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In-tolerance we trust

Us vs Them

Something has gone terribly wrong with media and the Internet: we’ve lost the ability to tolerate opinions that run contrary to our own.

These days, if you express a politically incorrect point of view (which sadly, is increasingly coming to mean not toeing the line on a progressive, “small-L” liberal political agenda), then the Internet sees it as its moral obligation to set you straight.

But I get where the hate is coming from. We’re forced on a daily basis to contend with fake news and dangerous, unscientific ideas, and that’s got us all riled up because it might harm us or that which we love – both people and things (like the planet we live on). But in our attempt to protect ourselves we’ve taken to passing instant judgement on things that we’re unfamiliar with. What’s worse is that we fail to appreciate the subtlety and nuance of a debate and defer to simple archetypes and tropes in order to cope with the sheer volume of crap being slung at us at high velocity via our social media feeds.

The Same Sex Marriage postal vote currently underway in Australia has pretty much become a worst-case example, where an issue has been reduced down to exactly two tribes: Yes and No. For what it’s worth, I’ve already cast my vote, but I won’t be drawn on which way I voted because in the spirit of this post I maintain that both sides have valid arguments – not that they are equal and opposite because I did eventually choose one over the other – but that neither side of the issue is completely wrong and without merit as some would have us believe. There are people on both sides who will claim that the issue is as simple as all that, but it’s precisely this kind of reductionist thinking that’s causing the problem I’m talking about.

The obvious danger is, of course, groupthink, when you defer responsibility for understanding the issue to the tribe you identify with, which inevitably boils down to “us” vs “them” (or “Yes” vs “No” in our case here). When you Like or Share a meme on Facebook that supports your point of view without comment, you’re pretty much certainly guilty of groupthink. On introspection, you may even find that you actually disagree with some of the things that your group thinks, but in order to belong you overlook them as minor or inconsequential.

It also leads to close-mindedness against arguments offered by the other side. Given the impossible task of discerning a valid argument from an invalid one, the reasonable course of action is of course to consider all of them invalid. But because we’re challenged to engage, we avoid doing so at the intellectual level and respond emotionally and viscerally instead.

But there is a high road: just shut the fuck up.

People who haven’t read this blog nor spent the time to get to know me, and only know me from my infrequent posts on social media, will probably be surprised to find that I lean conservative on a lot of socio-political issues. Even as an atheist, my sympathetic attitude towards religion finds me few friends on either side of the fence, and I’ve learned that it’s better to keep a low profile than to attempt to nut out one’s immature, partially-formed worldview in full view of the public. To be otherwise is to provide know-it-alls and holier-than-thous with an open invitation to a slagging match.

But more than that, we need to practice tolerance as a skill; the ability to suck it in and let something pass without comment. Don’t get me wrong, I see no small irony in my saying that and writing this post, which is the very picture of me not tolerating the bullshit that I’m seeing on Facebook and elsewhere. But in my own defense I have at least made an attempt to lay out some form of argument instead of trying to get my point across in less than 140 characters and/or a narky picture.

I won’t be unfriending or unfollowing anybody, or trying to convince anyone to vote the same way I did. I’m not going to label you as a monster who hates human rights, nor some fanatic who is out to destroy the innocence of children. I will tolerate your views, with the view that one day we might be able to discuss them from a mutual position of respect. There’s more to life, and presumably friendship, than where you put your mark on the survey form.

And if you disagree with me on this, I will gladly tolerate your thoughts on that too. Feel free to leave a comment below.

Okay, okay, okay…

Today, 14 Sep, is “R U OK?” day where people go around spamming the cryptic phrase everywhere hoping to get people to fess up. It’s noble, but seems vaguely misguided in the deep cesspool of awesomeness that is social media.

For my part, I’m not OK. I have some serious shit going on in my life but that’s not an invitation for pity. I am seeing a psychologist so I have professional help. For what it’s worth you can usually tell how bad things are with me by how much I’m writing. I’ll readily admit some of my best writing came from the darkest of places and the number and frequency of blog posts is usually a clue.

In my circle of FB friends I know there are several of you just as fucked up as me, more or less – don’t worry, I won’t out you – but isn’t it funny the stigma associated with mental illness such that it’s a secret held between me and each of you separately?

