Category Archives: psychology

Why Intelligent Aliens May Destroy Us Even If They’re Peaceful (According To Mass Effect)

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What would happen if we went back in time and gave the Genghis Khan nuclear weapons?

What  would happen if we went back even further and gave machine guns to the Ancient Romans?

Let’s be even more subtle. What do you think would happen if you gave Aristotle a functioning smartphone with a complete catalog of Wikipedia? How much would that change the course of history? More importantly, how much damage would it potentially incur?

I consider myself an optimist. I generally place more faith in humanity than most people in this age of fake news and heavy cynicism. I have my reasons for doing so, but even my confidence in the human species has limits. I trust most people to do the right thing every time I drive my car on the highway. That doesn’t mean I’d trust a caveman from 10,000 BC to drive a fully-loaded tank.

I make this point because these are legitimate concerns consider when assessing how humanity deals with emerging technology. We can barely handle some of the technology we already have. How will we handle things like advanced artificial intelligence, gene hacking, or advanced robotics?

I’ve stated before that the human race is not ready for advanced artificial intelligence in its current state. I’ve also stated that the human race isn’t ready for contact with an advanced alien species, either. I believe we’re close. We may even be ready within my lifetime. However, if aliens landed tomorrow and brought an advanced artificial intelligence with them, I think our civilization and our species would be in trouble.

I also think the human race would be in danger even if those same aliens were peaceful. Even if they brought a super-intelligent AI that was as compassionate and caring as Mr. Rogers, our species would still face an existential crisis. To explain why, I’ll need to revisit one of my favorite video games of all time, “Mass Effect.”

The various themes of this game, and the lore behind it, offer many insights into very relevant questions. In addition to the timeless hilarity of bad dancing skills, the game crafts a rich history between alien races like the Quarians and the Geth. That history reflected the dangers of mishandling advanced artificial intelligence, an issue humanity will have to deal with in the coming decades.

There is, however, another rich history between alien races within “Mass Effect” that offers a similar lesson. This one has less to do with artificial intelligence and more to do with what happens when a species technology that it’s not ready to handle. That danger is well-documented in the game through a hardy race of beings called the Krogan.

Like the Quarian/Geth conflict, the conflict surrounding Krogan has some real-world parallels. However, I would argue that their story Krogan is more relevant because it serves as a warning for what could happen when an advanced species uplifts one that is less advanced.

In the mythos of “Mass Effect,” the Krogan were once a primitive, but hardy species that evolved on the harsh world of Tuchanka. They’re reptilian, high-functioning predators in nature. They’re basically a cross between a velociraptor, a crocodile, and a primate. They have a tough, war-like culture, which is necessary on a world that contained hulking Thresher Maws.

They were not a species most would expect to develop advanced technology. Then, the Salarians came along. Unlike the Korgan, this amphibious alien race isn’t nearly as hardy, but is much more adept at developing advanced technology. In most circumstances, they wouldn’t have given the Krogan a second thought. Unfortunately, they were in the middle of the Rachni War and they needed help.

You don’t need to know the full details of that war. The most critical detail, as it relates to advancing an unprepared species, is how this war came to define the Krogan. Neither the Salarians nor the other alien races in the game could defeat the Rachni. In a fit of desperation, they uplifted the Krogan by giving them weapons and advanced knowledge.

In the short-term, the Salarians achieved what they’d hoped. The Krogan helped defeat the Rachni. In the long-term, however, it created another inter-stellar war in the Krogan Rebellions. Apparently, giving a hardy, war-like species advanced weapons doesn’t make them less war-like. It just gives them better tools with which to fight wars. That may sound obvious, but keep in mind, the Salarians were desperate.

The details of this war end up playing a major role in both “Mass Effect” and “Mass Effect 3.” That’s because to stop the Krogan, the Salarians resorted to another act of desperation. They crafted a biological weapon known as the genophage, which significantly curtailed the Krogan’s rapid breeding rate.

The damage this did to the Krogan race cannot be understated. Through the entire trilogy of “Mass Effect,” characters like Wrex and Eve describe how this destroyed Krogan society. In “Mass Effect 3,” Eve talks about how the genophage created massive piles of stillborn Krogan babies. That kind of imagery can haunt even the most battle-hardened species.

In the end, both the Salarians and the Krogan paid a huge price for giving technology to a species that wasn’t ready for it. Depending on the decision you make in “Mass Effect 3,” the Krogan species is doomed to extinction because of how ill-prepared they were. This haunted more than a few Salarians as well, one of which played a significant role in a memorable side-story in “Mass Effect 2.”

Regardless of how the game plays out, there’s an underlying message at the heart of the Salarian/Krogan dynamic. When a species is uplifted by another so abruptly, it’s difficult to see the long-term ramifications. Even though the Salarians were in a dire situation, they ended up creating one that had the potential to be much worse.

That danger is actually more pressing because, unlike advanced artificial intelligence, the act of uplifting a species effectively skips over the cultural and societal evolution that’s necessary to handle new technology. The Krogan never got a chance to go through that process before getting that technology. As a result, they became an existential threat to themselves and others.

The human race still has a long way to go before it creates the kind of artificial intelligence that would constitute such a threat. Aliens on the level of Salarians could land tomorrow and there would be nothing we could do to prepare ourselves. Whatever knowledge or technology we gained could do more than just upend human society. It could irreparably damage our species, as a whole.

Some of that outcome would depend on the intentions of the advanced alien race. It could be the case that they’re not like the Salarians and aren’t looking to enlist humanity in a war. It could also be the case that they’re smart enough to not give primitive humans advanced weapons. That could mitigate the risk.

However, that still assumes humans won’t find a way to use advanced knowledge to make weapons. When Otto Hahn discovered nuclear fission in 1938, he didn’t have any idea that it would be used to make a bomb that would kill go onto kill over 100,000 people. Even if advanced aliens are really smart, how could they be sure that humanity won’t use advanced knowledge to create something more horrific?

