The Paradox of Nonconformity

In a film I saw recently (the title of which I can’t recall), a character said something along the lines of, “If everybody’s special, doesn’t that just mean nobody is?” Likewise, another film (Monty Python’s The Life of Brian) exposes the paradox of nonconformity in a scene where Brian is trying to convince a crowd of fanatics that he is not the messiah:

Brian: You’re all individuals.
Crowd: Yes, we’re all individuals!
Brian: You’re all different.
Crowd: Yes, we’re all different.
Man in crowd: I’m not.

I’ve seen it happen over and over again in real life: people struggling to be different and having to resign to sameness. Many supposed “rebels” and “nonconformists” merely conform to a subculture of the norm. I was at a rock concert recently, and I noticed that there were too many “rebels” there who fit nicely the stereotype of rock concert attendees: scantily dressed, mainly in black, overdone make-up, tattoos, pot-smoking, swearing, loud yelling, etc. What has really happened is that rather than people becoming individuals and subverting the cultural norms individually, people have created subversive “norms” to conform to so that they as individuals do not have to find their own paths, but they as collective individuals within a new “norm” can break away from the greater “norm.”

There’s not just safety but also comfort in numbers, and very few people are afraid to break away by themselves. It is also quite difficult to be truly subversive. Take, for example, gender roles. I—as a progressive, pro-feminist male—have often considered what is the best way for me to subvert the patriarchy without reinforcing gender stereotypes. On the one hand, I have not adopted traditional masculinist notions of appropriate machismo or over-involved myself in the following of professional sports. On the other hand, not living up to those traditional male roles and interests also makes me live up to the stereotype of the feminist man—weak, not manly enough. In some ways, you could argue, it supports the popular notion that feminism metaphorically castrates men.

So there are two obstacles to “true” nonconformity: 1. fear of loneliness (do I have to do it alone?) and 2. inability to find a truly subversive path without reinforcing one norm or the other.

The closest I’ve found to being “truly” nonconformist (though, this is still being part of a larger group, in a sense) is finding the minority group within the minority group. Christians are certainly a minority group in America (practicing, born-again Christians, that is—not Easter-Christmas atheist “Christians”). Feminists are certainly a minority group in America (Gloria Steinem-Ani DiFranco feminists, not Ally McBeal-Camille Paglia “feminists”). In my vain attempt to find true nonconformity, I have subscribed myself to the subset of both groups, the minority of the minorities—Christian feminists, and yet again with Christian male feminists.

Does this make me a rebel? Still a rebel among rebels (not many, granted). Only on a few counts have I found myself close to unique, and these are not overtly political means of nonconformity:

1. For four years straight, I wore flip-flops on a regular basis in New England (including the winter, the snow, etc.). I don’t know anyone else who has done this (not to say no one else has, just that I don’t know or have never heard of anyone who has).

2. Even though I was born right-handed, as a young child I wanted to be ambidextrous, so I began writing with my left hand and neglected to keep practicing with my right hand. Now, I use my left hand for pen, pencil, marker, and paintbrush. I use my right hand for chalk, chopsticks, and sports.

3. More of a birth defect than a choice, but I have found only two other people who have my eye condition: one single-fold, one double-fold. If you don’t know what single- and double-folds are, ask an Asian person (preferably one of Chinese or Korean descent, as I know these two cultures are obsessed with folds).

Still, what is so appealing about being different? I mean, surely, sometimes we are different simply because we are. I’m not a male Christian feminist only because I want to be different. How pitiful would that be? It is ultimately because I’m biologically male, I have adopted the beliefs of the Christians, and I have adopted the beliefs of the feminists. I genuinely believe in those things. Don’t we sometimes, though, find an option appealing if it is “different”? Think about marketing campaigns: “Little, yellow, different.” “Feel the difference.” “Think different.” Nobody wants to hear: “It’s the same product as before.” “Be the same.” Maybe people might want to hear “Stay the same” if it meant looking young (this is a qualitatively distinct sameness, though—keeping a youthful appearance means staying the same as you yourself were before, not being the same as others). There’s definitely a pressure we must all feel to be the same, though, if we find it in our systems to desire (despite our actual state) to be different.

True individuality, true nonconformity, will come about only when the pressures to conform, to stay the same, diminish. Perhaps this analogy might help to make the principle more concrete: We are a bunch of rats on a table. The table is fifty feet off the ground, so we must stay on the table or fall to our deaths. Yet, with nothing on the table, we are free to roam about the full surface of the table. Then, the scientists observing us rats decide to put a cage on the table. It is open on one side, but that opening has a swinging door that is designed to push you in the cage or outside of the cage. If you decide to stay in the cage, you’re in. If you decide to stay outside the cage, you’re outside it. If you want to be in the middle, you get pushed one way or the other. You are no longer free to roam about the table. You can be almost anywhere on the table, but rather than being a unique spot on the table, your space can now be easily categorized as in the cage or outside the cage—it is no longer just a solitary space.

Let’s get the cage out!


More likely to die how?

An oft-cited statistic in answer to people’s “irrational” fears of flying is that you’re more likely to die in a car crash than a plane crash. What a load of bullshit.

Now, I’ll still fly. If I want to go back east or to Europe or Asia, I won’t be going by boat, car, or train. I won’t imagine, though, that fears of flying are not founded.

