Tag Archives: social justice warriors

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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How Ellie From “The Last Of Us” Does LGBT Characters Right

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In the current state of popular culture, one of the most emotionally-charged words is “diversity.” It gets thrown around like a nuclear hot potato. Anyone who holds it too long gets burned and anyone who doesn’t hold it long enough gets attacked. Whether it’s the handling of female characters or representation of minorities, diversity is one of those buzzwords that creates the wrong kind of buzz.

That’s not to say that it’s always mishandled. From a pure business standpoint, it makes sense for media companies to pursue diversity because the world is becoming an increasingly diverse place. New markets and consumer bases are emerging as people gain greater access to media, thanks largely to global connectivity. Any competent business would want to appeal to the most customers possible.

Economics aside, injecting diversity into a movie, TV, comic book, or video game is fraught with challenges and potential backlash. Movies have felt it. Comic books have felt it. Video games have especially felt it, thanks to scandals that seem to get more frustrating with each passing year.

The number of failed attempts to promote diversity is vast and tends to bring out the worst in many people. The successes, though, often fly under the radar and generate way too little attention. Other than the success ofBlack Panther” and the occasional Supergirl comic, the cases of diversity done right are few and far between.

That’s why I think it’s fitting that one of the best cases of diversity comes from the world of video games, an industry that finds itself in a new controversy every other week. It’s even more fitting that it comes courtesy of “The Last of Us,” a franchise I’ve praised before in how it portrays masculinity in a refreshingly positive way.

Beyond just being an excellent game with amazing characters, it also provides a case study in how diversity can be done effectively. It doesn’t have to be forced. It doesn’t have to be preachy. It doesn’t even have to have a larger agenda. It can just be a bonus on top of a well-made product.

The character in question this time is Ellie, the co-protagonist to Joel in the first game and the main protagonist in the upcoming sequel. Her story is every bit as rich and compelling as Joel’s. Her history, her personality, and even the way she complements the gameplay helps make her distinct. She’s a major reason why this game is so enjoyable and why it sold so well.

She achieved all this as both a female and an LGBT character. It sounds like one of those combinations that has to be forced, but that’s not the case with Ellie. In fact, anyone who plays the entire story of the first game wouldn’t even know about Ellie’s sexuality because it was only revealed through a DLC , or downloadable content.

Even within that content, though, Ellie’s sexual orientation was not a big part of the story it told. It effectively filled in a time gap within the main game while also exploring more of Ellie’s backstory, but at no point did it make her sexuality a bigger issue than it needed to be. You could’ve removed that detail entirely and the story would still work, but it wouldn’t be quite as memorable.

More recently, during a preview of “The Last of Us Part II” at E3 2018, Ellie’s status as a homosexual woman was reaffirmed. Again, it wasn’t critical to making the moment work. The fact she’s attracted to other women doesn’t take anything away from the emotional weight of the scene. It does help enhance it, though.

Therein lies the key. What makes Ellie a great character has nothing to do with her sexuality. It’s not a defining aspect of her persona, nor should it be. It defines her no more than Joel’s heterosexuality defines him. It doesn’t have to be thrown in someone’s face as this huge, all-encompassing feature. It’s just a small part of a much greater whole that is Ellie.

There’s no effort to make her this LGBT icon, which has a tendency obscure a character when forced. Her status as LGBT isn’t belabored, either. She’s not important to the overall narrative in “The Last of Us” because she’s female and gay. She’s important because of factors independent of those traits.

That importance grows throughout the story, but not because of her gender or her sexuality. It’s what she does that helps establish her as an important character and a compelling one, at that. Her story complements Joel’s and the various other characters she encounters.

In the process, she also demonstrates a unique personality. She’s tough and stubborn, but she’s also impulsive and temperamental. Many of those qualities are entirely gender-neutral. Some stand out more because she’s a woman and that’s okay because a girl acting girly isn’t a big deal, which tends to get lost with other female characters.

It may seem so obvious, but the fact that diversity in media is such an issue shows just how difficult it is to pursue. Ellie succeeds because the diversity she represents is never primary to her character. It’s not even secondary, either. That’s not to say her gender and her sexuality are ignored, but it’s never elevated beyond a certain point.

Before any of those diversity-related issues come up, “The Last of Us” works to establish who Ellie is and why she’s important. That process of establishing a good, compelling character without her gender or sexuality being the focal point does a lot to get you to care about her story. It’s a process that can’t be rushed and the game does a masterful job in that respect.

The person Ellie is when you first encounter her early in the game is not the same person by the end. She’s someone who undergoes a lot of growth, encountering more than a few setbacks along the way. There are times she’s easy to root for. There are times when she comes off as an arrogant brat. Before you ever find out about her sexuality, you learn about her as a person.

By the time her sexuality finally comes up, Ellie is already so much more than the gender she’s attracted to. She’s a survivor, a fighter, and someone who has seen everyone she’s ever cared about die or leave her until Joel comes along. She also has a vital part to play in the ongoing apocalypse the world around her faces. All of this, once again, is not dependent on her gender or her sexuality.

I know I keep belaboring that, but it’s worth belaboring because that aspect of character development keeps getting glossed over. Other efforts at diverse characters often rush to the diversity without establishing why anyone should care about them. It’s why all-female remakes rarely resonate. It also leads to characters whose diversity is so blatant that it’s hard to take them seriously.