Sure, they could try to stop us, but that could only make things worse. The genophage wasn’t the Salarians’ first recourse. They actually went to war with the Krogan. They suffered heavy losses and so did the Krogan. In the long run, uplifting a less advanced species was detrimental to both of them.

That doesn’t just put the famous Fermi Paradox into a new context. It demonstrates a real, tangible threat associated with advancing a species before it’s ready. I would argue that the human race is close to that point, but we’re still not there. We have issues managing the technology we’ve created. There’s no way we can handle advanced alien technology at the moment.

Mass Effect,” in addition to being one of the greatest video games of the past two decades, offers many lessons for the future of humanity. It shows that humans are capable of great things. We have what it takes to join an entire galaxy full of advanced alien life. For our sake, and that of other advanced aliens, we cannot and should not rush it.

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Filed under Aliens, futurism, human nature, Mass Effect, philosophy, psychology

Walter White Vs. Saul Goodman: A Tale Of Two Villains

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If the road to Hell is paved with good intentions, then the road to villainy has many paths with similar landmarks. Well-developed villains can be every bit as compelling as their heroic counterparts, if not more so. Ever since Heath Ledger’s Joker stole the show and an Oscar in “The Dark Knight,” great villains aren’t just a complement to the heroes. They’re a journey unto themselves.

At the moment, Walter White from “Breaking Bad” is the ultimate embodiment of this journey. His path to villainy made for some of the greatest moments in modern television and Bryan Cranston has the Emmy trophies to prove it. Since then, it seems as though everyone is just struggle to keep up.

However, there’s one journey that comes very close and is remarkably similar. Fittingly enough, it spins right out of the world of “Breaking Bad.” I’m talking, of course, about “Better Call Saul,” the prequel/spin-off that tells the story of how an aspiring lawyer named James McGill became the morally bankrupt legal guru, Saul Goodman.

I’ve been watching this show closely for a while now. I was originally planning to wait until the conclusion of Season 4 to write about it, but after re-watching the Season 3 finale, I feel like there’s too much to work with. After seeing that episode, I feel like I saw a turning point in the ongoing transformation of James McGill to Saul Goodman. I also saw some important parallels with Walter White that are worth discussing.

At its core, “Breaking Bad” is a story about how a law-biding man goes from an underpaid chemistry teacher to a blood-thirsty drug kingpin. Creator Vince Gilligan nicely summed up Walt’s transformation as going from Mr. Chips to Scarface. That journey, and the story behind it, took an initially unassuming character and turned them into someone they never thought they could be.

The essence of “Better Call Saul” is very different. James McGill is not the same as Walter White. From the very first episode, we can see traces of the unscrupulous con man manifesting in a many ways. The show establishes in Season 1 that James McGill is not some clean-cut straight-arrow like Walt was. His soul was tainted before he ever applied to law school.

James “Slipping Jimmy” McGill is someone who always seems inclined to cut corners, break rules, and cheat to get ahead. That’s something his older brother, Charles “Chuck” McGill, constantly points out over the course of the first three seasons. Every time Jimmy had a chance to do the right thing, he compromised. Just doing the right thing wasn’t enough for him.

Walter White’s decision-making process was similar. In the early seasons of “Breaking Bad,” he showed a reluctance to cross certain lines and go too far. He often found himself pushed or tempted, sometimes by forces beyond his control and sometimes by the consequences of actions. At the end of the day, though, he still didn’t get off that path.

That’s a common thread for many villains in their journey. They find themselves on that path and they see opportunities to leave it, but they choose not to. They don’t seek redemption like a hero would. They just keep making excuses, willfully entering a brutal cycle of corruption and compromise.

Whereas Walt succumbed to that cycle, though, James McGill steadily embraces it. Moreover, he isn’t drawn into that path by tragedy or bad luck. He gravitates towards it. He’s even excited by it. James is at his most animated and charismatic when he’s pulling a con, putting on a show, or crafting a lie. It’s not a necessity like it was for Walt. It’s a thrill.

If James is tempted by anything, it’s the lure of walking the honorable path like his older brother. In fact, Chuck might have been the only positive influence that kept Jimmy from becoming something worse than a sleazy con-man. He and a host of other influence, especially Kim Wexler and Howard Hamlin, play the part of a reverse temptress, trying to keep him off that villainous path.

Early on, there’s a sense that James genuinely wants to be a decent, upstanding lawyer. There are situations where he does the right thing. Some of the causes he takes on, such as a case against an elder care facility that was stealing money from its residents, are objectively noble. In the end, though, doing the right thing isn’t enough for him. The end of Season 1 really cements that.

Walt goes through a similar process early on. Like the “refusal of the call” that heroes experience, Walt attempts to escape the villainous path. However, a combination of circumstances and choices put Walt back on the road towards becoming Heisenberg. By the end of Season 1, there’s a sense that there’s no going back.

Where Walt and James diverge, as villains, it’s how and why they make their choices. Walt becomes Heisenberg because he think he has to, first for his family and later for selfish reasons. James becomes Saul Goodman because he wants to. He tried to be the upstanding lawyer his brother and friends wanted. It just didn’t work for him. Being James McGill just wasn’t enough.

There’s plenty of conflict surrounding those choices. Part of why I love “Better Call Saul” is how it reveals the steady progression from James McGill to Saul Goodman. It doesn’t happen all at once. It doesn’t even happen in a steady, linear narrative. James fluctuates on his journey to becoming Saul. He even hesitates a few times. He still doesn’t avoid it in the end.

That ending, as revealed through the finale of “Breaking Bad” and the flash-forward sequences of “Better Call Saul,” shows one other key distinction between Walt and Jimmy. While both men complete their villainous journey, they both end up in very different places. Walt is dead or at least close to it, as some fan theories predict. However, Saul Goodman’s fate might actually be worse.

In the first minutes of the first episode of “Better Call Saul,” we see what came of James McGill/Saul Goodman after the events of “Breaking Bad.” Gone are the days where he shows up in flashy commercials and hatches elaborate cons on unsuspecting people. Instead, he lives an unexciting, mundane life in Omaha, Nebraska managing a Cinnabon.

