Appropriation: A Virtue-Signaling Cultural Marxist’s Guide to Why You’re A Racist

There are tons of op-eds floating around Medium, YouTube, Facebook, Tumblr… about Cultural Appropriation, sensitivity, and basic inclusion being a stupid SJW distraction harassing innocent, “well meaning” people, who think labels divide us. A useless “toxic concept” for possessive “identity politics” advocates to rageblog whenever a white guy eats eggrolls or whatever. It’s why liberals always lose always. Except… it’s none of those. It’s a simple concept with simple elements, and a mass of noise around it, making a 1st world problem Gordian Knot begging for cutting. So let’s try!

I’ll start here: Soldiers from India were at Dunkirk in World War II. That’s it really, a simple fact. Nonetheless Christopher Nolan skipped the Lascars in his recent all-twink flag waver, which makes it a lie. Calling it a lie is acknowledging facts. In other news most cowboys were BlackNative, and Mexican, and most white non-English US immigrants kept their languages and cultures well into the 20th century. Denying those things is lying. To lie about another culture is to deny facts.

Hand-wringing about Outrage Twitter and periodic pearl-clutching about call-out fatigue are really just covering up for liars. Yes, nobody died when Roland Emmerich lied about the Stonewall riots by replacing brick-throwing NY Latinx Sylvia Rivera with non-existent Indiana mayonnaise “Danny”. But he did erase her. He rejected reality. It’s a lie. This is important because a frequent component of appropriation dismissal is “but we’re all human”. Yes, we are, appropriation says everybody’s human, even the brown people.

Making one group matter, and the other not, makes an absurd standard. First, it’s an ad hom. Second, it’s the contradiction of testimony for ‘harm’ demanded from people whose testimony has already been dismissed as irrelevant. All for a hollow pay-off: victim fights to be recognized for existing, in order to even be capable of being harmed, before getting to the harm. Sea-Lioning accomplished!

All of this in the hope of disproving the nonsensical claim lying isn’t lying. It’s why casual racism is easy to spot, it’s entirely circular reasoning, broad half-truths, and blind guessing to erase whole people. Rules like data, witnesses, and disproof evaporate. One example is Sonny Hallett’s essay on “owning” culture [linked in intro]. In the middle she claims non-Asians are being shamed for cooking food like rice; which is wrong because she won’t be shamed for cooking rice, since she looks Asian; but she can’t cook; proving Chinese = Rice is stupid. Not a single drop of proof, no quotes. The reader has to assume ‘Ricists’ exist, assume they’d give her a pass based on how she looks rather than if she knows anything about China, assume they’d stop others who weren’t Chinese, which somehow proves appropriation is dumb. By the way, all of this depends on the Ricists being from China, rather than India where they also grow rice. She erases all the other countries who eat rice to prove erasure and appropriation don’t exist. The section is a two paragraph lie. Plus, I should tell you I’m plugged in to the Super-Secret SJW Cuck Network™ and there’s no memos to #boycott an Uncle Ben’s or Mahatma factory. Her whole ramble is just gibberish and several criticized other parts of her over-simple and flimsy arguments.
Another example might be Farah Shah [linked in intro] who calls the concept of appropriation toxic, then goes on a mini-rant about “NDNs” not letting her use the term “spirit animal”. Much like Hallett, she doesn’t cite anything, like a tribe who banned the term for non-Natives maybe. But what does the “NDN” mean…? I have no idea. She discusses Blacks and never says “BLK”, she discusses Egyptians and never says “GYP” (maybe because it’s an insult). The reader can only guess from context she’s saying “Indian” but she’s so busy erasing them she’s erasing the very letters. Being a minority doesn’t give her a pass. Maybe she doesn’t like call-outs because she gets called out on stuff.

Spirit Animals — Marika Paz

Plus, the whole spirit animal thing comes from nowhere and stays there. She brings it up several times for no reason. She doesn’t even quote non-Natives complaining. Which is funny because there’s tons of blogs, vlogs, and tweets out there. If Shah was trying she’s spoiled for choice: philosophically here; touchy-feely here; bitchy here… She could note “familiar” and “totem” is worldwide so Natives have no exclusive right. She doesn’t. Notably, most of the links I gave were permissive when it was used respectfully. They only universally objected if it was thrown around as cheap meme-fodder by shallow bloggers. Maybe she’s just a bigot.


Again, she can say what she likes. For proof no one is stopping her see the several blogs she’s written on how much everyone is silencing her. She’s not silenced, she’s criticized, and she doesn’t like it so she lies about it. She can claim “NDNs” are selfishly stopping her fun, meanwhile she’s just spewing bile while calling everyone “toxic”. It’s not an argument. Lionel Shriver’s “passing fad” article [linked above] agrees with Shah’s but adds the twist of saying being a fiction writer frees her from having to be honest. So, when readers criticize writers for employing clichés it’s the readers fault for reading the book wrong and ruining her fun. I’ve heard this before…

She’s a cheap cynic, telling readers she doesn’t respect them but they should buy her stuff anyway to stick-it to The Man or whatever. It’s no surprise she doesn’t mention when minority books get written, white school and library administrators and parents just ban them. Shriver’s a liar. It’s fitting Shriver’s top selling book is of a mother who never takes responsibility for her own part in creating a monster who destroys lives. In my minds eye I see Shriver ending the speech by shaking a cane and telling everyone to get off her lawn.

So, appropriation…? Funny thing, there was no Native outcry for the video game Fallout: New Vegas. I promise, it’s oddly relevant. No Native seemed to notice the add-on Honest Hearts. It’s odd because the plot to HH is two white Mormons helping some ‘tribals’, who speak in broken English, against a foreign army. It’s a brown-face white savior story. It’s Dances with Wolves for the XBox360, and there was no SJW outcry. This is important.

First, there’s a good chance most Natives, even who game, never played HH. It was released near a year after the original. It wasn’t a major film or sports team. But potential ‘allies’ played it and they didn’t lose their minds either. Even the rageblog perpetual target Anita Sarkeesian was silent on the subject when discussing other aspects of the Fallout series. Despite the many and obsessive rumors to the contrary, all SJWs don’t complain about all things no matter how trivial and the coming Orwellian Nightmare was averted another day (speaking of Orwell, for hating groupthink so damn much, the anti-SJWs, #skeptics and #rationals do all seem to cite the same books and game critics a lot and at length). But there were other factors:

  • Some of the tribes want to join the army and others don’t. They have different ideas. They’re diverse, not waiting for death or rescue by whites.
  • They speak broken English because English is their 3rd even 4th language. The dialog says whites made contact by sending a linguist.
  • They are diverse because their ancestors were Natives and whites who survived nuclear war. They’re healthy, smart, with strong social ties. Whites and Natives merged. Their culture is a shared identity, not color.
  • They’re not tropes. Neither are the White Saviors. Both Mormons are flawed, with different motives and definitions of ‘salvation’.

Most of all, the FO:NV add-ons combined to follow a primary Native antagonist, Ulysses, who has lost his culture. He tells the story of people copying his traditions to be like him and how it insulted him. The player doesn’t even meet him until the fourth add-on, the end of an arc with no effect in the main game. Ulysses is one of the most nuanced characters in the Fallout canon and he’s filler. He’s an anti-SJW Rage dream, inclusion no one needed! Yet no #culturalmarxism outcry or RationalWiki page.

A compelling character, written well, and players embraced it. Repeat: The angry brown guy tries sparking a war because white people appropriated his dreadlocks, and even 4chan didn’t complain (one post quotes Ulysses’ saying it and they all debate his merits). 4chan…! The shorthand for a fog-bank of dudebro trolls where Snowflakes go to die violently, the wild breeding grounds of the reactionary Pepe memes, and a follow-up comment agrees symbols have meaning and his reasoning is valid. Now, it’s 4chan, some couldn’t resist dropping an n-bomb, BUT the buried lead is, in the middle of overt racism, nobody denied the premise. Even 4chan thinks appropriation is a thing! In other news up is now down, cats and dogs are living together, our tentacle-mouthed destroyer will be rising from the depths shortly…

Or Elder Scrolls: Skyrim. Over 20 million units and one of the most award-winning RPGs of all time. No Breitbart thinkpiece about the tribal Forsworn or the turbaned Redguard, and they’re overt proxies for Aborigines and Arabs. One quest in Skyrim even requires the player join a tribal terror cell to help them (with the choice to kill the leader or not with no loss of Reputation either way and it doesn’t destabilize their efforts much). Nobody noticed… If, according to all these bloggers and pundits, we’re ten seconds from a thought-police crybully triggered wasteland, someone would have said something by now. Milo Yiannopoulos, famous for #GamerGate and militant critic of “leftist” identity politics, gave Skyrim and FO:NV not one paragraph. Milo was tech editor. If 1984 is coming, where?

I know at least one factor in the absence of hot take shots fired about New Vegas, or ‘culture war’ debates over the Redguard indoctrinating kids to Islamic Terrorism sympathies: The Washington Redskin’s franchise clocks in at near $3bil in net worth according to Forbes. There’s a good chance Natives and Blacks care more about Vanity Fair Coachella photo-spreads, than we do about Assassin’s Creed III, because we can count. The dream-catcher tattoo on your ass is silly, and we’ll laugh and point if you post it on Instagram. It’s not the open, aggressive racism of a stadium full of face-painted idiots whooping while they do the tomahawk chop. We can prioritize, I promise.

Which is why it requires so much cutting to get through the noise. knowing what I know (and have now demonstrated) about how little much of this ‘debate’ matters in the universe, and yet how terrible but vocal the arguments over it are, it casts Shah, Shriver, Hallett, and YouTubers like Sargon of Akkad in a terrible light: they’re losing their shit over nothing. Nobody petitioned Obsidian for Ulysses. The mini-arc they created, the characters they fleshed out, were irrelevant. Avatar was the highest grossing film of its time and it’s one giant racist trope. Nobody demanded New Vegas attempt a thoughtful portrayal of the ‘Native Experience’. Turns out they’re good writers, they wanted something unique, and they decided to just not be pricks. The real point of the whole ‘cultural appropriation’ thing, for most of us who care, isn’t a desperate need to find racists under every rock to get them banned from SnapChat. It’s not a forever game of shame wack-a-mole. It’s admitting someone’s lying. Like, not all ‘Asians’ are martial arts experts. Orgy scenes doesn’t make Sense8 progressive when their ‘Asian’ is a kickboxer. It’s. A. Lie.

Yes, some use ‘inclusion’ as a bat to break everybody’s knees, but it’s on both sides. Hallett says she once wanted dreads in her hair. She spends three paragraphs justifying why she could, since it originated in more than one culture. She’s right, but it would mean she’s enacting culture, not ignoring it. She then goes to kimono, the Silk Road, and concludes she’s transcended race as if the whole Carmen San Diego side-quest never happened. Farah’s sprinkling “spirit animal” randomly through more than one post is an obvious edgelord bid to conceal direct bigotry and terrible reasoning.

Did I mention Shah is on a reading list Hallett includes in her essay for ‘more information’? So is Shriver. It’s not surprising they employ similar mis-direction and identical bad arguments because they’re cribbing each other’s stuff. They’re not advancing the conversation, it’s an echo. Shriver blames her readers for making writing hard which was Milos’ entire shtick of provocation by self-victimhood. He mocked oppression testimonials until the second he ruined himself by joking about child molesting, justifying it with a personal anecdote when confronted. Either direct experience is only a fallacy when SJWs do it, or there are some jerks on both sides and they should be ignored for using big words badly, whether through foolishness or greed.

Clearly I’m a leftie, so my last myth to burn may seem surprising: I loathe “check your privilege”. First, it’s me asking them to do something, they can simply choose to ignore me or yell “free speech” and walk on. As a Hail Mary, I get it, but as a genuine critique of someone’s behavior it’s impotent. It’s conversational slacktavism. If they say “no”, I’m stuck. Thing is, privilege is given, it’s impossible to self-check. More important, wearing a plains war bonnet isn’t a privilege-check moment, it’s an entitled prick moment. If object, I say it. They can accept my challenge or not, but now it’s out there. The douchecanoe ball is in their court.

@Mark Schierbecker — Nov 2015

Plus, silence is what the dog-pile net trolls want from me. The ones who lose their mind when someone points out a movie forgot a continent, they’re not trying to ‘advance the discourse’. In a recent interview with Joe Rogan, Ben Shapiro, darling of the #rational set, affirms my argument, through former Missouri State University professor Melissa Click’s “safe space” debacle. As he said, demands for equality which require exclusion is the rhetoric of the Klan. Yeah, that. I don’t have to shut up when someone’s being a bigot.

Finally there’s, “but all cultures are blends”. Sure, over hundreds of years. We may want cultural theft acceptable because everybody does it, but the Tradition Fallacy is a fallacy. I can’t read this article to a Kalahari Bushman, for example. Difference exists, it’s quantifiable. Different cultures also beg, borrow, and steal differently. It’s not ‘blending’ if one group takes another’sstuff. Someone wearing a Native headdress at Burning Man isn’t ‘blending’ if they didn’t learn Kiowan first.

True blends do exist and we mostly alienate or outright suppress them. There are creoles everywhere: Spanglish, Russenorsk, Ebonics… And entire education systems were created to stifle or even delete them. In the US, mocking deep southern accents and the fashion of gangster rap is almost a national sport. At the scale of countries, the US has bombed people because they prayed wrong. Simply noticing cultures have each other’s things doesn’t prove it was on purpose. It definitely doesn’t prove either party was willing.

So, the reason I say understanding appropriation is simple is this last part. We are our cultures. Everyone is. We talk different than others, dress different, eat different. No one is “the base”. Anything setting me apart from everyone else on earth can be appropriated. What matters, and where so many get stuck, is not all appropriation is bad. Some is selfish, some is curiosity. The difference is easy to spot: if everything about a person is one way, but they have one or two foreign things they’re really highlighting, and they complain when anyone questions them about it, they’re being a jerk. I don’t even have to be intending to ‘ruin’ someone’s fun. If they’re wearing overt trinkets it invites comment. Which means second, if they get ticked when people challenge them it’s because they’re stealing something.

