December 25, 2012

Lost in the Myth

As I write this, it's Christmas.  Given the general tradition of merriment involved with that holiday, I feel somewhat unhappy that I might have closed out the year on such a sad and unpleasant topic.  Not that I feel this particular year didn't deserve to end on a sour note, mind you.  So in the spirit of the holiday, I thought I'd return to form by delving into something thought-provoking and fun to think about: Santa Claus (sort of).

Yeah, yeah...I know; predictable.  So?  What's so bad about predictability?  Hell, half the reason we do the things we do is to establish some kind of predictability in our lives that reassures us that things are OK.  So to that end, I thought it'd be fun to take a closer look at an icon that is at once over-exposed and incredibly important to the culture of the US, if not the entire world.  Some of you are getting ready to pounce on comments section with a Wikipedia link proving that the Jolly-Old-Elf is just a creation of the Coca-Cola corporation to market their soft-drinks at the holiday.  Tell you what, I'll save you the time.  I'm fully aware that Coke "invented" the modern image of Santa Claus as a marketing strategy, and I'm here today to tell you

It's the Myth that Matters.

Don't get me wrong, I'm not trying to tell you to abandon all your cynicism or even that you should believe in Santa Claus against the evidence of your senses or reality itself; that would be ridiculous.  I think very highly of cynicism in today's world of deceit and psychological manipulation by marketing, and it's both sensible and healthy to maintain a level of skeptical and critical thinking to protect yourself.  But, I am also a big proponent of indulgence in mythology and the stories that inform the culture(s) around you.  With this "disclaimer" out of the way, let's dive in.

For those of you who only recently emerged from your nice protective rock, Santa Claus is the name given (in the US, anyway) to a fictitious being associated with the Christmas holiday who is often said to be responsible for bestowing presents on the good boys and girls of the world the night of Christmas eve so that those children can open them and play on Christmas morning.  Although there has been some variation over the years, he's generally depicted as fat and jolly, sporting a red suit with white trim, and an elven hat with a white tuft on the end of it and his preferred mode of travel is a sleigh led by a small herd of reindeer, including at least one with, well...."interesting" sinus issues. 

It is almost always said that Santa Claus is possessed of mystical or even magical powers of omniscience, i.e. that he can know if you're asleep or not and whether you've been well behaved throughout the year.  He is also apparently capable of travel across the globe with at least one toy for every good boy and girl in the space of a single night with no delays.  That's a pretty impressive feat given how hard it is for me just to get to work in the morning.  Barring some pretty esoteric exceptions, this is the basic image and description of Santa Claus as told to nearly all American children. Essentially, the story of Santa Claus that we're given is the story of a type of deity: an all-knowing and very powerful entity capable of great benevolence and willing to ignore or even punish those who's behavior is insufficiently "good" in his eyes. 

Given this basic understanding, I can see where the temptation towards "explaining away" Santa Claus as a marketing product or even a straight-up lie might come in.  Obviously, Santa Claus isn't "real" (Oh...uh...Spoiler Alert? Sorry) and many people feel that this representation of Santa Claus is a kind of extension of the morality code practiced by our society at large.  If the story goes that he's willing to pass up "bad" children, it's easy to see how this is a way of offering incentives towards "good" behaviors in order to help maintain the smaller and larger social orders.  And, of course, the main reason to be cynical about Santa's existence is that he actually is (to some extent) a product of marketing.  He's quite literally designed to be appealing to and indeed loved by children, thus having them associate positive feelings with their brand.  All this is perfectly valid criticism, and there's no way to sensibly deny any of the assertions about the "utilitarian" aspects to the Santa Claus myth.  However, on reflection, I'm forced to conclude that, in the end, ALL mythology serves a similar purpose to it's culture.  I could point to examples from ancient Egypt, or Greece to highlight this point, but I'm actually going to choose a completely different mythology to make my point: Batman.