That’s not to say Ellie is a perfect example of diversity done right. She has her flaws, as does Joel. There are times when she’s too tough for her own good. She has a tendency to push peoples’ buttons for the wrong reasons. She also has questionable tastes in jokes. Even proponents of diversity can find flaws in her.

Despite those flaws, there are many lessons that characters like Ellie and games like “The Last of Us” can teach when it comes to doing diversity and LGBT representation right. The most important can be boiled down to four basic components:

  • Don’t try and force diversity just to fill a quota
  • Develop the character before developing the diversity
  • Don’t make their status as a woman or LGBT their most defining trait
  • Have the character complement their supporting cast, regardless of their diversity status

There are probably many more lessons that I’m not qualified to teach, but I think characters like Ellie do plenty by just being memorable and endearing. She’s a great character within a great story. That wouldn’t change if she were straight, but her being a lesbian does help her stand out, albeit for all the right reasons.

It’s also worth noting that Ellie’s story is still ongoing. “The Last of Us Part II” is set to come out in 2019 and the next part of her story promises to get pretty dark. Whether she maintains the complexity and appeal of her current character remains to be seen, but she has a strong foundation to build on, which is key for any character, regardless of their sexual preferences.

Whether we like it or not, there’s a lot of animosity between both sides, there more diversity in future media because the world is a diverse place. It’s just a matter of going about it in a meaningful, compelling way. Ellie is an example of how an LGBT character can work and when done right, it works pretty damn well.

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Profiles In Noble Masculinity: Joel From “The Last Of Us”

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For the past few years, it has become a popular pasttime to label certain elements of popular culture as toxic or “problematic.” Take any character, song, plot, role, or trope from any brand of media. Apply an excessive amount of scrutiny, distorting it as much as necessary along the way. In the end, some people will find a way to make it offensive.

It’s through that process that shows like “Seinfeld” can be called racist. Movies like “Crocodile Dundee” can be called culturally insensitive. Movies like “Big” can be called creepy. Even classic video games like “Mario” and “Zelda” can be considered sexist. Scrutinize it enough and everything becomes racist, sexist, homophobic, transphobic, and culturally insensitive.

I find that whole process to be an exercise in trolling that does more to spark outrage than it does meaningful discussion. It’s the same process that created the idea of “toxic masculinity,” a concept I’ve gone out of my way to deconstruct on more than one occasion.

I don’t want to bemoan all the flaws and frustrations that occur when regressive attitudes mix with regressive agendas. There’s enough debate, discussion, and outright shouting going on in that field as it stands. Instead, I want to shift the tone of the conversation by going to the opposite end of the spectrum.

By that, I mean I’m going to do the opposite of highlighting something that some may find “problematic.” Instead, I’m going to cite something that I think is inherently positive from which we can learn. In fact, I’m going to try and coin a new phrase that’s more uplifting than some of the other buzzwords used by the regressive crowd.

I call it “noble masculinity.” It’s the idea that there are noble, admirable traits in male characters that are worth celebrating in the context of a larger story. Having talked so much about toxic masculinity and why I think it’s such a flawed concept, I feel it’s only fitting that I attempt to counter it with something more positive.

I know it’s popular to criticize and complain about male behaviors these days and, as a man, I don’t deny that we can do some foolish things. However, men are also capable of incredible acts of virtue. Those traits deserve more attention, if only to remind everyone that men can be more than outrage fodder.

There are a lot fictional male characters from movies, TV shows, video games, and comics that I could cite who embody positive masculine traits. Characters like Superman, John McClane, and even James Bond come to mind, although I’m sure there are some who would disagree with the last one.

However, in this initial exercise of exploring noble masculinity, I want to cite a lesser-known male character from popular, critically acclaimed video game that some have called the most riveting, emotionally resonant story-driven epic of the console generation. That game is called “The Last of Us” and the source of the noble masculinity comes from Joel, the grizzled, yet vulnerable male protagonist of the story.

For those who haven’t played “The Last of Us” or just don’t play video games in general, Joel may initially come off as a mix of old cowboy tropes and John McClane rip-offs. However, by following his story, he reveals a level of depth that includes instances of noble masculinity that men and women alike can appreciate.

Joel’s story is not built on prophecies, superhuman abilities, or dumb luck. As a character and a person, Joel is largely defined by a grit that’s uniquely masculine in many ways. At the beginning of the game, he’s not looking to become part of some larger struggle. He’s just a single dad, trying to make a living and provide for his daughter, Sarah. In world full of dim-witted father figures, it’s pretty refreshing.

Then, within the first 10 minutes of the game, Joel suffers the greatest loss any parent can endure. He tries to protect his daughter from first stages of a full-blown apocalypse, but ultimately fails. He ends up watching his daughter die in his arms. It’s a very emotional moment, one in which Joel’s pain is palpable.

That defining moment establishes Joel as a man who fights to protect those he loves, but is all too human and very much at the mercy of forces beyond his control. There’s only so much that he do when the world around him is falling apart. No amount of anger, lament, or sorrow can change that. He, as a man and a survivor of this apocalypse, has to find a way to cope.

While his coping skills aren’t perfect, as evidenced in many powerful scenes throughout the game, Joel’s grief helps drive him. It also lays the foundation for the emotional development he undergoes after he meets Ellie, his young female co-protagonist who becomes a critical part of the gameplay and the story.

