the impenetrable soapbox


yesterday was particularly frustrating. i sank into the black hole of oscar backlash, couldn’t get out, and found myself in a state of despondency about the state of humanity for the majority of the day.

why did this happen?

because i took exception to the scapegoating of seth macfarlane as a horrendous sexist/racist/homophobe by most media outlets, a lot of my friends, and a majority of strangers with whom i had interaction. after being barraged by endless threads of passion rather than intellect, vitriolic nonsense, and self-righteous “progressiveness” in the end i just felt like screaming “get over yourselves, please”. i didn’t, but perhaps retroactively via this post i am. but that’s the most impassioned thing i’ll say, so please keep reading.

to summarize my feelings about the oscars (and this is all i’ll say about it, because frankly to me it was a boring, misdirected, almost non-issue in the first place), firstly, seth macfarlane has always produced the brand of comedy he presented at the oscars, so to expect anything else is patently ridiculous (or please, take your anger a step further and go to lisa lampanelli and louis ck shows, and other comedians to accuse them of being racist). secondly, he was not the sole participant in what was presented at the oscars. numerous people wrote the comedy, approved the comedy, and then participated in the presentation (including many intelligent, confident, and fully capable women), so to lambast him alone is unproductive. thirdly, personally i reserve judgments of misogynist, racist, homophobe, for people who actually show prejudicial behavior, not someone who tells jokes that are clearly intended to be a send-up of the subject in question, i.e. someone tells a “sexist” joke, usually it is a commentary on sexism, rather than sexism in and of itself. fourthly, from my perspective the worst you can accuse seth macfarlane of is presenting bad comedy. perhaps his jokes were unfunny to you, but that doesn’t qualify them as any of the -isms. otherwise no one will ever be able to tell a joke about women, men, different races, religions, etc. for fear of being accused of prejudicial behavior, and that’s absurd. bad comedy is different than discriminatory comedy, and that’s an important distinction. and that’s all I’m going to say about Seth Macfarlane and the over-hyped awfulness of that event.

what i want to address more directly is the soapbox mentality of people and the treatment of human beings when that soapbox comes out. we like to believe we live in a country/world where anyone can believe whatever they want, free from harassment, free from judgment, but we don’t. ideally, you could look at an experience and evaluate it one way, i could look at an experience another way, wrong or right, we should both be entitled to our view. now, can one person be viewing the situation from a perspective of ignorance? absolutely. and hopefully what could and would ensue is a discussion between the individuals, allowing the person with perspective to enlighten the person who is lacking the necessary knowledge to evaluate the experience properly. think of a person who has only seen classical portrait paintings suddenly looking at a jackson pollock. the experience would most likely be confusing, but someone with art history perspective could guide that individual into understanding and perhaps appreciating the experience. However, that movement from ignorance to knowledge doesn’t negate the validity of the individual’s primary experience.

what does this have to do with yesterday? well, there were people who had different experiences and the widespread view seemed to be, from progressives, from people who spout tolerance, acceptance, encouraging human dignity, that unless you share the same view as me you are part of the problem. that unless you accept the view that this experience was all of the awful things that everyone says about it, then you are missing the point. i’m willing to admit that perhaps i lack perspective on any number of issues, and even in the case of yesterday, maybe i was missing the point. but did productive conversation ensue to guide me to understanding? no, absolutely not. for me personally it meant getting bombarded with article after article that said exactly the same thing, any number of people saying i was missing the point without any contextualization of why, endless repetition of the vitriol from the articles i’d already read, and even at one point being called stupid, brainless, and incapable of understanding sexism. Fantastic, what productive conversation!

and here’s why this personal experience is enormously problematic (please prepare yourself for the paragraph that’s going to sound like a pat on the back, my apologies). i am a theatre artist, i work in an industry concerned with the human experience, my profession involves daily evoking internal empathy for all people. i’ve played just about every kind of human being on stage from the innocent to the wholly cruel, and that wouldn’t be possible unless i found something human and honest about each of those individuals. i believe wholeheartedly in the potential of human kindness, i’m an idealist, and i believe there are grand injustices in the world that desperately need addressing. i’m a 1/2 gay (a description my wife and i use for my own brand of sexuality) european immigrant artist, married to a chilean immigrant, living in washington dc. this is all to say, whatever progressive ideal you’re aiming for, i’m more than likely on your side. so, if you can’t engage in a cordial conversation with me, that won’t leave me feeling accused, personally criticized, and undermined, how the fuck, yes how the FUCK do you hope to effect people who are truly locked into their ignorance and intolerance?

