Tag Archives: censorship

The Hard Consequences Of Soft Censorship

internet-censorship

If you walked up to any random person on the street and asked them how they feel about censorship, chances are they would say they’re against it. Absent any context, most people equate censorship with tyranny and rightly so. Historically speaking, tyrannical societies are not beacons of free speech.

When you add context to that same question, though, then people are a bit more diverse in their response. They may say they’re against censorship, but they’ll also oppose hate speech and even support efforts to remove it from certain venues or platforms. It’s not the same as government-suppressed speech, but it’s still censorship on some levels.

A government’s effort to prohibit or punish speech is more daunting. That’s exactly why we have things like the First Amendment. Governments are big, powerful entities with armies and tax collectors. Their brand of censorship is a lot more concrete than others. That’s why such extensive legal protections are necessary.

When it comes less overt forms of censorship, though, the line isn’t as clear and neither are the legal protections. It can take the form of de-platforming a controversial speaker, which has happened on college campuses. It can also take the form of banning certain websites or certain subgroups within a website. These efforts aren’t usually called censorship. They’re usually referred to as preventing the spread of hate.

Personally, I don’t buy that excuse. As much as I abhor some of the things people say, both online and in person, any attempt to indirectly silence them is still censorship in my book. I call it “soft censorship” because it doesn’t involve government force. In many cases, it’s a grass roots effort to combat certain ideas that many find offensive.

That seems to be the most notable standard these days, the offensiveness of certain speech. That’s understandable, given how the world is more connected than it has ever been in human history. It’s now easier than ever for hateful, offensive speech to spread. Conversely, it’s also easy for the outrage to that speech to spread as well.

As a result, the forces behind that outrage are often the most powerful forces behind soft censorship. That outrage takes many forms too. It can be driven by political correctness, religious dogma, and general trolling. Censorship or suppression of speech is not always the stated goal, but it is often a desired result.

Given the ongoing changes to the media landscape, this brand of censorship seems to be getting more prominent than anything government effort. In fact, the reason I chose to bring this issue up is because of a few notable incidents that highlight the growing disconnect between free speech and movements to combat hate speech.

The first incident happened earlier this year and came from the gaming world, a domain that is no stranger to censorship and targeted outrage. The outrage in this case, though, had nothing to do with how beautiful women are depicted and everything to do with the policy of the popular Steam platform by Valve.

The particulars of the issue are simple. Valve was getting criticism for allowing too many violent, adult-oriented games on their platform, including those with overtly erotic themes. For a while, it looked like they would follow the same policy as Nintendo and Apple, who don’t allow anything that can’t be shown in a Disney movie.

Surprisingly, and refreshingly for some, Valve opted for a more libertarian policy. The standards are simple. As long as the content isn’t illegal or outright trolling, then it’s permitted. In the context of freedom of speech and creative freedom, this should count as a victory. However, that’s not how some saw it.

Almost immediately, Valve was heavily criticized for this freedom-centric policy and for all the wrong reasons. Some went so far as to call it irresponsible and cowardly, daring to permit games on their platform that might be overly graphic, crude, or sexy. Being a private company and not a government, that’s certainly their right.

Even so, it generated outrage. People didn’t see it as an act to promote free expression. They see it as a means of spreading hateful, offensive, sexist content and profiting from it. At at time when the video game industry sparks outrage every time it depicts a female character, Valve really took a chance by taking this approach and it’s sure to generate plenty more controversy, albeit for the wrong reasons.

Those same reasons showed up in another incident involving Reddit, a site on which I’m very active. Specifically, it involved a subreddit called KotakuInAction, which emerged in wake of the infamous GamerGate controversy in 2014. As a result, it has a reputation for being pretty brutal in its criticisms of regressive, far-left attitudes.

It’s oftent cited as one of the most “toxic” places on Reddit. There have been more than a few efforts to ban it. At one point, for reasons that I’d rather not get into, it was actually removed by its original creator. However, it was saved and put back up within less than a day, much to the relief of the nearly 100,000 subscribers.

