Addendum

[CW: bigotry]

Stumbled onto Dan Fincke’s lengthy defense of Charlie Hebdo in my feed reader, so I decided to see how it addressed my own point. It didn’t, really, just making the tired “it’s okay because they’re liberal” argument that holds water about as well as most sieves. Fincke specifically brings up South Park’s hilarious use of antisemitism used to skewer antisemites and Colbert’s anti-rightwing schtick, conveniently ignoring1 all the times both those shows have, despite liberal (or left libertarian in South Park’s case) intentions, crossed well into racist, misogynist, transphobic, or otherwise bigoted territory, without making the bigots the butt of the joke. Read some trans people’s writing on the number of jokes at their expense on primetime TV someday. It rather takes a lot of wind out of the sails of those arguments.

But Fincke brought up one point in the process that’s worth tackling specifically.

And, to the point of stereotypical depictions, Ashley Miller has made the important point that the medium of political cartoon inherently plays in caricature. It plays on over-exaggerated imagery. It’s a stylistic element of the medium. Everyone usually looks awful or stereotyped in a political cartoon. That’s usually the point.

Yeah, no. It’s true, caricature is an art of exaggeration, whether it’s racist or not. The problem is when caricaturists rely on racist imagery, rather than their actual subjects, to make their caricatures. Take, for instance, most right-wing political cartoons featuring Barack Obama2. You’ll find a litany of bulbous noses and big lips, which (as this cartoon by Shmorky points out) are not features that Obama possesses. Rather than caricaturing a person, Barack Obama, who has a very caricaturable face, they fall back on caricature shorthand for black people that dates back to Al fucking Jolson.

The same is true for the Charlie Hebdo cartoons that have made the rounds lately. So many Muslim men with turbans, thobes, bushy beards, and big hook noses; so many Muslim women in burqas. Why is that? Muslim women wear a wide variety of different garb, depending on their particular denomination, from simple scarves and hijabs to the more restrictive niqabs and burqas. Muslim men have more clothing diversity, and both genders have far greater diversity than the cartoons would suggest. If Islam isn’t a race, why is every Muslim drawn as an Arab caricature3? Even if it weren’t racist, it’s lazy.

But then, lazy caricature often trades in racism, because racism is the laziest form of caricature. No need to consider anything about the people, what they look like, how they behave, just reduce them to a set of signifiers determined by their skin color.

Fincke links positively to Understanding Charlie Hebdo, a website that helpfully seeks to explain the cartoons for a non-French-speaking audience. That site compares Charlie Hebdo to Mad Magazine, which seems apt. Mad Magazine is also a humor publication that skewers current events with a left-leaning bias, and Mad also trades heavily in cartoonish caricatures of their targets. Mad also has a long history of bigoted cartoons that aren’t covered by the blanket immunity of “they’re liberal!” or “no, no, the bigots are the punchline!” because the bigots, very clearly, are not the punchline. And lest you think that cherry-picking the most easily-found images from the ’70s demonstrates that it’s no longer a problem, here’s one that drew some understandable heat in 2013.

Being liberal, making fun of bigots, and using caricature are all well and good. They are not, however, things that prevent your work from serving bigotry of one sort or another. That requires more thought, more consideration, and more awareness of context. Folks like Fincke want us to consider these French cartoons in the larger context of the magazine’s politics and French culture, but to ignore the larger context of a long, worldwide history of racist and homophobic imagery, and the splash damage caused by using that imagery, the way it undermines any intended message of anti-racism. Wouldn’t this cartoon be more effective at lampooning racists if it didn’t feature a black caricature who could have been traced from a 1940s Spirit comic? Wouldn’t this cartoon have been more effective if it didn’t think replicating racist imagery were the same thing as lampooning it?

In science and skepticism, we often talk about the Galileo Gambit, where cranks will compare themselves to Galileo because his ideas were rejected too. I’m starting to think we need an Onion Gambit: “It is not enough to wear the mantle of satire; you must also be good at it.”


1. Fincke acknowledges some of South Park’s issues with transphobia later in the post, but doesn’t seem to see the actual distinction. From Fincke’s perspective, apparently, all targets are fair game for whatever caricature the satirists decide to use. The problem is only when the content of the satire is actually false. I think the problem is when the satire feeds into or relies on stereotypes that have, traditionally, been used to demean and oppress the underprivileged. It’s especially egregious when the target of the satire is not the stereotype itself (South Park’s transphobia, the Asian caricature that led to #CancelColbert), but even material which tries to make bigots the butt of the joke often falls flat. Fred Clark wrote a piece awhile back that often comes to mind when this topic comes up. Making fun of bigots by exaggerating actual bigotry is a difficult tightrope walk for even very talented comedians and satirists, and we shouldn’t be surprised when they occasionally stumble. But saying that those stumbles aren’t problematic because the satirist usually has good intentions ignores the difference between intent and outcome, and robs us of a conversation that often needs to be had. Why is the joke/caricature/etc. problematic? Where does it come from? Why was it thought to be funny? Dissecting those issues often gets us to the messy world of how we all absorb and sometimes repeat bigoted stereotypes without thinking. These missteps should be opportunities for us to talk about how bigotry works, how to be more aware of splash damage, more compassionate. Getting defensive and saying “nuh-uh because liberal” only perpetuates the problem.

