February 20, 2012

Future is Meaningless

I was in Vue the other night (this is a cinema chain in the UK, and probably other places) where, before the film, they give us a little advertorial trailer thing about themselves, describing their super HD screens and Dolby megablasters as 'the future of cinema'.
This got me thinking about the overuse of the word 'future' in advertising. I get it: technology has moved beyond what you're used to and is now so amazing that it feels like you're in the future. Everything you were promised is now a reality. This is the future and it's happening now. But actually, apart from being overused to the point of making it a meaningless, clich├ęd buzzword, 'future' is a strange intangible concept.

You can never have future technology. Future technology is like 'tomorrow' and even little orphan Annie knew that tomorrow was always out of reach. Sure, that's what she loved about it, but Annie feared the future. She was a realist. Anyway, you know what you can have? Present technology.

If you think about it, Present Technology is the most advanced technology you can get. Anything less is Past Technology. Think about it. Now that we have self-driving cars, people-driven cars are so totally in the past man. GOD. Self-driving cars aren't the future. They are the present. In the future, cars will drive people (after the automobile revolution of 2021).

Now, I'm not just being pedantic. It's probably a better advertising technique, too. If they say 'this phone is the Future of phones', you might think, 'well, one day I'll be able to get that phone and I'll be awesome, but I'm happy to stay in the present. If, however, they say 'this phone is the Present of phones,' you'll think , 'shit, my phone is stuck in the Past! I have to keep up!'

We live in the Present. I want to buy stuff that occupies the same temporal location as me. You have to bring the Future to me in the Present. You have to tell me that hoverphones (previously in the Future) are now available in the Present. Then I will get one.

February 16, 2012

The Invalid Angels

You know what frustrates me? If you've been following my twitter you might assume the answer is "Apple computers". And you'd be right. But that's not what I'm talking about in this case.

I get over-whelmingly annoyed when a person or organisation has what I consider to be a good objective or, let's say, moral standpoint and then goes about achieving their ends in the most asinine, dishonest or ridiculous way.

Let's take PETA. PETA's goal, as far I understand it, is to convince the population to stop using animals for our own ends. Priorities are frivolities like using fur and ivory but they'd also want you to stop eating meat and cheese and a bunch of other stuff like riding horses, depending on how deep into their philosophy you go. I consider this a decent enough goal. I'm not a vegetarian, but I'm no fan of animal suffering and there are a number of studies that suggest an all-round reduction of meat-eating is beneficial for the environment. If this was as far as it went, I'd be happy to say, 'Yes, PETA, I think you've got a good thing going on.'

But, unfortunately, this is not where it ends. PETA don't want to convince me by having a decent argument and presenting evidence to the right bodies and working on a practical solution to move towards their goals. They just want to be loud and shouty and sexy. Their latest advert claims that turning to veganism will make you so veracious in the bedroom that you'll injure your partner. Not only does the evidence actually lean against this idea, but it's a pretty sick advert. And so are most of their adverts, which involve convincing sexy female celebrities to disrobe for their campaigns under taglines like 'I'd rather go nude than wear fur.' I lose a little respect for each of these celebrities when they appear in a PETA campaign. Basically, PETA's schtick is aggressive and sexual PR.

Good ideas (somewhat) in theory, but terrible implementation. I do not endorse PETA. They are idiots. They are also liars, but that's not the point  of this blogpost.

I don't endorse protestors who smash shit up and are violent against the police. Those people are idiots and do not have my blessing. I understand that legitimate protests become entangled with mindless thugs, but from a hypothetical standpoint any act of aggression is going to send you right back to the start again.

I guess my point is, stop ruining everything. You'll never make any headway if you don't argue the right way. It may be slow and grate on your patience, but if you shout and scream like an imbecile, people will assume your entire position is imbecilic. It's a dreadful ad hominem, but no one care and the damage is so easily done.

February 09, 2012

How to Tell a Rape Joke

With the UniLad saga starting to send out aftershocks following the initial twitterstorm, I am going to attempt to wade into into waters way beyond my depth and attempt the dangerous task of explaining how one might attempt to larf about horrific subjects.

I am of the belief that anything can be the subject of a joke. I don't tend to be the person to make these kind of jokes, as I don't trust myself with the material, but I believe it can be done. What I don't believe is that any joke is acceptable, just because it's a joke. Some jokes just deserve a slap*. A lot of the backlash against criticism of offensive joke material is that 'you can't joke about anything anymore' or 'people are too easily offended', etc etc.  But maybe people don't understand how jokes or offence work any more. So rape, eh? Let's dive in with a point-by-point guideline for those who really do feel the need to make a rape joke:

1 - Rape is Offensive 

Let's start with the obvious: rape is a horrific and terrible thing. It's sexual bullying, abusive and scarring both physically and mentally. It's about power and victimisation and is never ever acceptable. So if you're going to construct a joke about rape, understand that you will almost certainly offend some people, purely for making light of the subject at all.

