Tag Archives: internet harassment

The Hard Consequences Of Soft Censorship

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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.

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

How The Idea Of “Toxic Fandom” Is Fundamentally Flawed

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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.

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

Why I Don’t Use The Term “Social Justice Warrior” And Ideas For A Better Label

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Every now and then, I get comments and criticisms about my writing style. Some are constructive. Some are just angry rants that I’m perfectly content to ignore. There is one criticism, though, that I feel is worth addressing.

Specifically, it involves some specific terms I avoid using. Most people with an internet connection or access to cable news have probably heard the term “social justice warrior” at least once. It’s rarely in a positive light. It’s often used as an insult or a signal that you’re about to say something that’s going to evoke a lot of angry comments on social media.

I’ve been tempted to use it in the past. I’ve discussed many topics involving feminism, men’s issues, and social inequality that often get people throwing that term around as though it were a demonic chant. There’s a reason I’ve avoided it, though, and I hope to demonstrate that it’s a good reason.

First off, I want to make clear that I despise the term “social justice warrior” almost as much as I despise “toxic masculinity,” a phrase I believe cannot fade from our language fast enough. I see this label as one of the worst manifestations of the English language since the hippie era and at least they could blame psychedelic drugs.

I also believe that its continued usage will do more to breed hatred, outrage, and division at a time when we’re already more divided than ever. It derails a conversation and detracts from discussions about serious issue involving society, justice, and gender. This term is literally holding back progress, which is ironic given the nature of its definition.

The actual definition of a social justice warrior, or SJW as it’s colloquially used, is somewhat vague. It’s a modern-day catch-all term for a particular brand of politics and social attitudes. According to Wikipedia, the definition is as follows:

A pejorative term for an individual who promotes socially progressive views, including feminism, civil rights, and multiculturalism, as well as identity politics. The accusation that somebody is an SJW carries implications that they are pursuing personal validation rather than any deep-seated conviction, and engaging in disingenuous arguments.

I think that definition covers most of the most common ways the term is used, but I think it underscores how much vitriol it inspires. Spend any amount of time on social media and you’ll find some of the most hateful, demeaning, and divisive rhetoric you can imagine.

However, it’s not just the extreme rhetoric this term inspires that discourages me from using it. It’s not even the tendency for a conversation to devolve rapidly as soon as the words “social justice warrior” show up in a sentence. What I find most objectionable about this term is how fundamentally dishonest it is.

To illustrate how, look at the anti-abortion movement, another extremely divisive issue that tends to evoke all the wrong emotions. There are some pretty passionate opponents to abortion, but they don’t call themselves anti-abortion. They call themselves “pro-life.” It’s a disingenuous term, but from a marketing standpoint, it’s brilliant.

That’s because, if you go by the literal meaning of the words, it means you’re for life in general. It doesn’t directly imply anything about abortion. By calling themselves “pro-life,” they skew the meaning so that they can claim they’re on the side of all things alive and good.

Again, it’s a smart ploy, but it’s also dishonest and George Carlin did a brilliant job of explaining why. Those who use the “social justice” label use a similar tactic. They use words that denote inherently positive concepts like society and justice. However, I would argue that this ploy is even more dishonest than those hiding behind the “pro-life” table.

Most reasonable people are for justice. They’re also for a functional society in which people of any race, gender, religion, or ethnic background can live in peace and enjoy the same protections under the law. On paper, we have that. In practice, there’s room for improvement.

However, whenever I listen to someone who adheres to the Wikipedia definition of “social justice warrior,” I never get the impression that their ideas of justice are genuine. They tend to reflect a personal, selfish brand of justice that is more concerned with how the world makes them feel and less with how it really works.

A “social justice warrior” will look at issues like female depictions in video games, cultural appropriation in media, and proper pronoun usage and not see the full picture. In fact, they’ll go out of their way to ignore that picture and focus only on the parts that sends their emotions into overdrive.

