Tag Archives: social science

What “Malcolm In The Middle” And “Joker” Can Teach Us About Deviance

mv5bowi0nzzjzjqtyzezzc00zwjiltg1ntmtnmzhmmyyogywywq1xkeyxkfqcgdeqxvynja0otqyode40._v1_

What makes someone deviant? What turns otherwise normal human beings into the kind of deviants who go onto commit crimes, foster discord, or lash out at the rest of society? These questions are often contemplated by psychologists, police, politicians, and people who just want to live in peace.

The answers aren’t easy, but they often make for compelling movies and TV shows. Some dare to offer answers that are as revealing as they are distressing. That’s part of what made “Joker” such an impactful movie. It’s also what triggered the controversy surrounding its subversive message. I tried to explore that message my review of the movie, but in doing so, I uncovered something surprising.

The themes in “Joker” are more relevant today than they’ve been in years. It makes the case that when people denigrate, marginalize, or ignore those in the lowest rungs of society, they’re going to create the kinds of monsters and supervillains that undermine the current order. Moreover, they deserve the chaos and deviance that these individuals cause.

In “Joker,” Arthur Fleck was a perfect storm of unfortunate circumstances and societal denigration. While Gotham City didn’t turn him into the Joker, they put him in a position to make those fateful choices. Nobody tried to help him or give him other options. If anything, the help and options he needed were taken away. It was part of what made his deviance both compelling and understandable.

It reminded me of a famous TV show that made a similar point, albeit one from a very different genre and medium. It dared to make that point decade earlier, long before the current controversies surrounding mass shooters in movie theaters and so-called “incel culture.” That show is “Malcolm In The Middle.”

The two narratives couldn’t be more different. One is an R-rated movie that defies the conventions of the superhero genre and explores the twisted mind of an iconic villain. The other is a prime-time sitcom full of funny, cartoonish antics from a dysfunctional working-class family. One is dark and serious. The other is funny and light-hearted.

Despite those vast differences, they convey very similar messages. They both make the case that a callous, negligent society will create deviant individuals within its most disadvantaged. They also highlight how efforts to push them aside or suppress their deviance will only make things worse.

In “Joker,” it turned Arthur Fleck into an agent of chaos who went onto inspire more chaos in others. The circumstances in “Malcolm In The Middle” were very different and a lot more subtle, but the underlying message was still there.

It’s subtle, but it’s there.

From the first episode of the show to its finale, Malcolm and his family are depicted as both dysfunctional and disadvantaged. In some instances, they’re downright destitute. On many occasions, they deal with crippling debt, dead-end jobs, and arrogant upper-class types who look down on them with disgust. More often than not, Malcolm and his brothers get back at them in their own creative way.

Whatever form the antics take, the show never uses the lower-class status of Malcolm’s family to justify their behavior. Much like “Joker,” it establishes that the characters have agency. They’re dealt a lousy hand, but they still have opportunities to make non-deviant choices. They’re rarely forced into deviant acts. Opportunities arise and they exercise poor judgement, to say the least.

The very least.

Malcolm and his brothers didn’t have to lie about what happened to Dewey’s bike in Season 1, Episode 15. They did it anyways and things only escalated from there when the consequences caught up with them.

Malcom and his brother didn’t have to buy their mother a terrible birthday gift in Season 2, Episode 3. They still did and the end result led to them fighting an army of clowns in one of the show’s most memorable moments.

It’s not just the kids, either. Hal didn’t have to resort to unorthodox tactics when coaching Dewey’s soccer team in Season 3, Episode 16. He still did and things only got messier from there.

Lois didn’t have to force Malcolm to getting a job as terrible as hers in order to teach him a lesson in Season 5, Episode 6. She still did and, in doing so, taught him an entirely different lesson about just how screwed people like them are. It’s a message that even found its way into her memorable speech in the series finale.

It’s an important component of the show’s brilliance and humor. Malcolm and his family are a mess. They’re constantly getting screwed over by circumstances, bad choices, and other people who look down on them. However, they never come off as victims, nor do they carry themselves as such. They have opportunities to become less dysfunction, but often squander them.

Arthur Fleck had chances to become something other than a killer clown. There were a number of instances in “Joker” in which he could’ve gone a different path. He simply chose not to and society didn’t lift a finger to help him. If anything, they took away what little help he got.

Throughout seven seasons in “Malcolm In The Middle,” Malcolm’s family finds themselves in similar situations. One of the best examples is in Season 4, Episode 17, which happened to be the second clip show episode. In that episode, Hal and Lois recount the births of their kids as they prepare for the arrival of another.

In every instance, the births are subject to strange and hilarious circumstances. In one of them, Lois goes into labor in the driveway of their house because Francis locked her out of the car. Then, while she’s writhing in pain from the labor, a jogger passes by. She yells out she’s having a baby, but the jogger just ignores her and congratulates her.

It’s funny, but symptomatic of the family’s lot in life. Nobody goes out of their way for them. Nobody offers to help them. It even happens again a few episodes later in Season 4, Episode 21 when Lois goes into labor with Jamie. Even though someone calls 9-1-1 and an ambulance arrives, they don’t get there until after she gives birth. The EMTs even joke about how they stopped for coffee.

Like Arthur Fleck, the society around Malcolm’s family doesn’t care about them. They even go out of their way to avoid or neglect them. In “Joker,” Arthur is repeatedly victimized by both the system and individuals who go out of their way to harass him. His situation is already bad, but these ordeals only make it worse.

Early in the movie, Arthur does show signs that he’s capable of being a decent person. He tried to make a kid on the bus laugh. He entertained sick children at a hospital. He could’ve been a productive, positive force in society. Then, society started screwing him over and bad choices on his part led him to become a dangerous deviant.

While Malcolm and his family didn’t become as deviant as the Joker, they still did plenty of damage with their antics. At the same time, there were plenty of instances that showed that, as dysfunctional as they were, they could still be good and decent to others when given the chance. They just rarely got those changes and society rarely provided the incentives.