Few will call that a victory for free speech. Those who criticize Valve and Reddit for permitting it don’t see their actions as suppressing speech. They see it as combating harassment and hate. Therein lies the problem with that effort, though. Harassment and hate are serious issues, but attacking only the speech is like attacking a single symptom of a much larger disease.

Even if Reddit had permanently banned KotakuInAction and Valve had opted to censor offensive games, it wouldn’t have made the ideas behind them disappear. Like putting a censor bar in front of female breasts, it doesn’t change the fact that they’re there and that they have an impact.

You could turn off the internet, burn every book, and shut down every newspaper tomorrow. That still wouldn’t stop people from thinking and feeling the things that lead them to want to say something offensive or create an offensive game. Speech is just a byproduct of ideas. Attacking the speech is not the same as confronting the source.

In fact, doing so can be counterproductive. There’s a real phenomenon called the Streisand Effect wherein efforts to hide, remove, or cenors something ends drawing more attention to it. The fact that Area 51 is a super-secret government facility that everyone knows about shows how powerful that effect can be.

In the context of combating hate, efforts to censor those behind it can end up elevating their message. When someone is censored, there’s an application of force implied. Whether it’s from a government or a moderator on a message board, censorship requires some level of force. Applying it to anyone is going to put them in a position to feel oppressed and that oppression tends to fuel hatred.

Harassment is different because when it comes to free speech, the line between discourse and threats is a bit less ambiguous. The Supreme Court has established a criteria for what constitutes “fighting words,” but it’s when things happen on a computer screen where it gets tricky.

Like hate, though, there’s a right and wrong way to deal with harassment. The right way to deal with a direct threat is to contact local law enforcement. The wrong way is to make it into a spectacle that requires that both the harasser and the platform they used to be condemned.

It’s an inescapable fact of life in any functioning society. The same platforms we use to interact will be used by others for disgusting, hateful, and offensive activities. We may feel disgust and revulsion for these things, but trying to silence both the people and the platform doesn’t make the sentiment behind it go away.

That’s the ultimate danger of soft censorship. It’s not like a censorship-loving government that can be overthrown or reformed. It’s a mentality that seeks to remove content from certain mediums in hopes that it will subsequently discourage the mentality behind it. Unfortunately, human beings aren’t wired that way.

That’s the ultimate danger of soft censorship. It’s not like a censorship-loving government that can be overthrown or reformed. It’s a mentality that seeks to remove content from certain mediums in hopes that it will subsequently discourage the mentality behind it. Considering the impact of the the Streisand Effect, it’s utterly backwards.

I’m all for confronting hate and combating harassment, but not through censorship, hard or soft. It’s hard enough trying to change someone’s mind in an era where they can customize their news feeds. At the end of the day, we can only truly affect someone’s heart and mind by focusing on the person and not what’s on their computer screens.

Leave a comment

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

How The Idea Of “Toxic Fandom” Is Fundamentally Flawed

toxic-comments-e1516922359181

The internet is a vast, wonderful place full of mesmerizing gifs, amazing stories, and the collective knowledge of our entire species. I would argue that the internet is one of humanity’s most important tools since the invention of fire. I strongly believe that is has done more good any other tool we’ve created.

I have a feeling that this rosy view of the internet is a minority opinion. These days, all the good the internet does tends to get lost in the stories that highlight its many dangers. I don’t deny that there are dangers there. The internet does have some dark places where hate, harassment, and outright depravity are on full display.

More and more, it seems, the internet is becoming an enabler of a new manifestation of popular culture. It’s called “toxic fandom” and it relies on the greatest strengths of the internet to bring out the absolute worst in people. It didn’t start with the heated fan reaction of “Star Wars: The Last Jedi,” but it certainly made it relevant.

Before I go any further, I want to make one thing clear. There are assholes on the internet. There are also assholes in real life. The internet doesn’t make them that way. It just gives them a platform to be an asshole on a larger scale. That’s an unfortunate side-effect of the internet, but one that tends to obscure a larger narrative.