It’s not enough to just criticize these injustices. A “social justice warrior” has to treat them like some grand conspiracy by wannabe fascists who bathe in the tears of orphans and wish they could still own slaves. It becomes a potent blend of holier-than-thou grandstanding and virtue signaling. To say that brings out the worst in some people would be an understatement.

Talk to most people outside a 4chan board and chances are, they’ll be in favor of a just society whether they’re liberal, conservative, progressive, feminist, or whatever other political affiliation they may have. The fact that “social justice” now has more to do with misguided outrage and little to do with actual justice is downright tragic.

The term gets thrown around so often that I’ve made a conscious decision to just avoid using it in my writing. After this article, I intend to use different words that I feel are more reflective of the outrageous attitudes that “social justice warrior” evokes.

I’m not doing that because using words gives them power and I don’t want to give “social justice warrior” more power than it already has. While I doubt that’ll reduce the vitriol it currently carries, I still prefer terminology that’s more reflective of these damaging attitudes.

In the name of offering some potential solutions to this issue, I want to put forth a new approach to dealing with the “social justice warrior” phenomenon. I believe that it reflects an ideology that’s worth confronting. It espouses attitudes that promote censorship, infantilize groups of people, and elevates one person’s feelings over another for all the wrong reasons.

These are people and attitudes that will continue to make noise and push bad ideas on a society that already has too many circling around. For that reason, I believe that warrants creating some new labels for them, one that I think is more descriptive of what they truly area. Here are just a few.

Professional Whiner

Regressive Whiner

Weakly Whiner

Sad Whiner

I think the theme here is pretty obvious. Most of the time, “social justice warriors” don’t really protest. They whine. They whine in a way that’s worse than any child. They don’t try to solve a problem. They don’t try to learn the facts and figure out a better process for doing something. They just whine.

That’s not just pathetic. That makes whole “warrior” part of their label hypocritical. Warriors are supposed to fight and not whine. When reality doesn’t cater to your feelings, whining never changes that. A “social justice warrior” may even understand that, but they also understand that without validation of some sort, their outrage is empty.

That, I believe, is the key to confronting the misguided attitudes of the “social justice warrior” phenomenon. Attitudes that have little to do with actual justice or a healthy society need to be called out for what they are. I say that as someone who does have attitudes that some may consider progressive, but I understand that whining about them won’t do much to further those ideals.

At the end of the day, if all “social justice warriors” have to go on is whining, then the harsh reality of the world will do plenty to undercut their attitudes in the long run. Calling them what they truly are will just help remind them a little sooner.

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Filed under Current Events, gender issues, philosophy, political correctness, sex in society

Reflecting On The Greatest Advice Rick Sanchez Ever Gave Us

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Greetings, and wubba lubba dub dub! By now, you should know that means this will be another article about “Rick and Morty,” one of the greatest animated shows of this century or any other century, for that matter. I know that sometimes means the topics involved are depressing or downright fatalistic. I can’t promise this one will balance that out to any meaningful, but I still hope that this piece is more useful than most.

Love it or hate it, either due to its nihilistic undertones or exceedingly passionate fanbase, there are a lot of interesting insights to explore within “Rick and Morty.” From specific episodes that deal with the not-so-hidden appeal of the apocalypse to those built around Rick turning himself into a pickle, there’s a wide variety of lessons and themes to take in.

In this case, I want to focus on what I feel is the best advice “Rick and Morty” has given anyone, both within his animated world and in our own world. It’s a lesson that anyone can use in a multitude of situations, be it dealing with never-ending flood of depressing news to finding out a beloved actor was a total asshole.

Rick has given this advice to Morty on more than one occasion throughout the show, including the pilot episode and, most notably, in “Rick Potion #9.” It applies to battles against alien security guards, burying the body of your alternate self, and that time you farted in class a bit too loudly. It can be summed up in four simple words.

Don’t think about it!

On the surface, it doesn’t sound too useful. Not thinking about something seems like an elaborate excuse to avoid a particular problem or issue. It sounds like something adults tell children just to shut them up so they’ll stop bothering them. Whether they’re asking about where babies come from or why we can’t stop fighting wars, it feels like the overly easy way to avoid an unpleasant conversation.

