Mesmerized at the Surface

I’ve spent more time than I should have thinking about Justin Timberlake’s attempted rebrand with his latest album. The title track video, “Man of the Woods,” deserves its own attention for its bougie, bland white masculinity. I’m most interested in the supposed social commentary in the video for “Supplies.” It reveals a lot about our current state of entertainment as activism.

“Supplies” is clearly grasping at something about feminism and the possibilities of a better future. But the actual moral implications and supplies metaphors are sadly the same old regressive bullshit. Showing a clip of Harvey Weinstein or Kevin Spacey or an “End Racism Now” poster doesn’t really mean anything simply presented without comment. It says little to nothing about where Timberlake stands on all of it. Wow, you saw this stuff on TV and felt sad? Damn, I guess the patriarchy is over now.

When you watch and listen carefully, “Supplies” is mostly just a lot of Timberlake’s usual entendre and objectification—wrapped up in some Blade Runner and Matrix production design to borrow that hope-in-dystopia vibe. The only real agency the heroine has is punching someone and setting fire to a mysterious shrine. The rest of the time she’s Timberlake’s post-apocalypse booty call.

Because those emotionally charged clips are thrown in—and a small child at the end tells someone (who?) to just die already—it certainly feels like the video is portraying something meaningful. It’s sort of edgy or progressive or a laudable artistic entry for feminism or racial equality (or something). Many sites and fans said as much without specifying how it is, exactly. It really isn’t once you go deeper.

Is “Supplies” the most sexist thing of all time? No. Is the beat good? Sure. Can lazily injecting current events into a piece of pop culture start conversations? Possibly. But we’ve got to stop being deluded into thinking that vague emotional appeals are anywhere close to the actual, material engagement that’s needed to transform the ways people’s lives are being destroyed. I guess Timberlake felt like he needed to say something. What came out is ambiguous attention-seeking. Perhaps he should have taken his own advice and said nothing at all.

In the excellent book Infinite Distractions, Dominic Pettman writes that we are no longer distracted away from social turmoil. Instead,

The decoy itself—the thing designed to distract—has merged with the distraction imperative, so that, for instance, news coverage of race riots now distracts from the potential reality and repercussions of race riots. This is a more sophisticated form of propaganda than those engineered in the twentieth century, when the conscious decision would be made to distract from civil rights protests by screening the Miss America Pageant. This new form of distraction—which acknowledges as much as it disavows—is harder to mobilize against, for the simple reason that no one can accuse “the media” of trying to cover up “the truth.” Rather, incessant and deliberately framed representations of events are themselves used to obscure and muffle those very same events.

Acknowledges as much as it disavows. Whether on purpose or accidental, you can purport to be shining a light in the dark while actually obscuring and distracting. Uncomfortable truths are uncomfortable, so it’s a lot easier to point to them in art or news or social media without getting too deep into the details. Hard truths and real moral progress give way to surface-level commotion that only generates likes, views, and emotional gratification.

If we’re actually going to speak truth to power and make inroads for the common good, we have to move away from shallow, Instagram-ready resistance that merely distracts. Art, news segments, protests, tweets, and conversations need to bring the uncomfortable specifics of what’s going on and what needs to be different into focus. This pay discrimination. That thing everyone says or wears that’s actually super racist. This healthcare policy that will give everyone some existential peace. That trope in art and advertisements that just reinforces misogyny. This march that actually excluded and suppressed people who should have had a prominent voice in it. That person in power who’s actually a terrible human being with zero repercussions.

Some sacred cows need to be smashed. Some people who are off to a good start need to be encouraged to go deeper and wider. Others need to realize things are not magically going to be better and we can all relax at brunch just by electing a certain person. Some hot new songs and celebrated movies and heartfelt speeches need to be called out for regurgitating regressive ethics or sounding nice without sticking their neck out.

Even with great intentions, too often we’re getting caught up in news and entertainment and social media content that acknowledge as much as they disavow. We have to dig into the uncomfortable realities around us and stop being mesmerized at the surface.