Of course the point of all this is to ask, in my usual way, using way more words than is necessary, “are you okay?” Because if you’re not, then I’m somebody who has been down the rabbit hole, and is still digging around down there. I know what happens next when you respond to that question with “no, I’m not,” and I won’t just offer some hand-wavy “advice” to call up a helpline or talk to your GP. Heck, I’m not even going to offer to talk to you about it over a beer, primarily because I hate beer, and if you even thought that was ever going to be a thing with us then I don’t know you.

I’m not really here

As an atheist, the reason why I go to church is not for religious reasons but a social one. It’s the antidote to my geeky tendency to stay at home and “socialise” from behind a computer screen.

In Talk To The Hand, Lynne Truss’s treatise on the rudeness of today’s society, she hypothesises that one possible cause of impoliteness stems from an increasing focus on individual rights, and the right to assert one’s personal space, freedoms and liberties even when in public. Therefore going out is no longer a social experience, but an exercise in managing one’s “bubble” necessitating new forms of etiquette that explain how to maintain one’s state of isolation without raising the ire of others (think mobile phones on the train).

Social Networking makes many bold claims about increasing peoples’ connectedness, but this too, is done entirely in isolation, with each person sitting alone in front of their own computer.

Truss spends a chapter talking about the historical impact of the telephone: one could, for the first time, speak to somebody that wasn’t physically present. The Internet has added yet a third layer on top of that – you no longer transmit yourself directly through your own physical voice, but with mere words. The book points out the rudeness of talking on the phone in the presence of others, but now now you can be texting somebody while talking on the phone, adding yet another level of “unpresence” to conversations.

Church, which is still predominantly conducted as a physical gathering, forces me to participate in a community, as week by week I see the same people. People who I may not want to talk to. Ironically, the small talk that I fear in “meatspace” is exactly the kind of thing that passes unremarked in a constant stream in cyberspace (via Facebook).

It’s ironic. A big criticism of religion is that it requires a belief in the intangible, the metaphysical, and yet religious institutions are the ones offering real community experiences.


This post is a part of the series An Atheist in God’s Kingdom.


I’d like to start a discussion about changing attributes of fictional characters, which has cropped up a lot recently in cases like black Hermione in the stage production of “Harry Potter and the Cursed Child”, Jodie Whittaker as the next Doctor in the TV series, calls for a female James Bond… the list goes on: Myles Morales, Thor Girl, Ghostbusters, etc., etc. (Isn’t it interesting how it’s predominantly a “nerd culture” problem, although that’s not what I’m going to be talking about.)

I tend not to wade into internet arguments, because I have friends that straddle both sides of the fence, and I like to always keep an open mind. But this one’s been around long enough that I’m comfortable taking a position on it. Maybe I’m going to cop a lot of flak for it, but it’s been a while since I’ve put up a decent, meaty post, so it’s probably about time.

I guess it shouldn’t come as any surprise that people only seem to be able to take a binary view of the matter – either it’s OK to update any character with different attributes (because it’s all just make-believe, right?), or it’s not, because to change anything messes with some kind of mystical sacred bond between creator and creation (or rather, then ownership that the consumer feels towards both of them because they spent their hard earned on it).

Of course, the rational position is never so clear-cut and lies somewhere in between, so let’s try and pull together some things that we can use to make a call on whether or not a character should be changed.

The Everyman

The first concept I’d like to present is the Everyman (with apologies for the gendered nature of the term, but that’s yet another whole kettle of fish). This trope describes how authors and writers get us, as readers and viewers, to relate to their stories. It’s when we find a character so relatable that we can put ourselves into their shoes, and be them or be like them. Therefore, the protagonist of a story becomes a conduit for engaging with the narrative plot and setting, via empathy from the reader. Books remain popular in spite of TV and movies because consuming the written word requires imagination, and people imagine themselves in the role of the protagonist.

Some are more obvious than others: I still remember a conversation I once had with a former colleague after I first finished reading Ender’s Game, by Orson Scott Card. He asked me whether I noticed anything about the main character. Remembering details is not one of my strong points, so I told him I had no idea. “Ender is never physically described,” he replied. Now I never verified this claim, but taken at face value, the character becomes an avatar that the reader can project themselves into, so that the author could emotionally hook them into the morality tale inside an epic space opera.