First of all, statistics like that assume that everyone is equally at risk, just as are statistics relating to divorce rates (50% is the most commonly agreed upon figure). It doesn’t mean you can flip a coin to decide whether your marriage will work out or not. Some people’s marriages are bound to fail (for example, spur-of-the-moment Britney Spears Vegas weddings), and some people just don’t think marriage will be any work or have unrealistic expectations about what “love” is. People are also more likely to divorce if their own parents are divorced. Just because 50% of marriages end in divorce doesn’t mean that every marriage has a 50/50 chance of success or failure. More likely, 50% of marriages have a 90/10 chance of success and the other half have a 10/90 chance of success.

Likewise, when it comes to driving and fatal accidents, most of the time good driving can help you avoid fatal accidents. It’s as simple as that. I can’t guarantee by driving well that I will avoid all accidents, but I’m less likely to be in a fatal accident that would be my fault if I’m a good driver. Sure, there’s the odd chance a drunk driver will speed at 70 MPH into my car, and I won’t be able to swerve in time, but at least it won’t be my fault. I can’t avoid the accidents that are not my fault.

On the other hand, when you’re in a plane, you are leaving it up to chance. It doesn’t matter how much “skill” you have at being a passenger, you’re not less likely to be hijacked or to have a pilot who’s drunk or to be in a plane that had a shoddy maintenance check. It’s up to you to maintain your car, to drive it well, to try your best to avoid carjackers, but you are not in a position as a plane-rider to screen every other passenger for security or to make sure the plane is running well.

The other problem with this statistic is that most (as the “further readings” will reaffirm) car crashes are not fatal. I’ve been in at least three or four accidents (either as a passenger or driver), none of which were my fault and none of which resulted in any injury to my person (though the cars were a bit worse for the wear). Almost all plane crashes result in fatalities, and not just a few.

Driving has the possibility of being safer if you drive safely. Flying on a plane is playing “Russian Roulette” but with more than six barrels.

Further Reading
Which is more dangerous—flying or driving?
Are airplanes safe?
Risk analysis
Are plane crashes news?


How I Became a Comic Book Geek

When I was a young boy, my brother and I bought comic books, but I didn’t yet qualify as a comic book geek. First of all, all the purchases were leisurely, more likely to happen as a whim upon a trip to the pharmacy than as a directed effort to seek out the flimsy, stapled literary pictorial works. We didn’t care about the condition of the comics we bought. We bent them, tore them, wrinkled them, threw them around. Most importantly, we didn’t know the histories of the characters or the exact issue numbers of their first appearances.

My brother continued to grow up quite normally in relation to comic books—that is, he grew away from them, as most adults do, sadly. I, too, grew away from them for a while. I favored playing with my war toys. Eventually, though, middle school hit. At that time, there were only a handful of “good” artists in my grade. Of course, “good” in sixth grade means merely that one is able to draw more than a stick figure and have some inkling of what perspective and shading are. There was Carl, there was Alex, and there was me. Alex and I hadn’t known each other very well, but we would soon become friends and even draw together. Carl, at the time, seemed obnoxious to me, flaunting his drawing ability haughtily… and in the form of comic book art. The competitive nature arose within me, and I wished to show him up by drawing comics better than he, but I didn’t know how to draw comics. What were comics? What did the characters’ costumes look like? I knew none of this. I had to do some research.

Soon, I was buying up a storm of comics, getting to know the characters, what they looked like, what cool poses they had. It wasn’t long before I even forgot about Carl and just started reading and drawing for fun. In seventh grade, Alex and I had a lot of the same classes together (I think we even sat together in social studies), and during class we drew pictures of Batman and the Reaper going at each other violently. We would visit each other’s houses, bringing art supplies, and draw strips together. Sometimes he would pencil and I would ink; other times I would pencil and he would ink. Even though we had different drawing styles, it was an interesting way to bond, when so many our age were caught up in computer games.

Yes, Alex and I produced comics (though, I don’t think we ever produced an entire story from beginning to end), but my reading of them became ravenous. I had to have more. Sometimes, I would spend three or four hours at the comic book store. I would have my mom drop me off at the local store, Outer Limits, and I would take my time, browsing through the new arrivals, sifting through the back issues, perusing the graphic novels’ contents, and looking for the best deals. Even now I savor the chance to dig into a good 25-cent bin at a comic book store. Unfortunately, those bins are slowly disappearing in favor of 50-cent bins and dollar bins. Steve, the main guy at Outer Limits (I think he may also be the owner), saw me show up at his store when I was eleven, but he also saw me come back at twelve, thirteen, fourteen, all the way through twenty and twenty-three. He saw me grow up, and I can’t say there are too many store owners who have done that! Sure, he smoked too much, but I liked his no-frills approach to business. He had quality selection and good prices. He didn’t harass customers, but he always answered questions knowledgeably when asked.

Comic stores alone could not satiate my thirst for sequential art. I began mail-ordering, too—mainly from Passaic Book Center (since closed), American Comics (boo!), and East Coast Comics—all based in New Jersey. My favorite thing to order was grab bags. I could get 100 comics for $10 or 500 comics for $30 from Passaic Book Center. These were Marvels and DCs (the “big two”) but also Dark Horse Comics (part of the “big three”) and a whole bunch of independent publishers, too. I got exposed to so much through these grab bags, and so cheaply.

My last source of comic books was conventions. For three or four dollars, you could enter several hotel ballrooms’ full of vendors and real comic book artists, who would sign your copies and make small talk with you. 25-cent bins thrived at these conventions.