That’s because, much like inane terms such as “toxic masculinity,” the idea of toxic fandom relies on a series of assumptions that only ever have a sliver of truth behind them. It builds around this idea of there’s this grand, over-arching effort by immature, angry young men who secretly wish they could sexually harass women with impunity. It’s not quite on the level of an Alex Jones type conspiracy, but it’s close.

There have always been overly-passionate fans. It existed long before the internet and would still exist if the internet disappeared tomorrow. “Toxic fandom,” and there’s a reason I’m putting it in quotes, is something very different.

This doesn’t involve obsession with a particular celebrity. It involves a particular type of media like a movie, a TV show, or a video game. In some respects, this sort of fandom is a byproduct of overwhelming success. When something like “Star Wars” or “Star Trek” comes along, it resonates with an audience on a profound level. That sort of impact can last a lifetime.

I can attest to the power of that impact through my love of comic books. I’ve even cited a few that I find deeply moving, both in good ways and in not-so-good ways. Most everybody has had an experience like that at some point in their life, whether it’s their reaction to seeing “Titanic” for the first time or the feeling they get after they binge-watch “Breaking Bad.”

The toxic part usually comes when the media they’ve come to love manifests in a way that’s not just disappointing. It undermines those powerful feelings they’ve come to associate with that media. The results can be very distressing and until recently, the only way to express that distress was to sulk quietly in a darkened room.

Then, the internet comes along and suddenly, fans have a way to voice their feelings, for better and for worse. They can even connect with fans who feel like they do so that they don’t feel alone. The human tendency to form groups is one of the most fundamental acts anyone can do as a member of a highly social species.

Now, there’s nothing inherently “toxic” about that behavior. It has only made the news because the passions/vitriol of fans is more visible, thanks to the internet. Just browse any comments section of any movie or show on IMDB. Chances are you’ll find a few people who claim that this thing they once loved has been ruined and will use every possible medium to voice their displeasure.

This is where the “toxic” aspects of fandom start to have real-world consequences. Most recently, Kelly Marie Tran became the face of those victimized by toxic fandoms. After her portrayal of Rose Tico in “Star Wars: The Last Jedi,” she became the most polarizing figure in the history of Star Wars since Jar Jar Binks.

The story surrounding Ms. Tran’s harassment, which was objectively horrible, became vindication for those who believed that the Star Wars fanbase had become a mess of angry, hate-filled fanboys. They didn’t like that something they loved was changing and becoming more diverse. As such, their criticisms don’t matter. They may as well be wounded storm troopers in a room full of angry wookies.

The problem with this assumption is the same problem we get when someone writes off facts as fake news or diversity efforts as a neo-Marxist conspiracy. It’s a simple, convenient excuse to ignore possible flaws and justify personal assumptions. It also conflates the inescapable truth that assholes exist in the world and there’s nothing we can do about it.

None of this is to imply that harassment is justified or that fans can be exceedingly unreasonable. By the same token, this doesn’t imply that studios don’t deserve criticism when they attempt to revamp a beloved franchise in a way that does not keep with the spirit of the original. It’s only when criticism gets lost in the outrage that the “toxic” behaviors become more prominent.

It’s within that outrage, though, where the true flaws in the “toxic fanbase” narrative really break down. To a large extent, the “toxicity” that many complain about aren’t a product of unhealthy attitudes. They’re a manifestation of an inherent flaw in the relationship between fans and those who produce the iconic media they love.

To illustrate that flaw, think back to a recent controversy involving a “toxic fanbase.” Before the reaction “Star Wars: The Last Jedi” became the poster child for this issue, the all-female “Ghostbusters” remake was the most prominent example. It earned a lot of hatred for reasons that I’d rather not scrutinize.

With that hatred in mind, imagine a long-time Ghostbusters fan seeking to express their dismay. They decide to write a kind, detailed, and thoughtful letter to the studio, the director, and anyone else involved detailing their dismay and their criticisms. They may even cite specific examples on what they felt was wrong with the movie.

Chances are this sort of thoughtful, well-worded message would get deleted, ignored, or just plain lost in the digital landscape. Even if the head of Sony studios read it and agreed with every point made, they wouldn’t respond. They wouldn’t do anything ot change it. That would just be too inconvenient and it would look bad publicly.