However, I don’t think that’s what Rick means when he says that. He’s already proven in multiple episodes that he doesn’t give a Grunglokian fart about unpleasant conversations, as evidenced by his many unfiltered rants around his family. When he says “don’t think about it,” he’s saying it in a particular context that makes it more than just a method for avoiding awkward moments.

Watch any one episode of “Rick and Morty” and you’ll notice more than a few themes, not all of which are based on Rick’s ego or Morty’s obsession with a particular redhead. One of the major over-arching concepts that binds the show, and gives much of its appeal, is the idea that none of the things that people hold dear actually matter in the grand scheme of things.

Whether it’s religion, the economy, love, family, or the formula for concentrated dark matter, it just doesn’t matter in the long run. Religion doesn’t matter because it’s just some arbitrary set of beliefs built on unrelated correlations. The economy doesn’t matter if the value of money is entirely arbitrary. Love and family don’t matter when there’s an infinite number of them in the multiverse.

While that fits with the shows more nihilistic themes, it also speaks to the helplessness and frustration that a lot of people feel when dealing with a chaotic world/multiverse. There’s so much they can do, but so much of it doesn’t matter. The causes they fight for, the wealth they accrue, and the people they encounter simply lose their meaning when you consider the sheer size of the universe and how old it is.

In that context, not thinking about it might actually be helpful. If you work a job you don’t like, pay taxes you don’t like paying, and deal with people you can’t stand every day, the idea that it’s all for nothing in the long run isn’t just untenable. It maddening. How can anyone possibly cope with that kind of existence?

Not thinking about it, though, solves a lot of issues because it allows you to maintain the necessary perspective to function within that existence. Even if the things we do are meaningless, not thinking about it at least gives us the illusion that they’re meaningful. More often than not, perception beats reality and not just in terms of bias news.

It’s a byproduct of human’s being so limited in their thinking. Human brains did not evolve to prioritize reason, understanding, or making sense of an obscenely large universe. They evolved with the primary function to help us survive and reproduce, as individuals and as a species. Anything else is secondary or an afterthought.

Rick Sanchez seems to understand that and constantly exploits those limits for his own ends, whether it involves outwitting the President or outsmarting the devil. Unlike everyone else in a meaningless world within an infinite multiverse, he’s a super-genius. He has a portal gun that allows him to travel to infinite timelines at will, even if it’s just for a pizza.

Nobody else in this world has those capabilities, although I wouldn’t at all be surprised if Elon Musk weren’t working on it. Nobody in this world is as smart or as resourceful as Rick Sanchez. There’s very little he can’t do. This is a man who defeated a Thanos/Darkseid rip-off while blackout drunk. By every measure, what he does should carry more meaning than most.

Despite Rick’s abilities, he’s the one who often belabors how meaningless everything is. Never-the-less, he still operates as though there’s a reason to continue existing. That may send mixed messages when he says not to think about it, but that’s only if you overthink it, which would entirely defeat the purpose.

Rick knows that nothing he does matters in the long run, but he doesn’t think about that.

Rick knows that everyone he cares about are just random clumps of matter in a meaningless universe within an infinite multiverse, but he doesn’t think about that.

Rick knows that love, connection, and emotions are just manifestations of brain chemistry that help our species survive, but he doesn’t think about it.

Instead, he focuses his genius intellect on the things that matter to him. Whether that’s his family or that sweet, delicious Szechuan Sauce, he concerns himself primarily with what he feels gives his cosmic adventures meaning. It doesn’t matter if that meaning is empty in the grand scheme of things because, again, he doesn’t think about it.

It may sound egotistical or selfish, but it’s remarkably pragmatic in a meaningless universe. It keeps us from stepping back, realizing how insignificant we are, and succumbing to despair. It directs our energy and efforts into issues that are localized. For Rick Sanchez, a man with access to a portal gun and a space ship, localized is a relative term. For everyone else, though, it’s just that much more pragmatic.

