An Open Letter to People Who Hate Me Because I’m Fat

NoFatThis past weekend, I discovered that an animated .gif of me had been posted to a subreddit on Reddit called /r/fatpeoplehate. I proceeded to read the comments on said post, which I probably shouldn’t have done, but oh well. Here we are.

The .gif–in which I, an overweight man, attempt to look sexy for the camera and fall in the shower as a result–is one that I myself purposefully created and posted to Reddit two years ago. So suffice it to say that it’s not any kind of invasion of privacy that concerns me. I’m an actor, an entertainer, and overall a pretty open guy. I’ve even shared actual, unironic nudes over the internet before–so sue me. The point is, I unscrewed my shower curtain rod and struck that overly confident pose and filmed myself falling in that shower nine or ten times before getting it juuust right precisely because I wanted people to see it. I wanted to entertain people. I wanted to make them laugh.

Part of my original intention–with the shower .gif as well as several others that I made (not nudes by the way, but potentially NSFW)–was to send up some “gone wild” tropes that crop up on the internet. Specifically, I was interested in the subreddit where I posted them, /r/ladybonersgw, which features self-posted photos of often very conventionally attractive men (i.e, the ladyboners in question) in various stages of undress. The guys in these photos typically exude confidence and sensuality, their captions casually mentioning the work-out session that they’re either about to start or have just completed, as well as various parts of their body that they might or might not be genuinely insecure about (but come on, probably aren’t).

Bear in mind that my intention was never to ridicule folks who are health- and fitness-conscious. As a man who dates men on occasion, I have a deep appreciation for fit guys. I happen to find fit guys pretty darned attractive. That’s why I frequented /r/ladybonersgw in the first place. All I wanted in creating my .gifs was simply to subvert some of the expectations of the subreddit to (hopefully) humorous effect. And most of the responses that I got indicated that I’d succeeded in doing that–so much so that, to this day, my falling-in-shower .gif is still the number one upvoted submission on /r/ladybonersgw of all time*. (Not bragging, just giving context.) (Okay, I might be bragging a little.)

*(Admittedly only because the one submission above mine, a picture of a guy who looked like a mixture of Jake Gyllenhaal and Ryan Gosling, was later deleted.)

All of that to say that I really thought it was self-evident from the .gif that, yes, I know I’m fat, and no, I don’t think I’m conventionally attractive, I’m just having fun with the classic fat-guy-falling trope because life is funny and our bodies can be too so let’s just laugh about it all together, ha ha ha, right?

Well it turns out that, for some people (namely the subscribers of /r/fatpeoplehate in this case), being fat is no laughing matter. In fact, for some people, my being fat isn’t just something that makes me unattractive to them (which by itself I could totally understand). Beyond that, for some people, my being fat is something that makes me less than human, a waste of space that should just kill itself, and–ultimately–deserving of their complete and unapologetic hatred.

Just to give a taste, these people had the following to say about my falling-in-shower .gif:

His tits are bigger than my fiance’s tits… That’s fucking disgusting

I don’t understand. Does he think he is good looking or funny?

The sad thing is, this is the top upvoted post OF ALL TIME in ladybonersgw.

The best thing is it’s up voted so much because it’s funny that he’s fat and not attractive

I mean do we really need a towel? I’m sure his fat covers his tiny** dick.

This ham is in dire need of a roundhouse kick to the face for thinking anyone would want to see this shit.

At that point i would just turn the water on and drown myself.

ewwwwwwww … just … ewwwwwwwwwwwwww

What pisses me off is that this is at the top of LBGW. No one thinks you’re attractive, we’re just laughing at your fat fuck self falling and taking the rod down with you. Doesn’t he realize that people are laughing at him, not with him? He has more and it’s disgusting.

**This part’s true, though I prefer the word “subtle.”

The below letter is my response.


Dear People Who Hate Me Because I’m Fat,

First of all, I get it. I do. You’ve got your reasons for hating fat people, and in a certain light, they make a certain kind of sense. I can admit that.

