Tag Archives: media

On centrality

(public domain-1923)

(public domain-1923)

Many a sitcom has had settings in which a dozen or more people were in the same place together – mostly some type of social-friendly spot like a diner or an old pre-mega-gentrified coffee shop/bar. Actually what’s now considered an average sitcom is already tailored to post-early-gentrification anyway, but I digress: If a sitcom is set somewhere where there’s a few dozen people around, it usually focuses on a handful of exceptional people. We know they’re exceptional because in this small sampling of supposedly average people there are stories focusing just on them. In this sensationalized media-drenched world, it was interesting to see how comparatively muted the coverage of the horrific slayings in Charleston, South Carolina was. Perhaps that’s because sensationalizing something often requires that the designated bad people have played their part. The alleged bad guy here doesn’t look like who’s supposed to be the bad guy; he looks more like someone sitting at the center of everything on a couch or at a booth.

About a decade ago in the familiar sitcom scenario, you would have been hard pressed to look in the background and find any people of color, and even now, for all the supposed “Empire”s that are dominating TV, in the narratives of your average sitcom set in what’s considered an average place, there may or may not be a few. Did you ever notice how odd it really is to always focus on a few amazing people, almost always white, when there’s all these other people around, just kind of dawdling? For some, many even, that’s aspirationally metaphorical–these central people who are worthy of having good things happen to them as the rest of the world is reducted.

This dynamic is still commonplace, but in some quarters it’s a bit less common than it used to be, which really upsets those whose sense of self-worth is built on being the good average person inherently worthy of centrality.
A survivor of the Charleston massacre reportedly said that the alleged shooter told his victims that he had to do it because African-Americans, it was implied, were “taking over.”

“Had to do it,” as if there was a counterpoint that said, no, these are people. They don’t deserve this.

In typical fashion, the massacre has been considered by some to be an aberration; this is what hate crimes are supposed to be, even though hating those insidious others that threaten to challenge someone’s supposedly rightful space of centrality is hardly an aberration culturally. There are plenty of programs that regularly present information and twist it through that prism.

What’s amazing is the way that the victims of some of these families are so forgiving. What’s incredibly sad is that hundreds of years of molded centrality will continue to make some people think that it’s only right for some people’s lives to mean much more than others. And what those people, so desperate to be more than somebody else, don’t get it is that if they weren’t being pointed to one scapegoat, it would be another.

a messy world, but don’t give up on it

The news about Robin Williams seems to have given millions of people a sense of pause, in a way that many people wish would happen for the loved ones in their own lives. Some have resented the enormous presence this has had in media, and such opinions have been dismissed as anything from insensitivity to the somewhat mythic “reverse racism.” But with the senseless shootings that take place everyday, such a reaction is hardly completely devoid of humanity. Maybe it’s not the beacon that the media likes to pretend humanity is when something senseless happens, but a little self-concern when your looks are demonized should be understandable.            

 As is feeling for Williams. I don’t know that people’s affection for him is generally about the admiration of stardom; he was a unique entertainer, somebody who mixed a lot of heart into that one-of-a-kind whirlwind humor. That he so obviously wanted to make people laugh and smile in a goofy kind of way might have worked against him a little career-wise, in an increasingly moment- and cool-obsessed media. The art of being a goofball is not one that always seems vital and contemporary, but the world would be incredibly dull without it. Quite possibly even to himself, Williams’ merits became underappreciated — in the way that most people juxtaposed with a one-sided notion of “vital and contemporary” often always are.

The tributes are understandable, but a substantial part of the media reaction is entirely about Williams’ stardom and what can be milked from the combination of it and tragedy. That this generally trumps the senseless shootings of people who aren’t stars or considered All-American enough is ridiculous. Even with what’s happening in Missouri, perhaps only such an extreme example of the kind of messy unfairness that happens everyday makes it linger in the media. There’s also a tiny bit of self-righteousness that gets to be utilized, with the crusaders of justice for all who are on the nicer side of some subdivision themselves.

The only positives from this all seems to be a greater cultural awareness of institutional bias and depression, neither of which should add up to someone being ostracized. Often it’s all a mess, but really, it’s not just a mess, and you’re certainly worth the fight to not be overwhelmed by acutely feeling the worst of it.  If it’s too much of one, don’t try to go it alone.                .   

Always tense, but reasonably so

For about as long as I can remember, at least a little fear of people has been woven into the fabric of every backdrop.  If I started to think the world was welcoming as a kid, a bully would quickly emerge with the shadow of a giant.  There was no space a bully couldn’t get to, and I suppose the place they most get to is one’s head.  Your places with a lot of people that aren’t considered the typical definition of scenic — long-term residents either try to live around the natural result of a lack of elbow room/resources, or they become part of the problems that, outside of these places, defines them entirely.  Make this space one full of dark-skinned people of color, and it is typically deemed to be quite scary, a land of bullies, by people whom consider themselves in sync with a “natural” notion of what is picturesque and peaceful.