Why was I so fascinated with these fifteen or so pages stapled together? Well, I expanded my vocabulary through reading them. Iron Fist and Power Man taught me the word renege when I was still under ten. I learned a lot of conventional spellings for unconventional words: yeah, argh, gonna, etc. Plus, there was the added bonus of comic books as literature being an unexplored territory. If you tell an adult or a “normal” friend you’re reading Pride and Prejudice, you’ll likely get a “Oh, I remember when I read that. What a good book,” but if you tell her you’re reading Moonshadow, how likely are you to get a condescending, “You’ll love it. What a classic!” If only that likelihood were higher…

There was something, too, in the actual moment-to-moment experience of reading comics that provided a unique delight. The aesthetics of the visual accompanied by the structure and dialogue of a more typical fictional narrative in other forms.

Eventually, I amassed a collection of over 3,000 comic books, not including graphic novels. I had two letters published in The Comics Buyer’s Guide. Things were starting to get costly. Comic boxes, which held a few hundred each, were $3.75. Comic bags, depending on quality, ran anywhere from $.05 to $.25 each. The cover price of comic books was approaching the $3.00 mark (currently, they are even as high as $6.00 for a regular comic book on glossy paper). I soon made a policy for myself to buy only comic books that were $.25. As comic book stores became more and more desperate for sales, the 25-cent bins became more and more scarce, and so a comic book collector’s binge came to its end.

What’s amazed me the most is the persistence of people’s ignorance about comic fandom, about comic books themselves, and the accompanying unjustified snobbery. “Graphic novels” have earned some respectability in the eyes of the public and a place in some popular bookstores. Every now and then, Maus is taught in schools and colleges. The biggest buzz in Hollywood is the adaption of comic books to “the big screen.” Still, the general public’s vision of comic books is as some esoteric universe with no literary merit. An entire medium, not just an industry, is, to some, subpar. People will go out and talk about the latest book they’ve read, the latest movie they’ve seen, the latest magazine they’ve browsed through, the latest TV show they’ve watched, but rarely do conversations about the latest comic book pop up among respectable adults, unless they, too, are comic book nerds. It’s impressive to know every movie Scorcese has even done. It’s nerdy to know the first appearance of Spider-Man.

Yes, the industry has problems. Females (as artists, writers, and readers) are still underrepresented (and, as heroes and characters, often misrepresented), but that’s slowly changing. Most of the people I know who are now fanatical about comic books are women. They tend to gravitate toward Cerebus, Strangers in Paradise, The X-Men, Love and Rockets, and Sandman.

Somewhere along the way—long after Carl and I have lost touch (not that we were ever close friends), long after Alex has since earned his BFA, long since I have last visited Steve at Outer Limits or been to a comic book convention—I have stayed that comic book nerd inside. I don’t avidly collect comics any more. In fact, my wife purchases them far more frequently than I do. When we visit comic book stores, she’s looking for the latest Identity Crisis or Liberty Meadows. I might flip through a couple of back issues or the 25-cent bin, if it’s there, but I usually leave empty-handed.

These artists and writers, though—some of whom I’ve met; most of whom will never know of me—have helped me form my ideas about art, literature, life, heroism, morality, and the craft of writing: (in no particular order) Art Adams, Mike Mignola, Bill Sienkiewicz, Frank Miller, Frank Cho, J.M. DeMatteis, Jon J. Muth, Kent Williams, Alex Ross, Bernie Wrightson, Wally Wood, Al Williamson, Dave Stevens, Alan Moore, Dave Gibbons, Louise Simonson, Walt Simonson, Lynn Varley, Klaus Janson, David Mazzuchelli, Tim Vigil, Steve Lightle, Adam Hughes, Richard Corben, Frank Thorne, Moebius, Ryiochi Ikegami, Bruce Jones, Kelley Jones, Kevin Maguire, Keith Giffen, Grant Morrison, Steve Bissette, John Byrne, Dave Sim, Terry Moore, Max Allan Collins, Chris Claremont, Alan Davis, P. Craig Russell, Mike Kaluta, Mike Zeck, Mike W. Barr, Kyle Baker, Will Eisner, the brothers Hernandez, Trina Robbins, Howard Chaykin, Reed Waller, Kate Worley, Brian Bolland, Barry Windsor-Smith, George Perez, Michael Golden, and Neal Adams. I’m sure I’ve left many, many great people off the list, but I wanted to express my appreciation to these people who have fed my literary and visual hunger as much as any David Henry Hwang, Jane Austen, Amy Heckerling, or Rob Reiner has.

I know Spider-Man’s first appearance was Amazing Fantasy #15, and I’m not ashamed.


Fictional De-sensitization Towards Violence

I’ve gone back and forth on the debate about media violence’s relationship to real-world violence. On the one hand, I’m not a big proponent of fictionalized violence. Sometimes, it’s overdone, and if it were my choice to make a fictional narrative, toy, or video game, a violent one would not be my first choice. I’m all for positivity. On the other hand, I grew up with a lot of war toys: Transformers, G.I. Joe—the whole lot. I think my brother and I had almost every single G.I. Joe ever made in the 1980s. We just didn’t have the U.S.S. Flag (sp?) aircraft carrier. That was too expensive.