short but important tangent, please know, that just because lena dunham says something it doesn’t automatically make it true (i was sent and shown various comments from her regarding the oscars experience). after all, lena dunham writes and acts for a tv show set in new york city, one of the most diverse places in the world, in which the first episode had only three actors of color, a black taxi driver, a black homeless person, and an asian woman who was good at photoshop. i don’t currently see her as having the most insightful perspective on social experience, even if she’s your current messiah. from my admittedly limited exposure ‘girls’ reads as a show about sex-obsessed, privileged white girls, who have all the time and luxury in the world to think, complain about, and dwell on everything! it’s not to say the experiences portrayed aren’t valid, not part of the conversation, or lacking in entertainment value, but they’re by far not the only part of the conversation. so no, sorry, i’m not going to regard lena dunham as the voice to answer my questions about sex and gender, because in truth i’d rather listen to my wife for a compelling and truthful story on the experiences of american women. after all natalia came to the united states unable to speak a word of english, paid her own way through college, got a prestigious grant to work at the NIH, paid her own way through grad school, got a prestigious job at USAID, and now travels around the world to advise international leaders in public health on projects concerning the eradication of emerging infectious diseases. to me, that should be a tv show, instead of yet another show about the plight of young people and their sexual/dating travails, but that’s just me. moving on.

this is all to say, if you’re going to get on your soap box, invite other people to stand up there with you and actually hear what you’re trying to say instead of picking up the soap box and smashing it over a completely open person’s head. by doing so, you not only alienate the people who are actually potentially on your side, you essentially render it impossible to engage with people who really need to be shown you have anything worthwhile to say. correct me if i’m wrong, but i doubt anyone has the experience of having their mind changed by rampant aggression and name-calling. it doesn’t work, it’s unproductive. passion is good, but only insofar as it teaches us to operate in a way that allows for conversation. we will always be dealing with people who have to us, idiotic views, but meeting idiocy with idiocy creates an impenetrable cacophony that will only end in the stalemate of head-butting ignorance.

okay, i know i’m now clearly up here on my soapbox, but hopefully i think i’ve left enough room for two.


12 thoughts on “the impenetrable soapbox

  1. What you say makes a lot of sense. I tend to steer clear of on line debates because of many of the reasons you state (this was especially true for me during the election). As for Dunham, what you say is true and yet I admire her for being so young and speaking so frankly about her experience. Finally a woman who isn’t “perfect” who shows the confusing brokenness of finding yourself in your 20’s. She reminds me though of a young, female Woody Allen, which is both good and bad depending on who you talk to, what day it is.

    • thank you for your thoughts. yes, the internet is probably not the best place for productive conversation a lot of time. i haven’t learned that, clearly.

      and in regard to dunham, absolutely, she deserves all the praise you suggest, and that’s why the show and her voice is admirable, but at the same time i don’t want to confuse that with regarding her as an intellectual authority. in other words, just because she said something counter to my opinion, doesn’t immediately put me in the wrong. she’s an important, welcome voice, but certainly not the only one.

  2. I love the idea of opening up the soap-box for conversation. This is of course the downfall with twitter, quick and short responses don’t leave space for nuance or even compassionate understanding of each other. We see something there and we want to react.
    Like many of the voices that sadly were raging at you, I am frustrated where I see male (or white, or christian, or class) privilege and where I see women reduced to madonna or whore dynamics. In the years I’ve known you, I’ve never seen you do that and doubt there would be any circumstances when you would. But I think we are all guilty about not think about it in our culture enough, or think about ways to change that conversation.
    I didn’t watch the Oscars and from all the chatter it seems to me that Seth Mcfarlane did what we was hired to do. Knowing his brand of comedy, I don’t think it translates into the kind of event we all historically have understood the Oscars to be, I don’t think it was a smart producer decision and I think it did (at least from what I’ve since watched on youtube or read about) highlight a problem in how we address gender, race, etc, in our culture. There’s a place for offensive humor (as you mention, in a send-up way) I’m not sure that was it.
    I also think we need more places to engage with these questions and feelings and twitter is really really not it.

    • i’m in complete agreement that twitter and other social media sites have not been the venue for productive discussion, at least, i certainly haven’t found them to be. that being said, it is inevitable that people are going to use these sites to engage their opinions, and there must be a way to do that civilly. or at least to be able to discern who is simply in disagreement with you and who is a genuine antagonist. i haven’t found it, and i’m sure i’ve dished it out as much as i’ve received in terms of backlash to contrary opinions. but when intelligent people devolve to calling people stupid, or raging against them when their worst crime is perhaps not having the most informed perspective, there’s something really off. personally i would never do that and have little respect for people who do.

      i completely agree that there were very obvious missteps in hiring seth macfarlane as the host, it clearly wasn’t the right venue for him or his humor. and while i would continue to argue that his offensive humor, even in this case, is absolutely a send-up of intolerance, where the issues are so sensitive and immediate, it was unquestionably shortsighted of him and others to engage that type of humor.

      but comedy is important, comedy surrounding “issues” is important, and suggesting someone is sexist, racist, or otherwise for telling jokes opens up a whole other discussion about artistic censorship and criticism that i find intolerable. as an example i had no problem with the existence of lisa lampanelli’s brand of humor in spite of finding it lazy, completely unfunny, and ugly, but i never considered her racist. then she went on a radio show to discuss her time on celebrity apprentice and called dayana mendoza a ‘spic’, to me she had done something absolutely unconscionable. there’s a huge difference between the send-up format of her show, and then believing that umbrella of protection applies to every engagement she ever undertakes. she obviously claimed she was telling a joke, but there has to be a separation between the performance and the person. so, i suppose in this case, i would want to judge seth macfarlane by his behavior when he’s not playing a character, rather than what he said during a performance.

      you’re absolutely right, we do need to be asking these questions more, and have places to ask these questions, it isn’t enough to simply say you value everyone equally, and by not thinking about it you’ve leveled the playing field. also isn’t helpful to tell people they’re overreacting or that they should learn to take a joke. people have a right to be offended, but it also isn’t helpful to take out your frustration on someone who honestly asks ‘why are you offended?’. more discussion, less butting heads!