Intent isn’t just in someone’s mind, it’s in their actions. Look at the picture. Dudes’ wearing tshirts, jorts, and some knock-off raybans, a rainbow cloth bracelet or two… They’re color-coordination needs work, and they’re dusty. They don’t stand out. Except, add random feathered headdress and now they stand out for no reason except the war bonnet. They’re wearing someone else’s culture just to call attention to themselves. On the other hand, a guy posting to Facebook asking for bok choy recipes isn’t trying to look cool he’s trying a food, he’s experiencing not aping. Now, add a tie-dye Laughing Buddha to his dining room table and the tag “I’m so ethnic today!” and the situation’s changed. Which is the point, it’s case by case. It’s being aware of one’s self and actions.

It’s where so many of these think-pieces go totally off the rails: we’re all from somewhere else so shut up about it. Sure, but for some it’s further back than others and I choose which grandma’s meals I cook, how many languages I speak, and who I hang out with. I’m no fool, part of my heritage is based on trade-&-raid tribes who were basically pirates, but we didn’t lie about it. We sure as hell didn’t whine when someone noticed us wearing it. Cracker wants to wear some feathers, fine. Catch the bird and make one, fight me for it and take it, wear the one grandma made, but don’t tell me it came from a gas station with a “Made In China” sticker but everybody stay quiet about it because they’re ‘like totally spiritualismistic and into Indian-type stuff dude.’

A family with more than one cultural tradition is fantastic. They have several influences to draw on. It’s not in the same galaxy as a family just coming from more than one place. If my father is French and Italian and fourth generation US, while my mother is first generation Haitian, there’s serious cultural potential. If I never spoke to mom in her native language, tried some of the food once and didn’t like it, and called her “Black”, I’m not multi-cultural. I’m multi-racial, culture is a whole life. Culture is how we perceive the world and our place in it, it is not a hat or random laughing Buddha.

Plus, the vocab of the other side is moronic. I laugh when I hear people say “red pill”. In The Matrix the red pill was created by the machines to trick humans into believing they’re free. The red pill is a lie. I’m baffled by the mock of “white knighting” and “virtue signaling”. First, if I’m the knight, and I’m being called out for it, it’s a call-out, which anti-SJWs say they despise. Second, if I’m the one signaling virtue, the person hating me hates the virtuous knight. Hint: the villain. Thus, “Virtue-signal white-knight blue-pill cuck” translates to ‘Good guy who recognizes fake choices and has both a husband and a boyfriend’. Protip: Insults should be, yanno… Insulting.

While we’re here, I’m fine with calling the entitled students at Evergreen State College, who detained professors for being white, brats. Hypocrites attacking other minority students for not being minority ‘enough’, are hypocrites. If they didn’t like the press they got they probably shouldn’t have filmed themselves being terrible human beings. Hopefully they’ll grow up. But the very fact it was news means it was out of the ordinary. They don’t represent anything about common liberals, they represent the end-product of coddling and fostering unrestrained immaturity and all sides do it.

Returning to ‘check your privilege’, wearing a headdress to a frat party is taking credit for someone else’s work. I’m not reading receipts just for asking if they’re a genuine part of my community or a tourist. Which gives a universal standard so many demand. It makes those students hypocrites by noting they’re attacking people just for being themselves, meaning they’re not affirming identity, they’re erasing it. It also denies #freespeech is not a pass to say despicable things (which turns into a wankfest anyway) by demanding a justification for punching down.

Either we’re sharing, or someone’s taking. If they’re taking they open themselves for being called on it. It also has the handy detail of already being how our laws are written in the US: we can’t lie about other people (slander), we can’t lie about ourselves (perjury), we can’t threaten people for no reason (assault)… Our own laws say words and acts have consequences, and overt meanings, and their intent matter. There’s no difference when it comes to who you claim as your people and how (hard stare at Rachel Dolezal).

I’m good with cultural appropriation being a concept we investigate for merit. Looking outside myself to see other people as independent and valuable, capable of knowing things I don’t. It’s good to support the excluded, who want others like themselves represented honestly. Yet somehow Hollywood is running out of ideas (unless demand for Gnomeo & Juliet II: Sherlock Gnome was huge and nobody told me). 22 yearolds feigning world-weary frustration any time someone asks  why the Japanese guy can’t handle English are demanding we regress.  Bravestarr, Captain Planet, M*A*S*H, Murphy Brown, Designing Women... Of the six leads in Saved By The Bell, three were women, one was Latinx, one Black, and they acknowledged it. Barely, and ham-fisted, but acknowledged all the same, and that was thirty years ago. Mouth-breathing ‘alphas’ are so insecure in their own masculinity and whiteness they’re arguing the decade of Reagan and AIDS denial was too “radical”. All because a few minorities with less institutional power are asking them to stop being racist dicks. Gimme a break.

All said though, this is just me writing to whoever’s reading. I can cite bad logic or terrible arguments for my thesis, but I can’t put anyone in ‘bad ally jail’. If someone is advocating for me, great. If not, it doesn’t cost them anything to not care. Fratbros in racist feathers don’t have to worry what I think. I would prefer they ask first but as I said nobody’s died because Dunkirk forgot India exists. The reason appropriation is an issue at all is most of us, most of the time, try to avoid being overt jerks. Wear the feathered headdress knowing it’s insulting, or take it off. But the #rationals of the world don’t get to whine when they’re held accountable for their own actions.

Engagement: Worldcraft, Player Conditioning & Emotive Game Design

H. Bomberguy is a youtuber with a fair following (118k subscribers as of writing) and several vlogs dedicated to game design and concept analysis. I discovered his work through the tantalizingly titled YouTube video Fallout 3 is Garbage, and Here’s Why. I watched the polemic entranced. One of his complaints echoed a common topic in gaming and in so doing demonstrated how difficult it was stating the problem accurately. It got me thinking.

I don’t watch op-ed vlogs much, but I played FO3 and didn’t enjoy (unlike many self-styled reviewers at the time), I was curious if we agreed. His splendid rant hit most aspect of FO3 I found irksome. My intro to Fallout was New Vegas. Loved it. Were FO3 my intro, I’d think the series was First-Person Shooters with tedious dialog and bizarre ‘karma’ based on (I guess) moon phases. It found it boring. Within his screed he made a passing point about games habituating play-style. Not just Y=fire & B=jump, but routine in-game challenges create standard player solutions.

It was a clever insight, and similar to an issue I’d noticed. Watching a few vloggers complaining about Anita Sarkeesian I said her critics weren’t addressing her arguments, but her perceived identity. They were annoyed hearing something they like criticized and replied with aggression. I noted they often saw the same flaws she did, they just considered them irrelevant. What she thought worth consideration they said proved she didn’t ‘get’ it.

Hilariously, when I wrote the article in 2014, transferred to blog in 2015, my intro said readers probably weren’t familiar with Sarkeesian. Oh times change… Still, within the article I acknowledged her problem was the way games ‘train’ players to expect saving a princess, then ‘train’ them to not care, it’s valid for a woman finding it troubling. In fact, the original Earthworm Jim proved the pattern by twisting it. Normally the princess is an afterthought, in EWJ she’s killed at the last minute. Sarkeesian’s right, a girlfriend crushed to death as a ‘joke’ is misogynist. However, her detractors were also right, it was a ‘joke’ because most times the girlfriend is a foregone conclusion or even non-factor. They were talking past each other.

Her general arguments about ‘engagement’ resonated with me because I am a minority gamer. It changes the experience. FarCry 3 was fun, mostly, and Michael Mando as Vaas the PsychoKiller was amazing. Still, it’s a rich white boy hitting a tropical island to get high and maybe laid by a ‘native girl’. A genuine frat boy who somehow beats every better-armed local and an international drug kingpin. He gets an ‘authentic’ magic tribal tat for crap sake. Even if every side-quest was perfect, the White Savior lead never progresses past feelings of trustafarian wish fulfillment, coincidentally “Jason” even looks a little like head game writer Jeffrey, who felt it was totes profound not racist. Likewise I finished Duke Nukem Forever by sheer determination not enjoyment. Great graphics or adept mechanics don’t change forced-choices and a casually racist dudebro or moronic goon. Both times I hoped the villain won.

That said, I clocked over 1200 hours on Elder Scrolls: Skyrim the first time, once playing for 50 hours straight. Not because it’s the best game ever, but the sandbox with radiant AI, and unmarked locations encouraging off-path exploring meant I was invested, I could personalize. It viscerally engaged me. Before Skyrim I was ‘old-school’, I retired my controller when the PS2 was still a gleam in Sony’s eye. After a 12 year pause, Skyrim broke my brain.

Thing is, tech changes but many designers are my age. We played the same games and became similarly habituated. For example, I never liked the original Mario Bros., but I loved Mario 2 and Sonic the Hedgehog. Why…? No princess to save and more control. Bowser takes Peach for no reason and I rescue her by being sidescroll frog-marched for 5 hours. Whoopie. Mario 2 was nutball: scroll left, scroll right, even up and down. Ride a flying egg a few times and walk into a bird’s mouth to finish!

I had friends who loathed M2 for what I loved: the insanity. Similarly, Sonic is rescuing friends from an egg-based scientist who wants test subjects for a monster factory. I’ll take two. Sarkeesian was talking ‘engagement’ and avoiding ‘standard’ storytelling devices. Her detractors mostly said she should learn to ignore things. I mused demanding quality is a better option. After all, does the world truly need endless FPSs? Some are almost Duckhunt retreads. Look what Portal did and say ‘it can’t be better’. I don’t need depth, I want it.

Still, the bulk of my article was about MRAs, not story-boarding. I barely mention design ‘training’ players to standard behaviors. Plus, I wasn’t breaking ground either. MovieBob made a similar point in relation to Sarkeesian’s assertions on lazy writing, and his video came out before my blog. I know because I quoted. His contention was the muscle goon character is overdone (looking your way Nukem), making most fighter games just Double Dragon v85. If the story depends on reducing all men to mindless Vendetta Machines or Jealousy Jocks it’s a bad game. Again, this wasn’t his key point either. Bomberguy’s much later revisit of the concept was just as minor to his overall hate of FO3. He was focused on crap characters and plot, a nonsense ending, and style over substance. We were all talking about the same thing, but with no vocab to discuss it properly.

Still, this idea has capital in gaming circles. Flash forward a few years and the 345k subscriber strong YouTube team AlltimeGaming produced the 2017 vid 6 Franchises We’re GLAD Died, mostly citing weak stories and cookie-cutter formats. The Alone in the Dark 2008 reboot was an “incomprehensible plot… and dull game-play”. The 2010 Call of Duty had a “dumb AI”. Kane & Lynch had “…meandering levels”. The theme’s obvious: we hated these for bad engagement and boredom.

They praised the “fantastically paced horror game” Dead Space and not its follow-up Tau Volantis, a “mindless action-shooter… with pointless micro-transactions”. These are a review team who complimented Kane & Lynch 2 for a scene of the main character covered with knife-slices, nude, fighting his way through the streets bleeding and shooting stuff. They enjoy a side of ultra violence, and yet they are pissed Dead Space was “ruined” by becoming a Quake clone. When Anthropologist Clifford Geertz argued for “culture as text” [Hoffman 2009] this is part of what he meant, ‘reading’ a culture by noting how the culture sorts ideas. DS had specific elements of a style, so players felt ‘let down’ by later wrong-style versions. Only they couldn’t really say why beyond “dumb” and “boring” several times.

Speaking of Kane & Lynch. Jeff Gerstmann founded GiantBomb after being fired by GameSpot for giving it a negative review. The marketers wanted him out. It was a PR problem for GameSpot, but provides an insight into why ‘engagement’ doesn’t come up much. Part of Gerstmann’s Nov 2007 criticism was K&L’s “ugly” characters. He defined it as, “unlikable, not even in a cool anti-hero sort of way”. But terms for the writing of games and not the visuals is so poor he kept saying “ugly”. Reviewing K&L 2 in Aug 2010 he said “ugly” again. He meant ‘repellent’. Getting fired for calling a game ‘alienating’ suggests industry insiders themselves are limiting the vocab to limit criticism options. There’s other evidence supporting this idea.

Without delving too deeply in the tentacle-mouthed abyss of the “#GamerGate” debacle (or Milo and the “Alt-Right”), buried under heaps of hashtag trolling and 4chan memes was claims they wanted “objectivity” in reviews. They faulted anyone mentioning ‘feelings’ because they said allure isn’t a metric. Sure, ‘lag’ is easier to quantify than a character’s likability, but ‘lag’ is also easier to patch. Criticizing engagement means companies must work harder. Plus, the favoring of large commercial vehicles over indie developers in the bowels of many Reddit threads was hard to miss. GG’s ‘concerns’ quickly became more dogpile than discussion, and no one has a bigger bandwagon than multi-national tech corporations.

Maybe GamerGaters actually did value objectivity, but so what? They also highly favored large corporate vehicles over the indie market, and they were only ever a small sub-set of gamers as a group. Their ‘objective’ metrics aren’t very objective anyway. This isn’t a post-modern “there are no facts” assertion. It’s acknowledging the only real measure is enjoyment. For instance, any engineer can attest games always lag. Power fluctuations, signal drops, coding, most don’t notice. “Lag” is annoying if it interrupts. “Lag” really means annoying lag. If others agree it’s excessive, a ‘metric’ is born. Except, “annoying” is a feeling.

In contrast, indie reviewers often don’t care about standard metrics, but since the common review terms are limited, many ‘reviewers’ are reduced to guys screaming “Why???” repeatedly. They go with their gut but there isn’t a vocab for gut reactions. AlltimeGaming praised the early Prince of Persia series as pretty and fun play, with no learning curve. Pretty isn’t a ‘metric’. Equally, their complaint was the series later became a processor taxing pixel fuck (real term) only to deliver “convoluted” stories. “Convoluted”…?

