Take that Back: Collective Censorship in the 21st Century

Eleven years from now, my presidential candidacy won’t last long. I’ll be doomed before I even sign off on my letter of intent. They’ll call me irresponsible, maybe even weak, when they find the photo(s) on Facebook of me passed out in places that aren’t for sleeping. They’ll call me bigoted when they dig up that AIM conversation from 2002 when I called Smarterchild a “retard” because I thought it was cool and I was 12. They’ll question my self-control and morals when they find out that I soiled my underoos on the bus in second grade and blamed the smell on the chubby kid sitting next to me. I’ll never stand a chance because I’m a bad dude. But, then something strange will happen. All the other candidates will get the ax and for indiscretions way worse than mine. There’ll be the woman who smoked weed before it was legal and the guy who allegedly said an offensive word one time and the other one who got an in-school suspension in 7th grade for peeing on the seat and the one that clicked “enter site” on pornhub when he was still just 17. Then we’ll be left with one 90-year-old Amish woman who’s never left Pennsylvania Dutch. But secretly, behind that billowy blue dress, she’ll probably be a total perv like the rest of us.

Reactive hypocrisy. That’s the 21st century, in your face digital landscape. The problem is, we’re at a point where the digital landscape is really just the landscape, right? The Internet is so inextricably connected to and watchful of every human movement, in a way that was once only reserved for God or Jesus or other peeping Toms. The seamless interconnection between interfaces has made it sickeningly easy to keep tabs on the next guy and beat him down for it before the words have even left his mouth. The new world, championed by a crusading class of Internet bottom-feeders and video uploaders, desperate for and hell bent on likes and hearts and stars and follows, lends itself so perfectly to reactive hypocrisy. Reactive: it’s all a grand virtual competition for who can type the loudest and scream the fastest, and vice versa. Hypocrisy: there are no repercussions, unless you are in a position to face repercussions, and then there are massive ones. We’ve entered the eggshell generation, the “That’s mean, asshole” epoch.

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The hypocrisy gets me the most. Mic up each of the 320 million Americans, publish their private messages, hey, track their thoughts for one week without telling them and see who amongst us is as pure and righteous as we claim to be when someone says something stupid on camera. It just doesn’t add up. But, really, it’s always been that way. As a society, we’ve consistently been at pains to construct a kitschy façade of public and private. I use “kitschy” in the way that Kundera used it in Unbearable Lightness—the idea that, you know, a falling tree doesn’t make a sound if no one hears it (or an ignorant remark isn’t ignorant unless an internet commenter gets their hands on it). Think of all the fucked up stuff that we know the Roman emperors were getting into. Imagine Caligula having to deal with TMZ? But, we’ve always needed this thick line between what we “do” and what we do. It preserves formality and puts humanity on a pedestal above all other species. It’s why—in many places—there’s a stall for number 2. We still feel a deep, ingrained desire to keep that line in place, but it’s no longer possible. It really isn’t. The weird thing is, as the line of “do” and do disappears, we’ve seemed to become even more uncompromising about crossing it. So, we find ourselves in a constant battle for who can conceal their perversions more effectively.

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On second thought, the reactive element gets me the most. The Internet is a mousetrap of pent up anger and insecurity. It’s a place where a misplaced comma can have real life fallouts—did you know that Bill Cosby wrote a book called “Come on People”? It’s a place where context and history are optional considerations when scrutinizing someone’s commentary. It’s not that people don’t have time to think in this day and age, it’s that they actively choose not to. It’s a culture of exclamation points before question marks. Remember Phil Robertson? He made some ignorant—in no way deliberately hateful—comments about being gay. His comments were informed by years of hearing the same thing over and over again. He was immediately ripped apart by the netizens of “tolerance.” His show was suspended and he was forced to issue an apology. Did our bearded buddy learn anything from this? Yeah. He learned to keep his thoughts, however uninformed, confined to himself or others who think like him. But wait, isn’t that how he came to have those thoughts in the first place? Do I support Robertson’s comments? Nope. Do I support him? Well, I think his show sucks, but I’m not angry with Phil for being conditioned–just like me. Do I support homophobia, racism, and intolerance? NO, NO, and NO. But, I support people’s right to be wrong. To assume that everyone with a TV and a keyboard has their finger on the pulse of progressivism is lunacy, and frankly gives people with TVs and keyboards (read: lots of people) way too much credit.