Boundaries and Spaces

Some of the things you can’t control…

How long you have to wait at the DMV. The weather. Where Earth is in the universe. If your favorite team wins the championship this year. Sunday night is the end of the weekend. Getting laid off. Who your parents and siblings are. Heartache is painful. Some drunks decide to drive. Humans can’t spread their arms and fly. Meritocracy is mostly a fiction. People need oxygen, water, and food (and many other things) to survive. You have to actually do the chores for things to be clean. Time travel is probably impossible. Others misunderstand and judge you. The typical lifespan is 71 years.

These are the boundaries of life. The things that are out of your hands and constrain who you are and what you can do. You might wish things were different. Or that you could have superpowers to overcome limits. But there’s little, if anything, you can do to change and control these things.

Some of the things you can control…

What food you eat. Who you ask out on a date. Where and when you take vacations. How you exercise. What time you go to sleep. How much of your income you save. If you play it safe or take a risk. Your outlook for the future. The city you make your home. Being better informed. Caring about what other people think of you. Your attachment to your phone. Learning new things. How you treat strangers and vulnerable human beings. The time you spend with the people you love.

These are the spaces. The undetermined, pliable things you can largely build and shape as you want. To do like this or like that. To prioritize or ignore. To do the same way for a while, or evaluate and change as you go.

A lot of being able to live well comes down to understanding the things you can’t control and the things you can. The things that guide and limit our path, and the things that we can do the way we want.

We don’t have superpowers. We’re not powerless. We are people. We are both limited and full of potential. Understand, explore, try. Know what shapes you and what you can shape.

Find your place in the boundaries and spaces.

Truth is Hard for Humans

If you’ve heard anything about “fake news” lately, you’ll know that in many ways truth has taken a backseat to other forces. Oxford Dictionaries declared post-truth–“relating to or denoting circumstances in which objective facts are less influential in shaping public opinion than appeals to emotion and personal belief”their word of the year. And with good reason. The maelstrom of partisan politics, clickbait, underfunded investigative journalism, misinformation, outright propaganda, and other obstructions has left many of us wondering where we can find something approximating what’s real and how we’ll know that it does.

It doesn’t matter what politicians and political ideology you affiliate with, your favorite sites and social media personalities, or what you wish was true. We should all see actual truth as a worthy pursuit. Even–and perhaps especially–if it challenges your beliefs and feelings. Living out of ignorance, incomplete or incorrect information, or deception doesn’t do any of us any good. What’s real is real whether we accept it or not. And often it’s extremely important that we understand what’s real as best as possible. Manmade climate change, for example, may lead to an inhospitable planet whether we know about it and acknowledge it or don’t.

The problem, though, is that every person, community, and organization is going to get at least some things wrong some of the time. Even in the most humble, unadulterated pursuit of the truth, no one has a God’s-eye view. No one sees the world with perfect clarity and absolute comprehensiveness. Your favorite, powerhouse news source is going to get it wrong at times. Your go-to social media know-it-all is going to post some significantly misinformed things. A bunch of likes, retweets, and shares doesn’t make it more plausible.

Any attempts at understanding what’s real, no matter how pure, are done so as human beings. As fallible, finite creatures. Sometimes our eyes, ears, and other senses let us down. Did I really see what I think I did? And even when they don’t, there’s only so far they can reach and so much they can process. I can only give a firsthand account of a space of maybe a block or two from wherever I am right now. Same for you. Same for every other person on the planet. If I’m here and I want to know what’s going on over there, I’m dependent on some kind of eyewitness–recollection, photo, video–because I’m not there experiencing it for myself and reflecting on my own perceptions of it. Each of us is fixed in a certain place and time. We each have a particular point of view.

This means that most things in the world are mediated and interpreted. Mediated because you experience the real world through either your own limited human faculties of sense and reason or the articulation of someone else’s (via a Facebook post, a cable news report, or a conversation, for example). We don’t have a direct connection to reality. Interpreted because mediation always has a point of view. A live news camera is pointed at some action and not another. The president at the podium giving a speech, not the random guy on the phone in the corner. And why did they choose to send someone out to the speech and not some other event?

Each of us is constantly sifting through an inordinate and overwhelming amount of information to try to fully perceive the world before us. When, though, someone has sifted in a Facebook post or a news report or a friendly conversation, they’ve chosen what’s included and what’s left out. They’re interpreting what details before them seem factual, important, and connected. What things together constitute an accurate account–the truth–of an event, research study, institution, etc. What’s included and why, or what’s left out and why have to be carefully scrutinized.

Truth, as it turns out, is fundamentally a matter of story and storytelling. Truth is a weaving together of perceptions, observations, and supposed insights into a bigger sort of framework or pattern. Into a story. “A set of facts in context,” as some have said. Stories are how we make sense of things. They are the means and the form we use for talking about what goes on in the world. Journalists, historians, scientists, and others tell stories in various kinds of media to try to inform the public. Friends, relatives, and strangers pass them around and comment.

The thing is, just like some fictional stories are better than others, some stories meant to encompass the world as it is are much better than others. Some are closer to reality. Some–deliberately or accidentally–are far from it. We get truth by comparing stories against each other and seeing which one seems to best fit the real world. In our limited humanness, that’s as close as we’re going to get to something objective.

So how can we tell one story is better than another, or that a certain story has the best fit? We’ll have to save that for next time. The truth is hard for humans. It’s going to take more than one post to figure this out.

 

Humans and Nature: Safety Not Guaranteed

Marathon runner attacked by bear. Colorado woman rescues son from jaws of mountain lion. Alligator drowns child at Disney World.

These are just the most notable animal-human encounter headlines from the last few weeks. Google “hiker dies,” and you’ll find several more stories from recent days of people who tragically lost their lives in wild terrain.

Each of these stories is surprising and dismaying–difficult to comprehend. Things seem to be going just fine, and then suddenly nature strikes and someone’s life is in the balance. Social media and mainstream news bring these encounters front-and-center, and we collectively wonder how such a thing is possible in modern society.

Disney should have been patrolling the local waterways, relocating dangerous wildlife, monitoring children at the shore, and putting up signs everywhere warning guests about natural threats.

Lost in nearly all of the conversation about that particular incident is the fact that Disney has built a massive resort in the midst of a complex ecosystem that’s been present and evolving for countless years before humans artificially built their vacation village on top. Is it reasonable to think that with over a million alligators in Florida any human planning is going to be able to ensure a gator won’t be in a given area? When a business has already put up signage saying not to enter the water at the boundary of the resort, should they further have to explain that it’s because a predatory native species everyone should know about may be lurking there in the habitat it’s reigned in long before humans showed up?

Much of the world is now an artificial expanse of human civilization that blankets the existing wild environment. No one expects in suburban Colorado to find a mountain lion in their yard. No one expects to come across a bear and cub while running a marathon. No one expects a child wading into the resort lagoon to be pulled underwater by a gator.

No one expects these things because we believe that our modern society is one of total human domination, ingenuity, and control. We are the top predator, the hunter, the inventor, the architect. Wild predators and wild terrain are dangerous nuisances that should already be engineered out of our experience of the world.

There’s no question we are a dominant, controlling species today. We now alter the climate of the whole planet. We’ve caused many of the Earth’s animals to go extinct or become severely underpopulated. We explore high and low (and leave our mark with trash)–in the near space of our solar system and in the deepest depths of the ocean. No other animal on the planet has done or is doing this.

At the same time, things were not always this way for us. Before they went extinct, there were a number of animals that we were prey to–giant hyenas, cave bears and cave lions, snakes, saber-toothed cats, and others. We were not always at the top of everything, and no matter what we want to believe, we’re still not in control of everything. There remain predators and wild environmental features that can threaten, wound, and kill us.

So, yes, it is absolutely shocking and saddening when someone is severely hurt or even killed by the tooth and claw of nature. My heart breaks for anyone who’s lost a loved one to a violent storm, jagged terrain, or a deadly creature.

But the reason these stories are breaking news is the veil of civilization makes them less common and existential than they were for hundreds of thousands of years. Our faith in utter domination and control may one day be an all-encompassing reality as we continue to alter the planet: no more animal attacks, threatening storms, or fatal terrain. But for now, our existence is one of fragility and unpredictability. Our reality is that safety is not guaranteed. We are always wrestling with the elements and need to be vigilant–whether it’s at a resort or deep in the woods.

 

How to Adult: Staying Informed

With the amount of time we’re all spending online, you’d think it would be basically inevitable that we’re well-informed about what’s going on in the world. Constant connection, theoretically, should lead to awareness.

And that’s true some of the time. Major events kind of pop up everywhere. The horrific terrorist attacks in Paris in November, for example, appeared on everything from entertainment shows like Extra to The Economist to friends’ grieving Facebook posts. There was reflection and mourning across nearly every platform.

But most current events do not have such a sudden impact across the world. They burn slower or smaller, and require deliberate attention to notice them and follow their progression.

Can you name all of the presidential candidates still running? Could you quickly summarize the situation in Syria and the migration crisis to a friend? Do you know what the Zika virus is and who it’s affecting? Can you articulate how climate change is disproportionately impacting poor people? If you nailed all of these, give yourself a pat on the back.

For the rest of us, it’s not entirely obvious what’s happening in the world and how to stay in-the-know.

Traditional news media–like the nightly news on television or an editorial in a newspaper–do not have the audiences they once commanded. When is the last time you watched or read one of these?

Even a news pillar like the New York Timeswhich has a successful digital version to go with its long-running print newspaper, seems to be an afterthought to media providers geared for more pop culture-savvy viewers: BuzzFeed, Mashableand others.

That’s not necessarily a bad thing. There are days when we would rather think about how delicious guacamole onion rings must be, or how adorable baby polar bears are, than the weightier things going on.

And with the surplus of content and creators, there are voices, perspectives, and issues at the forefront that never have before. This is awesome.

The potential to become more aware has absolutely been unlocked by our connectivity. But we have to actually do a little work to get there. Food porn and cute animals can crowd out the more profound stuff.

So how can you stay well-informed? Here are a few suggestions:

(1) Find some hard news sources that don’t bore you to death. You don’t have to watch C-SPAN unless you want to watch C-SPAN. But Facebook and Twitter can’t be anyone’s only entry point to current events.

A few that I follow regularly are NBC News (nationally and in the Los Angeles area), The Guardian, and NPR. You might also consider following a source like The Associated Press on Twitter for significant breaking stories. Make sure you’re getting a good balance of things happening locally in your own city and country, and world news much farther away.

(2) Cultivate a breadth of commentary about current events. You’re looking for sources that go beyond outlining the basic facts (that’s what the things in (1) are for), to discuss their context and meaning. Don’t just gravitate to voices you agree with. Find ones that challenge or even contradict your worldview and beliefs. Choices for these are nearly endless. Some that I look at regularly are: The Atlantic, The Daily Beast, Gawker and Gizmodo, Arts & Letters Daily, and SlateYou’ll find your go-tos in no time.

3. Go Deeper than Perceptions with current events. Question easy narratives and simple labels to see if there’s more going on below the surface. Maybe there is, maybe there isn’t. Don’t be a conspiracy theorist. But oftentimes there’s more to the story than what’s being presented to you. After journalists and content creators have done their work, this is your chance to reflect on what you took away from what happened and how that fits into the context of the world as you understand it.

4. When you’ve digested it all yourself, talk about it with other people. Conversation is the way to shared awareness and understanding. When you bring it up, it might be the first time someone else has heard about it. Or they may have a completely different perspective than you that you should patiently listen to and consider. We’re all in this together, and we should all be talking about what’s happening around us and what we’re going to do about it.

Do these seem like things you can do on a regular basis? Do you already do them? Are there other habits you think are important for staying informed week-to-week?

An essential part of finding your way as an adult is knowing what’s going on in the broader society around you. You start to figure out how you fit into our complexly interconnected world, what people and forces are shaping that world today, and what you can do to make a difference. Staying informed is necessary. The world would be a more interesting and better place if we all knew a little more about what’s happening in it. And now you know some good places to start.