The funny thing is that when I was growing up, my parents indulged me and my brother in this war toy obsession. They didn’t seem to have any problem with it. Then, one day, when I’d been in college for a couple of years, I returned home to see my mom’s car with a bumper sticker that said something along the lines of “Stop War Toys.” I asked her about it, and she said she was vehemently against war toys and that they were damaging to young boys’ development. Of course, I was flabbergasted. “Mom, didn’t you let us have war toys?” I asked. She replied that she shouldn’t have. I wonder if she somehow thought I had developed badly. I think most of my friends and acquaintances would agree I’m one of the most peaceful (if still highly opinionated) people around.

Two other situations confuse me about the supposed relationship between fictional and real violence. First of all, many people I know who freak out at the sight of real blood have no problem watching Blade or Kill Bill, films both of which containing much bloodshed, almost rivers of blood. Secondly—and this is the incident that got me thinking about writing this essay—I was walking down the street the other day, and I passed a cop with a huge gun holstered at his waist. As I passed by, I kept staring at the gun, thinking to myself That’s a real gun! Oh, my God!. Certainly I must have seen real guns on tv (loaded with blanks) or at least real-looking guns before, but I had not been desensitized to violence at all—the mere thought of real, possible death made my heart skip a beat. I’ll still pop popcorn, laugh, and fall asleep to media violence because I’ve developed an important skill: the ability to separate real life from fictional narrative life.

Now, you’ll probably have noticed that I’ve been talking mainly about my own experience, and it’s natural to wonder, “Well, sure you didn’t turn out desensitized toward violence, but many others have.” That’s my whole point, though: It’s not the media violence itself that desensitizes anyone toward violence; it’s how we teach them about it. We have to make sure our children learn and know the difference between fact and fiction, the difference between reality and fantasy. People aren’t shocked by beheadings in Hollywood films as much as they’re shocked by real-life beheadings. Why is there a black market for snuff films? Because it’s supposed to be real. There is still a novelty in reality, for those skilled and intelligent enough to recognize the difference.

I tell you, I must have seen about a hundred R-rated movies before I was ten years old, and the first time I punched someone (and it was an accident, I swear) was still novel to me. As Jesus once said, “Don’t you see that whatever enters the mouth goes into the stomach and then out of the body? But the things that come out of the mouth come from the heart, and these make a man ‘unclean.'”.

Further readings:
“Waging War on Toys”
“Toy Guns: Do You Let Your Boys Have Them?”
“Video games and desensitization to violence. Are they correlated?”
The Answer Bank on video game violence
“Television Violence and It’s[sic] Effects on Behavior”


What I Remember from High School

The school I used to teach in had some wonderful academic programs. It also had a couple of fluffy ones. Every week, there were these “electives” teachers had to teach that had no homework and usually a low energy level (many of these were electives involving ten to fifteen students watching popular movies). One time, I “taught” an elective on music for the masses, wherein students could share their musical collections with each other. One student brought in Paul Simon, and we all chuckled at the well-known first line of the song: “When I think back on all the crap I learned in high school, it’s a wonder I can think at all.” Even at that young age, even when they’re still in high school, the students know they won’t remember much, that academic learning isn’t the important learning from school. It probably won’t surprise you that I don’t remember historical dates, math equations, or the conjugation of the subjunctive in Spanish. What can a high school teacher, then, hope to impart to her students? Well, these are actual memories I have from the high school classroom:

In ninth grade history class, the teacher tried to convince the entire class that there is no such thing as trying (think Yoda—”Do. Or do not. There is no try.”) and that it’s more sanitary to take baths than to shower. He managed to convince almost the whole class that these things were true. I adamantly (I believe most people called it “stubbornly”) refused to accept these logical flaws. One time he almost kicked me out of class. Another time, he asked the class to bring in mirrors the next day and to aim them at me the next time I talked because I, supposedly, was talking to only myself. That year, in history class, I learned how immature teachers can be, even if they’re extremely old. I also learned that when people realize later on that you were right to stick to your beliefs, they call you persistent or resilient. At the time, though, everyone calls you stubborn.

In ninth grade biology class, the teacher always badgered students who arrived late… unless said students came late from cooking class and happened to bring her a baked treat. Bloody favoritism… or bribery, at least. I also remember being too sissy to dissect anything, so I let my lab partner, Amy, do all the cutting, gripping, and burrowing out. She’s in medical school now.

In ninth grade English class, the teacher decided in the first week of class whom he would like for the rest of the year and also whom he would pick on and make fun of for the rest of the year. I got in an argument with him once because he insisted there was no such thing as freezing rain. He wrote on my short story that if it was freezing it should be ice, then, or at least hail (never mind that this is just not true—there is such a thing as freezing rain). After our argument, he said he never wanted to “conference” a paper with me again.

Tenth grade English brought me to a teacher who “got” my quirkiness. I wrote an essay on time, and I wrote it with the sentences in reverse order. Any other teacher would have asked me to rewrite it or would have at least given me a bad grade on it, but he appreciated it and thought it clever (presumably not just because of the gimmick but also because of what I wrote). I did get in an argument with him later, though, because he insisted the God of the New Testament (loving) was not the same one as the one from the Old Testament (angry). Surely, I’d have been fired if I preached to my students, but since he was anti-Christianity, I guess he couldn’t have gotten in trouble.

