From presidential debates to masturbatory stand-offs between self-aggrandizing personalities, we only tune in to public discourse to sate voyeuristic impulses, not intellectual ones.
What we know as debate today is a Trumpian debacle of factual errors and logical fallacies that affronts common sense but makes an excellent drinking game.
After all, why should we treat an argument with an online troll like some ancient, sophisticated art form when our opponent's only goal is attention? The recent exchange between Jordan Peterson and Slavoj Žižek is the quintessential example of the vacuous, turgid prose that passes for public discourse these days. From presidential debates to masturbatory stand-offs between self-aggrandizing personalities, we only tune in to sate voyeuristic impulses, not intellectual ones.
How did we arrive at this moment, when arguing has become spectacle in the same way gladiatorial violence once was—a voyeuristic craving for war?
In the public, live-streamed event titled "Happiness: Capitalism vs. Marxism," Peterson, a professor of clinical psychology and "bevested men's rights worship-object" faced off with Žižek, the Slovenian Marxist who's the "Elvis of cultural theory." Both men are self-fashioned renegades from academic tradition (despite Peterson having applied and received a fellowship from Cambridge University—which was rescinded after students staged a mass protest). Both men have strangely carved out reputations in mainstream culture by marketing their PhDs as kitschy taglines, selling their worldviews as irreverent satire (Žižek) or self-help philosophies (Peterson). Peterson's 12 Rules for Life is a best-seller meant to save "the masculine spirit under assault" and a codification of the self-inflated speeches he posts on YouTube for his hundreds of thousands of followers. Žižek wrote and starred in The Pervert's Guide to Ideology, a feature documentary comprised of iconic movie scenes onto which he superimposes footage of himself analyzing their Marxist undertones.
In truth, each man is a caricature of a public intellectual—entertainers rather than leaders. They both excel in provoking strong reactions from their detractors. To many, Peterson is nothing more than an anti-PC muppet come to life (imagine if Kermit got really into race science), while Žižek reminds some of a "raccoon who lived in a dumpster behind a university's library who was transformed into a human by a witch" (and thanks to his film career, you can watch him drown in Titanic).
can’t wait for the peterson zizek debate https://t.co/YomHkqIUJ2— charels (@charels)1555682816.0
Zizek is way more interesting than Peterson. Peterson is a run of the mill huckster using his degree in a semi-rela… https://t.co/I8KDM3x28I— Chad ''Yogymbo'' Vigorous (@Chad ''Yogymbo'' Vigorous)1519944021.0
Im gonna flash my tits at the Peterson Zizek debate— dasha (@dasha)1551456250.0
Accordingly, the sold-out debate was nothing more than a spectacle of the two men performing their bits as eccentric academics—a particular celebrity niche (or "archetype," as Peterson might say) created by today's Intellectual Dark Web. The event was heavily promoted online, with ticket prices soaring as high as $1,500 thanks to sycophantic fans and over-hyped advertising through the event's website, Peterson's own YouTube channel, and a deluge of critical think-pieces lamenting the state of academia, public debate, and media itself. That's not to mention the buzz on Reddit and Twitter, ranging from laudations to ridicule.
At one point in the debate, Peterson even turned to Žižek and said, "You're a character. It's a sign of originality. It's a sign of moral courage." It was one of the man's many masturbatory comments, which included ranking himself and Žižek among the greatest "rebel" minds in Western critical theory.
So what was the point? Initially, Peterson took to Twitter to call out Žižek for an excoriating article he wrote for The Independent, in which he panned Peterson's inflated reputation as pseudo-intellectual nonsense: "His crazy conspiracy theory about LGBT+ rights and #MeToo as the final offshoots of the Marxist project to destroy the West is, of course, ridiculous." The final product was, at best, a pair of dull, oral book reports wherein they regurgitated their most tired points. At worst, it was the death of civil discourse—in that it repelled critical engagement through Peterson's condescending circumlocution and Žižek's frenetic jumps from point to point.
With all due respect, Mr. Zizek, you really phoned this one in.... https://t.co/tAjgsF2x56— Dr Jordan B Peterson (@Dr Jordan B Peterson)1518558865.0
Any time, any place, Mr. Zizek: https://t.co/1PFrFNlQl3 https://t.co/KpktZ3qkOc— Dr Jordan B Peterson (@Dr Jordan B Peterson)1545096363.0
But what did we, as a society, do to deserve this?
To begin with, modern media killed the art of nuanced argumentation a long time ago. Sure, there was a time when debate was an art form—more than that, even, it was a public service. But the days of Aristotle's rhetoric, along with the belief in spirited, two-sided debate, was doomed by the advent of visual media, which quickly dominated our attention spans and dulled our appreciation of nuance. In the oft-cited example of the first televised presidential debates on September 26, 1960, Richard Nixon and John F. Kennedy faced off in front of 70 million viewers. The next evening, The New York Times reviewed, "For the most part, the exchanges were distinguished by a suavity, earnestness and courtesy that suggested that the two men were more concerned about 'image projection' to their huge television audience than about scoring debating points." Still, the young, good-looking, and telegenic Kennedy was overwhelmingly considered the winner; he took office the following January. In contrast, Nixon was pale, sweaty, and recovering from recent illness (in addition to being over a decade older than Kennedy), but in retrospect he's largely regarded as having more substantive and thoughtful answers. Too bad he was ugly; America had to wait an extra eight years for Watergate.
In a similar debacle, anyone viewing the Peterson/Žižek debate inevitably tuned out Peterson's reedy voice and Žižek's slobbery jokes to take notice of the psychologist's tailored suit and the critic's disheveled polo. While Žižek attempted to give short dissertations on his every insight into happiness, Marxism, and capitalism, Peterson extended the same three points into litanies of statistics and mispronounced attacks on "absurd" and "bloody" "foolish" ideas like class struggle, inequality, and climate change. There were no winners in this "dark human low point" in public discourse.
Slavoj Žižek, one of the most popular personalities of the academic left debates Jordan Peterson, one the most popu… https://t.co/8EybY5cplK— Claire Lehmann (@Claire Lehmann)1555733087.0
Another reason we treat the act of debate as spectacle and performance is our irony-saturated culture, whose premiums on satire and cynicism preclude genuine, productive, and collaborative discussion. Writer and critic Hilton Als notes, "The majority of us are not whole individuals, because there is no such thing as a whole society." Today's most prominent minds are ranting talking heads on Fox News and cynical cultural critics spinning irony into a new form of sincerity. Public sentiment is driven by outrage and bad faith arguments. Even Congressional committee meetings are akin to daytime television: Nancy Pelosi is like the Democrats' version of Supernanny, while Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez is a young, irate Judge Judy trying to arbitrate GOP idiocy. How could argument be a public good—a test of one's principles and thoughtful civil engagement—when you can just @ someone on Twitter?
But it's not all our fault. In a time when feeling alienated is such a universal experience, even language breaks down; now, we're making up words as we go, from "post-humanism" and "irony poisoning" to "subtweet." The very foundation of language primes us to play dirty. In 1980, American philosopher George Lakoff and linguist Mark Johnson upended the notion that linguists have nothing interesting to say when they published Metaphors We Live By. Its opening premise is that we, as a society, are predisposed to conflate disagreements with aggression: "Many of the things we do in arguing are partially structured by the concept of war...We see the person we are arguing with as an opponent. We attack his positions and we defend our own. We gain and lose ground. We plan and use strategies. If we find a position indefensible, we can abandon it and take a new line of attack."
Currently, with our country at its most politically divided since the Civil War, Lakoff comes off as an observer of the obvious. He penned, "The ARGUMENT IS WAR metaphor is one that we live by in this culture; it structures the actions we perform in arguing. Try to imagine a culture where arguments are not viewed in terms of war, where no one wins or loses, where there is no sense of attacking or defending, gaining or losing ground. Imagine a culture where an argument is viewed as a dance, the participants are seen as performers, and the goal is to perform in a balanced and aesthetically pleasing way." Of course we can't; we've seen too many presidential debates and Trumpian Twitter feuds.
NEITHER Peterson or Zizek's intellectual forebearsModern Met
But a culture that thrives on making mockeries of itself is without substance—without a future. By going through the motions of exchanging ideas with these facsimiles of public debate, we stifle ourselves and the hope of social progress. The revered and bloated French Marxist, Guy Debord, wrote in The Society of the Spectacle that deeply divided societies suffer the loss of their common language and their ability to communicate. He argues that the "self-destruction of society's former common language is opposed by its artificial reconstruction within the commodity spectacle, the illusory representation of nonlife." In effect, imagine a world where there are more imitations of ideas than genuine ideas—sounds like being irony poisoned by Twitter.
Of course, that's not to say the jokes aren't good, with descriptions of the Peterson/Žižek debate capturing the "dueling smells [of] Žižek's bread crusts forgotten in his pockets battling with Peterson's 100% meat sweats." But the instant gratification, the blood thirst for a fight, and the spectacle of outrage isn't worth the devolution of society's thought processes. The recycled jokes, pop psychology, and telegenics at play in Toronto's Sony Centre created what Žižek would call the ultimate postmodern debate: it was an injection of pure antagonism into modern life. With no purpose other than disruption and discontent, it was a performance of online celebrity and turning thought into a commodity. It was painful, but perfectly representative of our time.
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Breaking down the bias of comfort films.
With the constant onslaught of complicated news that 2020 has brought, sometimes you just want to be able to shut off your brain, relax, and feel happy.
Enter comfort films. These are the feel-good movies that feel like a warm hug when you finish them, the ones that allow you to escape for a short while. We often turn to these types of films in times of trouble or extreme stress, and when we're not sure what films of this nature we should watch, we turn to the Internet for options.
Rivera's "Glee" character was not just important, she was groundbreaking.
As a young queer girl growing up in the south, I was lucky that my parents weren't homophobes.
My parents believed that people were sometimes born gay, and while they wouldn't "wish that harder life" on their children, they certainly made me and my sister believe that gay people were just as worthy of love as anyone else. I was lucky.
Still, in my relatively sheltered world of Northern Virginia (a rich suburb near Washington D.C.), homophobia wasn't as blatant as hate crimes or shouted slurs, but it was generally accepted that being straight was, simply, better.
In high school, it wasn't uncommon to use "gay" as an insult or for girls to tease each other about being "lez." While many of us, if asked, would have said we were in support of gay marriage and loved The Ellen Show, being gay remained an undesirable affliction.
Even more insidious, I was instilled with the belief—by my church and my peers—that if gay and lesbian people could be straight, they would. But since they were simply incapable of attraction to the opposite sex or fitting into traditional gender roles, we should accept them as they are as an act of mercy. At the time, this kind of pity seemed progressive and noble. Those in my close circle of family and friends weren't openly dismissive or condemning of gay people, but we saw homosexuality as a clear predisposition with no gray areas.
Specifically: Gay men talked with a lilt, giggled femininely, and were interested in things that weren't traditionally "masculine." Meanwhile, gay women dressed like men, had no interest in makeup or other traditionally female interests, and probably had masculine bodies and features. In my mind, before someone came out as gay, they did everything in their power to "try to be straight" but were eventually forced to confront the difficult reality that they felt no attraction at all to the opposite sex. I viewed homosexuality not as a spectrum, but as a black and white biological predisposition that meant you were thoroughly, completely, and pitiably gay.
As a child, when I began to experience stirrings of attraction for other girls, I would reassure myself that not only had I definitely felt attraction for men in the past, but I also liked being pretty. I was a tomboy as a child, sure, but as I got older I recognized that my value was increased in the eyes of society if I tried to be a pretty girl. As it turned out, I even liked putting on clothes that made me feel good, I liked applying makeup, and I liked some traditionally "feminine" things. In my mind, this meant that I couldn't be gay, because gay women didn't like "girl" stuff.
As a teenager, I began to learn more about the difference between gender and sexuality, and the fluidity of both. I began to let myself feel some of the long-suppressed feelings of queer desire I still harbored.
Still, in the back of my mind, the instilled certainty of sexuality as an extremely rigid thing sometimes kept me up at night. What if I was gay? Would I have to change the way I looked? Would I have to give up some of the things I liked? In my mind, being gay meant your sexuality was your whole identity, and everything else about you disappeared beneath the weight of it.
But then, Santana came out as gay on Glee.
GLEE - The Santana 'Coming Out Scene' www.youtube.com
If you didn't watch Glee, than you might not know the importance of Naya Rivera's character to so many queer young women like myself. Santana was beautiful, she was popular, she had dated boys, she was feminine, she was sexy, and she was gay. There's even evidence that Santana had previously enjoyed relationships with men.
But the character came out anyways, not because she had to or because it was obvious to everyone around her that she was gay, but because her attraction to women was an aspect of her identity she was proud of. It wasn't an unfortunate reality she simply had to make the best of; it was an exciting, beautiful, aspect of her identity worth celebrating.
Before Santana, it had never really come home for me that being gay wasn't an entire identity—that it wasn't an affliction or disorder, but just another part of a person. She also didn't suddenly start wearing flannels or cutting her hair after coming out. She was the same feminine person she had always been. I had never realized that being a gay woman didn't have to look a certain way. Santana and Brittany's gay storyline showed two femme-presenting women in love, and for me, that was a revolution.
If it wasn't for Naya Rivera, we may never have had that important story line.
"It's up to writers, but I would love to represent [the LGBTQ community] because we know that there are tons of people who experience something like that and it's not comical for them in their lives," Rivera told E! News in 2011. "So I hope that maybe we can shed some light on that."
While Rivera herself wasn't gay (the importance of casting gay actors in gay roles is a separate conversation), she understood how important her character was to the queer community. "There are very few ethnic LGBT characters on television, so I am honored to represent them," Rivera told Latina magazine in 2013. "I love supporting this cause, but it's a big responsibility, and sometimes it's a lot of pressure on me."
Rivera wasn't just a supporter of the LGBTQ+ community on screen. In 2017, she wrote a "Love Letter to the LGBTQ Community" for Billboard's Pride Month. In it, she wrote, "We are all put on this earth to be a service to others and I am grateful that for some, my Cheerios ponytail and sassy sashays may have given a little light to someone somewhere, who may have needed it. To everyone whose heartfelt stories I have heard, or read I thank you for truly enriching my life."
Now, as we mourn the loss of Naya Rivera, at least we can take comfort in knowing that her legacy will live on—that the light her Cheerios ponytail and sassy sashays gave us won't go out any time soon.
Excuse me, I have to go weep-sing-along to Rivera's cover of landslide now.
Glee - Landslide (Full Performance + Scene) 2x15 youtu.be
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