No, you didn't misread that.  No, I don't think Batman and Santa Claus have much in common in terms of what they represent or how they're depicted.  What they do have in common, however, is that they are both cultural myths born of a profit seeking entity trying encourage a kind of brand loyalty while simultaneously offering their "followers" something to think about and believe in regarding the culture that created them.  Batman is a hero; a being who struggles and sacrifices in order to serve an ideal of justice that he has meticulously maintained in response to a tragedy in his past.  He has fine-tuned his willpower to the point where he will always strive to hold to this ideal, even when it comes into direct opposition to what he wants at the time. He uses an incredible arsenal of tools and gadgets to solve mysteries, aid him in combat, and gain access to information that others without his resources cannot.  He might be portrayed as a "mortal man", but make no mistake, he's nearly as omnipotent and omniscient as the red-coated cookie-fiend we've been talking about.  They're both symbolic representations of an ideal made flesh, and, by extension, they are both people we are meant, not just to admire, but to idolize.  We're meant to strive for the ideals they represent; in Batman's case, it's justice, and in Santa's case it's kindness and generosity of spirit.

So why couldn't we just tell children "seek justice in the world" or "be kind and giving"? Well, because, deep down at the core of what it is to experience our humanity, that just isn't enough.  Throughout all of human history, it has always been the case that we exemplify our ideals and values through these sort of "superhuman" mythologies.  As far back as the cave-men, we told stories of how nature itself punished those who weren't careful.  The ancient Greeks (see, I worked them in eventually) invented an entire pantheon of "supermen" who's stories speak volumes of the morality and values of Greek life.  The Holy Bible (and it's ilk) is, in essence, a story book of supernatural beings whose purpose is to convey a sense of right and wrong to its readers.  This is how we, as a species, need our world explained to us.  It has never been enough that something "is".  Even science fiction and fantasy stories are attempts to make absolutest statements about the scope and limits of the human condition by taking them to impossible lengths and then reaffirming that the condition persists even under such extraordinary circumstances.  As I already said in the last post: reality just isn't good enough. 

Does this mean that there's no value in simply stating the case in "non-fictional" terms?  Of course not.  In fact, the real problem with this kind of cultural myth-making is that people too often get so absorbed in the extraordinary, that they can often lose sight of what makes it so important: it's meaning is real, even if it's expression is not.  We shouldn't try to actually be Batman anymore than we should start giving out gifts by flying around in a sleigh led by reindeer.  To engage these stories in such a literal way is to miss the entire point of the mythology.  Humanity has always needed "gods" to worship, but we must take care that what we do in that act of worship doesn't take the form of blind belief, but rather a kind of introspective understanding of the meaning implicit in the story. 

Obviously, interpretations of these meanings will vary from one individual to another, depending greatly on personal experiences and environmental conditions, but the goal remains the same.  Put simply: don't believe in Santa Claus, but strive to understand what he means to you and those around you.  Who knows? You may even forget about Coca-Cola entirely.  Admit it, you kinda did, didn't you?

I wish you all a Happy Holiday if you are, in fact, celebrating one. Even if you aren't, I hope you'll look to your mythology of choice with a fresh eye. 

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

December 16, 2012

History of Violence

About two months ago, I opined that, while it's fun to harp on subjects like video-games not including women when they should, or Transformers including teen-angst when it shouldn't, the real world often gets in the way.  More specifically, reality occasionally presents us with circumstances and situations so grave and dire as to command our attention and force us to (hopefully) become more introspective and thoughtful about the larger issues of the world. 2012 has offered us more examples of this phenomenon in action than any other year of my (admittedly short) life; yes, even more than 9/11 over a decade ago.  I say this because, I can't remember a year more tarnished by violent crime stories (publicized ones, anyway).  It feels as though at least once a month there came a story in the news about a mass murder or a riot gone wrong. Unquestionably, the two that stand out the most (in my mind) this year, are the shootings in Aurora, Colorado this past July, and Sandy Hook, Connecticut barely more than a day ago, as of this writing. They had much in common which helps them stick in the memory: both were the actions of lone gunmen who slaughtered dozens in order to satisfy what can only be described as a twisted desire, and in both cases they took the lives of children and families unrelated to them as a part of their "campaign" to achieve their goals.