In physics, we had a long-term substitute teacher who supposedly had been a genius when he attended the school four years earlier. One of his extra credit questions had a stick-figure-drawing holding a vertical stick attached to a box. The question read: “Can you design a more efficient lawn mower?” I answered, “Yes.” He didn’t give me any credit for that answer, despite my protests. I’ve been grateful ever since. Later, when I became a teacher, I was thankful that a colleague introduced me to the following phrase to be put in vocabulary and grammar quiz directions: “Let common sense and the most likely intended meaning of the sentence guide your choices.” I also learned as a teacher, when giving multiple choice tests and quizzes, to ask students to pick the “best” choice rather than the “right” one.

I took AP Spanish as a junior. My friends and I (there were about four of us) were the only juniors in a class full of seniors. The teacher also happened to be one of the senior class advisors, and she was in love with the senior class. She was one of those teachers who always wanted to be hip with the kids, even though she was middle-aged. So, instead of teaching us Spanish, she’d spend the first fifteen minutes of class gossiping and joking (speaking entirely in English) with the seniors. Then, my friend Kitty (one of the sweetest people there is) would ask a simple (usually relevant to the curriculum) question, and the teacher would snap back at her, “¡En Español, por favor!”

I spent a lot of time in the art room. Even though I was never good enough to get the “real” art awards, every year the art teacher found a way to make up a special award for me, in appreciation of all the extra time I spent in the art room. (I practically lived there.) He was great, too. He’d always chastise the pot smokers who hung around the art room, getting high, but when they were drawing and doing art, he was very encouraging to them.

My tenth and eleventh grade history teacher was a white woman who was the first person to teach me about institutional racism. She was also an ardent feminist and gave me the opportunity to read I Never Called It Rape, which, along with The Feminine Mystique, was instrumental in turning me into a die-hard feminist.

Senior year, in BC Calculus, some student made a remark that, in some slight way, put down the teacher (it was a light-hearted remark, but I forget what it was). She put her hands to her chest, laughed, then said, “Oh! Cut to the quick!” All of my classmates and I looked at each other in bewilderment. She was aghast. “You don’t know what that means?” I was later to experience this whenever I, as a teacher and child of the 80s, mentioned anything before 1990. My students, most of them, had never even heard of David Bowie.

There are probably other teacher-related memories I have, but those are the ones that stand out the most for me. And, of course, I learned much from interaction with my peers, but everyone does. It’s when teachers wonder, “What will my students take away with them… to college and for life?” that it makes sense to think about, “What did I take away from my teachers?” I paid most attention to hypocrisy, passion, sensitivity, inconsistency, flexibility, compassion, justice, and enthusiasm. Teachers may ostensibly teach academic subjects; students, though, will always remember the teachers not as knowledge-bins but as role models (cheesy as that sounds). I hope I was a good one.


Bad Journalism

As I write this article, there are two “news” pieces irking me, but there will always be similar ones for years to come. First of all, there are numerous reports about the seemingly unprecedented success of Shrek 2. Secondly, among liberals and radical leftists, there is a small panic about the supposed denial of voting rights to college students.

Certainly, bad journalism has been around since journalism’s very inception, but what bothers me most about these two bits of “news” is they’re things I care about. I love Shrek 2, and, being a liberal/radical leftist myself, I am always concerned about the denial of rights.

I searched Google several times, looking for statistics about the number of box office ticket sales, but I found none. I’m not saying the statistics don’t exist on the internet—they’re just hard to find. I easily found a slew of sites with meaningless box office numbers (gross profits in dollars). One site compares box office takes for “all time.” So, S2 is supposedly breaking a bunch of records, second to only Spider-Man for opening weekend takes. Who cares, though? If you look at these “all time” lists, you’ll quickly notice almost every movie on the list came out in the last ten years. There is no adjustment for inflation. How can you compare a movie’s gross earnings in 2004, with cineplexes abounding and average ticket prices around $10, with gross earnings in 1950 (I don’t know how many cineplexes were around or what the ticket prices were then)? It’s all about hype. It’s all about saying, “This new movie is making records.” The implied message is, “Go see it. See what the fuss is about.”

It should be obvious that the only meaningful comparison is in the number of ticket sales. If one ticket costs $6 (I seem to remember this being a reasonable price in the 1980s) and another future ticket costs $20 (this will happen sooner than we think), the movie with the future ticket cost needs to have only 1/3 of the turnout that the 1980s movie has in order to have a higher gross in dollars. Records in dollar amounts will continue to be broken as inflation goes up. That goes without saying, even if fewer and fewer people are going to the movies these days. Don’t see Shrek 2 because it’s making money. See it because it’s funny and entertaining.

Even sadder than “hype” journalism is “panic” journalism. I love Alternet. It is my number one alternative news source. Sometimes the articles have no real point to them, though. For example, this article had the introductory blurb: “All across the country, college students are being denied the right to vote in their adopted hometowns—effectively banning them from local politics.” Honestly, who cares? I was not a resident of my college’s town the four years I was there, and I didn’t feel disenfranchised. In fact, I knew few students who wanted to vote in local politics. Most of the article deals with trite issues (e.g., people not being able to vote on the placement of crosswalks), but the crux of the message lies in this sentence: “It isn’t just local elections that are a concern. The 2004 presidential elections loom large in people’s minds.” I’m sorry, but I have two words for you: “absentee ballot.” The supposed counter-argument is that absentee ballots “require[] a lot of forethought, which many Americans, not just students, don’t contemplate.” So does general voting. Voting isn’t logistically easy in this country, whether it’s with an absentee ballot or in a voting booth. People who care about the 2004 presidential election will vote. The fact that they can’t vote in a town where they’ll spend four years of their life isn’t tragic. Get the absentee ballot. Vote by mail. Your vote will count just as little as it usually does.