A ponderous and convoluted story isn’t “bad” if feelings are irrelevant. Besides, convoluted how? AlltimeGaming weren’t just being fussy, they addressed an Action/Adventure failing as an A/A. They addressed Fantasy Horror devolving into “mindless” shooters. The problem was they had words for category, but not an incoherent narrative arc. They were seeing the same problem with design: They don’t enjoy play automatically, but through engagement. The guys at AlltimeGaming like an FPS as an FPS, not an FPS pretending it’s an RPG.

First, I want to be clear I am not a computer programmer or engineer. I’m interested in gaming as a cultural artifact, as a product of society and something interpreted by its members. It is as validly art as films or books or pottery. In exploring game reviews, I found it striking well-known elements of style analysis (aesthetics, execution, exegesis) were usually superficial or absent. Even unrestrained 3am YouTube reviewers, full of caffeine and opinions, have trouble discussing emotional appeal because of seemingly self-imposed terminology restrictions. I don’t expect every player to have a detailed literary analysis of Overwatch or anything, but there’s gotta be better options than even good reviewers saying “ugly” several times.

The desire’s clearly there. Erik M. Gregory, PhD discussed “engagement” in the article Understanding Video Gaming’s Engagement all the way back in 2008. José P. Zagal and friends published Towards an Ontological Language for Game Analysis further back in 2005 (remember the date), using even older texts as back-up. Zagal and his co-authors happened to be at the Georgia Institute of Technology, Computer Science Dept and they noted even then design needed a vocabulary to describe the self-contained worldscape a character inhabits. They noted in particular the way an overall story is broken into manageable sub-stories, how it is fitted to the worldscape, and everything is combined into a full experience, doesn’t actually have a word in design. It’s been over a decade.

Zagal has created a challenge the gaming community is fully prepared to handle. Simply break down the various complaints and experiences of gamers, compare the commonalities, and name them. Bomberguy called his main issue “Player Conditioning”. It’s as good a term as any. His example was an early task in FO3 as the first-level character hits a required lock. One can attempt the pick, or just find the key hidden nearby. In other words, there’s a built-in cheat. As he says it, “The game itself teaches you should avoid doing [difficult tasks] if you can”.

He expanded on this in another video, Bloodborne Is Genius, And Here’s Why. He notes he enjoyed the Dark Souls series more than most of his friends, and poking around he found many were annoyed by single-option battles early in play. It taught some players new tactics, but conservative players just died a lot because they avoid single-option fights. They never got the chance to learn. When they complained, “get gud” was the normal reply and they gave up.

However, many friends who hated Souls overall somehow enjoyed Bloodborne, despite the similarities. He realized it was the progression of the narrative arc drawing them in. He tied his realization to his previous criticism of FO3 having a high-cost task, with a cheat waiting around the corner. Conservative gamers rely on finding those cheats. It conditions the player if high-cost tasks are presented there will be a simple trick to avoiding them, making every high-cost task a fake-out. BB introduces an early high-cost task but it does so with a high-reward payoff and no chance to skip the fight. Bang, the game shows conservative players how to play correctly.

Bomberguy discovered once they were taught, the lesson stuck and people who previously hated the other Dark Souls series rediscovered them. Meaning the previous games were flawed and didn’t engage, and BB resolved the disconnect. More important, it taught through gameplay not endless tutorial because gamers already know most tutorials are misleading if they bother using them at all. Gamers love all sorts of games, but no one complained Angry Birds was hard to play.

“Player Conditioning” is part of what I’ll call ‘Arcing’, or how the character’s story unfolds under the control of the player within the game. Zagal’s ‘how this all fits together’ I’ll call ‘Worldcrafting’ (honestly, I just modified the term ‘worldview’ from anthropology because it’s what I know, and worldview in anthro means ‘a person or group’s sense of place within their immediate surroundings and the rest of the world’). Maybe someone else was knocking around a more evocative term, great! The more the merrier, but we’ve gotta start somewhere and near as I could find nobody’s addressing Zagal and his fellow students so far.

By the way, this isn’t ‘world-building’, which is more concerned with crafting a location who’s details make real-world sense (like YouTuber MrBtongue’s big question about FO3: “What Do They Eat??”). Suspension of disbelief is a factor in worldcraft in a way it can’t be in world-building for reasons I’ll explain. Worldcraft is the crafting of the reality the character inhabits, what corner of a world does the character do their work in, how does the wider world effect them if there is one? Incidentally, maybe someone else can think up, or already was knocking around, more evocative terms. Great! The more the merrier, but I gotta start somewhere.

These elements make up the fake world a character inhabits and how the player and the character react to it and in it. A social science analysis of the player/character divide would mean determining the relationship between the two. The player is an outsider, they don’t live in the character’s world and aren’t governed by its rules. The character has to teach the player and their relationship is the result. The potential of the relationship is how invested the player must become in the character to advance. For example, in Angry Birds there’s no investment. All the creatures are disposable and take no skill to begin manipulating.

The player sacrifices nothing, raw points becomes their own reward and nobody cares about the birds or the pigs or what they eat. Final Fantasy, a more demanding game with narrative and structure and characters (even if the situations are laughable) has high potential. The player becomes invested. Even a hollow story makes variation possible and the player’s experience personalized. Everyone has the same experience of coin flip, each player gets a different experience of Tetris. “Player conditioning” appears. Approaches and styles make the game longer or shorter, harder or easier.

Any game can be measured against any other this way. Checkers has more potential than tic-tac-toe. Chess has more than Checkers. In a good, or at least honest game, player conditioning should roughly match potential. Tic-tac-toe requires little conditioning, and therefore has hardly any potential. Chess takes years to master. Each win or loss is much more important. The mental investment is heightened but it ‘feels’ appropriate to the ‘significance’ of the skill set required.

Adding rewards to potential introduces Game Theory. Decisions become illogical and hard to express because they ‘felt’ correct or incorrect. Put a dollar on the line and a coin flip gets important in a hurry. Suddenly phrases like “I beat them” arrive because there was a benefit to success. The actual Las Vegas and a history of mob bosses and murder is proof how low-potential and low-conditioning (slot machines, black jack) spiral out of control when a high-condition, high-potential element like money gets in the mix. It’s key to what many reviewers and players are all hinting but can’t quite express. Additional player conditioning and potential should always increase together. It feels wrong if they don’t.

This is worldcraft. High potential, like FO3 and 45mins of intro before the first quest, forces conditioning. The sense of raw wasted time when the tedious back-story turns out to be mostly meaningless is alienating because the risk/reward system, potential vs pay-off, is a lie. Moreover the arcing is lopsided, tremendous plot build can’t lead to a mostly typical shooter with an abrupt ending. Which was precisely what Bomberguy hated about it.

Most complaints AlltimeGaming have in their ‘Die Already!’ list is disconnect between worldcraft, conditioning, and potential. “Tedious levels” isn’t a complaint for puzzles, no one is confused when the courts all look the same in 2015 NBA All-Stars. Repetitive levels are, however, a valid complaint against Earthworm Jim 3D. The arcing of the character, must be what the average player thinks makes sense. Bomberguy doesn’t mention it (or didn’t realize), but he complains about arcing relative to player conditioning and potential several times in his FO3 analysis, not just the one he notes in his BB video. For example, he calls attention to ‘map markers’ changing the player experience. He notes it removes players from their surroundings. Locations aren’t found, they’re checked-off. What should be RPG becomes FPS.

As he says “You play games in the manner dictated by the game itself, and sometimes that manner isn’t great.” Examining why so many fail on these terms he references Steve Swink’s primary design text, Game Feel. Swink touches on Psychology of Gaming but only through uncanny valley issues and the “immersive” experience. Swink details ‘conveyance’, how a game teaches base interaction mechanics, but not how those mechanics help make story, odd since “feel” is in the title. It may not matter much in a basic shooter, but an RPG…? It suggests designers don’t care if they’re ‘immersing’ me in a fiction I’d want to visit. Swink’s work was published in 2008, three years after the Zagal essay and the same year as Dr Gregory’s work, proving such design concerns were already being openly discussed (I said the date was important). It’s clear worldcraft and engagement were already available concepts, Swink just didn’t apply them much if at all.

AlltimeGaming wants entire franchises killed because their AI is moronic or nonsensical, making suspension of disbelief impossible. Sarkeesian is all but begging for just leaving out a woman as the prize because she doesn’t want one and most players don’t care anyway. MovieBob would love a male protagonist who isn’t a mindless thug. Bomberguy would like a game that doesn’t actively discourage becoming a better player. Many games became popular just by meeting those minimal standards.

These concerns aren’t limited to professional critics or social and computer science majors. 5.5M subscriber Philip DeFranco is mainly a news blogger who happens to also be a gamer and talks about it occasional. In his 2014 vlog #GAMERGATE vs #STOPGAMERGATE he said, “…Personally [Sarkeesian’s work] was kind of interesting ‘food for thought’. To see that in some video games, although some of the references were reaching, in many cases women really were brutally maimed or slaughtered just to propel the story for a male protagonist.” He’s never contradicted his take on her analysis of pointless game stereotypes, even when disagreeing with most of the rest of her work. In his March 2017 vid Why I Didn’t Talk About The Lawsuit And More…, he says directly “I don’t want to hitch my wagon to [Sarkeesian’s feminism]”. In the June 2017 vid We Need To Talk About This Because It’s Getting Ridiculous, Dangerous, and Scary DeFranco criticized Sarkeesian at length for her behavior at the trade convention VidCon.

They are clearly not allies. He gains nothing by agreeing with her on this single issue. If these two agree about lazy writing being a problem in games, it’s a thing. Calling some of her references “reaching” means most weren’t. He’s experienced exactly the weak arcing and deceptive conditioning she described. Even publications not gamer-specific are on it. Cracked did an article about not alienating players using tropes, The Guardian did a listicle of tropes serving no purpose but somehow remaining mainstays of the industry…

It’s impossible so many are talking in so many different places, for these issues to be minor for discussions of review and design. Personally, one reason I spent so long on Skyrim was reading the in-game books. Those books were incredible, some were witty, some thoughtful, some stupid, but they were chock full of engagement. My go-to example of added meaning and depth enhancing the insider potential are the books Amongst the Draugr by Bernadette Bantien and The Death of A Wanderer by Anonymous. Separately they’re cute, together they explained one of the most annoying and simplistic MacGuffins.

‘Dragon-claw doors’ have a two-step combination+key lock so simple the combination is on the key. They’re stupid and tedious but they spawn quests and restrict premature progress so they’re everywhere. Which is why the books are important. One is by a woman who wants to study the undead residents of the tombs, the “draugr”. The other is a thief who looted a tomb full of draugr in his youth. The woman notices draugr protect and serve undead bodies of powerful evil wizards, keeping themselves and their ‘lords’ ready for battle. While looting, the thief realizes draugr are also dumb. They’re mindless mobile wizard-chargers and sword swingers.

Meaning the now combined explanation for these idiot-doors is the tomb holds zombies and zombies are idiots. The keys don’t keep out grave robbers, they keep in the dark wizards and their undead army. It turns the ‘hero’ narrative inside-out. All the mindless dungeon crawls, opening all those doors to advance the main story, turn out to be the player potentially leaving the countryside open to a later zombie apocalypse. Players have to read both books to find out, and they still might not realize.

Knowing Bethesda they won’t do anything about it, if they even know. But just the possibility they could was worth the investment, it gave me extremely high insider potential because now I know something even the designers might not. Plus, I became conditioned to read because they turned out to be written, not blank or fake-text discardables in a succession of skill boosts. In fact, one of the few glaring misfires of Fallout:New Vegas was their own books/magazines are mostly unreadable. I know because Skyrim was the first post-2000 I played after waving goodbye to Jet Force Gemini for the last time and selling my Genesis and N64. I’m now primed to check every book I find.

Given how good FO:NV was, it’s an odd oversight for the clearly talented developers at Obsidian, if anything it demonstrated how such worldcrafting stands out. Fallout 4, during a critical section of the main story, requires computer terminals to get a ‘beryllium agitator’. Sprinkled through the terminals is an ongoing Dungeons and Dragons-style campaign two engineers were playing in inter-office email when the bombs dropped. It’s engaging.

Actually, hanging on FO4 a sec. I’m a Fallout series fan, both classics and reboots. I can admit this, FO4‘s plot is moronic. Compare the obvious thought put into where and how the teddybears are positioned throughout. Someone on Bethesda’s design team is witty. Why isn’t the Teddybear Supervisor writing the dialog options? Why wasn’t whoever designed the unmarked Parking Garage Maze or the ‘Last Voyage of the USS Constitution’ put in charge of the ‘Road to Freedom’? The terminal email proves they’ve got talented writers hiding in cubicles somewhere.

It humanized employees of this facility more than any extended dialog tree with ‘Father’ or endless radiant quest. Whoever wrote Codsworth’s asides on the state of the floors in a post-bomb wasteland, as he travels the with the main character, deserves a promotion. They understood insider potential. I’m not alone noticing the glaring disconnect between player and plot.

164k subscriber YouTuber Joseph Anderson’s Fallout 4 — One Year Later was two hours on the subject. I’m not just sifting for malcontents, Emil Pagliarulo (FO4′s Lead Designer & Writer) sees the problem too and discussed it openly in a 2016 presentation. He admitted the reason many designers don’t fret the detail stuff is some gamers don’t care. No kidding, maybe because they’ve learned through conditioning “RPG” just means “Shooter with dialog”.

It isn’t the gamer’s fault designers are choosing to water-down their stuff, when I want Borderlands I don’t grab No Man’s Sky. Imagine a company acting like they care about making money and market diversity by appealing to a variety of players with targeted worldcrafting. Yanno, genre… Crazy! Pagliarulo is all but admitting they intend to lie to their customers by tacking “RPG” onto everything short of Doom. Preventing such a strategy requires having a vocabulary describing the problem.

Anderson’s The Witness – A Great Game You Shouldn’t Play, is a good example. He begins by dividing narrative into four types: simple to complex story, simple to complex presentation. Anderson is frustrated as it’s overtly a puzzle game, but the complexity keeps changing, and the presentation. If complex plot is arcing,and complex presentation is potential, his frustration is easy to understand: Deceptively low potential combined with blurry arcing leaves potential unknowable. Since potential decides level of engagement, the player feels they’re forever ‘missing something’. Imagine Candy Crush Saga was the hallucinations of a drug addict the whole time. The resulting sense of deception leaves him suspicious of the designer (see: Duke Nukem below). He states, “Complexity needs to be worth it,” misleading plot-holes aren’t depth. His frustration is the discontinuity between arc and potential, but he finds it difficult enough to say it takes him over five minutes to clarify.