It’s a powerful message with respect to what makes people deviant. Some people are at the mercy of bad circumstances, be they poverty, mental illness, or having an overbearing mother like Lois. They’re still capable of being good, but it’s easier for them to become deviant when society neglects them. That deviance only compounds as a result of poor judgement and bad choices.

Yes, they compound a LOT.

There are plenty of differences between “Joker” and “Malcolm In The Middle.” Whereas “Joker” takes things to the worst possible outcome in the descent towards deviance, “Malcolm In The Middle” manages to maintain a more hopeful outlook. People can still be deviant and dysfunctional, but they can rise above it. The events of the series finale affirm that.

Those differences aside, this movie and this TV show offer lessons and insight into something that all societies must deal with. There will always be a certain level of deviance. There will also be those more inclined to pursue it. It’s just a matter of how to confront it. More than anything else, “Joker” and “Malcolm In The Middle” shows the consequences of confronting it the wrong way.

Leave a comment

Filed under Current Events, human nature, movies, psychology, television, Villains Journey

Polygamy Vs. Consensual Non-Monogamy: Is There A Difference?

open-relationships-hero

When it came to dissecting the absurdities of language, nobody did it better than George Carlin. Beyond being one of the funniest comedians of all time, Carlin could break down certain concepts in a way that was as insightful as it was hilarious. His brilliant analysis of what he called “soft language” is more relevant now than it was when he was still performing.

Given the rise of outrage culture, I often wish George were still alive today so that he could tear the absurdities down, as only he could. We can only imagine how he would’ve tackled issues like fake news, alternative facts, and toxic masculinity. At the very least, his legacy of attacking soft language lives on.

In his book, “Parental Advisory,” Carlin defined soft language as terminology people use to help them avoid unpleasant truths. It helps fat people feel better about being “morbidly obese.” It helps poor people feel better about being “economically disadvantaged.” It helps drug addicts feel better about being “substances abusers.”

The face of a man who didn’t buy such bullshit.

Whatever the case, no matter how many colorful words people utilize, the underlying theme is the same. There are certain aspects of reality that bother some people, so they decide to re-frame it in a way that feels less serious and more palatable. It’s rarely overt. There’s rarely an official announcement or anything. Most of the time, it’s just a trend that people forget is absurd.

This leads me to the emerging concept of “consensual non-monogamy.” It’s kind of what it sounds like. It’s a form of a non-monogamous relationship in which both partners grant one another permission to seek sexual or romantic entanglements with others. Sometimes it involves certain rules and boundaries that are openly negotiated. The key is that there is consent and understanding at all levels.

This is not a new idea. If it sounds a lot like polyamory, an idea I’ve touched on before, that’s because it is for the most part. It’s a non-monogamous relationship that people pursue for any number of reasons. It’s actually one of humanity’s oldest forms of relationships and some even argue that it’s more natural than monogamy.

I’m not going to argue how natural or unnatural such practices are, but I think this latest manifestation of soft language requires scrutiny. Like every other kind of soft language, these sorts of linguistic quirks don’t evolve randomly. There’s often a method behind the absurdity and while I’m not as brilliant as Carlin, I have a pretty good idea of why it’s happening.

In terms of definitions, there isn’t that much difference between polyamory and consensual non-monogamy. Logistically, though, there are a few complexities that differentiate the two practices. They’re minor, but relevant to the extent that inspired soft language.

While there hasn’t been much research into consensual non-monogamous couples, the little we do have paints a fairly comprehensive narrative. In these relationships, there is a “primary” partner who holds the role of spouse/lover. This is the partner with which they love and seek to share their lives with. They’re the ones whose names are on emergency contact forms, loan applications, and wills.

Beyond the primary partner are all the girlfriends/boyfriends with which the sexy stuff occurs. The extent and motives behind these encounters are communicated and understood with the primary partner. Every couple is different so the boundaries vary. Some couples have to be together when they’re getting sexy with others. Some are okay with it happening more randomly.

If that sounds a lot like polyamory, then congratulations. You’re starting to understand how George Carlin thought. While polyamory has its own dictionary definition, it’s connotations are not the same as consensual non-monogamy. What people think of when they hear the word “polyamory” conjures different mental images than a term like consensual non-monogamy.

Polyamory, for better or for worse, is one of those terms that has a certain level of linguistic baggage. It’s less associated with the free-spirited couples who get their own reality show and more with outdated traditions associated with polygamous marriages. Think “Big Love” rather than “Friends With Benefits.”

Now, I know I’ll upset those in the polyamorous community for just hinting at that association. For that, I apologize. I know most who identify as polyamorous or consensual non-monogamous don’t like being associated with the kinds of practices that are often associated with horrific crimes. That gets to the heart of where this soft language comes from.

Even if the principles are the same, those sexy free-spirited couples have a valid incentive to set themselves apart from polyamory. It doesn’t matter the disturbing practices of extreme religious cults are only a small subset of polyamorous relationships. They’re distressing enough for most reasonable people.

I dare you to find something more creepy.

As a result, a less broad term emerges. Consensual non-monogamy may have a few extra syllables, but it feels more technical and official. It’s harder to apply to the more distressing aspects of polyamory because it emphasizes consent, a concept that has only become more heated in recent years.

You can’t have child marriages or even arranged marriages of any kind under consensual non-monogamy. It would undermine the whole “consensual” part of the term. In that context, it’s understandable that this kind of term would emerge. There’s nothing in the definition of polyamory that weeds out those negative associations. Rather than actually confront it, soft language acts as a filter.

Given the frequency with which the negative aspects of polygamy still occur, it’s hard to blame those who practice consensual non-monogamy for wanting to set themselves apart. As those relationships become increasingly acceptable, there will be an increasing desire to frame it in a particular way and “consensual non-monogamy” checks all the right boxes.

It emphasizes consent.

It implies choice and personal freedom.

It’s technical, but doesn’t completely undercut the sex appeal.

