Category Archives: human nature

How The Internet Has Weakened (But Not Destroyed) Organized Religion

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The current state of organized religion is ripe with conflict and mixed messages. On one hand, religious affiliation has significantly declined over the past 30 years. According to a 2018 survey from Eastern Illinois University, around 23 percent of the US population identifies as having “no religion.” For comparison, that number was only 5 percent in 1972.

In other industrialized countries, the decline is even more pronounced. Throughout Europe, more and more people are drifting away from organized religion. That’s especially true of young people, who are one of the least religious demographics in modern history. In terms of the bigger picture, organized religion is facing a generational time bomb that’s just starting to go off.

At the same time, however, religion still exercises an absurd amount of political power. Religious groups, particularly those who align themselves with conservative politics, have enormous influence. Its platform is tightly woven with that of a major political party. Many people in positions of power identify as religious. Many more rely on a religious base to get elected.

It’s a strange trend that seems counter-intuitive. How can something be weakening due to declining adherents, but still wield so much power? In an age where the egregious crimes of religious institutions have been exposed and more people are educated on the many absurdities of various holy texts, it feels as though organized religion should be on its death bed.

While there are many factors behind this situation, I believe that one particular factor is more influential than most. It also happens to be the same factor that has done the most to weaken religion while helping to sustain its political and social influence. It’s a force that has already radically changed everyone’s life, regardless of their affiliation.

That force is the internet and its impact on religion cannot be overstated.

I’m old enough to remember what it was like to talk about religion in the pre-internet days. You listened to your parents, relatives, priests, mullahs, rabbis, and monks. They told you the history and tenants of their religion. You might ask questions. You might not understand the philosophy behind it. No matter how curious or skeptical you were, you could only do so much to question it.

Most of the time, you just had to trust your elders that they knew what they were talking about. You also had to trust that they wouldn’t lie to you, which is often a risky bet. If you were really motivated, you might go to a library and do some research. Even then, you’d have an uphill battle a head of you, given the many complexities behind religion and why people believe in it.

These days, it’s exceedingly simple to fact check an absurd religious claim. If someone were to claim that a 900-year-old man built a 300-foot wooden boat that housed two of every kind of animal for 40 days during a global flood, you wouldn’t have to spend years in college to learn why that’s absurd. You could just pull out your phone, do a few simple searches, and find out why this claim is completely wrong.

Even a kid who has only taken a basic science class can look up any of the stories their priest, mullah, rabbi, or monk tell them to find out whether they’re based on real history or embellished folklore. Religious institutions, parents, and schools can fight to control the information their young people receive. Many organizations do engage in activities that are outright indoctrination.

However, as demographic trends show, the effectiveness of those efforts only go so far. The information about the absurdities, inconsistencies, lies, and agendas is still out there. It’s widely available to anyone who can access a smartphone or a computer. There’s only so much anyone can do to prevent someone from accessing that information.

As a result, organized religion will never have the same sway it once did in centuries past. No matter how much conservative reactionaries complain, it’s impossible to go back. The combination of modern education and accessible information ensures that major religious institutions will never wield the power they once did.

Given the complexities of modern societies and the geopolitics surrounding it, it’s just not practical for a centralized religious institution to exist. The Vatican can still make statements about morality, ethics, and spiritual matters. It just has no means of enforcing them, as evidenced by how little typical Catholics follow their edicts.

Even without this power, the same internet that has permanently weakened religion is also the same thing that sustains some of its considerable influence. In fact, the internet might act as a catalyst that can turn certain individuals from nominal adherents to ardent zealots.

Think back to the young people sitting in churches, mosques, synagogues, or temples. While some might casually look up the religious claims out of curiosities, others might go out of their way to find information that confirms these claims. Even if they’re factually wrong, they’ll look for any bit of information that they can twist to make it seem true and cling to it.

This is why creationism still persists, despite extensive resources that thoroughly debunk it. If someone is really determined to find information that affirms their beliefs, they’ll find it on the internet the same way people find cat videos and knife-wielding crabs. There will even be unscrupulous people to exploit them, including those who are convicted felons.

Like it or not, there are people who sincerely want to believe their preferred religion and will cling to anything that strengthens that belief. Given the open nature of the internet, shaped by the whims of users rather than objective truth, it’s distressingly easy for someone to customize what kind of information they receive.

If someone only wants news and memes about how their religion is true while everyone else is doomed to eternal torture in Hell, then that’s what they’ll get. They can get their news and information from exceedingly bias sources while brushing off others as fake news. There’s nothing from stopping anyone from using the internet in such a manner.

We already see how this has divided people along political lines in recent years. I would argue that this has been going on with religion for even longer. The rise of the religious right and the prevalence of religious media has done plenty to tighten their grasp on ardent believers. While less people may identify as religious, those who do tend to be more dogmatic about it.

Since those kinds of believers can be mobilized and pandered to, they’re a more unified political force. As such, appealing to them means gaining power. That power may be tenuous and limited, but it’s still viable power that plenty of politicians exploit, sometimes to an egregious extent.

In a sense, the internet has made it easy for both the extreme zealots and the inherently skeptical. Those who might have identified as religious out of tradition in the past are more comfortable identifying themselves as non-religious today. It also helps there’s not as much stigma to being a non-believer as there used to be.

At the same time, those who were devout before can become outright zealots if they consume enough extreme content. In fact, their declining numbers in the general population might give them more reasons to become zealous. History has shown that small bands of religious zealots can do a lot of damage. The internet might hinder their ability to gain adherents, but it might also make them more desperate.