I don’t care about some random elf mage, it’s two guys bored at work. I’m engaged. Done right it conditions for an RPG. But it can’t exist in a vacuum. FO4’s scenery is breathtaking, clearly they read Game Feel from cover to cover. Entire quests are actively irritating, they did not read Dr. Gregory’s essay. And I like FO4, imagine what the haters say. Nuance without insider potential only serves to highlight glaring flaws in the arcing. It’s candy-icing on a hockey puck. In extreme cases it makes games worse. Near the beginning of Duke Nukem Forever, for no reason, for no points, related to nothing, the conveyance section requires you grab poop in a toilet. It’s a fake attempt at a joke, and I can prove it’s fake with the metrics now at my disposal:

  1. Bad arcing, it’s outside anything the character does any other time.
  2. Bad conditioning, no other toilet in the entire game works the same way.
  3. Bad potential, the programmer’s disdain for the player is overt.

It isn’t a crafted world, it’s DNF’s designers telegraphing ‘we hate you’. The engagement is zero, I can measure it. Players agreed and its ranking currently sits at a 3/10 on GameSpot, with no DN primaries produced in 7 years. The designer took almost a decade finishing a junk product, losing so much money the license was bought by another company with seeming no interest reviving it. There’s a direct monetary consequence, worldcraft is a thing.

In stark contrast, the dialog walk-through of the original Portal has one designer noting a flaw becoming something amazing. An early stage required a companion cube (irrelevant crate) for clearing a jump. Beta-testers kept the cube. Players were crippling themselves for no reason.

Conditioning from other games taught them they might need it because it might be a handy cheat to a later level. So they ruined their own reviews by demanding why they were given a useless box. Avoiding some cheap pop-up saying “Put the box down now”, the designers upped the insider potential of the level by requiring the cube be incinerated. They added a single piece of narrative taking their engagement to the next level: “Don’t Worry, Your Companion Cube Does Not Feel Pain”.

Without even playing it’s a suspicious statement. After playing it’s down right sinister. Nearly every reassurance is a lie. So much so “The cake is a lie” still has meaning and cultural currency in many circles (even with people who never played). It added depth because it was appropriate to the worldcraft, conditioning, and potential. It eliminated players carrying the cube around sure, but also stuck out in players minds to such a degree it became an ongoing and debated conspiracy theory. Some say the companion cubes were supposed to help the main character and the evil control-computer GLaDOS prevents it. Some say the boxes are former test subjects and GLaDOS forces the player to kill them so GLaDOS’s can grief the main character later. Still others say…

It’s a throw-away joke the designers put in to side-step cautious beta testers habituated by other games to expect gaining a semi-cheat benefit by not leaving the box behind. Players were habituated to a key in the drawer not upping their lock-pick skill. Valve reconditioned them the right way.

Quoting Bomberguy on his BB analysis, and a similar situation designer Hidetaka Miyazaki addressed in a similar fashion, “You’ve been forced to get good… The designers didn’t blame players for playing badly, they blamed the game, and they fixed it…” The Portal designers conditioned according to potential already present, furthering worldcraft not contradicting it. Now GLaDOS is #4 on IGN’s Top 100 Villains of All Time and Business Insider’s 15 Most Evil Villains in Video Game History. It’s not because of an incinerator, but the incinerator helped.

In some cases options can be left as optional. FO4 on ‘survival’ setting requires regular sleep, healing is time-delayed, and all items count against carry-weight. It also opens more possibilities at chemistry stations and the leveling mechanic changes. This is a difficulty setting above ‘hard’ so the player can choose it or not, further personalizing the experience and adding engagement. It changes the arcing as time and equipment management becomes a part of play where a simple hit-point recalculation wouldn’t.

Imagine AlltimeGaming describing flaws without endless repetition of the vague descriptors “ugly”, “pointless”, or “dull”. Replace such imprecise terms with, “pointless conditioning” or “dull worldcraft”. Gamers are given a sense of why the reviewer wasn’t engaged. If I say “the lag is maddness” a reader knows exactly what I hated. “Ponderous” could mean anything from slow dialog to slow load-screens. Try, “such ponderous arcing it made an Action/Adventure that kills joy”. I can think of at least three games matching the description off the top of my head and none of them was lacking in visuals or world-build.

Design and review benefits from the metrics and concepts of player conditioning, insider potential, arcing, worldcraft, and engagement. They are intrinsic to good writing. Critics, journalists, and players have been discussing them for years without an appropriate vocabulary for why specific aspects feel a certain way. It may not serve everyone but it’s a start, and this vocabulary has as much merit and utility as palettes and tracking. As a result designers, players, and reviewers with a wider lexicon have access to previously vague but extremely important aspect of quality production.

In Defense of Tyler Down: Truth and Tropes of Teen Suicide

“13 Reasons Why” was a book, ten years later it was made into a series on Netflix. The Netflix series has reinvigorated the perennial topic of teen suicide. It has been both criticized and praised in a variety of discussion boards, major platform articles, and reddit threads, for everything from its visual aesthetic to its dialog. Most of the discussions focus on whether or not it glorifies self-destruction sufficiently to inspire or inhibit the behavior in others, or if it presents a realistic example of high school life and the daily trials of the average student at all. Unfortunately most of the articles I’ve read, and the brief video following the first season on Netflix, focus on Hannah and her alienation and whether that was justified. I think this misses some fundamental sub-texts to the way it portrays both suicide and teenagers and deserves closer scrutiny.

Photo Credit: © The WB / Andrew Eccles

First, in all honesty I did not enjoy the series. It was well shot, and the acting was good, but before I’ve fully settled into the second episode one fact is stark, the average age of the actors (depending on how one defines the ‘central cast’) is 23. The oldest actor, Ross Butler who plays Zach, tops out at 27. Zach is also a high school senior during the bulk of the show, making his character roughly a decade younger. I was immediately reminded of a bit of trivia I recalled from the production notes of “Dawson’s Creek”. During most filming the actor James Van Der Beek, in the titular role of Dawson, had to shave twice daily to maintain the illusion the 21-year-old actor was accurately representing his own 6 year younger character.


I’m loathe to think it, but perhaps this makes the more horrific sex scenes somehow a bit more palatable. I suppose it would be even more difficult to see a 17-year-old literally molest a 15-year-old, than a woman in her 20s being battered and raped. It also hides something more pervasive and insipid, something people who don’t work regularly with teens don’t discuss nearly enough. Devin Druid’s character Tyler is played by the youngest actor at 19. That’s important because he is quite directly body-shamed for his pre-pubescent musculature and under-developed frame. Certainly it is an integral plot device, but literally the only character with an actual high school body is the only one who is openly mocked for being weak and tiny. In fact, his weakness and tinyness is part of why he’s in the story, he has to compensate for it by forever lurking. So the double whammy of sexualizing the under-age because they’re actually not, and viciously installing a sense of self-loathing in any 15 year old who doesn’t look like a 25 year old with a personal trainer.

Another device I did not see much discussed but alienated me immediately was the near instant deployment of a host of character tropes served no purpose. Though the book hardly mentions race the two Asian students are over-achieving scholastically, one with a tiger mom and the other with two gay dads (the two gay dads, incidentally, are also tropes where one father says something terribly provocative and the other immediately chides him for not being enlightened).

The primary non-black and non-white character is of indistinct Central American origin, replete with muscle car, tattoos, slicked back hair, permanent leather jacket, an unknown number of ‘cousins’ and ‘brothers’ who we only meet when they are thoroughly beating some random person for saying bad things about his sister, there’s even a handy Spanish quote from his mother about how you should always eat before embarking on an adventure. He’s a Latin Fonzie.

The central gay character (the homosexuality of several other characters is only discussed or revealed in retrospect) is a thin, WASPish blonde poet who won’t stop talking about how he’s an artist. Hannah, the suicide at the center of the drama, receives a shiny black Jeep Grand Cherokee for prom but we know she’s not as wealthy as the others due to some dialog about how it’s not this year’s model and there was some re-financing involved. No exaggeration, it’s not the most expensive car driven by the supposed mostly jobless teenagers by several orders of magnitude.

The quote floating in my mind through the bulk of the first six episodes was something coming from my own generation’s reflections on the film “16 Candles”. We eventually realized we were supposed to feel sorry for a girl who lived in a four bedroom home in California and gets everything she always wanted for her birthday. In fact, “16 Candles” is apt, she wants to date the SportsBall guy, the main non-white is a racist stereotype, the skinny geeky guy is a letch who ‘steals’ a piece of the lead female’s sexuality…

Sure, “Candles” did not age well, it’s hackneyed bordering on absurdist today, but at the time I knew several people who identified with it directly regardless of having absolutely nothing in common with anyone in the film. In fact, the ‘brat pack’ movies collectively had such an effect on my generation there’s an entire throw-away scene in the show “Archer” where the characters debate which of them is which character from “The Breakfast Club”. The writers of “Archer” are my age. Those films had a profound influence on my generation regardless of their accuracy or intelligence or thoughtful observation of actual ‘real life’.

Meaning, ultimately, I take “13 Reasons Why” seriously, but not the way I think I’m supposed to. If we examine the performers of the ‘brat pack’ today, several never recovered and at least one is dead from rampant drug abuse. Their idealized lives and appearance was an impossible standard to maintain even for themselves, and the characters they portrayed became such a standard they shaped everything from “Saved By The Bell” to “The Fresh Prince of Bel Aire”. What we now treat as the fashions and fictions of the late 80s and early 90s was a series of clichés fed to us through supposedly profound films claiming to take our lives and our passions seriously. They did not, they were quite cynical but none-the-less eventually pervasive.

Ultimately the intentions of Selena Gomez or Katherine Langford in bringing ‘real life’ to screen may be genuine but they are irrelevant. The moment it became a commercial vehicle it became a mechanism for shaping rather than being shaped by the people viewing it. I don’t know anyone who lived in “WeHo”, I’ve never driven the 405, but I can tell you one of the most expensive zip code in Hollywood, as can most of my friends, even if we never watched the show.

Which brings me to my first frustration with “13 Reasons Why”. As a story it was well crafted, its tension has been discussed at length either as a sign of its profundity or as a inexpert device which partially glorifies the eventual titular suicide (which verifies not merely the tension’s presence but its power over the narrative). Unfortunately, by having such a significant conclusion and overall theme, much of the mundane tricks used to get the viewer there are glossed over, quietly incorporated into “Well of course his mother stands that way, she’s Asian!” Thing is, 17-year-olds look 17 not 27, this isn’t real. Of course, that’s also the immediate excuse for worming out of any critique, ‘The story and message overrides the filler’. What filler…? It’s how several of the characters interact and meet their intertwined fates. It’s not just meaningless back-stories. It’s story, all of it.

The second frustration I have with “13 Reasons Why” is the supposed glorification of suicide hides a more important consideration. There’s a whole lot of blogspace out there debating the glory, I feel no need to rehash whether or not the show endorses suicide. Watch the show or google the question. Experts along with laymen have weighed in. I don’t personally care if one sees locking a camera on a girl slitting her wrists in a bathtub as glorification.

It didn’t make suicide look fun. It certainly didn’t spare a clear view of how it destroys friends, families, and communities, both emotionally and physically. Trouble is, it’s already the focus of the whole show. While plenty have asked if Hannah was lonely enough, or if she was distraught enough, or if those particular people deserved to be on the tapes, those questions are already embedded in the story. I have seen almost no discussion of what suicide she’s performing. Discussion of ‘type’ leads directly into how we handle suicide as a whole and this one in particular.

Emile Durkheim, in 1897, decided to statistically analyze suicide. What he produced was a primary template for Sociological analysis still relevant today, and forced reevaluating what we mean when we discuss suicide which has still not been fully fleshed out in popular culture. Durkheim attempted a ‘first principles’ analysis, he began with the simple definition of “Suicide” as ‘causing your own death’ and then gathered the stats on everybody who’d died by their own actions. What he found was there were several types of suicide, which he named. The suicide we tend to think of, one where we are faceless and irrelevant, where we have no actual identity and killing ourselves is less work than staying alive, he called it “anomie”, it’s from the same word we get ‘anonymous’.

[Before I go on I should say, I am not suggesting Durkheim’s list was perfect. His method was flawed and his conclusions were sometimes fallacious. BUT, he provided simply ‘killing yourself’ does not mean the same thing as ‘hopelessness’, there are types.]

A soldier throwing themselves on a grenade isn’t anonymous. A suicide bomber doesn’t feel ‘anonymous’, they feel empowered by their religion or their government and suicide is right there in the name. The often cited ‘lone wolf’ attackers who plan a form of death-by-cop after a spree frequently feel extremely integrated into the hate groups spawning them, or they at least feel superior to their victims. They certainly don’t feel ‘anonymous’ if their numerous letters, videos, and manifestos are any indication. Angry, but definitely not anonymous…

So too is Hannah not ‘anonymous’. She talks to Clay almost daily, she goes to parties where literally everyone knows her name. The ‘anonymous’ kid in the story is Tyler. Behind his camera he sees everybody, a few hate him, most have no idea he exists. Even the others on the tapes refuse him. They know they’re equally or significantly more responsible for driving Hannah to her decision, but they still don’t want to be associated with Tyler. They’re all in it together, except Tyler. Tyler is utterly anonymous.

His loneliness isn’t a loneliness the audience wants to contemplate, possibly because we all knew someone like Tyler in school. Someone nobody was friends with but then neither were we. Instead, he is shoehorned into the role of a glorified internet troll (so much so he has a throw-away line about the “Illuminati” being real). He’s that line from Casablanca ‘I’d despise you if I gave you any thought.’ For my own sake he’s possibly the most one-dimensional character in the show next to Skye.