For beginners, I can only imagine what it’s like to be a thin person trying to get around in a world full of people who are much larger than you. We larger people take up more space, are usually slower walkers, might have trouble getting in and out of movie and airplane seats and other narrow spaces, and typically sweat more due to the extra weight we’re carrying around, which for some of us might result in an inadvertent and unpleasant body odor at times. I’ll be the first to admit that these realities can sometimes result in us larger people coming across as gross, lumbering, self-indulgent animals. In fact, I can imagine you feeling about fat people the same way I feel about many of the careless, immature undergraduates where I work: “Hoooly fuck, fuck fuck fuck, you’re the worst, stop talking, stop being this way, stop being what you are, please change now or go away because you’re driving me insane and making the world a worse place to live in, ughhh.” And I can only imagine how much angrier I’d be if those undergraduates literally physically intruded into my world, taking up two or three or even four times the amount of space I do and just plain being in my way all the time. I imagine my claustrophobic resentment would only get worse if that were the case. So, I understand.

And then there’s the fact that many of us larger people–not all of us, but many of us–are large because of things that, for the most part, we control. We eat more when we could eat less. We eat unhealthily when we could be more nutritious. We lead a more sedentary lifestyle when, with the right amount of willpower, we could be more physically active. So I understand why you’re offended by us. You value moderation in consumption. And you put a lot of effort into maintaining a healthy body because you value good health and want to lead as long and happy a life as possible. And when you see us larger people eating burgers more often than you, and walking more slowly than you, and having trouble fitting into spaces that are perfectly easy for you to fit into, it must almost feel like a slap in the face. Like we’re disrespecting you. Like you’re actually playing by the rules, you’re being good stewards of your bodies and mindful of what you consume, while we larger people just don’t give a shit, going around and breaking the rules and consuming whatever we want with abandon and expecting the world to accommodate us no matter what.

And then you get the Fat Acceptance Movement, which, in light of the above, must seem absurd. You must be thinking, why do these people who are eating without discipline and letting their bodies get out of control and overall just leading really unhealthy lifestyles feel like all of that’s worth celebrating and being proud of? Why are they not ashamed? What the fuck?

So in a way it’s only natural that you feel like it’s your duty to call fat people out. To mock them, to ridicule them, to make them aware of how ridiculous they are so that they realize the importance of losing weight and start making healthy changes to their lifestyle.

All of that to say: I understand why you hate fat people. I understand why you hate me. Or at least I think I do. Maybe there’s more to it than I laid out above, and if there is, the omission wasn’t purposeful on my part and I apologize for it. But I’ve really and honestly tried to put myself in your shoes here, to empathize without judgment, and I do think I understand at least partly where you’re coming from.

Now, I don’t necessarily identify as a member of the Fat Acceptance Movement, and I’m not here to repeat that movement’s arguments. I’ve never really written formally about fatness or gone out of my way to read the various blogs and editorials about Fat Acceptance. It’s just not an issue that I’ve felt the need to be actively involved in, per se. (And that’s almost definitely because, as a man, it’s easier for me to get away with being overweight in this society than it is for a woman. Large women are far more stigmatized than large men, which is bullshit, but that’s another thing entirely.) (I’m also ashamed that it took personal attacks on my weight for me to care enough to write about this issue. I’m sorry for that.)

I am, however, a big proponent of body positivity. Because I think one of the most important things for being happy and motivated is simply feeling comfortable in your own body, even if your ultimate goal is to change it. Of course, I’m sure there are some people who have lost weight motivated solely by self-loathing generated by not being comfortable in their own skin. But my sense is that that’s the exception rather than the rule. I’d venture to say that, for most people, self-loathing is destructive rather than constructive. It feeds back into the very behaviors that make them loathe themselves to begin with. A vicious cycle.

So I can appreciate those of you who think you’re doing society a favor by openly hating fat people–but, just speaking practically, if your goal really is to motivate fat people to lose weight, making them feel shittier about themselves than they already do isn’t going to work. It might happen to motivate 1 in 10 fat people to say, “Shit, I don’t want people to hate me anymore, especially myself, so I’m going to lose weight.” But that’s still 9 out of 10 fat people left over who you’ve just made feel really, really terrible and completely unmotivated because of all the negativity swirling around inside of them–negativity that you’ve gone out of your way to add to. So if your goal really is to help people be healthier in the long run, you might want to try building them up rather than tearing them down. That doesn’t mean condoning what you view as unhealthy behavior or pretending that obesity isn’t a legitimate health issue. It just means operating from an orientation of love and understanding rather than outright hate.

