The Fault in Ourselves

28 May

broken heartMy girlfriend dumped me. She did so in public, and very loudly. She said some horrible nasty things about me, some that were true, but many that were not. Other people heard. Some laughed at me. Some gave me looks of pity. One woman gave my girlfriend an obligatory “You go girl,” as Zelda humiliated me in front of the Sunday brunch crowd at Postino. She was telling me, but also them, about how she’d been sleeping with a good friend of mine, and that his sexual prowess was far superior than my own. She told me that it was “your own damned fault that I slept with Luke, you made me do it.” People were cheering her. We hadn’t even gotten our mimosas yet. When I put a few bucks on the table, she said: “Don’t you dare leave me, you owe me that at least.” As an observer I would have appreciated the irony; as the victim, I couldn’t even muster a whispered “Fuck you.”

The day after I lost my job. I had gone on vacation a few weeks ago and while I was away someone else covered for me. She screwed up, but somehow I got blamed for it. I was told that I hadn’t trained this person properly, when in fact this person had worked at my company for nearly twenty years and should have known how to mail a goddamned letter on time. So, even though everyone knows I didn’t do anything wrong, I was to blame because they needed to blame someone who didn’t know all the company secrets.

So I made a big decision regarding my life and the people who I think have destroyed it: I’m not going to kill them.

On the one hand, I don’t kill people. On the other, I don’t fucking kill people. I was angry at my ex and my job for what I felt was a couple of deep unfairnesses. Frustrated, angry, but not actually violent. I was even resentful, probably pathologically so – perhaps I was to blame for my own woes, but I didn’t actually view it that way. I only saw what I wished to see – other people were against me.  They had conspired to destroy my fragile being. And I was pissed.

But I didn’t want to hurt anybody.

In fact, most of us don’t. Even those of us who desire harming others don’t actually go through with it. Most of us don’t give in to the basest parts of ourselves. Most of us take a deep breath and choose not to do the worst thing in the world.

Of course I’m discussing the latest shooting spree, this one perpetrated by Elliot Rodger, who had written and videotaped manifestos expressing hatred towards women for not wanting him and towards men for taking away the women that might want him. Then he started killing people.

We, the viewing public, got the usual responses about how guns are bad, but we also got some more intriguing pieces such as this one by Brittany Cooper in Salon, which states: “It’s time for America to admit what it’s long resisted: white male privilege kills.” Continuing:

Every few years, the American public has to watch in horror as some white kid goes on a rampage, killing everything from babies to old people. Yet, neither the press nor the law will understand such perpetrators as monsters or terrorists. Few will have a conversation about white male pathology and the ways that systems of whiteness and patriarchy continue to produce white men who think like this.

Then we have Ann Hornaday, a film critic for the Washington Post who points out how Rodger’s misogyny is a direct reflection of a certain cinematic culture:

How many men, raised on a steady diet of Judd Apatow comedies in which the shlubby arrested adolescent always gets the girl, find that those happy endings constantly elude them and conclude, “It’s not fair”?

Movies may not reflect reality, but they powerfully condition what we desire, expect and feel we deserve from it. The myths that movies have been selling us become even more palpable at a time when spectators become their own auteurs and stars on YouTube, Instagram and Vine. If our cinematic grammar is one of violence, sexual conquest and macho swagger — thanks to male studio executives who green-light projects according to their own pathetic predilections — no one should be surprised when those impulses take luridly literal form in the culture at large.

Both of these columnists touch on important ideas worthy of discussion. There are plenty of people who believe that the world owes them something. Those who come from privileged classes tend to resent those who chip away at the veneer of safety of their worlds. Similarly, movies – especially those that come from the Hollywood dream factory – depict, as The Kinks aptly put it, “a fantasy world of celluloid villains and heroes.” There are tons of movies that feed the adolescent male’s mythological wet dream.

And we should have conversations about both the privileged class and the male-dominated fantasy world of movies. But to couple either of these with this killing spree is both opportunistic and cynical.

Privilege (be it white male privilege or some other permutation) obviously does have an impact on society. Anybody – no matter their skin color, god, or sex – who believes themselves entitled or privileged can have a detrimental effect on society. Slavery was basically the height of white privilege in America, followed afterwards by a hundred plus years of Jim Crow and the KKK. Those who have had power for generations do not wish to relinquish it. They will use that power to keep it, and will wield it like a cudgel against anyone who steps in their way. This partially explains the inexplicably illogical beliefs of the Birthers – this black guy simply cannot take our power away, so he is obviously illegitimate. So, yes, power and privilege, once attained are not given up without a fight.

But that is systemic power and privilege. What we have in the case of Rodger is one guy choosing to murder a bunch of others. There are probably thousands of people who are in similar situations: no one likes them, they can’t get a date, they view themselves as perpetually unloved. But you know what just about none of them do? Kill people. Why not? Maybe because they know it is wrong to kill other people. Maybe it never once crossed their mind to take up arms against a sea of supposed tormentors because…it’s wrong. In a society where guns are so easy to come by, some would say that it is shocking we don’t have more of these shooting sprees. But that is a cynical way of thinking about people. It’s not that the vast majority of us choose not to kill others. We don’t even entertain the choice. We don’t go: “Should I kill my ex or my boss?” The thought never enters our heads.

