Tag Archives: Bill Maher

Five Comic Books I Would Recommend To Bill Maher

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I love comic books.

I love superhero movies.

I love geek culture and actively participate in it.

I also understand that there are people who don’t share those passions. Some may even see them as childish and foolish. That’s perfectly fine. It doesn’t make them a bad person, by default. It doesn’t even mean I can’t get along with them or agree with them on other issues.

The fact I have to make that disclaimer only makes the current state of affairs more frustrating. I feel it’s more necessary now because I’m about to address a topic has evoked all the wrong emotions for all the wrong reasons. Normally, my first instinct is to avoid such controversy, but since it involves superhero comics, I feel inclined to respond.

It started late last year with a blog post by Bill Maher, a late night talk show host for the long-running HBO series, “Real Time With Bill Maher.” That blog post came shortly after the death of Stan Lee and, without going too heavily into details, attacked the culture behind comic books and superhero media.

Many took that post as an insult to the legacy of Stan Lee. Having read that post multiple times, I really didn’t get that sense. I won’t deny that I took some offense to it, but I’ve read far more offensive things in the comments section of YouTube videos. The fact that it got such a visceral reaction only skewed the conversation even more.

Then, this past week on his show, Mr. Maher finally addressed the issue again in the closing commentary on his show. If you haven’t seen it, here it is.

The long and short of it is his commentary had less to do with Stan Lee and more to do with people who think comic books warrant serious cultural weight. He goes onto bemoan how people cling to the things they loved as kids as a way of avoiding the adult world. It’s less an indictment on people who like comics and more a criticism of people who whine about adulting, in general.

To some extent, I understand his criticism. There are people in this world who try to avoid adult responsibilities at every turn. They don’t want to deal with the harshness of the real world and cling to fantasies about having superpowers that render those problems moot. Even as someone who loves superhero comics and movies, I think that’s an issue for some people.

For most people though, it’s just fun. Mr. Maher seems to completely overlook that. I don’t care how old you get. Having fun is fun. Comics are a lot of fun to read, follow, and enjoy. The more “serious” pieces of literature that he recommends in his commentary probably have plenty of merit, but they’re not nearly as fun.

The idea that he finds superhero media as childish is understandable. Bill Maher is over 60 years old. For most of his life, comic books and superheroes have been for children. It’s only within the last 30 years that they’ve matured to a point where they appeal to all ages, so much so that they’ve raked in over $20 billion at the box office. You don’t make that much money on childish things.

In addition to box office billions, some comics have gained serious acclaim. A select few have even been recognized as some of the greatest literary works in the past 100 years. I doubt Mr. Maher is aware of this because most of these amazing works happened after he became an adult. I imagine that if you were to ask most people his age, they would agree that comics shouldn’t be considered serious literature.

I respectfully disagree with that notion and I know many others disagree as well. That said, I doubt anyone will ever convince Mr. Maher that he’s wrong. He has made his politics very clear on many occasions and I don’t doubt he’ll say other offensive things in the future.

At the very least, I can offer Mr. Maher some perspective. I believe that, if he were to give comics a chance, he would see their literary value. He may still think they’re childish, but I think he would have a greater appreciation for the medium, if only because he sees how it has evolved since he was a kid.

What follows are five comics that I would personally recommend to Mr. Maher. I feel these books would help show just how salient comics can be in terms of society, politics, and art. While I doubt he’ll give them a chance, I hope others who share his sentiments take a moment to see why comic books and superhero media have become such an integral part of our culture.


Watchmen

This is an easy choice and not just because Watchmen routinely ranks near the top as on of the greatest comic books of all time. This seminal work by Alan Moore and David Gibbons actually speaks to the same criticisms that Mr. Maher levied against superheroes. Watchmen is, at its heart, the ultimate deconstruction of the entire concept of superheroes.

This story isn’t just about heroes fighting villains or heroes fighting other heroes. Watchmen is a story with deep, philosophical overtones about what it means to wield power and make peace in a chaotic world. It casts a harsh light on the dangers of relying on superheroes or super-powered beings to solve big problems on the global stage. It’s a sentiment that Mr. Maher himself has made on more than one occasion.

Being a political person, I believe Mr. Maher would find a lot to enjoy about the world of Watchmen. Beyond the art and the complexities of the story, it has a message that goes beyond good guys fighting bad guys.