From the perspective of the fan writing the letter, though, it sends the message that their sentiment doesn’t matter. Their passion for the media doesn’t matter. They might as well not even exist in the eyes of the producers. The only way for them to even acknowledge their existance is to be louder, angrier, and even a little meaner. Even if the reponse is negative, it at least acknowledges their existence.

It’s not the same as trolling. Trolls just want upset people for the fun of it. Fans voicing their displeasure are more sincere in the sense that they believe they’re protecting something they love. Whether or not that’s misguided is debatable. Some, namely those who harass and make threats, are more misguided than others. However, they only ever make up a very small percentage of fans.

In the end, that’s the most important perspective to have when it comes to fandom. Those who are the loudest tend to be the most obnoxious, but they’re loud because they feel like they have to be. The internet just gives them a way to be heard, which is something most fans haven’t had before.

That’s still not an excuse for being an asshole, but it’s also not an excuse for using those same assholes to call an entire fanbase toxic. It overlooks and undermines the genuine and sincere love people have of these cultural icons. As as a result, when someone feels like their love is being ignored, that’s when toxic hate often finds a way to fill that void.

1 Comment

Filed under Celebrities and Celebrity Culture, Current Events, human nature, media issues, movies, political correctness, Star Wars

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

screen-shot-2018-07-05-at-1-31-06-pm

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.

Leave a comment

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

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.

4 Comments

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

FCC Official Retires (Due To Porn) And (Overdue) Lessons We Should Learn From It

FCC sign is pictured. | Getty

Every now and then, there’s a news story that sounds like it came from The Onion, but it’s actually real. Personally, these stories tickle me like mountain of puppies. They show that, as crazy and distressing as this world is at times, it can still be pretty damn hilarious.

There’s actually an entire subreddit dedicated to these kinds of stories. They have funny headlines like “Kids Work Harder When Dressed As Batman, Study Says” and “Property Prices Lower On Streets With Silly Names, High School Students Find.” Again, these are not clips from The Onion. They’re real and they’re more hilarious because of that.

It’s for that same reason that when I saw this particular headline, I laughed and smiled like a kid in a room full of chocolate and kittens. If you’re having a bad day, just read it over a few times and let the world around you become inherently better.

Politico: FCC Official Retires Amid Complaints About Porn Viewing

As someone who regularly writes about the folly of regressive sexual attitudes, this kind of story is as informative as it is hilarious. That’s because when it comes to sexual regression, the joyless suits at the Federal Communications Commission are right up there with the Vatican. Remember, these people made a national scandal of Janet Jackson’s nipple, for crying out loud.

To be fair to the FCC, which tends to be an exercise in inanity, they get some pretty crazy complaints from citizens who grossly overestimate the destructive power of female nipples. Between complaints about shows like “South Park,” the WWE, and Miley Cyrus, they can’t help but be a little uptight. Fair or not, this story is another testament to just how powerful our collective sex drives can be.

While article singles one particular official out who accelerated his retirement plans after word of his porn viewing habits came out, it goes onto note that this is not an isolated incident. This one unidentified worker isn’t just the FCC equivalent of the town drunk. Apparently, FCC employees viewing porn is major problem. This is a direct quote.

“An investigation that began in January found “pornographic and inappropriate images” indicating the employee used his FCC-issued computer and the agency’s network in violation of commission policy, according to a new report from the FCC’s office of inspector general.”

Now, it goes without saying that viewing porn at work is a bad idea. There’s a time and a place for certain things. Even aspiring erotica/romance writers understand that. Unless you’re a porn star or working in the porn business, you should generally avoid putting that sort of thing on your browser history.

However, this story with the FCC and porn viewing is extra revealing in that it exposes something about our culture that we rarely acknowledge, but sort of assume in the back of our minds. Some of it has to do with our sexuality. Some of it has to do with the institutions we empower to control it. In the end, though, most of it has to do with how futile our efforts are when it comes to contain our sexuality.