There’s only so much we can do to exact meaningful change in the world. Unless you’re willing to go through the long, tedious process that involves reshaping government institutions, influencing cultural trends, or educating people on a mass scale, you can’t expect to achieve much change, especially by yourself.

Rick Sanchez could probably achieve all the change he wants, but chooses not to because he knows it’ll bore him or it’s just easier to go to a universe where that change has already occurred. For the rest of us, though, we’re frustratingly limited. We may never see or inspire the change we want. Even if we do, we can’t do it alone.

That kind of helplessness can be depressing. The idea that so little of what we do matters, even when we believe in a cause, is pretty distressing. That’s why Rick’s advice is so relevant. It’s not deep or inspiring, but it gets the job done.

Upset with past injustices upon a particular group? Don’t think about it.

Upset that you can’t change the minds of your friends and family on politics, religion, or ideology? Don’t think about it.

Upset that we’re not doing enough to address climate change? Don’t think about it.

Upset that the economy isn’t doing well and all the best opportunities are gone? Don’t think about it.

These are all things that you can’t change without a portal gun or galactic-level genius. Since Rick Sanchez has that and we don’t, our best recourse is to not obsess over it because there’s not much we can do. Eventually, the heat death of the universe will render everything we do or have ever done totally meaningless.

That can either be depressing or empowering, depending on how you look at it. Yes, not thinking about it won’t undo a traffic ticket, undo a crime you committed, or turn off your biological urges to eat, sleep, love, and mate. Efforts to do so can be damaging. For everything else though, not thinking about it is probably better for your mind, your body, and your overall sense of being.

In that sense, we should all thank Rick Sanchez for this amazingly useful device. While he’d probably say that gratitude is just a polite way of idiots admitting how incapable they are, it’s probably best not to think about his reaction. So long as the advice he gave works, what does it matter? Wubba lubba dub dub!

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Filed under Current Events, human nature, philosophy, Rick and Morty

Why Social Media Is NOT The New Tobacco

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It’s a full-blown crisis. Kids are spending hours upon hours using it. They’re becoming mindless, unmotivated zombies. Every day, it’s getting worse. It’s all around them. There’s no escaping it and if something drastic isn’t done, it’ll corrupt an entire generation beyond repair.

No, that’s not some hysterical rant from Jessica Lovejoy on “The Simpsons.” It’s not referring to smartphones or social media, either. That urgent message was referring to television. This isn’t another one of my thought experiments. This is one of my memories. It’s true. Televisions was a real concern when I was a kid. Some called it a full blown health hazard.

If that sounds strange, then chances are you aren’t old enough to remember a time before the internet was the ultimate addiction. It really existed. It makes me and many others in my cohort feel old, but it happened. When I was a kid still in grade school, especially between first and sixth grade, the internet wasn’t the thing destroying kids. It was television.

That memory I mentioned wasn’t unique. It came courtesy of an assembly my school held. I don’t entirely remember the purpose of the assembly. I was just a kid and it was an excuse to get out of class. What I do remember, though, was the common refrain about the dangers of television.

Adults of all kinds would find creative ways to tell us to stop watching television and do something “productive,” which I took to mean more homework, more chores, and anything else my teachers made me do. It didn’t really appeal to me and I don’t think it changed the TV habits of my peers, either.

That panic, while nowhere nearly as extreme as the Satanic Panic of the 80s, came and went like many moral crusades tend to do. Some are just forgotten, but others just evolve into a whole new panic. That seems to be happening with the internet and social media now. Watching TV is actually in decline among younger cohorts while their usage of the internet and social media is increasing.

I imagine those same teachers who bemoaned the impact of TV when I was a kid would be giving similar lectures on social media now. They would have competition too because parents today worry about their kids’ internet usage more than their drug usage. Some go so far as to call it the new tobacco to belabor its damaging and addictive nature.