Even if the definitions aren’t that different, consensual non-monogamy still does just enough to set itself apart from polyamory. In terms of soft language, it adds some critical, but necessary complications to something that is still subject to plenty of taboos. In a perfect world, such a differentiation wouldn’t be necessary. Sadly, that’s not the kind of world we live in.

Sadly, indeed.

I like to think even Carlin would understand that some amount of soft language is necessary. Whether you call it consensual non-monogamy or polyamory, how we think about these ideas are going to affect our attitudes towards it. If consensual non-monogamous couples don’t want to be associated with crackpot religious cults, then they have every right to set themselves apart.

That said, it’s also entirely possible that more soft language will emerge as consensual non-monogamy becomes more mainstream. Love, sex, and relationships are complicated and human beings are uniquely talented at complicating things. Years from now, we may not call it consensual non-monogamy. We may use something along the lines of “mutually non-binding romantic intimacy relationship agreements.”

At that point, hopefully someone will have picked up on the absurdities. George Carlin may no longer be with us, but that doesn’t mean we should tolerate more bullshit in a world that already has too much of it.

Leave a comment

Filed under gender issues, human nature, Marriage and Relationships, polyamory, psychology, romance, sex in society, sexuality

The (Surprising) Sources And Implications Of Slut Shaming

vicious-cycle-of-shaming

As a fan of romance and people exploring their sexy side, I’m generally opposed to slut shaming. I understand why it exists, to some extent. Nearly every society in history has had certain hang-ups about sex. Considering its role in propagating the species, it’s understandable that people give it extra scrutiny.

That said, I consider slut shaming a misguided form of scrutiny. The definition, itself, has some ugly implications that go far beyond the inherent risks associated with being reckless, promiscuous, and irresponsible.

For one, it’s almost entirely heaped upon women. James Bond never gets called a slut for his promiscuous behavior. Instead, he gets to be a masculine icon. A woman who has just as much sex gets called a slut and is often painted as deviant. Look no further than legendary Bond girls like Xania Onatopp and Pussy Galore for proof of that.

While it can be pretty overt in popular media, it’s even more pernicious in real life. From women who choose wear revealing clothing to those who actively attempt to confront sexual stigma, there’s no shortage of shaming from multiple directions. It’s frustrating in that it amounts to incessant whining about how other people choose to live their lives, but recent research has cast slut shaming in a new light.

A study published in the Journal of Evolution and Human Behavior attempted to analyze how behaviors associated with slut shaming differed among genders. The popular narrative is that men do most of the slut shaming. The logic is that men see beautiful women having a lot of sex. That bothers them because those women aren’t having sex with them.

Granted, that’s a gross generalization that I’m sure many men and even a few women find offensive. Despite the details, that is the common narrative and it tends to play out in one too many teen comedies. However, science has a way of disrupting those narratives in unexpected ways.

The study revealed that while men and women were equally likely to not trust promiscuous women, women who were more likely to favor punishing those women. In a comprehensive summary conducted by PsyPost, the differences were pretty striking.

“In the study, participants played one of three kinds of economic decision-making games. The participants were led to believe they were playing against a female opponent in real-time, but were actually only interacting with computerized responses.

The opponents varied in whether they appeared to be sexually accessible or sexually restricted. For some participants, the opponent was depicted as a woman wearing a tight, red outfit and an abundance of makeup. For others, the opponent was depicted as a woman wearing loose-fitting clothing with less makeup.

The researchers found that both male and female participants were less willing to share money with a woman wearing the tight outfit. The participants also trusted sexually-accessible opponents with a financial investment less than sexually-restrictive opponents.

Women, but not men, were also willing to inflict punishments on a sexually-accessible female opponent who made an unfair offer, even though it left them empty-handed as well.

Given the choice between receiving a small sum of money while their opponent took a large sum or having neither player receive any money at all, women tended to pick the latter option.”

Take a moment to comprehend what this does to the slut shaming narrative. For those who idealize that 1950s sitcom family life that never truly existed, it’s an aberration. While those women make for good one-night-stands, they hardly make for quality long-term relationships.

Why, then, would men be reluctant to punish those women? I’ve noted before how society tends to micromanage women’s bodies. Slut shaming is only a half-measure because it offers no tangible punishment. While certain societies don’t mind punishing promiscuous women, it doesn’t appear to be entirely predicated on male attitudes.

This study shows that women are just as mistrustful of promiscuous women and are willing to go further in terms of punishing their behavior. The reasons for this are difficult to surmise. The researchers hypothesized that men were primarily concerned with avoiding investment in a child that wasn’t theirs. From an evolutionary standpoint, that’s something to avoid, but not punish.

Conversely, women may be more concerned with the bigger picture. The researchers surmised that women had an evolutionary imperative to keep the cost of sex high to improve their value as potential partners. Actively punishing potential rivals further served that purpose.

From a logistical standpoint, it makes sense. They see beautiful, promiscuous women as people who use cheat codes in video games. They have an unfair advantage when it comes to attracting potential partners and that has significant consequences, especially to those who aren’t beautiful or sexually flexible.

Beyond distracting partners who might otherwise be interested in them, it lowers the value of the sex they have to offer. Why would men be as interested in having sex with them when there are promiscuous women who were willing to give it to them for a lower cost with fewer strings?

While I believe this may be a factor for some women, it’s also another broad generalization that would offend more than a few women. It assumes too much about how they think and feel. Believing women slut shame because it hinders their own sexual value is as absurd as blaming all misogyny on some vast patriarchal conspiracy.

Like all research, the study is limited and can only reveal so much about the complexities of human behavior. The researchers themselves freely admitted this, but that’s exactly why it warrants further study. Like it or not, slut shaming is still prominent in most modern societies. I would argue that the internet and social media are making it worse.

At the same time, I also believe that slut shaming is something we should confront. It causes real harm to real people. It damages our love lives, our sex lives, and everything in between. There are instances in which someone’s irresponsible sexual behavior genuinely warrants scrutiny, but shaming can only serve to make things worse, even for people who aren’t sluts.