And I get that you think society is too accepting of fat people. Otherwise, why would there be so many of us? Makes sense. But here’s the thing: just because obesity is statistically prevalent in the United States, doesn’t mean that some very powerful and pervasive cultural messages aren’t telling obese people every day of their lives that they’re ugly and worthless and human garbage. And if being exposed to those already hateful messages every day hasn’t been enough to motivate us, what makes you think that you hating us is going to help in the slightest? Like I said above, it just isn’t.

Of course, I’m not so naive as to think that everybody who hates fat people does so out of tough love. I’m sure there are plenty of you who just plain think we’re disgusting and couldn’t care less about helping us be healthier, you just really, truthfully, totally want us to die.

Fair enough.

I guess all I can do in light of all that is extend an invitation. A genuine, heartfelt invitation.

I invite you, Fat People Haters (and anyone who hates any group of people so cavalierly), to consider deeply the fact that underneath all our differences–differences in appearance, in ethnicity, in lifestyle, in sexual behavior, in worldview–we are all, every single one of us, human beings. We all have thoughts and feelings. We all hope and, at times, despair. We all have dynamic inner lives that are heavier than any amount of weight we could carry on the outside, burgeoning interiorities that swell up at the experiences of loving and being loved, and either curl inward or lash out when on the receiving end of hate. That morbidly obese woman you see breathing heavily while she walks down the street isn’t just some animal for you to scorn. That overweight man trying to squeeze past you in the movie theater seat row isn’t just some large, annoying object making you feel uncomfortable and restricted. They’re real human beings with entire lives behind and within and in front of them. They have memories, regrets, aspirations. They could even be the kindest or funniest or most generous people you’ll never meet. So why do they deserve your hate? Just because they look different, have a different body than you? Just because, for some reason or another (probably more than one), they happen to be bigger than you at this point in their lives?

This is getting to be a long letter, and I’m sure it’s not the best-organized piece I’ve ever written, but I’ve got other things to do so I should probably wrap it up.

I guess what I’m inviting you to do is to practice the same empathy that I’ve afforded you. Because just as you’re disgusted by us larger folks at first glance based purely on appearance and on your appraisal of our lifestyle–and just as I myself am so annoyed by college undergraduates the moment before I remember that I was once just like them–it’s really tempting for me to be disgusted by your hatefulness and negativity and let it end there. But I acknowledge that you’re strangers to me, that I don’t know you, and that I don’t know the full story behind why you feel the way you do. I don’t know anybody’s full story–nobody does.

So I’ve tried to understand where you’re coming from, and I honestly believe that most of you don’t actually want to hate anybody. You might believe certain things about what’s valuable and important in life and about what are good and bad ways to treat one’s body, and that’s great–but deep down I think you know that hating human beings with different experiences and bodies and beliefs and appearances and priorities and challenges than you isn’t good for anyone. Not for them, and not for you.

So why participate in that negativity? Why tear other people down when you can build them or up, or at the very least just ignore them? Why not appreciate the inscrutability and dynamism of other people’s inner lives before you respond to their outward appearance with hate? Why not just love?

Again, just an invitation. We’d love to have you.

Sincerely (and with love),

Adam L.

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Posted in Life, Society | Tagged , , , , , | 2 Comments

Magical Friendship Hats: Fantasy and Shared Meaning in NBC’s “Community”

ImageOkay, so, rhetoric and communication scholar Ernest Bormann proposed this method called fantasy-theme criticism for understanding how groups of people develop shared frameworks of meaning for understanding their world. He coined the term “symbolic convergence” to describe what happens when “two or more private symbolic worlds incline toward each other, come more closely together, or even overlap during certain processes of communication” (in Foss, Rhetorical Criticism, 4th ed., p. 97). NBC’s Community, consciously or not, represents what I believe to be one of the most consistent, profound, and thematically focused examples of symbolic convergence on American television today, and tonight’s episode–“Geothermal Escapism”–features only the latest (but one of the most touching) in a host of examples that can be found throughout the series.

Indeed, as Bormann explains, “If several or many people develop portions of their private symbolic worlds that overlap as a result of symbolic convergence, they share a common consciousness and have the basis for communicating with one another to create community [emphasis added]” (in Foss, p. 98).

Community is drenched in examples of shared meaning; one need not look far in order to get wet.

