not be perfect, but if you replace the harvest with social order and couple it with the proverbial act of condemning someone for the purpose of advancing a social order, those that have been regarded as sacrificial by social media, may experience such a wicked case of déjà vu that they may physically shudder during the final scenes of that movie.

stocksOne of the first images that comes to mind when one hears about a group sacrificing a human for the common good is this Wicker Man image of a relatively primitive culture sacrificing one of their own to appease their gods or nature.  We think of people dressed like pilgrims, we think of chanting, mind control, and individuals being shamed by the shameless.  We think of arcane and severe moral codes, and the extreme manner in which they handled those that strayed from the collective ideal.

Members of those cultures might still stand by the idea that some of these ritualistic practices were necessary.  They might concede that the whole idea of sacrificing humans for the purpose of yielding a better harvest was ill-conceived, especially if they were being grilled by a lawyer on their agricultural records, but burning people at the stake, hangings, and putting people in stocks, however, were punishments they provided to the truly guilty, they might say.  And these were necessary, they might argue, to keep their relatively fragile communities in line.  They might argue that such over-the-top displays of punishments were necessary to burn images into the mind of what could happen to those that are tempted to stray from the moral path.  They might suggest that based on the fact that our law enforcement is so much more comprehensive nowadays, we cannot understand the omnipresent fear they had of chaos looming around the corner, and the use of shame and over the top punishments were the only measures they could conceive to keep it at bay.

We may never cede these finer points to them, in lieu of the punishments they exacted, but as evidenced by the cases of the four individuals listed in the second paragraph, the greater need for symbolic, town hall-style shaming has not died.  Our punishments may no longer involve a literal sacrifice, as it did in that bygone era, but the need to shame an emblematic figure remains for those of us that feel a call to order is justified to do whatever it takes to keep total chaos at bay.

The conundrum we experience when trying to identify with how our ancestors acted is easier to grasp when we convince ourselves that these actions were limited to the leadership of those communities.  We can still identify with a suspect politician, an inept town council, and a couple of corrupt and immoral judges, but when we learn that most of the villagers involved themselves in the group’s agreed upon extremes, we can only shake our head in dismay.

Writers from that era, and beyond, describe the blood lust that occurred among the spectators in the form of shouts for someone’s head, and the celebratory shouts of “Huzzah!” that occurred immediately after the guillotine exacted its bloody form of justice on the alleged perpetrator.  How could they all cheer this on?  How could so many people be so inhumane?

Some would argue that the very idea that we read history from a distance –believing that the human being has advanced so far beyond such archaic practices that it’s tough for us now to grasp their motivations– while engaging in similar, but different behaviors, is what makes the study of group thought so fascinating.

In his promotional interview with Salon.com, for the book So You’ve Been Publicly Shamed, author Jon Ronson details the Twitter treatment he wrote about in that book, directed at a publicist named Justine Sacco.  Justine Sacco took an eleven hour plane trip to Africa.  Before boarding the plane, Justine sent out a number of tweets to her 170 Twitter followers. Among those tweets was a now infamous one:

“Going to Africa.  Hope I don’t get AIDS.  Just kidding.  I’m White!”

No matter how one chooses to characterize this tweet, it’s tough to say that it’s the most inflammatory tweet ever put out on Twitter. For varying reasons, millions of people latched onto this statement and took this relatively unknown tweeter from 170 followers to the number one worldwide trend on Twitter, all while Ms. Sacco remained oblivious, in the air, en route to Africa.  She received everything from death threats, people wishing that she would get AIDS as retribution for her heartlessness, and the varying degrees of near lustful excitement that began mounting among those villagers gathering around the intangible town square, imagining the look on her face when the lowering, technological guillotine finally became apparent to her when she landed, so they could all shout “Huzzah!” in unison.

“I’m dying to go home but everybody at this bar is so into #hasjustinelandedyet. Can’t leave til it’s over,” was a tweet Mr. Ronson found soon after the publication of his book to illustrate the excitement that had been building among those that couldn’t wait for Ms. Sacco to land and discover that the life she lived prior to that tweet was now over. 

Shaming in the Modern Era

Before purchasing RonsonSo You’ve Been Shamed book, one might be tempted to think that it is little more than a detailed list of those, like Ms. Sacco, that have committed purported transgressions.  The fact that it is not, is illustrated by the decision Mr. Ronson made to focus on incidents that would’ve been considered inconsequential were it not for the varying reactions observers had to them.

Ms. Sacco, for example, wasn’t inferring that she hoped that more black people contract AIDS, or that she hoped that the AIDS virus would continue to attack black people almost exclusively.  One could say, reading her tweet literally, that she may have been intending to speak out against the infection for being racially biased.  Perhaps it is the confusion regarding who, exactly, Ms. Sacco was condemning that led so many to fill in the blanks for their own purpose.  Whatever the case was, they did fill in those blanks, and the pack mentality did frame that single tweet in a manner that encouraged tweeters, 24-7 news programs, and all of the other venues around the world to heap scorn and shame on her in a manner that could leave no observer with the belief that shaming is dead.

It could also be guessed that Ms. Sacco was attempting to provide her followers poignant humor.  Her tweet was, presumably, her attempt to garner empathy for sufferers of a disease that appeared unnaturally selective, and that she was probably attempting to spearhead some form of awareness among her 170 Twitter followers without sufficient regard for how it could be misinterpreted by those that would choose to misinterpret her tweet for the purpose of spearheading a movement to garner empathy for sufferers of a disease that appeared unnaturally selective. Those that responded on Twitter not only appeared to relish the opportunity to champion a cause, for greater definition among their peers, but to technologically burn whomever they had to to get there.

And while we can only guess that most of the offended had to know that Ms. Sacco wasn’t intentionally infringing on their ideological issue, the opportunities to prove one’s bona fides on an issue don’t come along very often, and when they do they’re often limited to coffee shop and office water cooler conversations with two-to-four people.  And those two-to-four people, are often forced to soft-peddle their outrage, because they will have to work around, or otherwise be around, the target of their condemnation in the aftermath.  Ms. Sacco, on the other hand, was an intangible victim that most of those in the intangible town square would never meet, so they didn’t have to worry about her feelings, and her tweet provided them the perfect venue to establish their bona fides on a worldwide stage.

“If we were in one of those Salem town squares witnessing a witch burning,” one of Ms. Sacco’s Twitter shamers might argue, “We would be shouting at the throng gathered around the witch, calling for them to be burned, and not the alleged witch.  We’re not shaming with the sort of moral certitude of those people of a bygone era, we’re shaming the shamers here.  It’s different!”  They might also argue that their goal, in shaming the Justine Saccos of the world, is to not only to redirect shame back on the shamers, but to effectively eradicate the whole practice of shaming … unless it’s directed at those that continue to shame others.

On this revised act of shaming, the Salon.com interviewer of Jon Ronson, Laura Miller, provided the following summation:

“If you are a journalist or a commentator on Twitter or even just aspiring to that role, you have to build this fortress of ideology.  You have to get it exactly right, and when you do it becomes a hammer you can use against your rivals.  If you even admit that you could have possibly been wrong, that undermines both your armor and your weapon.  It’s not just something you got mad about on social media; it’s your validity as a commentator on society that’s at stake.”

If that’s true, then no one angrily wished death and disease on Justine Sacco, but they felt a need to sound more brutal than any that had tweeted before them to establish their bona fides on the issue.  They weren’t angrier than any of the previous tweeters, they were just late to the dog pile, and they felt a need to jump harder on top of the pile to generate as much impact as those on the bottom had with their initial hits.  The idea of the target’s guilt, and the severity of her guilt, kind of got lost in all of the mayhem.  Each jumper became progressively concerned about the impact their hit would make, and how it would define them, until they felt validated by the proverbial screams of the subject at the bottom of the pile.

US

If you’ve reached a point, in this conversation, where you’ve recognize the different, but similar shame tactics employed by the primitive and advanced societies, you’ve probably reached a point where you’ve recognized the correlation, and you’re shaking your head at both parties.  In his book, however, author Jon Ronson cautions us against doing so.  It’s not about them, the central theme of his book suggests, it’s about you, him, and us.  In one interview, he stated that he thought of pounding that point home by simply calling the book “Us”, but that he feared some may infer that meant that he was specifically referring to the United States, or the U.S.