Your joke will not be for everyone and you must understand this before you make your joke. As with any subject matter that crosses boundaries of taste and offence, actually make an effort to understand why these subjects are taboo and rarely to be toyed with. If you're going to 'go there', then have the decency to know what you're getting yourself into. Why do people find the subject offensive? Do you understand the subtleties of its contexts? Do you have a good knowledge of the statistics of rape and understand how most rapes occur and why?

Consider just how offensive your joke might be and then ask yourself: is the punchline worth a) upsetting people, b) the aggro that follows if you do end up offending a lot of people?

2 - Who is the Target of the Joke? 

A lot of jokes, especially satirical/topical ones, poke at something or someone; they'll unsettle a subject matter or individual for a larf. Sometimes the subject of a joke becomes grossly mischaracterised in order to make the joke flow. A lot of the UniLad jokes relied on redefining women as game (the hunting kind, not the Scrabble™ kind) in order to make their jokes. In these cases, the women were the targets and the lads/pseudo-rapists were the protagonists.

This is getting a rape joke wrong.

In this case, the audience has to sympathise with the womaniser/rapist-character and in doing so they must implicitly condone his** behaviour. Most people should be uncomfortable with this. If people are uncomfortable with the positioning of the joke then they are less likely to find it funny and more likely to find it offensive.

There are a few ways around this:
 a) Don't make the victim the butt of the joke.
 b) If the joke teller is playing the part of the predator, they should make it clear that they are playing the antagonist and the joke should either be at their expense, or...
 c) the joke should be so obviously ironic and satirical that the rapist's position as protagonist should be clearly absurd. In this case the butt of the joke is the horrific position of the protagonist. This is the most risky type of joke to make, so you'd better make damn sure you do it well as you can easily fall into being shitty and offensive.

The best rape joke should stick the boot squarely in the face of the rape apologist. They are the most mockable, stupid, nasty people in all of rape...ville.

3 - Who is Your Audience? 

Let me make something very clear: if your joke/column/blog/forum is on the internet, the answer is everyone. Everyone is your audience. It doesn't matter who your intended audience is, if everyone can see it, then everyone is your audience. This is the equivalent of swearing down your mobile phone on a commuter train. No one cares that your intention was to swear only at your crack dealer - you're pissing off everyone on the train and they all hate you.

Now, my friends and I make all kinds of terrible and potentially offensive jokes in each other's company, in private. We can do this because we know each other well enough that we understand very clearly when a joke falls into category (c) above. Not only that, we're comfortable telling each other if a line of decency has been crossed. In a small group of friends, there is a very clear understanding about what is happening.

Expanding this: if you go and see Frankie Boyle, there should be an understanding that he's going to deliberately cross boundaries of decency because that is part of his schtick. There is an element to the fact that Frankie Boyle should know that his stand-up might well spread beyond his stage and should be aware of this, but just go with me on this.

Be aware of who will hear/read your joke and, you know, try not to offend if you can help it. That's just being an arsehole. So, while you not be doing a gig at an abused women's shelter, you'd do well to understand that not everyone will appreciate your humorous take on rape.

4 - After You Inevitably Offend 

This is something you need to be thoroughly aware of and prepared for: if you're going to 'push the boundaries of comedy' (snort), then you probably will offend someone. Expect it. If you're surprised that a joke about rape caused people some discomfort then you're an idiot. Making light of rape is a very dodgy thing to do. And when I say to be prepared for criticism, I don't mean prepare a list of defensive rebuttals, I mean be prepared to listen to it.

Getting defensive and sticking your fingers in your ears to save your ego won't help you: it'll make you look like a massive dickhead. Instead, try listening to what they have to say. If you stay calm, you might get a decent discussion out of it and you can learn something about your subject material, about the boundaries of comedy and how to improve your material and delivery. You might not agree with everything they have to say about you or your joke, but that does not devalue what they have to say. There are reasons behind people's offense and they are important to hear.

And remember: apologising is not a sign of weakness; it's a sign of strength. If you're going to play around at the edge of common decency, you're probably going to fall off once in a while. Accepting that you got it wrong is fine. Just say, 'I was wrong', apologise and move on in the knowledge that you've become better through making mistakes and understanding how you went wrong.

And I'm going to say it again, because it's important. Is the punchline really worth the effort? It better be a bloody good rape joke, is all I'm saying.     

** or her, technically, yes.

Fighting my own Prejudices

I've been meaning to get these thoughts down for a while, but have hesitated because it's a personal thing that I feel quite guilty about. My problem is that there are certain things to which my brain seems pre-programmed to take the opposite stance to my own beliefs and ideals.