I could probably write another article about Ellie and why she’s one of the most compelling female characters in modern video games, but in the context of noble masculinity, she’s very much a catalyst for Joel’s emotional journey. Her own story is remarkable, but her influence on Joel is where she really shines.

It’s not a case of a knight rescuing a princess or a female character trying too hard to be an equal to her male compatriots. In fact, Joel’s first impression of Ellie isn’t a good one. She comes off as an irritable brat with a bad attitude. Essentially, she’s the kind of immature teenager that guys like Joel go out of their way to avoid.

However, their stories soon become intertwined. They end up having to work together, rely on each other, and fight for one another in order to survive a post-apocalyptic world that has been destroyed by zombies, toxic fungus, and military-enforced curfews. Before long, they establish a bond that brings out the best and worst of both characters.

For Joel, the best is reflected in those same paternal instincts that caused him so much pain and sorrow at the beginning. He comes to see Ellie as a surrogate daughter, of sorts. At times, he resists that and even gets upset when the idea is thrown in his face. In the end, though, he doesn’t avoid it.

As a result, Joel’s story embodies more than the love a father has for his child. It also reveals how willing a man is to form a bond with a total stranger, who is not even that nice to him in the beginning, and tries to protect them with that same paternal dedication. It doesn’t happen all at once. He even resists it at times. He still embraces it and all the tribulations that come with it.

That, more than anything, is the most important element of noble masculinity that Joel embodies. He’s not Superman, nor does he pretend to be. He’s also very aware of his own shortcomings, saying at one point that he trusts others more than he trusts himself. Most men are reluctant to acknowledge such insecurity, let alone reveal it. Joel doesn’t hide from it. If anything, he channels it.

It’s something that resonates with Ellie too. Throughout the game, she has opportunities to cut ties with him and go along with someone who might be better-equipped to help her. However, she choses to stay with Joel. Just as he comes to see her as a daughter, she comes to see him as a father.

The fact that he and Ellie go through this journey in the midst of an ongoing apocalypse makes their bond that much more powerful. It also requires that Joel push himself harder and confront the limitations that kept him from saving his daughter. Being a father made for great sorrow in the past, but it also made him stronger and more determined in the future.

That’s not to say that Joel doesn’t have his low points. There are moments where Joel does not come off as noble. Some even argue that his decisions towards the end of the game undermines his nobility. I would argue that it actually reinforces it.

When the world is already in the middle of an apocalypse and people are willing to sacrifice innocence for what they think is the greater good, then that’s when traits of noble masculinity become most critical. That’s when a father’s willingness to protect his child should be at its strongest.

That dedication still comes at a price. With a sequel in “The Last Of Us Part II” already in the works, it’s likely that Joel will continue to pay a price for his choices, however noble they might be. The fact that he still makes those choices and is willing to accept the risks reflects the challenges and strength that come with masculine drive.

Joel is probably not the greatest example of noble masculinity in all of fiction, but I would argue that his is the most relatable. He’s not perfect, nor does he pretend to be. He doesn’t have any capabilities that are impossible for other men to achieve. He’s a man who was utterly destroyed when he lost his daughter, but didn’t run from the chance to be a father again and to a total stranger, no less.

Flaws and shortcomings aside, I still contend that the noble masculinity that Joel shows throughout “The Last of Us” are far greater than any of the “toxic” traits that others may cite. In playing the game, it’s hard not to empathize with him or his journey, especially if you’re a parent. In appreciating his strengths, though, it shows that there is room for a brand of masculinity that anyone of any gender can admire.

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Filed under gender issues, human nature, sex in media, video games

Stereotypes, The Simpsons, And The (Empty) Complaints About Apu

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For nearly three decades, our society has had an unspoken, but clear understanding. For something to become culturally relevant, it has to be mentioned “The Simpsons.” Whether it’s a major plot on something like boy bands or a subtle joke about a classic novel, it’s not truly a mainstream idea until it shows up on “The Simpsons.”

I happen to be among the demographic who have always lived in a world where the “The Simpsons” existed. I honestly cannot remember a time when this show wasn’t on the air or relevant in some ways. For a show that has been on the air for nearly 30 years, it’s remarkable just how much impact it has had, despite so many changes in trends, culture, technology, media, and tastes.

There have been controversial moments, though. I still remember how controversial it was when John Waters voiced a gay character on the show. That was considered controversial in 1997. Looking back on it, I can see why. The more recent controversies, however, are a bit harder to understand.

That brings me to Apu Nahasapeemapetilon, Springfield’s lovable Indian owner of the Kwik-E-Mart. I say he’s lovable because, for the most part, he’s one of the show’s most colorful side-characters and for the right reasons. He’s smart, he’s got a unique personality, and he’s undergone plenty of growth over the years.

However, according to a documentary by Indian comedian Hari Kondabolu called “The Problem With Apu,” this established character on an iconic TV show is contributing to a serious social ill in the world. The fact that Apu exists is a factor in the many causes of social injustice, racism, and bigotry. He’s almost as bad as video game characters being too sexy. If I could write that with more sarcasm, I would.

With all due respect to Mr. Kondabolu, who lives a minority in a country that has a spotty history with race to say the least,  I sincerely question his method for picking certain battles. There are many serious issues surrounding race relations in America and throughout the world. Those issues have all sorts of complexities and nuances to them.