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Imagine you’re a 10-year-old and you raise your timid hand and said to your science teacher, “Hey, Sandra told me that babies come from storks, how does that work?” and your teacher said, “Shut up Jimmy. Idiot,” and left it at that. You wouldn’t have any more info about the origin of babies, but you’d probably dislike your teacher. You also probably wouldn’t raise your hand again. We have this tendency to think that bigotry, ignorance, even stupidity, is loaded with personal hatred. But really, it’s just a product of lack of access and exposure. But, the teacher who calls Jimmy an idiot is a lot more intriguing than the one who walks him through the reproductive process. But, it’s not about changing people’s opinions, much less educating them, is it?

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But really, it’s the reactive hypocrisy that gets me. We use the guise of calling out someone for ignorance, stupidity, intolerance etc. as an excuse to stoop to and below their level. Take this hypothetical exchange:

Foreigner: “What do Americans like to eat?”

American 1: “Americans like to eat hamburgers—”

American 2: “God what a fucking ignoramus. I’m a vegetarian and I don’t eat hamburgers. I’m also American. Get off your high horse you carnivorous scum. It’s chauvinistic meat-eating assholes like you who deserve a trampling death at the merciless hoofs of a thousand cows. You probably don’t even know anything about vegetarians. Ignorant.”

American 1: “I was going to say hamburgers and—“

American 2: “That’s enough out of you. You won’t spread your bullshit on my watch. I bet you can’t even explain your gastrocentric self. Can you?”

American 1: “I just—“

American 2: “Jesus, get a clue.”

Foreigner: “Hey American 1, can we talk about this in private.”

So, I’m talking about two things: the community imposed censorship of our suddenly public lives and the community imposed censorship of our suddenly public thoughts. Keep reading before misconstruing that statement, please.

The problem—and greatest thing—about the newfangled intermingling of humanity is that you’re going to rub elbows with people and communities you’ve never had contact with, some you’ve never even heard of—like the bazillion radical Internet groups in operation. Physical (actual) interconnectedness is lagging far behind digital interconnectedness. We are exposed to each other in a completely new way, yet we don’t understand or know each other. We don’t even seem to care to. Yet, we expect others to understand and know us. It’s a lot easier to scream and yell from behind the comfort of the world wide web than it is to call your neighbor an ignorant asshole—or a reactive hypocrite for that matter.

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The worst thing about this stuff is it makes discourse very difficult. It makes simply existing in a digital world very difficult. It makes people afraid to say or do anything remotely controversial. What it really is, is censorship by committee and it’s at odds with what the people who promulgate it are trying to effect. Big brother has become little brother. Instead of a big bad government machine standing vigilant over us, we are doing the job ourselves and with zealous voracity. When athletes have to apologize to their fans for getting high in the offseason, we have a problem. When Kanye is called to apologize for punching a paparazzi that’s been harassing him for 3 months—and the photographer’s behavior is unconsidered—we have a problem. When politicians get chastised for saying things “off camera” that were really said on camera, why don’t we ask ourselves this question: Did this view appear out of thin air at that very moment? Maybe it was there all along; we were just waiting, praying for a slip up, like the FBI zeroing in on a RICO claim. We’re left with a situation where digital agitators preach to the choir—others in their Internet circles—over and over again and become so inured with that circle’s rhetoric. When someone decides to dip their toe into the circle, they seem to forget that other rhetorics even exist. This goes for all sides: Right, left, up, down.

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I don’t necessarily think it’s bad that everything is out in the open now. I think, if nothing else, it gives people the chance to get a grip on other points of view and experiences should they choose to. Sorry fellow liberals, but “uninformed” conservatives are not the only ones that need to learn about the other side. It also allows people to craft a public image that’s at least somewhat in line with their private one. I can live with that, really. But if we want more transparency—and whether or not we want it, we’ve got it—we need to be prepared for what we’re going to see. We need to admit that people are infinitely imperfect, from public figures all the way down to the gelatinous creatures of the Internet basement. We’re going to have to admit that not everyone comes from the same place, not everyone knows the same things, and that we are just as dumb and depraved as the people we think are infinitely dumb and depraved.