Some might argue this is Saul’s personal Hell, trapped in a such a sad and unassuming life. I would say it’s more like his purgatory. In this world, he can’t embrace that villainous persona that gave him so many thrills. Even if he wanted to be that villainous character again, he can’t because it means losing what little he has left.

Just as he frequently did in the early seasons of “Better Call Saul,” James McGill takes the easy way out. Walt tried that too in the last few episodes of “Breaking Bad,” but that didn’t last. He eventually chose to confront the byproduct of his villainous choices. James ran and didn’t look back. The easiest path, in the journey of a villain, is often a coward’s path.

Whether or not James McGill escapes his purgatory or continues wallowing in obscurity remains to be seen. The fact he ends up in this state after undergoing this transformation into Saul Goodman reveals another critical component to the villain’s journey. While the hero ultimately triumphs, the villain eventually loses. It doesn’t always end with them going to jail, but they often endure a less-than-desirable fate.

Breaking Bad” and “Better Call Saul” are both great shows that set a new standard for depicting the evolution of a character into a villain. I won’t claim that “Better Call Saul” is superior to its predecessor, if only because the story isn’t finished. It does, however, accomplish something every bit as remarkable as the story of Walter White.

The process of becoming a villain is a steady, inconsistent journey full of many complications and tough choices. Walter White and James McGill began that journey under different circumstances and ended up in different places. Ultimately, they both crossed lines that sealed their respective fates. It’s tragic in some ways, but it makes for some damn good television.

 

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Filed under human nature, philosophy, psychology, Villains Journey

Understanding (And Learning From) Lex Luthor’s Hatred Of Superman

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As a lifelong fan of superhero comics and someone who enjoys shows like “Breaking Bad,” I’m genuinely fascinated by villains. Specifically, I’m intrigued by what makes them tick and why they walk the villain’s path. Their journey is distinct from that of a hero, but one that can be just as compelling.

In many cases, these villains have capabilities that allow them to solve many of the world’s problems. I’ve cited Dr. Doom as one of those villains who blurs the lines of villainy because of his intentions. Characters like Dr. Doom genuinely believe that their villainous actions are justified because it will lead to a better, safer, more prosperous world. Heroes also believe that too, which helps fuel their epic battles.

For a character like Lex Luthor, though, the line isn’t that blurry. He’s a villain, plain and simple. He’s selfish, callous, arrogant, cruel, and narcissistic to an extreme. If he existed in the real world, he would check every box for narcissistic personality disorder. In terms of personality, he’s the polar opposite of his nemesis, Superman.

That goes a long way towards giving Superman an enemy who stands against his heroic ideals. I would even argue that Superman couldn’t be the iconic kind of hero he is without Lex Luthor. At the same time, I also think Lex reveals something critical about humanity, morality, and superheroes in general.

That’s difficult to see because for much of Lex’s early years in comics, there wasn’t much depth to his motivation. He just wanted to dominate the universe and Superman was in his way. It’s basic and bland, but that was typical for the early era of superhero comics. Villains like Lex were mostly just obstacles for the heroes to overcome in their journey.

That changed in the late 80s and early 90s with the modern era iteration of Lex Luthor. Finally, Lex got more backstory and depth. He was still no Walter White, but these details helped set the stage for the kind of villain he became. It also helped establish why he hates Superman so much.

Whereas Superman landed on Earth and was adopted by loving parents, Lex grew up in a rough part of Metropolis called the Suicide Slums and was raised in an abusive household. Right off the bat, Superman gets lucky by having the best parents a child of any species could ask for while he’s unlucky enough to be born with the worst.

As a result, Lex had to be ruthless, manipulative, and cunning. Unlike other villains, though, he didn’t need much tempting. He didn’t agonize over his moral decisions, either. He just did it and didn’t feel a shred of guilt. That includes the role he played in the death of his parents.

That alone establishes Lex Luthor as the kind of ruthless villain who would oppose Superman for any number of reasons. However, as evil as that act was, it’s important to note the motivation behind it. Lex didn’t just kill his parents because murder makes him happy. He did it because they were an obstacle and an opportunity.

They were holding him back, but their deaths meant insurance money that he could use to strike out on his own and build something worthy of his genius. To him, the morality of his decision didn’t matter. Only the results mattered. That’s a critical detail and one that puts Lex Luthor’s villainy into a unique context.

Lex, being one of the smartest characters in the entire DC universe, doesn’t care much for things that are esoteric and obscure. He’s all about results that are tangible and measurable. That means things like truth, justice, and the American way are empty concepts to him. Superman champions those ideals, but for Lex Luthor, they’re just hindrances.

That kind of cold, callous approach to the world gives a unique substance to Lex’s behavior. He’s certainly not the first person to take such a materialistic approach to reality. Rick Sanchez of “Rick and Morty” does the same, but rather than misanthropic despair, Lex Luthor sees it as the key to producing the results he seeks.

Moreover, he has to produce those results without the god-like power that Superman wields. If Superman wants to move the Earth out of the way or destroy an oncoming asteroid, he doesn’t have to build anything or learn anything. He just has to flex his muscles, fly up into the sky, and destroy it with a single punch. There’s no tangible reason to his actions beyond it being the right thing to do.

To Lex Luthor, that’s not just an affront to someone who had to work for everything he ever gained. It’s an insult to his egocentric, results-focused worldview. Just saving the world because it’s the right thing to do doesn’t achieve anything. It does nothing to move humanity forward because nobody had to produce something of merit. It just allows them to continue in the same, unaltered state.

This gets to the heart of why Lex Luthor hates Superman. The extent of that hatred was fully articulated in one of the best modern Superman stories ever told, “All-Star Superman” by Grant Morrison and Frank Quitely. If you only read one Superman comic, make it this one because it perfectly encapsulates the pure heroism of Superman and the cold villainy of Lex Luthor.

In one critical part of the story, Lex tells Clark Kent, who he doesn’t know is Superman, what it means to actually work for his power. Superman, for all his idealism, did nothing to earn his abilities. He just happened to be an alien who landed on a planet with a yellow sun.