While that kind of comparison strikes all the right emotional chords with concerned parents, I think it’s an unfit comparison to say the least. At most, I would call it absurd. The memories of all those warnings about the dangers of TV leave me inherently skeptical of anything that’s allegedly poisoning children. Unless it’s actual poison, I think the tobacco comparisons are premature.

Now, there’s no question that the internet and social media are having an impact on young people, old people, and everyone in between. There are documented cases where people have exhibited addictive behaviors surrounding their internet usage. Before you make any nicotine comparisons, though, keep in mind that people can be addicted to all sorts of weird things. The human mind is just that strange, powerful, and flawed.

Tobacco, and the nicotine it delivers, is an outside chemical that enters the brain and has real, measurable effects. Using the internet, whether you’re checking FaceBook or browsing Instagram, is not like that. That’s why internet addiction is not in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders that legitimate doctors use to diagnose addiction, but substance abuse is.

It’s also why porn addiction is not considered a true addiction, which I’ve talked about before. However, porn is more specific in its purpose and its effects. There’s also still a stigma, albeit a damaging one, surrounding it that sets it apart from the rest of the internet. A kid browsing the internet, for the most part, is no less damaging than watching cartoons on TV all day.

That doesn’t stop a growing number of people from expressing sincere concern about the effects it’s having on their minds and their health. Some may even prefer that their kids watch old Hanna Barbara cartoons rather than tweet, text, and live-stream all day. There’s a growing sentiment that the internet, social media in particular, hacks our brain’s rewards system.

On paper, it makes sense. You pick up your smart phone, you turn it on not knowing what to expect, and if you find something you like, you get a quick release of pleasure chemicals like dopamine and endorphins. It’s basically a form of gambling. A slot machine works the same way, but you don’t need to be a high roller to enjoy the gambling-like thrill.

Like so many other ideas on paper that go onto fail, though, it’s nowhere near that simple. The human brain can’t be that crude with its chemistry. As a good rule of thumb, if you ever hear someone other than a legitimate neurologist talks about the effects of dopamine on pleasure or addiction, chances are they have a very limited understanding of it at best.

While dopamine does play a role in how we experience pleasure, that’s just one part of a wide range of functions it has within our brains. Trying to understand addiction through dopamine alone is like trying to bake a cake with only a teaspoon of flour. There are many more chemicals, processes, and interactions at play.

Using social media may offer its users a rush whenever they get exciting news on their feed or see something that intrigues and/or offends them, but our brain processes that in a way fairly similar to anything else that catches our attention. The primary difference with the internet and social media is that it happens solely through a digital screen and that does somewhat limit those reactions.

I know that undercuts the concerns of parents who think the internet permanently damaging the collective psyche of their children, but I think they’re overestimating the influence of things that are experienced solely through a screen. Much like TV, the internet and social media can only effect so many senses and that is a major mitigating factor in its impact.

To understand that, go find a picture or video of an exotic location. If you’re a heavy user of Instagram, chances are that won’t be too hard. Look at those pictures. Watch that video. Take in the sights and sounds of that location. To your brain, it’s an appealing bit of visual and auditory sensations. However, those are the only two senses it stimulates.

What about the smell of the air, the feeling of the wind, and the sense of place that being in those locations evokes in our brains? Even if you experience it through hyper-realistic virtual reality, it’s still just sights and sounds at most. Thinking that alone is enough to damage a kid’s brain is like thinking someone can win a sword fight with a sewing needle.

That’s not to say the internet and social media can’t have a powerful psychological impact on certain people. That’s the key, though. It impacts certain people the same way TV impacts certain people. Sure, there are documented cases where social media played a role in a major tragedy, but those are the exceptions and not the norms.

In the same way not everyone gets addicted to a drug after they try it, not everyone is going to be irreparably damaged by the internet, social media, or TV. There’s a reason why extreme cases of people being heavily influenced by these things makes the news in the first place. It’s exceedingly rare.

I would still make the case that the internet and social media are more influential on people, society, and our culture than TV ever was. By being so hyper-connected to such a wide audience, the professional trolls of the world have a way to effect others in a way that just wasn’t possible, even with TV.

