Tag Archives: social movements

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

The Law Of Proportional Backlash And The Anti-Harassment Movement

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There comes a point in every social movement where the momentum seems unstoppable. Whether it’s same-sex marriage, racial equality, or finally having a female Dr. Who, there’s a sentiment that certain trends are just going to play out and there’s nothing anyone can do about it.

That’s a false impression, by the way. Human beings are complex, erratic, and fickle creatures. I’ve touched on this before and will likely bring it up again because human beings are just that interesting. That said, they can also be quite frustrating.

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When it comes to highlighting those qualities in the midst of an ongoing controversy, though, I have to be careful because I don’t want my points to get lost in the anger. I know as well as anyone else with an internet connection that digital outrage has a nasty habit of undermining meaningful dialog. I want to avoid that as much as possible cause this is one point I feel is worth making.

As I write this, the latest major social movement to combat sexism and sexual misconduct is close to that point I mentioned earlier. It’s still a very hot-button issue and I’ve tried to be fair in discussing it on this blog. However, the current momentum of this movement, which has the wholly noble goal of preventing harassment, is coming up against a force that reflects the eccentricities of human nature.

That force doesn’t have an official or scientific name, but it has many familiar components. For the sake of this discussion, I’ll label it as follows:

The Law Of Proportional Backlash

I’m not claiming this law is definitive or on the same level as the laws of relativity. To make sense of what’s going on, and what often happens with these social movements, it’s just helpful to have a unifying idea to tie it all together.

The essence of this law that I just randomly coined is pretty simple. It’s the human equivalent of Newton’s Third Law, which says for every action, there is an equal and opposite reaction. When it comes to social movements, though, the reaction is more than that. It’s can also be an outright backlash.

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To illustrate, you need only look at the frequency with which political parties gain and lose power. Throughout the latter part of the 20th century, as society has become more connected, open, and diverse, these tendencies have played out with stunning regularity. It often plays out like this:

“Hey! The current social order isn’t the perfect, utopian society I want. Let’s kick the people in power out of office and put in these people making impossible promises to achieve impossible things.”

A few years later.

“Hey! These people we put in power haven’t created the perfect, utopian society I waned either. Let’s kick them out and put in other people in power who are also making impossible promises to achieve impossible things. Moreover, let’s hate, shame, and spit on the other side for failing to do all those impossible things!”

I fully concede that’s a very basic illustration of how political power fluctuates in the modern world. I also concede there are many variations, but in terms of the big picture, this is how the Law of Proportional Backlash works.

A movement begins, be it political or social. It gains momentum. Usually, there’s some sort of event that acts as a catalyst. With racial segregation, events like the ruling in Brown v. Board of Education helped get things going. With same-sex marriage, Massachusetts being the first state to legalize it did the same.

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For the current movement against sexism and sexual misconduct, I think most would point to either the 2016 presidential election or the Harvey Weinstein scandal as the catalyst. I would argue it’s a combination of both, but I don’t think there’s any doubt that the movement gained a lot of momentum. If it could take down someone as powerful as Harvey Weinstein, then it’s safe to say that movement is pretty strong.

As often happens, though, the momentum provokes backlash. That happens whenever a movement fails to achieve every goal and, spoiler alert, no movement ever achieves every goal. The world is too complex and impossible problems tend to frustrate human limitations. As a result, a movement has to overreach and that will spurn a backlash.

With the movement against sexual misconduct, there are plenty of signs of overreach. There are people scorning others for making reasonable arguments about there being a spectrum of harassment. Careers are being ruined on the basis of anonymous accusations and mixed messages that are impossible to discern.

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There was even a distressing article on BigThink that argued that crimes involving sexual violence should not be subject to the traditional standards of proof. The underlying reason for that is too many guilty people get away with their crimes so it’s worth the risk of punishing the innocent to remedy that issue.

It’s that kind of sentiment, one in which the proportion becomes increasingly extreme, that tends to hasten the backlash. Whenever a movement gets to a point it’s deemed appropriate to sacrifice innocent people for the sake of a cause, then that’s usually a sign that it’s reaching beyond its ideals and emboldening opponents.