Listening to Tyler’s testimony in the deposition is painful specifically because he discusses being regularly bullied in a way that would be obvious to any administrator, and everyone including his parents are shocked by what he says. These are the same parents who’ve had to deal with what’s been happening to his room because of the tapes? Seriously, this kid is ignored by literally everyone. What disappointed me about his characterization is they had to give him some reason to be worthy of a tape. So he is gets a terrible role and a terrible act ultimately making no sense. Absolutely, in the story arc, what he does is wrong (not to forget illegal). Trouble is, how he is portrayed outside of his primary reason for inclusion [trying to avoid spoilers], his behavior, is completely wrong. I don’t mean he’s too ‘sweet’. I mean literally, clinically his behavior does not represent how people who do what he did behave.

Bryce exhibits all the behaviors. Tyler doesn’t do anything approaching Bryce by a long way. Kevin does several (especially the milkshake scene), and Tyler’s definitely not Kevin. The fact Druid is able to draw some measure of pathos to his character is a tribute to his acting, not the writing and certainly not as an accurate portrayal of what to look for in a kid who’s headed the direction his character is going.

More importantly, his ‘being discovered’ is laughable. I don’t expect the producers, let alone most people reading this article, to be too bothered with the difference between interline transfer and shutters, but for anyone who knows anything about cameras the spine of his ‘crime’ is gibberish. Either he was using a telephoto lens or he wasn’t. If he was, the Infamous Photo of his story should have been so sharp there would be no question who the subjects were. If not, he was standing too far away to hear his camera unless it was the size of a dinner plate.

While it’s convenient to shrug such details off as irrelevant, they’re discussed at length, repeatedly, in several episodes. He talks about how expensive his cameras are, he talks about how much he loves shooting on film even though the Infamous Photo is digital, his bedroom is festooned with camera equipment… This wasn’t some silly oversight, it’s story construction, whole sections of narrative hinge on that shutter and those cameras. Yet, much like Hannah’s ability to find the only unidirectional mic on the planet that doesn’t pick up every stray phone ringer in a busy principal’s office, if Tyler’s shutter is so loud he’s running the risk of amputating his finger, we’ve broken suspension of disbelief for anyone who’s ever shot on film. If he’s such a photography aficionado that oversight is yet another plot device shoe-horning the unbelievable into ‘reality’ setting truth.

It’s not meaningless technical trivia. Either we’re talking about warning signs or we’re not, either it’s realistic or it’s not. Now every parent, or friend, with a kid who likes photography just got a little more paranoid for absolutely no reason. Now girls all over the country think you can ‘hear’ that sort of thing: a loud, crisp, clear, physical warning. Instead of an extremely identifiable cluster of behaviors which are much more important but not nearly so dramatically convenient.

Or how about Clay…? He exhibits literally all of the warning signs the school counselor warns about in his Power Point presentation: sudden dramatic changes in behavior, changes in friends, changes in school…
In three days Clay starts coming home with head trauma, spending all night with a boy he’s never talked about and barely knows, and skips three classes. His mother, a litigator who takes copious notes during the counselor’s presentation (so much so it is commented on by another parent). Somehow doesn’t worry too much that according to the Power Point she just saw Clay is about ten seconds from shooting himself in the head. How is mom and the counselor whose Power Point it was so blasé about his bizarre behavior? Which is precisely my overarching frustration with the way suicide is being discussed surrounding this show. Hannah isn’t a ‘lonely’ suicide waiting to happen, but by all appearances most everyone else we meet is. We’re just not supposed to care.

We don’t care because Tyler is an evil troll, or Alex is an insensitive jerk… But we also don’t care because there’s something larger going on. Clay is going through a monomythic ‘Hero’s Journey‘, including a Supreme Ordeal, where he risks his life but allowing him catharsis to no longer fear death, and a Resurrection following a Final Confrontation. Alex is ‘lonely’ too, he is alone in his honesty in all the meetings in the gymnasium or ‘the Den’, alone in the high school before the tapes and thus the reason he joined the jocks he secretly hates, and eventually he is just utterly alone.

Again we’re supposed to blame him because of a stupid act of petty vengeance, one which he regrets to the end of his life (maybe…). An act the other characters admit paled in comparison to literally any of the other acts by any of the other ‘reasons’ apart from Clay’s. But if this is a morality play Alex has to become the conscience of the group, getting stomach pains when they start going too far to prove they are working that which is unseemly. The only way that works is if he’s a villain, so he can be the excuse for others to find the light and also seek redemption. The symbolism became a bit too much for me to take when I realized the gymnasium where the basketball games occur and where much of the plotting against Clay occurs between the villains, and where Alex’s stomach pains become most intense, and where several key plot points pivot generally, is called “The Lion’s Den”. The Lion’s Den also happens to be the location where the Biblical prophet Daniel was almost torn apart, but was spared because of his righteousness. Oh come on now… Is this a story about teen suicide or a Tennyson poem?

For me, that’s really where this whole thing turns. I know it looks like I’m over-analyzing, but go back and watch “16 Candles” some time. Ask any 35-year-old Asian what nickname they were assaulted with in high school. Horrible, laughably idiotic caricatures of real people become standardized extremely easily when they’re on such an accessible medium with even remotely relatable characters people are sympathetic to. These stupid details become norms specifically by repetition, and they prove disturbingly tenacious. It is through the subtle moments of this show, not the big stuff, some truly powerful shit is being laid down I’m not seeing very many people flesh out.

Which brings me to my final frustration with “13 Reasons Why”, or rather with how it’s being discussed. Hannah’s suicide isn’t actually a suicide, she’s a plot device. The key to the Hero’s Journey is atonement through learning the price of sacrifice. Clay’s final speech to the school counselor explains everything, it’s about Clay. Hannah is able to enact her revenge fantasy because she is demonstrably not alone. She has Clay to eventually become a Hero starting as her Vengeance, she has Tony to be ‘The Mentor’ and ‘The Protector of the Secret’ (also Hero’s Journey standards) to aid Clay on the Journey, she has at least 9 other people to send tapes to and provide Clay the lessons he will need for the final Confrontation. Hannah herself is “The Call To Adventure”, hell there’s even a handy-dandy map.

I see an emo-band backed, diffuse light filmed, beautiful people acted, “Lord of the Rings” being presented under the cloak of discussing something as painful, as gut-wrenchingly awful, as loneliness induced suicide. Sound familiar…? It should, only this time Bella can’t get pregnant now that she’s lost all that blood. I see what I’m being told is the story of a young high school student, their life in ruins, their reputation in tatters, so utterly alone and alienated and abused by everyone, they can think of no exit but the most extreme. But I know what that kid looks like, and Tyler doesn’t die. It’s the popular chick who just got a new car. Maybe it’s easier to portray a girl as killing herself, as too emotional to endure. It would aggravate me no end if that’s why Hannah’s getting all this blog time, not just the cliché but because teen boys commit suicide often enough to warrant consideration which certainly is not talked about much. Plus, I know just as many girls who do what Tyler did, Facebook and Instigram know no gender…

My point is, we’re not actually considering the suicide we think we’re considering. If we’re going to talk about the ‘reality’ of this morality play and why it’s resonating with teens, then let’s look at what’s actually there. To identify Hannah’s suicide, consider the tapes themselves as artifacts, as well as each individual tape’s content. If we end as she did on tape 13, her suicide becomes what Durkheim called ‘altruistic’: “Sacrifice of one’s life to save or benefit others, for the good of the group, or to preserve the traditions and honor of a society. It is always intentional. It is sometimes planned and willingly entered into.” Hannah’s the sacrificial victim liberating the others from their cocoons, especially Jessica. Hannah willingly kills herself rather than reveal her and Jessica’s shared shame. Right at that point, that revelation, “13 Reasons Why” stopped being a show presenting the grim reality of teen suicide and helping people to learn what it looks like from the inside, and became a weird sort of low-theater “Romeo & Juliet” reinterp.

I don’t like “13 Reasons Why” the series. Not for the visually stunning suicide, not because it presents suicide as a form of revenge, not because it found some pretty good actors to breathe life into a fairly stilted script, but because I work with at-risk teens. This isn’t real, it’s a fiction, it’s a run-of-the-mill redemption story. By trying to find the next Hannah, by trying to find the pin to put back in the grenade, you have to look past Tony, and Jessica, and Zach, and sure as shit Tyler and Alex.

Consider those kids for a second. Tony nearly destroys himself, and a family that trusts him, just to keep a promise. Jessica is lied to by literally everyone in her life except the one person who up and left on her, Tyler’s only acknowledgement of his existence to his peers is either as a weird and possibly ‘psycho’ irritant or a pathetic emaciated non-human boy-thing. Alex is so desperate for anyone outside the circle to take notice of anything going on in his life he gets himself bludgeoned in front of half the school.

You have to see every single one of those kids as nothing but plot for the show to work. Clay’s journey and Hannah’s motives are too important to tarry on any one else for too long. You have to care about Hannah, not the horses getting us to girl on the tracks. Moreover, while we’re wondering how to find the next Hannah, make her change her mind, we’re letting in some pretty nasty stereotypes with no need to be there because they’re just the spots on the horses, giving them pattern so you can tell them apart. I don’t think that’s fair to any of them, and it’s certainly not fair to any kid who sees more of Tyler in themselves than Hannah. If you want to find something profound in “13 Reasons Why” start there, look at the bits you’re being told aren’t important.

Skeptical Rabbit is Skeptical: The Politics of Being Fooled by ‘The Crowd’

Hillary TrumpIt occurs to me that the experience of watching so-called Berners, (or Bros, or Bots, whatever) posting on Facebook, or blogging, or debating online on Youtube with Hillary Boosters ( or HillBots, whatever) sounds remarkably similar to a situation that occurred only a few years ago about a crappy book. I don’t expect most people to have a long memory, or even a short memory. The july-26-frontsituations are different enough and in many ways small-scale enough they don’t immediately appear to be related. The key though is that the overall pattern is.

In 2006 a man named Tucker Max wrote a book titled “I Hope They Serve Beer In Hell”. It was based on a blog by the titular character living the exploits of the worst type of drunken and debauched 20something. It sold over 1 million copies Tucker Max - Beer In Hellworldwide and made the New York Times Best Seller List. It even led to a feature film. The detail is, it was all a lie. It was such a lie that the publicist for Tucker, Ryan Holiday, appeared as a featured reference story in the film “(Dis) Honesty: The Truth About Lies”. The film centers on the work of Duke dishonestyProfessor Dan Ariely and his research into how markets are not ‘fair’ because markets are run by people and people lie. They don’t just lie to each other, they lie to themselves.

Holiday’s story is important because he used what is now usually called guerilla and viral marketing to help create and popularize the Tucker Max Brand. An example of which was hanging posters for the upcoming Max movie around Chicago that contained offensive quotes such as “Deaf girls are great, they never hear you coming”. He then defaced them with anti-sexism graffiti and had his staff call the Chicago Transit Authority to complain about the posters and request they be taken down. Those complaints and the subsequent local news story about those complaints became free advertising for the film.

What Holiday did not necessarily anticipate, but likely hoped, was what had started as a spoof of every ‘Dudebro’ ever became a social event, complete with protests and backlashs. Protesters such as rape survivors loudly objected to the open misogyny and chauvinism of the stories, which in turn fed the machine and strengthened the Brand. From the backlash came the inevitable charge of humorlessness and so-called ‘Social Justice Warriors’ trying to pick a fight over harmless fun, strengthening the Brand further still.

This isn’t the only time Holiday has discussed how those who are passionate are easily manipulated. In the cleverly titled 13 Jun 2016 article “Don’t Follow Your Passion, It’s What’s Holding You Back” Holiday urged ThoughtCatalog readers to recognize the difference between the passionate disaster that was the Iraq War versus the driven and methodical Eleonore Roosevelt.

ryan-holidayPerhaps Holiday’s clearest statement on exactly how he feels about public relations generally and online PR in particular is his book “Trust Me I’m Lying: Confessions of a Media Manipulator”. If the point needs be made any clearer the book was featured in the 2 Aug 2012 Business Insider article “The 10 Biggest Lies Told by American Apparel’s Top PR Man”. The very first of which is “Because he encouraged ‘false perceptions’ through blogs, one of his clients ended up being branded a ‘known rapist’.” Eventually ‘Tucker Max’ himself admitted to the pure nonsense that was his persona in the 18 Jan 2012 Forbes article “Tucker Max Gives Up The Game: What Happens When A Best Selling Author Stops Playing?”

Heady stuff…? Not particularly, this is absolutely nothing new. During the non-scandal euphemistically called “#GamerGate” blogs, a few game reviews, and 4chan discussions were the entirety of ‘the story’. Perhaps, some tiny nugget of a glimmer of truth existed somewhere in the the gg-zoe-quinn-01accusation that game reviews had been manipulated because one reviewer wanted to get into some other reviewer’s girlfriend’s pants. However, the stockmarket did not crash, no one’s XBox exploded, neither Mario nor Pikachu died, and yet people still threatened lives over it. Not surprisingly it also meant the traffic to all of the various click-bait sites discussing the topic went through the roof. There’s a fair chance I’ll even get some attention because it’ll come up if someone happens to be in the 15th page of a Google Search at 3am…

One person connected to stoking the fires of #GamerGate, Milo Yiannopoulos, has been in the news recently for helping to inspire so many people into harassing Leslie Jones from the all-woman “Ghostbuster’s” remake he ended up being banned from Twitter. Yiannopoulos, like Holiday & Max before him, is probably correct in his assertion this will significantly add to his popularity.

Humans are prone to such behavior, dog-piling on something seemingly irrelevant with all the fervency of a religious experience. We are a social animal, we desire to be accepted by our fellows and when we feel our ‘tribe’ has been threatened we freak out. All of the social sciences, Anthropology, Sociology, Psychology, have at their core one fundamental truth: Humans do dirt stupid things because they think others will like them for it, or because they think they can get away with it.