The subjects of shame, and the shamers that exacted their definition of justice on them, he appears to be saying, are but anecdotal evidence of the greater human need to shame. It’s endemic to the human being, to us, and while the issues may change and evolve, and the roles may reverse over time to adapt to the social mores of the day, the art of shaming remains as prevalent among the modern man as it did during a B.C. stoning.

The elephant in the room that Mr. Ronson did not discuss in his book is the idea that the viciousness the modern day shamed person experiences may have something to do with the vacuous hole created by the attempt to eradicate shame from our culture.  Our grandmothers taught us this very effective tool, as I wrote.  They used it to try and keep us on the straight and narrow, and they did it to keep us from embarrassing ourselves.  When we witnessed our childhood friends engaging in the very same behavior that we had been shamed into avoiding –thus displaying the fact that they hadn’t been properly shamed against such behavior– we stepped in to fill the void.  We shamed them in the manner our grandmother had, using –as kids often will– the same words our grandmother had.  We then felt better about ourselves in the shadow of their shame.

As adults in a modern, enlightened era, we learned that we are no longer to use the tool of shame.  The lessons that our grandmother taught us, we’re now being told, were either half-right, or so baked in puritanical, traditional lines of thought that they no longer apply.  Ours is an advanced, “do what you feel” generation that struggles to believe that there is no right and wrong, unless someone gets hurt.  The benefit, we hope, is that if we eradicate judgment and shame from our society, we can also be liberated from it.  Yet, there is a relative line in the sand where attempting to avoid judgment and shaming will eventually, and incidentally, encourage that activity.

We all know that this activity will eventually lead to internal decay and rot for the individual, and eventually the culture, and we know that some judgment and some shaming is necessary to keep the framework intact.  It’s a super-secret part of us that knows this, and the need to shame and judge gnaws at us in a manner we may never knew existed, until that perfect, agreed upon, transgression arises.  When it finally happens that we find someone that it’s safe to shame, it fills that need, and that pressurized need that we’ve hidden so far back in the recesses of our minds in a quest to acquiesce to the new ways of thinking that the act of shaming explodes on that person, regardless of their degree of guilt.

Those of us that have learned some of the particulars of the Salem Witch Trials believe that early on in the situation there may have been a need for greater order.  The fear of chaos probably prompted them to believe some of the accused actually were witches, looking to infiltrate their youth with evil.  As we all know, it eventually began spiraling out of control to a point that people began randomly accusing others of being witches over property disputes and congregational feuds.  One can also guess that many accusers leveled their accusations for the purpose of attaining some form of superiority over the accused that they could not attain otherwise.  Those citizens of colonial Massachusetts eventually learned their lessons from the entire episode, and some would say their lesson is our lesson as of yet unlearned, as accusations of racism, and anti-patriotism, are leveled at those that may have been guilty of nothing more than a poorly worded joke, or participating in an ill-advised photograph, as in the case of Lindsey Stone.  Our era is different though.  The lessons of the self-righteous, puritanical man do not apply to today, and we don’t need to know the whole story before we make that leap to a defense of the social order that provides us the characterization we desire in the dog pile?

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Deserve vs. Earn


“You just received a raise? Congratulations! What did you do to deserve that?” This question is so common now that some of us consider the words deserve and earn interchangeable. Another way of saying it might be, “He deserved that raise. He worked so hard for it.” Yet, some who hear such a summation might correct the particulars of the characterization, “I didn’t deserve the raise. I earned it.”  

“All right, what do you think you did to to earn it?” those on the outside ask. Implicit in this question is the question, why do you think you’re better than us? Other than stating the facts inherent in such a matter, it’s difficult to answer such a question to anyone’s satisfaction. Some don’t care about the differences between deserve and earn as long as they have more money in the bank. Yet, there are raises and bumps in pay commensurate with the rise in the minimum wage. Bosses tend to dress the later up with the former in one-on-ones. What happens when people find out they’ve received a bump in pay that they thought was a raise? What happens to those people when they return to work? Anyone who knows the pain, financial and otherwise, or being fired, laid off, or losing a job as a result of a company going out of business live by the credo, ‘I’m just lucky to have a job.’ We might work as hard as we did before the raise, because we like the job, but are we going to work any harder?

In a post-game interview, following his first 1994-1995 national championship, former Nebraska Cornhuskers head coach Tom Osborne was asked if he felt he deserved the national championship. Tom Osborne began head coaching duties in 1974. What followed was a level of consistency unheard of in college football, with numerous near-misses in national championship games. No college coach, at the time, could be said to be more deserving of a national championship, yet Coach Osborne rejected the characterization, “No one deserves a national championship,” I write paraphrasing Coach Osborne. “You win one in that particular season.” Without going into too much detail, every loss to Oklahoma, every bowl game loss, and every near-miss taught Tom Osborne that he needed to change in-game strategies and the type of players he needed to recruit to finish his career with three national championships and a 60-3 record over this last five seasons as Nebraska’s head coach.  

What’s the difference between the words earn and deserve? If a reader sorts through various periodicals they will find the two words used in an almost interchangeable manner. We conflate these two words so often that some of us consider them synonyms, some thesauruses and dictionaries even list them as such.

This casual, but curious, observer of language would not go so far to write that those periodicals are incorrect, but in a purely philosophical sense, I consider those words so far apart as to be antonyms. When the office worker speaks of deserving a raise, even those who know the standard measurements of the company would not bring up the word earn, for fear that doing so might taint the relationship they have with the office worker. When a sports fan speaks of his team deserving a championship, only his antagonists will mention the fact that they haven’t earned it yet, and when the lovelorn and politicians speak of the word deserving, it is an emotional appeal that their audience that one dare not counter.

Most define deserve as something for which they are entitled, as if by birthright, and earn has a more meritorious quality. We think we deserve to have something, as a result of a natural course of events. If another has, we should have. In this sense, deserve takes on the definition of an adjective to describe those who should attain, and earn is more a verb to describe the justifiable reward for hard work put into attaining a goal. Deserve is also a term used by those who feel they are owed something by being a good person, a human, or a human being that is alive.

All philosophical differences aside, this causal, but curious, observer can’t help but think that those who invest emotions in the idea that they are deserving, at the expense of working to earn, set themselves up for failure, heartache, and even diminished mental health when the reality of their circumstances continue to dispel such notions. One would think that, at some point, the confused would take a step back and reexamine their algorithm, but for most of us that’s easier said than done, as it could lead us to believe that we’re a lot less deserving than we once believed.

Love is difficult to calculate by the standard measurements of course, as past behaviors do not dictate future success. As such, no rational person should ever say that they deserve to be loved in a conditional manner by a prospective lover, but love is not something one can earn entirely by merit in this manner either. Conditional love, between adults, is a complicated algorithm fraught with failure that begins with simple, intangible superficialities. These superficialities can be as simple as the way a person combs their hair, their scent, the clothes they wear, the way they smile when they see you coming down the aisle at Cracker Barrel, and all of the other, otherwise meaningless intangibles that form superficial attraction. Some could argue that the superficial nature of the early stages of love are nothing more than a crush, but a crush forms the fundamental layer of all that will arise from it. At some point, and every relationship is different, a cross over occurs. The initial spark that drove the relationship from point A to point B progresses into shared values, individualistic ideas, some modifications on long held beliefs philosophies, until it eventuates from that initial, superficial attraction into the ultimate, comprehensive and conditional decisions we make about another person we call love. In this sense, we earn love every day thereafter by maintaining and managing the conditions that the other party lays out for us in overt and implicit ways to form adult, conditional love.

“Do you think you should be afforded love simply by being?” I would ask those who lay claim to deserving love. “Do you think that you should be able to walk up to a total stranger on the street and inform them that you are a good person, and therefore deserving of love, and that they should do their civic duty, as a good citizen of the world, and love you? If that’s what you believe, you’ll probably achieve the type of love you deserve.” 