As bad as some of those trolls are and as tragic as it is when some suffer because of them, blaming the internet for those ills is like blaming umbrellas for hurricanes. Lumping it in with cancer-causing drugs only further obscures the real issues associated with the ever-evolving internet.

There are, indeed, serious issues with how people use the internet and how it manifests. However, treating it like a dangerous drug did nothing to address the issues surrounding TV. It’ll do just as little in addressing the various controversies of the internet. Until the next “new tobacco” comes along, those same people who lectured me on too much TV will bemoan the dangers of the internet while ignoring all the good it does.

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Filed under Current Events, human nature, media issues, psychology

The Lessons (And Misguided Agendas) Of The Harvey Weinstein Scandals

I promise I’m going to stop talking about the Harvey Weinstein scandal at some point. I know everyone is probably sick of it. Make no mistake, I’m sick of writing about it. Unfortunately, it’s one of those issues that grows way beyond its original context.

It’s not enough to highlight the sheer breadth of the transgressions committed by such a powerful man. It just has to be part of a larger issue that brings out the best and worst of all those eager to comment on it, myself included. Never mind the fact that Weinstein is being punished severely for his many transgressions. People just have to make it part of a much larger agenda, and not necessarily for the right reasons.

It’s that component of this tragedy/crime/outrage that compels me to keep talking about it. Make no mistake, I’d much rather be talking about resolving love triangles in superhero comics and products made specifically for female breasts. However, I see the massive uproar over the Harvey Weinstein affair as entering dangerous territory.

Now, I don’t deny the good that this scandal has inspired. Sexual assault is a serious crime and powerful men like Weinstein have too long a history of getting away with it. In a just and peaceful society, these kinds of crimes shouldn’t be overlooked. That said, there’s a big difference between pursuing justice and a misguided moral panic.

To provide some context, there’s plenty of recent history that should provide some perspective to the ongoing outrage. Back in the 1990s, before hashtags and dick pics, there was a huge outrage over the impact of violent video games and the role they played in mass shootings like Columbine.

Never mind the fact that there’s no established causal link between violent video games and actual violence. Never mind the fact that all available data has shown an overall decrease in violence over the past several decades. The moral panic allowed people with agendas to pursue those agendas to the utmost, even when the truth isn’t on their side.

This brings me back to sexual crimes committed by men like Harvey Weinstein. What he did was egregious. What he did to his victims, if even half-true, warrants full prosecution to the utmost. Unlike the panic over violent video games, this issue involves real people who were subjected to real harassment. That’s beyond dispute.

Unfortunately, the media, the public, and everyone with a Twitter handle aren’t content to just ensure that Weinstein faces justice for his crimes. They just have to turn it into a kind of rallying cry that exposes the depths of misogyny, corruption, and abuse. It happened with video games in 2014. Now, it’s happening again.

It’s getting dangerous because people who express concern about the implications of taking every accusation of sexual assault seriously are being labeled sexist, misogynist monsters. Like many moral panics before it, there comes a point where anyone who doesn’t subscribe to the panic is guilty of thought crimes that deserve the kind of scorn that even George Orwell would find excessive.

We’re already seeing this happen as everyone gets in line to voice their outrage and virtue signal, accordingly. In wake of the Harvey Weinstein scandal, everyone seems eager to become the hero in the battle against powerful men abusing vulnerable women. I’ve mentioned before how that kind of mentality is dangerous and misguided. We’re seeing a similar mentality emerge as everyone seeks to push their agenda.

Among those pushing that agenda include our friends at Cracked.com, a website I usually enjoy and often cite on this blog. They’ve already jumped at the chance to push an agenda, conflating the Harvey Weinstein scandal as an indictment of all men who ever dared to lust after a pretty woman.

It’s not just websites like Cracked either. There’s already a hashtag on Twitter called #MeeToo that has people recounting their experiences with sexual harassment and sexual assault. I don’t doubt that there are plenty of these stories that are both disturbing and true. However, there is a context to consider.