3 Comments

Filed under gender issues, human nature, men's issues, outrage culture, political correctness, psychology, sex in media, sex in society, sexuality, women's issues

Understanding (And Learning From) Lex Luthor’s Hatred Of Superman

supes-vs-lex

As a lifelong fan of superhero comics and someone who enjoys shows like “Breaking Bad,” I’m genuinely fascinated by villains. Specifically, I’m intrigued by what makes them tick and why they walk the villain’s path. Their journey is distinct from that of a hero, but one that can be just as compelling.

In many cases, these villains have capabilities that allow them to solve many of the world’s problems. I’ve cited Dr. Doom as one of those villains who blurs the lines of villainy because of his intentions. Characters like Dr. Doom genuinely believe that their villainous actions are justified because it will lead to a better, safer, more prosperous world. Heroes also believe that too, which helps fuel their epic battles.

For a character like Lex Luthor, though, the line isn’t that blurry. He’s a villain, plain and simple. He’s selfish, callous, arrogant, cruel, and narcissistic to an extreme. If he existed in the real world, he would check every box for narcissistic personality disorder. In terms of personality, he’s the polar opposite of his nemesis, Superman.

That goes a long way towards giving Superman an enemy who stands against his heroic ideals. I would even argue that Superman couldn’t be the iconic kind of hero he is without Lex Luthor. At the same time, I also think Lex reveals something critical about humanity, morality, and superheroes in general.

That’s difficult to see because for much of Lex’s early years in comics, there wasn’t much depth to his motivation. He just wanted to dominate the universe and Superman was in his way. It’s basic and bland, but that was typical for the early era of superhero comics. Villains like Lex were mostly just obstacles for the heroes to overcome in their journey.

That changed in the late 80s and early 90s with the modern era iteration of Lex Luthor. Finally, Lex got more backstory and depth. He was still no Walter White, but these details helped set the stage for the kind of villain he became. It also helped establish why he hates Superman so much.

Whereas Superman landed on Earth and was adopted by loving parents, Lex grew up in a rough part of Metropolis called the Suicide Slums and was raised in an abusive household. Right off the bat, Superman gets lucky by having the best parents a child of any species could ask for while he’s unlucky enough to be born with the worst.

As a result, Lex had to be ruthless, manipulative, and cunning. Unlike other villains, though, he didn’t need much tempting. He didn’t agonize over his moral decisions, either. He just did it and didn’t feel a shred of guilt. That includes the role he played in the death of his parents.

That alone establishes Lex Luthor as the kind of ruthless villain who would oppose Superman for any number of reasons. However, as evil as that act was, it’s important to note the motivation behind it. Lex didn’t just kill his parents because murder makes him happy. He did it because they were an obstacle and an opportunity.

They were holding him back, but their deaths meant insurance money that he could use to strike out on his own and build something worthy of his genius. To him, the morality of his decision didn’t matter. Only the results mattered. That’s a critical detail and one that puts Lex Luthor’s villainy into a unique context.

Lex, being one of the smartest characters in the entire DC universe, doesn’t care much for things that are esoteric and obscure. He’s all about results that are tangible and measurable. That means things like truth, justice, and the American way are empty concepts to him. Superman champions those ideals, but for Lex Luthor, they’re just hindrances.

That kind of cold, callous approach to the world gives a unique substance to Lex’s behavior. He’s certainly not the first person to take such a materialistic approach to reality. Rick Sanchez of “Rick and Morty” does the same, but rather than misanthropic despair, Lex Luthor sees it as the key to producing the results he seeks.

Moreover, he has to produce those results without the god-like power that Superman wields. If Superman wants to move the Earth out of the way or destroy an oncoming asteroid, he doesn’t have to build anything or learn anything. He just has to flex his muscles, fly up into the sky, and destroy it with a single punch. There’s no tangible reason to his actions beyond it being the right thing to do.

To Lex Luthor, that’s not just an affront to someone who had to work for everything he ever gained. It’s an insult to his egocentric, results-focused worldview. Just saving the world because it’s the right thing to do doesn’t achieve anything. It does nothing to move humanity forward because nobody had to produce something of merit. It just allows them to continue in the same, unaltered state.

This gets to the heart of why Lex Luthor hates Superman. The extent of that hatred was fully articulated in one of the best modern Superman stories ever told, “All-Star Superman” by Grant Morrison and Frank Quitely. If you only read one Superman comic, make it this one because it perfectly encapsulates the pure heroism of Superman and the cold villainy of Lex Luthor.

In one critical part of the story, Lex tells Clark Kent, who he doesn’t know is Superman, what it means to actually work for his power. Superman, for all his idealism, did nothing to earn his abilities. He just happened to be an alien who landed on a planet with a yellow sun.

It’s like winning the lottery as opposed to working hard for a fortune. One is built on hard work and skill while the other is just dumb luck. Beyond basic jealousy, though, Lex makes another critical point about the ideal Superman sets.

From his perspective, that lofty ideal diminishes the entire human race. By being this other-worldly savior who achieves all these impossible feats, Superman reveals how inept the human race is. More importantly to Lex and his massive ego, it shows just how feeble his achievements are, despite all the work he put in.

Being the extreme narcissist he is, Lex takes that as the ultimate insult. In terms of the bigger picture, it establishes that neither he nor humanity can achieve their full potential. In that context, it’s understandable why Lex dedicated so much time and energy to killing Superman.

I won’t get into all the ways Lex has tried and failed over the years, although one of his plots did involve him becoming President of the United States. Whatever his methods, I think there’s a larger lesson to learn from Lex’s hatred and for once, it goes beyond his ego.

A big part of what turns someone into a villain is this sense that the world isn’t fair, but could be made better with the right guidance. Lex believes he’s capable of providing that guidance and not just because of his ego. He is, objectively, one of the smartest and most capable human beings on the planet. However, it’s Superman who keeps Lex from making the world less unfair.

Superman believes in the merits of truth and justice. He inspires others to uphold these ideals, even without his vast power. That’s a problem for Lex, who builds much of his power on lies and treachery. To him, though, he doesn’t see that as wrong. He just sees that as the most efficient way to get results.