  3. I personally found Seth MacFarlane’s Oscar extravaganza-of-derision to be as boring as Lena Dunham’s ideas of how degrading it must be to be a white, privileged, 20-something living in NYC.

    Nice post. Your soapbox is more like a guest house with a generous host: a civilized place to venture into. So, thanks.

    • thank you for your thoughts Jennifer. i agree, at best the oscars (really, as usual) were moderately clever and at worst, dull & inconsistent in tone. and what i’ve seen of ‘girls’ echoes how you put it, people who clearly don’t know how good they have it relating how hard it is to be them. while that isn’t an invalid form of entertainment, and in spite of that, it’s clearly a unique and probably in many ways important tv show, it doesn’t establish it as a voice to which i feel i should give too much credence.

      and as far as this guesthouse is concerned, please relax, put up your feet, make yourself at home, and come back any tiime!

  4. There are few things more oppressive than the open-mindedness of the supposedly tolerant. I appreciate your willingness to humanize an issue that frequently doesn’t get discussed. There are lots of definitions of “liberal,” but at its root, I always thought it had to be about freedom of expression. Too often, in its modern context, it becomes its opposite: a willingness to police the expression of others for thoughts considered impolitic, heretical or simply insufficiently suffused with the notion that if something isn’t done immediately about the cause du jour, the sky will fall.

    Of course, this allows a lot of political and cultural discourse to devolve into either an attempt to ostracize those who don’t tow a very narrow party line or, more often, an excuse to pat ourselves on the back about how noble and above-it-all we are.

    Personally, I think the Oscars are consistently terrible television, no matter who hosts. It happens that this year Seth McFarlane was the messenger, but somewhere, there’s got to be someone responsible for making that show year after year something that is consistently awkward, treacly and forced. This year, it probably had to do with some aged hack saying, “We need to reach the under 30 demographic who never watches this show. I know, we’ll get that Family Guy dude. I hear he even sings”–without knowing anything about Seth McFarlane or his brand of humor, which really doesn’t translate well to the Oscars.

    • Andy, thank you for your thoughts.

      i think you are expressing more succinctly than i am what is at the root of the problem in a lot of modern discourse: the let’s all join hands notion that we can all “believe and express whatever we want” and through that we can come together, while subconsciously harboring a store of rage to level at you if you disagree with me.

      and completely agreed about the oscars being consistently awful. it was different packaging but the same inconsistency of tone, half-baked humor, cheesy interactions, and saccharine self-congratulation. it was an experiment to put macfarlane up there and it probably didn’t work, but that to me is about as deep as the conversation needs to go. there is a place for his brand of humor and that is obviously not the setting.

      yup, the rage towards ricky gervais was celebrities not being able to handle someone who didn’t take them as seriously as themselves, and there was something, perhaps sadistically that i loved about it. these awards shows are terribly self-important, i always feel like awards are being given and accepted as if the individual cured cancer. the tone probably does need to be sillier and more irreverent. they tried, probably without thought, and clearly it didn’t work this time.

  5. Also, he’s just not experienced at being a stand-up comedian. He’s no Ricky Gervais, who succeedly wonderfully at skewering Hollywood pretensions in a way McFarlane couldn’t dream of matching.

  6. Seth MacFarlane also was not solely responsible for anything that happened at the Oscars. A lot of writers, producers, actors, et cetera, had to sign off on pretty much everything he did. It’s not as if he did a monologue and ran off script. So I think the anger towards him is a little unfair and misplaced.

    It also made me think about how we laugh at things that make us uncomfortable to make them less uncomfortable– see: audience’s reaction to the Chris Brown/Rihanna joke. Comedy, whether or not it’s funny to a given person, is often inherently critical.

    I don’t think I’m a bad person for laughing at the boobs song. That’s right: it made me laugh. Hold your stones for a moment! After I laughed, I though about and discussed with other women why it is that so many women have been nominated or won Oscars in roles that required nudity. If that conversation were to grow in scale, is it so bad that the song was created or performed?

    Last I checked, performers and artists know that they’re not going to appeal to everybody and may even offend people. I was just in a show where many people walked out NOT because of a 15-year-old boy having explicitly incestuous relationships with his sister and mother, but because a character cut out a cat’s heart and then ate it.

    People in religion and politics get flak for trying to push their ideas on others and insisting their opinion is the only opinion. There’s a difference between ranting as a form of catharsis and demanding others feel the same way as you and support you.

    Maybe I need more coffee/sleep, but at least that’s what I think, and I want to participate in the discussion. So there.

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