The point is that those who claim they’ve achieved the quality of deserving open up a whole can of why, for those who are asked to believe it. ‘Why do I deserve,’ should be the first question we ask ourselves, and ‘why am I more deserving than anyone else’ should be the next, and all of the answers should culminate in self-evident facts and figures that result in the definitions of the words ‘merit’ and ‘earn’.

Some high-minded types tell their audience that love is nothing more than a complex mixture of chemicals in the brain, and they do so under the theoretical umbrella that suggests that a human being is no more complex than, say, the penguin. They might add that other animals, like penguins maintain long-term, monogamous relationships based on decision-making. If our decision making abilities are no more complex than the penguin’s, and our drive to be loved, and love, is nothing more than a natural and primal need to procreate, then all humans do deserve to be loved by the primal, prospective mate who senses when we’re in heat. Alternatively, if the human’s senses are so inferior to the penguin’s that prospects can’t tell when we deserve love, we may want to develop a mating call that informs prospective mates when we feel ‘deserving’ to see what comes running down the alley to us.

Most of us prefer to believe that we earn the love we receive on a perpetual basis, a love that is more complex than the penguins, and that it progresses based on the variables that we introduce to it on a day-to-day basis. If we settle on this primal, penguin definition of love, and we choose to believe that the love we earn should be nonjudgmental, and lacking in morals and values, and nothing more than a stick that stirs the chemicals in our brain, the love we receive will be as meaningless as the penguins’, and what we deserve.

Rilalities VI


Lucky is the man who does not secretly believe that every possibility is open to him.” — Walker Percy

1) A Man on the Rise: Is it possible to know so much that you’ve actually learned very little? I once met a man on the rise. He was so intelligent that it was almost intimidating. We’ve all met this guy, in one form or another, and we’ve all secretly envied him. He had so much potential that those around him couldn’t help but say, “Holy stuff!” when he would exit our conversation.

534382_543655018980917_1211806109_nI met another man who surprised me with how little he knew about matters I considered essential. We all have a formula for intelligence and success, but how flawed are they? How many inconsequential matters make it into this formula? This man didn’t know how to set an alarm clock, so I showed him … numerous times. Frustrated and embarrassed by this revelation, he stopped me and said, “Just give me a damned wake up call!” He looked at me with a bemused, self-deprecating smile. The smile suggested that he knew this was an embarrassing moment in his life, but there was also a bold confidence in his stance that suggested it didn’t bother him as much as I thought it should. I was so shocked that I could barely return a polite smile. This man had obviously been cared for his whole life. His mom, his wife, his secretaries, and all those around him had presumably made sure his clocks ran on time. I shared this spectacle with a number of people, until I finally ran into someone who knew who that fella was. “Did you know that that man is the vice-president of one of the most prestigious companies in the world,” they said mentioning the name of the company in question.

It seemed unfair to me that the man who knew so much should achieve so little, while this near infant-of-a-man should rise to the upper reaches of our society. The difference between the two, life has taught me, is tunnel vision.

One man knew no limits on his ambition, and he ended up working next to me. The other man focused what I considered limited resources in one particular area that he eventually succeeded beyond 99 percent of most men. The other man, superior in all ways I consider vital, had no focus, and no direction, and thus no arena in which to display his prowess. His potential to succeed was unbound, and we all knew it. He knew it. The man of comparatively, limited resources, presumably learned his limitations early on, and he learned how to hone those few strengths he had to become what we all deem successful.

We’ve all witnessed impressive people before, but how many people do we know that are so impressive that their listeners cannot contain themselves? Most people try to find the one thing that is not impressive about the impressive, so that they can feel more comfortable their less than impressive lives. Most people do not say things like: “What’s he doing here?” … among us?

“If someone were to just give me half-a-(durned) chance … ” the man who knew everything would complain when I complimented him on his intelligence. The compliment I gave him didn’t please him. It made him more angry about his station in life. “I just-I have so many ideas … ” he complained. He knew so much, about so much, that he was an intimidating force of a man, but he had learned so little in life that he never found out how to capitalize on it. Watching him, one was left to wonder how many learned men in history had so much trouble harnessing their ability that they were deemed a failure by those that witnessed him? And how many lesser men learned how to harness their limited ability, until they achieved a place in history we all know well?

Catchers and framing

Catchers and framing

2) Framing an Argument: Have you ever found out that an overwhelming number of people disagree with something you’ve believed in for so long that it’s now an ingrained truth to you? Is this issue something that you hold so close to your heart, that it pains you to learn that so many disagree with you? The disagreements you’ve heard aren’t simple disagreements either, they’re profound, substantive disagreements that cause you to question everything you once held dear.

The first question that your like-minded cohorts will ask you is what is wrong? Even moral issues are relative when looked at in a certain light. There are no absolutes, they will say. You may love that answer for it falls in line with your philosophy, but it doesn’t satisfy the internal dilemma you’re experiencing, because the contradictory information pouring in is penetrating.

You simply need a course in framing, your like-minded cohorts will say. The art of framing employs the soul of wit: brevity. If you can frame your issue in the form of a sound bite, a lyric, one frame of one cartoon, or a couple of pictures, the world will be your oyster. The particulars of the argument may damn you to the point of being wrong on this particular issue, but you need not worry about the particulars when you’re framing. Your goal, in this the age of 140 words, is to succinctly portray your position in a manner that can be repeated, and shared, until you’re as close to right as you can possibly be without saying the wrong thing, and your brokenhearted brethren will like you for it.

3) LANGUAGE: I’ve always had a passing interest in the French language. When it’s fluently spoken, it can sound so rhythmic and beautiful. I was so taken by the language that I decided to take a college course in French.  It became clear to me (about a month in) how passing that fascination was. I still enjoyed hearing the language though, and I’ve even tried my hand at using some of the language’s more exotic words with all of the umlauts, graves, and aigues in place. It was my goal to speak the language in a manner absent the mundane, specific-to-America renderings. The French word for accessories, accouterments, got a hold of me once, and I began using it as often as I could. It made me feel exotic and a little worldly when my English speaking friends would say, “What?”

“It means accessories,” I would say with a subtle amount of smugness that bathed in the exotic juices of knowing a little French. I finally ran into a native French speaker some time later, and I couldn’t wait to give the word a test drive. I used it in proper context, and I thought I had my elocution down. I had also used the word for years at that point, so I felt confident in the idea that I could now say it without the effort those that had never heard the word used.

When my native French speaking friend said: “What?” I was a little taken aback.

“Isn’t that French for accessories?” I asked.

He asked me to repeat it, and when he was able to pick himself up off the floor, he informed me that most non-native French speakers should just stick with the American renderings.

elliwtch4) SELF-PROMOTION: Rarely will you read an author write, “I’d like to talk about myself now … ” They’re usually more creative than that, but some of them aren’t.  Some of them should spend a little more time trying to creatively frame their indulgence a little better.

I recently put a book down that contained the words: “They don’t want Harlan Ellison messing around with that.” Speaking in the third person can be funny, and some of the times it can be an affectation of funny that leaves the reader thinking that they’re about to go down an unusually funny, self-defecating (sic) path, but this particular fork in the road was not a veiled attempt at humor, nor was it eventually self-deprecating.  This was pure self-promotion.  This was Harlan Ellison telling the reader that the establishment regards him as a dangerous rascal that keeps on mucking up the status quo to a point that they believe he must be constrained to maintain their precious military, industrial complex.  They’re afraid of what Harlan Ellison might tell you, Harlan basically writes.  They do not want Harlan speaking out, because they know that his powerful words can cause unrest.  Harlan also wants you to know that the establishment, the man, doesn’t appreciate him speaking out, because they’re afraid of his thoughts, and he’s much more powerful than you know (or perhaps than he even knows), but the man knows, and they have tried to find some way of shutting him up.  Either that, or the cynic in me believes, that Harlan wants you to feel like an outsider that doesn’t know how truly rascally Harlan can be, so you may want to buy more of his books to find out.  When we buy a book, we do want to find out what an author thinks, and we’ve been tantalized by his thoughts through some other medium that led us to being so interested in his thoughts that we wanted to purchase a compendium of them, but when that author qualifies his thoughts in a manner that suggests that he believes that his thoughts are extravagantly provocative, some of us simply tune him out.