There are already major news outlets reporting on that phenomenon. Publications like the New Yorker, the Washington Post, and even the liberal Huffington Post have discussed it in various forms. The reactions to those speaking out against sexual misconduct is no longer one of unity and support. Now, there’s criticism and animosity, the first signs of a real backlash.

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Those behind the movement need only look at the LGBT movement to see what that backlash can entail. Even though same-sex marriage is legal, the resulting backlash triggered a surge in “religious freedom” bills that promoted a new kind of discrimination. That backlash is still ongoing. The one surrounding sexual misconduct may just be getting started.

I still don’t doubt the sincerity and ideals behind the movement against sexual misconduct. People want justice for those who have been victimized. Justice is an inherent aspect of the human condition. We’re literally wired to seek it when we feel there’s an injustice in the world.

Unfortunately, in the pursuit of that justice, anger and resentment end up clouding those ideals. We’ve seen that anger directed towards the political process that played out in 2016. We’ve seen it used to demonize and denigrate entire groups of people, including an entire gender in some cases.

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When people are attacked, their first instinct isn’t to admit defeat. It’s to fight back. That’s just basic survival instinct and there’s no way any movement, be it political or social, can circumvent that. By fighting back, the backlash itself gains momentum. Sometimes that backlash gains enough momentum to become a movement in it’s own right. Then, it too may be subject to a backlash.

It seems like an never-ending cycle, one in which little is gained in the long run. While I don’t deny it can be disheartening, I believe there are gains that make many movements worthwhile in the long run. Just ask any same-sex couple who can get married now if they’re willing to risk such a backlash. They would probably do so in a heartbeat.

I don’t know how the movement against sexual misconduct is going to play out, even if the backlash it inspires ends up being minor. I hope, in the long run, it has a net-positive effect on society. It still won’t be a perfect society, but whether it’s from the movement or the backlash, even a little gain in justice and human progress can still mean a lot in the long run.

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Filed under Current Events, gender issues, sex in media, sex in society, sexuality

A Second Sexual Revolution: The (Sexy) Precedent

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In any human society, nothing becomes a revolution until after people realize just how revolutionary their ideas were in the context of the times. Few people who end up being part of a social movement, see their activities as part of a revolution. That assumes they’re sober, which history tells us can be a factor.

Those who oppose revolutionary activities are even less inclined to call them as such. They see these kinds of movements as chaos, criminal, and dangerous because it’s distracting people from doing more important things like paying their taxes, pumping out babies, and giving money to their preferred religious service.

It’s hard to really transform a simple protest to a full-blown revolution is what I’m saying. That brings me to the sexual revolution of the 1960s and the possibility of other sexual revolutions in the future.

I’ve talked about the sexual revolution of the 60s before. It was fueled by two powerful factors that helped loosen sexual norms, namely the advent of effective contraception and the elimination of major sexually transmitted diseases thanks to antibiotics. For the first time in recorded history, human beings had more flexibility in exercising their sexual desires.

Advances in technology, science, and public health gave people the ability to explore their sexuality without fear of negative health consequences. Unwanted pregnancies and life-threatening diseases were no longer as big a concern. Men and women could engage in various sexual activities more freely and openly. The only obstacle in their way were the prudish sexual norms that remained.

That’s where the revolution came in. Science and technology can do a lot of things for us, such as curing disease and preventing pregnancy. However, it can’t convince people to just abandon their beliefs, values, and assumptions about certain subjects. That’s why we still have people in positions of great power who don’t believe in evolution.

Anyone who has ever dared to read the comments section on a news site understands it all too well. There’s a segment of people who ardently cling to the norms of the past. There’s also a segment of people who cling to the emerging norms of the present. When the two meet, it can get ugly.

The sexual revolution of the 60s was basically the comments section of a New York Times article made flesh. An entire generation of youth, who now had both the tools and the desires to explore their sexuality, was running into the brick wall that their elders had established.

They were taught from the days of Elvis’ evil hips that sex was a generally bad thing. It’s only acceptable function was to make babies that will work in factories, pay taxes, and go to church. Any orgasms that anyone had were optional. It’s easy to see why a whole lot of horny teenagers heard that message and decided to rebel.

