Tuesday, April 30, 2013

Criticism does not equal racism

What is the purpose of a cultural critic?

The strictly practical answer is: To give readers/listeners guidance on what to spend their entertainment dollars on – and what to avoid like green hamburger.

The esoteric answer is: To express a personal opinion in an entertaining way.

At its core, cultural criticism is opinion – practiced opinion, regular opinion (example: Friday movie reviews), but just as much opinion as what you tell your friends after you step out of the theater. 

No piece of culture gets universal critical praise – or disdain. Some critics hate The Wizard of Oz – if you don’t believe me, take a look at this. And this. And this. Some critics – well, this guy at least – love Freddy Got Fingered. (I will not live long enough to see all the movies on the list before I can even think about watching FGF.)

In the end, the cultural critic answers the questions: Is this good? Should you, dear cultural consumer, partake?

Which gets me to this question: What does race have to do with it? 

Enter, stage left, Mr. Tyler Perry.

Tyler Perry is an entertainment industry unto himself, constantly creating product for screens both large and small. And “product” is the correct word.

(Pause to allow Meandering Mouse to put on her cultural critic hat)

Tyler Perry’s intended audience is made up of simple-minded folks who see the world in black and white (metaphorically speaking) – good is good and evil is evil, and you will live happily ever after once you allow Jesus into your heart (and no, not the Jesus of The Big Lebowski). Mr. Perry’s sitcoms are as funny as a snake chowing down on a rat, and most of his movies are a disconcerting hodgepodge of crass slapstick and gooey melodrama – like a particularly bad episode of Punky Brewster (there were never any good ones).

Wait. I forgot to tell you that Mr. Perry is black, as are most of the actors in his films and television shows.

Does that matter? It shouldn’t.

However, some white critics feel obliged to pull their punches when it comes to Mr. Perry. Lindy West, a columnist for the website Jezebel.com, expressed hesitation about critiquing Mr. Perry’s work because she is a “white lady”:

It's not healthy to suppress or avoid cultural debate, but it's also not healthy to ignore situational realities. Being cognizant of inequality doesn't mean literally treating everyone the same, because everyone's experience isn't the same. To act otherwise is to pretend that history and prejudice and systemic imbalances aren't real. You might as well announce that you "don't see color" because your cousin dated a Lebanese guy once. In a roundabout way, to treat everyone equally is to deny inequality.

Ms. West, you are right: everyone’s experience isn’t the same. But the difference does not divide neatly between races. There is no universal “black experience,” just as there is no universal white experience, Asian experience, etc. 

And what is wrong with seeing people as people first, not as colors? If we’re going to start assuming facts about people by the color of their skin – not the content of their character, or how they behave – then what the hell did Martin Luther King, Jr. die for?

I grew up in the 1970s. That means I grew up with the ideal of a rainbow of kids having fun together, just like on Sesame Street, and no one made one peep or fuss about race. We’re not quite at that ideal yet – but it’s an ideal still worth reaching and striving for – not a world where everyone stands defensively behind their cultures, pointing their fingers at the others and whining, “You wouldn’t understaaaaand.” (Ever hear of something called empathy?)

Where is this world that today’s sociologists talk about – a world divided between the “privileged” whites, greedy and grasping and taking everything that’s not theirs, and the “marginalized” “people of color” (aside: isn’t white a color, too?), the eternally helpless victims of The Patriarchy? It’s not the world I see in front of me. Thank goodness I can still see the shades of gray.

Now, back to cultural criticism.

All artists – no matter who they are, where they came from, and (certainly) what color their skin calls on the color spectrum – deserve the respect of honest criticism. Even though it makes my hands itch to type this, Tyler Parry counts as an artist, too. 

If you would pull your critical punches to avoid offending the “middle-aged, working-class black Christian woman” (Ms. West’s words) who is Mr. Perry’s intended audience, you are no critic at all. (And who says all middle-aged, working-class black Christian women are Perry fans in the first place?)

Call me racist, call me sexist, call me privileged, call me clueless – I can accept being accused of all of those things. But I cannot accept being called dishonest – and I won’t let that happen.

Tuesday, April 23, 2013

Can anyone help me out here?

