May 19, 2012

Some Assembly REQUIRED

So The Avengers is totally sweet!  It's damn near miraculous that the movie itself even exists, but the fact that it managed to be as great as it was makes it all the more amazing.  Don't worry, I'm not about to turn this into an in depth analysis of the Avengers (much), especailly when I know a few of you don't really care all that much about it.  That's cool...I've got something a little different in mind for how The Avengers will frame our topic.

One For All

A lot of things can be said about what The Avengers accomplishes just by it's very existence at this point in the history of media.  Even more can be said about what significance it has for the world of popular culture.  But I'm here to talk about what this movie has to say to it's audience about human nature itself. 

The Geek Age of Cinema (as I suspect it will come to be known) has brought us a lot of works based on intellectual property that has long been the exclusive domain of the comic book world.  While attempts at movies based on superhero comics are not exclusively a modern invention (Superman from the 70's or the Tim Burton Batman, for example), they've never had as wide an audience or as much variety as they have in the last decade.  In the last 5 years alone, we've seen the first appearance of Iron Man in live action, two renditions of the Incredible Hulk, a movie about the preposterous Thor, and a WWII pulp-film about Captain America, to say nothing of the rise of Christopher Nolan's Batman movies and the continuation of Spiderman's cinematic run. 

As impressive as all this is, though, I can't say it's been entirely a positive thing.  I've already touched on my issues with the "geek" community's response to their sudden popularity, and I don't want to rehash that when I've got something new to talk about.  Suffice it to say that the prevalance of the Super hero as a the all-encompassing mythology of the 21st century (in the US at least) hasn't had an exclusively positive impact on the cultural mindset of the current generation.  The good news, is that if you look hard enough, you'll see that The Avengers actually stands in stark contrast (see what I did there?) to the trend I'm referring to.  You see, what sets The Avengers apart from the pack is pretty simple, yet all-important: Teamwork.

As a part of the generation often called (disappointingly) Generation Y, I've had first hand experience of a rising culture that places an excessive emphasis on it's own radical individualism.  While I've certainly been guilty of this myself, I recognize that it's a problem that needs addressing.  I don't want to do that here, but it's worth mentioning that this overemphasis on individualism that I believe to be endemic to my generation has and will have some serious consequences if it isn't adequately addressed in some capacity. 

Back to our topic, though, I will say that I find it quite encouraging that The Avengers seems to make this point for me.  For the unfamiliar, the basic idea of The Avengers is that a team of Superheroes from various genres and series of their own (i.e. Iron Man, The Incredible Hulk, Thor, and Captain America) are brought together to take on a threat to the world.  That's all I'm going to say about the content of the film specifically so as not to spoil for anyone, but that's really all you need to know.   

In the age of the superhero that tackles the world alone and lives to tell about it every time (yes, comic book characters die, but be honest...they don't stay that way very long), it seemed like pop-culture itself was fueling this adolescent notion that we are both special and totally independent.  While I'm all in favor of taking responsibility for your own actions and am also a huge advocate of individual liberty, I also recognize that it has gone too far.  With everyone out for themselves in this terrible economy, it seems like there isn't a whole lot of reason to think that teamwork will benefit you in any tangible way.  An yet, that's exactly what The Avengers is here do something about.

You see, the basic formula for a Superhero movie up to the present can best be summarized by "take an extraordinary individual, give him/her extraordinary powers, and have him/her solve extraordinary problems all by his/her self".  This isn't a recent phenomenon, as the majority of these characters have existed in some form for almost a century at this point, but in doing things by this set of principles, the comics and their movie counterparts deprive themselves of the opportunity to speak to the social aspect of our nature. The Avengers, on the other hand sets out to do just that. In essence, the whole message of this awesome film can be boiled down to that metaphor about the bunch of twigs that can't be easily broken. 

The whole first hour-and-a-half of the film is spent deflating all our previously established heroes.  I won't say how or in what ways, but I will tell you that this is a brilliant move on the part of the writer (thank you, Mr. Whedon).  Obviously it seems like a trope of team movies that each individual member needs to be taken down a peg, but these aren't just any characters; they're our literal heroes from pop culture.  Think about this: having established four incredible individuals as our icons of worship and idolization over the last five years, this new mash-up has the presence of mind to take the wind out of their sails for more than half the movie.  That may be what fans were expecting, but I can't deny that it's good timing. 