It’s like winning the lottery as opposed to working hard for a fortune. One is built on hard work and skill while the other is just dumb luck. Beyond basic jealousy, though, Lex makes another critical point about the ideal Superman sets.

From his perspective, that lofty ideal diminishes the entire human race. By being this other-worldly savior who achieves all these impossible feats, Superman reveals how inept the human race is. More importantly to Lex and his massive ego, it shows just how feeble his achievements are, despite all the work he put in.

Being the extreme narcissist he is, Lex takes that as the ultimate insult. In terms of the bigger picture, it establishes that neither he nor humanity can achieve their full potential. In that context, it’s understandable why Lex dedicated so much time and energy to killing Superman.

I won’t get into all the ways Lex has tried and failed over the years, although one of his plots did involve him becoming President of the United States. Whatever his methods, I think there’s a larger lesson to learn from Lex’s hatred and for once, it goes beyond his ego.

A big part of what turns someone into a villain is this sense that the world isn’t fair, but could be made better with the right guidance. Lex believes he’s capable of providing that guidance and not just because of his ego. He is, objectively, one of the smartest and most capable human beings on the planet. However, it’s Superman who keeps Lex from making the world less unfair.

Superman believes in the merits of truth and justice. He inspires others to uphold these ideals, even without his vast power. That’s a problem for Lex, who builds much of his power on lies and treachery. To him, though, he doesn’t see that as wrong. He just sees that as the most efficient way to get results.

To uphold truth and justice, in his brilliant mind, is to prevent the world from progressing. Granted, progress in Lex Luthor’s mind means him being in charge, but that doesn’t necessarily undermine the implications.

Like Dr. Doom, Lex is ambitious in that he doesn’t just want to save the world like Superman. He wants to fundamentally change it and he’s willing to cross any line to achieve that. Killing Superman is part of that change, but so is becoming a billionaire and a future President of the United States. If a billion people die in the process, then that’s acceptable because it means humanity is stronger because of it.

There have been times in the comics where Luthor’s vision has manifested. In another critically-acclaimed Superman story, “Red Son” by Mark Millar, Lex has a chance to lead the world into a brighter future. By and large, he succeeds. He’s still an unapologetic narcissist, but he still gets the results he seeks.

Like all great conflicts between superheroes and their arch-nemesis, the dichotomy between Superman and Lex Luthor is stark. They’re two extremes on opposite ends of a spectrum delineating heroism and villainy. By being on those extremes, though, it’s easier to see the inherent shortcomings of both.

While Lex’s shortcomings are easier to identify since he’s an outright villain, he does help identify an important flaw in Superman’s idealism and one that extends to superheroes, as a whole. Superman is willing to save the day, but he’s not willing to cross any lines. He will only ever do the right thing and that means not sacrificing innocent lives or usurping individual freedom.

Those heroics will keep the world turning, but they won’t move society forward. Superman believes in inspiring humanity rather than doing it for them, but Lex Luthor believes his heroism achieves the opposite. It just makes people complacent and dependent on heroes like him rather than crossing the lines that he’ll cross to get things done.

At the end of the day, both in the real world and the world of comic books, we have to determine how much we’re willing to pay for the results we seek. Lex is willing to pay any price. Superman isn’t willing to pay a cent beyond doing the right thing. Most reasonable people, including other superheroes, fall somewhere in the middle.

In the pantheon of super-villains, Lex Luthor is probably the easiest to despise and the hardest to understand. Like Superman, he exposes another side of an ongoing struggle between doing the right thing and achieving more. As society continues to progress, achieving abilities rivaling that of any superhero, it’s a struggle we’ll have to confront.

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Filed under Comic Books, Jack Fisher, Superheroes, human nature, philosophy, psychology, superhero comics

Why We Should Accept James Gunn’s Apology And Support His Re-Hiring

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In the spirit of honesty and transparency, I’m going to admit something that should surprise no one.

I, Jack Fisher, have said horrible, offensive things in the past. For that, I sincerely apologize.

I’ll give everyone a moment to recoil in shock. Now, I’ll turn off the sarcasm and get serious because this is an issue I’ve already done plenty to belabor. People say offensive things. People write offensive things. I know I have, given some of the sensitive topics I’ve covered.

I’m certainly not alone. These days, it’s hard to go more than a day without reading something horribly offensive on social media. Not all of the offense warrants the same outrage, though. Some comments are just trolling. Some trigger reactions that lead to actual crimes. Not all offensive speech warrants immense outrage is what I’m saying.

That brings me to James Gunn, the man who made movies about a talking raccoon, a talking tree, and the goofy guy from “Parks and Recreation” that went onto make over $1.6 billion at the box office. His star really rose fast after the unexpected success of “Guardians of the Galaxy.” He’s credited with taking the Marvel Cinematic Universe to cosmic heights. He has accomplished a lot in the past four years.

Now, he’s been fired. He’ll have no part in “Guardians of the Galaxy 3.” The circumstances, context, and fallout from this huge turn of events is astonishing, but for all the wrong reasons.

The particulars here are striking. Mr. Gunn was not fired because he committed a serious crime or got embroiled in a disturbing scandal. He got fired because someone who didn’t agree with his political views dug up some old social media posts from 10 years ago that were lewd, offensive, and downright disgusting.

Not surprisingly, Mr. Gunn apologized for it immediately. He didn’t make excuses. He didn’t whine about fake news. He didn’t claim his account was hacked. He took ownership of the things he said and apologized.

Many people who have followed my career know when I started, I viewed myself as a provocateur, making movies and telling jokes that were outrageous and taboo. As I have discussed publicly many times, as I’ve developed as a person, so has my work and my humor.

It’s not to say I’m better, but I am very, very different than I was a few years ago; today I try to root my work in love and connection and less in anger. My days saying something just because it’s shocking and trying to get a reaction are over.

In the past, I have apologized for humor of mine that hurt people. I truly felt sorry and meant every word of my apologies.