I don't want to dwell on how sick and vile the actions of these obviously very disturbed young men were, since I don't think anyone would dispute or question that.  And, in all honesty, it's not the part of this that sickens me the most.  While I fully sympathize with the families whose lives are, at best, shattered by their actions, I find myself much more aghast at the baffling number of debates that sprung up like weeds across the internet in the wake of these killings.  Now, I'm as big a proponent of open debate and argument as you can get, but even I am sincerely disturbed by the amount of moralizing, proselytizing and condemnation of one another that has made itself known.  In the end, what I write here today may serve as merely another voice amid the din, but I am compelled to weigh in, so to speak, on some of the various arguments I have heard over the last 24 hours that purport to be in the service of "solving our problem".  As such, this will not be a conventional essay, but rather a point-by-point reaction piece.  I can't promise I'll have an answer of my own to all of the questions this will raise, but where possible, I'll provide my suggestion. I had hoped to use this format for an entirely different purpose, but, as I already mentioned, reality beckons.

"We Must Improve our Care of the Mentally Ill"

This argument, I actually have no real gripe with as presented.  The human mind is a very complex and misunderstood thing, and it requires extensive study to grasp even it's most fundamental components.  As such, it's understandable that we have a fairly unimpressive system in place (in the USA, at least - I cannot speak for those of you living outside our semi-dysfunctional little piece of the globe) for dealing with mentally ill people.  It becomes doubly problematic when a significant portion (and I don't use that word lightly - ask your local statistician) of that "ill" population become violent as a consequence of their condition.  Just so we're clear: the people responsible for incidents like Sandy Hook and Aurora are clearly mentally ill. I don't have a degree in psychology or an MD, but it doesn't take advanced education (I'd say 8th grade is probably sufficient, really) to see that these are the actions of people whose minds plainly do not work properly.  Simply put, healthy people do not solve their problems through murder, and as such these two and the thousands out there like them, qualify as mentally ill.

Like I already said, I think it's unquestionable that we should improve our understanding of and care for individuals like this, but this question actually skirts a deeper and much more complicated issue.  How do you find these people to care for them in the first place?  One of the things that makes such individuals so frightening and unsettling is that their "improper" thinking grants them a kind of advantage over the majority of the population in that they are capable of moving through our social structures and behaving in ways that the rest of us couldn't even imagine.  Put more simply, since they don't think like us, they're incredibly difficult, if not impossible, to predict.  There's an especially twisted irony to the Aurora murderer's chosen moniker of "Joker" in that the character whose name he adopted is an anarchist whose atrocities are so frightening because they are "designed" to be utterly unpredictable and extremely lethal while coming from directions and places we always believed were safe; like for example a movie theater or a school-house.  With that in mind, I'm forced to ask: what improvements would be required, and what would we need to do to actually implement them in an effective way?  I don't have a good answer, but mostly because I feel the question itself hasn't been properly put.  There's little I can add to the discussion besides the caution that we can't afford to overlook the fact that the chaotic nature of such twisted minds provides obstacles that are extremely difficult to overcome. 

"The Media Should be More Responsible for Keeping Violence and Violent Content from Young People"

I mostly heard this kind of "solution" in connection with the Aurora massacre, but I've already started to see threads pop-up where people are starting to ask "Was he playing violent games or watching violent movies?" and I think it's important to nip this particularly dumb argument in the bud.  In all fairness, the argument is usually used as a short-hand for "I believe there is a connection between violent imagery in the media and violent behavior in individuals who consume such", and I can't preclude that possibility.  BUT, the trouble with this line of reasoning is that it is exclusively a possibility at this point in the research.  To wit: no study has conclusively demonstrated a causal link between, say, violent games and violent crimes, but they also have not disproved any such connections either.  In accordance, this particular line of reasoning needs to be filed into the same kind of "possible scenarios" as "I could be hit by a bus tomorrow"; it's technically true, but practically irrelevant. 