2. The special case is Ted Rall. Rall is a leftist cartoonist who drew fire in 2013 for cartoons that depicted Barack Obama in a decidedly apelike fashion. Those defending Rall pointed out that he depicted everyone in a decidedly apelike fashion. He and his defenders thought this equal treatment meant that the cartoons weren’t actually racist. I think it’s a prime example of the problem with “equal opportunity offense.” Things that aren’t really problematic when done to privileged groups aren’t so benign when they feed into or draw from a context of bigotry and oppression. It’s one thing to draw George W. Bush like a chimp. Dude looks like a chimp. But drawing Obama to look like a chimp, when he doesn’t, and when there’s a huge history of cartoons and propaganda and pseudoscience about how apelike black people are, when “monkey” is a slur, it means you may have to rethink your stock caricature.

It also shows what a lazy, shitty artist Ted Rall is.

3. To be entirely fair to Charlie Hebdo, many of these caricatures are of Muhammad, who was Arabian. The fact that Muhammad is basically indistinguishable from any other male Muslim in their cartoons, however, is a problem.

If this happened, it would be real news

Who was John Galt?

“Who is John Galt?”

No doubt all the parasites back in so-called “civilization” would be abuzz with variations on that question. John Galt didn’t care. In just a few short hours, he would have his vindication and his solitude. For–how long had it been? Weeks? Months? No matter, it was as though his whole life had led him to this point–for some time, Galt had been gathering up the best and brightest, whose lights had been dimmed beneath society’s overbearing bushels. The greatest in science and industry, the arts and agriculture: Today, they would finally begin casting society away and releasing themselves from its choking grip, leaving the parasitic masses to their own insipid devices.

The plan was flawless. Galt had procured a sailing ship, small and innocuous, which would whisk his luminaries away from the world of fools and freeloaders. Galt’s Gulch had been a pleasant enough stopgap, but it was still too connected. To truly withdraw, they would need an island, self-sufficient and seculded as he and his companions hoped to be. It was a trivial matter to find a mighty sailing man, another shining light in his own field, and together they found a tropical paradise, undiscovered by any previous human being, unrecorded on any map. Galt remembered when they first set down on its sandy beach, after confirming that it was the secret sanctuary they’d hoped it might be.

“What should we call it?” asked his First Mate.

“We?” Galt laughed. “My small friend, did not your taut sinews steer our vessel? Did not your steely eyes spot this land? Did not your keen mind set our course? Did not your years of experience guide us to this wondrous location? You should not give up the fruits of your achievements, my friend. The spoils go to the victor, not the victor’s passengers! You found this island, and so you shall be the one to name it!”

“In that case,” the mate said thoughtfully. “I suppose I should name it after myself, so everyone knows who found it.”

Galt slapped the mate playfully with his sailing cap. “Now you’re beginning to understand!”

That first round trip, including all the surveying to ensure that it carried the necessary provisions and was not likely to disappear beneath the waves or a flow of lava, took scarcely three hours. Though time was precious, three hours was a small price to pay for a freedom unlike any ever before experienced since that primordeal Prometheus had his invention of fire stolen by cave-dwelling parasites, resulting in that first detestable “community.” Or perhaps it went back farther, back to the oceans, back to the first fish to grow beyond the confines of his pond, to leave the waters behind. Surely it was that, or be devoured by hordes of ravenous minnows.

Galt laughed at the irony, for today just such a Minnow would allow these big fish to escape their suffocating pond. And at that moment, he saw the cars pull up, carrying his friends, his peers, itching to leave this world behind.

Of course, that freedom was still some ways off. The island had no amenities, no touches of the modern world that his kind had built, and those comforts would be forthcoming. John Galt needed only send a few short telegrams, make a few enticing offers, and his island paradise would have all the benefits–and none of the demerits–of the modern world. But his people deserved to see the island in its raw form, like ore before it is mind, like a blueprint before it becomes manifest in reality. Three hours hence would he get to the telegraph, and his plan would be almost complete.