It’s a scary possibility, but one I tend to believe is remote. While I might not be a fan of organized religion, I still have many friends and family members who are religious and wonderful human beings. The internet hasn’t changed that. In the long run, I believe that basic humanity that binds us all will win out in the long run. The internet won’t always help, but it’s certainly a valuable tool.

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Filed under extremism, human nature, philosophy, politics, religion

How Jar Jar Binks Exposed The Flaws (And Dangers) Of Social Media

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Every now and then, something extraordinary happens that reveals how flawed our current system is and how far behind we are in terms of fixing it. Sometimes, it’s tragic. Sometimes, it’s frustrating. In rare cases, it’s hilarious, albeit in a distressing way. Personally, I find those cases most revealing.

Recently, there was one notable instance that included one of the most reviled fictional characters of the past 20 years. No, I’m not talking about King Joffrey or Ramsay Bolton. I’m talking about Jar Jar Binks. If you’re a “Star Wars” fan, then that name likely inspires all sorts of anger, dread, and distress.

Jar Jar is both a joke and a cautionary tale. Aside from proving that George Lucas has no business directing another “Star Wars,” he demonstrates just how wrong an attempt at comedic relief can go. While he wasn’t the only problem with the prequels, he augmented the flaws. On top of being annoying, incoherent, and incompetent most of the time, he was a major symptom of a much larger disease.

Once again, everything that makes Jar Jar such a pariah in the cultural landscape has exposed another disease in a place that’s not far, far away. For reasons that many found confusing and confounding, Jar Jar started trending on Twitter. While there was a someone legitimate reason for this, it was indirect and unintentional. There was no concerted effort to get him trending. It wasn’t even part of any elaborate trolling.

The fact that it took a while to explain why this infamous character was trending says more about social media than it does about Jar Jar. There’s no question that social media has changed the media landscape in ways that cannot be overstated. We current live in a world where companies invest a great deal of time and resources into making their presence on social media unique. Some definitely do it better than others.

At the same time, social media has not always had a positive effect on the world and its users. There have been plenty of cases where social media has been used to brutally harass people and spread blatant lies. There are even some cases in which social media played a role in directing real harm to innocent people. The dangers are there and well-documented.

Most people with an internet connection know those dangers are there. Many see it as the cost of doing business for a technology that has an uncanny ability to connect people. I certainly pay that cost, given my own presence on social media. However, what just happened with Jar Jar on Twitter demonstrated that the cost might have hidden fees in the fine print.

Remember, there was no concerted effort to get Jar Jar trending. Even after he did, nobody could figure out why he was trending. On top of that, the fact that nobody could figure it out only got people more curious, which made him trend even more. It was a self-reinforcing cycle that was funny in some respects, but distressing in many others.

It’s somewhat similar to what happens with people who are famous just for being famous and little more. This unfortunate, but inescapable aspect of celebrity culture rarely creates people who garner respect or admiration. If anything, they foster cynicism and disconnection from the culture. That kind of fame just feels so random, unearned, and empty. Thanks to Jar Jar, we now know social media trends can do the same.

Things can trend for no discernible reason. Matters that nobody even wants to get trending can garner unexpected and often unwanted attention. Thanks to the mechanisms of social media, the mystery behind why something trends can make it trend even more. While that’s going on, legitimate issues that warrant attention can slip under the radar.

Human beings only have so much attention to give. When something like Jar Jar trends for no discernible reason, a non-significant chunk of our collective attention is redirected. It would be one thing if it were just some masterfully act of trolling, but this is something we do to ourselves collective. That means we have no one to blame but ourselves when something like Jar Jar trends.

We’re the ones who make and share these hashtags. The social media companies are just tools and businesses. Like many companies, they’ll engage in plenty of shady activities. They’ll do whatever they think will make them more money. At the end of the day, though, we’re still the consumers who shape social media.

That should be cause for concern because this isn’t vapid celebrity culture we’re dealing with. The things that trend on social media have real-world consequences. Companies have suffered significant harm. Lives of non-celebrity people have been ruined. A random person who becomes famous for no reason rarely causes actual harm to anyone. Social media trends can do so much more.

In some cases, it can cause a great deal of good. If the right thing gets trending, it can rally people to a worthy cause. It can also inform the public of a serious issue. It can even turn real-world tragedies into a powerful force for good. Personally, I think this good overshadows the bad, but when I see Jar Jar trending, I can’t deny that there’s a flaw in this system.

Is there a fix? I believe there is, but I don’t believe it’s as simple as companies tweaking their rules or insulting people who share hash tags. Jar Jar may have been a source of frustration in the early 2000s, but he’s only relevant in 2019 because we make him relevant. It’s not him. It’s not George Lucas. This is all us.

I believe we’re better than that. Despite all the awful things I’ve seen trending on Twitter and Facebook, I see far more positives that warrant far greater attention. Jar Jar might be a symptom, but I take comfort in the fact that he’s a symptom that often burns out quickly. When something is empty, people get bored of it much easier and nobody should ever underestimate the power of boredom.

In the grand scheme of things, Jar Jar trending for no reason isn’t necessarily a setback. It’s just a sign that we, as a tech-savvy society, have a long way to go with respect to managing social media. In an imperfect world, dumb things will trend for dumb reasons. However, when something like Jar Jar starts trending, that’s a sign that we have plenty of room for improvement.

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Filed under human nature, media issues, outrage culture, political correctness, psychology, Star Wars, technology, War on Boredom

What “Malcolm In The Middle” And “Joker” Can Teach Us About Deviance

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What makes someone deviant? What turns otherwise normal human beings into the kind of deviants who go onto commit crimes, foster discord, or lash out at the rest of society? These questions are often contemplated by psychologists, police, politicians, and people who just want to live in peace.