Image– At the end of “Cooperative Calligraphy” (the famous bottle/pen episode in season two), upon realizing how impossible it is for them to believe that one of them actually took Annie’s pen and won’t own up to it, the group decides that it makes more sense to them to believe that a ghost took it. Jeff says, “Guys, look in your hearts and answer this question honestly: what’s more likely? That someone in this group doesn’t belong in this group? Or, ghosts? If we have to choose between turning on each other, or pinning it on some specter with unfinished pen-related business, I’m sorry, but–my money’s on ‘ghost’.” In order for the study group to reconcile their understanding of and connection to one another with their understanding of the case of the missing pen, they develop a shared “fantasy”–only, for them, it’s not a fantasy. They make the decision in earnest, and even afford it a sort of fundamental ritualistic significance by having Troy come up with a story about why a ghost would steal a pen. For the study group, meaning is constructed through narrative–but narrative is only worthwhile if it binds them together rather than tears them apart.

– “Abed’s Uncontrollable Christmas” (season two’s stop-motion animated episode) offers perhaps the most explicit example of symbolic convergence–so much so that it hardly seems worth commenting on. Instead, I’ll simply quote its brilliant climactic scene for the thousandth time: “The delusion you are trying to cure is called Christmas… It’s the crazy notion that the longest, coldest, darkest nights can be the warmest and brightest. … And when we all agree to support each other in that insanity, something even crazier happens… It becomes true.”

– A darker example of the study group agreeing on a shared interpretation of the world is found in season three’s “Competitive Ecology,” in which they ultimately blame all their problems on Todd. The group is united in their scapegoating of Todd; they co-inhabit a fantasy in which Todd represents a threat, and proceed to desperately maintain that fantasy regardless of the external reality of things (i.e., that Todd is actually a perfectly nice guy and they have no reason to be mean to him).

Image– While the study group’s defense of Christmas in the stop-motion animated episode was perhaps the series’ most explicit gesture toward symbolic convergence, the Dreamatorium–which appears in a multiple-episode arc–is definitely its most literal, allowing characters to actually experience co-imagined scenarios together. At its most beneficial, the Dreamatorium allows characters to understand and empathize with one another, as in “Virtual Systems Analysis.” At its most harmful, however, it provides a way for Abed to isolate himself in his own symbolic world, apart from his friends’.

– In “Pillows and Blankets” (the Civil War documentary episode), Jeff sarcastically creates “imaginary friendship hats,” which he pretends to place on Troy and Abed in order to settle their feud. Troy and Abed, however, immediately treat Jeff’s hats as real objects with real power, removing them from their heads and tossing them aside in the Dean’s office. In that moment, a fantasy symbol is created between the three of them (albeit one that Jeff doesn’t really believe in). But later in the episode, Jeff gives away his connectedness with–indeed, his need for–the group’s shared symbols when he actually goes to retrieve the magical friendship hats from the Dean’s office in order to place them on Troy and Abed’s heads. The hats work, too, demonstrating the transformative power that symbols hold for communities, especially when they’re shared.

– Finally, in tonight’s episode, “Geothermal Escapism,” Abed attempts to keep Troy from leaving by starting a game of “The Floor is Lava.” Much like the climax of “Pillows and Blankets”–which saw the two of them engage in an hours-long pillow fight, not wanting it to end because they think it’s the last thing they’ll ever do together–“Geothermal Escapism” sees Abed using a game of imagination, of fantasy, in order to maintain his connection to his community (in this case, his connection with Troy specifically). At first, the symbolic convergence that occurs for the study group–indeed, for the entire Greendale campus–is rooted in their shared desire to win $50,000. But when Troy and Britta realize that the lava is indeed real for Abed–that the lava represents the danger he sees in a world without his best friend–instead of dismantling Abed’s symbolic world, they converge with it, joining in his fantasy, his delusion, or, perhaps more appropriately, his emotional reality, in order to communicate with him more effectively (i.e., in the terms of his symbolic world). And it is through this symbolic convergence–through a shared (and earnest) narrative about cloning–that they are able not only to resuscitate Abed, but to facilitate his emotional adaptation to a changing world as well. Ultimately, by way of their shared fantasy–their shared narrative that binds–they make it so that it’s not even Troy that’s leaving, but rather a clone of Troy. This narrative allows both Troy and Abed to accept the fact that they’ll no longer be together by allowing them to transform into literally new versions of themselves–versions that can accept the fact that, even though they’ll be apart, they’ll always be connected by their shared symbolic reality.