However, an everyman is not every man (or woman, or child). Naturally, there must be some attributes that make the character unique, or special, in service of the plot. Ender Wiggin was a small child. His being a child was an essential component of the story that Card was trying to tell, because of the innocence that children possess. Gender, less so. And ethnicity, not at all. But it should be easy to see that as more plot-essential attributes are added, the less relatable a character becomes. This is why there are very few (successful) speculative fiction novels about aliens set in alien worlds with no parallels with our own.

Another example that hits close to home for me, as a Transformers fan, is the Michael Bay live-action movie franchise. These movies are universally panned by fans and critics alike, and yet in spite of that, they have been extremely commercially successful. During the production of the first movie, Stephen Spielberg (one of the producers) told the screenwriters that “a boy and his car” should be the focus of the story.

Now this may seem like an odd choice for a franchise about huge transforming robots, but as a successful filmmaker Spielberg probably has some insight that the rest of us don’t. This is just my guess, but I reckon that at some point the special effects budget dictated that they couldn’t give the robots enough screen time to make them relatable, so therefore a human cast was brought onboard to do the emotional heavy-lifting. The fans’ crushing disappointment then, was most likely in no small part due to having to shoulder the role of… well, Shia Labeouf, when they were expecting to emulate their heroes, the Autobots – who in the sequels, were themselves cast into horrible, unrelatable stereotypes.


That last point leads nicely into the other concept I believe to be relevant: representation. This is the question of “who wants to be that character?”

We obviously relate most to those who are most like us, whether that’s our physical attributes, socio-political (or even literal) environment, or emotional state. So there more like us a character is, the more engaged we’re likely to be. That’s all very well and good for books, where, as I said before, it allows some imagination on the part of the reader. The problem lies in visual media, i.e. comics, theatre, TV and films, where creators have no option but to make certain choices about what a character looks like. Hence we get Asa Butterfield as Ender, for instance. He could have been any race, but Hollywood cast a white boy because of their deeply entrenched capitalist status quo that maintains whites represent the “largest market share”[1].

It should be apparent how alienating this decision is to people of other races. That’s not to say it’s wrong. The singular nature of race means that no matter which one is chosen, the rest are then excluded. The mistake is in thinking that these choices somehow become an essential part of the character. With each attribute that is added to the “core essence”, the group of people who identify with the character becomes smaller, but the degree of identification becomes stronger, and therein lies one of the key reasons why some people insist characters can only be a certain way. Taken to its logical conclusion, this also flips our earlier question on its head, turning it from “who wants to be that character?” into “who does the character want to be?”

That’s why diversity in representation is needed, so that everybody gets a chance to see themselves portrayed in print or on screen, which will grow the market rather than shrink it.

Hopefully all this gives us some guidance as to whether changes to a character are justified: let’s take a look at the cases mentioned at the beginning of this essay:

  • Black Hermione: does the character’s race have any plot implications whatsoever? Nope. Next!
  • Female Doctor Who: this is an interesting one. The Doctor isn’t actually an everyman – that’s the role of the companion. The character serves as a lens for us to observe the human condition. Given the topicality of gender roles, it is entirely appropriate because the character is nothing more than a plot device in spite of being eponymous (kinda like Zelda in The Legend of Zelda videogames).
  • Female James Bond: this is an example of “limited appeal”. Bond was specifically concocted as a suave, sophisticated alpha-male archetype that men wanted to be, and women wanted to be with (back in those sexist, misogynist days). Given Bond’s anachronisms, he should be retired, not replaced. So that’s a firm “no”.

Do you agree?


[1] It should be noted that international earnings are starting to exceed US domestic earnings, putting paid to this theory; see: Why U.S. Audiences Matter Less To Film Box Office Success

Good golly, Miss Polly!

Good golly, Miss Polly! What a state you is in!
Giddy and reeling, your head in a spin.
Did dapper John Capper flash you his grin?
Or frisky Tom Whisky splash you with gin!

Good golly, Miss Polly! Why you is so mad?
Did you get flicked again, by another young lad?
Was it William Golightly? He always was bad.
He don’t truly love you, I think you is been had.

Good golly, Miss Polly! You been out all night?
Prancing round town trying to find Mister Right.
I tells you, my dear, would you heed my advice?
They’ll cheat soon as look at you, then pretend it’s alright.

Good golly, Miss Polly! Come rest your tired head.
Lay down your burdens, right here on my bed.
Don’t never listen to what anyone said.
I love you Miss Polly, until I am dead.

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