The answers aren’t easy, but they often make for compelling movies and TV shows. Some dare to offer answers that are as revealing as they are distressing. That’s part of what made “Joker” such an impactful movie. It’s also what triggered the controversy surrounding its subversive message. I tried to explore that message my review of the movie, but in doing so, I uncovered something surprising.

The themes in “Joker” are more relevant today than they’ve been in years. It makes the case that when people denigrate, marginalize, or ignore those in the lowest rungs of society, they’re going to create the kinds of monsters and supervillains that undermine the current order. Moreover, they deserve the chaos and deviance that these individuals cause.

In “Joker,” Arthur Fleck was a perfect storm of unfortunate circumstances and societal denigration. While Gotham City didn’t turn him into the Joker, they put him in a position to make those fateful choices. Nobody tried to help him or give him other options. If anything, the help and options he needed were taken away. It was part of what made his deviance both compelling and understandable.

It reminded me of a famous TV show that made a similar point, albeit one from a very different genre and medium. It dared to make that point decade earlier, long before the current controversies surrounding mass shooters in movie theaters and so-called “incel culture.” That show is “Malcolm In The Middle.”

The two narratives couldn’t be more different. One is an R-rated movie that defies the conventions of the superhero genre and explores the twisted mind of an iconic villain. The other is a prime-time sitcom full of funny, cartoonish antics from a dysfunctional working-class family. One is dark and serious. The other is funny and light-hearted.

Despite those vast differences, they convey very similar messages. They both make the case that a callous, negligent society will create deviant individuals within its most disadvantaged. They also highlight how efforts to push them aside or suppress their deviance will only make things worse.

In “Joker,” it turned Arthur Fleck into an agent of chaos who went onto inspire more chaos in others. The circumstances in “Malcolm In The Middle” were very different and a lot more subtle, but the underlying message was still there.

It’s subtle, but it’s there.

From the first episode of the show to its finale, Malcolm and his family are depicted as both dysfunctional and disadvantaged. In some instances, they’re downright destitute. On many occasions, they deal with crippling debt, dead-end jobs, and arrogant upper-class types who look down on them with disgust. More often than not, Malcolm and his brothers get back at them in their own creative way.

Whatever form the antics take, the show never uses the lower-class status of Malcolm’s family to justify their behavior. Much like “Joker,” it establishes that the characters have agency. They’re dealt a lousy hand, but they still have opportunities to make non-deviant choices. They’re rarely forced into deviant acts. Opportunities arise and they exercise poor judgement, to say the least.

The very least.

Malcolm and his brothers didn’t have to lie about what happened to Dewey’s bike in Season 1, Episode 15. They did it anyways and things only escalated from there when the consequences caught up with them.

Malcom and his brother didn’t have to buy their mother a terrible birthday gift in Season 2, Episode 3. They still did and the end result led to them fighting an army of clowns in one of the show’s most memorable moments.

It’s not just the kids, either. Hal didn’t have to resort to unorthodox tactics when coaching Dewey’s soccer team in Season 3, Episode 16. He still did and things only got messier from there.

Lois didn’t have to force Malcolm to getting a job as terrible as hers in order to teach him a lesson in Season 5, Episode 6. She still did and, in doing so, taught him an entirely different lesson about just how screwed people like them are. It’s a message that even found its way into her memorable speech in the series finale.

It’s an important component of the show’s brilliance and humor. Malcolm and his family are a mess. They’re constantly getting screwed over by circumstances, bad choices, and other people who look down on them. However, they never come off as victims, nor do they carry themselves as such. They have opportunities to become less dysfunction, but often squander them.

Arthur Fleck had chances to become something other than a killer clown. There were a number of instances in “Joker” in which he could’ve gone a different path. He simply chose not to and society didn’t lift a finger to help him. If anything, they took away what little help he got.

Throughout seven seasons in “Malcolm In The Middle,” Malcolm’s family finds themselves in similar situations. One of the best examples is in Season 4, Episode 17, which happened to be the second clip show episode. In that episode, Hal and Lois recount the births of their kids as they prepare for the arrival of another.

In every instance, the births are subject to strange and hilarious circumstances. In one of them, Lois goes into labor in the driveway of their house because Francis locked her out of the car. Then, while she’s writhing in pain from the labor, a jogger passes by. She yells out she’s having a baby, but the jogger just ignores her and congratulates her.

It’s funny, but symptomatic of the family’s lot in life. Nobody goes out of their way for them. Nobody offers to help them. It even happens again a few episodes later in Season 4, Episode 21 when Lois goes into labor with Jamie. Even though someone calls 9-1-1 and an ambulance arrives, they don’t get there until after she gives birth. The EMTs even joke about how they stopped for coffee.

Like Arthur Fleck, the society around Malcolm’s family doesn’t care about them. They even go out of their way to avoid or neglect them. In “Joker,” Arthur is repeatedly victimized by both the system and individuals who go out of their way to harass him. His situation is already bad, but these ordeals only make it worse.

Early in the movie, Arthur does show signs that he’s capable of being a decent person. He tried to make a kid on the bus laugh. He entertained sick children at a hospital. He could’ve been a productive, positive force in society. Then, society started screwing him over and bad choices on his part led him to become a dangerous deviant.

While Malcolm and his family didn’t become as deviant as the Joker, they still did plenty of damage with their antics. At the same time, there were plenty of instances that showed that, as dysfunctional as they were, they could still be good and decent to others when given the chance. They just rarely got those changes and society rarely provided the incentives.