Anyway, I think that’s all I have in me tonight. Work in the morning and all that. I just had to post this tonight–as rough as it might be–because I’ve been meaning to write a fantasy-theme analysis of Community for quite a while, and if not after an episode as brilliant and beautiful as tonight’s, then when?

If anybody reads this and thinks of other examples of symbolic convergence in the show, large or small, please do share them. I might very well write an (even more) academic take on all this someday, and you can never have too many examples to support your argument :).

Also, if you’re interested in any of my other Community write-ups, see below:

Let’s Talk About Community
“Regional Holiday Music” Review

“Contemporary Impressionists” Review
Season Three Analysis

Posted in Life, Narrative, Reviews, Rhetoric, Television | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Angelic and Destructive: “Consuming Spirits” as a Meditation on Beauty and Decay

581699_334661929988348_1994434140_nBecause I couldn’t take notes, and because I have no way of revisiting what I want so desperately to discuss, this cannot and will not be as extensive a write-up as I would like it to be. But I just want to encourage everyone who might stumble across this post to try to see the film Consuming Spirits if they ever get the chance. It’s currently traveling around with the filmmaker, and I have no idea when or if it will be released for purchase, so if you happen to hear that it’s playing near you, make sure you see it.

I had the enormous fortune of being able to see Consuming Spirits at the Brattle in Cambridge this past Tuesday, and I loved it as much as (if not more than) I thought I would based on the trailer (which I first saw two years ago and have been waiting with baited breath to see the full film ever since).

Chris Sullivan, the writer/director, made Consuming Spirits over the course of 15 years, and when you watch it you can tell. It’s so very clearly a labor not only of love, but of deep thoughtfulness, insight, and feeling as well.

3604_290373447750530_1995993915_nDuring the Q&A afterwards, Sullivan said that he believes we all have two tendencies inside of us, two integral parts: the angelic, and the destructive. Consuming Spirits is a breath-taking exploration and manifestation of the intersection of those two ineffable human forces. And it manages to be up to the task. Its visual style allows the story to be told not only through narrative-driven scenes, but through tiny abstracted moments broken open by the surreal cascading of objects through conversations, bodies through bannisters, voices and memories through time itself. It often feels more like a poem that’s been brought to life, or a grotesque dream that’s been wrung out of the ether and molded into recognizable form. It’s kind of hard to describe–but I’ll chalk that up to the fact that I don’t have any notes.

Updates on screenings of the film are being posted to its Facebook page here, and you can check out the trailer below.

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Penises and Vaginas and Mouths and Butts are Penises and Vaginas and Mouths and Butts: A Catharsis

Whitehead-link-alternative-sexuality-symbol.svgbecause to start suspecting that you might be attracted to the same sex while being surrounded by people who believe it’s disgusting and a sin (hell, while a part of you might even still believe it’s a sin yourself) is painful painful painful.

because to realize that you definitely are attracted to the same sex but that you’re still also attracted to the opposite sex is confuckingfusing and it HURTS to be told by people on both sides that the very real space you’re inhabiting is a lie, a transition, a joke, an abomination, when all you really want is to be true to yourself and as open as humanly possible to love (is that so bad?).

because to grow up believing in god and wanting desperately to make sure you’re believing in him in the most true and accurate and adequate way possible is fucking hard, especially when you have a dumb ole’ brain that’s trying to pump its way through its own feeble grasp of limited/mistranslated/distorted information.

because it’s one of the most exhausting things you can ever experience, straining with every fucking ounce of your being night after night and year after year to wring some faith out of a dried-out rag while in the pit of you you’re starting to realize that there’s never any escaping this doubt-rag, that it will sit stuck to the kitchen window-sill of your soul for the rest of your goddamn life and there’s nothing you can do about it.

Munch, Puberty 1894because when you start to engage with your doubts in an honest and vulnerable way, nothing is certain anymore and that’s fucking scary and it hurts.

because when you’re wading through words and labels and identities, there’s more than just words, there’s ripples and difficult conversations, e.g., how do you explain to your family and friends that you’re bisexual or queer or whatever the fuck you want to call it, because wouldn’t it just be easier to say you’re gay? because at least then you can say, “I don’t have a choice, I was born this way, please just accept it,” but now what you have to say is, “technically I do have a choice, I don’t HAVE to fuck men, I could easily live the rest of my life fucking women and then I’d be A-OK in the eyes of your god, but guess what? I CHOOSE to engage in this behavior, because even if I’m not as limited to it by my genes/nature as a lot of other people are, I think it’s downright fun and you know what? something deep and genuine and divine in me loves to do it, loves to be fucked by a man, and if someday I find a man who makes me happy, who wants me to be everything I can be, who makes me actually want to live and laugh and love in fulfilling and meaningful ways, then shouldn’t I be allowed to explore his body and mind just as much as I’d explore a woman’s and shouldn’t he be allowed to fuck me? HUH?”

