Inside Jokes and the Next Generation
Tuesday, 26 Apr 2005 :-: ["Permalink"]
My generation has a lot of inside jokes that our parents don't get because they're based on pop culture. My dad wouldn't understand brains4zombies.com. He hasn't used Amazon enough to get the joke. I don't get a lot of cultural references, since I'm not very familiar with pop culture.
At the beginning of the semester, I cracked Lord of the Rings jokes in class, knowing that students would laugh, having seen the movies. I even used a Simpsons metaphor at one point, even though I've seen only five or six episodes at most. My prof was completely oblivious to either connection. (this may be a very good thing)
It seems to me that pop culture and parody are a huge part of discourse in my generation. Pop culture (or homework) seems to be the basis of much conversation among people at college. Is this because pop culture is national, and thus the only thing that connects us? In the past, people would argue at the pub about politics and writers (or at least, that is what historians tell us). Now we argue about American Idol? Do we choose the trivial because it has a better chance of bringing us together, less chance of causing a meaningful disagreement?
What's wrong with meaningful disagreements? Don't they hone our ideas and bring us closer to a more complete, more thoughtful way of viewing the world? Friends from England say that massive disagreements among friends are cool, that people can argue their brains into a puff of angry steam, and still visit the pub together, smile when they pass each other.
We can't. Not in the U.S., at least not many of us. We value our ideas more than they do, perhaps. We make our ideas such an important part of us that we feel emotionally hurt when someone disagrees. And this isn't bad. If we believe something, maybe it's worth believing strongly. But we have to be willing to talk about our ideas and gain constructive criticism.
But what has happened to those strong beliefs? We most likely still hold some beliefs that hold close to our heart, but instead of bringing them out, discussing them, and developing them, we talk about the pop star.
College is notorious for perpetuating this kind of thing. In some classes, at some colleges, when a friend mentions that he doesn't agree with a particular idea, he is told that he is free to disagree, but (in so many words) that he should shut up and keep it to himself, since the purpose of the class is to learn a set of bullet points about the idea. This is why I'm glad I'm an English literature student at the school I attend. Everyone's ideas are honestly considered.
Outside class, we talk about a movies, performers, technology. We chat about things that really don't matter. Things that we know really don't matter, but things we can safely argue about and still be friends.
** * **
This tendency toward ease sometimes filters into what ought to be more rigorous academic discussions. There seem to be cliche discussions we can safely have. It's generally safe to go out of your way to be be placating and accepting of all ideas.
Academic studies would seem to be the perfect tool to escape this kind of shallowness. It at least carries with it the tempting idea that it can help us escape to a meta-level of life, a space where we can see and analyze life more clearly. The knowledge gained (it is subtly implied) is the power to understand and choose. Involved discussion is an important tool of learning.
But academic studies themselves are not completely objective. In our attempt to avoid severe argument, we perpetuate the clichés, the carved-out bubbles of ideology that live in the academy.
But even if it were objective, why would such discourse be useful? Why should I learn how a car works, if no-one can give me the tools to fix it, or at least tell me that I don't need a car to get to work and hand me a bicycle?
By taking a picture, we distance ourselves from a situation. We can look at holocaust photos and cry. We can say, "it was wrong." But we don't have to do anything, since it is far away in time. We do the same thing with distance and let the academic hallways direct our action.
It's good to take something apart and analyze its inner workings. But it is better, after you have analyzed, to propose and take a course of action. This is hard. This makes you vulnerable. It involves argument (of the best sort), since you need rationale, goals, and a plan of action. Others may disagree. They might debate with you.
Is this such a bad thing?
Why would a whole class of people decide to be mere observers?
I suppose it's not too odd, that having been given the tools with which to analyze things, we analyze things that are safely meaningless or analyze meaningful things from a distance. Why does an international studies program go to Dubai to understand poverty and education in the developing world?
So we do the safe things. We joke about pop culture. We watch the movie anyway, just so we can pick it apart. Rather than actually doing anything about society, we sit in our bubble, and look through concave walls at the world, enjoying the fact that we see something different. And we see conformism. And they look at our little bubble, and they see conformism.
Are all of us, in a small way, encouraged in our conformism by the smug knowledge that we're not conforming like them? And thus we stay safe.