5) Quote: Recalling the fifty year anniversary of the legislation, George Will writes of President Lyndon B. Johnson’s Great Society: “In 1964, 76 percent of Americans trusted government to do the right thing “just about always or most of the time. Today, 19 percent do. The former number is one reason Johnson did so much; the latter is one consequence of his doing so.”

Rilalities V: Challenges and Insecurities


The 6’5” Guy

“I’m six foot five,” a man named Joe said. He did not work this into his greeting, and he did not say it in the early minutes of our introduction but it hung over our heads until I acknowledged it.

Those fortunate enough to meet Joe will soon discover that the reason for listing his height before his name. Some of us drop our last name with pride to suggest that our family’s lineage should mean something to someone we’ve just met, some will list their occupation soon after the listener learns their name, Joe was 6’5”. Joe was more 6’5” than he was Joe, and those fortunate enough to have a conversation with him that extends beyond superficial pleasantries will learn how 6’5” he is. If that conversation evolves into a minutes-long discussion, and the listener doesn’t acknowledge his height, with verbal or nonverbal cues, he’ll break the news to them:

“I’m six foot five!”

Although Joe and I spoke for a total of about three minutes, I got the feeling that he could’ve written a bestseller, won the Heisman Trophy, saved children from a fire, or discovered the cure for cancer, and his height would still mark his life. I had the feeling no matter what happened to him in life, he would prefer to have “Here lies Joe. He was 6’5” chiseled into his gravestone.

Joe was an interesting guy. He appeared to be conversant on a wide range of topics, and he managed to tell some aspects of his life’s story in an impressively timely manner, but everything he spoke of came back to the refrain of his life.

His height was the reason he had trouble finding chairs to sit in with comfort, the reason his 5’3” mother was always on him about stuff, and the reason he couldn’t be as particular as he wanted to be about the clothing he wore:

“You can’t be finicky about clothes when you’re 6’5” and built like me.”

Joe, we should also note, was broad-shouldered. This attribute, coupled with the idea that he was 6’5” was the reason he had trouble going door-to-door to talk to people.

“Would you be comfortable discussing politics, if a man my size came-a-knocking on your door?”

His height was also the reason that he had such trouble finding a decent woman. That subject may have shocked most people, or at least made them somewhat uncomfortable, as most people would deem such a discussion inordinately intimate for a conversation between two people meeting for the first time. I had a best friend in high school that was 6’7” however, so I was well versed in the travails of being a tall male in America today, and I was used to my friend going into such intimate details to make his point with people he had just met. Joe and I did try, at various intervals, to move on to other topics, but he was unable to let the fact that he was 6’5” go as easily as I was.

What struck me as odd was that I never made mention of his height, and I don’t think I provided any verbal or physical cues that called attention to it. Was that the point though, I later wondered. Was my refusal to acknowledge his height such an aberration to his experience that until I acknowledged it in some way, he would not be able to move on until one of us did?

Being a tall man has numerous advantages, but it has almost as many disadvantages. As I wrote, however, I was well versed in the details of being an abnormally tall man in America. I knew, for example, that a person’s height is the first thing people notice about one that is taller than 6’3”, and the thing they talk about after you leave. It’s the first thing people in malls pester a person about, it’s the reason some guys won’t mess with you, and the reason others do. It’s also the reason some women want to date you and others don’t. You could be the most charming person in the world, in other words, and most people will have preconceived notions about you based on your height.

With that in mind, one would think that an abnormally tall male, or a woman with abnormally large breasts, would find it refreshing when they’ve encountered that one person that seems to be genuinely unconcerned with their attribute(s). One would think that they would find it refreshing that they’ve finally found a person that is willing to talk geopolitics with them without looking down their shirt, or saying, “How’s the weather up there?” One would think that the person that broke those patterns of human interaction would receive a bright smile as a reward, and maybe even something along the lines of, “Thank you. You may not even know why I’m thanking you, but thank you!” Yet, tall men, and large-breasted women, just like all humans with exaggerated attributes become so accustomed to these patterns of interaction that they feel compelled to draw your attention to them just to comfortably complete a line of dialogue.

Most people will try to avoid talking about a trait generally considered a negative, and they will do everything they can to avoid noticing it. When they consider that person’s attribute a positive, most people think you should feel privileged to have it, so they don’t mind drawing attention to it. “You’re tall Joe!” they will say, or “I wish I had those,” and “You should feel privileged.”

As my conversation with Joe continued, and he began to belabor the point of his height, I initially thought he was trying to assert some sort of dominance. I may have been wrong on that note, and it might have had more to do with everything I thought later, but I began to rebel against his theme by making a concerted effort to avoid the topic of his height. Our conversation ended soon thereafter, and we moved onto other people at the gathering.

“What did you say to Joe?” our mutual friend –a friend that informed Joe and I that we would have so much in common that we would hit it off– later asked.

“Why?” I asked.

“He says he doesn’t care for you.” When I asked her for more details, our mutual friend said, “He said he can’t put a finger on it, but he doesn’t like you as much as I thought he would.”

Without going into what I deem to be the unnecessary details of our otherwise innocuous conversation, I can tell you that it involved no disagreements. To my mind, there were no moments of subtle tension, and there certainly were no overt ones, but he didn’t like me. I’m not one of those people that thinks that every person has to like me, and if they don’t there has something wrong with them, but to my mind this conversation I had with Joe proved to be amicable if not pleasant. Joe and I also proved to be as like-minded on certain topics as our mutual friend believed we would be. The only thing I did, and that which I presume led Joe to state that I didn’t live up to the characteristics our mutual friend detailed for him, was refuse to acknowledge his height in any way.

Going Clear—

Anytime I finish a book as fantastic as Lawrence Wright’s Going Clear, I wonder what I am going to do with my free time?  The book gives credence to Phillip Roth’s line about non-fiction being stranger than fiction.  A complaint that an Amazon.com reviewer posed was: “If everything Wright writes is factual, why would anyone want to join the Scientology religion?”  This reviewer stated that this was the only point, and a central point, that they found lacking in the book.  If I were this Amazon.com reviewer’s teacher, and I lived by the credo, there’s no such thing as a stupid question, I would simply require that student reread the book.

Kiss in Rolling Stone—

Anyone that thinks that being “king of the hill, top of the heap, and ‘A’ number one” means that you will be able control your press, should read the March 28, 2014, issue of Rolling Stone magazine.  Kiss may no longer be the band that sells platinum records every year, and they may be more about marketing than music at this point in their career, but this Rolling Stone article was supposed to be about their soon-to-occur induction into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame.  To read this piece in the Rolling Stone, however, that fact means little-to-nothing.

This piece of rock journalism was so shockingly brutal that one has to imagine that Gene Simmons is still throwing some of his much detailed Kiss memorabilia at the wall when he thinks about it.  All four members of the band Kiss came under attack from the author of the piece, but the author reserved most of his unprofessional brutality for Gene.  This writer’s attacks were so petty and snarky that a regular reader of Rolling Stone would suspect that Gene was a Republican candidate running for office.  Yet, Gene’s not even a Republican voter, as he has made it public that he voted for both Barack Obama and Bill Clinton twice.

This article would also be an excellent read for journalism students seeking answers on what not to do with subjects they’re covering in an article.  Having never taken a journalism course, I would have to imagine that one of the primary rules discussed in a Journalism 101 class is: “The articles that you write are not about you.  No one will be reading your article to learn what you think, unless you’re writing an opinion piece.  If you’re covering a subject in a journalistic manner, however, remember that your readers are only reading your article to learn more about the subject.  It’s not about you.  Your readers won’t care about your opinion, your preferences, or what you think about the subject you’re covering, so be careful how you frame their answers.  If your subject says something stupid, infantile, or in any way revealing of their character, put that statement on the record, but do not comment, or frame, that quote in anyway.  That’s not your job.”  Judging by the course journalism has followed in the last generation, I’m quite sure that most journalism schools now include an asterisk with each of these rules that states: “Unless your subject is a Republican politician.”  As I wrote, however, Gene Simmons is not a Republican voter.