Lots of people want to live in a world where they’ve minimized the presence of people whom are somehow as scary-looking as they are bad, but that notion is at the expense of anything remotely fair  — and it’s certainly at the expense of people whom happen to be “scary-looking.”  I’m sure some people don’t care, because these are scary-looking people we’re talking about.  “And **** ’em.”  Right?  Well, the last six months or so has seen the tragic slayings of a few people looking for help while happening to be black (And these were just the ones with a relatively high profile).  The kind of paranoia and rampantly internalized fear that often leads to these events is what’s really scary.  Can you imagine being lost and needing to ask for help in a place where you looked “scary”?  Your confusion, your reaching out to someone else for help, somehow warped into something “monstrous.”

If one were lost, one would reasonably feel a certain level of fear, too.  It’s strange to think such a fear can misconstrued, but it’s hardly surprising.  While some level of fear is a boon in a world full of myriad possibilities, it seems like there’s so many people so existentially lost they’re always afraid of anything that doesn’t share the hallmarks of the funhouse mirrors making them look otherwise.

Fear, quite simply, keeps us on our toes, wards off from potential dangers.  We have the kind wrought via personal experiences and, more often it sometimes seems, stereotypes from the twisted strain that is most media (yes, even the one you like that’s the good one).  How much of a reign is one giving these forces in one’s head when someone else is doing wrong by just looking like those bullies?

If someone “scary” gives you the stink eye, or if they make a rude comment, I know that’s not fun and that it can easily set a harsh tone.  But your not-joyful day should not be the ultimate signifier of someone else’s worth as a human being.  Someone being a jerk or terse hardly makes them someone who would do harm to one’s person, but just looking a certain way can result in those attitudes being interpreted much differently.  There’s a cultural conditioning to be afraid of violence from scary people — often easily chalked up to people of color.  One should certainly be wary of certain kinds of behaviors and looks, but in order to even be an effective judge of these in people, shouldn’t one be able to talk and listen to others who happen to not look quite so much like them?   Or, at least, such seems like it’d be quite vital to discerning humanity beyond people we’re conditioned to have an inclination for.

Here’s what some people in diverse areas do every day.  They keep their guard up¸right up until the actions of a person they find scary is or isn’t detrimental.  Guard up around all kinds of potential dangers, including a kind of violence that’s more likely to be inflicted on someone else who is a person of color.  So much violence results from some imagined slight that’s amplified by how insecure someone else is, and such a mindset often seems to regard these imagined slights even more when they’re from someone that’s not supposed to be “better” than them.   So people of color have to fear generally messed up human beings, generally messed up human beings who can see a bit more of themselves in them,  and being seen as scary when they’re in the wrong place and perhaps look like they’re having a bad day, or just look like a certain way at all.

One of the many reasons people in some loosely classifiable groups have a short life expectancy is because they live in the thick of it — of good and bad, from all sides.  There’s no strain to wring out the easiest or the “best” of this or that for them.  On top of such, it particularly wears one down — always trying to be strong enough to both discern danger and still be human.  But people still do it.

What came after the bayonet?

Let us thank God that we live in an age when something has influence besides the bayonet.

– Daniel Webster

As far as I can tell, the Daniel Webster who said that was an American politician who was born in the late eighteenth century and died shortly before the Civil War.  Webster was regarded in his time as a great speaker, and in one of his most famous speeches (‘Seventh of March’) Webster voiced his support for a law that required the recapture of runaway slaves.  This was key in the Compromise of 1850, an attempt to quell southern succession.

Needless to say, I’m not a fan.  What I think is notable is how, in such a bayonet-heavy time, he could trumpet such a noteworthy sentiment — and yet how it’s limited by his own sense of self.  It was relatively easy for someone as privileged as Webster to speak and expect his ideas to have influence.  And, certainly in that instance, Webster’s something ‘besides the bayonet’ speaks to ideas beyond what the bayonet represented: fear, power — often a shortcut to the worst of people.  From Wikipedia:

Conversely, Seventh of March has been criticized by (Henry Cabot) Lodge who contrasted the speech’s support of the 1850 compromise with his 1833 rejection of similar measures. “While he was brave and true and wise in 1833,” said Lodge, “in 1850 he was not only inconsistent, but that he erred deeply in policy and statesmanship” in his advocacy of a policy that “made war inevitable by encouraging slave-holders to believe that they could always obtain anything they wanted by a sufficient show of violence. “[32]

So Webster’s statement mostly makes me think of how the sentiment should be applicable in this day and age.  Something besides the gun (or anything gun-like in its use of fear and power) does have influence now, doesn’t it?

He who loves the bristle of bayonets only sees in the glitter what beforehand he feels in his heart.  It is avarice and hatred; it is that quivering lip, that cold, hating eye, which built magazines and powder-houses.

– Ralph Waldo Emerson