because knowing that people who you desperately love really truly believe you’re going to hell when you die makes you feel like your heart is deflating and falling to the bottom of your feet and oozing through the holes in your worn-out shoes and mixing with dirt and jagged stones while your head is still up there swaying back and forth in the sunlight and tears.

because navigating the world and navigating yourself are difficult fucking things that are almost always pulling you in thousands of different directions, and to feel like you might lose the people you love in the process and become a theological warning sign for them instead of a living breathing feeling human being, is a shitty shitty fear to have and makes navigating everything that much harder.

Pompeii_-_Casa_del_Fauno_-_Satyr_and_Nymph_-_MANbecause eventually you realize that you are carrying so much fear and sadness and pain around with you and if you’re going to go a single step further you’re gonna’ need to find something to do with all of it.

because humans are humans, words are words, bodies are bodies and penises and vaginas and mouths and butts are penises and vaginas and mouths and butts and if there’s somebody out there who created them then I’m sure they’re getting a kick out of all our creativity.

because the idea of a god who gives a shit about the sexuality of a single species on a single planet on the edge of an entire fucking universe teeming with biology is fucking ludicrous.

because what really matters is love.

because there’s nothing more beautiful than love.

because the most important thing in the world has got to be got to be got to be love.

Posted in Life, Sexuality, Society | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 1 Comment

On Verdicts and Voices: The Trayvon Martin Case and the Power To Be Heard

(Note: This is from a post I made on Facebook. I thought I’d share it here as well, as it touches–as most things do–on the concepts of rhetoric and dialogue.)

ImageI’ve been seeing a fair amount of posts from people who are out-and-out outraged at those who are “making the Trayvon Martin case about racism when it’s clearly not” (or variations on that basic idea). I even saw one person say (and I’m not making this up), “Racism won’t go away until you stop talking about it.”

Now, I do understand (and, to an extent, sympathize with) the general sentiment of feeling like particular movements or groups of people with passions you don’t necessarily share seem to make every single story about whatever issue they’re passionate about. I understand how exasperating it must be to hear people go on and on about a particular problem they see in the world when you don’t necessarily think that, a) the problem exists, b) the problem is as bad as they say it is, or c) the problem, while certainly existing, is at all relevant to a particular issue. I can certainly imagine a situation where I might feel the exact same way. After all, human beings are selfish creatures, infinitely capable of distorting reality to match their particular needs. And if I felt like someone was muddying the conversation about an issue by drawing focus away from its relevant dimensions by lobbying for their own, less relevant priorities, of course I’d feel frustrated.

But here’s the thing. Most public conversations function not only as dialogues about a given policy or issue, but as sites for metaphorical (and often physical) displays of–and struggles for–power. For the power to have one’s voice heard and one’s concerns significantly considered and addressed. And the nature of power, as it is arranged in our society and in most of the world today, is one of inherent imbalance and inequality.

And whether you’re aware of it or not, and whether of your own volition or not, you are–we all are–invariably embedded within certain power structures that dramatically influence how we see, interpret, and experience the world. I don’t want to oversimplify this, because it’s incredibly complex and multidimensional, affected by everything from class, gender, and race, to age, appearance, and physical ability, to any number of intersections among/between those elements and countless others. Mapping these sorts of power relations–becoming aware of them, figuring out where they come from, how they work, how they’re maintained, what purpose they serve and how they might be altered if necessary–is an endless process, if only by virtue of humanity’s endless capacities for selfishness and domination.

So when you think some group is trying to “domineer” the conversation with what you consider to be their personal vendettas or special interests, take a serious look at the landscape. Not just the landscape where the issue is playing out, but your own landscape, your own vantage point, and the vantage points of everyone involved. There are necessarily and invariably some voices in society that are heard more than others. And it’s not just a matter of frequency; it’s a matter of the quality, seriousness, and outcomes of what’s being said as well.