Inspiration—

“This guy sounds like a complete fraud,” a writer said of a fellow writer I was describing.  I wasn’t even done with my description of this fellow writer, when this writer interrupted me with her blunt characterization.  I wasn’t shocked by her assessment of this fellow writer.  She had said as much of other, more established writers, but it was apparent to me that this woman believed that by diminishing all other writers around her, her stature as a writer would somehow be fortified.  Had this been the first time I heard any writer say such a thing, I would’ve passed her comments off as flaws in her character, but I’ve heard a number of novices, and well-established writers, engage in the this practice.  If you’ve ever heard a U.F.O. chaser, a ghost hunter, or some fortune teller attempt to establish their bona fides by telling you that every other person engaged in their craft are fraudulent, then you have some idea what I’m detailing here.

Knowing how hard it is to come up with ideas, and execute those ideas to the point of proper completion, one would think that a writer would bend over backwards to extend professional courtesies to anyone trying to do the same.  If you think that, you’ve never sat down with a group of writers.

“You can say he’s a poor writer,” I said, “But are you saying he’s not a writer?”

“I’m saying he’s probably a hack,” she responded.  She didn’t arc her nose upward after saying that, but that’s how I now remember it.  It seemed like such a violation of the code, on so many levels, that it was hard to comprehend how she could be so brutal.

She cut me off before I could ask her what she meant by “hack”.  I know the general term applies to writers that write just to write, and churn out poor quality submissions for financial gain, but she had never read this person’s material.  She had never even met the man.  Yet, he was a hack in a manner that made her appear adept at using the word.

One essential component to avoid being called a hack, apparently, is to write so little that everything you write can be perceived as enlightened, or divine in nature.  If you want to avoid being a hack, you should never write what others might consider mundane.  Yet, those of us that truly love the minutiae involved in writing, believe that it’s only through exploring the mundane that moments of inspiration can be discovered.    

One key component to being in a position to level such a charge, and have that charge stick –I now know after reading her material— is to never allow those that hear you level it, read your material.  Your charge should remain an indefinable accusation that leaves you with the dignified, nose-in-the-air air about you.

Her material brought to mind the one key component of storytelling that every writer should focus on —be they a writer of vital, substantial material, or a hack— make sure it’s interesting.  Translation: You can be the most gifted writer the world has ever read, but if your material is not interesting, no one will care. 

In the face of the constructive comments (see negative) this woman received from our group, she said, “Perhaps, I’m a better editor, than I am a writer.”  Translation: I have little in the way of creative talent, but I am, indeed, gifted in the art of telling others how little they have. 

Brutal Honesty in the Age of Being Real


It was the best of times, it was the worst of times, it was the age of being real, it was the age of delusional thinking, it was the epoch of honesty, it was the epoch of lies, it was the season of transparency, it was the season of illusions, it was the spring of hope, it was the winter of despair, we had everything before us, we had nothing before us, we were going to achieve, what we had already achieved, what we would never achieve – in short, it was a period of time that needed to exist to rectify a period that may never have existed to the superlative degree of comparison that some of its noisiest authorities defined for the era.

It was the age of being real. It was the age of reality TV. Did reality TV bring about the advent of being real, or was reality TV a byproduct of it, in the manner a body puts out byproducts it can’t use? Did art imitate life or reflect it? Or, was reality TV a refraction of a very small sampling of the culture that the shows’ producers projected out into the society as a measure of realness that wasn’t ‘real’ to the superlative degree they portrayed?

"Lars and The Real Girl"

“Lars and The Real Girl”

How many times in one episode, of one reality show, did one participant say, “Hey, I’m just being real with ya” to assuage the guilt they might otherwise have associated with insulting another person? How many times did one of these shows’ participants gain a certain degree of realness on the back of the individual they were insulting? How many times was being real used as a confrontational device to belittle those people that were less real, until the real participant managed to gain some sort of superior definition?

One could be real without any substantive reflection in the era of being real. Being real, in such instances, was nothing more than a cudgel used to diminish another’s values. It was used as a weapon to castigate its victims into being more real, or more like the speaker, until the viewer of this exchange was left reflecting upon the disparity involved in their thinking. At that point, the viewer was supposed to accept that thought as real thinking, if they ever hoped to gain greater stature in the real-o-sphere. Most of us now reflect back on the being real era, and see it as an intellectually dishonest era, designed to promote the drama of the interactions, and the proselytizing of the speakers.

Being real was supposed to, at the very least, have a conjugal relationship with brutal honesty, and some of us used some nugget of that message to put more brutal honesty in our personal presentations, regardless if anyone thought we were more real or not. Those of us that attempted to present ourselves in a manner that could be called brutal honesty, in regards to how we thought we should be perceived, encountered a number of surprising reactions.

The most surprising reaction we received was no reaction. Our audience took it in stride, because they thought they were just as honest with themselves as we were. They lived with the idea that they were so honest that most people couldn’t handle their special brand of honesty. It didn’t dawn on them, however, that their version of brutal honesty was devoted to assessing others. Very few have temerity to point this idea out to these people, or that their particular brand of being real incorporated many of the same elements used by the dictionary to define the word delusional. Those of us that have attempted to assist others to view themselves in an objective light, to have them examine themselves in the era of being real, have encountered some confrontational push back.

Those that have never made a concerted effort to be honest about themselves, might expect that one being harshly critical of one’s self to be somewhat influential. The expectation I had was that others might “raise their game” in this regard, to be as honest as I was about myself. They didn’t, because, again, these Delusional People thought that they already were, and they thought they had always been as honest as I was.

Another surprising, and somewhat depressing, reaction to displaying brutal honesty about one’s self, in the age of being real, was that our listeners began to think less of us. One would think that a person that provides brutal truths about their life would be embraced, as being “So engaged in brutal honesty that it’s refreshing.” One would think with such brutal honesty coming their way, the listener couldn’t help but be more honest in return. No such luck. What often happens is that they join a person in their refreshing, honest assessments about themselves, but these people don’t engage the same objectivity in regards to them.

“How do you think you’d do in jail?” A Delusional Person asks Frank.

“Not well,” Frank replies with refreshing, brutal honesty.

The Delusional Person may laugh at this point, because being this honest can be humorous when the recipient is allowed to bathe in the weaknesses of its purveyor. The Delusional Person will often agree with Frank’s frank assessment of himself, but they won’t assess themselves by the same measure.

“How do you think you would do?” Frank returns.

“I think I’d do all right,” The Delusional Person replies.

Even in the age of being real, most people fell prey to projecting themselves into scenarios with images from their ideal state, still dancing in their head. This particular Delusional Person was once a championship-level wrestler that endured exhaustive workouts, and exercised levels of self-discipline, that most non-athletes will never know. This resulted in The Delusional Person being a finely crafted specimen that at one time may, indeed, have been capable of handling the hand-to-hand combat situations that are reported to occur within the confines of a cell block. The Delusional Person remembers those days with fondness.  He remembers those days as if they were yesterday, for the rest of their lives. Most Delusional People haven’t lifted a weight more than a hundred times in the last fifteen years, yet they still picture themselves in that peak physical form when putting themselves in scenarios. A more brutal and honest assessment, for this particular Delusional Person, would have been: “I don’t know, but I suspect that all of the years I’ve spent sitting behind a computer, and avoiding physical workouts, would be exposed early on.”

We all picture ourselves in peak physical condition when we listen to others speak about how they have let themselves go. We laugh when others joke about those that have gained weight, while forgetting that just last week we were just forced to purchase a thirty-six inch waist on a pair of pants for the first time. We’ll do this when we speak about the people we grew up with that “now look so old”, even though we’re now using hair-dye, wrinkle cream, and supplements to fight the aging process. We aren’t lying when we do this either, we’re projecting that idyllic image of ourselves into these scenarios that used to be able to lay out an entire prison yard when we were called upon to do so … in the movies.