I'm just going to say this straight. I tend to take men more seriously than I take women. And I mean that in an 'initial mental processing' sort of way. It's a terrible thing and I hate it and I have to be aware of this at all times to make sure I consciously check my own thought processes to balance out this bias. And I do. I work hard to make sure I evaluate what everyone says on their own merits, and I work extra hard because I know I can't trust my unconscious mental processing.

Here's another thing I'm struggling with: non-binary gender language and constructs. I have a friend who considers and presently emself* neither as male or female. Those reading this who are unfamiliar with transgender issues might not know that to treat a transgender person with the all the wrong gender language can be very hurtful, to say the least. Check out Trans Media Watch if you want to know more about this. Anyway, this particular person has a biologically female-sexed body (I'm not even sure if I'm wording this right, tell me if I'm not) and my mind struggles massively not to categorise em as such. I know one day, I'm going to refer to em as 'she' by accident and accidentally cause offense, but I can't seem to get it into the unconscious part of my brain. Hopefully, one day.

A further thing, that I think is common among most people is what I'll call an Argument from Idolatry. If you like someone or an organisation, are a fan or fervent supporter, it's so easy to bias your opinions towards them when there is an argument or discussion about something. I guess it's a case of love-tinted glasses. When I'm trying to form an opinion or weight in on a topic of discussion in which my 'idol' has taken a side, I find it so easy to and along to their opinion before stopping myself and studying both sides. I've managed to get to a stage now where I try not to form an opinion immediately if there's a conflict on the internet; instead I'll just wait a little while and see what's being discussed. In doing so, I've found that - on certain topics - I've disagreed with people who I think are generally awesome and mostly right: Phil Plait, Richard Dawkins and PZ Myers to name a few.

Anyway, the point of this blog post (I think), is the importance of being aware of our biases, our privileges and our perspectives. I'm not proud of the fact that the hardwiring of my brain is a bit sexist and harbours a few prejudices, but that's kind of how brains work: they make connections and shortcuts to allow you to think fast and draw up conclusions easily. Knowing this gives me the power to think a little harder, more consciously, and to overcome this in-built deficiency. And hopefully, it makes me less of a douche.

*gender neutral pronoun. construct by using the 3rd person plural and removing the 'th'. Conjugate verbs as you would for he/she/it.

February 02, 2012

No Anger Here

I'm happy to point out where I think things/people/organisations have gone wrong - sometimes hideously wrong, to the point of causing an entire subset of people to suffer for it - my strong sense of atheism and egalitarianism makes this a daily occurrence. But what I don't do is get angry about it.

It sometimes feels like a strange state to be in, as the arguments from both sides of the kinds of discussions I'm interested in tend to be pretty gosh darn angry. The Unilad fiasco, which I watched from the sidelines (partly because I didn't have the energy to pitch in and partly because the whole thing was so blindingly obvious, I didn't have anything interesting to add) was a particularly angry affair. Feminists (and, to be fair, most decent human beings) were boiling at the contempt shown for women by the lad-culture website, while the lads were pissed at the feminists butting into their rape-joke party. This is a pretty obvious example of such a conflict, but you'll see similar things throughout politics, religious debate, science vs the sciencephobic, etc; people will get pretty angry about the consequences and attitudes of the other side.

Now, I'm not going to say anger is unjustified. A lot of these debates can centre around issues that can have devastating effects on real people; we're talking potentially life-ruining events in a lot of cases (depending on the topic). To feel angry about the parents being misled about vaccines, for example, is completely unsurprising and justified.

However, I don't really get angry. And I'm quite glad for that. There are two reasons I don't get angry: the first is that it's not really a natural reaction for me. I don't get visceral rises of emotion, in any direction, really. I accept facts and evidence and process them quite slowly, chewing over them for a while. This makes me terrible at verbal debates, because every time I'm presented with new facts I like to think about them for a little while before coming to conclusions. This brings me to my second reason for not getting angry: anger clouds your judgement. When you're emotionally charged, your entire being centres around your current position of thought and closes down all other avenues. It's very, very hard for someone to change your mind when you're angry and being charged by that ferocity makes you very defensive. I think the important thing to always bear in mind is that you may not be completely right. You may not be completely wrong, but it's very likely that a reasonable position lies somewhere between where you are and where your opponent sits.

Being angry isn't helpful in the context of rational debate. It's a hindrance to an open mind. Getting to a rational position can be a slow and considered process and that requires being cool and patient. This goes for personal arguments too. If you're in a face-to-face disagreement with someone and it ends up being nothing but a heated argument that goes nowhere, it's best to step back from it. I know the frustration of that verbal sparring and the whole things ends up about winning the battle and not about finding a truth - and the truth is the basis for the argument in the first place. When two people disagree it's because they see something differently so, while you're trying to convince them of your perspective, remember they are trying to convince you of theirs and so, together, you are trying to understand some objective truth to the matter at hand. Arguments should be about reaching an understanding, not winning a battle.