For the record, when I made these shocking jokes, I wasn’t living them out. I know this is a weird statement to make, and seems obvious, but, still, here I am, saying it.

Anyway, that’s the completely honest truth: I used to make a lot of offensive jokes. I don’t anymore. I don’t blame my past self for this, but I like myself more and feel like a more full human being and creator today. Love you to you all.

It still wasn’t enough, though. He still got fired and there’s a very good chance that the career he worked so hard for has been damaged beyond repair. It’s all because of horrible things he said 10 years ago. That’s worth emphasizing because the person someone is now and the person they were 10 years ago can be very different.

People grow, develop, and change over the course of their lives. I certainly have. In that time, people will say and do things that they don’t realize will have major consequences 10 years down the line. We can’t even know what kind of person we’ll be a week from now, let alone 10 years.

We’re going to do and say dumb things. That’s just a part of being human. However, now that the internet and social media document these things, our worst moments and most ill-advised decisions are there for all to see. We can no longer trust people to just forget. In Mr. Gunn’s case, someone went out of their way to dig up these horrible comments and that continues a dangerous precedent.

That precedent was already set with Rosanne Barr and this effectively raises the stakes. Now, even when you don’t blame sleep medications and give a sincere apology, you can still lose everything you’ve worked for. All it takes is someone with enough free time, resources, and hatred to do it. For celebrities, these are dangerous and unforgiving times, indeed.

Now, I know it’s hard to feel sympathy for celebrities, who live in big mansions, get preferential treatment wherever they go, and never have to worry about their next mortgage payment. Mr. Gunn is probably going to be okay thanks to the millions he’s already made. At the same time, though, what does undermining his career accomplish?

It doesn’t undo the things he said. It doesn’t undo any of the offense people felt. If anything, it sends a message to aspiring celebrities that anything they say and do will be used against them in the future. Even if that makes some people more careful about what they say online, it doesn’t change the fact that people will say and do dumb things every now and then.

It’s a no-win situation. If you can’t make excuses or offer a sincere apology, then what is the recourse? What was Mr. Gunn’s alternative? Short of going back in time and punching himself in the throat, there was nothing he could’ve done. How is that fair? How is that even logical?

On some levels, I don’t blame Marvel Studios and Disney for cutting ties with Mr. Gunn. They’re a multi-billion dollar media conglomerate that is very sensitive to the value of their brand. They’re also a private entity and not a government so the first amendment does not necessarily apply to them. They can fire whoever they want for whatever reason they want.

Even so, there doesn’t appear to be much effort to accept Mr. Gunn’s apology. While some have expressed understanding, there isn’t much effort in terms of undoing the damage. It’s as though this is the new normal. This is what happens to anyone who dares to let their stupidity end up on the internet. There’s no forgiveness. There are no second chances, either. If you mess up once, you’re finished and your career is over.

Think about the larger implications of that situation. If that’s how we’re going to deal with people who say offensive things, then where’s the real incentive for people to learn from their mistakes? Why would anyone even try to apologize or show regret if the end result is the same?

That’s not to say the situation is hopeless. There is already a Change.org petition to urge Marvel and Disney to rehire Mr. Gunn. As of this writing, it has over 150,000 signatures. Whether that’s enough remains to be seen and the fact that something like that is necessary to accept someone’s apology is still saying a lot.

I already worry that the next time a well-known celebrity says or does something offensive, they won’t even bother with apologizing. Why would they if it’s just going to sink their career or require a petition to keep it going? What kind of excuses will they resort to and how much more damaging will they be?

Accepting apologies aren’t just good values to live by. They’re critical to helping people grow as human beings. I believe Mr. Gunn meant it when he apologized, but I worry that he and other celebrities like him will come to see it as an empty gesture that won’t save their careers.

There are plenty of cases where accepting someone’s apology just isn’t warranted, especially if they have a history of saying and doing terrible things. Mr. Gunn is not such a case. If ever there was a time to set a precedent for accepting someone’s sincere apology, this is it. Even if it’s too late for Mr. Gunn, it’s still a precedent worth setting.

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Filed under Celebrities and Celebrity Culture, censorship, Current Events, human nature, media issues, psychology, superhero movies

Recalling The Time I Felt Most Emasculated

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Everybody has a few low points in their lives that they would prefer to forget. Even the richest, most privileged among us have moments where they feel like a wounded deer in a den of hungry wolves. I’ve certainly had my share of those days. While the pain they’ve caused me has waned over the years, I still remember them as clearly as they day they happened.

Talking about those moments is never easy. Most are content to keep them buried in the past and not think about them, a tactic favored by eccentric mad scientist cartoon characters. However, I believe there is some therapeutic value to revisiting those moments. Some of them can even offer insights that are more relevant today than they were when they happened.

In that spirit, I’d like to share one the greatest low points I ever had. What makes it relevant, though, isn’t that it was just especially bad. This one particular point marked the time in my life when I felt most emasculated, as a man.

Seeing as how I’ve talked a great deal about masculinity, from the way it has been demonized by ongoing social trends to the double standards that affect it, I think moments like this stand out more than they would have in previous years. I’ve even found myself recalling these moments more lately, but this particular moment tends to hit me the hardest.

To understand this memory and why it left me feeling so emasculated, I need to establish the situation. It takes place back when I was in grade school, specifically the fifth grade. That’s an important detail because this is a time when most kids are on the cusp of puberty and just learning what it means to mature from a kid to an adult.

Even before this particular event, I wasn’t handling that transition as well as I’d hoped. I had some attitude problems back then. I wasn’t much of a troublemaker, but I had a nasty habit of getting defensive. I would take things way too personally and overreact way too easily, even by the standards of a fifth grader.

As a result, this left me with few friends and more than a few enemies. I won’t say they were outright bullies, but they were close and I did everything I could go to goad them. My social skills were just that poor and my insecurities were just that great.

All those issues culminated near the end of the school year when my class took part in this big Civil War project that was supposed to be fun. The way it worked was we all picked names out of a hat to represent notable Civil War figures. Then, we would act out those roles in a make-shift activities, the last one being this big mock battle outside using water balloons.