In the end, if you want to hold strangers to your standards you should probably hold yourself to them too. It reminds me of the times in middle school when no one wanted to take a shit during class break. If you took a really bad one and everyone was in there and heard the noises and detected the aromatic thunder and saw you exit the stall you were liable to get ragged on for months to come. If you went during class, you could get away without anyone knowing. But everyone knows that everyone goes right? Why act like that’s not how it is? I say go during the class break, do what feels right, and come out smiling with your fists in the air and your head held high.

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Yeah. I’ll never be president.

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Locked up Abroad: Shakedown at the Taj Mahal

   “What’s in your bag?”

            Three words and a contraction no one wants to hear. At the least, you’ve got a stranger asking about your stuff, at the worst you’ve been caught trafficking kilos of blow across the border.

            When I was studying in Shanghai in 2010, I made a few friends. Among these few friends were two Italian girls, Olimpia and Elena. I was still a bambino and Oli and Ele were my de facto sorella maggiore. When we parted ways at the end of the school year, Oli and Ele bought three identical tiny, green stuffed animals; one for each of them and one for me. They christened her Lü-xin-lei, a veritably audacious corruption of the Chinese language. Lü means green, xin means heart, and lei might have any number of Chinese meanings, but in this case lei meant “her” in Italian. “Green heart her.” It was decided, one drunken evening over a makeshift bowl of Carbonnara, that our respective Lü-xin-leis would travel the world. Like the Travelocity “roaming gnome” who pops up inconspicuously across the globe, whenever one of us found ourselves in an exciting new place, we would give our Lü-xin-lei a photo-op. I always felt a little awkward revealing my fuzzy green companion at some of the most trafficked sites in the world, but I persevered, for friendship if nothing else. My iteration of Lü-xin-lei has turned up at such places as the Petronas Towers, Tsukiji fish market, the Empire State building, Machu Picchu, and most recently, The Taj Mahal.

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            The latter is where Lü-xin-lei found out the hard way a lesson that one of her forefathers prudently preached: “It ain’t easy being green.”

            “What’s in your bag?” A large Indian military office approached us. He tapped his large rifle on top of my sister’s bag. Thoughts of Indian prison ran through my head. I imagined unfettered cobras and faulty plumbing.

            “Umm… Take a look.”

            She opened her bag and he obliged. After weeding through tourist maps and stale cookies, he found the illicit object. He pursed his lips, adjusted his light brown beret, and tightened his gaze. Holding the suspicious fluffy green dingus at a distance, running his hand across the stem, and squeezing, he checked for traces of feloniousness. He flicked its blossom head. He probably thought we were mentally unstable.

            Confused, he ordered:

            “Follow me.”

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           Seconds earlier I had snapped a shot of Lü-xin-lei at the Taj in prime position. A few people eyed me dubiously, but most just wanted me to get out of the way. Taking photos at the Taj Mahal is a confrontational affair. No one had time for a dawdling white boy with a ridiculous stuffed animal. No one apparently, save for security.

            “It’s nothing. Just a toy.”

            “Not allowed in Taj.”

            “I understand. Security is important.”

            We followed him, and two other officers who had joined. I lingered close behind, waiting for him to hand back the stuffed animal, to preserve his own self-respect more than anything. After all, he was operating with one hand on a deadly weapon and one hand on an inanimate furry Venus flytrap. He didn’t relinquish the furry Venus flytrap. Luckily, this moment has been recorded for posterity. See left hand.

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            It’s like one of those touching war photos when an innocent child hands a menacing solider a small flower, only exponentially more farcical. He stopped for a moment to confer with his cadres. They nodded, placed Lü-xin-lei on the ground, took twenty paces back, and unleashed a semi-automatic barrage in her direction. Nah, but seriously, they nodded, the other two departed, and the initial sleuth led us to the gate.

            “Lock up.”

            “What?”

            “Take outside. Lock up. Come back in.”

            “Oh. Put it in a locker. Alright.”

            He eagerly handed the stuffed animal back to me and nodded, affirming. I walked to the lockers and handed our malfeasance to the attendant. He laughed, measuredly, making sure the guards didn’t hear him. It was a laugh that contained within it the locker attendant’s personal commentary on his country’s military. He locked Lü-xin-lei away and handed me a token.