Photo credit: stock.xchng

Can anyone tell me what is so funny about a wife cutting off her husband’s penis?

I felt a shudder of distaste just typing those words. However, I must (but I will go no further; you will have to find out the rest of the story in the link) in order to make a point.

On the way home from Trader Joe’s last week, I was listening to the Bill Carroll show on KFI. Carroll is no progressive, but he is far less obnoxious than Rush Limbaugh or John and Ken. That afternoon, Carroll and a female co-talker (maybe it was the news reader – I do not remember) were talking about this story. Both agreed that men would cringe when they heard it – but women would laugh.

I wouldn’t laugh.

I wouldn’t laugh because cutting off other people’s body parts is just not funny. (Not even in a Weird Al parody.)

For those who would say, Lighten up, Meandering Mouse – what’s a little joke about “Bobbittizing”?, I have this answer:

Would it be funny if it was a story about a husband who cut off his wife’s breasts? Or clitoris?

Thought so.

Monday, April 15, 2013

The hell with you, Unicru

Imagine applying for a low-paying job in retail or fast food. In your heart, you really don’t want to work at this place; however, you have tried to find a better job but couldn’t. So you fill out your application and wait. 

If you are lucky, you then get the opportunity to take a personality test. A long personality test, 50 to 100 questions on average, with statements like these after which you are to indicate Strongly Agree, Agree, Disagree, or Strongly Disagree:

“You are a friendly person.”

“You keep calm when under stress.”

“You could not deal with difficult people all day.”

“You show it when you are in a bad mood.”

Those sound fair enough for a job in which you will need to deal with the public, and the public will not always be in a good temper. Yes, ideally you will be friendly and calm, and be able to deal with difficult people without showing a bad mood.

But then you may see these statements as well:

“It is maddening when the court lets guilty criminals go free.”

“When you are done with your work, you look for more to do.”

“Other people’s feelings are their own business.”

“You have to give up on some things that you start.”

How do you answer those questions? Are the “guilty criminals” drug users or murderers? When you are done with your work, you may look for more work to do, or you may stop because it’s quitting time, or you may be just too tired to do any more meaningful work. How much do you need to know about other people’s feelings? And don’t you have to give up on some things in order to start new and better things?

Not according to the Unicru test, which is a product of Kronos, a creator of human resources tools. (“Human resources tools” – I don’t like the sound of that.)

Timothy Horrigan, who has a MBA in marketing from USC, did some research on pre-employment personality tests and came to these conclusions:

1. Always answer Strongly Agree or Strongly Disagree – don’t be ambiguous.

2. Give answers which make you look cheerful, outgoing, patient, humble, and willing to do anything the job requires – no matter what.

3. Don’t give even a hint of introversion.

Mr. Horrigan has helpfully provided a key to the questions you may be asked on a personality test. I read this key, and I know one thing for sure: I would have to kick honesty to the curb in order to “pass” this test.

“Any trouble you have is your own fault.” Not always.

“You do not fake being polite.” Isn’t that an essential skill of a service job?

“You have no big regrets about your past.” Who doesn’t?

“You know when someone is in a bad mood, even when they don’t show it.” What are you, Betazoid?

“You love to listen to people talk about themselves.” Unless they’re bores.

(All of the questions above are Strongly Agree according to the key.)

Then we have statements that are similar, but have contradictory “right” answers: 

“You give direct criticism when you need to.” (Strongly Agree)

“You criticize people when they deserve it.” (Strongly Disagree)

And then we have the statements which weed out the introverts:

“You chat with people you don’t know.” 

“You like to be in the middle of a big crowd.”

“You like to talk a lot.”

“You are a fairly private person.”

“You are unsure of yourself with new people.”

“You do not like small talk.”

“You ignore people you don’t like.”

“You like to be alone.”

If you don’t know you should answer Strongly Agree to the first three statements, and Strongly Disagree to the rest, you will probably fail the test.

I know I would.

But think about this:

Would you have a problem with service from an introvert who wasn’t a Chatty Cathy, but could be patient and helpful?

Would you not have a problem with a service person who yakked your ear off about subjects not related to what you were there for? 

Isn’t it strange that employers, who would almost always say “yes” if asked if they wanted honest employees, would give a test that only a liar could pass?