It should’ve been fun. It was late May, the weather was warm, and we’d have an excuse throwing water balloons at each other. For me, though, it turned into one of the worst moments of my pre-adult life. I still consider it one of the most damaging moments of my life, to date.

Back when we were picking names out of a hat, I had the misfortune of picking the name of a woman. The name of the woman was Louisa May Alcott and, for all the wrong reasons, I’ve come to shutter at that name. That’s not to criticize her place in history, but picking that name really made that project a nightmare.

I tried to get another name, but my teacher wouldn’t let me. In hindsight, I could understand why. There were a lot of girls in that class stuck with male roles and there were only a few female roles to go around. I couldn’t even trade with someone. She basically told me to suck it up and go with it.

That, alone, was tough because I was the only boy in that class stuck with a female role. Needless to say, I got made fun of pretty quickly. Thanks to my attitude and immaturity at the time, I did everything possible to make it worse.

Throughout the project, I felt very uncomfortable playing this role and didn’t do a very good job. No matter what I did, I just gave everyone another reason to make fun of me and I reacted in a way that just gave them more incentive. In many ways, it was my fault for letting it get that bad. There were easy solutions, though, and my teachers never did a damn thing to help me.

Finally, on the day of the water balloon fight, it all came to ahead. I had already been in a bad mood that day and I did a lousy job of hiding it. As a result, I heard some kids talking about how they’d gang up on me and target me alone with their water balloons. It left me genuinely scared that I was going to be completely humiliated.

That might have been paranoia on my part, but it was more than enough to make me sit it out. When we were lining up to start the water balloon fight, I slipped away and sat down near the back wall of the school. I don’t remember if I told my teacher. I’m pretty sure I got knocked down a grade for not participating, but I wasn’t thinking about that.

However, that wasn’t the worst part. Shortly after the water balloon fight started, some of the kids from my class started mocking me from far. They started calling out, “Hi Louisa!” None of them ran up to me and threw their water balloon at me, but the damage had been done.

It was at that moment, all those kids laughing at me and calling me that woman’s name, where the distress I felt turned into outright emasculation. Make no mistake. There is a difference. Just being embarrassed is hard enough for anyone. Being emasculated, though, feels much more personal.

Regardless of how you feel about gender being a social construct or the faults in masculine standards, our gender is very much a part of who we are. Being a man is part of who I am, more so than me being a comic book fan or an aspiring erotica/romance writer. When I feel like that part of me is under attack, the damage runs much deeper.

Hearing those voices from my classmates and the laughter that followed didn’t just make me feel upset, sad, and angry. I suddenly felt less than human, lacking the qualities of men and women alike. I had no sense of worth, dignity, or identity. I felt like a wounded animal, just waiting to get eaten.

I tried to shut it out. I just kept my head down and stared at my shoes the entire time, trying with all my might not to break down and cry on the spot. I managed to avoid that, thankfully. I don’t doubt that would’ve made the moment even worse.

I’m also grateful that one of the school counselors stopped by and sat next to me. I think her presence was what stopped the chanting. She talked to me, but I don’t remember her saying anything that made me feel better. I just sat there and waited for the day to end.

Eventually, it did. I got through it and moved forward, but that moment still left quite a few scars that took a long time to heal. After that day, I became much more of a shut-in. I stopped talking in class. I stopped trying to make friends. I basically shut myself off as much as possible, saying as little as I could to get through the day.

I’m not saying that moment was completely responsible for my poor social skills, which would carry on through high school where a terrible acne problem helped compound my situation. However, I do think it set the tone. It damaged my sense of self, both in terms of my gender and of the person I was growing into.

It took a long time and a lot of work, complete with the undying support of my friends and family, to recover from that moment. When I think back on it now, I feel like it has greater meaning at a time when masculinity is seen as inherently negative. Having had my masculinity attacked at one point, I understand how damaging it can be.

These days, it’s not uncommon to hear people decry and demean men, as a whole. There have been women who advocated for the outright murder of men. They’ve been brushed off, not unlike how my teachers brushed off my discomfort on that fateful day. However, if a man even shows a hint of misogyny, they’re outright vilified. Just ask Henry Cavill.

That gives the impression that it’s okay to make a man feel emasculated, but you’re an outright monster if you make a woman feel offended in any way. It’s as though our gender determines how much compassion we get. That’s not just unfair. That’s unjust to an egregious extent.

I’ve since come to terms with what happened that day. I acknowledge that I was responsible for how parts of it played out, but there were also factors I couldn’t control and it hurt me on a deeply personal level. I don’t doubt for a second that plenty of men out there have found themselves in similar positions, feeling so low and utter unmasculine that it’s downright traumatic.

Nobody deserves to feel that way, regardless of their gender. I hope that by sharing my experience, other men will feel comfortable sharing theirs as well. There may still be those who hear stories like this and roll their eyes, thinking a man’s pain just cannot compare to that of a woman or someone who is transgender. To those people, I would say that pain is pain. It doesn’t care about your gender. It still hurts all the same.

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How Atheism May Improve Your Sex Life

Relationship with passionate affection

When it comes to improving your sex life, there’s no one way to go about it that works for everyone. Human sexuality is complex, diverse, and exceedingly kinky. What works for one person won’t work for another and may even be detrimental in some cases.

Conversely, there are also variety of ways to undermine or ruin your sex life. That same sexual diversity that helps the human race find novel ways to get intimate with one another can also backfire horribly. Some are minor, in terms of effect, but other forces can have a much greater impact.

That brings me to religion, a topic that tends to inspire the best and worst in people. Like sex, it’s a complex phenomenon that impacts everybody differently. It can inspire great charity and compassion in some. It can just as easily incur greed, exploitation, and outright atrocity.

For those reasons, and plenty more that are too numerous to list, any effort that involves mixing sex with religion is akin to mixing napalm with TNT. I’ve made an effort to discuss both topics in a fair, balanced manner in the past. I feel as though I can only go so far before I totally inflame certain audiences.

