Thursday, February 11, 2010

John Mayer Isn't the Only Person Saying Stupid, Hurtful Stuff

I'm a semi-regular reader of, primarily because of the mix of thoughtful writing on a number of issues, from politics to the arts to social trends.  As with any site of that sort, the articles are followed by the delightful "Comment" section, where folks ranging from erudite and thoughtful philosphical types to hateful, semi-literate mouth-breathers can weigh in with their two cents.

With a site like Salon that tends to cater to a slightly more educated and cultured crowd than the typical website, it's always a bit disturbing to see quite how many commentors seem to have troglodytic tendencies.  Sure, there are the "trolls" who come to the site for the express pupose of finding stuff they don't like and commenting on it.  That's par for the course.  But there is also a disturbing amount of all-too-typically-internet vitriol and flaming going on from people who seem to go to Salon because they sincerely like the site. 

I recently found such a reaction to a piece on Salon.  A young African-American woman had an essay published at Salon--a brief "open letter" to musician John Mayer in response to his recent comments about his lack of "dating" experience when it came to women of color.  The author of the essay used this as a jumping off spot to talk about how she as a woman of color often felt "invisible" as a woman and how this led to feelings of resentment. 

It was an interesting piece--one that I think most people could identify with to some extent.  Except for the most beautiful of the beautiful, who hasn't felt insecure about their appearance and attractiveness, particularly given what is said and shown in the mass media?

I made the mistake of clicking on the "comments" section, assuming that there would be some thoughtful comments.  Perhaps people talking about how finding out about the views/beliefs of artists affected (or didint' affet) their appreciation for their work, or maybe some sharing of thoughts about how all of us (including John Mayer) have our attitudes toward beauty shaped by our culture.

Oh, but I was wrong!  There was no end to the abuse heaped on the young woman who authored the piece.  She was told there was something "wrong" with her.  She was told she obviously had major self-esteem issues.  She was told she might just be ugly.  She was told she shouldn't call John Mayer a racist (she hadn't).  She was told she shouldn't care if John Mayer would want to bed her (she doesn't).   One delightful commentor said, "Hey, I"ll f*ck ya.  Feel better?" 

The abuse came from men and women, black and white (at least according to the claims of the authors themselves). Not all of the response was nasty, but the willingness of people to anonymously eviscerate the author in the nastiest of language was breathtaking, especially when all she was doing in the essay was to write a reflection on her own feelings.

So I ended up writing my own comment, and since I bothered to, and since it ties in to the theme of the blog, I thought I'd post it below.


I'm enough of a denizen of the internet to know that it's a place where people often feel comfortable, and even compelled, to give voice to their most negative and vitriolic kneejerk responses to what they read. So I'm not shocked to see the number of people glibly chiming in with assertions/implications that Ms.Tooles is narcissistic and/or has low self-esteem and/or is whining and self-involved and/or is silly for caring about what men might think of her and/or is silly for being affected by the words of a rattle-brained guitar-playing goofball.

Not surprised, but still disappointed.

As an earlier letter mentioned, it seems that empathy is becoming a lost art. We're in greater contact with more people than ever before, but our ability to inhabit their point of view and learn something about the world from tarrying in this alternative space for a bit has atrophied.

It also seems that critical reading has also begun to vanish. Ms. Toole does not charge Mayer with being a racist based on his comments (as several writers imply that she does). She is offering an explanation of why the off-the-cuff ramblings of this guy might have had the impact on her that they did. She's writing from an entirely subjective point of view. The issue is not the objective rationality of her feelings; it's the exploration of how/why she has them.

And this isn't necessarily a small matter. The fact remains that beauty is a cultural construct, and that in our society, the epitome of beauty is defined as young, white, female, thin, etc., etc. etc. It's clear to me that Ms. Toole is talking about how Mayer's comments, as inconsequential as they might seem at first glance, tapped into her awareness of how society defines beauty as something other than what she is. Couple that with the longstanding effects of racism, and one can begin to see how a dopey comment by a jerk might, despite her better judgment, affect Ms. Toole.

And I'm sorry, but to those who toss off facile boilerplate pseduo-therapeutic comments about how she shouldn't define herself by how men see her or that you yourself are so mature and self-actualized that you find it hard to imagine how comments like this could be hurtful, I can only say this: bullsh*t.