It’s a powerful message with respect to what makes people deviant. Some people are at the mercy of bad circumstances, be they poverty, mental illness, or having an overbearing mother like Lois. They’re still capable of being good, but it’s easier for them to become deviant when society neglects them. That deviance only compounds as a result of poor judgement and bad choices.

Yes, they compound a LOT.

There are plenty of differences between “Joker” and “Malcolm In The Middle.” Whereas “Joker” takes things to the worst possible outcome in the descent towards deviance, “Malcolm In The Middle” manages to maintain a more hopeful outlook. People can still be deviant and dysfunctional, but they can rise above it. The events of the series finale affirm that.

Those differences aside, this movie and this TV show offer lessons and insight into something that all societies must deal with. There will always be a certain level of deviance. There will also be those more inclined to pursue it. It’s just a matter of how to confront it. More than anything else, “Joker” and “Malcolm In The Middle” shows the consequences of confronting it the wrong way.

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Filed under Current Events, human nature, movies, psychology, television, Villains Journey

Why “Joker” Is Brilliant, But Controversial (For The Wrong Reasons)

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Every now and then, a movie comes along that’s brilliant in so many ways, but undermined by the circumstances of its release. In the same way certain movies come along at just the right time to become a cultural phenomenon, others hit theaters with unexpected forces working against them.

When “The Dark Knight” came out in 2008, its timing was perfect. It struck all the right notes from a cinematic, narrative, and cultural perspective. On top of that, Heath Ledger’s performance as the Joker went down as one of the greatest displays of acting prowess of all time, and not just for a superhero movie. For many, myself included, Ledger’s version of the Joker will always be the one by which all others are measured.

By contrast, “Joker” couldn’t have been timed worse. The current social, political, and cultural landscape is vulnerable and hypersensitive to every one of the themes it explores. On top of that, the movie explores those things very well, so much so that it warrants being in the same conversation as “The Dark Knight” in terms of how it portrays the Joker.

While Heath Ledger’s Joker is still superior in almost every way, what Joaquin Phoenix accomplished in this movie deserves plenty of praise. At the very least, it helps cleanse the memories of those still cringing at Jared Leto’s rather eccentric take on the character in “Suicide Squad.”

This movie, as well as Phoenix’s performance, comes at a time when taboos about mental health and disturbed lonely men are hot-button topics. On top of that, a string of mass shootings perpetrated by disturbed men, some with disturbing manifestos, has created real-life horror while stoking genuine fears. The story in “Joker” neither avoids nor downplays those issues.

This movie also dares to do something that few beyond Alan More has been able to achieve, which is to give the Joker a backstory. For many lifelong comic fans, especially Batman fans, the very concept of fleshing out this character undermines the core of his appeal. He has always functioned better as a chaotic force of nature rather than a person with a tangible history.

Ever since his creation in 1940, his life and his story have been vague. He has been defined as a perfect counter to Batman’s never-ending crusade. Whereas Batman seeks justice through clear, defined rules, the Joker seeks chaos and laughs at such rules. He can never be too defined, as a character, if he’s to personify that chaos.

Despite these challenges, “Joker” finds a way to tell his story and, like “The Dark Knight” before it, actually manages to make the Joker even more terrifying. Through the character of Arthur Fleck, we see a disturbed mind trapped within an environment that does everything to make his condition worse. Through both unavoidable circumstances and fateful choices, we see this broken mind become something far more dangerous.

It doesn’t happen all at once. There’s no single trigger, like falling into a vat of chemicals. There’s a cumulative effect to Arthur Fleck’s transformation. It’s not always logical or smooth, which comes off as intentional from the beginning. The only constant is that Fleck gets more twisted and unhinged with each escalating event.

This is where Phoenix’s performance really shines. He carries himself with a presence that feels very close to what Ledger captured in “The Dark Knight.” He starts off as simply being mentally ill and struggling with it. However, what he does with his illness and what it does to him turns him into something more than just another disturbed loner.

It’s here where the controversy behind the “Joker” takes hold. I would argue it’s a dumb controversy, but it was serious enough for Aurora, Colorado to cancel screenings of the movie. While it feels like an overreaction, it’s somewhat understandable, given what happened in Aurora in 2012.

If that were the extent of the controversy, then “Joker” would only be a passing concern for most people. Then came the idea the movie celebrates or glorifies “incel culture” through Fleck’s story. While I usually try to be balanced when scrutinizing certain ideas, even if they’re absurd, I can’t do that this time.

Simply put, this part of the controversy is just plain stupid. There’s no better way to say it.

Worrying that this movie might somehow inspire lonely, disturbed men to go on killing sprees is completely without merit. It’s akin to worrying that “Friday the 13th” will inspire anyone who wears a hockey mask to brutally murder camp counselors. Moreover, the absurdity of this controversy undercuts the more substantive messages of this movie.

There is a real message in “Joker” and it has nothing to do with incels, masculinity, or even violence. In this world, Gotham City is the perfect symbol of a grossly flawed society that tries to pretend those flaws can be fixed by staying the course. From the perspective of people like Arthur Fleck, this notion is a complete joke.

Much like our world, there’s a small segment of very rich, very powerful people who benefit the most from this society. The Wayne family is the perfect manifestation of this joke. Even when they carry themselves as responsible, upstanding pillars of the community, they still look down at those who are dissatisfied. On top of that, they think their dissatisfaction is a flaw.