In many respects, Watchmen was the comic that broke all the rules and ushered the medium into a new era. It proved that a comic could make serious contributions to the world of literature. Between its unique place in the history of comics and the awards it received, I think Watchmen can prove to Mr. Maher that comics can be great works of art that tell relevant messages for the real world.


Sandman

This is another series that routinely gets mentioned in discussions surrounding the greatest comics of all time. Like Watchmen, Sandman pushed the limits on what a comic book could be. It’s not a standard superhero comic. It’s not about heroes searching for some ominous glowing object, which is something Mr. Maher pointed out in his criticism. Sandman is deeper than that.

The writer of Sandman, Neil Gaiman, dared to craft a more mature fantasy. This is a world where mythological figures like Morpheus, Lucifer, and even characters from the bible interact with one another in a complex narrative that provides insight into spirituality, religion, and philosophy.

I believe that insight would appeal to Mr. Maher more than most and not just because he’s a self-admitted stoner. Say what you will about him, but he’s a very intelligent man who went to an Ivy League school. He also majored in English, which I think would make Sandman that much more appealing to him.

The story in Sandman is not something most children will understand or appreciate. Even most adults may struggle to make sense of the various themes that Gaiman explores throughout the book. It’s a powerful story, but one that works best in the medium of comics. I think if Mr. Maher gave Sandman a chance, he would see that.


X-men: God Loves, Man Kills

Even though Mr. Maher singled out superheroes as the most childish element of comics, I believe there are still a select few that would still appeal to him, if only because of his political leanings. Mr. Maher has always identified as a liberal and routinely espouses the value of liberal principles. He grew up watching the civil rights movement unfold and it has clearly had an impact on him.

That’s exactly why a comic like X-men: God Loves, Man Kills would resonate with him. Even though it follows many common superhero themes, this classic X-men story by legendary X-men writer, Chris Claremont, goes much further in linking the struggle of the X-men with that of civil rights.

This story is less about the X-men fighting killer robots and more about confronting the depths of human bigotry. In addition to providing the inspiration for “X2,” it explores a kind of bigotry that feels like it was ripped from the real world. It even throws religion into the mix with the introduction of Reverend William Stryker, a man who has drawn more than a few comparisons with Vice President Mike Pence.

Mr. Maher will probably notice those parallels more than most. He has made no secret of his disdain for organized religion and the people who use it to justify their bigotry. X-men: God Loves, Man Kills tells a story of just how dangerous that kind of religiously-motivated bigotry can get. Even though it’s still a superhero story, it doesn’t hide from the real-world parallels.

Good literature, whether it’s a comic book or a novel, often reflects the controversies of its time. The X-men were created right at the onset of the Civil Rights Movement. Stan Lee has gone on record as saying that elements of the X-men were inspired by real life heroes of the Civil Rights Movement. As both a proud liberal and a critic of religion, Mr. Maher will find plenty to like about this classic X-men story.


All-Star Superman

This story might be the toughest sell for Mr. Maher. However, I think if any comic can demonstrate the value of superheroes, it’s All-Star Superman. This love letter to Superman and all the fanciful themes surrounding him is a celebration of the ultimate hero. Even if Mr. Maher thinks idolizing heroes is dangerous, I think even he’ll appreciate why Superman is such an icon after 80 years.

What makes All-Star Superman special isn’t in how it depicts the Man of Steel at his best. It’s not just about him saving the day, defeating Lex Luthor, and winning the love of Lois Lane. More than anything else, the story that Grant Morrison and Frank Quietly tell demonstrates just how much Superman inspires those around him.

Throughout the series, there are many great moments that are full of heart, hope, and compassion. Some of it is cartoonishly over-the-top, but it never feels corny. There’s never a point where Superman takes a moment to tell a bunch of kids to eat their vegetables and stay in school. It doesn’t try to make Superman someone he’s not. He’s the ultimate paragon of virtue and this series just runs with that.

To further raise the stakes, this version of Superman is living on borrowed time. As powerful as he is, he has saved the day one time too many. He basically has to do what he can with what little time he has left to make the world a better place. It’s an endeavor that even Mr. Maher can appreciate.