She's not talking about defining oneself by what the other (or same) sex thinks of you. She's pointing out the obvious: part of being human is to enjoy connecting one another, to enjoy being drawn to others. One way that manifests itself is through sexuality. Married or single, black or white, female or male, young or old . . . all of us like to feel affirmed that we are desirable on some level. That applies to all of us, including every last author of a letter on this thread. Anyone who says they don't feel validated by knowing they are considered attractive or who says they are immune to criticism or insults to their desirability is simply not being honest. Would you necessarily dwell on these feelings long enough or deeply enough to reflect on why you had them and then feel compelled to share them with others? Perhaps not, but that might simply be because you lack the courage to do so.

And yes, I'm all too aware that by taking several of letter writers on this thread to the woodshed over their comments is in a sense an example of me participating in the very dynamic I describe at the beginning of the letter. Guilty as charged. But I trust that, given the tenor of so many of the letters in this thread, there is no possible way my words--or any words--could cause even a twinge of discomfort in a group of folks so preternaturally self-satisfied.

Monday, February 8, 2010

Super Bowl Ads

The hype for the Super Bowl ads is about as overblown these days as the hype for the game itself, but all the attention does do one thing to warm a rhetorician's cold, cold heart: it prompts people to do some textual analysis of if/how/why persuasion works in particular cases.

Overall, I have to say I was underwhelmed by the ads this year.  Of course, just as the game itself often has trouble living up to the two-weeks' worth of hype, the ads themselves now have a hard time following through on the buildup.   There were a few interesting ones.  The Budweiser horse and the calf ad was adorable, and the Google-your-way-to-love-in-Paris ad was charming and interesting as a way of telling a meaninguful and involving story in a 30-second spot. 

As with the past, there was a lot of violence in the ads, although not quite so much as there were a couple of years ago, when it seemed like every commercial had something horrible happening to someone for "comedic" effect.  The most surprising to me this year was the controversial Tim Tebow ad, which featured Tebow tackling his mother at full throttle.  (Hey Mom, thanks for carrying me to term!  Enjoy this herniated disk!)  

Beyond the slightly-reduced-but-still-prevalent trope of infliciting pain as humor, the other thing that jumped out at me was the amount of ads featuring fears of/fantasy responses to emasculation.  From a guy kicking his wife out of his car to avoid having to give up his precious new tires to Jim Nance providing commentary on the "spineless" guy shopping with his wife, there was lot of the woman-as-castrating-bitch them in the ads.  It showed up often enough and in such a wide array of ads that it emerged as a clear theme for this year's commercials.    Not that such a theme is either new or terribly surprising given the venue, but it was oddly prevalent in the ads this year.

Any chance we can get some transcendence?  Yep, courtesy of Letterman, Leno, and Oprah.  This was, far and away, the spot of the night for me.  Not only was it A) funny, and B) surprising, but given the nature of the ads surrounding it, the Letterman spot stood out as an ad that used comedy to undercut and defang actual conflict.  I've only been following the Letterman/Leno saga sporadically, but it had gotten fairly pointed and nasty, with Letterman doing unflattering imitations of Leno and Leno cracking jokes about Letterman's private life ("You know how you get David Letterman to ignore you? Marry him!").    To see these two hanging out on the couch with Oprah in a spot promoting Letterman's show was priceless and showed a level of maturity (despite the fact that Letterman and Leno were feigning childishness in the ad) that (dare I say?) raised the level of popular discourse.

Or at least gave me something to laugh at other than a henpecked husband or a fifty-year-old woman being blindsided by her son. 


Friday, February 5, 2010

The Rhetorical Violence of Beck et al.

There's a short but illuminating article at Media Matters for America on the prevalence of violent imagery and metaphor by those appearing on Fox. You can find it here:

The problem with the comments cited in the article are not that they are passionate or political.  It's not even that some of them are downright hateful.  It's that they play with the imagery of violence.  "Figures of speech" are not mere ornaments or funny little doo-dads we add to our speech; they are ways we frame our understanding of the world.  Cognitive linguistics suggests that metaphors in fact structure the actual neural pathways in our brain. 

That is, words mean things.  Not in the sense that they have timeless, unchanging definitions.  They don't.  But they have consequences.  They have implications.  They do things to us when we speak and hear them.

Should such rhetoric be censored?  Of course not.  But they should be censured--condemned as unworthy of consideration by thoughtful people and out of bounds of civil talk.