Arthur Fleck is as caught up as anyone in this decaying society. Then, through details I won’t spoil, he starts something that inspires chaos that would make Heath Ledger’s Joker proud. That chaos may or may not be entirely justified, but it’s understandable. In a sense, the Joker is just an extreme manifestation of something that seemed inevitable.

If there is a real controversy with “Joker,” it’s that the wrong issues became controversial. This movie conveys a message to the rich, powerful people who benefit the most from society that things aren’t as rosy as they seem. Those same people who think they know the solutions have no idea what people at the bottom are going through and dismissing them as “clowns” only makes things worse.

We’ve already seen this happen in the real world. The powerful who seek greater power call those who lash out as unimportant or misguided. They think those who protest loudly have nothing of merit to say, which only feels like an excuse to not listen. In that sense, it’s probably not surprising that many media outlets have turned on this movie, albeit for the wrong reasons.

At its core, “Joker” highlights the craziness that compounds craziness. In a world that’s unfair, unjust, and full of lies, how can sane person not be driven insane by their circumstances? Arthur Fleck had more circumstances than most and his mental illness only compounded the situation.

There are times when it’s not entirely clear when the events unfolding are real or vivid delusions. It nicely reflects the uncertain nature of the Joker’s origins, as both the Killing Joke and “The Dark Knight” have previously established. There’s a point in the movie where it becomes unclear where Arthur Fleck truly comes from or whether that name is truly his.

In the end, his name doesn’t matter because once he becomes the Joker, he becomes something more than just a mentally ill loner. For certain people who have seen mentally ill loners commit atrocities in the real world, it sparks real fear. At the same time, “Joker” makes clear that’s the wrong target.

After seeing “Joker,” I feel like I just saw a movie that people are going to be talking about for years to come. It’s a movie that can be interpreted in many ways, which is perfectly befitting of the Joker’s chaotic nature. At the same time, I knew some of those interpretations would be used in the name of an agenda and not in a good way.

In another time, “Joker” would be hailed as a movie worthy of praise on the level of “The Dark Knight.” However, because it came out at a time when people fear the lonely, deranged men more than the society that creates them, it’s not able to have the same impact. It’s still an excellent movie and one that will have a unique place in cinematic history for years to come.

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Filed under human nature, outrage culture, philosophy, political correctness, politics, psychology, superhero comics, superhero movies

John Oliver, Sex Dolls, And The (Unwarranted) Shaming Of Lonely Men

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There’s a general rule in comedy with respect to insults. If you’re going to demean, denigrate, or make fun of a particular person or group, you don’t want to punch down. Granted, you can do it. You can even get a few laughs out of it if you do it well and are exceptionally funny. However, in the grand scheme of things, you’re still an asshole.

It’s the main reason why comedians, be they stand-up comics or talk show hosts, generally direct their insults at the rich, powerful, and privileged. There’s a general understanding that if you’re doing well in this chaotic game of life, either through luck or talent, you can afford to take a few insults. At the end of the day, you can still go home and cry into a pile of money, fame, and affluence.

When you insult a group that has none of those things in any abundance, it’s usually not something people respect, even if they laugh. It’s why even great comedians like George Carlin had to be very careful and exceptionally skilled when he joked about rape.

We miss you, George. We miss you SO much.

Unfortunately, not everyone can be as funny or talented as George Carlin. Sometimes, insult comedy hits an undeserving target. It tends to reveal something about the comedian delivering the insult and where society is, in terms of sympathies. It’s often subtle, but the subtext is there and it has larger implications.

That brings me to John Oliver, the nerdy smart-ass British comedian who owes 95 percent of his fame to John Stewart. His show, “Last Week Tonight,” has won multiple Emmy awards and has garnered substantial praise for its colorful approach to tackling major issues, from the abortion debate to annoying robocalls to the flaws in standardized testing.

While I don’t agree with Mr. Oliver’s politics all the time or his approach to tackling certain issues, I consider myself a fan of his show. Compared to other satirical comedy shows, he tends to strike just the right balance between quality comedy and tackling serious issues.

However, he recently took a comedic jab that deviated from his usual style and not in a good way. It occurred during his episode that focused on China’s controversial One Child Policy. It’s an issue that has been subject to plenty of controversy for years and I think Mr. Oliver was right to talk about it.

One of the major consequences of this policy, which Mr. Oliver rightly pointed out, was how it led to a massive gender population imbalance. Due to a historic preference for sons, there are millions more men than women in China. The disparity is so great that it has caused major social upheavals.

While discussing some of those upheavals, the issue of sex dolls came up. In a country where there are so many lonely men, it makes sense that they would seek some form of outlet and it helps that the market of sex dolls is growing. This is where Mr. Oliver did a little punching down and, unlike his jabs at New Zealand, this didn’t have the same impact. See for yourself in this clip.

Take a moment to consider what he’s joking about here. There are millions of men in China who, through no fault of their own, are likely doomed to a life of loneliness. It’s not because they’re bad men. They’re not creepy, cruel, or misogynistic. They’re just at the mercy of math and demographics. There simply aren’t enough women in their country.

For these men, the old saying that there’s plenty of fish in the sea is an outright lie. Their options are limited and Mr. Oliver is making light of that. He essentially claims that men who use sex dolls are somehow even more pathetic and destined for more loneliness. He makes that claim as someone who is married, has a child, and doesn’t have to deal with those prospects.

It’s not just bad comedy. It’s hypocritical. Earlier in that same clip, he showed sympathy and understanding to a Chinese woman who was forced to have an abortion against her will. He’s shown similar sympathy to people in other situations, from women dealing with restrictive abortion laws to prisoners who had been screwed over by an unfair justice system.