Instead of scrutinizing those, however, he singles out a popular cartoon character to make his point. Even That doesn’t just undermine the serious issues he discusses in that movie. It ensures that his point will get lost in the collective groans of those who bemoan political correctness.

I know that whining about political correctness has become a source of whining in and of itself, but there is a continuum of sorts that separates serious issues about representation in the media from outright trolling. The separation isn’t always clear, but in the case of Apu and Mr. Kondabolu, it’s too petty to be subtle.

The idea that Apu is now problematic, a word that has gained a lot of frustrating connotations in recent years, sends an indirect message that I don’t think Mr. Kondabolu wanted to send. It’s not that racism and bigotry aren’t important issues. It’s the idea that anyone who enjoys “The Simpsons” and appreciates characters like Apu are somehow on the same level as old school, George Wallace level racists.

For most reasonable people, that notion is both insulting and absurd. Again, I doubt that’s the direct message Mr. Kondabolu was saying, but that’s the subtext of the message he sent with that documentary. “The Simpsons” and the people who enjoy it are somehow bad people and contributing to a problem.

Understandably, both fans and the creators of the show aren’t going to respond with homemade chocolates and hugs. Even though the creators promised to address it, the way they did so did not involve an extended apology about how the show has depicted Apu and paying massive reparations for all the hurt feelings it has caused.

Instead, they worked it into a side-plot in the episode, “No Good Read Goes Unpunished,” wherein Marge tries to rewrite her favorite book so that it’s free of anything that might be considered offensive in 2018. As many in Hollywood and the media are finding out the hard way these days, that’s next to impossible.

It all culminated in a moment where Marge and Lisa partially broke the fourth wall, Deadpool style, and indirectly confronted the controversy by basically saying that there’s not much you can do when old characters who weren’t offensive at first become offensive years later. Those characters exist, as do their stories. Lisa flat out asks to the camera, “What can you do?”

It’s a very relevant question that Mr. Kondabolu isn’t able to answer. In fact, I don’t think the question has an answer. At the very least, the scene didn’t mock him directly or discount his feelings. It was surprisingly even-handed for a show that regularly mocks popular trends. This is how the scene that played out.

Needless to say, that response rubbed plenty of people the wrong way, included Mr. Kondabolu. According to Entertainment Weekly, this was his response.

“Wow. ‘Politically Incorrect?’ That’s the takeaway from my movie & the discussion it sparked?” wrote Kondabolu. “Man, I really loved this show. This is sad.” In another tweet, he said, “In ‘The Problem with Apu,’ I used Apu & The Simpsons as an entry point into a larger conversation about the representation of marginalized groups & why this is important. The Simpsons response tonight is not a jab at me, but at what many of us consider progress.”

I want to be sympathetic to Mr. Kondabolu’s feelings. I really do. However, the problem with his response is that he didn’t even try to answer the question that Lisa asked. She asked what can you do. He just whined that this response wasn’t the one he wanted from the show. On top of that, he didn’t even try to explain what he’d hoped to hear.

This why I find his protest of Apu so empty. It’s also why I find a lot of complaints about offensive characters or stereotypes so asinine. It’s not enough that someone is offended. They basically set it up so that there’s no way for them not to be offended. They present a problem with no solution. If they offer one, it’s vague and easy to move the goalposts when someone doesn’t respond to their satisfaction.

For Mr. Kondabolu, he doesn’t just move the goalposts, though. He essentially tries to play an entirely different game on an entirely different field and expects everyone else to know the score. Even by scrutinizing the content of his own documentary, Mr. Kondabolu reveals just how misguided his arguments are. In another article by Entertainment Weekly, this was his justification for singling out Apu.

As Kondabolu made clear in his film, the problem with Apu extends beyond a brown character voiced by a white actor; the problem was not just with The Simpsons, but with its viewers, the drunk idiots on the street who call any South-Asian person “Apu” and who repeated “Thank you, come again,” as a mocking refrain.

I highlighted those bold parts because they’re the most revealing part of Mr. Kondabolu’s argument, as well as the greatest flaw. He links the depiction of Apu to the “drunk idiots” who harass people like him of South-Asian descent. From his perspective, the problem isn’t the drunk idiots doing the harassing. It’s the cartoon character.

In that context, it’s understandable why even a bleeding heart liberal like Lisa Simpson, a notable lover of cartoons, wouldn’t take up Mr. Kondabolu’s cause like she has so many others. It’s not just empty. It completely overlooks the actual source of the problem, namely the drunk idiots.

Are they drunk idiots because they watched “The Simpsons?” Are they drunk idiots towards people of South-Asian descent because of Apu and the stereotype he represents? Well, if that’s the argument Mr. Kondabolu is going to make, then he’s got a much bigger problem. “The Simpsons” are full of so many other stereotypes that to single just one out as “problematic” isn’t just asinine. It’s petty.

Homer Simpson is a stereotype of a dimwitted, drunk middle class working stiff.

Lisa Simpson is a stereotype of a whiny, bleeding heart liberal social justice lover.

Marge Simpson is a stereotype of a nagging housewife.

Groundskeeper Willie is a stereotype of an angry Scotsman.

Barney Gumble is a stereotype of a fat, drunk alcoholic slob.

Cletus Spuckler is a stereotype of a white trash hillbilly.