ImageFor example, take this Zimmerman/Martin case. I understand that the people I mentioned earlier feel like certain groups, including the media, “made the case all about racism” when it didn’t have to be. And I understand that a lot of people feel like that happens over and over again in society, so that, what might have started in the 20th century as a legitimate fight for equality and civil rights, has somehow swung in the opposite direction in such a way that leftists and liberal activists now have all the power (e.g., “the liberal media”) and are making up, or blowing out of proportion, a non-existent problem by harping on it over and over again regardless of the issue at hand.

But just because the media might be babbling on and on about racism in a given issue, doesn’t mean the voices of those who are actually affected by racism are actually being heard. Just because you feel like racism has become a topic that’s somehow “in vogue” with mainstream liberals, doesn’t mean that the dialogue has reached the level of insight, seriousness, and effectiveness that the problem demands and that those who are trying to understand/fight the problem continue to call for. In fact, if anything indicates that things like racism and sexism and classism are still problems in desperate need of attention, it’s the pervasiveness in the media and in the culture at large of talking points that barely scratch the surface of the power structures that affect and delimit us.

Do I think there’s value to being able to discern the relevance of one particular issue to another? Of course. But I also think there’s value in trying painstakingly to understand power, to uncover oppression, and to allow the voices of the marginalized and the silenced to be heard as much as possible. And before we jump to dismiss a particular voice as just another misguided battle cry, we first ought to humbly and honestly examine our own voices, and remind ourselves about what privileges we might have that others might not.

Throughout history, progress has always been accompanied by a multitude of voices. And the reason progress is often so slow is because the voices that are already empowered have the resources to drown out all the others at first. It is only through a concentrated and passionate attempt to honestly understand and loudly, vocally confront inequality and oppression that progress is made.

We each have a choice about what kind of voice we want to be. About when we talk, and when we listen. We can choose to either be sincerely and compassionately open to learning about our own privileges and hearing out those who genuinely and painfully feel that they lack those privileges; or we can roll our eyes, chalk it all down to a cacophony, and let those who are suffering go unheard in the process.

I know which choice I’ve made. How about you?

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Terrifying Heart-Giving

“Give your heart to everybody you meet. The rest is pretense.” – Ethan Hawke, Ash Wednesday

I received a message on Goodreads recently asking me about the above line, which I have listed on my profile there as one of my favorite quotes. I’ve loved the line ever since reading it, and have always tried to live by it to varying degrees. It’s both an inspiration to me and a challenge. For me, it evokes beauty–the beauty of a world in which people might connect with one another in healthy, generous, fulfilling ways, rather than remaining steadfastly and stubbornly apart.

So I was taken aback when the person who messaged me asked, “…how? Why? That is a terrifying quote.”

“Terrifying?” I thought to myself. “What? Are we even reading the same quote?”

It actually ended up being a fruitful exchange, and one that really got me thinking. Because, yes, when you take the world at face value it’s a terrifying place full of people who could potentially hurt you–both physically and emotionally. And so of course it makes sense to protect yourself. (And as a white cisgender male, of course, I have to acknowledge that my experience of the world is different from many other people’s, and that I likely don’t face as many potential dangers or threats as many others do.)

Still, though, I think the inherent danger of the world is what makes giving your heart to others such a beautiful and powerful act. Because there is risk involved–always. So it means something when you open yourself up, because you’re not just opening yourself to the good, you’re opening yourself to the bad as well.

I guess it really depends on how you define giving your heart. Clearly you shouldn’t constantly be placing yourself in physically or emotionally precarious situations (especially with strangers), and clearly you shouldn’t always be bending over backwards for other people at a detriment to your own well-being. But I think heart-giving is deeper than that. I think it’s more a frame of mind than a discernible action–an attitude toward the world and other people that informs the way you think of, speak with, and behave toward them. Which means that, sometimes, maybe the best way to give your heart to someone is to keep your distance. Maybe getting too close to a person will hurt both yourself and them in the long run, or maybe that desire for closeness is coming more from wanting to possess their heart rather than giving them your own. Regardless, I think the important thing is that you’re keeping your distance in those situations out of love–out of mindful, genuine heart-giving–and not out of knee-jerk insulation or fear.

But, of course, it’s never easy to know where to draw the line. It’s never easy to say in a given situation, “This is the best way for me to give my heart to this person.” It’s an ever uncertain line that we have to walk between living out the truth that we’re all connected, and putting up barriers pretending we’re separate. And we’re never going to walk it perfectly, which I guess is what makes it so scary, even for me.