Now, that said, I do think students should be able to vote in the town they live in. It’s just a technicality, though. It will not affect the presidential election, and it’s not “news.” This “denial” of voting rights has been going on forever. Town-gown relations have always run the risk of being strained. It’s not some mass conspiracy to prevent people from voting Bush out of office or to prevent young people from voting in general.

Bottom line: keep things in perspective.

As a postscript, I was disappointed by the fact that an assertion in Super-Size Me remained unchallenged (and presumably endorsed) by Morgan Spurlock during an interview with some forgettable expert, who claims that the “hectoring” (what common folk call “heckling”) of smokers and the non-hectoring of fat people is a double standard. His simplistic thinking goes as follows: You smoke. Smoking is unhealthy and may kill you. People around you should work to prevent your death by telling you not to smoke. You eat too much. Eating too much is unhealthy and may kill you. People around you should work to prevent your death by telling you not to eat. At first glance, the two situations might seem parallel, but as Morgan Spurlock says at another time in the film, heroin is not ham (I’m paraphrasing). Likewise, cigarettes are not food.

There are two major problems with this comparison between smoking and eating too much. First of all, smoking is smoking. Eating too much is eating too much; it’s not just eating. The difference between eating and eating too much is quantitative (a little versus a lot). The difference, however, between smoking and not smoking is qualitative (not at all versus at all). If I tell someone, “Don’t smoke,” I don’t need to know how much she’s smoked before or what her body type is. Smoking is unhealthy for everyone in every degree. If I tell someone, “Don’t eat,” I need to know that the person is eating too much. You can’t look at a fat person and decide she’s been eating too much. There’s a big debate about how much of being fat is a lack of discipline and how much of it is “genetic” or one’s body type. Wherever your values fall in that debate, you have to acknowledge that if you meet a stranger who appears to you to be “overweight” (whatever that means), you don’t have that right to tell that person, “Don’t eat that,” even if that is an ice cream cone or a piece of cheesecake. Everyone has unhealthy food indulgences every now and then. Not everyone takes a puff of tobacco every now and then. Food is necessary to the body. We need to regulate how much we put in. It is dangerous only in the quality and quantity we take in. Tobacco is not necessary to the body. No amount of tobacco helps the body.

Saying smoking and eating too much are alike is like saying driving fast and shooting small children are alike. Yes, it can be dangerous to drive fast, depending on the situation. It’s almost always safer to drive more slowly. It’s never a good idea to shoot a small child, no matter how annoying she may be.

Both eating too much and driving too fast require context for justified condemnation. Smoking and shooting small children do not. If someone tells me, “My friend Janice drove 90 MPH,” I don’t know right away that she’s endangering lives. Maybe she was on the autobahn in Germany. Maybe she’s a race car driver. Maybe she was driving through the desert on a straight highway with no other cars around. If someone tells me, “My friend Janice shot her first-born child,” I’m not going to be in a rush to meet her. Yes, maybe it could in some way be justified, but it takes a huge stretch of the imagination (“My first-born child was coming at me with a huge cleaver. She had it at my throat, and the only defense I had was the gun lying next to me”), as does smoking (“Oh, I was smoking because I’m an actor, and my character smokes”).

The original scenario from Super-Size Me was in the context of a comfortable social situation, like a dinner with friends. If I’m eating dinner with my friends, I may actually say, “I don’t know if you should be eating that much,” but there is no fixed amount of what’s okay to eat and what’s not okay to eat. The fixed amount of smoking around me, though, is zero. If my friend eats too much, gains too much weight, vomits, or has a stomach ache, that’s her problem. If my friend smokes around me, that’s my problem. It’s called second-hand smoke, people, not second-hand binge.


Some Guidelines for Effective Change

Models focus on ideas, narrative testimonies, proposals, characterizations and recognize that having established or identified said model, scope then becomes the issue. Scope focuses on the prevalence of an idea, population or behavior. Recognizing the complexity and inter-relatedness of issues. As a basic collegiate scholar’s example: the difficulty in separating racism and sexism.

  • Setting as a goal total societal change, not just the trickle-down economics of intellectual thought (i.e. the attitude: just because we in academia have discovered it, we can move on to the next thing, instead of making sure our ideas get implemented, understood and taught to “the masses”).
  • Not being tied down by language/ expression. Consider part of the dialogue disenfranchised media, such as comic books, and colloquial expressions of intellectual thought outside of professional academia.
  • Either a non self-centered view of sociology or an acknowledgement of self-centeredness.
  • Leave assessment to the people on the front lines. (e.g. Don’t have politicians decide what schools need without asking teachers!)

Some Casual Critical Theory on Conventional Wisdom

Some Casual Critical Theory on Conventional Wisdom

Few of the simple ideals I held as a child persisted through my college years. Some left for more complex, more practical models. Some left altogether. This is the nature of life. We don’t talk about the simple values of belief and experience enough in academic forums. First of all, as I am writing this, I am afraid—very afraid, so much so that I cannot even express the degree to which I am in this sentence—that some scholar may stumble upon this paragraph months or years later and dismiss me completely because I did not state a thesis; I did not write in an academic tone; and I did not support my argument with relevant examples, accurate statistics, and impeccable logic.