Luigi Risotto is a stereotype of an Italian chef.

Fat Tony is a stereotype of an Italian mobster.

I could go on, but with nearly 30 years of characters, “The Simpsons” has such a huge cast of characters that there’s no way I could list every character and the stereotype they represent. In fact, it’s because “The Simpsons” has so many characters and so much history that it’s possible to find a character that embodies an offensive stereotype of some type. The only requirement is that you have to be really petty.

That’s what Mr. Kondabolu had to do. He had to get really petty to single out Apu, which also required he ignore the real, non-animated people who were harassing minorities. Again, none of this is to say that racism and harassment aren’t problems. They are. However, when highlighting this issue requires a level of pettiness that involves singling out cartoon characters, then there’s something wrong with that approach.

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Gender, Equality, And The Pain That Binds Us

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Imagine, for a moment, there are two kids playing on a playground. Both are young, rowdy, and energetic. They run around, rough-house, and engage in the kind of reckless fun you would expect of most kids.

Then, at some point, they both run into each other. They both get hurt, sustaining similar bruises and experiencing similar pain. They both start crying. Those cries are equally loud and they each shed the same volume of tears. Naturally, this gets the attention of nearby adults.

However, in responding to the cries, one child ends up getting more attention than the others. Most crowd around that child, offering solace and treatment. All the while, the other child is still crying just as loudly. Only a handful of other adults tend to that child, but the crying and the pain persist.

Does what I just describe sound fair? Does the idea of one child’s pain getting more attention than the other strike seem wrong to you? Absent any larger context or notable personality disorders, I believe most people would agree. The idea that one child’s pain warrants more attention than others is wrong. It offends that innate sense of empathy and justice that binds us as humans.

I tell this story to make an important point about pain. To some extent, pain is the ultimate egalitarian. It doesn’t care about your gender, your race, your ethnic background, your politics, your ideology, or your religion. It also doesn’t care about how many arguments you win, how much virtue signaling you do, or how informed you may be. It still hurts all the same.

Pain is, effectively, the one uniting force that reasonable and unreasonable people alike can agree on. It affects us all. Too much of it can leave lasting scars. When someone’s pain is ignored or overlooked, it still feels like an injustice. On the most basic level, pain reveals just how similar we are in the grand scheme of things.

I make this important point in lieu of a revealing conversation I had with someone on Reddit. Every now and then, you find yourself interact with people who help you come to profound realizations without seeking them in the first place. It’s a conversation that I feel is worth sharing, if only to thank the person who inspired it.

The conversation began with a woman posting a brief inquiry in the Men’s Rights subreddit. That, in and of itself, is pretty remarkable and says a lot about the woman. She identifies herself as a feminist, yet she goes out of her way to start a conversation in a place that is sure to have differing opinions. In this era of highly bias media exposure, we should all take a moment to appreciate her open-mindedness.

The substance of her post was not combative or hostile. At no point did she come off as anything other than sincere and curious. These are the exact words she used to start the conversation.

I’m a woman and for lack of a better term a feminist and to be honest I don’t understand why there has to be conflict between men’s rights and women’s rights. The way society is set up at the moment I think women face more challenges, the majority of which are created by men. But on the flip side men also face challenges due to their gender, but these problems are often created by men as well. I’m not saying for either gender men create all the problems, as women we have to step up and acknowledge what we do as well.

I guess what I’m asking is why not try and work with the feminist movement?

When I first read this post, I admit I was somewhat worried about the reaction it would generate. In my vast experience with Reddit and message boards, people who go out of their way to talk to those who disagree with them tend to start conversations that get easily derailed. Whether it’s feminism or Star Trek, people can get pretty passionate with their opinions and that can cause problems.

In reading through some of the comments, there were indeed some crass remarks. You see those in almost any subreddit or message board in some form or another. Not everyone was reasonable during the conversation, but I still felt it was a conversation worth having.

That’s why I made it a point to submit some comments of my own. In doing so, and getting a few generous responses from the woman, I came to this critical realization about pain and how it affects gender issues, double standards, and identity politics as a whole.

When you get down to the most fundamental level, it all comes back to pain. Feminism, men’s rights, the LGBT community, racial politics, ethnic conflicts, and even clashes within a sub-culture all build their movements around the pain their group experiences.

Whether it’s political oppression, social stigma, legal discrimination, or just plain hostility, these groups and the agendas they pursue are forged by the pain they experience. The most divisive part of that agenda, though, is the idea that their pain matters more than others.

With respect to gender, which was the primary topic of the discussion the woman started, much of the arguments could be broken down into categories of pain. For the feminist crowd, the pain they experience from discrimination, slut shaming, harassment, reproductive rights, and specific health issues takes priority and understandably so.

It’s just as understandable that the men’s rights crowd would prioritize the pain they experience by damaging double standards, legal discrimination, circumcision, social pressures, and violent victimization. When they feel their pain is deemed less important or trivial, it doesn’t just inspire resentment. It sends the message that someone else’s pain doesn’t matter.

That very notion, the idea that someone else’s pain is more important than another, undermines some of the most fundamental facets of our humanity. That’s not to say there aren’t times when certain pain takes priority. When there’s an ongoing atrocity, like a mass shooting or a war crime, then that’s an instance where we should prioritize that pain.