I think this connection-through-popculture is a result of two things. First, mass, global communication gives us pervasive national culture. Second, mass transit influences us to know more people at a lesser level. Most of our relationships are always at the first impressions level, when everything is so sensitive. It's safer to talk about pop culture, because we know it doesn't matter. We get the brains4zombies joke, we make Michael Jackson, Janet Jackson jokes, we look at homestarrunner, and say "All Your Base", but culture moves on too quickly. In the time it takes to make the joke, it's old. When Amazon.com changes their design, brains4zombies will cease to be relevant. What will we do then? Move on? No. We will reminisce.
Before pop culture (there was a time!), before we needed to regularly small-talk with people from across the globe, we related to people spatially. If you were my neighbor for 20 years, we knew each other. We developed relationships. We could argue violently, and we had to make up, because there was nobody else. We knew each other for decades, so we knew better than to bristle at some fun conversation. We couldn't just walk away.
Isn't it odd that when meeting someine, in an act central to asserting your individuality, they often ask you what your favorite music or movie is?
What happened to religion, or philosophy, the crops, methods of the trade, or family relationships? Why do I feel happy or sad when I find out that a friend likes action movies instead of country music? Why don't I even know the religion of most people?
** * **
This all has a lot to do with the culturally-pervading permutation of pluralism in our time. It's an effect of our willingness to placate each other, and yet for some it seems to be the mark of educated, advanced thinking.
** * **
Jumbled thoughts today, because I don't fully understand the issues myself.
Foucault in the Factory
Sunday, 17 Apr 2005 :-: ["Permalink"]
My brother had finally arrived. Late at night, I opened his door and poked my head into his room, which had been conspicuously empty for several months.
"Can't talk long. I'm writing about Foucault's Discipline and Punish. Welcome back."
Dad was asleep, exhausted from the reverberations of a thousand machines, finally clean from the linoleum rollers' grime, his eyes closed -- at last resting from the glare of a thousand synchronized, blinking fluorescent production-floor lights. Assembly lines are wearying. To factory workers, silence is precious, so I spoke softly.
"We'll talk later. Have a good night," I whispered to my brother.
Dad's voice jumped out of the dark hallway entrance. "You're writing about the panopticon, aren't you?"
Clearly, Foucault gets around.
** * **
Of course, I would expect no less from my father. It's slightly odd and intriguing that I come home from college, he comes home from the factory, and we stride about the kitchen discussing Karl Barth. It's humbling that he knows more than I.
A sigh, a cry, and a Jefferson
Monday, 11 Apr 2005 :-: ["Permalink"]
Last night, a friend of mine said (the following is a paraphrase),
You know what I'm worried about most right now, politically? I'm worried about this religious fanaticism that is taking over America. It wants to control and destroy everything that isn't it; it's intolerant, etc., etc., a tyrrany of the majority...
My heart nearly broke. I keep hearing these impassioned sentiments more and more frequently from thoughtful people who wish to be tolerant. And on the other side (argh. sides), I hear religious people feeling more and more attacked. The more they hear that they are evil and hateful and intolerant, the more worried they get that their rights are being taken away.
This morning, I woke up to read this:
"In the Name of Politics"
(NYT) Rev. John C. Danforth, the outgoing US ambassador to the UN, Republican Senator for 18 years, native Missouran and Episcopal minister worries that the Republican Party is turning very literally theocratic. In this short editorial he states "the only explanation ... is the extension of religious doctrine into statutory law."
(Just as a side note, we're taking applications.)
When people (as in the final link to Canadian immigration law) suggest that religious intolerance perpetrated by Christians is so great that they must leave their country, I know something is wrong.
People say that Christian fundamentalists are causing all sorts of intolerance and hate, and that they [insert evil]. Yet this seems very odd to me. I grew up in the theological movement of American Christian Fundamentalism. One of the most discussed issues within this movement is contradictory to people's views: Christian fundamentalism these days exists largely as a bunch of elderly people in churches whose attendance is dropping rapidly. American Christian Fundamentalism has been rapidly declining for decades.
One might look to the evangelical movement. But people from that movement seem very tolerant. In fact, many evangelicals won't settle for mere tolerance, advocating kindness toward people with different views, backgrounds, and lifestyles.
I hate to make sweeping generalizations, but one of the charges levied against American evangelicals is that they are rather too materlialistic and not dedicated enough to religious devotion. In my limited experience, I don't see American Chrisitianity getting stronger. I see it diminishing rapidly. I know hundreds of young people who grew up in American Evangelical homes, now attending college, for whom parties are more important than church. Many students don't bother to attend church, a practice which for thousands of years has been considered lower than the baseline of religious devotion, since church-going can't save anyone.