With our heroes humbled with regards to their own individual prowess, the movie then proceeds to set up it's primary point; namely that we are stronger when we are brought together with real leadership.  The script isn't heavy-handed about it; it just makes damn sure that you get the message.  It's rare that ensemble stories do this so effectively.  More often than not, they end up just letting each hero do their own "thing" while they happen to share a framing story.  But The Avengers goes above and beyond by demonstrating how vital their coordination and cooperation is to their success. 

Had the movie just spelled that out and called it a day, that alone might have been enough, but it actually goes a step further.  This group of people, unlike some hero ensembles (the Matrix sequels come to mind) is genuinely diverse in it's skill sets.  Rather than use that as a an excuse to just show off the CGI (although, by Odin, does it), it takes the opportunity to illustrate how that diversity is key.  The fact is, without all six of the principle characters, the team wouldn't work.  Even more compelling, is that no one's role in this remarkable group effort is downplayed.  Absolutely everyone in this team gets a moment to shine, but they do it without upstaging someone else or at the expense of the leadership that got them there. 

We're running long so let me wrap this up.  In an age where more and more young men and women are growing up with such individualistic influences, it's a welcome breath of fresh air to see a hero story where the real "hero" is unity of purpose under strong leadership.  It's proof that there is true grandeur to be found in our capacity to work together.  I won't say that this film is perfect (hell, it's not even my favorite superhero movie), but I will happily sing it's praises for it's very welcome story of the triumph of the group and of the social animal that we have always been.

As always, if you have something to add to this discussion (about The Avengers or human social behavior, or anything in between), feel free to post it in the comments. 

Thanks for indulging me in this little foray into my over-excited mind.  Next time, I'll show you what I can do with nothing at all.

I'm Trevor, and that's my Frame of Mind.

May 3, 2012

It's In Our Selves

See? I told you my luck wouldn't last.  I promised this post "next week" almost 3 months ago at this point...yeesh.  Sorry about that.  Life really does just pile it on sometimes.  Well, now that I've dug myself out a bit, I gotta say it's good to be back.

Well I think that's enough preamble; we've already been putting this off for 3 months, so let's get into it.

Blame Over

First off, for those who were stumped trying to figure it out (which I assume is all of you since no one came forward with an answer), the title (and now titles) of my post are paraphrases from a line in William Shakespeare's Julius Caesar, wherein Cassius says "The fault, dear Brutus, is not in our stars,/ But in ourselves, that we are underlings."  (Julius Caesar, I, ii, 140-141).  This line was a commentary on the idea that in order to escape servitude, one must take responsibility for one's actions and work to correct it.  While I've not been talking about subservience explicitly in these posts, I think you'll find it's appropriate for what we're about to discuss.

When last I left you (sorry), we had explored how the act of assigning blame is akin to a threat.  Let me clarify one thing before we proceed: I do NOT think that a life-threatening moment (e.g. physical assault) is tantamount to blaming someone for messing up a project or whatever.  I drew the comparison only to point out that threats of any kind instill in us this Fight-or-Flight reaction, and it often does so out of proportion.  Any circumstance we find ourselves in where we feel vulnerable, exposed, or cornered invariably produces this kind of response to some degree, but the assignment of blame is ubiquitous enough that we need to find ways to mitigate that response.  I therefore submit to you my suggestions for how to fix some of the problems the blame game creates; and as the title suggests, it's in our selves:

1) Solve Problems Rather Than Punish Failure
A big part of the problem is just how eager we are to assign blame.  I haven't spent enough time abroad to know if this is uniquely American or not, but it does feel as though a huge portion of the population is very attached to the idea of blame.  I don't mean it in a sadistic way; just that a lot of people seem to take comfort in the notion that blame is both a way to get things taken care of while simultaneously relieving them of their own responsibility.  And you know what? I see the appeal.  Who wouldn't want to be completely exculpated?  It's normal and natural to want to be free of burdens (to an extent...another post, I promise), and it's also normal to want to simply be looked over when things get rough.  But it's not an excuse to start tossing out blame. 

As we already covered last time, blame is a type of threat (or is at least perceived as such).  Since threat almost invariably results in that cycle of pointing and deflecting, it only creates a hostile environment that feeds on its own hostility until someone in the scenario is unable to defend against it.  The result may be that something gets done, but even if it does, the damage caused to the psyches of everyone involved is NEVER worth it.  I can't think of any scenario where unsettling and even hurting our colleagues and coworkers has any benefit to solving problems in a collaborative environment.  Even in the interpersonal blame situations, I don't see how hurting someone over responsibility ever really improves matters.  I've only ever witnessed it killing productivity and straining relationships.  It reminds me of the expression "once bitten, twice shy" in that it's never easy to feel safe around someone who "bit" you with blame recently.  You might find a way to get along, but you'll never have the sense of confidence and trust in that person(s) you did before.  Besides, they already demonstrated that they can and will bite...who's to say they won't do it again?