As an English major, and as a teacher, I am acutely aware of the fact that presentation is a large part of the efficacy of expository writing. I repeatedly tell my students that they cannot settle for simply getting across what they have to say. They have to do so in an academic manner. They have to sound just a little more pretentious. They will impress their audience more if they attribute quotations by the book, include a cover page, spell-check, and write in complete sentences. Fairly basic advice, I think. Many other academicians would agree.

But sometimes we know the most effective media for the communication of cutting edge ideas are not the properly formatted, extensively researched articles in professors’ journals. One of the books that hit me the hardest in my development—as a human being, as a student, as a teacher, as an American—was The Autobiography of Malcolm X. He did not attribute his quotations with footnotes. He did not have a clear thesis. Sometimes his logic was flawed. Yet he spoke to the issues that pressed upon his heart and pressed upon America, revealing his intelligence, while not allowing himself to be hindered by academic red tape.

The Bible has had an immense impact, not only on my life, but on the lives of hundreds of millions around the world. It speaks many truths, even to non-believers, and does so without “proving” anything. Hollywood movies. TV talk show hosts. Comedians. Comic strips. Comic books. There are many examples of media through which one or a set of people can get across a message with immense cultural value without indulging in intellectual filibuster. Something every intellectual knows in her heart is that even though officially there are things that social scientists, scientists, mathematicians, psychologists, economists, sociologists, etc. can talk about in conferences, journals, books, lectures and other official forums; no one bases her life beliefs solely on academic proof. Once we find out how many doctorate-holders in the world practice astrology to some extent, then we will plow past the hypocrisy of how the burden of proof the religion professors in liberal arts universities across America put on whether God exists or not compares to the burden of proof professors put on whether their own academic training has any validity.

Notes from the Underground is the ramblings of the madman genius Dostoevsky. Somehow that’s literature. How do we get to the base of what we believe and why? How can we truly be introspective, as individuals, as a community, even as academics?

We need to see the value of large words, proper formatting and all the trappings of academia for what it is: a polishing, a finishing, a coup de grace. But first we need to answer for ourselves: What is worth talking about? What is worth re-examining? Whose opinions are worth understanding? What resources do we have? How dependable are they? Those are just some basic questions to start off with. And even before we ask those questions, we must first ask ourselves what we believe. I have read academic journals, popular and not-so-popular magazines, popular and not-so-popular books, watched numerous hours of TV and movies, talked with intellectuals and down-to-earth people alike; very seldom, in these forums, have I seen a discussion of conventional wisdom for content, but even less so for concept.

Conventional wisdom is quite an interesting concept, actually. I love thinking about it. I love trying to examine it. It is what helps us live/ survive from day to day without constantly proving ourselves. It is how people get sociological statistics or ideas in their minds without actually polling neighborhoods and countries. Two prime examples of how conventional wisdom comes into play in our daily lives:

1. In a conversation, two interlocutors (of varying academic background) can argue about a sociological phenomenon, cite statistics, studies, urban legends, and one person could convince the other of an idea without supporting her argument with a shred of academic evidence.
2. We are not surprised when a certain circumstance leaves us with a demographic cross-section disagreeing with us on a certain issue.

In more concrete terms, the first is the case of two friends talking. Here is a clip from their conversation:

Marie: I don’t think that’s true.
Bob: No, it is. I read it somewhere.
Marie: Really?
Bob: Yeah. They said it was cancerous.
Marie: Oh, wow.

It is not an accident that I choose the hypothetical convincee to be the female in the scenario above. Oftentimes we each choose in conversation to believe (note: this belief at any time is tentative and we often override it at a later time) a person simply because he states his opinion or idea emphatically. Males tend to be overly assertive (right or wrong) in this manner—not always, though. What it comes down to are these two questions: “Might this person actually have read this somewhere/ might this person have a real reason for believing this?” and “Am I intimidated by this person’s knowledge or confidence?” I will not be so haughty as to deny I have been a victim to such a circumstance, because it is the natural course of human conversation. That is an essential part of our development as human beings. We cannot and should not base our ideas on only that which is presented to us in an academic forum with substantial academic proof. We weigh what needs that kind of proof by our personal experience and feeling of what could or could not be right, which leads me to the second scenario.

Every human being who considers herself a “reasonable person” has at least two different types of beliefs: those of which she is conscious and those of which she is not. Sometimes the ones that she is not constantly conscious of are close enough to her consciousness to be easily retrievable. The reason that, without having done extensive sociological research, most people can go about their daily lives and usually not be surprised by the people they encounter on a day-to-day basis is that, whether we think about it or not, we develop our own (though often not fully articulated) sociological theories—based on our experiences—that may not be established enough to base academic sociology on but have at least limited application to a larger sociological theory. For instance, when I have taught children—both outside and inside the public school systems, I have found they usually hold to or at least make the appearance of holding to several, simplistic ideals of American culture:

We should treat others as we want to be treated.
We should care about social issues.
One person can make a difference.
You should not judge people by the color of their skin.
Education is important.