The key is most of the time humans aren’t being overtly malicious, sometimes they’re not even being particularly thoughtful, but they convince themselves they are. We convince ourselves the reason we’re doing the thing we’re doing is because it makes perfect sense. In the city of Strasbourg in 1518 there was an outbreak of uncontrollable dancing. Some people literally danced themselves to death. Seriously, Yahoogle that craziness! It was so out-of-control even the City Council got involved. At no point did anyone suggest just having a fiddler go out and start playing slower and slower music until finally stopping. That would have been reasonable. Dancing Plague 1518Humans are not reasonable, so solutions were things like possession by demons because it couldn’t possibly be that the whole town had just locked in and danced away with itself with absolutely no basis, especially since many were quite coherent at the time and couldn’t say why they were doing it.

Certainly there’s the work-horse of mass insanity, the collective hallucination that was the Salem Witch Trials. Some have conveniently blamed LSD from the rot on some rye, but the dosages necessary would have the townspeople eating enough convulsion inducing ergot infused rye to shit themselves to death long before they were able to build the scaffolds to hang the first set of women, let alone carry enough rocks to crush a man under a door (no kidding, they crushed a man to death by slowly putting more rocks on him until he died).

Humans also do things completely reasonable, but at unintentionally cross-purposes. The Berners Street Hoax (how perfect a name is that for a corollary to our current political situation…?) was perpetrated by Theodore Hook in 1810 England. He made a bet with friend Sam Beazley that he could select any house at random and make it the most famous house in all of the British Isles.

He spent a week planning the ‘event’ and when the day came twelve chimney sweeps, cakemakers, shoemakers, several fish-sellers, over a dozen pianos, and a host of other service providers arrived at the address exactly as they were requested. A woman only recorded as Mrs Tottenham of 54 Berners St, London had abjectly no idea what the hell was going on and so she rightfully called for the authorities.

The_Berners_Street_HoaxWhen all was said and done what looked every bit a riot randomly breaking out in the city brought a third of the town to a standstill and the Lord Mayor to her front door. By the way, Hook was there the whole time, watching the chaos unfold and I’m sure quite pleased with himself. Not a blog in sight, but definitely guerilla marketing at its finest. Did he succeed? You tell me, 54 Berners Street now has its own Wikipedia page and was featured on the British comedy quiz show QI for just happening to be the address this sociopathic ass decided to pick from a map, and poor Mrs Tottenham has now been recorded for 206 years for exactly that same non-reason.

None of those people who arrived at 54 Berners St had any ill intent, they weren’t even acting inappropriate to their normal behavior, they weren’t even working against the forces of another person. They were told to show up at this house at this time to deliver a piano. They went to a perfectly logical place at a perfectly logical time for a perfectly logical reason and all hell broke loose.

Now, consider for just the briefest of moments that you like Hillary Clinton as a presidential nominee, or you like Bernie Sanders as a presidential nominee, or you like Donald Trump, or Ted Cruz, or Jill Stein. If you say that openly, I now know that. I don’t need to know anything else about you. Like making a riot at some random address, I don’t need to hire a bunch of brawlers to come and beat up each other.

All I have to do is hang one rude poster and then deface it myself…

All I have to do is convince one other person that you’re a ‘bot’…

All I have to do is make one fake blog post about how you lied…

You know that you are telling the truth about what you want and why you want it. You have No. Proof. At. All. the other person you’re talking to is being honest about their feelings. You don’t even have proof the person on the other end is the friend they claim to be. All that you know is you. Don’t think for a second you can’t be brought into a fight that’s of someone else’s making for someone else’s entertainment. After all, that first guy with a piano thought he was just making a delivery.

If it looks like you’re being baited, it’s because you are. If it looks like an email leak is a little too conveniently timed, it’s because it was. If the only reason you believe something is because you have ten other people on your Facebook feed telling you they believe it too, they don’t.

Tucker Max and Ryan Holiday used made-up stories about women being sluts, to silence women who objected to his assertion that women are sluts, all the while slut-shaming women. It was a lie, flat out lie, it was a calculated and formulated lie that was self-perpetuating. Any feminist who decried his rampant misogyny was immediately shut-down with the reply ‘Then how does he keep getting laid???’ and the answer was: HE WASN’T. Interesting fact, there are still current fans of Tucker Max who to this day inquire on his blog if he made everything up… Did I mention Tucker Max got brought into the Gamer Gate fiasco? Of course he did, for precisely the reason he should be brought up, because his faux-misogyny was used to justify actual misogyny and perpetuate a bullshit expectation of women based on bullshit. Not surprisingly, the ‘real’ Mr. Max has tried vehemently to distance himself from such attitudes, but can he really…?Trust Me I'm Lying

If it looks like you’re being baited, you are. If it looks like an email leak is convenient, it was. If the only reason you believe is the ten other people, they’re lying. That’s the difference between a skeptic and a conspiracy believer. Conspiracy requires that humans be highly organized, meticulous, unwavering, borderline emotionless, and above all fully united. A skeptic recognizes humans are deceitful (sometimes maliciously, sometimes not), scattered, silly, emotional, distracted, silly, beautiful, silly, and easily conned by someone who makes them feel like they’re in on the joke.

I’ve been in at least a dozen conversations in the last week that were indistinguishable from a Tucker Max marketing campaign. I have been in half a dozen more that were as reasoned and thoughtful as 500 people dancing in unison to a daemon possession. I have been in at least two that were fully identical to a witch trial, replete with spectral evidence that people could ‘feel’ through the ‘voice’ of documents details that literally were not there in print.

Be a skeptic, be in on the greatest joke of all: we’re all flawed, some of us are flat out sociopaths and will lie for abjectly no reason at all, most of us love at least one other person genuinely and deeply and will agree with them just because we think we should, and there is no light at the end of the tunnel because There. Is. No. Tunnel. There’s just the great, gorgeous, panoply of humanity hoping to make tomorrow a little better than yesterday. Anyone who says we’re more organized than that is literally trying to make money off of you.

No It Isn’t Everybody Else’s Fault


Everything is Everything

In the Social Sciences there is a concept that is extremely useful for understanding the difference between ‘society’ as it is frequently used in the Anglo-Saxon American Western world, and the standard definition of ‘a culture’ as used in more generally analytical schemes and frames. When most people talk about “society” in the United States for example, they use it as an overarching referent to all of humanity. Phrases like “Society’s Problems” or “Contributing to Society” or “Strong Social Policy” are essentially meaningless but they sound profound.

The reason they sound profound, especially when used at the appropriate point in a political speech, is because they stem from the common definition of the word ‘society’ being everybody, everywhere. The profundity is in the implication that I’m not just talking about me, or my immediate family, or even my small town of Whereversville, Stateland. I’m talking about absolutely everybody who walks and talks and combs their hair in the morning. I’m talking about (and to) anyone, anywhere, anytime, which is why what I have to say is important.

Thing is, it isn’t true. No one who doesn’t speak my language understands what I’m saying without an interpreter. No one who lives in another environment, or who doesn’t recognize any of the experiences I’m talking about, has any idea what I’m referring to. I, like everybody else on earth, have a view-point that is particular to my surroundings and dependent on everyone else around me to sustain.

In short, I’m writing this in English right now because I can and because you can read it. If you can’t read English, we likely didn’t grow up in the same society. You might somehow get a version of what I’m writing from a translation, but for a few languages it will be virtually impossible to translate accurately, and for most languages it will change some of the words slightly no matter how adept the translator is. I can say “Society” but what I really mean is “My Society” or “Societies Mostly Like Mine”.

Which is where the Social Science term comes in handy: “Lineage Segmentation” sounds complicated but it really isn’t. Let’s say I have a mom (or dad), and she has a mom (or dad), and so on. As I move up the generations, the number of people in my family gets larger. There’s my direct family (brothers and sisters), my mom’s direct family (or dad’s), my mom’s mom’s direct family (or dad’s dad’s… you get the idea). Each of these has a certain level of power over my life. In a segmented lineage system, if I have a problem with my mom’s mom, I don’t go to my sister, I go to my mom’s mother’s sister. The whole family up to that point is now in on the dispute. Plus, the whole family gets to help resolve the dispute. Seg Lin AnimIt becomes a giant negotiation and everybody has a say up to a certain point, and no say past a certain point. Social pressures are diffused through the whole system so nobody has to take all of the blame, but there are specific members who can be singled out if necessary for particular issues and functions.

What’s clear from a lineage segmentation chart is that no one person is responsible for all of society. As you go up the chain, the number of people increases until eventually you’ve likely got the whole town involved, but you’ve done it by giving everyone a stake in the proceedings. No one is completely blameless, and no one is fully to blame.

Everything isn’t Everything

Blaming one person waaaaaay up at the top, for something that happened somewhere around the middle ignores all of the people between those two who were involved in the process. This can be applied to most social situations that we commonly reference in the Contemporary West as ‘culture’. Music is not exclusively what we’re told to listen to, it’s also what’s generally available, it’s what of what’s available that we personally choose, and it’s things that aren’t commonly available that we seek out.

One of the reasons ‘Hipsters’ can be prime targets for grief is because they’re not actually “rejecting” social trends, they’re reacting to them. It’s impossible to be haughty about an ‘obscure’ band if they’re not ‘obscure’, and the band isn’t ‘obscure’ if they’re being played regularly on the city-wide pop-music radio station. Which means to be ‘obscure’ the band has to be non-popular. The contradiction being that to find a non-popular band is to be a part of the process of making them more popular, and to be non-popular one must be highly aware of what is popular and take specific pains to do the opposite. The ‘hipster’ is a type of person even though they claim to only be rejecting ‘types’.

People who want to flash their Hipster cred frequently include themselves as anti-cliche, and in doing so they construct a cliche of their own. Accusations of appropriation toward events such as Coachella or South By Southwest or Burning Man (and here, here, here, … oh hell just yahoogle “Indian Headdress Burning Man”) or just about any KC Chief’s Game (to the point that even their home-base complained), stem from the events themselves being steeped in artifice and revelry. Which means they’re taking what could potentially be sacred objects to another culture, objects representing high-tradition, and manipulating them into a glorified Halloween costume. All to satisfy a desire to do the opposite of what everybody else is doing, which is incredibly culture specific. Hipsters help to make Hipster a ‘thing’, every action they take refines the definition, and their reactions are culturally driven just like everybody else. To the point that I can use the term “Hipster” in this paragraph as if it’s a defined term even though I have not once clearly defined it.

So it is with any social concept. ‘Food’ is a universal, specific ‘foods’ are not. Though most Americans would easily identify and consume a burrito, most Filipinos living in the Philippines would have no idea why someone would wish to consume a “small donkey”. Conversely, while a Kalahari Bushman would have no trouble consuming an ostrich egg omelette cooked in hot dirt, most Brits would find the thought decidedly unappealing. All are ‘food’, very few of them are universally ‘foods’.

‘Race’ is another liminal category that floats more than it solidifies, especially when it comes to discussions of social and government entitlements as well as objections to/reifications of social and institutional power. Unfortunately, much like “Food” and “Society”, “Race” may be a universal concept but “Races” are not. Trevor Noah, the current host of The Daily Show following John Stuart’s retirement, has performed a stand-up routine specifically titled “Trevor Noah: African American”.

Noah is South African, he is not a US citizen. In no way is he ‘African American’, he’s African. But he hears the prefix “African” bandied about awfully casually and finds it hilarious. During his routine he tells the joke, “I’m in LA, and this guy finds the darkest guy in the room, and goes ‘You from Africa??’ and the guy answers ‘I’m from Detroit!’, then he looks at me, does a quick calculation, realizes who I am… and he gives me this speech about the ‘motherland’. ‘That’s where we gotta be man… I gots to go home. You tell ’em man, I’m commin’ home!’ And all I can think is: ‘I got news for you, we’re not waiting’.”

“African American” has no meaning in Africa. Especially since Africa is a continent, not a country. Saying “I’m going home to Africa” is roughly akin to saying “I’m going home to Europe”. What “Home” would that be? What he, what we really mean by “African American” is ‘black’ and that could be Haitian, Trini… In England, people from India are called “Asian”. In the US, “Asian” frequently only means people from east of India. Which is particularly amusing as “Asia” involves China and Japan and Korea (the people usually included in the US definition) and India (the people included in the British definition) but also Russia, which is supposedly full of ‘white’ people. “Race” isn’t even remotely universal.

Racism, therefore, is differentiating individuals based on pre-determined characteristics which are totally arbitrary in order to categorize them as belonging to a set that is itself arbitrary. Most Americans don’t call Pakistanis “Asian” for example, they also don’t call Egyptians “African” generally.

Silly Asians Forgetting To Bow
Why Aren’t These Asians Bowing Right Now?

A Solution in Search of A Problem

Which means addressing the issues surrounding Racism may or may not be about power, but it’s not necessarily about “institutional” power, it’s about the power we exert every day in our own lives. If I talk about Black Liberation am I talking to my Trinidad great grandfather? Am I talking to my Haitian friend? It’s not likely. Those terms don’t mean anything outside of their Contemporary US context. There is no purely Black Experience any more than there is a Brown Experience, or a Yellow Experience, or a Red Experience.

We use those terms because they have meaning to us. Which is fine, talking about “Black Liberation” may be perfectly accurate to someone living in Los Angeles or New York. What can never be forgotten though is that it is gibberish to someone living in Orenburg Oblast. What also cannot be forgotten is that by doing so we are asserting that we are willing as a group to decide that certain characteristics are important (skin hue) and others are less important (the actual country one is actually from and how far back, am I a Trini because my great grandfather was?). In that way, “society” is a really really big lineal segmentation. It is a building on the ideas that have come before, and a repetition of those ideas in the current time.

Blaming “Society” for any particular problem is to concede the Third Man Fallacy. Plato first used it as a tool against failed logic, he said any time you invoke something bigger than yourself to blame for why you think something, you’re basically asserting you don’t know the definition for yourself. You’re foisting all the responsibility on to some nebulous Third Man whose existence is impossible to prove. Do that enough times and you end up with “Because God Said So” and then everybody’s screwed.

As soon as I ask “But who determines ‘Black’?” I have to come up with something bigger than myself that defined “Black” for me. As soon as I do that, I have to come with something bigger than the big thing that made “black” and “white” as definable characteristics. Suddenly “Black” and “White” become immutable universal laws that are impossible to change. I believe Plato’s answer to that is: Every mix-race baby ever.