Another surprising, and somewhat depressing, reaction to presenting one’s self in a brutally honest manner to a group of listeners is that even the most polite listeners begin to feel free to be brutally honest with the brutally honest:

“Are you sure that you’re capable of that?” a polite, and sweet, listener asked after I informed her that I threw my hat in the ring a promotion that had everyone abuzz. The surprising aspect of this question was not that she asked it, for it could be said that she was looking out for me in her own way, but that she had never asked such a question of any of our other co-workers. With them, she issued what could be called a Hallmark card-style responses to their desire to advance within the company. “Good luck!” she would say to them, or “I know you can do it.”

She asked me to reconsider whether or not I was qualified. Why? Was she jealous? After processing this, with the acknowledgement of her overwhelming polite and kind attributes, I realized that her concerns were simple reactions to all of the brutal honesty presentations I had provided her over the years. She didn’t want me to get hurt by the realities of my limits, limits that I had expressed in the course of being honest with my vulnerabilities, and she was just reacting to what she had been told by me.

As a result of such actions, people like my sweet, polite friend can inadvertently assist the person striving for brutal honesty into a depressing state of their reality. The honest assessor realizes, about halfway down this spiral, that they’re doing this to themselves, and that they’re becoming too honest. Their friends aren’t helping, but their friends are just listening and forming opinions based on what they’ve heard the speaker say, and they’re regurgitating the speaker’s harsh and brutal opinions of their capabilities back on them. The speaker’s friends are, in fact, greasing the skids to a form of depression. An honest assessor realizes, about halfway down this spiral, that they’ve become so realistic in their assessments that they’ve become brutally realistic.

They may start avoiding attempts to advance themselves, because they’ve become so realistic that they’re now asking themselves so many questions that they’re afraid to try and advance. As a result of such thorough examination, they’ve also become so realistic that they don’t think it’s realistic for any honest assessor to succeed. These could be called minor setbacks in the grand scheme of becoming more honest with one’s self, until the person engaging in brutal honesty begins to see that all of The Delusional People around them –some with half of their talent– begin to succeed beyond them. These Delusional People may even know that they’re lying to themselves, on some level, but they’re harmless little, white lies that everyone tells themselves in the quest for advancement, and if you can get all of them to add up just right, they may become a reality that no one can deny.

When Molly was promoted to this position that created the buzz, the confusion it created was almost painful. It wasn’t Armageddon, and no one was harmed by the company’s decision, but the aftermath of this tragedy left a proverbial wasteland that could be confused with some of the worst, real historic tragedies. The people that had devoted a large portion of their lives to this company felt that it could only be outweighed by familial or personal tragedies. The world moves on after a political disaster, and religious hypocrisies can be overcome through personal devotion, but a seismic disaster on par with a person of Molly’s character, and work ethic, landing a top gig in their company can leave reverberations that are felt throughout a person’s life. The company is where most people live most often. It’s a better indicator of how they’re living, as it’s the place where most people devote most of their resources. When things go wrong in the workplace, in other words, those things can reverberate throughout the rest of that person’s life. 

“Part of an interview involves salesmanship,” those in the know would tell the employees gathered in a team meeting, and that assessment was to remain within those closed doors, as off the record comments. This assessment was a “wink and a nod” attempt to assuage the confusion that was building around what many considered an absolute travesty. And many thought the truth would find a way to rear her beautiful head and rectify the situation. 

Those that have been in similar situations learn the term “new reality”. If those in the know comment on such a situation, they will say something along the lines of “You should be happy for Molly”. This leaves the suggestion that most of the confused, are confused about her promotion as a result of personal animus.

“That’s all well and good,” was the general reaction to these off the record comments, “But if Molly has any moral fiber, or conscience, she won’t be able to sleep at night.” No one cares. Molly has scoreboard.

Amid the personal and professional confusion, one honest assessor, from the out of the loop sector, stepped forth and professed the harsh reality of the situation: “Molly simply fed into the leadership mystique of her superiors better than others.”

When others concerned themselves with learning the inner machinations of the company’s system in a proficient manner that would impress their superiors, Molly was purchasing gift baskets for boss day. When others were out volunteering for special projects to pad their resumé, and working untold amounts of overtime to put a smile on their bosses’ faces, Molly was at the bosses’ lunch tables laughing at their jokes. And when all of the applicants were drilling the interviewer with the bullet points of their resumé, Molly was feeding into whatever mystique they wanted to gain in that particular setting. This was Molly’s primary skill set.

It was a bow atop the corporate basket of lies given to bosses, on boss day, in the age of being real. In the age of being real, employees began to demand more recognition for their accomplishments, and management responded, but in the end the employees realized that it was all part of a scripted, choreographed, and edited production designed to pacify their audience by mentioning their name in the credits that rolled out at the end of the day. When crunch time came, however, it was the Delusional People that had learned how to feed the mystique of those in the know that left everyone else feeling malnourished.

As the nuns told us in grade school, “Those that live in a dishonest manner will eventually get theirs” and that “Truth has a way of prevailing”, and Molly was eventually discovered to be “not a good fit” for the position, but she was promoted up and out of the position, and out of the department, and the person that replaced her was yet another mystique feeder.

The problem –those naïve enough to believe in the age of being real– discovered was not with Molly, but that Molly was emblematic of the problems inherent in a system that the honest people once believed would find a way to provide rewards to those honest, hard working people that put their nose to the grindstone. The problem that seemed so complex to those of us that tried to wrestle with it, turned out to be so simple. The problem was that those that controlled the spigots of reward for the hard working women and men in company were humans themselves, and humans are inherently susceptible to flattery.

The nuns also provided their grade school students the proviso that if you’re living the honest life with the expectation of eventually receiving concretized recognition for it, you’re doing it for all the wrong reasons. We knew that when they said this, they were preaching gospel. Even if we didn’t know the depth of their statement, at the time, some part of us knew that the rewards of living the honest life involved intangible, internal, and spiritual rewards. When the Delusional People began to beat us to the more tangible goals, however, most of the honest assessors in the group would be forced to admit that it was difficult not to be affected by it, if they were being real with you.

The Debilitating Fear of Failure


“The reason we struggle with insecurity,” notes Pastor Steven Furtick, “Is because we compare our behind-the-scenes with everyone else’s highlight reel.”

Some quotes educate us on matters we know nothing about, but the ones that stick take a matter we know everything about and puts a clever twist on it that changes our perspective. We all know failure, or some level of it, at various points of our life. Some of those failures have shaped us in profound ways that we assume everyone remembers the moment we enter a room, and some people will remember our failings, but will they remember their own, or will they compare our failings to their highlight reels.

Pastor Steven Furtick

Pastor Steven Furtick

“Acknowledging failure,” Megan McArdles writes in the book The Up Side of Down: Why Failing Well is the Key to Success, “Is a necessary first step in learning from it.”

Some of us are old enough to remember the severe penalty for missing a rung on the monkey bars. An erroneous grab, at the very least, could land a victim center-of-attention status, as we attempted to find our feet. At worst, it would cause the pack of onlookers to send an emissary to the office with a call for assistance. These everyone-is-looking-at-you moments are so immersed in embarrassment, and pain, that few can see any benefit to them.

Most of those liable for such situations, have lowered the monkey bars, and made the ground so forgivable that one would have to fall from a skyscraper to receive any pain. Thanks to these and other technological advances, fewer children get hurt on playgrounds, fewer playground ride manufacturers get sued, and everyone is much happier. There is one casualty, however, the pain of failure.

No one wants to see a child cry, and we should do everything we can to prevent it, but pain teaches us.

After a near fall in a supermarket, the checker complimented me on the agility and nimbleness I displayed to avoid hitting the ground. “It could be that,” I returned, “or it could be said that only one so well-practiced in the art of falling knows how to lessen the pain and injury normally associated with it.”