Maybe it's just a northeast thing, but I see American Christianity pooling, aggregating, churning as it is on its decline from its previous prominence. This is why you see Protestants working with Catholics; their individual power is decreasing, and just like the big Telecoms, they need each other to accomplish physical ends (humanitarian efforts, political efforts, etc.), which is affecting their theology.
People who think that American thought is being invaded by theocrats must not get out much.
I have a theory about this, but it is very nascent. As I look at the political situation right now, I see an odd thing. People on the Right (argh, plurality-based labels) think that people on the Left are conspiring to take away their rights. People on the Left (argh, stupid parties for splitting us to imaginary sides) think that people on the Right are conspiring to take away their rights.
It's possible that both are true. If so, I think that both sides are overreacting to the goals of each other. It's possible that both are false. If so, both sides are overreacting to the goals of each other.
Consider the plausible hypothetical situation:
** * **
A religious friend once suggested that the following statements be displayed prominently on government property:
Almighty God hath created the mind free. All men shall be free to profess and by argument maintain their opinions in matters of religion. I know but one code of morality for men whether acting singly or collectively.
A non-religious frend, when she heard this, became worried. She suggested that the the previous statement be removed and replaced with this statement:
No man shall be compelled to frequent or support any religious worship or ministry or shall otherwise suffer on account of his religious opinions or belief.
** * **
The truth is this: both statements are very prominently displayed on one of the most important memorials in Washington D.C.: the Jefferson Memorial. They co-exist side-by-side. The entire quote reads thus:
Almighty God hath created the mind free. All attempts to influence it by temporal punishments or burthens are a departure from the plan of the Holy Author of our religion. No man shall be compelled to frequent or support any religious worship or ministry or shall otherwise suffer on account of his religious opinions or belief, but all men shall be free to profess and by argument to maintain their opinions in matters of religion. I know but one code of morality for men whether acting singly or collectively.
This quote by Jefferson perfectly sums up my religious beliefs about government (my views about politics are considerably harsher. Politics and government are not the same, even if the press and populace seem to think otherwise).
I shared this quote with someone who would consider herself on the left if she thought the left were at all organized. The quote grated with her, since it talked of a creator, talked of "The Holy Author of our Religion," and suggested that there is "but one code of morality for men whether acting singly or collectively." Thus, the quote was rather ominous for her. She shrugged it off, saying that such was the case when Jefferson was around.
I believe that Jefferson's philosophy is the best political philosophy of religion for all honest Christians. It is my own. [If you are not a Christian, read the following statements carefully, because a belief in a single creator and a single moral code is what impels me to encourage your individual freedom].
If I am to believe in the Christian God, I must believe that He created the mind. The idea of life as His Creation, in some ways His property, is central to Christian Theology. I must also believe that He created the mind to be free. Even Calvinists who believe that God exercises great control over the mind must accept the idea that within man's relation to man, the mind must be free. The Catholic rule of centuries and the Protestant Reformation (and accompanying fiascos, errors, and oppression by Catholics and Protestant groups) is a clear indiciation of the horrors that occur when anyone attempts by "punishment or burthens" to influence the mind. This is clearly not the will of God.
If Christianity is a religion of Grace to the willing, then compelling people to frequent or support worship and ministry is futile; it is a way to confuse people from actually finding God. Even for Calvinists, humans should not compel humans to follow God. Only God can.
I have never met a Christian who believed that people should suffer "on account of [their] religious opinions or beliefs." In fact, even the most intolerant Christians I know are firm supporters of equality of religious freedom. Christians know what happens when people are made to suffer for their faith. It's not a pretty sight.
The next two statements by Jefferson are key:
"But all men shall be free to profess and by argument to maintain, their opinions in matters of religion."
This basic free-speech right is the one that honest, thoughtful non-Christians get worried about. Thus, they attempt to curtail this right, since they worry that it might become a license for people to compel, burden, and cause ideological suffering in religious matters. In the attempt to bolster equality of religious existence, they would substitute the act of "explanation" (as one would a cultural custom) for the more controversial act of professing and arguing religious opinions. It becomes even more ominous for non-religious people when they hear religious people say things like:
I know but one code of morality for men whether acting singly or collectively.
To people in a pluralistic society, talk like this begins to sound like ideological conquest and control. So they react to such views, trying to put them in check.