John Galt stood at the edge of the dock, welcoming each passenger aboard, before following the Mate onto the ship himself. “My friends, we stand on the horizon of a new dawn. Today, we loose our chains, today we glimpse our freedom, today we achieve the dreams of our ancestors! Imagine those who came before us, the geniuses and inventors who longed to rid themselves of the fleas that infested their societies. Imagine if they had succeeded! The world we leave behind today would be without phones, without lights, without motorcars, bereft of the luxuries that they have plundered from our progenitors! They would be as primitive as they deserve to be.” There was a rumble of thunder. “Hear that? That is the sound of the boulder rolling away, my friends! That is the sound of our shackles hitting the ground. The weather may be getting rough ahead, but I assure you, far rougher weather awaits the society we leave behind, for they must ride out the storm without our help!” A cheer rose up from the crowd. Galt smiled.

“This is my ship, but I relinquish the notion of militaristic rank. I will not be your captain; I will not declare myself your superior. No, on this journey, I will be the “skipper,” for what are we doing if not skipping out on the obligations that society’s parasites have loaded onto our backs? For once, for the first time, I am among peers–my mate, of course, the mightiest of sailing men, a millionaire and his wife, a movie star, a professor, and Mary Ann–why, you might as well be Demeter for your skill in the fields! Today, my friends, my equals, we set forth for a new land. Today we set foot on the island that will soon be transformed into our individualistic utopia. Today, in this three-hour tour, we will build the foundation of a new life, and we will do it on a land named for this man here, who discovered it himself and earned his right to be among us!” He placed an arm around the mate’s shoulders. “Today, we journey to…Gilligan’s Island!”

In their own words

I have seen tweets over the last few months from people vowing never to read FreethoughtBlogs because they heard that FreethoughtBlogs is purported to condone groupthink, and comments in response to various blog posts about FTB that seem to suggest PZ or others at FTB promote the silencing of dissent, or that they condone bullying or threats of banning toward dissenters, or that they believe that commenters would be unsafe because they feature this or that writer on the network. I think this misinformation results from irresponsible messaging coming from a small number of prominent and well-meaning skeptics who, in trying to help correct real problems of divisiveness in skepticism, actually and rather clumsily themselves help create a climate where bloggers — who otherwise wouldn’t — end up feeling unwelcome and unread, and I find that unfortunate.

People who read FreethoughtBlogs do not feel silenced or unwelcome, and that bears mentioning at least somewhere in all of these posts about supposed rampant groupthought and unnamed lists of certain bloggers “bullying” dissenting commenters, and the like. So much of that feels to me more like trolling and distasteful chat room banter, often pretty mean-spirited, especially when it is from just one or a few skeptics recounting disagreements they’ve had with writers who are eventually deemed as “controversialist,” and whom they feel should be not allowed to write for such blog networks going forward.


(Relevant source material)

Do, or do not

I’m watching “Selling God” on Netflix Instant, on a whim this morning. It’s only half an hour in so far, and it’s all right. It’s no “God Who Wasn’t There,” which I go back to now and again, but it’s definitely aiming for a similar tone and format, with a focus instead on how religion, and Christianity in particular, markets and spreads itself.

But that’s not really what I wanted to talk about. I wanted to talk about Romans 7:15-20, which just got quoted in the film. Read through this:

I do not understand what I do. For what I want to do I do not do, but what I hate I do. And if I do what I do not want to do, I agree that the law is good. As it is, it is no longer I myself who do it, but it is sin living in me. For I know that good itself does not dwell in me, that is, in my sinful nature. For I have the desire to do what is good, but I cannot carry it out. For I do not do the good I want to do, but the evil I do not want to do—this I keep on doing. Now if I do what I do not want to do, it is no longer I who do it, but it is sin living in me that does it.

I get that the passage is talking about man’s sinful nature causing him to make bad choices, and I suspect that it’s a lot less tongue-twistery in Greek, but holy cow, look at that. I don’t know if anyone else remembers the slapstick comedy New Testament I proposed way back when, but this passage put me in mind of it again. Can’t you just hear that passage being read by Jackie Mason or John Moschitta or the late Rodney Dangerfield? It’d be hilarious.

Failing Massively at Language

Every now and again, I see this group (or page or whatever the kids are calling them now) pop up in my Facebook feed: “Changing the meaning of FML to Feeling Much Love,” and I rub at the bridge of my nose and shake my head a bit. I’ve talked before about the problems inherent in trying to exert conscious control over language, and this situation highlights a bunch of those problems.

For the uninitiated, “FML” is Internet shorthand for “fuck my life,” and the term was popularized by the website FMyLife.com, where users submit amusing stories about unfortunate events in their lives. It serves much the same purpose for the Internet as similar sections in “Reader’s Digest” or “Seventeen” magazines (shut up, yes, I’ve read “Seventeen”). Know Your Meme tracks the origin of the initialism to 2009, when FMyLife started as the English-language version of French website Vie de Merde, and popularity peaked shortly thereafter. The F My Life book was published in mid-2009, representing what appears to be the last spike in popularity before a very long downward slope that has largely plateaued.