I eventually did touch ground a short time later, at a family reunion. I also touched a parked car, and then I touched the ground again. Among the lessons I learned is that pain hurts. Had it been a simple fall, it would be hardly worth noting. This was one of those by-the-time-this-ends type of falls everyone will be looking, some will be concerned, and most will be laughing. I thought I had corrected my trajectory a number of times, but I was moving too fast. By the time it was finally over, I silenced just about everyone in the vicinity. The kids around me laughed, as kids will do when anyone falls, and my age-denying (Not Defying!) brother laughed, but if the Greg Giraldo line, “You know you’re getting old when you fall down, no one laughs and random strangers come running over acting all concerned,” is true, then I am getting old.

Most lessons in life are learned the hard way, and they are often learned in isolation, in that even our closest friends and family members distance themselves from us in these moments, so that they have no association with them. These dissociations range from laughter to sympathy, but the latter can be just as dissociative as the former if it’s done a right. The point is, no matter how we deal with these moments of failure, we usually end up having to deal with them alone. If we learn how to deal with these largely inconsequential moments, The more we deal with them, the better we are able to deal with more consequential failures down the road.

The point is that the lessons learned through pain and embarrassment, are lessened by lowering the monkey bars, providing a forgiving ground, and instituting zero tolerance bully campaigns. The point is that those of us that see little-to-no benefit derived from bullying, or that any benefits are inconsequential when compared to the damage done by the bully may eventually see the fact that few lessons in life are learned by the individual, until those kids enter adult arenas.

A quote like Pastor Steven Furtick’s, also tells us the obvious fact that we’re not alone in having moments of failure, but that those that can deal with them in the proper perspective  might actually be able to use them to succeed on some levels.

Artistic Creations

Any individual that attempts to create some form of art knows more about comparing another’s “highlight reels” to their “behind-the-scenes” efforts better than most.

In the process of becoming an artist, every individual artist has a shining light that influences them. That shining light provides a template for which the artistic form, that interests the young artist, should be accomplished. For the purpose of this discussion, let’s say that shining light of influence is Stephen King, since he is the most ubiquitous and influential author to most young writers of the modern age. After reading King often enough, a young writer may believe he can write like King. After repeated attempts, this young writer eventually realizes he can’t write like King, but in the course of those efforts he may have almost inadvertently created a voice that is somewhat his own. After repeated attempts to further develop this voice, some otherwise inconsequential person comes along, reads his stuff, and picks out a line or two saying, “That’s halfway decent.”  Buoyed by the compliment, the writer expands upon those few lines and begins to grow so divergent that the Stephen King influence is no longer as recognizable in his writing.

The point of this very succinct summation of the artistic process is that if the writer gets bogged down in any phase of the process, with the idea that he can’t write duplicate King’s highlight reels the writer is done before they get started. If that young writer eventually learns that taking that influence, from that influential writer, is simply a part of the process to developing a voice, he may be able to develop his own highlight reels.

1455Ernest Hemingway

How many times did Ernest Hemingway grow insecure when comparing his behind-the-scenes efforts to the shining lights that preceded him? How many times did he fail, how many times did he quit, and give up, under that personally assigned barometer, before finally finding a unique path to success?

Even in the prime of his writing career, Hemingway admitted that about 1 percent of what he wrote was usable. Think about that, 1 percent of what he wrote for The Old Man and the Sea, was publishable, worth seeing, and that which Hemingway considered worthy of the highlight reel that we know as the thin book called The Old Man and the Sea. The other 99 percent of what he wrote, proved to be unpublishable by Hemingway’s standards. Yet, this highlight reel of the Old Man and the Sea writing sessions are what has inspired generations of writers to write, and frustrated those that don’t consider all of the behind-the-scenes writing that never made it in the book’s final form.

mark-twain-6fa45e42400eea8cac3953cb267d66a33825a370-s6-c30Mark Twain

“Most of what Mark Twain wrote was dreck,” writes Kyle Smith.{1}

Most of us know Tom Sawyer and Huckleberry Finn, the highlight reels of Mark Twain’s writing. We know the infamous Twain quotes that occurred in the numerous speeches he gave, and the essays that he wrote, but it is believed that he wrote as many as 50,000 letters, 3,000 to 4,000 newspaper and magazine articles, and hundreds of thousands of words that were never published. Twain also wrote hundreds of literary manuscripts—books, stories, and essays—that he published, and then abandoned, or gave away. Almost all of it has been discovered over the last century, and placed in a home called The Mark Twain Papers.{2}

Very few of us are so interested in Mark Twain, or any of his writing, that we want to read his “dreck”. Very few of us are so fanatical about Twain that we want to know the material he, and his publishers, deemed unpublishable. Yet that “dreck” ended up fertilizing the foundation of his thought process so well that he churned out two highlight reels that many agree to be historic in nature. Similarly, very few would want to want to watch a Michael Jordan, or a Deion Sanders, practice through the years to tweak, and foster their athletic talent to a point that we now have numerous three to four second highlight reels of their athletic prowess. Their behind-the-scenes struggles may provide some interesting insight into their process, but they’ve become a footnote at the bottom of the page of their story that no one wants to endure in total.

nirvanain-365xXx80Kurt Cobain

When we hear the music contained on Nirvana’s Nevermind, we hear a different kind of genius at work. We hear their highlight reels. We don’t know, or care, about all of the “dreck” Kurt Cobain wrote in quiet corners. Most of us, don’t know, or care, about the songs that didn’t make it on Nevermind. Most of us don’t know, or care, about all the errors he committed, the refining, and the crafting that went into perfecting each song on the album, until the final form was achieved. We only want the final form, the highlight reels, and some of us only want one highlight reel: Smells Like Teen Spirit.

On an album prior to Nirvana’s Nevermind, called Bleach, Kurt Cobain penned a song called Floyd the Barber. “Where does the kernel of a song like that start?” Soundgarden’s Chris Cornell asked. Cornell may not have come from the exact same background as Cobain, and he may not have been influenced by the exact same artists as Cobain, but he presumably felt like his creative process was close enough to Cobain’s that he couldn’t fathom how the man achieved such divergence from the norms of musical creation. Those familiar with Cobain’s story also know that he was heavily influenced by the music of Soundgarden, and that fact probably confused Cornell all the more.

Other than Soundgarden, Cobain also loved Queen, The Beatles, The Pixies, The Melvins, and a number of other lesser known bands. How much of his early works were so similar to those artists that no one took him seriously? As I wrote earlier, it’s a major part of the artistic process that every artist goes through to attempt to duplicate influential artists in some manner. It’s a step in the process of crafting original works. When that artist duplicates those that came before them often enough the artist (almost accidentally) begins to branch off into building something different … if they have any talent for creation in the first place.

Divergence in the artistic process

Few artists can pinpoint that exact moment when they were finally been able to break the shackles of their influences, for it happens so progressively that it’s almost impossible to pinpoint. Most artists do remember that moment when that one, somewhat inconsequential person said that some aspect of their piece wasn’t half bad however. At that point, the artist becomes obsessed to duplicate, or replicate, that nugget of an idea. Once that nugget is added to another nugget, those nuggets become a bold idea that wasn’t half bad. Once that is achieved, another bold idea is added, until it all equals a “halfway decent” compendium of ideas that may form something good. At that point, the artist believes he has something that others may consider unique enough to be called an artistic creation in its own right. When enough unique, artistic creations are complete, the artist may eventually achieve their own highlight reels.

When did Cobain finally begin to branch off? How did he become divergent, and creative, and different on a level that made him an organic writer to be reckoned with? How many casual statements, spray paintings on walls, and other assorted personal experiences had to occur before Kurt Cobain had the lyrics for Nevermind? How many of different guitar structures did Cobain and company work through, until he arrived at something usable? How many Nevermind lifted music or lyrics from other failed songs, casual strummings in a closet, and offshoots of other guitarists? What did Floyd the Barber, Come as You Are, and Pennyroyal Tea sound like in those moments when they first found their way from notepad to basement practice sessions? How many transformations did these songs go through in those practice sessions, until they were entirely original, and transformative, and legendary additions to the albums they were included on? If Cobain were alive to answer the question, would he acknowledge that Nevermind is a 1% highlight reel of about a decade of work? Most of us don’t care, we only want to hear the highlight reels, so we have something to tap our finger to on the ride home from work.