Religious people, on the other hand, see reactionary, equality-purposed efforts as an attempt to silence them, an attempt to influence minds by "temporal punishments or burthens." They fear a world where people are not compelled to support religion, but where people are compelled to avoid religion. They see religion as a thing of blood and fire, a life of spiritual intensity. But the only socially acceptable way to describe religion in non-religious circles is this: as an anthropological or social phenomenon/function. From the perspective of religious people, social and civil norms that encourage equality don't actually do so. Instead of encouraging free discussion and debate, American pluralists don't want conflict (argh. American college students. It's a problem. They don't like to discuss, they don't like argumentation). Free and fair argument/discussion about religion is viewed as dangerous, unfair, and coercive. When religious people see this, they become very worried about their religious freedom. They react to such views, trying to put them in check.
** * **
I think that a balance is necessary. Yes. All people of all views should be allowed to exercise their religion (within the boundaries of a fair civil law: Kool-aid doesn't count as religious expression). No one should be "compelled to frequent or support any religious worship or ministry" or "otherwise suffer on account of his religious opinionrs or belief." Religion should be accepted as a part of American society. It is who many of us are. To ban public support of the efforts of religious people is to give advantage to people who are not religious.
For example, I think that if we are going to have arts grants, we should extend grant money opportunities to people of all religious faiths. Religion has been one of the greatest inspirations for artists throughout time, from the Moors of Spain to the Judeo-Christian Western tradition (which in the Gothic was heavily Moor-influenced), from Zen Koans to Chines Watercolor to Egyptian burial paintings. By supporting religious artists as well as non-religious artists, we draw from a greater pool of creativity. Such support should be given fairly, sparingly, and indiscriminately
The previous example brings me to Jefferon's last statement: "I know but one code of morality for men whether acting singly or collectively." Many people in our time see this as a dangerous idea. This is not a dangerous idea. I believe it myself.
If you don't like Jefferson's concept of a single morality, that's fine. But don't read the sentence by itself. Read it in the context of the rest of Jefferson's quote, a context which emphasizes the freedom of the mind, its right to be free from burden, punishment, and compulsion. Read about Jefferson's single moral code in the context of statements like: "all men shall be free to profess and by argument to maintain their opinions in matters of religion."
I am a theologically conservative Christian. I keep myself as strictly as possible to the teachings of the Bible, which I consider to contain the only (but not comprehensive) absolute code of morality for men, whether acting singly or collectively. I know that the only way people can follow this code is through Divine intervention, not through coercion or punishment. Because I believe in God, in God's loving grace, and in His justice, I will do my best to profess and by argument maintain what I believe. I expect no less of others. I will never silence another's right to do the same, since it is by such rights that I maintain so precious a balance of freedom. If I am to bring someone to God, it will not be by the enactment of a law (although it is my right in a democratic system to propose civil laws based on my beliefs, if I am willing to abide by the will of the civil majority) but rather by the act of a free mind making a conscious choice.
It is this single moral code which causes me to reject the peer pressure of selfish American materialism. It is this single moral code which bids me consider myself in part a citizen of the world. It is a single moral code that makes me keep an open mind, always gaining more information and perspectives from many people and places, so I may wisely apply the principles of my moral code.
I gain from my single moral code a wish for brotherhood which tears me apart when I hear people tear each other apart over misunderstanding and the actions/reactions caused by misunderstanding.
** * **
During the 90s, religious people fearmongered themselves about "the left," thus gaining the political momentum to be part of Republican political gains (btw, it wasn't all hype. Growing up, I knew people who were thrown in jail for choosing to educate their children at home in accordance with religious beliefs. This worried me, since I was educated at home). "The Right" convinced itself that liberal bias was causing "the media" to be controlled by the political establishment.
Now, nonreligious people are fearmongering themselves about "the right," and will probably gain the political momentum to be part of Democrat political gains (argh. Two party system. Eurasia, Eastasia, etc. Mind control always needs a dire fight, and the left and right have certainly maintained ideological war). "The Left" is convincing itself that religious or conservative bias is causing "the media" to be controlled by the political establishment.
** * **
I think that people from both sides of the religious issues are failing to see the legitimate concerns of each other. Like industrial nations during WWII, they are villifying the enemy to gain more ideological conformity and enthusiasm to their side. The press, of course (including bloggers -- oh most definitely including bloggers) gain more exposure through describing conflict rather than success, thus intensifying the problem.
** * **
Have some balance. Respect the need for equal freedom, the freedom to hold one's opinions, and the freedom to argue one's opinions. Secular views are not neutral views, just as religious ones are not neutral. We must be careful that in our attempt to gain equality, we do not commit the reciprocal of our opponents. We must be careful that when we exercise a right, we do not violate the principles which granted us such rights to begin.