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             We proceeded with our tour of the Taj Mahal. It truly is one of those rare sites on Earth that can be done justice neither by words nor pictures. The Taj does not exist until you have seen it with your own eyes. Afterwards, we went back to retrieve the captive. The attendant turned the key and produced the slightly shaken stuffed animal. He naturally asked me for a tip, as though keeping watch over this particular object was exceptionally taxing. I politely declined his suggestion.

            Cynicism aside, I’m with the military officer on this one. The Taj is probably the most heavily guarded place in the entire sub-continent. I can only imagine how the same situation might have played out with an American officer. Lü-xin-lei may well be languishing in some Cuban prison base right now, being praised by fellow captives for her steadfast unwillingness to cooperate. Crazy though, that I can’t exercise my right to take awkward pictures of furry green objects at historic sites without the army getting involved. Crazy, that we live in a world where a stuffed animal can be misperceived as a threat to national security. Alas, maybe it’s the security that is a threat to stuffed animals.

The Menu Costs of Progress (featuring Taylor Swift)

Something keeps me holding onto nothing…

-Taylor Swift

If you’ve taken a base-level economics course, you know the term “menu cost.” A menu cost is the cost that a business incurs upon encountering a new economic environment, a new status quo. The term has an explicitly literal derivation: When the price of fish changes, restaurants are forced to print new menus to reflect the new cost of salmon and tuna. Ever seen “market price?” That exists because some prices fluctuate so much that it’s not even worth communicating them to customers in any way that isn’t verbal. Any time the economy experiences inflation, a restaurant—like any other business—has to change all of its prices. That takes time and money. And effort. Inasmuch, companies don’t always respond immediately to supply and demand shifts with price changes. But in the long run, they always will.

Let’s talk about Taylor Swift.

A few nights ago, I was sitting in a hostel bed in the middle of a wall-shaking Kunming thunderstorm. Below me, a 20-something dude was snoring. I’d like to point out here that people who snore in hostels should be incarcerated for a minimum of 5 years. At the very least, they ought to be charged triple for a bed. I couldn’t sleep. The thunderstorm was a non-issue. It was the snorer that stood between me and my slumber, and he was absolutely relentless. I watched the hours tick away: 12, 1, 1:30. After a while I gave up and decided to overpower him with the eardrum-tickling stylings of Taylor Swift. I received her full anthology from my 31-year-old ex-accountant Chinese roommate at Summer Institute last year. He was her self-proclaimed “biggest fan,” a phrase that he imparted in such a way that implied he learned it in a book called Contemporary English. Since my library contains little outside the realm of edgy rap, I figured Taylor was my only shot at sleep. I slid to her page and hit shuffle.

I’d never ventured beyond the classics: Love Story, 22, You Belong with Me etc., so most of the library was brand-new. I realized a few things very quickly. Every single Taylor Swift song sounds exactly the same. Sure, it’s a mind-bogglingly awesome sound, but each track is a regurgitation of the one before it. I would be remiss if I said that this wasn’t the way most artists, especially the ones on the radio, operate. Have you ever heard, “Hey, you gotta check out Keisha’s new stuff. She totally reinvented her sound.”

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Most importantly, though, the deeper I got into albums like Red, Speak Now, and Fearless, I realized that the message was always a variation on a few themes: They mostly centered on the boy-girl thing. Shy girl wants popular boy (You Belong with Me, Speak Now), sleazy boy does girl wrong (Dear John, Mean, Girl at Home), girl is attracted to bad boy (Treacherous, Red, The Way I Loved You, Trouble), boy and girl classically fall in love (Stay, Stay, Stay, Love Story, Everything has Changed). Yeah, the snorer was relentless. Each song is subtly framed in the context of an idyllic small town (Taylor is constantly stung by the loneliness of big cities), a fairytale experience (princes on princes) and the generally generic, “timeless” concepts of love and marriage. Whiteness is also assumed, if you watch her videos. But, that’s not exactly where I’m going.

As I began to lose myself in the wonderworld that is the Taylor Swift anthological experience, something else came to me. These concepts are dated. The concepts of expected chivalry, happily ever after marriage, happily ever after marriage between guy and girl, monogamous romances starting in high school, and white knights feel more than a bit bygone. Yet, Taylor sings about them without the slightest hint of nostalgia. Could it be that the country’s biggest pop star is out of touch?