It’s an indirect message that few intend to send, but many find themselves surmising. A woman stands up and should that their pain is important. Others interpret that as her saying that the pain of men doesn’t matter. A man does the same, shouting that their pain is important. Even if they’re wholly sincere, women interpret that as opposition.

When it comes to discussions about gender politics, racial politics, ideology, or social justice, though, the act of elevating someone else’s pain over the other will only ever serve to breed resentment. It’s rarely direct, but that’s exactly what makes it so impactful.

If there’s one message that I took away from the conversation, it’s that one person’s pain can undermine the other when agendas take priority over understanding. Whether they’re feminist, men’s rights, LGBT, religious, or racial in nature, building that agenda around a particular pain requires that it be elevated to some extent.

That may be understandable within a certain context, but when the agenda takes on the character of an ideology, it turns that pain into a force for division. Given our tribal nature, those divisions can widen considerably and at a time when there are over 7.6 billion of us, that can be more damaging.

Even with these divisions, the conversation with that woman gave me hope because it reminded me of just how similar we are when you get down to it. We all experience pain in our lives. We all tend to elevate our own pain compared to that of others. However, the fact that we’re all vulnerable to such pain proves that we’re more equal than we think.

I believe we can take comfort in that, if only to remind ourselves that our pain matters as much as those of others. We are, at the end of the day, a compassionate species. We may have any number of ways to divide ourselves, but we have far more powerful ways to bring us together.

To the woman who posted that message, I sincerely thank you. I hope your effort will inspire others as much as they inspired me.

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Filed under gender issues, human nature, sex in society, sexuality

How Excessive Guilt Inspires Regressive Attitudes (And Ugly Politics)

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Have you ever done something that made you feel so guilty that it messed with your head? Have you ever felt so much guilt heaped upon you that it made you feel sick in ways that combine the nausea of a hangover with the delirium of a bad flu? If you haven’t been in that situation, then consider yourself lucky because guilt really is that powerful.

Like anger and hatred, guilt is one of those powerful feelings that can circumvent reason, reality, and everything in between. It can be like a rat gnawing at your brain stem, a stabbing pain in the most vulnerable part of your psyche. It doesn’t matter what the facts of the situation might be. Like any other pain, you’ll do anything to alleviate it.

As bad as it is, guilt is a critical component of the human condition. Guilt is a major aspect of being a social species. When we do something wrong within a functioning society, we should feel guilty. In the absence of laws and governments, guilt is part of what binds us together as a people and helps guide us in doing right by one another.

It’s because guilt is so powerful, though, that it can easily be weaponized to pursue an agenda. I would even argue it’s too easy because in recent years, efforts to channel and pile on guilt have become more overt. It’s becoming so overt that it’s not even subtle anymore. The effects aren’t just damaging. They’re counterproductive.

Last year, I wrote a lengthy post about how certain people use virtue signaling to make them feel like the heroes in their own story. In some respects, that effort is partially fueled by feelings of guilt that just happen to supplement the inherent desire to feel like John McClane in a “Die Hard” movie. That inherent desire to feel virtuous can sometimes coincide with feelings of guilt, real or imagined.

However, it’s the imagined, contrived guilt that’s becoming a problem. It’s guilt belabored by those seeking vindication that’s subverting the actual guilt that’s healthy and necessary for a functioning society. In an era where it’s easy to shame and condemn others through social media, it has never been easier to channel the power of guilt.

In some cases, that might be a good thing, being able to use our inter-connected world to lump guilt upon those who might otherwise get away with serious misdeeds. One could even argue it’s because of mass media that we, as a global society, have become more tolerant over the past century. Unlike most of human history, we can see the suffering of our fellow humans and rightly feel guilt about it.

The problem, however, comes when that same media is used to evoke excessive guilt in people who may not have any real stake in an issue. It usually has nothing to do with any direct action or decision that these people made. It’s often more vague, involving anything from the crimes of our ancestors to social status to physical appearance.

Whatever the method, the end results are fairly predictable. It usually goes something like this.

“You’re a [Insert Race/Religion/Gender/Ethnic Group/Social Class Here]! Just look at how great your life is compared to all the poor [Insert Oppressed Class/Group/Opposing Political Affiliation Here]! You should feel ashamed of yourself! You should sacrifice your comforts, your time, and your money to pay for all that suffering! If you don’t, then you’re a horrible person and deserve no respect!”

Whether it’s race, religion, gender, or some other label, it really doesn’t take much. It just needs to single out a certain contingent of people who identify a certain way. It doesn’t even have to be a physical trait. Sub-cultures like gaming, sports, and general hobbies are prone to it. Gaming, especially, has been subjected to a lot of scrutiny in recent years.

If it’s possible to judge a group for not being inclusive, understanding, or generous enough, then guilt can be leveraged against it. On paper, it almost seems fair, using guilt to level the playing field. In practice, however, it has one exceedingly nasty side-effect that derails any effort at justice.

To illustrate how, it’s necessary to scrutinize the basics of guilt in terms of how it actually works compared to how some people think it works. To highlight that difference, here are two scenarios that focus on basic reactions to guilt. See if you can find where those nasty side-effects I mentioned manifest.

Scenario One: That person just made me feel really guilty about something. I had better sit down, listen, and calmly discuss this matter with them in a reasonable, rational way so I can address this feeling.