While it's absolutely the case that exposure to something like The Dark Knight may have been the proverbial straw for the Aurora shooter, there's no way to have known that before hand.  No one creates violent content in their entertainment with the knowledge that it would inspire anybody to commit unspeakable acts.  Anders Behring Breivik (the perpetrator of the Oslo Massacre in Norway in 2011) claimed to have used Call of Duty: Modern Warfare 2 (a first-person-shooter game, for those who don't know) as a "training simulation" for his eventual slaughter of dozens of men, women, and children.  While that is undeniably "a link" between his behavior and "violence in games", it's not the same thing as stating that "the violence in the game caused his violent behavior in reality", and it's definitely not the case that anyone at Treyarch (the studio that produces the franchise) was thinking that it would.  As I previously mentioned, these people "think badly" about the world around them, and aren't subject to the same influences on their behavior as "normal" people.  The banning or censoring of media content, might slow down these kinds of people, but they certainly won't stop them, and they aren't causally linked in the way the argument seems to want them to be.  We really need to abandon this line of thinking.  Entertainment is not problematic because it portrays unsavory things; people are problematic for failing to distinguish between fantasy and reality.

"Other Countries Don't Have As Many Gun-Related Deaths as the US"

Again, as presented, all I can say is "facts are facts"; this one is just plain true.  If you read the statistics published (and you trust them, as I do) you'll see that the United States simply has a MUCH higher rate of gun-related violence and deaths as a result of gunfire than many developed countries. We aren't always the worst, but we're firmly in the higher rankings in terms of "Number of Gun-Related Deaths".  There's NO disputing this no matter what political agenda you claim to support.  Numbers don't lie.  Having said that, people most assuredly do, and people can use raw numbers to justify just about anything for just about any agenda, even where it's not appropriate.  I'll deal with gun-control in just a moment, but before we address that oh-so-delightful topic in detail, I do have something to add to this "Other-Country Comparison" argument that I never hear in these kinds of debates (at least not sanely). The US is a nation born of gunfire. Calm down, now. I don't intend to justify our clear and present obsession with firer-arms, the second amendment and "gun-play"; I only intend to explain why the international comparison isn't as sound as many (myself included) would like it to be.  Even if we decide to narrow the range of compared nations down to just "Western Civilization", the comparison doesn't really hold up upon inspection from a historical perspective.

If we look at the history of warfare in, say, Europe, (which I will now attempt in as short a window as possible, so please don't take this as anything other than a very incomplete summary) we can see that it evolved along a very clear progression of advancements in technology.  From the simple brawl, to the blade, to the bow-and-arrow, to the first guns (around the time of the Renaissance), Europe's international warfare followed what could only be described as the natural progression of violence.  Tools grew more complex as the wars and the reasons to fight them became more complicated.  In essence, by the time the nations of Europe had firearms, they had already established a sort of national appreciation for and understanding of "The Art of War".  No matter how you may feel about that particular concept, it's clear that European scholars of all stripes were attempting to understand conflict between nations as something approximating a "civilized practice" that had rules, and behavioral restrictions.  Thus, the advent of the gun was merely the introduction of new possibilities and applications for warfare at a given level.  In essence, the mental discipline of the civilized warrior is established and functional, and all that was changed was the tool of conflict. 

The United States, on the other hand, came into existence fairly late in the game of life.  At not even 300 years old, the USA doesn't have the centuries of development and sociopolitical evolution behind it that Europe does.  "But the US began life as a European colony!" I hear you say.  True, but that's actually part of the problem.  The US came to existence well after the advent of the gun and was born as a response to English tyranny.  With guns already established in that era as the tool of choice for combat, the not-as-established colonists of the new world (as opposed to those whose lives are part of a lineage going back centuries), looked to the gun as a symbol of empowerment and freedom from oppression.  In short: the US was created from violent rebellion. From its very inception, the commitment to and positive association with guns was an integral part of the American identity.  It's so engrained, that we have an entire amendment to our constitution specifically stating that people have a right to such weaponry.  So is it unreasonable to feel that America's gun-related death rate is too high?  Not at all.  But, I will say that attempts to point at other parts of the world are slightly less apt than they might seem.  With a history of gun violence going back to the very founding of the nation, it's only natural that modern-day America would cling to it's fondness for guns and the sense of power they instill in many of its citizens.

"Gun Control Laws Must Become Harsher/Gun Control Laws Should Not Be Changed"

And with that "history" in mind, let's get into this.  This is obviously the biggest, and most contentious issue to have emerged in the wake of these tragedies.  It's an endless back-and-forth with proponents of gun-control claiming that the laws should be made more strict so as to limit gun sales, and their detractors arguing that either the laws won't stop the problem or that more guns would have helped prevent these incidents.  Neither side ever gains much ground and the arguments proceed on ad infinitum with both sides simply making a case and then either talking past the opposition or refusing to acknowledge some critical detail that might yield some change in thought.