Sexual assault is a crime. It’s prosecuted like a crime. Like all crime, there are standards by which to process it. Chief among those standards is evidence. Those voicing outrage over the fact that neither Weinstein, nor Bill Cosby, are being charged with a crime is seen as a failure of justice. However, there’s another point to consider.

Sexual assault is hard to prove. So much of the evidence relies on testimony and in a court of law, that often gets conflated with anecdotal evidence. Science has revealed, time and again, that eyewitness testimony is among the least reliable forms of evidence you can have. Without better evidence, the high burden of proof that comes with a justice system that presumes innocence takes over.

In a sense, I can understand why those lamenting over men like Weinstein are so furious. It is frustrating to think that a man can commit such crimes against women and get away with it. In that frustration, things like facts and context tend to lose meaning.

I still don’t doubt that men like Weinstein and Bill O’Reilly are guilty of making life miserable for women. However, the extent and veracity of that misery is hard to quantify. The fact that they haven’t been charged with sexual assault tells me that the evidence just isn’t strong enough, even if it occurred. Where the justice system fails, though, mobs of hate and disdain will fill the gaps.

While that can help the voices of victims, it can also be dangerous. It can, in some respects, drown itself by claiming everything is harassment, everything is sexist, and everything is some sort of agenda to silence women. People want to believe that they’re Superman and men like Harvey Weinstein are the Lex Luthors of the world.

At some point, though, outrage burns itself out. Our collective capacity for emotional catharsis has its limits. Once it reaches that limit, we start rolling our eyes and become numb to it. For something as serious as sexual assault, we cannot and should not let that happen.

That’s a challenge, though, when everybody is so eager to virtue signal and ally themselves with the so-called right side of history. By over-blowing the outrage, victims of true sexual assault get lumped in with those who just didn’t like the person flirting with them.

Since harassment is so subjective and some people are more sensitive to it than others, the context will often get skewed. However, a scandal like Harvey Weinstein provides a sense of clarity on an issue that is so frustratingly subjective.

Therein lies the issue, though. Harassment, unlike assault, is subjective. Sexual assault is not. One is an emotional reaction. The other involves real, physical harm. Conflating one with the other is a dangerous precedent that will make people more reluctant to interact. As a fan of love, intimacy, and sexy novels, that’s not a world I want to live in.

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Filed under Celebrities and Celebrity Culture, gender issues

A Quick Guide To Dealing With Internet Trolls

The late, great Benjamin Franklin once said, “[I]n this world nothing can be said to be certain, except death and taxes.” That little pearl of wisdom has held up remarkably well over the years, especially when democrats are in charge or when despots need more money for their gold-plated toilet seats.

However, if Mr. Franklin were alive today, he’d have to amend that quote in a very specific way. While it’s still true that the only certainty is death and taxes, there is one other inescapable force that makes even the forces of nature tremble. It’s a force so powerful that it can reduce the best of us into wounded puppies begging for a band-aid.

What is this force, you ask? Get ready to embrace the horror because it will affect us moving forward. In fact, it’ll affect us more and more as the pace of technological advancement accelerates. It conjures dread, fear, annoyance, and frustration. It is the ultimate shit stain of the internet and technology in general. They are the true beasts of the 21st century.

Yes, I’m talking about Internet Trolls.

I’ll give everyone a moment to either cringe in horror or roll their eyes. Some of us have experience with internet trolls. Some of us may have even done our share of trolling in the past, although we’ll never admit in public that it qualified as trolling. Like a kid trying to get out of chores, we’ll make any excuse not to be associated with this horror. That doesn’t make us any less guilty of it.

I freely admit that I’ve done my share of trolling in the past. I’m not proud of it, but I’m only human. I’m passionate about a lot of things and I hope that shows in my erotica/romance novels. If it doesn’t, then I’m not doing my job.

We humans are passionate creatures. We always have been. We probably always will be on some levels, despite the efforts of movies like “Equilibrium.” It’s only recently that we’ve had a tool, namely the internet, to convey our passion all over the world about every possible subject from sports to pets to how we style our pubic hair.