Why would he show no sympathy for these lonely men?

Moreover, why would he make a joke about it?

To some extent, it’s not all on him. There is an egregious double standard when it comes to men who use sex toys. A woman can walk into a sex shop, buy a vibrator, and talk about using it without too much stigma. Sure, there will be a few repressive, sex-negative religious zealots who will complain about anything that gives anyone unsanctioned pleasure, but most people don’t take them seriously.

For men, however, there’s a taboo surrounding the use of sex toys in any capacity. Some of that comes from men more than women. There’s this not-so-subtle assumption that a man who needs a sex toy is somehow less manly. Any man who has to resort to one must be somehow deficient. It can’t just be that he’s lonely or wants to use new tools to please his lover. That would make too much sense.

For the men in China, and other areas where there’s a huge gender disparity, the situation is even worse. These are men who are facing both loneliness and sexual frustration. There’s more than a little evidence that this is not healthy for them on any level. That’s not to say that sex dolls or sex toys will help fill that void, but it will give them an outlet, just as a vibrator gives a lonely woman an outlet.

Unlike a lonely woman, though, these men can’t expect much sympathy. As Mr. Oliver demonstrates, they can expect plenty of shame and stigma. It doesn’t matter that they can’t do anything about their situation. They’re victims of circumstance, demographics, and basic math. Adding stigma and taboo to the mix is akin to kicking them in the balls on the worst day of their lives.

I won’t say that Mr. Oliver should apologize for his remark. He’s a comedian. He’s a citizen in a free country. He can say what he wants. However, the fact that he can joke about lonely men and still get a laugh says a lot about the current attitudes towards lonely men, in general.

We know they’re suffering. We know there’s not much they can do about it, especially in places like China. While we’ll give plenty of sympathy to the lonely women who resort to using sex toys, we’ll stick to shaming and stigmatizing the men who dare to do the same. Then, we’ll pretend to be surprised when they get angry and resentful.

Is that fair? No, it isn’t.

Is that funny? No, I argue that it’s not, especially with the way Mr. Oliver went about it.

He’s no George Carlin. He’s no John Stewart, either. In this particular case, he’s just an asshole.

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What “Daria” Can Teach Us About Educating (Uninterested) Teenagers

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Some shows have one particular episode that you can watch again and again while still enjoying it. Great shows have multiple episodes like that. By that measure, “Daria” is greater than most. Even by the standards of late 90s animation, the show stands out in so many ways. It’s one of those rare shows that has aged remarkably well and feels more relevant now than when it originally aired.

I’ve already praised “Daria” for its unique approach to shedding a critical light on a world full of lies, half-truths, and fake news. I’ve even singled out a single episode for how the show handled a sensitive issue like mental health. These are issues that have only become more relevant since the show went off the air.

In that same spirit, I’d like to highlight another episode from the show that highlights another major issue. It also happens to be my favorite episode and the one I’ve probably re-watched the most. That episode is “Lucky Strike,” the sixth episode of the fifth season. On top of being one of the funniest episodes of the series, it also has some of the shows best moments while still tackling a major issue.

The issue, this time around, is education. It might not be the kind of a hot-button issue that makes for major headlines, but it’s still as relevant as ever, especially if we’re referring to the American education system. It’s not hard to find stories about just how bad it is, especially when compared to how other industrialized countries do it.

It was a big deal in the 90s and early 2000s, as well. Fittingly enough, this episode aired just a few months before the passage of the No Child Left Behind Act, which has been the cornerstone of the American education system. While reasonable people can debate how well it has or hasn’t worked, “Daria” has already made one of the most effective arguments about what constitutes good education.

The premise of the episode begins with a teacher strike, an issue that has become distressingly common in recent years. Lawndale High’s notoriously uptight principal, Angela Li, short-changes a group of teachers who are underpaid, under-appreciated, and have to deal with uninterested idiots like Kevin Thompson and Brittney Taylor. By any measure, they have a very good reason to strike.

Never one to concede defeat or express genuine concern for student aptitude, she keeps the school running by hiring substitute teachers, some of which demonstrate limited qualifications at best. One even showed an overtly creepy attraction with one of the female students. This leads to Daria getting roped into teaching a class.

As it just so happens, the class she’s teaching is the same class that her sister and unapologetic popularity whore, Quinn, is in. Given how Quinn has spent almost the entire series denying she’s even related to Daria, it’s a great opportunity to make things awkward. Daria makes more than a few quips about it in her own wonderfully misanthropic way.

However, when it comes to actually teaching the class, Daria does something that sets herself apart from most substitutes. Even if she’s only doing it to mess with her sister, she takes her role seriously. She shows a genuine desire to teach, but she doesn’t use the same approach as the rest of her teachers. She utilizes her own unique way.

It helps that the class is an English class. Daria is a voracious reader. That is established in the first episodes of the series and belabored on multiple occasions. It also helps that the assignment is simple. The class is reading Romeo and Juliet, a story that almost every high school English class reads at some point. In terms of substitute teacher gigs, it’s as standard as it comes.

I remember reading this play in high school as well. I don’t remember it fondly, though. In class, we would just read through each act, do a few assignments in a textbook, and take a test at the end. Most of the time, the test involved multiple choice or short answer. There were only right and wrong answers. That was really all there was to it.

Daria’s approach is different. Daria doesn’t just teach from a textbook. She has the students read the play, but not so they can get the answers for an assignment. She takes the time to help them appreciate it. When one of her air-headed students doesn’t appreciate a particular part, she helps put it into a more relevant context. It doesn’t just work. It makes the story feel like something other than an assignment.