To uphold truth and justice, in his brilliant mind, is to prevent the world from progressing. Granted, progress in Lex Luthor’s mind means him being in charge, but that doesn’t necessarily undermine the implications.

Like Dr. Doom, Lex is ambitious in that he doesn’t just want to save the world like Superman. He wants to fundamentally change it and he’s willing to cross any line to achieve that. Killing Superman is part of that change, but so is becoming a billionaire and a future President of the United States. If a billion people die in the process, then that’s acceptable because it means humanity is stronger because of it.

There have been times in the comics where Luthor’s vision has manifested. In another critically-acclaimed Superman story, “Red Son” by Mark Millar, Lex has a chance to lead the world into a brighter future. By and large, he succeeds. He’s still an unapologetic narcissist, but he still gets the results he seeks.

Like all great conflicts between superheroes and their arch-nemesis, the dichotomy between Superman and Lex Luthor is stark. They’re two extremes on opposite ends of a spectrum delineating heroism and villainy. By being on those extremes, though, it’s easier to see the inherent shortcomings of both.

While Lex’s shortcomings are easier to identify since he’s an outright villain, he does help identify an important flaw in Superman’s idealism and one that extends to superheroes, as a whole. Superman is willing to save the day, but he’s not willing to cross any lines. He will only ever do the right thing and that means not sacrificing innocent lives or usurping individual freedom.

Those heroics will keep the world turning, but they won’t move society forward. Superman believes in inspiring humanity rather than doing it for them, but Lex Luthor believes his heroism achieves the opposite. It just makes people complacent and dependent on heroes like him rather than crossing the lines that he’ll cross to get things done.

At the end of the day, both in the real world and the world of comic books, we have to determine how much we’re willing to pay for the results we seek. Lex is willing to pay any price. Superman isn’t willing to pay a cent beyond doing the right thing. Most reasonable people, including other superheroes, fall somewhere in the middle.

In the pantheon of super-villains, Lex Luthor is probably the easiest to despise and the hardest to understand. Like Superman, he exposes another side of an ongoing struggle between doing the right thing and achieving more. As society continues to progress, achieving abilities rivaling that of any superhero, it’s a struggle we’ll have to confront.

3 Comments

Filed under Comic Books, Jack Fisher, Superheroes, human nature, philosophy, psychology, superhero comics

Why Capitalism Will Survive Technological Progress (To A Point)

01fe7ea1d6c34588143cdc434ad52e0d

There’s a popular perception among those who speculate about the future. It has less to do with the technology and progress that we’ll make, as a society, and more to do with what will be rendered obsolete. Like dial-up internet or VHS tapes, there will be many artifacts of our current society that are destined to become relics of a bygone era.

Near the top of the list of those things people can’t wait to get rid of is capitalism. When I say “capitalism,” though, I don’t necessarily mean everything from the concept of money to big corporations to having 500 different kinds of covers for your cell phone. I’m more referring to the kind of economic system that creates extreme income inequality, mass exploitation of workers, and price gouging.

While I can appreciate sentiments of people who feel that way about a system where the inequalities are well-documented, I have some good news and some bad news for those looking forward to that post-capitalist utopia.

Capitalism is NOT going to become obsolete, but it will take on a radically different form.

I say that as someone who has written plenty about the upheavals our society will face when technologies like artificial intelligence, human enhancement, and advanced robotics become more refined. The economic, social, and political system, as we know it today, will not be able to function in that environment.

However, that doesn’t necessarily mean it will disappear like VHS tapes. That’s especially true of our current form of capitalism. It’s already changing before our eyes, but it’s set to change even more in the coming decades. It may get to a point where it’s hard to call it “capitalism” by our current definition, but it will still exist to a certain extent.

Whether you’re a hardcore libertarian or a self-proclaimed socialist, it’s hard to overlook the flaws in capitalism. This is a system that is prone to corruption, negatively impacts the environment, and will gladly eschew health concerns in the interests of profits. Basically, if you’ve ever dealt with a cable company, the tobacco lobby, or the banking industry, you’ve experienced those flaws first-hand.

Many of the flaws, however, are a byproduct of logistical limitations. Human beings are not wired to make sense of the plethora of economic forces that govern the cost, production, distribution, and marketing of goods. We’re barely wired to assemble IKEA furniture. The human race evolved to survive in the plains of the African Savanna, not the bustling streets of New York City.

Even with these limitations, humanity has managed to achieve a lot from this flawed system. Despite its shortcomings, it has been the catalyst for modern society. The cities, industries, and technological advancement that we’ve undergone over the past 200 years would not have been possible without capitalism. Say what you will about the profit motive. Apple would not be a trillion-dollar company without it.

It’s for that reason, along with the knowledge of capitalism’s many documented failures, that emerging trends in technology is more likely to smooth out the edges of the system rather than render it obsolete entirely. As someone who groans every time he sees his cable bill, I admit I’m eager for those refinements.

I still don’t blame others for hoping that the entire system is scraped. The thinking is that increasing efficiencies in automation, improvements in manufacturing at the nano-scale, and advances in artificial intelligence will undercut the key foundations of capitalism. Why would corporations, marketing gimmicks, or brand restrictions even exist in a world run by intelligent machines, enhanced humans, and 3D printers?

It’s not an entirely flawed notion. We’re already seeing plenty of disruptions in established systems due to technology. Landlines are disappearing, streaming media has destroyed brick-and-mortar rental stores like Blockbuster, and self-driving cars will likely end the taxi and trucking industry as we know it.

Further down the line, even more industries will break down when you scale up and expand these same technologies. A sufficiently advanced artificial intelligence could manage the banking and financial industry without any middle men, who are going to be prone to corruption. That same intelligence won’t be prone to the same panics that have plagued capitalism for centuries.

Other technologies will render distressing institutions like sweatshops obsolete, thanks to advances in robotics and 3D printing. A lot of the exploitations surrounding capitalism, both in terms of people and the environment, come from labor and production costs. Mitigating or ending that exploitation can and likely will be done without undercutting capitalism, if only because it’s more efficient in the long run.