The degree to which said children (or even adults, though sometimes in modification or in still-conscious abandonment) adhere to the above principles is irrelevant to non-academic, personal sociological analysis. The key to understanding conventional wisdom as a concept is recognizing that some ideas, whether a certain individual agrees with them or not, are on the table. Conventional wisdom, pared down, is a factoid or value piece from the larg
er cultural puzzle. That is, if culture is the set of values, traditions, customs, languages, beliefs, etc. that those who surround us perpetuate as a group, regardless of our particular preference; then conventional wisdom is a more localized set of beliefs or values in one arena of culture.

There are three ways of categorizing knowledge, then:

1. Apparently Active Knowledge: the knowledge that is in question, in acceptance, in dispute, in the forefront of modern dialogue-each person knows that knowledge is out there, but may not herself “know” it to be true, nor know that anyone else truly “knows” it to be true.
2. Official Knowledge: the knowledge that learned in school, academic-sounding, backed up with statistics (accurate or inaccurate), likely to be found in books or journals.
3. Accumulated/ Operative Knowledge: the knowledge that has a carrier who may not even be consciously aware she is carrying such knowledge—it is based on the accumulated small pieces of input she receives from her daily interactions with other people.

Conventional wisdom is a cross-product of the three ways of categorizing knowledge. Thence, as regards race, I would label the different parts of teaching race in the following manner. The idea that students present (whether they themselves fully believe it or not) is that you should not judge a person by the color of her skin. This is Apparently Active Knowledge. It is an idea which is in the forefront of dialogues about race. People who “believe” this may, in fact, judge many people by the “color” of their respective skins. However, it is the safe, prescribed answer, which is out there, regardless of how many people think about its implications or fully believe every word of it. The idea that race actually correlates directly with the “color” of a person’s skin is debatable (but in pre-college forums is not debated!), and has to do with Official Knowledge. And, finally, the ideas which a person actually carries about race due to hearsay, personal experiences and a combination of Apparently Active and Official Knowledge is her Accumulated/ Operative Knowledge.

Bob: I hate white people.
Marie: You don’t really hate white people.
Bob: Yeah, I do.
Marie: That’s so bad.
Bob: Why is that so bad?
Marie: You can’t hate white people. Isn’t that racist, hating someone just because of the color of their skin?
Bob: No. Racism supports a system which oppresses non-white people. And race isn’t the color of one’s skin. And white isn’t a race. It’s an attitude.
Marie: Huh?
Bob: Yeah, all people of color know this to be true intrinsically, whether that shows in their outward expression or not.
Marie: No. That’s not true.
Bob: No, it is. I read a sociological study which surveyed the state of California. It’s true.
Marie: Oh, really?
Bob: Yeah.
Marie: Oh.

The above contrived conversation touches upon the reality of everyday conversation in ways directly related to the idea of conventional wisdom. First of all, I would like to propose that Bob knows before he begins talking with Marie that she will be shocked by what he has to say (In making a proposal, I am always asking the reader to, for a moment, make an assumption of a certain principle’s truth. I am also putting an idea on the discussion table that I believe is underplayed. Whether someone disagrees with what I have to say or not in proposing something does not hinder my goals: something must be on the table before anyone can agree or disagree with it). Bob’s knowledge here is an example of his Accumulated/ Operative Knowledge. He does not stop to think about where he has the idea that people may be shocked by, really, what is only his opinion. Everyone has the right to express her opinion. In the midst of conversation, though, we usually have a good sense of whether what we’re about to say is going to shock whomever we’re talking to or not. We haven’t done any demographics studies or even really thought about it. We just know this without even thinking about it. It’s an essential part of the knowledge we’ve accumulated over the years through our interactions with others. Sometimes it is not a generalization we extend to everyone. Our ideas of people’s reactions to what we say vary depending on said people’s national origins, circumstances for meeting us, depth of acquaintance with us, gender, social standing, academic background, speech/ language ability, age, sexual orientation, religion… a whole host of criteria. This type of conventional wisdom is unspoken. It is not on the table. It is not up for debate.

The type of conventional wisdom that is spoken is what Marie says in reply to Bob’s statement about white people: “Isn’t that racist, hating someone just because of the color of their skin?” She does not say, “That’s an intriguing idea. I’m not sure I agree with that completely. Can you explain your reasoning?” or “That’s funny—that’s exactly what I was thinking!” Marie tries to convince Bob that he may be wrong. She appeals to his inner sense of what is commonly thought. In a sense, she is saying, “Bob, don’t you remember conventional wisdom?” She follows her polite reminder with a flat-out command, “You can’t hate white people.” She has the confident assertion in her mind, without even contemplating it, that Bob has violated some rule of life. Although Marie tries to intimidate Bob out of his crazy ideas about white people, Bob also tries to intimidate Marie. He convinces her (at least for the ten seconds following their conversation) of a statistical possibility simply by reasserting himself forcefully. He uses the tools of personality, strong self-confidence and a “study” that, for all Marie knows, he could have pulled straight out of his ass.

I would like to propose that there are at least four types of readers who have made it thus far through my theoretical tirade:

1. The slightly (but probably traditionally) educated white liberal or conservative who believes that the parts of my essay she understands are total bullshit and the rest just confuses her.
2. The haughty academic who realizes in her heart that much of what I say is true yet dismisses these new ideas for the very reasons I am critiquing academic theory.
3. The earnest and educated soul who does not particularly like critical theory and is hoping that I will move on to a new topic, as some of what I’ve said may ring true to her ears, but most of it seems too esoteric.
4. A kindred spirit.