Think back to when Osama Bin Laden was killed in the famous 2011 raid. Not long after his compound was raided, word got out that Bin Laden had a pretty extensive collection of porn. For a man who often bemoaned the decadence of America and the west, as a whole, this was a moment of egregious hypocrisy on his part.

However, not a whole lot of people were all that shocked by this revelation. Most found it funny. I doubt those same people aren’t that shocked by news that people at the FCC, the same organization that often clamps down on porn, has a problem with its employees viewing it. Again, we found it hilarious and rightly so.

Think about that for a moment, though. What does it say about the situation when we find it funny and not abhorrent? The fact we’re neither surprised nor disgusted by the fact that both the FCC and Bin Laden love watching pron in their spare time reveals something about our attitudes towards sex that’s worth scrutinizing.

The FCC certainly isn’t the first organization to decry porn as immoral. Islam isn’t the first religion to denounce it, either. In fact, there’s an ongoing anti-porn crusade unfolding in the Mormon-heavy state of Utah. That’s also inherently hilarious because Utah also happens to be the state with the most porn subscriptions, which kind of reinforces my point.

These efforts, regardless of whether they’re sincere or misguided, are doomed to fail. On some levels, we even realize that. We wouldn’t find stories like this so funny if they weren’t. I don’t doubt that some are still genuinely shocked, but I think the overall lack of outrage surrounding these revelations tells us something about our understanding of human sexuality.

On some levels, we know the FCC and Utah republicans can never hope to succeed in their goals. They’re never going to successfully censor porn. They’re never going to control our sexuality. We still empower them to at least give the perception that there’s some sort of government/spiritual guardian protecting us from the really kinky stuff that we can’t handle. As I’ve said before, perception tends to kick reality’s ass.

Overall, though, we know the people behind those efforts are still human. As such, they get horny like the rest of us. When that happens, they seek an outlet and it shows on their browser history. None of that surprises us. It only becomes hilarious when they’re supposed to be the ones setting a better example, but fail miserably. We’re never surprised that they fail. If anything, we expect it.

It’s for that reason I wouldn’t put this sort of story on the same level as Pamela Anderson’s hypocrisy on porn. Sure, the FCC and Utah republicans are trying to regulate or censor porn, but they’re not going out of their way to condemn other people for using it. They’re basically taking on the impossible task of regulating human sexuality. Even they have to know on some levels that they’re going to fail.

That, beyond the inherent humor, is the biggest take-away from a story like this. We know what the FCC and other organizations like it are trying to do with sex in media. We know it’s a losing battle, but we let them fight it anyways because it gives us the illusion that we’re making an effort to sanitize the kinkier parts of our sexuality. It’s because it’s an illusion that we can find stories like this so funny.

Funny or not, there’s still a danger in letting organizations like the FCC make that kind of effort to censor our sexuality. Remember, this organization made a big deal about a goddamn nipple. At some point, those kinds of efforts stop being hilarious.

1 Comment

Filed under Current Events, sex in media, sexuality

Are We Becoming More (Sexually) Uptight?

https://www.alluvium-journal.org/wp-content/uploads/2017/03/13348205645_726ec0c1b7_k-1024x938.jpg

There was once a time in American culture where the media couldn’t even acknowledge that sex existed, let alone happened between wholesome scenes of family dinners and fishing trips. An average episode of “Scandal” would’ve horrified audiences in 1965, who were used to seeing a married couple sleep in separate beds on “I Love Lucy.”

Without a doubt, sex on TV has come a long way. We no longer bat an eye when Kevin Spacey goes down on Kate Mara in “House of Cards” or when Glen Quagmire raises the bar for sexual debauchery on “Family Guy.” By all accounts, we’ve become a lot more accepting.

That being said, is it possible that we’re becoming more sexually uptight? Bear with me. I promise I’m not being sarcastic here. This is part of an ongoing observation that I’ve explored in other posts.

Some of it has to do with trends in feminism. Some of it has to do with the various peculiarities of the gender dynamics in our sexual culture. I’m not saying what I’m seeing is definitive, but as an aspiring erotica/romance writer, this does concern me because it may very well affect my industry.