I don’t consider this a bad thing. I’m not those who think the internet makes people into monsters or trolls. I believe that humans always had these sentiments to some degree. We just never had a chance to express them on a larger scale. The internet helps us reveal the breadth of our passions. There’s going to be the good and the bad. We can’t avoid either, nor should we.

So in many respects, internet trolls are like the sewer systems of a city. It smells, it’s ugly, and it’s flowing with shit, but it needs to be there. It needs to function for the city to function. You can whine about it all you want, and some people do, but you can’t escape it.

If we can’t escape it, then how do we deal with it? How do we deal with these digital demons that attempt to suck the fun out of anything and everything we hold dear? It’s actually easier than you think, at least for the non-famous population. For the famous crowd, it’s a little trickier, but not by much.

Since I can’t relate to famous people that much, I’ll stick to what I know before I dare to speculate. I’ve been on the internet for over 20 years and I’ve seen it grow and evolve, from the early AOL days to the fall of MySpace. In that time, I’ve picked up on a few techniques to combat internet trolls. Here are just a few:

  1. Assume there will be trolls wherever there’s an opportunity and don’t get overly upset when they show up
  2. Never assume a troll is being one hundred percent sincere, nor should you assume that the troll is one hundred percent knowledgeable either
  3. A troll that makes threats is serious, but a troll actually carrying out these threats is exceedingly rare so keep that in mind
  4. Above all, deny the troll any and all forms of attention or reactions, as this is the primary fuel in which a troll operates
  5. Apathy is the most potent weapon against internet trolls

There are probably more techniques that are unique to certain situations. There’s probably a whole host of tips and tricks to deal with certain trolls that go to much greater lengths to harass others. Those cases aren’t typical.

How can I be so sure of this? Again, apply a little caveman logic and it’s obvious. Human beings have a lot of remarkable mental and physical traits, breasts and balls being some of the most notable. However, when it comes to our attention span, human beings are incredibly lacking.

The average human attention span is not that great and some even argue (albeit not very effectively) that it’s shrinking due to technology. A troll operates at the very basic of levels in terms of human capacity. That means a troll’s attention span should not be overestimated. The internet is full of so many distractions, cat videos being just one of them. A troll that doesn’t get a reaction isn’t going to stay interested for very long.

In the end, the greatest weapon that any of us can use against internet trolls is apathy. That is a troll’s ultimate kryptonite. When a troll goes to such great lengths to harass and demean, but earns nothing but a blank gaze in the end, it’s downright toxic. Their brains simply cannot process why they are wasting time and energy that could be better spent hunting for tigers and seeking fertile mates. It’s caveman logic at its finest.

This is a sentiment echoed by those who have a somewhat larger social media presence. Being a lifelong comic book fan, I frequent comic book message boards and social media. I see a lot of trolling, to say the least. Comic book fans are a passionate bunch, as we learned during the Avengers: Age of Ultron controversy surrounding Black Widow.

This leads me to Tom Brevoort, an accomplished editor at Marvel and a genuinely interesting guy. I’ve met him in person at comic cons. He’s great at what he does and the way he deals with fans is nothing short of astonishing. A couple years back, he responded to a question that effectively proves my point.

When Mr. Brevoort was asked, “What does Marvel fear more? Angry fans or apathetic fans?” he responded as follows:

“Apathetic fans, definitely. When fans are angry, we’re selling comics.”

That’s a refreshing bit of honesty from someone who often has to be coy about his business. It also emphasizes the power of apathy, both in terms of dealing with trolls and dealing with public visibility. That saying about there being no such thing as bad publicity is somewhat accurate, but it’s incomplete in that it ignores how human passions operate.

So with that in mind, use these techniques whenever necessary. If you’re a celebrity, it may be somewhat trickier because internet trolls can sometimes turn into dangerous stalkers, which is an entirely different problem that I’m not equipped to deal with. For those like me, who are a long way away from being famous, this should help make your internet experience more tolerable.

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Filed under Jack Fisher's Insights