In the interest of full disclosure, here's where I'm coming from psychologically: I hate guns. Not weapons, mind you; I have no problem with tools of combat in principle.  I collect swords and knives, I play violent games, watch violent movies and TV, and I'm not against some members of society having guns of their own.  What I hate about guns is the level of removal required for one to use a gun as a tool of conflict.  The physical usage of the gun requires a level of removal from your own conflict that I consider to be both dishonorable and more importantly, psychologically unsettling.  As I may have mentioned back in October, I don't object to open conflict, but I do object to the removal of oneself from said conflict.  Basically, what I'm getting at is that guns remove YOU from your own conflict and thus dehumanize the situation and rob it of any meaning it might have possessed.  What sword-combat or even a basic fist-fight have over guns is that they force the participants to confront one another and remain intimately involved in the nature of combat.  This "human element" to violence is essential to keeping conflict "civilized" if you believe such a thing is possible. 

So where do I stand on gun control?  Well, it's best summarized as follows: Reinstate the Military Draft Policy.  No, I'm not kidding.  It's quite obvious to me that as a nation, the United States will never give up its guns.  It's equally obvious that "gun rights" have enough of a lobby in Washington to remain where they are with minimal intervention.  As I already said, I don't actually object to people possessing guns, but I am opposed to perpetuating a culture that misunderstand, mistreats, and abuses the privilege and responsibility of owning such a dangerous tool.  I firmly believe that part of the "gun-happiness" associated with American culture comes from the fact that while we extol the virtues (historically and presently) of possessing firearms, we don't reinforce the idea that to do so is to take on a tremendous burden.   But you know what demographic (on the whole; there are always exceptions) seems to really understand the responsibility associated with guns? Soldiers.

Had the US kept the Draft, I firmly believe that this romantic attachment to guns would be diminished at this point in our history.  If a comparison must be made to other nations (for example Switzerland) and their treatment of guns, this would be the sticking point.  Nearly all of those "better than us" nations have a mandatory military service policy.  Soldiers don't treat their guns as the tool of personal empowerment we often think of them as.  These are the implements by which these brave men and women must survive their circumstances.  No glory-seeking, no one-man army heroism; these are people who use guns to protect themselves, their allies, and indeed their entire country from harm that might befall them.  I submit to you that were military service mandatory in the US, we would see a noticeable decrease in gun-related violence and a lot fewer incidents like the ones in Aurora and Sandy Hook. 

Something Must Change

Time for my contribution to the discussion. It's undeniable that this issue is incredibly complex and obviously my lone suggestion is no more guaranteed to work than any other.  But to bring this all back to where we came from, the real problem with the gun-control discussion is that it always results in inaction.  It doesn't have to be my suggestion that gets implemented, but something must be.  Those who would say "don't bother, cause it won't change anything" are essentially insisting that the way things are is acceptable.  It's certainly possible that stricter gun laws might not improve matters, but doing nothing certainly won't.  The only way things ever change is if we take action to change it.  So it must be with guns, or we condemn ourselves to our present circumstances and nothing more.

I can't possibly imagine what must be going through the minds of the people whose lives were up-ended on the days of these tragic events.  But I can tell you what each and every one of them will think eventually: something must be done so that this never happens again.  Like any good realist (or cynic, depending on perspective, I suppose) I know we'll never be rid of incidents like these completely, but that's not an excuse to not try.  I don't claim to know what needs to change, but I know that we can't accept the way things are.  Reality, simply put, isn't good enough....yet.  Hard as it may be, we need to use moments like these as a time to seriously think about change.  It's inevitable that things will change, anyway; shouldn't we want it to be for the better? Perhaps more critically, shouldn't we want it to change on our terms?

Please feel free to use the comments to add your thoughts on the matter or even to express your feelings in the wake of the recent tragedy.  My heart goes out to all the survivors and their families.  I can't begin to comprehend your pain, and I hope, perhaps against hope itself, that it is short-lived. 

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