For Plato this was a big deal and a major flaw in reasoning because it made it impossible to escape the paradox, it made the definition of “Black” logically nonsensical. Handily, we don’t have to worry about Plato or the Third Man so long as you accept that we all do this all the time. The moment you accept all ideas are relative to all other ideas you begin to understand why human problems must have human solutions, because they can only have human solutions. They can’t depend on “Society” being fixed, because “Society” is just us.

That’s where the segmentation comes in, the second you do what the Third Man told you to do you took the responsibility on yourself, you brought the problem down to your level. Every member of the lineage is a participant in the lineage. If racism exists, it’s because we’ve all agreed to it either a lot or even just a little. If something is ‘food’ it’s because we all agree it’s edible. If someone is “Asian” it’s because we all agree they ‘look’ Asian.

Foisting the responsibility for all racism, foodism, ableism, sexism, whatever-ism onto a single third party is convenient, but it’s a lie because it removes our role in the process. Not surprisingly, it also garners mostly resentment from whoever the blame is foisted on because they readily recognize they didn’t personally gas any Jews or hang any Native Americans.

Plus it leaves the accuser blameless, when in fact the accuser is engaging in the same blanket generalizations as the accused. To simplify, no single ‘white’ person in the US today is responsible for the Armenian Genocide, even though that genocide was entirely racist and bigoted. So no, ‘whites’ are not the only ones responsible for racism, and ‘non-whites’ aren’t free from blame. Idi Amin was not ‘white’ by anyone’s definition. Idi Amin also wasn’t from the US and didn’t live in the US. Applying ‘Black Liberation’ in Compton through the lens of Idi Amin is absurd.

Calls for revolution are also much easier when it’s all the other guy’s fault. Faulting language for bigotry denies that we all speak collectively and if I wasn’t using words you understood, you wouldn’t understand me. So-called “White Guilt” is a key manifestation of the phenomenon. A person accepting their ancestors were slave owners is not the same as a person accepting forgiveness for slavery.

Personally, I know for a fact some of my ancestors fought for the Confederacy, I also know some of my family members fought against it. I won’t take anyone telling me “It’s not your fault”, I know it’s not. It’s also not my fault that slavery happened, and it’s not my fault that slavery was abolished. I wasn’t there. If it’s not my fault it started, and it’s not my fault it ended, there’s nothing I can do to ‘make up’ for it. Me apologizing for any of the process is me using a trick of language to inflate myself and my role in history. Others using my ancestors actions against me is doing the same thing.

Which means I can’t ‘make up’ for it by hiring a darker-skinned employee. If I hire someone who is darker than myself specifically because I say I’m making up for slavery and they are darker than myself, I’m an ass who has just reinforced the racism I’m claiming to be fighting against. I have specifically judged someone to have a skin hue different from myself and categorized them as having descended from that slavery, even if they may be Trevor Noah and have no relationship to anything I’m talking about.

Does that mean it was wrong for me to hire someone darker than myself to screw with the all-white Board of Directors? No, but it does mean that I’m as much a racist as any 1850s bigot. What I’ve done is make that racism contemporary. I haven’t corrected for slavery, I haven’t somehow fought for the Confederacy. I’ve been a racist today, right now. As is anyone with a hue darker than myself who assigns to me all fault for all slavery or all institutionalized racism. It’s not all my fault, it’s not all their fault, it’s our fault together and we both agreed to it. No Buffalo Soldiers were involved.

That also doesn’t mean a person with lighter skin should somehow ignore that people with darker skin tend to have a shitter life statistically and help out where they can to up-end the system. If we’re gonna change things everyone has to contribute. A ‘white’ person can’t walk around with some bizarre savior complex where all things that ever happened in the history of the world are their personal responsibility (talk about grandiose!). On that same coin, a ‘non-white’ can’t go around expecting that every white person they meet is personally accountable for Trayvon Martin.

unfair-remade-2If anything, that kind of ‘it’s a black thing you wouldn’t understand’ / ‘whites must fix all of the things’ thinking is what made it possible for Rachel Dolezal to pull her minstrel act (which, incidentally, she justified by referring to herself as “trans-racial”). If it’s all ‘white’ people’s fault, and ‘white’ people must obliterate ‘whiteness’ to allow everyone else to flourish, what better hero than a woman who literally made herself un-white? And yet, she was immediately (and I think rightly) called out for appropriating the pain of others and painting her face, rather than representing an authentic person standing against bigotry.

Everything Is Specific

The solution to this is pretty straightforward: Get over anything that happened more than 4 generations ago. It’s really that simple. We’ve got problems right now, today. That means we need to address them right now, today. If slavery happened, which it did, then know that it did and that it likely had a very powerful effect on the literature and society in which it occurred that resonate today.

Find those elements in your own behavior and work on them. Help others to work on it in themselves. Don’t let them take credit for everything bad that ever happened (and therefore leaving them as the only way to fix it) and don’t blame them for everything (leaving you a completely helpless victim of circumstance with no consciousness and no capacities).

The key is to avoid at all costs playing the Oppression Olympics where various people compete for whose ancestors are most screwed by history. After all, even if you win what’s the prize? It can be convenient, especially in an internet setting, to distance one’s self from the day to day enforcement and repetition of these behaviors.

Frequently authors take on a third-person omniscient voice to maintain the pretense of an objective view, or a second-person narrative style to place the onus on the reader (very occasionally saying “we” but still putting the bulk of the responsibility on the uncounted readers and not the finite authors). Both styles I deliberately circumvent in my writings not only because this is my blog, but because I’m not pretentious enough to believe I’m somehow writing a universal tome for all humankind. I won’t let anyone make everything all my fault, or leave me completely devoid of agency, and you shouldn’t either.

The Laughter of The Just

If you have to explain the joke

“Don’t you know what a joke is??”

“It’s JUST a joke” is an odd phrase. “Just” in this case is generally used dismissively, as in “something not worth talking about”. Which means the sentence translates to “The thing I just said is not actually worth the words I used to say it, in fact it’s not even worth enough to hear or in any way think about, but I said it all the same.” It’s oddly self-effacing. If the joke was told, and when challenged has to be defended, or even clarified, then it overtly isn’t irrelivant. It’s also not ‘less than normal conversation’ or ‘less than something serious’ first because the speaker, yanno, said it, but also because we seriously spend a shit-ton (1400lbs) of internets talking about when jokes are and are not ‘funny’. G’head, yoohoogle “Louis CK isn’t funny”, “Bob’s Burgers sucks”, “Adam Sandler sucks”, “Stephen Fry is stupid”.

People go on seemingly endlessly about why this or that isn’t funny. Which means “It’s just a joke” should actually be “It clearly wasn’t a joke, it was an attempt, but apparently it wasn’t funny to someone so I need to diminish their opinion to make their critique meaningless.” Or, “It was a joke to me, but not you, so I need you to be wrong about stuff so you can be wrong about this, and if I can kinda imply your sense of humor is the problem it’s completely your fault and that’s even better!”

One example of thousands is when Sarah Silverman came under extreme criticism for a joke she told on Conan O’Brien. The joke was revisited in 2001 but had originated several years before. She was called out by Guy Aoki for it, and both appeared on an episode of “Politically Incorrect” with Bill Maher to discuss the context of the joke and their various takes on its interpretive value.

As she tells it, the joke is fairly simple: “I was filling out a form for Jury Duty, and I didn’t want to be on a jury but I didn’t want to lie on the form. A friend of mine said ‘Just write “I hate chinks”.’ But that sounded pretty awful to me, so I thought about it and I was smart, I wrote ‘I LOVE chinks’. See? Smart!” Silverman asserted it was a satirical examination of racism, Aoki countered that it would be satire if it had been “done better”. Maher asked for an example of how that was possible from Aoki, and the conversation quickly dissolved into a shouting match.

In order to truly pull apart the joke it is necessary first to say that Aoki was not wrong that the term “chink” has been used to the present as a pretty strong slur. In fact, only a few weeks before the taping of that “Politically Incorrect” episode a Southeast Asian teen had been killed in California and the word “chink” appeared scrawled near his body. As recently as 2012 groups of men were tweeting about killing Asians after watching the movie “Red Dawn”. Truly, the slur and it’s use as a tool of oppressive racism and bigoted violence was a key component of his objection, and he was fully justified in that aspect of his assertions. The trouble is it became the focal point of most of the ensuing debate (read: yelling orgy) and that’s why I think this deserves another look in a less heated climate. At this point the joke is nearly 20 years old.

The key to the argument, was the assertion several times that it was “…just a joke…”. This is a similar argument to men who make rape jokes and excuse it, or gay jokes. It is hard to dispute as truly the intention of any joke is to make someone laugh (a key point that will be revisited later in this post). What is also interesting about the Silverman example is that the original Conan joke, in Silverman’s stand-up, had variously also used the word “nigger” and black SAG activist Ann-Marie Johnson was also on the panel that night.

Johnson provided another perspective on the subject of slurs and their power perhaps; but it left the situation to one of “Oppressed Minorities vs. Whitey” on a show already designed to maximize studio reactions to quips and short retorts not thoughtful analysis, which almost never ends well.

I think I should also preemptively defend myself in that I have no desire to kill the joke. First because it’s already dead, but second I am interested in how it got broken down then, and how potentially offensive jokes are used in a variety of social and public venues now. Everyone on the panel agreed that it was appropriate to dissect the joke and its presence in the wider discussion of race or oppression more broadly.

There’s no point in saying they were killing the joke by taking it apart or I’m doing so now, they all agreed that was appropriate and that the issues surrounding the joke were illustrative of important issues in American culture. Plus it’s not hard to find discussions and think-pieces and editorials (literally hundreds) on the phrase “But what if the joke wasn’t/was funny”.

My final reason for contributing to the massive bulk of what’s available on the subject of offensive humor is that I’ve found breaking down the true issues surrounding the defense of “it’s just a joke” isn’t actually done all that often. “It’s a joke” is deployed, the discussion quickly turns to whether or not it actually qualifies as a joke, which begins the death spiral of everyone competing with each other on whether or not it’s funny.

It’s worth trying to question not whether or not something IS a joke, but what is meant when someone SAYS it’s a joke. The exchanges that resulted on that long-ago episode of “Politically Incorrect” provide several insights to flesh out the core of several concepts in the phrase “It’s just a joke” and how they operate.

Finally, to the question of whether or not Silverman should simply shut up with using bigoted terms as Aoki suggested (I think somewhat cavalierly), meaning perhaps Silverman should only be allowed to tell jokes about her own people. Maher answered such a suggested limit is antithetical to comedy. Humor is decontextualized and it is essentially telling truth to power so any comedian can tell whatever joke they wish and if it falls flat then that’s the way it is.

David Spade agreed with Maher, using the examples of Richard Pryor and George Carlin and how their humor and coarse language was considered extremely offensive at the time and is now referenced as ground-breaking. Spade concluded “…all comedy is a risk”. I will break that down too, whether or not ‘humor’ is ever free from scrutiny and if calling something a “joke” becomes Carte Blanche to do and say whatever the hell someone wants. If there truly are limits, how best to find them and apply them?

“Has Your ‘Black Friend’ Actually Given You Permission…?”

The very first issue that has to be considered is the word “chink” itself. How is it applied within the body of the joke, the intention? Silverman eventually eluded to the idea she was using satire to high-light how people can sincerely believe they’re not being racist when they talk about their ‘black friend’ even though they probably are. The proof being that “I love chinks” is really damn racist, even if it’s sincere, perhaps especially if it’s sincere.

That quickly rounded to a discussion of the power of racial slurs at which point Maher utilized a common response that “Blacks call each other ‘nigga’ all the time, why can’t I?” That argument has been discussed on this blog as well as many others.

I won’t revisit my earlier explorations into power and the word “Nigger” except to ask essentially the same question Johnson did, which is “…why would you want to??” More specifically, doesn’t the very fact you’re demanding that ‘right’ from the people you want to use it against prove it’s basically insulting? It proves you’ve got more power than the people you’re using the term against. It’s clear you’re not within a category ‘they’ recognize as already having permission. Johnson even said “I love it when white people try to ‘define’ blacks. I think I’m the one who gets to define that for myself.” Meaning she also gets to define who is and is not allowed to call her ‘nigga’.

Which is a key issue, by using the word “Nigger” when it’s clearly inappropriate, it’s a power play. Silverman admitted that overtly, and the joke depends on it being present even if unstated. Johnson and Silverman may not have intended to suggest the One-Drop Rules and The Paper Genocide of the previous centuries but the historical antecedents are definitely present in the attitude. There’s white and there’s “not-white” and that unspoken line is still there even if unspoken. Which means when the line is given voice it can be extremely jarring.

Maher, if anything, emphasizes Johnson’s point by saying “If you hadn’t told me, I wouldn’t even know you were ‘black’.” Hopefully his statement was unconscious, but it did double-down on the very line Silverman’s joke is pointing, and the very “What gives you the right to ‘decide’ if I’m black or not?” dominant position that ticked Johnson off.

The point that ‘black’ is something less-than or ‘other’ and that the person with the palest skin in the room has a valid claim to determination is steeped in historic bigotry. In this way unfortunately, Johnson and Silverman completely agreed. I say “unfortunately” because they couldn’t hear it in each other. One is reminded of John McCain years later drawing a similar contrast of soon-to-be President Obama by saying “He’s not an Arab, he’s a decent family man….” As if the two are mutually exclusive.

Maher seems to also forget the details of his own industry by saying “It’s in every song. Nigga nigga nigga nigga nigga, it’s in every song!” Perhaps, but those songs are released primarily on white-owned labels to predominantly non-black audiences. Going by that standard, Al Jolson is the greatest black singer of all time and should be counted as a resource on the Black Experience.

Which is exactly the objection Johnson is raising, and exactly the mock Silverman is making. You’re not ‘black’ or ‘Asian’ just because you paint your face or because you have black friends, or even because you think you can use a word like “chink” or “nigger” with impunity. ‘Blackness’, like any cultural construct is a collection of experiences that span a life-time and a social environment.