So, there’s your first problem: the time to attempt to change the meaning of this phrase was two years ago, when it was actually popular and not just part of the background noise of the Internet, the out-of-vogue memes that make up our online vernacular. Going after “FML” now is a little like starting a campaign to make “all your base are belong to us” into a campaign to promote community softball programs or “ate my balls” into a meatball advertisement. The ship has largely sailed, and any attempt to address the term has to clear the hurdle of making the term relevant again.

The second is a matter of bottom-up vs. top-down engineering. The initialism “FML” developed from the “F My Life” phrase, which itself developed as a catch-all term for things that people actually say. Know Your Meme has a clip from “Superbad” where the phrase is uttered, but precursors like “fuck me” or “why me?” and the like are easy to find. Ultimately, “FML” developed naturally out of things people actually say, and moreover, a feeling people actually have. It’s a very natural, bottom-up development of a new term.

Trying to redefine the initialism is a top-down attempt at imposing control. It’s trying to impose a new meaning over something that developed naturally, which puts it in several difficult positions. For one, it’s awkward: “Fuck my life” is a full sentence, “feeling much love” is a verb phrase, and a weirdly-concocted one at that. Unlike “fuck my life,” “feeling much love” is not something you’re likely to hear someone say. “FML” developed as a general term for a lot of other phrases describing the same thing; even if people are “feeling much love,” it’s not something they routinely say. It’s certainly not something that’s likely to accompany pithy, amusing stories–more likely cloying, sappy ones. In any case, the number of people trying to impose this change, almost by definition, is much smaller than the number of people who defined and popularized the term in the first place. Even with the term’s fall from memetic prominence, this campaign is farting against a strong wind.

Then there’s the matter of how one would accomplish this. If it’s just “let’s start a Facebook group and get everyone on-board,” then it’s a symbolic exercise at best, with almost no chance whatsoever of enacting actual change. But let’s assume that the thirty-odd members of the group are a little more gung-ho about this change. One of them writes a blog post about their big family reunion, and how five generations were represented, and everyone had a wonderful time and took a big picture and a great meal, FML. The average Internet reader is going to be understandably puzzled, and so might post a comment, asking “FML? That sounds great! Why would you say ‘fuck my life’?” To which the original poster will have to respond with something like, “no, I’m trying to change the meaning of ‘FML’ to ‘feeling much love’!” Which, again, is awkward and silly.

And it inverts the process. By the time “FML” became widely used, the phrase “Fuck/F my life” was enough of a part of the Internet lexicon that it became easy to figure out (or look up) what the term actually meant. The people waging this counter-campaign are not only working against the term’s loss of popularity and relevance, but also against the clear, understood meaning, and a wealth of links and pages and people who provide the common definition. Is it possible to fight such a trend? I suppose, in principle, but it’s not so much an uphill battle as a scaling-a-building battle.

Perhaps the biggest problem with all this is the motivation. Obviously the intentions are good, trying to get people to be more positive. But, you know, bad shit–and in the case of most of the “FMyLife” posts, embarrassing shit–happens, and we don’t have to be super-cheery about it. With many of the stories submitted to FMyLife, it would be a sign of distressing mental issues–or a severe case of sarcasm–to follow up with something cheery and sappy like “feeling much love.” And with many of the cases, it’s similarly inappropriate to follow them with “fuck my life,” but only because they’re really trivial shit (or obviously fabricated). Such a quality decay–everyone wants to participate, even if their lives are utterly mundane–is probably a contributing factor to the site’s precipitous slide down the Alexa rankings.

The point being, it’s okay to feel bad when bad shit happens. Trying to limit or change people’s language in such a way that they lose an expression for “well, that sucked” just means they’re going to abandon the mangled expression and invent a new one. Expressions of life sucking at the moment are as necessary and natural and legitimate as expressions of life being awesome. At least the FMyLife posts demonstrate a willingness to laugh at oneself, or to let others laugh at oneself, which (considering the Internet) is a surprisingly mature way to handle embarrassing and tragic situations. I think the “feeling much love” folks miss that bit of nuance; people posting on “FMyLife” and saying “FML” aren’t generally that down on life. They’re not all suicidally depressed people slitting their wrists on an electronic forum, they’re mostly people who tripped and faceplanted in front of everyone, and are joining in with the schadenfreude-colored laughter. That’s not really something that needs to be changed, specifically not changed in a way as to miss and negate the humor.

The suicidally depressed people are over at PostSecret.

Ch-ch-chain

As far as I know, there’s no video of the talk I gave last year at GenCon on the subject of Chain Letters and E-Mail Forwards. Thankfully, “Weird Al” Yankovic has kindly summarized it: