The Problem with 11

I’m coming around to a new way of thinking about this election. It may be the best thing to happen in the political/cultural landscape in a long time. It’s prompted tremendous discussion everywhere I go. Personally, it’s forced me to seek less biased news sources, forced me to examine preconceived notions and so much more. And the extremism of the far right is shedding light on a group of Americans who feel so impotent and undervalued that they’re willing to support almost anybody they believe exists outside the realm of the Washington elite. As with all things, change is messy and scary. Maybe even a little bit dangerous. Ultimately, I hope this election gives rise to a viable independent party that represents an alternative to “insider” Democrats and Republicans. It’s clearly time.

It also got my 14-year-old son to engage with me on his political opinions and the places he gets them from. We’ve spent a lot of time talking. And we watched Chris Ray Gun. A lot of Chris Ray Gun.

Understand — I’m 52. You’re likely hip to Gamergate and such. Me, I’ve been only vaguely aware until now.

It was new for me to see how fed up with the “Tumblr Social Justice Warrior” world some people are. And to be honest, watching some of this stuff myself, it’s hard not to see their point. There’s the girl genuinely harassing her (partly Asian) Lyft driver because she objects to the culturally insensitive Dancing Hulu Girl figurine on his dashboard (she actually says something like: “do you not care about, like, the whole continent of Hawaii?”) There are the Yale protests demanding the ousting of a beloved professor and her husband who merely suggested that the college was overstepping by trying to dictate “offensive” and “not offensive” Halloween costumes to the student body. There’s the woman who literally screams that she’s been abused by a dumbass dude who will only give his name as “Hugh Mongus.”

You may agree that some of the things described above are offensive.  And I absolutely understand that we are a culture awash in racist, sexist, gender biased, homophobic language, imagery and action. And that stuff should be called out. The problem, in my opinion, is when every single offensive is an 11. Like on a scale of 1 to 10.

I have the same problem when people only write at 11. When a writer is so enamored with their own voice that they can’t help imbuing every sentence with “look what I can do!” — it ends up overshadowing  what’s real in the scene. For instance, while I enjoyed a lot of the movie Juno, the aggressively self aware, too-smart-for-school dialogue had me wanting to bash myself in the face with a hamburger phone. We did a lot of stylized dialogue in Buffy, but some people just talked like, you know, people. In Juno even the guy at the minimart was “home-skillet-ing” like a motherfucker. Sorkin is another writer I think is brilliant when restrained. But too often he’s just doing verbal cartwheels and screaming like a five-year-old at you to PAY ATTENTION!! Everything is pitched at the same rabid level, so almost nothing lands. Instead of relating and finding our own moments of revelation, we’re bombarded with personality.

Sometimes the best way to get somebody to lean in is to whisper. To write simply. Recently I had a character just say “I’m sad!” at the height of a charged argument. That’s it. The conversation changed — because this character wasn’t the type to talk about his inner life much. It had impact.

In the case of encountering offensive people or things, if everything is an 11 it can undermine the message. When a guy making a sophomoric joke about his dick gets the rape whistle response, nobody’s listening when the whistle gets blown for actual rape. It all comes off as equal. And it’s just not. The level of vitriol and outrage over every single thing is starting to make some people like my kid — a smart, genuinely kind guy — wonder if all feminists are hysterical and all “social justice warriors” have no common sense. In some ways, these well-meaning folks seem to be demanding an Orwellian world in which speech is controlled by the horde and college students are so infantilized that they’re not trusted to pick their own Halloween costumes. Actual productive dialogue in this atmosphere is stifled, because even those who genuinely want to do right are so afraid to offend — they clam up. Again, none of this is to say that marginalized people don’t have reason for outrage and sometimes small things can bring it up. But character, degree and intention have a place in the conversation.

Of course, liberals haven’t cornered the market on this stuff. It’s true of the right as well. I mean, Trump lives at 11 and only his fellow extremists can really defend him. Other people may vote for him, but it’s not because they respect him.

I’d argue when writing or dealing with the — way trickier — real world, 1 through 10 are essential if you want to make your point. “Hugh Mongus” might merit  a “seriously??” or perhaps a “grow up.” Or — don’t engage at all. Chauvinists, bigots and and trolls love the power we give them. Maybe, in some cases, walking away is the strongest response.

Sometimes the quiet, not the storm — is where the power is.



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