Part of any social identity is being able to recognize membership of one’s self and it being reciprocated by fellows. No one ever thought Jolson was black, he ‘played’ black, just like Silverman’s comic character ‘plays’ at being racially clever. In so doing, just like Jolson’s Sambo character, it highlights how pervasive the racism was, not how enlightened the performer is.

Careful or Mammy Will Slap The Black Clean Off Ya
Don’t Make Mammy Slap The Black Off Ya

“Just because YOU didn’t laugh…”

So why don’t women have a sense of humor? Rape is fricken hilarious! Look at any college frat, they think rape is the funniest thing ever, it must be because they’re chicks. Maybe it’s genetic…

A central aspect of humor is camaraderie. It should come as no surprise that us anthropologists have spent some time breaking down what exactly ‘humor’ is cross-culturally and how different jokes play to different audiences. The simple truth is there’s almost no such thing as a Universal Joke. Although Charlie Chaplin is about as close as it gets.

There are generalities though, like walking up behind someone and making a loud noise. Or seeing someone trip over something. Humiliation of self and others is one of the most common forms of humor throughout the world.

Erving Goffman described mean jokes as “Denigration Ceremonies” and they appear all over the world. The classic Leprechaun tales are a good example. The Daribi of New Guinea have children bury empty boxes in the ground with promises they’ll fill with treasure. The Southeastern Woodland tribes of the US and the Ndembu of Zambia using masks to scare the bjezuses out of each other.

There’s tons of theories about why that’s funny to us as a species, everything from self-congratulation at having not done the very thing the other person just did, to a psychological tension release over a sense of understanding the other person’s pain (which then relates to our own pain, eventually forcing us to push the pain away with a a sense of gratitude that they’re hurting not us). Which is all fine and good, except that’s incredibly technical and not very helpful. The fact is, we laugh at such things, a lot. So let’s look less at why the human brain is wired that way and focus on the fact it is.

Slap-stick is about as far back as we can get. It’s in the oldest theatrical documents we have available and it’s all over the place. That’s actually where ‘satire’ comes from. The Ancient Greeks invented a form of bawdy humor that took common ideas and items and blew them so out of proportion to reality that they were only barely recognizable. The characters in the play are humiliated by the audience watching the performers and seeing them try to perform their daily lives with such over-the-top nonsense constantly getting in the way.

Eventually their whole world falls apart as the ever expanding absurdities compound into one giant mess. The ‘funny’ was in the exaggeration of things that we take for granted in our daily lives. It was the playwright saying to the audience “See what idiots we must look like to aliens?” and the audience responding basically, “Yep, we probably do look like total idiots, but that’s the way it is.” Chuckle chuckle, guy falls over chair, fart joke, end scene.

Plato’s “Symposium”, for example, does not do subtle humor. One joke in the piece is that the banquet everyone is attending is hosted by a wealthy man so concerned with displaying his wealth that the silverware at the dining table is too heavy to lift.

In the Aristophanes play “Thesmophoriazusae” an older man dresses as a woman infiltrates a women’s only festival and is turned in to the authorities by an effeminate gay man also dressed as a woman such that the straight man has to be ‘rescued’ by his friend from the clutches of the Athenian authorities. The straight man’s friend does so by repeatedly swooping in on a crane, wearing various disguises from other plays such as Andromeda and Helen of Troy. That’s not even the main scene of the play and it’s considered one of Aristophanes’ greatest works. Suck on that “Twelfth Night”.

So the reason frat guys laugh at stupid shit is because it’s stupid shit they’ve all done, or similar to what they’ve all done. They’re performing their own Greek Satire. They’re mocking themselves, but they’re also emphasizing their own group cohesion and shared identity. Since a key aspect of that identity is that women are something outside of their circle, the humor is often directed at the things which are outside their circle, which includes women. That their humor is often extremely sexual hints at the fact that though they’re in, literally, an ‘All Boys Club’ they still want to date women, and they want to have relationships with women.

Which means there’s a disconnect between their desire for women and their desire for the camaraderie of their fellows. Their humor reflects the fact that they want to dominate their lives, which results in a lot of domination jokes. The women which are already in the jokes easily become the victims of their humor. I am not justifying rape, I am saying why the jokes might exist.

It’s worth saying that to an Ancient Greek, what Sarah Silverman did wasn’t satire, hell “Some Like It Hot” isn’t. To an Ancient Greek, “South Park” is satire and only barely. Some may claim that’s because ‘Satire’ has evolved. Except it hasn’t. “South Park” is still around, frat boys still do stupid shit and post it to YouTube, and “America’s Funniest Home” Videos is into it’s 40th season or whatever… The third installment of the “Jackass” films, themselves a spin-off of the hugely successful MTV show “Jackass”, came out in 2010. The show celebrated grown men hitting each other with hammers, crashing bodily into cars, and getting run over by stampeding bison.

By that standard, if Silverman were truly attempting satire and using exaggeration to high-light vice or stupidity the joke’s punchline would have been “So I wrote ‘I fucking love all the niggers, chinks, spicks, faggots… And all those retards that get caught buying drugs!’. See? I’m not a bigot, I’m smart…” But that’s not what Silverman did, probably because she knows the people she’s catering to wouldn’t be all that impressed.

It’s likely, given Silverman’s standard audience (like the “Conan O’Brien Show”, or “Politically Incorrect”) that approach would have been treated as ham-fisted, even crude and simplistic. Her audience could well have been insulted by that approach not because they felt she was highlighting something they do and mocking them for it, but because she was directly insulting their intelligence at suggesting they wouldn’t get a subtler joke.

Telling it that way would change the very essence of the joke. Instead of being about covert and passive racism, it would be about mocking people who are thoughtless and belligerent. It may actually be that Aoki was failing to notice a key aspect of the joke as she originally told it: who ended up laughing and who did she intend to laugh?

“What if that’s not actually the joke you told?”

The problem with Silverman being expected to ‘do satire better’ is that had she done the satire ‘better’ it wouldn’t actually be the joke she was making. The joke she was making, or at least the joke she said she was making, was against people who use veiled racist comments to excuse themselves from being counted among the ‘true’ racists of the world. When really they’re all racists one’s just ‘cleverer’ about it and therefore gets away with it more often.

In that sense Silverman’s actually making a scathing critique of people who say things like “Post Racial America”, because she’s emphasizing that’s just bigotry in a new and more pervasive, destructive form. It’s the illusion of enlightenment at the expense of entire cultures to not be regularly insulted just so you can feel better about yourself and use them to emphasize your own open-mindedness.

If she told the joke Aoki wants her to tell, the one that emphasizes that “chink” is derogatory and she knows that, it’s a different joke. Ultimately, if she tells the more Ancient Greek satirical joke, the one that points to the punchline and sign-posts, “Punchline here, this is the punchline! This is where I say something I don’t actually believe in order to make fun of people who do this!!!” She’d be mocking people who are loudly and obviously racist and then deny being racist out of sheer bloody-mindedness. She wouldn’t be mocking the other kind of racist, the one who says “They don’t see color” and are therefore ‘allowed’ to call people whatever they want.

Silverman’s making a joke at the expense of veiled language, of intellectual dishonesty. She’s making a joke at the expense of Maher, who says things like “The word nigger is in rap music so I can call you that because it’s okay now.” I’m driven to wonder if, on some level, Aoki is angry not so much because the joke had the word “chink” in it (though I’m certain that’s a factor), as much as he’s angry that Maher and people like Maher sitting right there and talking about the joke didn’t get that the joke was on them.

In that case his true contention with Silverman is not, in fact, that her joke was inexpert. His trouble is that her joke reveals something even he wrestles with articulating adequately, so much so it becomes necessary to guess at what his true frustration is from the fragments and half-finished thoughts of the remainder of the cross-fire.

When Maher challenges him to express what would be a “good” version of the joke Aoki is flummoxed. He ends up looking like he’s expecting an impossible standard. Which is why Spade reacted by saying that comedy was “risk”, and Maher jumped on the idea of telling truth to power. They were both trying to fend off the inevitable idea of censoring humor over hurt feelings.

I think their anticipation was premature but I also think Aoki’s stuttering was sincere rather than thoughtless. I don’t think Aoki was genuinely expecting there be some arbitrary limit on what jokes can be told and when. I think he simply had trouble articulating that he felt the joke wasn’t funny and could have been done better, not because he didn’t laugh, but because he felt on some visceral level that Maher and others weren’t laughing for the right reason.

The only reason Aoki could readily find was that it felt like the joke was too easy, like it was punching a kid already at a disadvantage. Which meant the only solution he’s able to offer, the only way they would be made to laugh at the joke for the ‘right’ reason, would be for her to tell a different joke. In short, Aoki isn’t mad the joke didn’t “land”, he’s frustrated that it didn’t hit what he thinks it should be aiming for: The Bully.

The fact that Maher, and people who say things like “You say Nigger, why can’t I??”, the fact that The Bully wasn’t getting the joke, that it was even possible The Bully was TELLING the joke, put Aoki in an impossible situation. He was left with trying to convince The Bully the joke he just laughed at shouldn’t actually be funny to him, it should be funny to the victims. But The Victim isn’t laughing and The Bully is, so clearly something went wrong.

By the same token, Aoki may have himself missed the fact that The Bully, in this case Silverman, was actually laughing at the joke in a sense of self-reflexive irony. The ‘funny’ being The Bully truly hoped The Victim would laugh along with The Bully for finally realizing something about themselves. I certainly don’t hope to speak for Aoki, or Silverman, I’m trying to use only the arguments they offered during that episode to pull apart, but my simple answer to the question, “Isn’t it funny how I just realized this about myself?” is, “I’ll laugh when I finish picking up my teeth.”

Offensive humor is actually offensive, it’s supposed to be, and that’s the bottom line. Spade’s not wrong, humor is a risk. Maher’s not wrong, it’s telling truth to power and that can be dangerous and it can cross lines that one has been told not to cross. But Aoki and Johnson aren’t wrong either, it can also be kicking someone when they’re already down.

They’re also all correct that there are consequences to ‘offensive’ acts and one has to be willing to accept the resulting boos and cheers from the audience, whichever comes. If comedy is “Risk” sometimes you fail. The consequence may very well be someone telling you that the joke wasn’t funny and you having to accept that it wasn’t and move on with life. If anything that’s the only real definition of a “joke” to take away from this whole mess: did the audience laugh? If they did, it may still be an insult but also funny. If they didn’t, it was just an insult.

“So Who Laughed?” (see, I said I’d get to it)

By Aoki focusing on the word “chink” so heavily, and Maher not realizing the joke was truly on him in the first place, the entire debate became one of “what’s funny” or even “Is [insert racist term] funny?” rather than “why did/didn’t someone laugh?”. Any joke is at a disservice by being removed from its audience. Aristophanes was writing for a group of all men who were drooling drunk at a Dionysian Festival. If he didn’t make the jokes so obvious you could find every punchline even if you couldn’t find your ass with both hands, he’d lose the audience in the first act.

Silverman isn’t talking to a group of Asians, if she were it’s likely that at the least she’d craft the joke differently (if she expected the majority of them to laugh anyway), or she might not tell the joke at all. By the same token, if all she does is tell jokes about how much airline food sucks no one who’s never flown will have any idea what the hell she’s talking about. Seinfeld wasn’t talking to black inner-city gang members, Richard Pryor wasn’t talking to Japanese retirees.

By Aoki expecting Silverman to change the joke to cater to his audience and not hers, or only speak to her own people and keep her ideas within her own group, he’s also engaging in the kind of divisiveness that the joke itself is attacking. It assumes that there is not a joke to be had between cultures and their interactions, both good and bad. It assumes that the power disharmony itself cannot be mocked. Which demonstrably it can, it’s the basis of almost all racial humor both positive and negative.

The joke as told by Silverman calls attention to the assertion that Maher makes during the discussion, “you say it, now I can” which actually translates to “If you say it you can’t call me out when I do”. It speaks to assertions that the power dynamic is now equal and we are moving into a ‘post-racial’ world (which means if you bring up race it makes you the racist) for the fallacious assumptions they are. There’s even a term for it: The Tu Quoque Fallacy or the “I Know You Are But What Am I??” defense.

I'm Funny Damn It
It’s True ‘Cause He Said So

So What’s The Point?

Easy, there is no resolution to this situation. The joke isn’t devoid of context, as Maher might hope. It’s swimming in context. One hundred years in either direction and the joke isn’t the same, one country over and the joke isn’t the same, one demographic up or down and the joke isn’t the same. Humor always exists in tandem with its audience.

The joke is demonstrably racist, that’s the intention. All of the panelists acknowledged it, most people who tell rape jokes acknowledge they’re sexist, most people who tell gay jokes acknowledge they’re homophobic. Whether or not they are considered funny by the audience is entirely dependent on whether the audience feels the person telling the joke has the freedom to do so. It may or may not be bigoted but it certainly tries to be, and makes fun of people who are by replicating their behavior. At some point ironic bigotry is indistinguishable from actual bigotry, so it certainly has the potential to be flat out bigotry with no humor at all.

The joke is not “just” a joke because there is no such thing as “just” a joke any more than there is such a thing as “just” a book, or “just” a phone company. It has a context and it has a relevance and it is a thing with substance and value within society. It has cultural currency to a greater or lesser extent depending on those present to hear it and understand it.

A joke can be criticized and should be criticized for its content. Telling a joke does not leave one free from ridicule, it is not a shield against becoming the victim of someone else’s “joke”. It also does not leave one free from negative reaction, no audience is required to laugh. Blaming the audience is possibly the only true sign that something really wasn’t a joke and wasn’t intended to be, and was actually a thinly veiled attack. A joke teller blaming their audience is removing the veil and just attack. Which is the most important lesson to draw from much of this debate.

Jokes are another part of discourse, they’re an aspect of language that most people use. Some laugh at some jokes, others laugh at other jokes. Some barely ever laugh, some laugh all the damn time. It is not wrong to dissect a joke because they can be quite useful for revealing ideas central to a culture and how they view themselves. They’re cultural artifacts.