In many respects, the spirit of the sexual revolution of the 60s was a direct response to the incredibly uptight, annoyingly prudish attitudes of a 1950s culture where couples sleeping in the same bed on TV was seen as scandalous. One generation bombards the other with endless morality lectures. The other rebels. The next thing you know, you’ve got mud orgies going on at Woodstock.

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It’s not necessarily a new pattern. Throughout history, cultures have gone through periods of sexual prudishness and sexual promiscuity. Cultures like the ancient Egyptians and the ancient Indians were well-known for their liberal attitudes. Then, you have extremely restrictive mores of  the ancient Chinese and Victorian England. By and large, sexual attitudes have been downright erratic.

When you examine the history of these attitudes, you see a cycle of sorts. That cycle usually plays out like this:

  • There’s some kind of upheaval in society, usually caused by economics, famine, or disease.

  • A large segment of society seeks more order so they embrace morals that encourage more uptight, restrained attitudes.

  • Those attitudes extend to sexuality and more prudish attitudes take over, giving any sexuality that doesn’t involve procreation a negative connotation.

  • Society stabilizes and comes to accept these attitudes for a long stretch of time.

  • A new generation is born, never knowing the upheavals that previous generations faced.

  • That generation sees the overly prudish attitudes of their elders as flawed and rebel.

  • New attitudes emerge that loosen sexual standards, often in ways that shock and horrify older generations.

  • The new attitudes become a spectacle and the shock value wears off.

  • Eventually, the attitudes result in another round of upheaval in society, which is magnified by a rises in sexually transmitted diseases or unstable family structures.

  • Another generation emerges and adopts more restrictive sexual attitudes once more.

Like every revolution, the sexual revolution of the 60s did incur a backlash. The emergence of new diseases like AIDS, as well as less stable family structures, contributed to all sorts of ills that played out over the course of several decades. You could make the argument that it’s still playing out.

That leads us to today. At the moment, it’s hard to say where in the cycle we are. Unlike previous periods in history, technology and modern infrastructure has taken society into uncharted territory.

Even if sexual attitudes regressed after the 60s, the growth of the porn industry and the widespread availability of erotic content, thanks to the internet, kept the backlash from going too far. It’s one thing to regress in a society dominated by uneducated masses. It’s quite another to do so in one with high literacy, fewer famines, and unlimited access to full-frontal nudity in their pockets.

However, I have made the argument before that our society is steadily becoming more sexually uptight. We’re seeing it in the way people react to sex in the media. It’s becoming more taboo for female characters in movies and video games to be sexy in any way. It’s also becoming taboo to use sex as much in advertising, as Carl’s Junior recently found out when they dropped their sexy ads.

There are also shifting trends in what society seeks to shame. There are now buzzwords like “toxic masculinity” and “rape culture” that skew sexual attitudes. Every week, it seems, there’s a new moral crusade against some sort of sexual injustice, be it sexual assault or inequalities in the LGBT community.

These crusades are putting sex into a negative context, not unlike the one it had in the uptight 1950s. In the current cultural landscape, any and all negative manifestations of sex get more attention and are blown out of proportion, either intentionally or unintentionally.

Never mind the fact that rates of sexual violence against women have declined by over 60 percent since 1995. Fear, dread, and upheaval still pervade whenever issues of sexual violence emerge, even if it turns out to be false. Remember the first part of that cycle I mentioned? Well, that upheaval element is there so the cycle might continue.

If that happens, then the end result will be similar to what we saw in the 60s. There will be another sexual revolution of sorts in response to emerging trends or as a backlash to the ongoing moral crusades. The human libido is powerful and erratic, but it never sits on the sideline when we aggressively attack our own sexuality.

Now, I’m not a good predictor of the future. If I were, I’d be picking stocks and betting on football games for a living instead of writing erotica/romance. However, my caveman brain still sees patterns, especially the sexy kind. What I see now and what I see in the past with the 60s sexual revolution checks more than a few boxes.

It’s hard to know how it’ll manifest, but I think there will be another sexual revolution of sorts. Within a generation, we’ll see young people engaging in sexual behaviors that shock and horrify today’s latte-loving millennials. What kind of behaviors might that entail? It’s hard to say, but it’s fun to imagine.

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