Then, there’s the prospect of human enhancement. That, more than anything, will change the nature of society and economics in ways nobody alive today can predict. Beyond undermining the multi-trillion dollar health care industry that exists today, changes to the human condition could fundamentally change the way the economy functions.

Even with all those changes, though, I believe a certain facet capitalism will survive. Even in a society full of enhanced humans equipped with brain implants, perfectly refined genes, and molecular assemblers that can build anything imaginable, there will be a market. There will be a form of currency. There will even be institutions, human and robotic, to manage it all.

That’s because, even in a society where hunger, disease, and poverty of all kinds has been eliminated, there’s still one market that will always exist. That market is escaping boredom. It doesn’t matter how healthy, content, or advanced you are. You’ll still want to avoid getting bored and this is where the future of capitalism truly lies.

I believe that boredom will be the only remaining plague in the future. I also believe that technology can only do so much manage our wants and needs. At some point, we’re still going to seek novel experiences. We’re still going to want to explore new feelings, whether that involves studying science or visiting a futuristic theme park like “Westworld.” The demand will be there and that’s where capitalism comes in.

It may end up being the case that those experiences will be the closest thing we have to a tangible currency. In a society where technology has made so many other resources accessible and abundant, it’s the only currency that has tangible and perceived value. There may still be other forms of money built around it, such as new crypto-currencies, but there will still be real market forces at work.

Some of those forces will have the same flaws we see now. Much of the current system depends on people working to produce goods and services, using the money they make to buy those goods and services, and participating in a vast network of investment, marketing, and distribution of resources. It’s a complex, chaotic, and inherently unmanageable system.

There will probably be failures, missteps, and conflicts in managing this new marketplace of experiences. Entire companies may emerge, possibly from some that exist today, that compete over who crafts those experiences and provides them to customers, either over the internet or directly into someone’s brain. That competition is likely to produce corruption and scandal, albeit in a very different form.

Having advanced artificial intelligence and humans that aren’t at the mercy of their caveman brains will help, but only to a point. As long as society is full of individuals seeking different wants and needs, there will be some form of capitalism necessary to meet them both. Trying to avoid or subvert that probably won’t lead to a better system, as the many failures of alternative systems have proven.

Like our current system of capitalism, there will be flaws. Even enhanced humans and artificial intelligence will have limits that need refinement over time. It’s those very shortcomings, though, that will help forge a better system overall. Again, it’s impossible to tell what forms they’ll take, but so long as there are markets, there will be capitalists seeking to profit from them.

Leave a comment

Filed under Artificial Intelligence, futurism, philosophy, Sexy Future

Lessons In Love According To Rick Sanchez

mv5botexyzyxodytogrimi00mzbmltkwnzmty2q5zdu2zjdmogzmxkeyxkfqcgdeqxvyntkymje3ndu-_v1_

What is love? Can we ask that question without referencing to a one-hit wonder R&B song from 1993? I think it’s a question worth asking and one people have been asking since the dawn of our species. Many men who are way smarter than I’ll ever be have tried to answer this question. Some have offered revealing insights. Others just use it as an excuse to whine about a cheating spouse.

Then, there’s Rick Sanchez. I know that by saying that name, I’ve completely altered the tone of this topic. I could’ve easily spent the next several paragraphs breaking down how the smartest men in history view love and how that understanding reveals itself in our modern concept of romance. For now, I’d rather scrutinize love from the perspective of a hard-drinking, brutally honest, nihilistic cartoon character from Adult Swim.

Yep, I’m referring to this guy again.

Make no mistake. I’m not just using this as another excuse to talk about “Rick and Morty,” although I wouldn’t blame anyone for thinking that. I really do think characters like Rick Sanchez have something to teach us on the topic of love. Being an admitted romantic and aspiring erotica/romance writer, I believe those lessons are worth heeding.

On paper, Rick Sanchez is the last person most would go to for insights into love. From the first scene in the first episode, he establishes himself as an overly-cynical, high-functioning alcoholic who may or may not be okay with blowing up the world for the sake of a fresh start. To say he’s not the romantic type would be like saying Jerry needs help with his golf game.

However, Rick does demonstrate throughout the show that he has a capacity for love. He has even had a few moments where he has shown genuine heart. There’s an odd mix of eccentricity and complexity to Rick’s behavior. That’s part of what makes him such an endearing character and why he resonates so much with an emerging generation.

From all that chaos, though, there are insights worth noting. “Rick and Morty” may go heavy with nihilism and moments of existential crisis, but it doesn’t avoid the impact of love. Whether it’s Morty constantly trying to get with Jessica or the constant upheavals in Beth and Jerry’s marriage, love is an underlying factor throughout the show.

This is despite the fact that Rick is pretty overt about his feelings on love. In “Rick Potion #9,” the sixth episode of the first season, he gives his clearest, most quote-worthy opinion on love.

“Listen, Morty, I hate to break it to you but what people call ‘love’ is just a chemical reaction that compels animals to breed. It hits hard, Morty, then it slowly fades, leaving you stranded in a failing marriage. I did it. Your parents are gonna do it. Break the cycle, Morty. Rise above. Focus on science.”

That sounds pretty jaded, to say the least. It’s perfectly fitting with Rick’s misanthropic mentality. However, there is a context here and one that’s fairly subtle, as things tend to be in the world of “Rick and Morty.”

Part of that context is Rick’s family situation. Beyond being a drunk and an eccentric mad scientist, he also has a family. It’s not just his daughter and two grandkids, either. He mentions in his cynical musings that he’d fallen in love and gotten married at one point.

That, alone, has some pretty profound implications. It shows that even the smartest, most capable man in the multiverse cannot avoid the impact of love. Keep in mind, this is a man who travels the multiverse on a whim, defeats Thanos-level super-villains while drunk, and understands how meaningless everything is in the grand scheme of things.

Despite all that, Rick Sanchez still fell in love. He still got married. That, in and of itself, shows the power of love better than any Huey Lewis song. While the show hasn’t revealed much about his former wife, Diane, it does establish an important fact. Rick is capable of love, even when he sees it as just a confluence of brain chemicals.