Because don’t get me wrong–I’m definitely terrified of giving my heart to everyone I meet.

I’m just slightly more terrified of pretense.

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Haha, Suffering

“Look, man, I’m a college dropout. What the fuck do I know? I’m just saying, you don’t have to be a genius to figure out that humor is connected to pain.” – Todd Hanson [The Onion Editor], in And Here’s The Kicker

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I finally got around to reading And Here’s The Kicker, Mike Sacks’ collection of interviews with some of the top comedy writers in the profession. Just as I’d heard, it was a delightful, informative, downright fascinating read–equal parts wisdom and advice about how to write comedy (or write anything, for that matter), and behind-the-scenes peeks into the lives and legends of some of show business’s greatest entertainers. I’d heartily recommend it to anybody with an interest in either comedy or writing (or both). It’s funny, smart, varied, and has a lot of practical advice for aspiring writers.

One theme that pops up throughout the book is the connection between comedy and suffering. The interview most saturated with this connection is with Paul Feig, creator of short-lived NBC sitcom Freaks and Geeks. Feig discusses how he’s always used writing to highlight the humor he sees in the embarrassing, even mortifying experiences he had growing up. While some people might not be able to stomach the discomfort at the heart of Feig’s comedy, others find it to be realistic and relatable–they laugh at the absurdity of it while also knowing that they themselves have gone through very similar absurdities themselves (which is, perhaps, what enables them to laugh at it in the first place). As screenwriter Marshall Brickman says in his interview, quoting Tom Stoppard: “Laughter is the sound of comprehension.” And I think that rings true.

During his interview with writer Dave Barry, Sacks quotes Barry as saying, “A sense of humor is a measurement of the extent to which we realize that we are trapped in a world almost totally devoid of reason. Laughter is how we express the anxiety we feel at this knowledge.” Barry later adds, “I don’t know that you can explain why we, as a species, laugh. Maybe it’s just that there’s a disconnect in our brains when we realize that obviously we’re going to die but we can laugh anyway. There has to be a release. For me, it’s either you laugh or you become religious.”

And then, of course, there’s the classic Mel Brooks line: “Tragedy is when I cut my finger. Comedy is when you walk into an open sewer and die.”

I’ve never walked into an open sewer and died, but I am always realizing that I’m going to die. I’m also always twisting my ankle and tripping (though I’m not sure if the two are related). And since I don’t quite have it in me to go out in search of a funny new tripping experience for myself, I include here a description I wrote several months ago of something that happened to me at the time. I like to think it’s a serviceable example of suffering-as-comedy–but as Todd Hanson says, “What the fuck do I know?”

I had just passed a man and his dog on my street as I was leaving my house in Allston–a Boston neighborhood teeming with obnoxious, often under-the-influence college students. The dog expressed interest in me, while the man did not. Dilemma. Do I say hello to both of them, or do I say hello to just the dog and assume that the owner will take it as politely addressed to him as well? I decide to reward the dog’s tail-wagging enthusiasm with a personalized greeting, but two things happen simultaneously. 1) I realize that I haven’t spoken out loud since getting up from the nap I just took, and my throat is still feeling really wonky from having strep and massive amounts of congestion earlier that week; and 2) before even talking I immediately begin to feel anxious and guilty for excluding the dog owner from my greeting, so I fail to commit and fuck up the landing. So what happens is that I pass by super close to the dog, with my head staring down at it at a 90 degree angle (my pronounced, owner-friendly alternative to actually bending down and petting it), and my brain tries to make a cutesy high-pitched talking-to-puppy-dog voice and say “Well hi there!”, which the guilt-toward-dog-owner instinct transforms into “Evening!,” which the weird post-nap throat-mucus hurricane in my mouth transforms into a gurgling (but still high-pitched and cutesy) “Urrvnurrgg!” I hear myself, panic, realize that my head is still forced into this weird robotic dog-locked angle, look up to make terrified wide-eyed eye contact with the dog owner, who looks kind of cranky but also looks kind of like Al Borland which I find additionally distracting, and while distracted by all this I promptly lose my footing, twist my ankle, and fall to the ground. The dog owner says (I’m not kidding) “oh what the fuck”, the dog tries to come over to me, the owner doesn’t let him and they walk away.

The last thing I hear him say as he leaves? “Fuckin’ Allston.”

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