Scenario Two: That person just made me feel guilty. This feels awful! I hate this person for making me feel this way. Now, I need to find a way to alleviate this feeling. What’s the quickest, easiest way to do that?

I hope it’s obvious which one is more consistent with the real world. While I like to think I have more faith in humanity than most these days, I don’t deny there are some bugs in our collective operating system. When it comes to guilt, though, some will use those bugs against others in hopes of shaping their opinions. However, when guilt is the primary ingredient, those opinions are far more likely to be regressive.

Whether it’s extreme political correctness, extreme religious dogma, or extreme identity politics, guilt is effectively targeted to put people in a state of anxiety. You’re guilty for committing egregious sins against a deity. You’re guilty for being too offensive to a particular group. You’re guilty of not being inclusive enough to a particular minority.

That guilt doesn’t even have to involve a direct action or choice. It can be entirely wrong, built on myths, lies, or debunked science. It just has to evoke a reaction. Our brains, being the crude products of nature that they are, cannot tell the difference between the guilt we feel for stealing our mother’s purse or just being the same race as one that owned slaves 200 years ago.

As a result, our first instinct isn’t calm, reasoned debate. It’s to alleviate the guilt in the quickest way possible. That often means becoming defensive, angry, and aggressive. That kind of reaction is not going to make someone more understanding or tolerant. It’s going to make them hostile or upset towards the source of the guilt.

Guilt is pain on some levels, which is why many see heaping guilt on others as an outright attack. It’s why those attempting to evoke the guilt are vilified or despised. It doesn’t even matter if they make valid arguments. Their use of guilt renders their every word inherently toxic, a word I don’t use lightly.

When messages become toxic, attitudes become combative. When people become combative, their politics become regressive. Think about the guilt-obsessed Puritans or the loudest voices in the social justice crowd. They not just intolerant of the source of the guilt. They go out of their way to overreact, like attacking a fly with a shotgun.

In the name of alleviating the pains of guilt, that almost seems justified. It’s a big reason why the politics of those consumed by guilt tend to be extreme. It’s not enough to address a simple injustice in the present. Everything in the past related to that guilt needs to be a factor. That’s how you get people who condemn their own race, hate on their own gender, and favor politics that are antithetical to basic concepts of liberty.

It’s why radical feminists who say men are guilty of all the world’s ills actually make anti-feminism seem appealing to some.

It’s why race-baiting tactics by those attempting to promote racial equality tend to incur a major backlash.

It’s why attacking popular culture and sub-cultures who aren’t “inclusive” enough to become even less inclusive.

In that context, using excessive guilt only inspires a greater backlash than the one that usually comes from major social movements. If used carefully, it can subdue people into a state of desperation, longing for a way to alleviate the feeling. Some religion have managed this to great effect.

It doesn’t take much, though, in our interconnected world for guilt to become excessive. In a sense, it helps to see using guilt as using torture. Sure, the torture will usually get someone to say what you want to hear, but unless they’re a sociopath or exceedingly masochistic, they’re not going to share the attitudes or sentiments of their torturer.

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Filed under Current Events, gender issues, human nature, Reasons and Excuses

A (Non-Preachy) Lesson In Tolerance In Supergirl #19

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Growing up, every TV show that aired between 3:00 p.m. and 6:00 p.m. seemed air some sort of pro-tolerance, anti-bigotry message. These shows assumed, rightly in my case, that a lot of kids who’d just gotten home from school would plop themselves in front of the TV and rather than doing their homework. In terms of targeting a market, it was pretty brilliant.

Having been fed those messages for over two decades now, I think they’ve been belabored to the point where most kids and young adults have gotten the message. Some are even annoyed by it. Even I admit there’s only so many times I can hear some poorly-rendered cartoon character say that tolerance is good and bigotry is bad.

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In recent years, especially with the rise of certain regressive elements within popular media, these pro-diversity, anti-bigotry messages have gone to distressing extremes. It’s no longer enough to just send the message. It has to be angrily protested by media critics, internet mobs, and hyper-sensitive crowds that push political correctness way past its previous extremes.

I could spend fill several blog posts of instances of people whining about a lack of diversity or complaining that political correctness has gone too far. I can understand the frustration of both sides to some extent. Both see a problem with the way tolerance is being promoted within society and they want to fix it. They both want to make society better and that’s entirely commendable.

Instead of focusing on the frustrations, though, I want to highlight an example of a pro-tolerance, anti-bigotry message done right. By that, I mean it sends a message in a way that doesn’t sound preachy, heavy-handed, or denigrating to another group. As it just so happens, it unfolds in a comic book, a medium that has provided me with many deeper messages in the past.

In this instance, the comic is Supergirl #19 by Steve Orlando and Vita Ayala. Being a fan of the “Supergirl” TV show and of beautiful, lovable female heroes in general, I’ve been following this comic since it relaunched in 2016. It’s a series that deals with heroic conflicts typical of DC Comics and anyone remotely associated with Superman. This issue, however, takes a moment to get personal.

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The story itself is a brief, self-contained narrative often referred to as a one-shot. You don’t have to know the full story of the character or even the events of the past several issues to understand what’s going on. You don’t even have to know the first thing about Supergirl to appreciate the message that this issue conveys.