Does that sound logical to you?

Friday, April 12, 2013

We pay dearly for cheap forgiveness

Photo credit: stock.xchng

I have had forgiveness on the brain recently.

Not only because I recently re-read The Sunflower, which is one-half Simon Wiesenthal’s narrative about meeting an SS soldier who wanted forgiveness from a Jew for his crimes, one-half the opinions of a pan-religious panel of thinkers, but also because of a a recent Slate.com post from Simon Doonan, who usually writes about matters of style but here tackles the thorny matter of forgiveness and when – or if – to give it.

Doonan tells of a good friend of his who was murdered – one of the worst ways of dying. At the funeral, the preacher suggested that it was “not too early to start thinking about forgiveness.” Actually, it was too early, much too early – and a person of any sensitivity would have realized it.

When it comes to murder, the time for forgiveness may be never.

Simon Wiesenthal listened patiently to the SS soldier’s tale of growing up as a “good son,” but ending up as the kind of person who would herd Jews into a house, set the house on fire, and shoot anyone who tried to escape. When the soldier asked Wiesenthal to forgive him on behalf of all Jews, Wiesenthal walked away without a word.

In a point which was reiterated over and over again in the second half of The Sunflower, Jewish theology insists that one cannot forgive on behalf of others – which means that murder can never be forgiven, because the victim is unable to do so. This is a belief that makes perfect sense to me, even though I practice no religion myself.

Christians, on the other hand, forgive even the worst crimes – or feel that they must – because it is What Jesus Would Do. In Matthew 18:21-22, Peter asks Jesus how many times he should forgive his “brother.” Jesus answers, “I do not say to you, up to seven times, but seventy times seven.” (That adds up to 490 times you should forgive – no word on what happens at #491).

According to the Bible, the only unforgivable sin is blasphemy against the Holy Spirit – which makes the Holy Spirit look like an insecure narcissist, at best. 

That is one of many reasons why I am not, and never will be, a Christian. Asking people to forgive no matter what – the father who raped you, the stranger who terrified you with a gun, the government who enslaved you – is not only unrealistic, it is inhumane.

It is OK to be angry, and stay angry, about such atrocities. Even Yoko Ono, who has dedicated her life to peace, does not forgive her husband John Lennon’s murderer – and I don’t blame her one bit.

If everything can be forgiven – and must be forgiven – can wrong even exist?

Doonan put it this way:

“At one time, knowing that some actions are beneath the valley of the forgivable—the Holocaust, murder, rape, animal cruelty—gave our existence a little structure. All we have are our teensy, fragile, tutti-frutti lives. If taking them away is forgivable, then we are left vulnerable, blowing in the wind, clutching our handbags and manbags, and hoping for the best.”

I would rather live in a world where it is not only OK, but it is a matter of fact that some acts are beyond the reach of forgiveness.

If you want to forgive your loved one’s murder, go right ahead. 

But don’t tell me that I must do the same. 

Because I won’t.

Wednesday, April 10, 2013

Fauxpologies, schmauxpologies

 Photo credit: Microsoft Clip Art (text is mine)

You know what the “fauxpology” is all about:

“I’m sorry that you were offended.”

“I meant no harm.”

“I was only joking.”

Blah blah blah.

Now, some of you want something more. You want a real apology. An apology that not only knows that what was said was wrong wrong wrong, but comes with a promise that it will never happen again, and if I should inadvertently offend again, I will prostate myself to your mercy.

What about this novel idea?

Let’s not give a damn about the fauxpologies.

Hoping for a real apology from someone who is not really sorry is like hoping to redo childhood so that it’s happy happy joy joy.

It’s not going to happen.

Give it up, and choose to be happy anyway.

When wrong is done to me, I would far prefer justice to apology.

And sometimes, justice comes in the form of not giving a damn about past insults and being happy anyway.

Stop wishing and hoping that professional trolls like Rush Limbaugh or Ann Coulter will see how wrong they have been all these years. (Especially when being wrong is mega-profitable.)

If someone speaks in a tone-deaf way – write about it, for sure. Expose it to the light of reason.

But do not expect or demand apology, for it may not come in the way you wish.