I’m still going to try to push the conversation a bit farther. That means taking a few risks and since religion is still such a prominent force in the world, it’s effect on our collective sex lives is unavoidable.

For this particular discussion, want to focus on what happens when religion is removed from the equation. If religion is really that powerful an influence on our lives, and both history and current politics indicate that influence is not entirely trivial, then it stands to reason that the impact of its absence can reveal something about the extent of that influence.

That’s not to say that this is going to be a glowing endorsement of atheism. I prefer to let the data, the logic, and the implications speak for themselves. Since religion is on decline in many parts of the western world, I think exploring the potential impact is critical and even a little urgent.

Information on the sex lives of atheists compared to those who consider themselves religious is somewhat difficult to come by. The act of assessing and measuring someone’s sex lives, as well as the extent of their religiosity, is extremely difficult without the aid of lie detectors or mind-readers. The information we do have, though, does offer some intriguing insights.

Back in 2011, a survey entitled “Sex and Secularism” surveyed approximately 14,500 people revealed that those who identified as religious had less satisfying sex lives than their non-religious counterparts. On top of that, those same religious participants reported a high level of guilt that came along with their sex lives. Given how some religions build their theology around guilt, that shouldn’t be too surprising.

Conversely, those identifying as non-religious didn’t just report better sex lives. They had better sexual education and were more open to discussing sex in general. Everything from personal fantasies to simple tastes was fair game and less affected by guilt. That openness, along with considerably less stigma, was conducive to a more fulfilling sex life.

That effect was more pronounced by those who had once been religious, but had since become atheist. Between the absence of religiously-motivated guilt and the sexual taboos that are often theologically driven, the cumulative effect is pretty striking. This notable quote from the researchers summed it up nicely.

“People who had lost their belief and became atheists reported a significant improvement in sexual satisfaction,” the paper went on to say. Apparently the guilty feelings that religion creates around sex dissipate after a while.

Now, I can already hear the outrage sincerely devout religious crowd on the conclusions of this study. More than a few people who consider themselves religious will claim that their sex lives are superior and they may even have a case to make. Many religions offer a simple, one-size-fits-all approach to sex that is uncomplicated, straightforward, and safer. The fact that it’s also ordained by a divine power is also a factor.

I don’t deny that there are plenty of religious couples out there who have satisfying sex lives. There are probably plenty of atheists out there who have terrible sex lives, as well. However, in order to draw larger conclusions about the impact of religion on sex, we can’t just go by a few anecdotal experiences. We have to step back and see the forest from the trees.

From a psychological and physiological perspective, it makes sense that guilt, religiously-motivated or not, would undermine anyone’s sex life. Guilt has measurable effects on people. It makes it harder to focus. It keeps us from enjoying things. It’s a powerful distraction that makes us feel stress and anxiety. All of these forces can do plenty to undermine your sex life.

In my musings on taboos, I often cite religion as a driving force behind them. Organized religion has made no secret of its intent to regulate, control, or outright exploit human sexuality. There’s plenty of theology, especially among the Abrahamic religions, that imparts divinely-mandated guilt on sex.

In these religious cultures, sex isn’t just some basic biological act that people do for intimacy, procreation, and recreation. It’s subject to all sorts of holy and unholy connotations. The deities involved in these religions aren’t just interested in the kind of sex you’re having. They’ll actually punish you if you do it the wrong way.

That does more than just impart extra guilt for doing anything that strays from what priests, mullahs, monks, and rabbis deem appropriate. It also instills a very rigid family structure, one centered around a specific manifestation of sex that has very little room for fun, kink, and exploration.

That manifestation involves strict gender roles where men do the hard labor and women do the child rearing. The only sex that is sanctioned is the one that involves producing babies who subsequently grow up to be adherents/soldiers/patrons of a particular religion. The fact that type of sexual expression indirectly benefits religious institutions is probably just a coincidence.

The act of enjoying sex for non-procreative purposes would constitute a distraction. A distraction is dangerous in any religion because if people become too distracted, then they pay less attention to the religious institutions and the duties they espouse. As such, it’s in the interest of any successful religion to maintain a strict control over someone’s sex life.

That kind of control is naturally prone to stress. Given how the biological wiring of human sexuality is not conducive to that kind of narrow expression, there’s bound to be temptation. The best way to combat temptation is through stigma and taboo. By hijacking powerful feelings like guilt, it’s possible heavily influence peoples’ sex lives, even if it’s impossible to control them.

It’s akin to putting lead weights on somebody’s limbs and convincing them that the weight is normal. Even if they come to accept that, the weight still skews perceptions and that can only do so much in terms of circumventing basic biology. It also means that when those weights come off, the effect is pretty striking.

Suddenly, the stigma that once kept someone from seeking the sex they desired are gone. The burdens associated with thoughts and feelings that religious institutions deem unholy are lifted. Like any form of stress relief, it can be pretty liberating.

That doesn’t necessarily mean the 2011 survey is conclusive. It has been criticized for being unscientific in some aspects. Some of those criticisms are valid and the researchers concede that, but to the extent the data is consistent with what we understand about how religion can affect our sexuality, it passes some critical filters.

Our sex lives are complicated. Religion, in its many forms, is complicated as well. Regardless of how you feel about one or the other, mixing them is almost certain to compound both. Atheism, like not playing a sport or not having a hobby, simply removes one of those complications.

It’s not a universal fix. It doesn’t subvert other potential issues that may undermine someone’s sex life. There’s plenty more research to be done and religion is still evolving with each passing year, but when it comes to removing divinely-imposed, theologically-driven guilt, atheism stimulates the necessary aspects that make for a satisfying sex life.

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Profiles In Noble Masculinity: Robocop

robocop

Even in an era where masculinity has gained way too many negative connotations, there’s plenty of room for men who distinguish themselves in respectable, honorable ways. There are countless male characters in popular culture who attempt to set themselves apart. Sometimes, it brings out the worst in men. Sometimes, it brings out the best.