The show goes onto to reveal that Rick is still influenced by love, despite this reductionist understanding of it. The most comprehensive example comes in Season 2, Episode 3, “Auto Erotic Assimilation.” In many ways, this episode helps convey the most meaningful lesson in love that any animated series has ever attempted.

In the episode, Rick catches up with an old girlfriend, who happens to be an alien hive mind named Unity. If that sounds weird, even by “Rick and Morty” standards, trust me when I say it doesn’t crack the top ten. The fact that Unity is a hive mind is part of why the insights are so unique and impactful.

Throughout the episode, we learn about the particulars of Rick and Unity’s relationship. Unity establishes herself as one of the few beings in the multiverse who can keep up with Rick’s eccentricities. If anything, she has to be a hive mind in order to do so, as evidenced by Rick’s elaborately kinky requests.

In this context, Unity is the ultimate manifestation of supportive lover. She can literally do anything and be anywhere because she has the collective resources of an entire planet at her disposal. She’s more capable than a shape-shifter like Mystique or even an advanced sex robot.

If she wants to make love as a beautiful, buxom blond right out of a Playboy centerfold, she can do that. If she wants to do it as a greasy-haired, middle-aged man with a hairy back and bad breath, she can do that too. She can be two people, ten people, or as many people as she wants to be to love Rick and express that love however they want.

This breaks down, however, when Unity’s efforts to pursue that romance with Rick ends up straining her ability to maintain her hive mind. It gets so strenuous, at one point, that it leads to a nipple-driven race war on the planet. Again, this is pretty standard in terms of weirdness for “Rick and Morty.”

The implications of this breakdown are serious and I’m not referring to the nipple-driven race war. Logistically speaking, Rick and Unity had everything they needed to make their relationship work. They had unlimited resources and unlimited opportunities for intimacy, decadence, and everything in between. In exercising that, though, their relationship devolved into an ongoing spiral of self-destruction.

There was clear, unambiguous love between Rick and Unity. However, the act of being together proved toxic to both of them. Unity couldn’t be with Rick without losing herself, literally and figuratively. Rick couldn’t be with Unity without descending into a spiral of debauchery. Even if the love is there, embracing it leads to both of them getting hurt.

This made for one of the most dramatic and emotional moments of the show, one that reveals just how much Rick loved Unity. After she leaves him, it really hits him on an emotional level, so much so that he nearly kills himself. Remember, this is a man who said love is nothing more than a chemical reaction in the brain.

The pain in that moment, though, belabors a much larger point about love and being with someone. Just loving someone is easy. As Rick says, it’s just a chemical reaction in your brain. It’s something that can happen to anyone, even the smartest man in the multiverse.

However, being with someone and expressing the full spectrum of love involves much more than convergent brain chemistry. For some people, love can be downright destructive. If pursuing love means undermining your sense of being, as happened with Unity, then that’s a sign that the relationship isn’t tenable.

It’s tragic, but unavoidable. You can love someone with all your heart, but not be capable of having a functional relationship. It’s a harsh reality, one that’s perfectly in line with the nihilistic subtext in “Rick and Morty.” At the same time, though, there’s a less dire lesson to be learned.

Even if love is just a brain function that helps propogate the species, it has the power to affect us in the best and worst of ways. It can lead us to the greatest of joys, as Rick and Unity experienced for a brief time. It can also lead us to the worst of sorrows. Few other brain functions can make that claim.

That wide range of experiences are a powerful mechanism for finding meaning in a meaningless universe. Rick Sanchez doesn’t avoid the pain in those experiences and he doesn’t hesitate to pursue the joys, often to a reckless degree. Finding meaning in this universe is hard enough, but love can do plenty to carry us forward. You don’t have to be a Rick-level genius to appreciate that, although that’s probably a good thing.

5 Comments

Filed under gender issues, Marriage and Relationships, philosophy, Rick and Morty, romance

Is The Human Race Ready For Contact With Alien Life?

contactparty

In general, I tend to have a high opinion of the human race. I believe that, in general, people are inherently good and will do the right thing in the long run, even if it requires mistakes and missteps along the way. Some of my personal experiences have fed this belief, as well as stories of incredible acts of compassion.

I say that as a preface because my faith in humanity does have limits. There are certain issues where those limits become a critical factor in answering major questions about where we are, as a species, and where we’re heading. I’ve tried answering some of those questions before, such as humanity’s readiness for advanced artificial intelligence. Now, I want to try to answer another where I feel humanity’s limits are a real issue.

It has to do with whether or not humans are alone in the universe. It’s probably one of the most fundamental questions our species has ever asked, inspiring heated debates, famous equations, and Hollywood blockbusters. I’ve certainly asked that question a time or two when looking up at the stars. I imagine there are few people who haven’t.

At the moment, the sheer size of the universe and the ever-growing number of planets we keep finding, the raw numbers make it almost certain that there’s other life outside our planet. It may even be within our own solar system. Just finding some microbes on one of Jupiter’s moons would be pretty profound, but I doubt it would bring that much change to the human race. Some might just brush it off or call it fake news.

It’s the act of discovering intelligent extraterrestrial life that has far greater implications for humanity. I would even argue that those implications could determine whether the human race will survive beyond the destruction of Earth, which is inevitable. Even advanced artificial intelligence wouldn’t compare because at least humans would create that. An intelligent alien civilization would be much less predictable.

In confronting this existential issue, I don’t believe movies or TV shows have come close to getting it right. “Contact” made a commendable effort, but never gave more than a half-answer. Movies like “Independence Day” and “Close Encounters of the Third Kind” were overly simplistic in their approach. That’s to be expected because, logistically speaking, there’s no way to fit all the implications into a single two-hour movie.

I believe that to answer the question of humanity’s readiness to confront an extraterrestrial species is multi-faceted. There are plenty of factors to consider, but before I get too bogged down by the particulars, I want to offer my personal opinion on the issue. Then, I hope to demonstrate why I have this opinion.