Cobain’s highlight reel, Nevermind, proved to be so popular that record execs, and fans, called for a B-list, in the form of the album Incesticide. That album proved Cobain’s B-list was better than most people’s A-list, but what about the D-list, and E-list songs that proved to be so embarrassing that no one outside his inner circle ever knew they existed?

The point is that some of us are so influenced by an artist’s highlight reels that we want to replicate it, and duplicate it, until we become equally as famous as a result, and when we don’t, we think that there is something wrong with us. The point is that the difference between a Mark Twain, a Hemingway, a Cobain, and those that compare their behind-the-scenes work to an influential artist’s highlight reels is that while these artists recognized that most of what they did was “dreck”, they also knew that their behind-the-scenes struggles could be used as fertilizer to feed some flowers.

So, the next time you sit behind behind-the-scenes of your computer keyboard, tattered spiral notebook, or whatever your blank canvas is, remember that all of those geniuses —that so inspired you to be doing what you are doing right now— probably spent as many hours as you do staring at a blank page, or a blinking cursor, trying to weed through all the “dreck”, that every artist creates, to create something different, something divergent from all those creations that inspired them to create. You now know that they succeeded in that plight, but you only know that because the only thing you want to see, hear, and read are their highlight reels.

{1}http://www.forbes.com/sites/kylesmith/2014/02/20/what-mark-twain-van-halen-and-dan-rather-teach-us-about-failure/

{2}http://www.marktwainproject.org/about_projecthistory.shtml

Rules for Traditionalists


A brief, general description of the traditional versus the secular progressive

In the world of social commentary, there is a continental divide between traditional thinkers and secular progressive (SP) thinkers. SPs generally believe that any societal move that parts with tradition improves the human condition, and it is a sign of progress (hence the term progressivism). Traditionalists generally believe that if an individual can find a way to follow the traditional path in life—that which is usually passed down by parents, grandparents, and religious leaders—it can improve their condition in life.

stelarcfaceTraditionalists aren’t necessarily conservative, Republican, or religious, but they generally tend to be all of the above. By equal measure, non-traditional thinkers aren’t necessarily liberal, progressive, Democrat, or secular, but they generally tend to be all of the above. The point, in making all of these delineations, is that there is a continental divide in the aisle between the two philosophies no matter what labels they are given… Or not given, if you’re one of those that abhor labels.

1) The difference between being right and being effective. Every writer believes that they are correct about their issue, and they have absolute conviction in their position. If they didn’t, they probably wouldn’t be writing about it. Non-writers may enjoy a lunchtime discussion, over given topics, but they are not the type that will get so passionate about a topic, that they feel a need to blog it out. The problem with being so passionate is that a writer can reach a point where they begin to lose effectiveness. Most writers have learned, over time, to rein it in. Most writers have found that even the most passionate, most partisan sentence can be finessed in a manner that makes it digestible to the most non-ideological among us.

2) Avoid being easily dismissed.  It is vital for traditional writers to finesse their work, because SP critics are always on the lookout for ways to dismiss traditional voices from the conversation. SP critics do not, usually, engage in point/counterpoint arguments with traditional thinkers. They seek to dismiss them. A traditional writer could have a piece that contains nine solid points about a given topic, but one point that can be spun as inflammatory, and incendiary. The SP critic will focus on that one point and characterize, and mischaracterize it, until they feel that the other nine points are diminished by comparison. Or, they will characterize the author with that one point, in such a manner that they hope that author is dismissed and hopefully never read.

Anyone that pays attention to the manner in which SP thinkers operate knows that they will attempt to dismiss a traditional thinker’s viewpoint based on their physical characteristics, their religion, their income, and, of course, their political viewpoint. With that in mind, it is incumbent on all traditional voices to avoid giving SP critics easy ammunition that they can use to prevent potential readers from reading you.

Anytime I read, or hear, traditional voices provide SPs easy ammunition, I often wonder if they realize how damaging to their cause they are. I wonder if they’ve ever heard, or read, SPs diminish individuals, causes, and entire political parties and dismiss them based on one sentence. I often wonder if these traditional voices have cable, and if they’ve ever watched MSNBC. I often wonder if they’ve spent any time mining their material to, at the very least, make it more difficult for the SPs to manipulate a potential audience with a dismissal. This careful, and mindful, editing is not about being less passionate, to my mind, it’s about being disciplined.

If you’re writing traditional pieces, know that the other side is probably doing keyword searches on your piece to try and find a way to dismiss you. They’re looking to characterize, and mischaracterize, you, so that they can dismiss everything you’ve written. As I wrote, most SP thinkers will personally dismiss your piece on the basis that your piece represents a view that’s different from theirs, but for them to dismiss it to a potential audience, they need you to provide them some ammunition. Some of them may feel guilty dismissing you on your physical characteristics, and they may fear that that’s less than effective, so they need your cooperation. Unfortunately, some traditional voices do cooperate by providing such ammunition when they get so passionate that they forget the discipline required to be effective.

The best method, I’ve found, for maintaining discipline is to pour all of my ideological passion into a piece, and then go back through it with the mindset of an SP mind seeking to dismiss me. My pieces are not stripped of ideological passion, but they are carefully edited in such a manner that they are more difficult to spin as inflammatory, and in my opinion, they are more easily consumed by non-ideological readers.

3) Don’t preach to the choir. Some people might say, I’m not writing my particular piece for the other side, so why should I avoid words that they might not like? To answer this question, you have to answer another question: To whom are you writing this piece? Are you looking to get high fives from like-minded readers, or are you attempting to reach a broader audience? Are you looking to feed into the confirmation bias of your readers, or are you trying to persuade those indecisive readers that your viewpoint might be one to consider? Are you trying to help other people reach clarity on an issue, or are you trying to prove to other traditional thinkers that you’re well-informed on the traditional viewpoint? Are you trying to tell other people what you think, or are you trying to clarify an issue to the point that they may, eventually, agree with you?

4) Allow your readers to reach their own conclusions. The most persuasive pieces I’ve ever read are those that know the other side so well that they can not only provide the other side’s views, but they can persuasively nuke them. These pieces don’t characterize the other side, or pretend to know their motivations. They present facts, and some opinions based on those facts. They then provide possible alternative conclusions to all these facts and opinions, and they persuasively nuke those conclusions, until the reader arrives at what, they believe, is a logical conclusion that just happens to match the authors.

5) Communicate your ideas clearly. Whereas the SP side attempts to provide nuanced confusion and obfuscation of an issue, the goal of every traditional writer should be to communicate their ideas clearly.

It can be tough, for example, for even the most conservative Republicans to be against some SP tenets, if it is their desire to adhere to individualist tenets.  A true individualist tries to remain true to the absolute definitions of individual freedom, regardless what their other beliefs may be. Most true individualists have attempted to follow the somewhat arbitrary rules of individualism with philosophical purity, only to find an empty pot at the end of the rainbow. It made sense to us, at one point in our lives, to follow this path. We knew we were different, and we knew out different circumstances required a different, and new and improved, approach than that of our parents and grandparents. We knew that, compared to them, we needed an unconventional approach in our pursuit of truth. We are all individuals, is the nuanced philosophy of most individualists, and what may work for one, may not work for another. Most individualists, that have attempted to follow these nuanced, unconventional paths to their logical conclusions, have eventually, and painstakingly, found that we were incorrect with our assumptions.

Recent history has shown us that the SP mind is geared towards dismissing traditional voices.  If you are disciplined enough to avoid providing them that one point that can be spun as inflammatory, or incindiary, they may attempt to dismiss you by arbitrarily changing the playing field on you.  They may group you in with like-minded thinkers that have made such statements, and they may force you to defend these people.  If they don’t have easy ammunition to use on you, they may inform their audience of your physical characteristics, your religion, your income bracket, or your political beliefs to suggest that your argument should not be considered, on this particular topic, for that reason. These are all forces beyond your control, however, and you can’t worry about all that while writing.  You need to focus on what you can control.  You can control your words, and you control your content, to the point that when they have exhausted all of their attempts to dismiss you, those attempts say more about them than they do you.