Now when I ask whether we’re becoming more sexually uptight, I don’t mean to say that we’re regressing to a point where women can’t show their ankles and men can’t acknowledge that the female orgasm exists. In an era of internet porn and Photoshop, that sort of prudishness just isn’t possible. Never-the-less, there are other ways for Puritan attitudes towards sex to manifest in new ways.

Picture the following scenario:

There’s a beautiful woman walking around topless on a sunny beach. A young man takes a moment to stare at her breasts and admire their beauty. The woman notices the man and is appalled. The woman points at the man, calls him a misogynist pig, and rallies every woman around her to scold and shame the man for daring to look at her exposed breasts.

What I just described isn’t necessarily something that happens on a day-to-day basis. It’s more a manifestation of the kinds of sexual attitudes that are evolving. We no longer censor sexuality or deny that it exists. Instead, we shame people who dare to appreciate it in ways we don’t approve of.

In many respects, this is just as bad as any censorship by the FCC because it isn’t imposed by a government body. It’s something that we’re doing to each other. Unlike government bureaucracy though, shaming actually works. In fact, shaming pre-dates government because it uses the built-in system of guilt that every human who isn’t a sociopath has hardwired into them.

Now trends in being sexually uptight aren’t new. For much of human history, civilization has gone through various cycles of sexual attitudes. Some ancient cultures, like Egypt, were relatively liberal in their sexual attitudes. Others, like Victorian era England, were so famously uptight for their sexual repression that visible ankles were considered scandalous.

Even in modern times, there are some parts of the world that are more sexually repressed than others. Places like India and Saudi Arabia, despite being thriving modern economies, have some very backwards attitudes towards sexuality. They don’t need shame to shun someone who has sex in a way they don’t approve of. They have the authority to just throw those people in jail, which they believe is sure to kill their sex drive.

What makes this trend in the west so disconcerting, though, is that it’s emerging from a society where equality and justice are among our highest values. Countries like America pride themselves, despite protests to the contrary, in their values towards gender equality. The problem is that, for some, equality just isn’t enough.

Here’s a real-world example that illustrates this issue. Back in 2013, an incident occurred at Occidental College wherein two freshmen had consensual sex while drunk, but only the man ended up getting expelled. Why did he get expelled? Well, by their standards, a woman cannot consent to sex while drunk. Therefore, the man committed sexual assault.

Think about that for a moment and try to make sense of it. Two people get drunk, but they’re not so drunk that they can barely stand. In this story, the two people involved could not only send texts. They could also talk about using condoms and practicing safe sex. How can such responsible behavior constitute assault?

It didn’t matter though. By the standards of the school, the man still committed sexual assault and was expelled. The woman didn’t get charged with anything. She was a victim who was traumatized by the act of having consensual sex after a few drinks.

Again, think about that for a moment. Think about what that kind of mentality indicates. Our sexual culture is becoming unequal again, but this time in a different way. Instead of women being shamed for their sexual practices, it’s men who are being shamed.

Today, a man who lusts for a woman and expresses his fondness of sex is considered a pig, a deviant, and a sexist. A woman who lusts for a man and expresses her fondness of sex is considered liberated, free-spirited, and strong. That is not equality. That is a recipe for repression and injustice, albeit in different way.

Ironically, this trend is regressing fashion trends among women. We’re already seeing it in superhero costumes. Female characters are less likely to show off their breasts or female curves. It’s as if highlighting the physical traits of women is now considered an act of misogyny.

As a man, I find these trends troubling and insulting. Am I somehow wrong, immoral, or sexist because I enjoy the sight of beautiful naked women? Are my attitudes towards women somehow flawed because I dare to admire their beauty? I wish those were rhetorical questions.

This troubles me even more as an aspiring erotica/romance writer because it means some of the novels I want to write might be rejected as being sexual in the wrong sort of way. I can easily imagine rejection letters saying “this book doesn’t have enough diversity” or “the man enjoys the sex too much” or “the woman is too feminine.”

I can just as easily imagine such regressive attitudes turning the erotica/romance I love into this target for those who claim it’s an affront to women. Never mind the fact that I write these stories to enchant, entertain, and titillate, some will still see it as some sort of egregious act of sexism.