No, the human race is NOT ready for contact with intelligent extraterrestrial aliens, but we’re getting there.

I know that isn’t a straightforward answer. It may sound like I’m trying to stand on both sides of the fence, but like I said, the question is inherently complex. As such, it’s hard to offer a simple answer.

Part of the complexity comes from circumstances. In an instance where scientists on Earth identify an advanced alien species, possibly by detecting an alien mega structure like a Dyson Sphere around a distant star, I think the human race could handle that, for the most part.

Such a discovery would be, by far, the greatest ever made in the history of humanity. It would be the story of the millennium and confirm, once and for all, the answer to one of the most fundamental questions our species has ever asked. Getting an answer to that question would change how we see ourselves in the universe, but the extent of the impact would be limited.

Sure, it might cause some disruptions with respect to major religions, although some denominations already preparing for that. It might also cause some ripples in the social fabric of society. If we know there are alien civilizations in the universe that are more advanced than us, then suddenly we have fewer excuses to impose petty divisions within our own species.

There would be upheaval. There would be tension, as well. I still believe that society would adapt in that scenario. Once the shock wears off, we may very well go back to how we were before. Future generations would just shrug off the notion that advanced aliens exist and focus primarily on the issues directly affecting them on Earth.

There’s another instance, however, that has far more profound implications, as well as greater danger. In that scenario, the advanced alien civilization contacts us directly. Moreover, it effectively announces that it’s coming to meet us and there’s nothing we can do to stop it.

In that scenario, I don’t think the current order will remain intact. If we found out tomorrow that intelligent aliens exist and they’re on their way to greet us, I believe that society, as we know it, will fall apart under the weight of fear, uncertainty, and outright dread.

My reasons for believing this have less to do with my faith in humanity and more to do with my understanding of basic human psychology. It’s proven science that the human psyche is adverse to uncertainty. From a purely survival standpoint, that makes sense. Not knowing whether there’s a hungry lion hiding in the bushes is detrimental to our survival. We have a legitimate evolutionary reason for avoiding such situations.

An advanced alien civilization isn’t just a possible threat. It’s the ultimate uncertainty. Even if those aliens are peace-loving hippies who want nothing more than to create a utopian world for every species they encounter, we won’t know for certain. Even if they try to articulate their peaceful intentions, we may not believe them because assuming wrong would be more dire than any hungry lion.

If an alien civilization is advanced enough to both contact us and traverse interstellar space, then it’s highly likely that we wouldn’t stand a chance at stopping them. Despite what “Independence Day” might have you believe, there’s just no way we would be able to counter technology that could carry another species across the stars.

On top of that, we wouldn’t even know if these aliens were biological creatures, like us. More than a few scientists have speculated that it’s the natural path of all advanced life that it transcend its biology to become machines in part or entirely, which makes sense for any species that wants to survive in the vacuum of space. I would agree that any initial encounter humans have with advanced aliens will come in the form of a probe.

Even if that probe is no bigger than a basketball, its arrival on Earth would trigger so much panic that our society, economy, and political institutions wouldn’t survive in their current form. That’s not to say civilization would completely collapse. Some areas might descend into anarchy, but most wealthy countries would remain intact.

However, I believe they’ll remain intact through strict martial law. I also believe that, in the face of incoming aliens, there would be a huge scramble among nations to put together some sort of defense plan. Anyone remotely experienced with science or engineering would suddenly become incredibly valuable for their skills and likely be required to work on this issue.

No matter what recourse humanity takes, though, I don’t think it’ll matter once intelligent aliens arrive. The worst case scenario is that people are so afraid that a few become too trigger happy and attempt to attack. In that case, if the advanced aliens are the vindictive type, they would probably wipe humanity out with the same ease that we would use to step on an ant.

While I don’t think that scenario is that likely, I can certainly see fear dominating the discourse. It would probably extend beyond the initial contact. Even if  the aliens present themselves as friendly visitors, I imagine there will still be plenty of paranoia that it could all be a trick. Given how eager some people are to embrace conspiracy theories, I think this will cause plenty of problem, even in the best case scenario.

There’s still a chance that the human race could adapt to this encounter and be stronger because of it. However, if I had to bet money on the ultimate outcome, I wouldn’t wager much on that outcome. I think, at the moment, it’s more likely that fear and uncertainty will lead to the kind of irrational behavior that would prevent humanity from benefiting from an encounter with intelligent aliens.

As it stands, humans can’t even prevent conflict when encountering one another, especially if they look and act differently. I can’t imagine it would be much better if we encountered a species that was so different that we just had no way of relating to them. At least with minorities here on Earth, we share the same basic human template. For all we know, aliens will look, think, and feel things that are beyond our abilities.

Now, I know that scenario sounds bleak, especially for someone who claims to have more faith in humanity than most. However, there’s one last caveat that further complicates the issue and it has to do with the last part of my answer.

When I stated that the human race is not ready to encounter an advanced alien species, I mean that within a specific context. In the same way I don’t believe humanity is ready for advanced AI at the moment, I don’t think the collective psyche of the human race is to a point where we can accept the idea of confronting an intelligent alien civilization.

That, I do think we’re more ready today than we were 30 years ago. Humanity has made remarkable progress with respect to technology, society, and general welfare. Being more connected through media, the internet, and globalization has helped us better see ourselves as one species, at least to the extent our inherent tribalism will allow.

I believe that in the coming decades, especially as we augment our brains and our bodies, we’ll be more prepared to encounter an extraterrestrial intelligence. I’m not sure we’ll ever be completely ready, but I do think we’ll get to a point where we, as a society, will be able to handle it.

Whether or not that point comes within my lifetime or that of the kids being born today is hard to say, but given enough time and continued progress, I believe we’ll get there. For now, though, the prospect of encountering an intelligent alien civilization would incur some pretty detrimental effects on our species and our world. Even if aliens come in peace, we just not be ready to accept it.

3 Comments

Filed under Aliens, human nature, media issues, philosophy, psychology