It’s an approach that anyone who loathes standardized tests can appreciate. I’ve made my disdain for standardized tests known before, but it’s not a personal peeve on my part. There is legitimate research that indicates that standardized testing is not a good way to educate kids.

Teaching kids to take a test is not the same as teaching. They’re learning how to memorize answers for a test. That’s not real learning. You can memorize all the answers for a particular test, but not know why those answers are correct. For someone like Daria Morgendorffer, who places a high value on thinking for yourself, this approach just doesn’t work for her.

For everyone else, the test is the only thing that matters. For the always-superficial Quinn, that’s her primary concern. She laments about how her sister might screw her over or worse, undermine her popularity. It’s such a burden that actually reading the play and knowing what it’s about barely registers.

Then, in one of Daria’s finest moments, she further deviates from the traditional educational model and gives her class a simple essay test. There’s no multiple choice or short answer. She just gives them a simple question.

What is Romeo and Juliet about?

That’s it. The only requirement is that they write at least 250 words and support their answer. For those who didn’t care enough to read the play, like Quinn’s equally-superficial posse, the Fashion Club, it’s the worst possible scenario. For Quinn, who actually read the play, it was easy.

In fact, it was because of that test that Quinn also had her finest hour. In one of the few moments of the show in which she’s actually likable, she defends Daria’s approach to teaching to the entire class. Then, in another pivotal moment for the series, she admits that Daria is her sister.

In addition to this critical moment of personal growth, Daria shows that she truly values people who think for themselves. Even when one of her students makes an objectively foolish comment about Romeo and Juliet, she still gives him a good grade because he actually tried to back it up. For her, that’s more valuable than simply knowing the difference between Paris and Tybalt.

Her approach is even appreciated by her students. Keep in mind, these are the same students who show little to no interest in class throughout the show. They are, like most teenagers, not that big on having to be at school for seven hours a day, learning things they don’t want to learn about. Daria understands this and tries to make the class less tedious. It’s something even an air-headed teenager can appreciate.

Most of them, anyway.

It’s also a valuable lesson that has real-world applications. Some places have even applied Daria’s approach, to some extent. Countries like Finland have a system that doesn’t rely so heavily on standardized tests. Not surprisingly, Finland’s education ranking is significantly better than the United States and by a significant margin. Daria would’ve actually fit in with that system.

It’s not just because that system eschews standardized tests. It actually emphasizes teaching a student how to think and reason. A test isn’t going to reveal that. On top of that, teachers are better-educated and well-compensated in places like Finland. They would not have had to strike like the teachers in this episode.

In some respects, Daria showed how much better someone could teach a class if they didn’t have to deal with the constraints of the current system. It even helped that the Principal Li was more focused on outwitting the teacher union than she was with teaching students. Without those constraints, Daria managed to teach a class in a way that her students appreciated.

Between that moment and the moment she shared with her sister, “Lucky Strike” accomplishes a great deal. Daria has a chance to shine and makes the most of it. On top of that, she demonstrates that it is possible to educate a room of disinterested teenagers in a way that’s genuinely effective.

There are many other moments in “Daria” where major complications, and the many absurdities they entail, get cut down by the show’s distinct brand of misanthropic humor. Daria rarely sets out to make big statements, be they about the educations system or our flawed understanding of mental health. However, she still finds a way to make her point and never crack a smile.

That’s why Daria is so lovable. It’s also why we need wisdom like hers more than ever.

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Five Common Expectations Of Men That I Would Change

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I love being a man. I’ll go on record as saying I appreciate masculinity and its many values. While masculinity in general has gotten a bad rap in recent years, albeit for absurd reasons, there are many things to enjoy and admire. At their best, good men can achieve great things and effect positive change in the world.

I’ll also go on record as saying that appreciating masculinity does not require that we undermine femininity. That really should go without saying, but in these sensitive times, it’s too easy for mixed messages to go viral. Saying men are good is not the same as saying women are bad or vice versa. That’s just common sense and I genuinely wish it were more common.

Now, that’s not to say being a man is all fun, games, and fart jokes. It does have its share of downsides and I’m not just referring to the biological part of it. Yes, getting kicked in the balls really hurts. Yes, sweating and smelling more often can be annoying. Those aspects of masculinity simply come with the package.

There are other, less concrete ways in which being a man can be frustrating. They have less to do with hormones and more to do with certain expectations. I’ve explored some of those expectations with respect to how men pursue love and the egregious double standards by which men are judged.

Others far smarter than me have discussed some of the bigger issues surrounding how men are treated in modern society, from attitudes about how disposable they are to how sexual assault against them is treated like a joke. Those are serious, legitimate issues that certainly warrant further discussion.

There are also smaller, less-obvious expectations of men that I are just as asinine and are worth changing. They’re necessarily stereotypes or cultural traditions. They’re just subtle norms that rarely get scrutinized. I think, in the name of pursuing greater balance and equality for everyone, these lesser-known aspects of being a man should be part of the discussion.

What follows are five subtle, but common expectations about men that I would like to change or at least reconsider. Some are just standard norms while others reflect certain attitudes and practices. I realize that some are harder to change than others, but they’re worth acknowledging. If anyone has something they’d like to add to this list, please let me know in the comments.


Expectation #1: Having To Wearing A Suit (Even In Blazing Heat)

I look good in a suit. Distinguished men who wear well-made suits are often seen as the pinnacle of male fashion. It’s why you’ll rarely see James Bond fight nameless henchmen in anything less fashionable than imported Armani. While I’m all for men looking good, I feel like men’s choices for high-quality fashion are really limited.