I’ve made a concerted effort to focus on the best aspects of masculinity. To date, I’ve profiled two characters, Joel from “The Last of Us” and Hank Hill from “King of the Hill.” I’ve cited both characters as examples of noble masculinity. It manifests in different forms, but it helps bring a unique strength to their characters.

They have a wide range of traits, some of which aren’t distinctly masculine. When those manly characteristics do emerge, though, they don’t just reveal the greater subtleties in who they are. They demonstrate just how powerful masculinity can be when it’s channeled. In that spirit, I’d like to highlight another character who channels that kind of masculinity in a way that’s compelling, memorable, and full of memorable one-liners.

That character’s name is Alex J. Murphy of the Detroit Police Department, but most know him as Robocop. He’s not just a cop who got caught up in a greedy corporation’s agenda. He’s not just a man in a machine carrying out the duties of a cop. When you take in the entirety of Robocop’s story, including the Jesus connotations, you find a character whose masculinity shines even in the R-rated violence that is Detroit.

Now, before I go any further, I want to establish that the version of “Robocop” I’m citing here is the original 1987 version played by Peter Weller. This profile will not draw from the 2014 “Robocop” played by Joel Kinnaman. I’m not saying that version of the character is without merit. I enjoyed that movie. However, it did not come close to demonstrating the level of noble masculinity that the original conveyed.

On the surface, the original “Robocop” wasn’t that groundbreaking for its time. Stories about urban decay and dystopian cities were already popular thanks to movies like “The Terminator” and “Blade Runner.” In terms of substance, though, “Robocop” achieved something profound in terms of crafting a memorable male character.

The core of Alex Murphy’s character, even before he became Robocop, is that he’s a good, honorable man in a city that doesn’t have many of them. This version of Detroit, which is sadly very similar to the real-world version, is full of deviant criminals and corrupt business types. The very company that creates Robocop, Omni Consumer Products, is full of ruthless individuals who see crime only as a hindrance to profits.

A man like Alex Murphy is a precious rarity in that world. As such, it doesn’t take long for it to get snuffed out. On Murphy’s first day on the job, he’s callously killed by a gang of sociopath criminals led by Clarence Boddicker. All that innate nobility and idealism Murphy had was literally shot to death within the first twenty minutes of the movie.

However, that was not the end of Alex Murphy’s story. It was only the beginning. When he’s turned into Robocop by OCP, who see him only as a means to further their business plan, the extent of the noble masculinity he portrays only grows. The fact it does so while he cleans up Detroit’s rampant crime is a nice bonus as well.

From the moment he awakens as Robocop, we see what looks to be only a shell of a man. In fact, OCP goes out of their way to remove as much of the man as possible, not bothering to salvage his hand or anything below the neck. The only part of Alex Murphy they keep is his brain and part of his face.

It’s a total deconstruction of a man, ripping away the very flesh that makes him masculine and yes, that includes his genitals. To OCP, he’s a machine who just happens to run on human parts. They try to filter out the humanity in hopes of creating an obedient commodity that they can then mass produce, market, and utilize for profit.

It’s dehumanization to an extreme, more so than what characters like Wolverine endured. For a brief while, it looks like OCP succeeds. Initially, Robocop carries himself like a machine, confronting Detroit’s worst criminals with an efficiency that wasn’t possible as Alex Murphy. He could’ve become a perfect example of reducing all men to machines, devoid of emotion and focused only on a task at hand.

Then, the story takes a more human turn and Robocop suddenly becomes more man than machine. Despite everything OCP took from him, including his body and his free will, Alex Murphy still emerged. Even after everything that made him a man was deconstructed, literally in some cases, he fought to regain control.

In the process, we get to see Robocop learn about the man he used to be. We see glimpses of his life as a father and a husband. We find out just how good a man he was to his wife and his son. It contrasts heavily to the ruthless criminals and callous business people that affect much of the story. That’s critical in terms of establishing Robocop as someone who conveys a heroic brand of masculinity.

From the outside perspective of the audience, Alex Murphy’s home life seems mundane and even a little corny. However, when put into the context of a crime-ridden urban dystopia, it becomes instrumental in elevating Robocop’s sense of duty. They make his prime directives more than just base programming. By adding Murphy’s humanity into the mix, they gain greater meaning.

It’s an inherently masculine trait, protecting those who cannot otherwise protect themselves. Murphy already embodied that trait because he was a cop and a family man. However, he could only accomplish so much on his own, as his fatal encounter with Boddicker proved.

By becoming Robocop, that role is elevated because technically speaking, he’s better equipped than any man has ever been. He’s got a human mind, but he has a robot body, complete with bullet-proof skin and the ability to shoot with inhuman accuracy. Instead of stripping him of his masculinity and his humanity, becoming a robot actually enhanced it.

That, more than anything, is what elevates Robocop’s noble masculinity to another level. An act that should’ve utterly dehumanized him ended up making his humanity even stronger. It had to be in order to overcome OCP’s control and uncover the plot to exploit him as just another product. The fact that OCP tries and fails in the sequel to recreate him further reinforces just how unique Robocop is.

Through that journey from utter masculine deconstruction to total reaffirmation of his identity, the line between Robocop and Alex Murphy blurs. The line between carrying out noble acts and following basic programming blurs as well. In the end, Robocop isn’t just a machine following a program. He’s a man inside a machine, doing the same job he did as a man, but with much better weapons and more memorable catch phrases.

Robocop” is hailed as a classic for many reasons. Robocop, as a character, continues to be an icon, despite sub-par sequels and a failed reboot. I think a big part of that appeal comes directly from how the first movie managed to portray the best traits of masculinity within a setting where the worst often thrived.

Even in a contemporary context, beyond the current state of Detroit, Robocop conveys a powerful message that men and women alike can appreciate. You can put a good man in the worst situation, destroying and deconstructing him at every level. That same man will find a way to re-emerge and do what needs to be done.

It’s a testament to the strength of manhood and our willingness to protect innocents in an unjust world. Robocop combines the spirit of a man with the power of a machine. One need not subvert the other. In fact, one can supplement the other and, dead or alive, the criminal element of any gender doesn’t stand a chance.

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