So, basically, we need to take it upon ourselves to stop being so willing to blame others.  There will always be situations in life where you want to blame someone, however rightly, for your predicament.  Someone will make a mistake, someone will forget, or someone will do something wrong, and you'll be tempted to point fingers and accuse.  But instead of starting the blame game, try asking yourself "is blaming this person going to improve matters?"  I can already hear some of you saying "Of course it does! They need to know that what they did is wrong! If they never know that they did something wrong, they'll just keep doing it!"  True, but it's not the same as blaming them. You should DEFINITELY point out where and how something has gone wrong, but it's not necessary to dump a lot of threatening language and hostility on anyone.  Just explain, calmly and coolly, why what happened was bad, and more importantly, how they can fix it.  Remember, assigning responsibility is about problem solving, not about hurting.  There'll be a time and place to vent your frustrations, but this isn't it. Punishment doesn't usually get results, or at least, it usually doesn't get good results.  Encouragement and reinforcement, on the other hand, usually do.  

2) Consider Your Reaction to Blame
I've already made it pretty clear that I think that those who fixate on blaming don't have their heads in the right place, but I also want to stress that this isn't all on the blamers...the blamees need to do some work too.  Even if you've been rightly blamed for the inciting incident, how you react to being blamed can make all the difference.  It's unreasonable to expect everyone to just never blame again, so when they do inevitably point their fingers, we need to be prepared to meet it in a reasonable manner.  The tough part here is that you're fighting against instinct, so it's often hard, if not outright impossible, to preempt our reactions.  When it is possible, though, we need to react to blame calmly.  If at all possible, try to recognize that your accuser doesn't necessarily mean you any harm; they're just trying to fix a problem.  Even if they do mean you harm (which some of them might), focus on the knowledge that what needs to happen is that something must be fixed.  Try to re-frame the accusation as "I need you to fix this" as opposed to "you broke this".  If you can't fix it yourself, instead of fighting back, try to suggest a way it could be fixed or who might be able to fix it. I know it seems trivial or even stupid, but it's not.  We always respond better when we feel we're working towards something good rather than making amends for something bad.  Furthermore, other people will respond to YOU better if you show that you're willing to work with them rather than skirt responsibility altogether.

In the event that you've already gone into Fight-or-Flight mode, it's still not to late.  We all mess up, and we all get caught off guard once in a while.  The goal then, is to keep things from escalating.  Just back up and try to get to a place where you're not defending, and they don't feel the need to attack.  Keep the problem solving goal in your mind and work towards that.  I know it's hard not to go straight to defending yourself, but it's vital that we come to recognize that we don't really need to.  Even though blame is threat, it's still not truly harmful if we simply look past the threat towards the issue that needs addressing.  We owe it to ourselves and our peers to find this space of comfort with ourselves so we can all learn to be better problem solvers.  If you get good enough, you'll find that when you stop defending, you start encouraging those around you to stop attacking.  The thrill of assigning blame is gone, so there's less incentive for it to happen in the first place. 

This is on us, folks.  We need to find ways to both work around our instinct towards blame and get over our need to fight back.  There are more than a few obstacles to this process (none of which I have time to address here) and it'll be really uncomfortable when we're starting out.  However, like riding a bike or learning to swim, eventually we'll have internalized it so well, it may even surpass our instincts. No, I don't mean it'll completely replace fight-or-flight, just that it'll become second nature.  We'll be able to instantaneously move to a place where we can solve problems instead of assign blame.  It'll be tough, but I promise you that it's worth it. 

It may not be anyone's fault that we live in a world where blame is so pervasive, but that doesn't exempt any of us from trying to fix it.  It's tempting to say "that's just how things are; why should I be different?" and call it a day.  Lord knows I've said things like that myself, but I was just as wrong then as I would be now.  I'm not suggesting we should all be trying to change the world; all we have to do is change our selves and our little corner of it enough, and the world will follow suit.

If you've got any other ideas or suggestions for how we can address the problem of blame, post them in the comments.  I'm excited to hear what you've got to say.

Thanks for sticking with me through this.  I'll try and be more prompt with posts in the future. With that said, next time: something you can't blame me for.

I'm Trevor, and that's my Frame of Mind.