This really does concern me. I’d rather not return to the days where people don’t even acknowledge sex exists and any attempt to discuss it is somehow taboo. We’ve already experienced that kind of repression and it doesn’t work. Let’s at least try to remain sane on matters as important and intimate as sexuality.

13 Comments

Filed under Jack Fisher's Insights

Sex Vs. Violence: An Unfair Fight

It’s horrible! It’s corrupting an entire generation of children! It’s turning good, decent people into snarling beasts! We must do something about it! We must call the authorities, hold rallies, and widely condemn all those who dare introduce something like this into our society!

What I just wrote is a basic summation of everything that angry, terrified, deeply offended advocacy groups feel towards everything from rock music to violent video games to MTV to the Simpsons to Game of Thrones. Pick out any piece of media from any period in history. Chances are you’ll hear these arguments from crowds of angry parents/priests/politicians.

It’s a battle that’s as old as the first cave-painting of an erect penis. Parents, priests, and politicians work tirelessly to guard impressionable children and adults from that which they consider obscene. How do they know it’s obscene? How do they even measure it? Ask 100 people and you’ll get 1,000 different answers.

They’ll claim they have to protect us from that which is obscene. They’ll say that if we spend too much time looking at or pursuing obscenity, it’ll distract us from our social responsibilities like working the fields, paying taxes, pumping babies so that we have more workers, and fighting the wars that powerful political types want us to fight.

Granted, they probably won’t say that overtly, but it is sort of implied. More often than not, there are all sorts of strange and poorly-defined layers towards what some consider obscene. The end result is usually the same. Those who fight it inevitably try to censor it, which can either backfire horribly or inspire a whole host of unintended consequences.

By and large, obscenity often involves two common themes: sex and violence. That’s not surprising. Sex and violence are basically the peanut butter and jelly in the sandwich that is human history. If we’re not obsessing over sex, then we’re violently fighting one another for control of resources, land, and the ability to hump who we want to hump.

While understandable, the debate today tends to be ridiculously skewed. There’s a lot of violence in the world. Nobody denies that. There’s also a lot of sex in the world. The mere fact there are over 7 billion humans on this planet is proof enough of that. However, when it comes to priorities, for some reason sex has gained a more obscene reputation than violence.

The best proof of that occurred a long time ago in a forgotten period known as 2005. It was a strange time. For some reason, America elected George W. Bush to a second term, flip phones were in style, and Yahoo was still relevant. It was a strange time indeed.

It was also a time when we lost our collective shit over the idea that there was a poorly rendered sex mini-game hidden inside a best-selling video game. Yes, it actually happened. Apparently, poorly rendered sex is considered obscene. Try saying that with a straight face for a moment and then get back to me.

It was called the “Hot Coffee” scandal. It emerged from a game called Grand Theft Auto: San Andres, the best-selling game of its time. This game was rated mature and it was already controversial for all the gratuitous violence it had, which included the ability to murder hookers and blow up cars with a machine gun. However, that’s not what put it over the edge. What made it obscene was two characters having consensual sex. The horror!

It’s been over a decade since then and I’m still struggling to wrap my head around it. I get that the game was mature rated. The violence and the plot is not for children, the faint of heart, or anyone who voted for Rick Santorum. However, the notion that consensual sex between two people is that obscene? I need a moment to process that.

I don’t think there are enough moments in the entire history of the known universe because it still fails the basic tenants of common sense, logic, and the fundamental forces of life. Violence can be pretty damn obscene. Anyone who has any experience with war or crime understands that. With sex, however, there’s a much broader spectrum.

On one end, you have two consenting adults in love, in the heat of passion, having sex in bed surrounded by candles with Barry White music playing in the background. That’s not obscene. That’s how a good chunk of the human race is created. It involves love, passion, pleasure, and the creation of life. You can’t get less obscene than that.

On the other end of the spectrum, however, you have the kind of depraved sex acts that would make even “50 Shades of Grey” fans vomit. There are extreme, perverse sexual proclivities that do leave scars, both physical and psychological. Those kinds of acts can be pretty obscene, but for the most part, they don’t kill or mutilate someone. At worst, they just make some people wish they were dead.