This is especially true in the summer when men are still required to wear suits while women can wear equally fashionable, but far more functional dresses and blouses. I enjoy wearing a suit as much as any fashion-minded man, but it’s downright unbearable when it’s hot. You don’t even have to be outside to feel it. Just being a building with bad air conditioner is enough.

I’m no fashion expert, but I feel like the emphasis on suits for men is over-emphasized. Women’s fashion is more diverse and offers greater flexibility for certain occasions. I acknowledge that some of that fashion is also uncomfortable and impractical. Why should anyone suffer that much for the sake of looking good?

I know there’s only so much anyone can do to change fashion trends, but a little innovation in the field of men’s formal attire would definitely help. At the very least, just having clothes that make summer heat more bearable for everyone will help everyone be more comfortable.


Expectation #2: Not Going To A Doctor (Even When We Should)

In my experience, men not going to a doctor is part stereotype and part attitude. There are more than a few taboos surrounding men’s collective aversion of doctors. Whether it’s due to male bravado or just the underlying assumption that men don’t need doctors as much as women, I think this expectation does more harm than good.

I say that as someone who has been guilty of avoiding doctor visits in the past. At one point, it caused me genuine pain because I refused to go to a doctor for what I thought was just allergies. It turned out I had a bad case of strep throat that I made considerably worse by not going sooner. I don’t care what your gender is. When some expectations lead to needless suffering, they’re worth re-evaluating.

With people, in general, becoming more health conscious, I think the time is right for men to embrace going to the doctor with the same care as women. It’ll won’t just help men become healthier, overall. It’ll help affirm that men’s suffering deserves to be treated with just as much urgency as that of women.


Expectation #3: Taking Less Time Off And Working More Overtime

This is one of those unwritten rules that really ought to be articulated more frequently. Whatever your professional field, be it construction, law, or flipping burgers, there will be times when overtime is necessary. In my experience, which I freely admit is anecdotal, I get the impression that men are expected to bear that burden first and without question.

That’s not to say that women avoid overtime. I know many women who put in longer hours at their jobs than their male co-workers. There’s just a general assumption that a man is going to do more of it and if he doesn’t, then there’s something wrong with him.

The same goes for taking time off. Most people don’t seem to bat an eye when a woman asks for a few days off. They won’t even ask why. If a man makes a similar request, it raises more curiosity and he’s expected to justify it. Again, this isn’t the case everywhere, but even without bringing maternity leave into the mix, men are just expected to work more and work longer.

Some of these expectations are more pronounced in the United States where paid parental leave is not mandated by law. In general, workers in the United States take less time off and work longer than other industrialized countries, which further compounds the issue. Even with regional differences, the attitude about men having to bear a greater work burden is worth reassessing.

After all, I think everyone would benefit by having more time off and not overworking themselves regularly. It’s better for everyone at every level of society.


Expectation #4: Always Knowing What A Lover Likes (Without Having To Ask)

It’s a common fantasy for horny women, but men are just as guilty of fueling it. A woman meets a handsome man. Sparks fly and things get intimate. As soon as the clothes come off, everything happens naturally and perfectly. The man knows just how to please her and he gives her the best lovemaking of her life.

It makes for a great sexy story. I’ve written more than a few of them. While it’s a great fantasy, it obscures a less sexy reality in which men aren’t mind-readers. It doesn’t matter how attractive or naturally endowed a man might be. He’s not going to know exactly how his partner wants to be pleased, by default. They have to actually communicate.

It sounds so logical, but fantasy often fuels those lofty expectations. I’ve known women who get downright frustrated when their boyfriend doesn’t do exactly what they want in bed to satisfy them, but admit they’ve never actually told them. They’ll often drop hints. They’ll even be playful about it. If a man asks for too many specifics, though, then something must be wrong with him.

As a fan of romance and intimacy, I’m very much in favor of lovers enjoying a satisfying sex life. However, the idea that a man should automatically know what satisfies their partner is just not fair. It’s true that some men really don’t know how women’s bodies work, but it’s also true that everyone is different in terms of what pleases them. Nobody is going to be satisfied if nobody communicates.

Again, it’s just common sense that misguided expectations do plenty to complicate. I can attest that most men want to satisfy their lovers. Anything that helps us do that is always welcome.


Expectation #5: Needing To Yell In Order To Be Serious

For certain people, yelling might as well a local dialect. Like Frank Murphy going off on a profanity-laced rant, it might as well be casual conversation. However, for the non-Frank Murphys of the world, there are certain expectations about people who yell and it feels like men have to start the race behind the curve.

I’ve seen in in personal and professional settings. A man will make an argument, but it’s not considered serious. If a woman made the same argument, it’s given more weight. There’s an assumption that if a woman brings it up, then it must be a major issue. It only reaches that same level for a man if he’s willing to yell his case.

To some extent, it’s a double standard. A woman yelling angrily is treated as an aberration while a man yelling with the same anger is just standard operating procedure. At the same time, a man who doesn’t yell or show some kind of escalated anger carries its own set of assumptions. Men have to be angry for it to be serious and if they’re not yelling, it must not be serious.

It often happens during debates about hot-button topics. It can even happen in a simple argument about pizza toppings. There are plenty of important issues that warrant yelling, but I believe expecting one gender to yell more than another only compounds those issues.

We live in a flawed world full of flawed people. Sometimes, we have to temper our expectations. In others, we try to hold one another to a higher standard. Men and women yell at one another enough for trivial reasons. We’re never going to stop yelling. At the very least, we should play by the same rules.

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