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With Taylor Swift as my jungle guide, I started to understand why some people resist change. No, that’s not it. People don’t resist change, they cling to tradition. Change and tradition both have favorable associations. Naturally, conservatives decry liberals for destroying tradition while the left condemns the right for defying change. Here’s the thing, though: tradition is easy. We know it. The longer we’ve lived with it, we actually begin to believe it, unequivocally. It’s cozy. It’s very easy to make and absorb a record about boy meets girl and such and such. There are millennia of precedent. After all, Taylor Swift’s most famous track is a Shakespearian drama adapted for ball gowns and pebble throwers. Love Story doesn’t force us to think or remove us from our comfort zone. It’s just really nice. Throw the same song on the radio and mix up the pronouns a little bit, and lots of people simply won’t be able to handle it. The phrase, “I just want to enjoy the music” comes to mind.

The idea stems from detachment. People who live in the shrinking world that unfolds in Taylor Swift’s music are perfectly content. Tinkering with it would be unthinkable. There’s a good thing going on, why should it be broken? In this way, people aren’t always too hateful for change, but rather they are too lazy to rewire tradition. They fail to recognize its marginal utility. The idea is that breaking with tradition will mess everything up, in no small part because there is (by definition) no precedent for change. This, I can assure you, is a conversation that has directly preceded each and every forward progression in human history.

 

The thing is, we know what Taylor Swift’s idyllic small town looks like. We don’t know what that town looks like with fluid gender roles, less monogamy, and fewer churches. I’m aware that those three are unrelated, but they are the future. As such, they haven’t entirely moved in yet. They are unknown. We are afraid to face that unknown but are also too lazy to create it.

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This isn’t a knock on Taylor Swift. She’s singing about her own experience. It’s a knock on a society that takes that experience as the experience. It’s a knock on a society that believes there is a connection between that experience and real-life human values. The most elementary, yet apparently enigmatic phrase in the American Constitution is: “…that from that equality they derive rights inherent and inalienable, among which are the preservation of life, & liberty, & the pursuit of happiness.” I view that as a hierarchy: The latter two are contingent on life (I’m not looking to get into a metaphysical discussion). Next comes liberty. Once those two are settled, the right to pursue happiness is next in line. These are our inalienable values. I see three. To me, that means, after life and liberty, happiness comes before all else.

I’m not saying take TSwift off the radio. I don’t want to hear Pharrell’s “Happy” all day long either and I also don’t believe her subject matter is obsolete. I’m just saying that it’s about time we adjust the menu costs in our society: those small changes we continuously choose to resist. It doesn’t matter if you are “weirded out” by the way people choose to live their lives. Can you imagine the things that bothered people 200 years ago? It doesn’t matter that you “like the way it is.” It doesn’t matter if you want to hear the music without thinking about the words. Because, even the stuff that Taylor Swift talks about, vanilla as it is, would have shocked listeners were it being blasted through a phonograph.

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There is a reason restaurants don’t engrave their menus in gold. There’s a reason convenience stores don’t buy elaborate neon signs to advertise the price of a pack of Trident. If they did that, they’d have to overhaul their entire business model every time Janet Yellen opened her mouth. Prices change. A lot. It’s not easy to change your prices. You’ve got to research, you’ve got to implement, and you’ve got to print new menus. But, if you’re too set in your ways or too unmotivated to change them, you’re in trouble. And not Taylor Swift’s kind of trouble.

Menus and price tags are visible everyday representations of the wellbeing and status of an economy. They inform our reality and as such our behavior. TV dramas, radio singles, every day discussions, and simply thoughts do that for the wellbeing and status of society. They inform our reality and as such our behavior. Some questions: Why do we have absolutely no problem adjusting for changes in the cost of things in the name of economic growth, yet when the concern is human progress, it takes so long? Why is supply and demand a greater impetus for change than real feelings and ideas, real impediments to happiness experienced by real people? What if McDonalds still charged a dime for a Big Mac? How long could it deny the reality that a patty now costs X, a bun now costs Y, the price of lettuce has jumped all the way to Z, and X+Y+Z equals a lot more than ten cents? How long could McDonalds honestly do that, to avoid inconvenience, until it either changed its price or disappeared? It’s pretty simple math, right? They’d do it immediately. I mentioned above that life + liberty + happiness = 3. If we’re operating at < 3, we need an adjustment. If you have to let some of your traditions, your thoughts, and your assumed convictions go so that other people can gain the third, or even the second part of that equation, you do it. You keep doing it.