With violence, the spectrum is a lot less broad. There aren’t too many forms of violence that cause pleasure, create life, or make for good Playboy centerfolds. Violence, by definition, hurts people. It can be small and petty, which isn’t all that obscene. A slap in the face is about as obscene as a kiss on the cheek.

However, this is not reflected in media. If anything, the media and the culture surrounding it is downright schizophrenic when it comes to classifying violence and sex. Since I referred to video games earlier, I’ll cite another example.

There are a lot of mature-rated games with horrific violence. It’s not just Grand Theft Auto, but games like Doom, Wolfenstein, and Call of Duty do little to censor the blood and guts. Even so, you can buy most of these games at a Wal-Mart on Black Friday.

There are also lesser-known games that basically just involve players fondling, caressing, and having sex with beautiful woman and/or men. They’re not big on story, but that’s not their core appeal. Nobody dies and nobody gets hurt. There’s just a lot of gratuitous sex.

However, those games can’t be found in Wal-Mart. Those games are rated A for Adult, which means they can’t be sold in major retailers. That’s what it takes to be considered obscene. Kill and maim whoever you want, but God help you if you show two consenting adults having sex.

This schizophrenic disconnect on sex and violent extends to novels, a medium more relevant to my profession. As an erotica/romance writer, I understand that the stories I write are considered obscene, seamy, or dirty compared to your basic Stephen King novel. Even when nobody dies in my novels, they still have that reputation.

It’s a confusing and frustrating dynamic. It also becomes even more frustration when sex and violence become mixed. We see that all the time in slasher movies, which go out of their way to punish any character that dares have sex in a way the Catholic Church doesn’t approve of. We’re seeing it manifest in other ways, especially with the success of Game of Thrones.

If ever there was a perfect storm that embodied this twisted dynamic of sex and violence in media, it’s Game of Thrones. Whether you read the books or watch the hit HBO series, you see plenty of both. There’s a lot of killing, murder, and war. There’s also a lot of sex, nudity, and general depravity. It appeals to both of these primal forces, but one still takes precedent over the other.

This is not lost on author George R. R. Martin. He gets a lot of fan male and, presumably, a lot of pictures of naked women. He doesn’t gloss over the violence and sex in his story. He understands they’re both part of the themes he’s exploring. However, even he sees the distinct difference when people choose to get more upset over the sex and not the violence.

Now this is not to say that society’s concerns about sex aren’t warranted to some degree. As I’ve pointed out before, there were legitimate reasons to be weary of sexual promiscuity throughout history.

Human civilization, particularly the one we crafted when we entered the agricultural revolution, developed around a system where there were strong economic and survival pressures to discourage people form doing too much humping for fun. The system required that we know our kids are biologically ours. The system required that we have lots of babies to work the fields and fight the wars.

Even as we moved away from farms and fields, we still needed to be anxious about sex because too much of it would spread disease. It really wasn’t until the 20th century with the advent of antibiotics and modern contraception that many of these concerns became less dire.

Today, there are still consequences for rampant and unrestrained promiscuity, as various PSAs and sitcoms have shown. However, these consequences aren’t nearly as bad as the rampant violence and crime that still plagues this world. These days, two consenting adults having sex, regardless of their marital status or intentions, does little to no harm to anyone or society in general, but it’s still considered obscene.

I try to be more optimistic about the future of this twisted culture of ours. I try to be optimistic about the future in general. I do hope I live to see the day where erotica/romance novels like mine aren’t considered obscene by a sizable chunk of the population. At some point, even Rick Santorum supporters have acknowledge that gratuitous violence is more obscene than consensual sex.

It may take a while. We are a slow, cumbersome species that resists change when it’s not convenient. We’ve spent hundreds of years in a prudish, uptight society that still believes we need to pump out babies to work the fields and fight the wars while avoiding horrible diseases. Society isn’t going to lighten up overnight. It’s an ongoing process and one I hope my sexy, non-obscene novels will help.

3 Comments

Filed under Jack Fisher's Insights