Some like to fob mass killings off on a ubiquitous diagnosis of mental illness, some all-encompassing generalization that can be found in the DSM. In non-clinical parlance, all these mass killers are merely crazy. So, if we can restrict the gun ownership of crazy people, well, America will automatically be safer. But this is like saying anybody who does something bad – nay, Evil – is crazy. Some of these people are simply bad people who know the difference between right and wrong, and opt to do the wrong thing. Some of them embrace the evil that resides in their souls, the evil that resides in all of us, but which most of us reject because – it’s, um, Evil.

If it weren’t women that this man hated, he would have probably found another excuse to kill. He may have been mentally unstable, he may have been evil, perhaps a combination of the two.

Here’s recent Jeopardy! champion Arthur Chu’s more nerdy take on the shooting.

His lament is similar to Hornaday’s: we nerds are force-fed a steady diet of, “if we just pursue the girl, we’ll somehow manage to win her over.”

We now have a new way to blame movies for violence: not that movies are too violent, but that they are too escapist and not realistic in their depictions of romance. I’m not even talking about sex, but merely courtship. Apparently Rodger was told that yes, he too could get the woman. Told this fact by countless movies featuring such non-chick magnets as Seth Rogen and the entire male cast of The Big Bang Theory. Suddenly every woman on screen was wearing a giant “I Heart Nerds” shirt, giving the Rodgers of the world the belief that they too could lay with the nubile cheerleader. And they brainwashed him into thinking that if he couldn’t get the woman…nobody could?

But see – those are movies, TV shows. Fictions. Just because the dorky guy gets the girl in the last reel does not mean that I will. And I know this. Most of us do. Many romantic films are fantasies. But why is this wrong? We, as normally functioning human beings, can tell the difference between fantasy and reality. The people who can’t are called schizophrenics. When critics claim that movies give us a distorted reality, they are not wrong. When they claim that this distorted reality is harmful because we will begin to believe that real life should follow in a movie’s fantasy footsteps, they are claiming basically that most people are schizophrenic. Or at least the nerds who can’t get women.

And if we are to blame male-centric movies for perpetrating the myth that any guy can get the hot woman in the end, what do we say about the female-centric romantic comedies in which the woman gets the hot dude in the end? What do we say to the mythological New York touted by Sex and the City, where the prize does not even have a name, just the euphemism of Mr. Big?

Movies are escapist. Why can’t I watch some flick where the guy who is kinda like me gets the gal who is kinda never going to happen to me? It gives me a chuckle, a smile, maybe even a bit of hope. Like most people, I know I am not part of a movie, that how the tale of my life transpires does not follow the cinematic rules of storytelling.

Like Donald Sterling being viewed as the poster child for racism, Rodger is now the Man Who Hates Women. He is that to which all our fascination can be given, as opposed to the systemic anti-woman culture that does not make headline writing so easy. We can, and should, talk about cultural misogyny. But to view Rodger as the natural end-result of Judd Apatow films, frat parties, The Big Bang Theory, guys in the woods giving their might Yawlps, and sexist hip hop lyrics is misguided, cynical, and frankly, stupid. To claim that a mass murder by an avowed woman-hater is the end result of a “culture of white male privilege” is a ludicrous conjecture and lazy thinking.

***

Many men are resentful of women. Yes, we get rejected when we believe – and occasionally, rightfully so – that there is no good reason for us to be rejected. We feel scorned and angry. It happens. Similarly, I’ve heard plenty of women claim that “all men are pigs (or assholes, douchebags, losers, sonsofbitches, etc.).” White people who do not consider themselves racist will have bigoted thoughts about non-white people. How many have seen Arabs at the security line at an airport and felt a moment or two of apprehension? Ever walk into a bar and see a bunch of what appear to be frat boys and immediately turn around and leave? We all have pre-conceived notions about jocks, nerds, that goth couple who are totally going to shoot up the school, the captain of the football team who is probably a rapist, the math genius who is so quiet he must have Asperger’s.

We judge. All the time. Do not deny it. We judge and extrapolate and generalize from specific incidents. A man can go on three dates with beautiful women who reject him, and he will see start to think that all women are [shallow, crazy, mean, all of the above]. A woman can go on three dates with handsome men who reject her, and she will start to think that all men are [brutes, pigs, only interested in sex, all of the above].

Most of us don’t kill those who shatter our dreams. We don’t rape. Or seek any type of revenge. Most of us move on. And sometimes we actually succeed in attaining that which brings us happiness.

Most of the “nerds” I know above the age of 35 are in long term relationships, many married with kids. Seth Rogen, that schlubby arrested man-child, is married to beautiful Lauren Miller.

Our failures are not always – or generally at all – the result of some outside force. It is easy to blame others for what we lack. We can go single to a wedding and bemoan our tragic plight, be jealous and resentful of the bounty which others seem to have been bequeathed without having to lift a finger. We can claim that the success that comes so easily to others is unfair, that the world or some group of people is against us. We can blame the stars for the faults in ourselves. Or we can – like characters in movies – change, grow, mature. We shouldn’t compare ourselves to others, but to the best versions – the idealized versions – of our own selves.

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