Monday, January 27, 2020

Are We Seeing Trolls Where They Aren't?

It is widely recognized that, from the standpoint of how people treat each other, the Internet is a good deal worse than real life, which is none too great these days. (Those adhering to the smug, stupid "Nothing ever changes" sort of irony might dismiss that, but it seems impossible that a global civilization facing multiple, systemic crises all ar ibce is not somehow a little nastier because of it.)

Because our manner of interfacing with others through the Internet seems to encourage reacting rather than thinking.

Because we are dealing with strangers all the time--and often strangers whose faces we never see, and voices we never hear, who are just a handle above a comment.

Because the Internet allows people who are deep down pure vileness a round-the-clock opportunity to abuse others with complete impunity, and they make the most of it.

Because after being brutalized by the same vermin, other people who are not pure vileness get nastier themselves.

A signal example is people's attitude toward disagreement online.

In ordinary, offline, real life inflicting totally unsolicited disagreement on a complete stranger in highly public fashion would ordinarily be considered a severe breach of etiquette, if not civility.

This does not necessarily mean that this is completely out of the question, no matter what the circumstances. But it does mean that at an absolute minimum we should display some circumspection about doing it. We should be sure that we are right and they are wrong, at the very least. (Alas, too many of those who go around "correcting" others fail to realize that to correct someone else they actually have to be correct themselves--and that they fail that test MISERABLY.) We should be sure that the wrong on their part merits the breach on our part. (Even if they are clearly wrong and we are clearly correct this is not always the case.) And we should display some caution in our approach, making the correction no more unpleasant than it has to be. (Rather than, for instance, jumping down other people's throats, giving full vent to their nastiness at any and every opportunity like the complete and utter assholes they are.)

How much of that do you see?

A lot less than there should be.

There is No Such Thing as Respectful Disagreement

Can there be such a thing as respectful disagreement?

Well, let's consider what that word "respect" means. We can boil it down to two possible definitions.

1. Deference.

2. Esteem.

Obviously you can't disagree with someone and defer to them at the same time. To defer is to accept their judgment. So according to that definition of respect, no, one cannot disagree respectfully.

Still, that leaves the possibility of respectful disagreement when we are using ths second definition, "esteem." Still, let us consider what disagreement entails.

To disagree is to say to someone "You are wrong."

And to do that is invariably to call into question their intelligence, their judgment, their training, their experience, their knowledge and skill; to criticize them and make them feel "less than"--not least, less than the speaker, who is claiming to know more than they. The questioning, the criticism, the claim to knowing better may be very slight. And it may occur when we are engaged in dialogue with someone we ordinarily esteem (and to whom we might even usually defer). But esteem it is not. You may disagree with someone you respect, but the disagreement itself is not respectful.

That brings us to another point, which I think Carl Sagan summed up nicely in his last book, the justly classic The Demon-Haunted World: Science as a Candle in the Dark:
Arguments from authority carry little weight--authorities have made mistakes in the past. They will do so again in the future. Perhaps a better way to say it is that in science there are no authorities; at most, there are experts.
No one in a scientific argument--for that matter, no one engaged in serious discussion premised on logical appraisal of the real world--has any right to demand deference. Facts and logic come ahead of anything and everything else.

But there is still the matter of basic human consideration. Of not going out of our way to be nasty.

I suspect that were there more consideration, people would be less insistent in their demands for respect, reasonable and unreasonable.

Thursday, January 9, 2020

On Action Hero Prequels

The pop culture of our time appears to be dominated by relentless, shameless exploitation of a small set of rather tired IPs--mainly because this is what is most conducive to the short-term profit of those in the media industry, regardless of what audiences may actually want. And part of that is the way that we have become deluged with prequels, not least prequels about action heroes.

"But don't you wonder how those heroes came to be what they are?" those selling the prequels will ask leadingly, as if we could not deny it.

I, for one, do deny it.

I don't read an action-adventure novel, or watch an action movie, and wonder "How did the hero become who they are?"

In fact, I'd rather not know.

Perhaps this is just a matter of my talking as a member of a video game-playing generation, but it seems to me that where ordinarily fleshing a character out fully makes them more "real" to us, enabling us to care about them, action heroes (save for those in the more pointedly artistic efforts where the story really is more than just an excuse for a bunch of action scenes and we actually do care about it), tend to be vehicles for the fantasies of the writer and reader--a sort of print, textual "avatar," lending itself to a different sort of audience identification than the dramatic one we learn about in Literature 101, with the fact the more significant because we are not there to get entangled in their personal drama, but rather to thrill vicariously to the external action. (To extend the metaphor, someone else may be pushing the buttons on the controller, but we are there with them nonetheless as they jump off the cliff to escape pursuers or drive the car or do any of that other stuff.)

The more we know about the figure, the more character-like and the less avatar-like they become, which may well increase the dramatic interest, but in the process make the action less engaging. Whatever one may say of the superiority of character drama to set pieces, an action film becomes something else when we care more about the characters than the action. (That Ian Fleming never bothered much about Bond's past until he had to write an obituary for him in the character's eleventh adventure seems to me testament to this reality.)

Prequels raise these issues in especially pointed form, because they are all about knowing more about the character, while bringing still more troubles in their train. Certainly looking at a superheroic figure, and looking back at them when they were not superheroic, when they were ordinary or even awkward naifs whom we see just starting to learn to do what they do, is the opposite of the entertainment their adventures give us--and tends to diminish them in this way as well.

And that is even where the writer succeeds in pulling off the whole conventional characterization thing. A great many writers who happen to be great action-adventure storytellers do not do this kind of thing particularly well--and arguably cannot, and not simply because even accomplished writers are apt to do some things well and other things not so well. This is also because, in writing, as in so much else of life, "less is more." The writer of fiction, after all, is not documenting reality, just giving us the illusion that they are. The writer cannot really "know" everything there is to know about their subject, however much hack teachers of writing may insist otherwise--and carefully retailing the absolute best of what they know, while maintaining strategic silences over what they do not know, where prequels have them doing the opposite, gabbing along and usually giving themselves away again and again, at the expense of those illusions.

Because of the law of diminishing returns, again operative in writing just as it is operative elsewhere. The odds are that the writer has told us the most interesting part of the story already--and anything else they tell us will be less interesting.

Because superheroics (and I would count even, for example, Mack Bolan's being a "perfect" sniper as a sort of superhero ability) mix uneasily, if at all, with the real world in which really three-dimensional, flesh-and-blood characters are rooted. (Indeed, while it may not be fashionable to favor DC over Marvel these days, it does seem to me that there is something to be said for Superman's living in Metropolis, and not New York.)

And because, when they are doing this years, or even decades, after the character first came along, not only will the material be that much less fresh, but consistency the less likely. Even if it was the same original writer doing the job, they are probably not the same person, thinking the same things, that they did when starting out. And when we have, oh, another writer who never even met them just doing a job decades or generations later, the resemblance is apt to prove very superficial indeed.

In fact, I remember how for a patch I was enthusiastically reading my way through Robert Howard and had finished his whole output of Conan the Barbarian tales. I found that L. Sprague de Camp wrote some Conan stories and looked them up. As soon as I found out that he went back to Conan's teenage years I lost absolutely all interest. For all I know de Camp may have written excellent continuations. But the angle he pursued is just that unappealing to me.

Thus has it been for me ever since.

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