More than once, Mr. Maher has tried to inspire others to be better. Even if his efforts are politically motivated, the will to inspire is something he’s always shown, going back to his days on “Politically Incorrect.” Even if he thinks Superman comics are for kids, he can still appreciate Superman’s efforts to inspire the good in others.


Y: The Last Man

This is another acclaimed comic series that doesn’t rely on superheroes, fancy costumes, or superpowers. At a time when gender politics are such a hot topic, a series like Y: The Last Man is more relevant than ever. This beloved comic by Brian K. Vaughan and Pia Guerra takes issues surrounding gender to an apocalyptic extreme.

As someone who has routinely criticized how the debate surrounding feminism and gender has evolved, I believe Mr. Maher will find a lot to like about Y: The Last Man. This is a story that puts men and women in the ultimate bind. One day, without warning, every creature on Earth with a Y chromosome just keels over and dies. Only one man, Yorick Brown, and his pet monkey, Ampersand, survive.

The story the follows is both a fight for survival and a critical insight into what happens when gender dynamics operate in extremes. The world that Vaughan and Guerra show just how much men and women rely on one another without realizing it. When one is completely removed from the equation, it pushes people beyond the brink.

At the same time, it shows just how resilient people can be in terrible situations. The will to survive knows no gender. It can bring out the best and the worst in someone, but the best is what usually keeps driving us. Mr. Maher has often spoken urgently about issues like climate change. The apocalyptic setting of Y: The Last Man shows why that urgency is necessary.


Again, I don’t expect Mr. Maher to change his mind on much. He has made it abundantly clear in the past that he is very set in his ways. However, if he is genuinely open to seeing the merits of comic books, these titles should help. Comic books may have been for kids when he was a kid. They have since become so much more and their legacy, like that of Stan Lee’s, will continue for generations to come.

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Filed under Celebrities and Celebrity Culture, Current Events, media issues, political correctness, religion, superhero comics, superhero movies, television

Why “Adulting” Is Getting Harder

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I’ve stated before that there are certain words I believe should be purged from the English lexicon. Contrived, agenda-driven terms like “toxic masculinity” or “mansplaining” are at the top of my list. I strongly believe that terminology like that is doing everything to further hostility and hinder understanding.

That being said, there are a few words that I have mixed feelings about. I think they also do plenty to divide people for all the wrong reasons, but I also understand why they exist. One term that I feel is increasingly relevant, albeit for negative reasons, is the concept of “adulting.”

I put that term in quotes for a reason, but it’s not out of sarcasm or scorn. This is one of those words that exists because there’s a need for it. Even if you think “adulting” sounds silly, chances are a word every bit as silly, if not more so, would’ve been coined. That’s because what it means to be a functioning adult is changing and not in a way that makes things easier.

This sentiment is implied in the popular definition. Even though it’s a fairly new term, it has become relevant enough to warrant a listing in the Oxford Dictionary, which defines it as follows:

The practice of behaving in a way characteristic of a responsible adult, especially the accomplishment of mundane but necessary tasks.

It may seem too simple to warrant scrutiny and maybe that was right several decades ago. However, a lot has changed in the past 30 years. A lot has changed in the past 10 years. The world isn’t as simple as it used to be. It’s become incredibly complex, full of fake news, alternative facts, and contrived outrage. That has changed what it means to be an adult.

I know this will elicit plenty of groans from certain crowds, but I’ll say it anyways. Being an adult is hard these days. Yes, I’m aware that it’s supposed to be hard to some extent. It always has been, going back to the hunter/gatherer days. Being an adult means functioning on your own and contributing to your society. You can no longer rely on parents or elders to provide for you. You must now do the providing.

It’s a challenge for many, some more so than others. However, there are some unique challenges facing adults today, especially among the younger crowds. I know this because I’m one of them. I’ve discussed the distressing issues surrounding Millennials and the potential issues that Generation Z will face in the coming years. Many of those issues, though, will affect everyone of any generation.

I’m not just referring to the crippling student loan debts that are burdening Millennials or the rising cost of housing in urban areas. There are deeper, more fundamental struggles that hinder or even discourage our ability to embrace adulthood. You want to know why nostalgia is so popular or why escapism is so prominent in media? Well, the complications and frequent frustrations that come with “adulting” are huge factors.

To understand, here’s a list of a few reasons why “adulting” is a thing and why just being an adult is getting harder. Hopefully, it’ll help make sense of this annoying, but relevant term. You’ll still probably roll your eyes whenever someone claims they cannot “adult” anymore for the day. If nothing else, this will help you understand where they’re coming from.


Too Much Information Is Overwhelming Us (And Making Us Mentally Ill)

This isn’t just a Millennial thing. It’s not even a byproduct of social media. The trend of people just getting more and more information has been happening for decades as people moved further and further away from rural, agrarian communities. Today, more people are educated now than at any point in human history. That has many benefits, but it comes at a cost.

Now, we can’t just see what’s going on in our world through pictures and streaming media. We can read about things, learn about them, and scrutinize them. That’s helpful in some instances, but in a world that’s increasingly connected and full of conflicting information, it can be overwhelming.

On top of that, we tend to find out about bad news and horrific atrocities as they’re unfolding. Many people alive today actually saw the horrors of the September 11th attacks occur on live TV. More recently, people were able to follow the horrors of the Parkland shooting as it unfolded on social media.

Being informed is part of being an adult, but when you’re informed of every horrific thing that happens in the world, it can wear on you. Some research has shown that this sort of system is impacting peoples’ mental health. In that context, it makes sense for someone to want to step back from that part of adulting.

For most of human history, we didn’t know or care about the horrors going on outside our tiny community. In the past 30 years, we know everything that’s going on everywhere. The human mind is good at a lot of things. Making sense of that much information isn’t one of them.


Our Options Feel Increasingly Limited (And We Don’t Know Which To Follow)

Growing up, every adult told me the path to success was simple. If you just stayed in school, got good grades, went to a decent college, and got a bachelor’s degree, then you were set. You could expect to find a good job with decent pay that would allow you to build a comfortable living for yourself and your future family. I believed in that path. I followed it. I can safely say it was half-true at best.

While there is plenty of merit to a college education, it’s no longer the clear-cut path it once was. I personally know people who graduated from good schools with quality degrees in subjects like engineering and they’re struggling. It’s not that people are getting useless degrees in underwater basket weaving. It’s that just getting a degree is no longer sufficient.

After graduating from college, I was in this daze for a while and many of my fellow graduates were the same. We were all told that getting this degree would set us on the right path, but nobody told us how to navigate that path or what it even looked like. As a result, most people ended up in jobs that had nothing to do with their college major.

On top of that, the job market is becoming increasingly unstable. The rise of the gig economy is making it so people don’t just live paycheck to paycheck. They live job to job, never knowing if they’ll even have one when they wake up the next day. These are not the same well-paying, blue collar factory jobs of the past. This is work that will not help pay a mortgage or a student loan debt.

However, we’re still told that this is the path. This is how we’ll prosper in the future. Even as we look for other options, most adults today don’t know how viable they are. We’re left in a state of uncertainty that past adults never had to deal with. We still need to choose, though, because our bills aren’t going to pay themselves.


There’s No Margin For Error And Every Mistake Will Follow You Forever

Remember when it was possible to make a dirty, offensive joke among friends and not worry about it haunting you for the rest of your life? I’m not being old or cantankerous. I’m serious because I do remember when that was possible. In my youth, I heard plenty of jokes that would’ve ruined someone’s life today if they’d been captured on video or posted on social media.

This isn’t just about political correctness or identity politics corrupting discourse. Adults today live in a world where any mistake they make, be it a bad joke or an off-hand comment, can come back to haunt them. It doesn’t matter if it’s from a celebrity or even if it occurs in private. It can still cost you dearly.

Now, I wish I didn’t have to say this, but I have to since I’m posting this on the internet. None of what I’m saying is implying that certain behavior, language, or comments are justified. I think it’s a good thing, for the most part, that certain people are paying a price for their bigoted attitudes. However, that good does come at a cost and it’s felt by adults at every level.

To some extent, we envy kids now because kids can say dumb things and get away with it. They’re kids. They have an excuse and it’s one of the few excuses most people accept these days. If you’re an adult, though, you’ve got nothing of the sort. You can blame liberals, conservatives, or Ambien all you want. You’re still going to pay a price.

As adults, we’re responsible for what we say and do. That’s part of what it means to be an adult. The problem is that in a world where every mistake is documented and preserved forever, our margin for error is exceedingly small. How many people don’t get the job they want because of an embarrassing photo or tweet they made a decade ago? How many people get fired because of it?

Regardless of how justified it may or may not be, it adds further stress to the inherently-stressful responsibilities that come with being an adult. The adults of today have many complications to deal with and if you mess even one up, then it could haunt you to the day you die. Now, do you understand why so many adults seem so uptight about adulting?


We Feel Like We Cannot Escape (And Badly Need To)

Life has always carried harsh burdens. Whether it was escaping wars or fighting disease, people of every generation in every period have sought out some reprieve from the endless struggle. Sometimes, it takes the form of games, drugs, books, or sports. After a long day of working the fields or gathering food, we needed some form of reprieve.

It’s as important today as it was in previous centuries. The big difference today is that we feel like we have fewer and fewer opportunities to do so. Life on farms and fields was rough, but at least the challenges were clear and laid out. We worked to survive. If we survived, we celebrated. It was simple.

Today, surviving just isn’t enough. We have bills to pay, debts to service, jobs to find, and connections to make. On top of that, we have to keep up with the news and popular trends. We have to fit into an increasingly diverse world where people of different communities and cultures are connected. It’s a lot of work, taking time and energy that go beyond plowing a field.

It doesn’t help that the abundance of information and the prominence of bad news makes the future seem so bleak. Even if society is progressing on almost every measurable level, our perceptions imply that the world outside our windows is dangerous, hostile, and hopeless. We can’t do anything about it, our politicians are inept, and our votes don’t even count.

In those frustrating circumstances, it makes sense for people to lose themselves in video games, movies, and TV shows. The whole concept of binge-watching allows adults to lose themselves in hours of content, which subsequently allows them to detach from a harsh reality that they have no hope of effecting.

Say what you want about adults who still love comic books and video games. The fact that they’re both multi-billion dollar industries is a sign that many are desperate for an escape from the frustrations of their adult lives. The things we loved as kids are just the easiest and most familiar paths.


There are plenty of other reasons I could list about “adulting” and why it’s getting increasingly difficult. I have a feeling that many adults reading this have their own sets of reasons and there will probably be more within the coming years. There will also be others who complain about anyone who tries to talk about those reasons. It’s sure to evoke more frustration and whining.

In the end, we all have to be adults at some point. There’s a time and a place to just step back from it all and take a breath. That shouldn’t be controversial, but the fact that “adulting” is now a thing means there are a lot of complications to adult life and we’re not doing a good enough job handling them.

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Filed under human nature, outrage culture, philosophy, psychology

Free Speech And The Long-Term Fallout Of The “Rosanne” Cancellation

rosanne

When it comes to free speech and freedom of expression, I consider myself somewhat of an extremist. If I were in charge of setting the standards, I would permit un-bleeped profanity, unfiltered hate speech, unblurred nudity, and anything else that One Million Moms finds offensive. That’s how much I believe in free speech.

It’s probably for that reason that I would be woefully unqualified to establish a legal framework for what constitutes free speech and how it would be enforced. I’m not a lawyer, a legal expert, or some colorful TV personality who pretends to be one. Despite my qualifications, though, I do feel like I have something worth contributing to an ongoing debate surrounding free speech.

If you’ve been anywhere near the internet or a TV over the past few weeks, you’ve probably heard about the scandal surrounding Roseanne Barr. Simply put, Rosanne Barr made some offensive tweets that she blamed on sleeping pills. The tweets triggered a major outrage across social media. As a result, ABC canceled her hit show, which had been generating strong ratings since its return.

On some levels, I can understand this reaction. ABC is owned by Disney, a company that has one of the strongest brands in the world. They are not the government. They are a publicly traded company and as such, public perceptions affect their profits and their image. If you think that doesn’t matter, just ask the NFL what happens when a brand gets undermined.

On every other level, though, I see this reaction as one of those short-term solutions that could create many other problems in the long run. Whether you agree with Roseanne Barr’s politics or hate her guts, she was still just voicing her opinion. Yes, it was in bad taste and had some racial overtones, but she did apologize for it. The sincerity of that apology is hard to gauge, but the effort still counts for something in my opinion.

Even without that apology, the potential precedent and backlash are already in place. We, as a society, have established a process for punishing speech that we don’t like or find offensive. The process has nothing to do with an authoritarian government cracking down on its people. It doesn’t even involve the kind of mass censorship that other countries routinely practice. We’re doing this all on our own.

Essentially, we’re doing Big Brother’s job for him. We’re just not calling it censorship or a crackdown. Instead, we’re creating our own category of speech that a significant number of people believe ought not to be expressed or shared. There are no lawyers or police enforcing those standards. We’re doing that through a type of speech-based vigilante justice.

Me being a die-hard fan of superhero comics, many of which are built around vigilante justice, I’m somewhat sympathetic to those who want to right the wrongs that our imperfect justice system leaves unfinished. In this case, however, I don’t see the kind of justice that Batman would pursue, nor do I see the kind of villainy that the Joker would carry out.

I see an emerging system where a huge population of well-connected, well-informed, and generally well-meaning people want to confront people and ideas that they feel our damaging to others, themselves, and society as a whole. I don’t doubt their sincerity or their idealism. However, I seriously doubt they understand the implications of what they’re doing.

I don’t agree with Roseanne Barr’s comments. I didn’t find them funny, but I didn’t find them that offensive either. I see far more offensive comments on message boards and Reddit at least twice a day. That sentiment is out there. It exists. Even if the internet disappeared tomorrow, people would still have these thoughts and opinions.

That’s exactly why the outrage, protests, and subsequent consequences don’t necessarily achieve much beyond removing a few offensive comments from an immense network that’s full of so much worse. It does nothing to actually change the sentiments of those expressing the speech. If anything, it just makes them regret getting punished.

It’s akin to the inherent conflict we feel in accepting a criminal’s apology. We can’t know for sure whether they’re genuinely sorry for doing what they did or whether they’re just sorry they got caught. One is very different from the other. Without reading Roseanne Barr’s mind directly, we don’t know if her show getting cancelled has changed her political persuasions or just made them worse.

Moreover, her losing her show, her job, and her credibility reveals to a hyper-connected world that this is how you combat speech you find offensive. You don’t try to change someone’s mind. You don’t grow thicker skin and deal with it. You just get enough people to voice enough outrage and eventually, you can both remove the speech and punish the person who spoke it.

For those who didn’t like Roseanne’s comments or were genuinely offended by them, I doubt that seems like a bad thing. They are, after all, simply voicing their own free speech and using that to effect change from a non-government, publicly-traded company. They probably see themselves as the heroes in this story.

What happens, though, when the script is flipped? It’s not unlike the distressing thought experiment I pitched a while back that involved swapping the genders of famous movie or TV scenes. Reverse the roles and suddenly, the situation takes on a very different context.

You don’t even need any imagination to contemplate this because it already happened with Colin Kaepernick. Like Roseanne, he expressed himself in a very public way that triggered a very public backlash. He ended up losing his job and any prospects of getting another.

The same people celebrating Roseanne Barr’s cancellation likely protested how Kaepernick was treated. Some of them even protested on his behalf in a very public way to apply pressure not unlike the kind ABC faced. While the two situations are not exactly the same, the general premise is clear.

If someone expresses a political opinion that you don’t agree with, you and those like you can protest as well to silence that opinion and publish the one who expressed it. Conservatives can do it to liberal figures. Liberals can do it to conservative figures. The end result is the same. The speech is silenced and the speaker is punished, but the underlying attitudes remain untouched.

It’s those untouched attitudes that may end up having the biggest long-term impact of both the Roseanne Barr situation and that of Colin Kaepernick. Being public figures, these two made themselves targets with their controversial expressions. However, the way others confronted it is potentially damaging to the very concept of free speech.

Thanks to the internet, social media, and outrage culture, both situations make clear to those of any political persuasion that you don’t have to confront the actual substance of someone else’s speech. You don’t have to thicken your skin, evolve your thinking, or learn how to process offense. You can just protest the speech and punish the speaker, all without getting the government involved.

That’s the kind of approach that does not foster a free, open exchange of ideas. If anything, it ensures that people internalize their feelings and sentiments that others may find offensive. In doing so, that makes it even harder to confront them and potentially change their minds. Roseanne losing her show isn’t going to convince her that her critics are right. If anything, it’s going to make her hate her critics even more.

The end result of this kind of self-censorship is downright dystopian. Imagine a world where everything online, on TV, and in movies is so filtered, so watered down, and so overly polished that nobody even has an opportunity to voice anything offensive. The government doesn’t enforce it. We do.

In that world, hate and bigotry still exists. It’s just hidden and we have no way of knowing about it. History and human nature makes clear that internalizing these feelings can be very damaging. Now, we’ve just given Roseanne Barr and everyone who shares her views to be angrier and more hateful. We’ve also given them a tool with which to fight back against those they disagree with.

It’s a dangerous situation with damaging implications for the future of free speech. We could argue whether or not ABC was right to cancel Roseanne’s show or whether a company like Disney has the right to fire people who damage their brand. At the end of the day, though, the source of the outrage and conflict still comes from us. If offense is all it takes to censor speech, then speech is no longer free.

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Filed under Current Events, gender issues, human nature, media issues, political correctness

How Professional Trolls Hack Your Brain

Here’s a quick non-rhetorical question. What do Milo Yiannopoulos, Ann Coulter, Bill Maher, Lena Dunham, Bill O’Riley, John Oliver, Alex Jones, and Sean Hannity all have in common? Other than being richer, more successful, and more well-connected than you or I will ever be, what could possibly tie them together in a way that would help them get along at a barbecue?

Take all the time you need. I know this is one of those questions that’s not going to have a very satisfying answer to anybody. I also know it’s one of those questions that pisses people off, even before they answer it. This is the internet. People get pissed off for far less.

Are you done? Well, knowing full-well that I’ve already pissed off plenty of people, here it is. They’re all trolls who use the exact same tactics to make themselves successful and relevant. They may not do it overtly. They may not even admit to it, but on some levels they understand what they’re doing and why it works. Sadly, it works very well.

Now when I say they’re all trolls, I don’t mean to imply that they’re the kind of internet trolls that harass people on social media with insults, death threats, or pictures animals eating their own shit. Those kinds of trolls are a different breed. Granted, they’re annoying and should be ignored at all cost, but these professional trolls are on another level in that they make a damn good living doing what they do.

What these professional trolls do is as brilliant as it is disturbing. Pick any notable public figure who says controversial things. It can be Milo Yiannopoulos making derogatory comments about Muslims. It can be Lena Dunham saying she wished she got an abortion. Just think about any controversial thing that any controversial figure has ever said.

Whether it’s entirely planned or one of those instances where they don’t shut themselves up fast enough, the results are the same. People get outrage. Hashtags get started. Protests erupt. Venomous hate clashes with vocal support. There’s basically all this noise full of anger and passion.

As all this is going on, Milo and Lena are probably laughing to themselves at how much free publicity they just got. Anyone who has ever been in show business, media, or publishing will probably agree. The hardest part of success in Hollywood is getting publicity. There’s only so much of it to go around and people have a very finite attention span. Being able to get free publicity is like being able to play a game with cheat codes.

Now we’ve all heard there’s no such thing as bad publicity before. That sort of sentiment pre-dates the internet, going all the way back to the days when Ozzy Osborne bit the head off of a bat. Today, there’s one key difference that takes this phenomenon, gives it an unlimited supply of crystal meth, and sticks a nine-inch needle in our collective brains.

That difference is immediate access to information. From the internet, to our computers, to our phones, and into our pockets, we no longer have to wait for the evening paper to hear about these atrocious events. Thanks to social media, alerts, and annoying text messages, we can know about them mere minutes after they happen.

While this is a marvel of modern technology and communication, it does have a downside and it’s one that the professional trolls of the world have exploited to the utmost. That downside has to do with how stupid our collective brains are.

By that, I don’t mean that people themselves are stupid. I may be in a minority, but I believe that people, in general, are fairly decent and competent in their day-to-day lives. When I say our brains are stupid, I’m referring to the overall functionality of the hardware involved.

This goes beyond caveman logic, which I’ve cited many times before on this blog. This even goes beyond humans being wired for survival and reproduction rather than logic and reason. This is a byproduct of nature being too much of a blunt instrument rather than a scalpel. In this case, it makes professional trolls rich, successful, and famous.

They do this by hacking an unfortunate quirk in the human brain and using it to their advantage. It’s called “Misattribution of Arousal.” Unlike other convoluted scientific phenomena, this is exactly what it sounds like.

Have you ever been on a roller coaster? Have you ever been really scared by something? Well, if your brain is in working order, it got you extremely aroused and alert. You were afraid, excited, anxious, or euphoric. You could’ve felt any number of emotions at the time.

From your brain’s perspective, though, it’s the goddamn same thing. You’re aroused. There’s a stimulus you need to respond to. That’s all there is to it. As brilliant and complex as the human brain is, it’s still a pretty crude organ. It can’t do math worth a damn. It can easily be tricked by the David Copperfields of the world. It can, however, be tricked into getting aroused for all the wrong reasons.

This is what professional trolls do. They do or say something that gets people aroused. It’s not enough to just get their attention. I’ve already covered how attention is a big part in the “Always Be Closing” approach to success. However, attention only does so much. Adding arousal to the mix does something far greater.

When your brain is in a state of arousal, it doesn’t care much for specifics. It just knows its aroused and needs to respond to something. When you have instant access to information that upsets, angers, or thrills you in any way, that triggers arousal. That arousal, even if its the bad kind, causes the release of dopamine and this is where it gets really dangerous.

For those of you who aren’t caught up on neuroscience, you should still know what dopamine is. That’s the feel-good, everything-is-awesome chemical that our brain uses to reward us for doing things we like. Naturally, it’s a big part of our sexual response. If your brain is swimming in dopamine, that means you’ve had amazing sex.

Now the outrage/interest/arousal we fell with professional trolls doesn’t release quite that much dopamine into our brains. However, it does release some. It releases enough to get a response and due to the crude wiring of our brains, that’s more than enough.

That means that, on some levels, we like being outraged or upset by professional trolls. We like the feeling we get when we despise certain people, groups, or ideologies. Anger, hate, and fear all trigger the same arousal. Our brains enjoy that arousal to some level and thanks to modern communication, it’s far easier to get today than it has ever been in human history.

It’s uncharted territory. If these professional trolls were around 40 years ago, they would probably have a much harder time building an audience. They could say some of the most horrendously-offensive things anyone could possibly say, but it wouldn’t get a lot of attention because word would spread too slowly. The internet, along with social media, is changing that in a big way.

The professional trolls are maximizing that change to their benefit. They’re finding all sorts of ways to anger, upset, or inspire us, even if it’s stressful. Again, our brain doesn’t care. It still arouses us. It still gives us a non-trivial dose of dopamine. That’s all it takes to get people going.

It’s the hidden, unknown, unacknowledged secret that we’re just starting to understand. Whether you’re a die-hard social justice warrior or an outspoken supporter of the alt-right, you use the same methods as the professional trolls. You say and do what you need to do to get people aroused.

It doesn’t matter if it’s true or honest. You don’t even have to believe it on some levels. There are probably many figures out there who, in their private moments, know that what they’re saying is wrong or foolish. They just don’t care though because they’re not looking to say something right or uplifting. They’re trying to get people aroused and worked up.

Now I don’t know which professional trolls feel this way in private. I believe that on some level, they all really believe in what they’re doing. I also believe that on some level, they understand that some of it is misguided and flawed. There’s this vast gray area of understanding that’s hard to grasp and we’ll probably never know for sure just how much these professional trolls believe their own rhetoric.

Whatever the case, this is the world we live in now. We’re all very much at the mercy of the flaws of our collective brains. It’s hard to say where we’ll go from here. I don’t see the methods of professional trolls changing anytime soon. What they’re doing works. It’s making them money, getting them attention, and earning them fame. Until that changes, they’ll keep doing it.

There’s a lot more I can say about this topic and the science behind it. I’ll probably do a few other posts on it, if only to explore the implications for my own efforts to become a successful erotica/romance writer. Until then, I’ll leave some of the other details the brilliant people at Cracked.com.

A while back, they did a podcast on this subject. They bring up some pretty interesting/disturbing points about professional trolls. I don’t agree with their sentiment on every issue, but I do think they make some valid points. For anyone who is generally annoyed by professional trolls, those points are important to understand, if only to maintain a healthy perspective on why trolling works so damn well.

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