It’s built around a personal story told by a character named Lee Serano, a character whose life Supergirl recently saved. That, in and of itself, isn’t too remarkable. Supergirl, Superman, and pretty much every major DC hero saves the life of a random character in almost every issue. However, it’s Lee’s struggles beyond being in the wrong place at the wrong time that make her note-worthy.

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Lee identifies as genderqueer or non-binary, a concept that tends to make headlines for all the wrong reasons. More often than not, stories about people who identify with this label are only identified as a way to point out how far political correctness has gone. It’s often a classification that certain people cite when making fun of those who think there need to be over 58 genders.

Whatever your attitudes towards gender, it’s still generally a dick move to ridicule and degrade someone for identifying that way. Throughout Supergirl #19, Lee doesn’t come off as someone who is just craving attention by identifying as some extreme minority. She comes off as someone who is genuinely conflicted with her gender and is afraid how it’ll affect her.

That’s where Supergirl comes in and this is where the anti-bigotry message gains some unexpected, but welcome dimensions. Like any good hero, Supergirl goes out of her way to help Lee beyond saving her life. She offers her both consolation and sincere affection, as any decent person would to someone who is in distress. The fact she has superpowers is basically an afterthought.

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It’s here where Lee stands up for Supergirl in a way that might catch even the anti-PC crowd by surprise. She acknowledges that there are those who look at Supergirl and only see this blond-haired, blue-eyed, traditionally beautiful, able-bodied, cis-gendered woman with superpowers. Her very presence is seen as part of the problem.

The fact she acknowledges this has an important context. This issue takes place at a time when Supergirl is trying to regain the trust of the public. Unlike her more famous cousin, she hasn’t been around long enough to earn everybody’s implicit trust when she makes a mistake. The extent of that mistake is covered in previous issues, but you don’t need to know them to get the message here.

In one of the most revealing scenes, Lee confronts the argument that certain regressive types would use against Supergirl if she ever tried to get involved with gender minorities, social justice, and everything in between. She makes this important comment that sets the tone for the entire story.

“People are out there talking, saying Supergirl’s dangerous, that she can’t be trusted. Saying that her hiding her dad – trying to help him get better – is wrong. I heard the talk. Believed it for a while, even. I mean, she’s the “All-American Ideal – blonde, white, pretty – and she can fly. She MUST think she’s better than us – above us,” and, “There’s no way she could understand,” right? But that’s not the truth.”

This statement is critical in that it highlights the most frustrating part of discussing these issues with the overly-regressive crowd. Their politics and attitudes are so skewed in one direction that they see anyone who doesn’t line up with their particular group, however eccentric it might be, as somehow unworthy of being part of the conversation.

It often happens in discussions involving race, gender, religion, and most other minority issues. For certain people in those discussions, often the angrier, more radical wings, just associating with the majority is seen as fraternizing with the enemy. It doesn’t just limit the conversation. It dehumanizes the opposing side.

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Supergirl #19 takes the opposite approach in that both Supergirl and Lee are humanized to the upmost. Lee isn’t some confused, attention-seeking teenager. Supergirl isn’t some arrogant, stereotypical stand-in for majority. They’re just two individuals, connecting like mature individuals do to help one another in a time of need. It’s basically a template for simple human decency.

Contrast that with those who claim white people shouldn’t contribute to conversations about race. Contrast that with those who claim beautiful people shouldn’t contribute to issues surrounding body shaming. Contrast that with those who claim men should shut up when discussing women’s issues, scorning anyone who dares to follow Matt Damon’s example.

These instances don’t just take the anti-bigotry, pro-tolerance message to an unhealthy extreme. It angers and alienates those on the other side of the argument. It gives them no reason to listen to what someone who considers themselves gender non-binary has to say, relying instead on prejudices and assumptions.

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Neither side benefits from that approach. Nobody helps anyone when two sides of an issue harbor so much animosity that the very presence of another is seen as an insult. Yes, Supergirl does check most of the boxes for someone who faces far fewer issues than a non-white, gender non-binary individual in the United States. That doesn’t mean she’s part of the problem.

I don’t want to spoil the rest of Supergirl #19. Like other comics I’ve singled out in the past, I’d rather people take the time to read it in order to experience the breadth of the story. It’s a story worth heeding during these contentious times. I would argue it offers something far more important than those old after-school PSAs.

More than anything else, it emphasizes treating people as individuals and not lumping them into a particular group with a particular agenda. Lee points out that people just assume Supergirl thinks and feels a certain way because of how she looks and acts. That’s a flawed assumption that dehumanizes and denigrates her.

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It doesn’t matter if Supergirl, or anyone else who gets involved in contentious social issues, looks a certain way or doesn’t check the right boxes. She’s still a human being, albeit one with alien origins. Unless you can actually read her thoughts and feelings, as some DC characters can, then making those assumptions is just a different form of bigotry hiding behind the guise of anti-bigotry.

Supergirl #19 is a solid story with an important message. I would argue it’s more important now than it would’ve been in the days of after-school specials. It’s a good thing to promote tolerance, but not to the point that it inspires intolerable attitudes. Supergirl’s compassion helped Lee in her time of need. Her life and Supergirl’s are better because of it.

The fact that Supergirl didn’t even need to use her powers that much to help Lee is a testament to her character, as well as an inspiration. If she can help a total stranger that much, just by being decent and compassionate, then what’s our excuse?

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Filed under Comic Books, Jack Fisher, Superheroes, Current Events, gender issues, human nature