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Sunday, February 22, 2015

Family Guy and the Banality of Evil

[A version of this is posted on Ordinary Times here.  This version is slightly edited for some typos and formatting.]

This post is about "Family Guy," and I promise I'll get there.  But first I'll start with a long passage from George Orwell's 1984 (hat tip, Eric Blair).  Toward the beginning of the novel, the protagonist, Winston Smith, writes the following in his diary [bold added by me]:
"April 4th, 1984. Last night to the flicks. All war films. One very good one of a ship full of refugees being bombed somewhere in the Mediterranean. Audience much amused by shots of a great huge fat man trying to swim away with a helicopter after him, first you saw him wallowing along in the water like a porpoise, then you saw him through the helicopters gunsights, then he was full of holes and the sea round him turned pink and he sank as suddenly as though the holes had let in the water, audience shouting with laughter when he sank. then you saw a lifeboat full of children with a helicopter hovering over it. there was a middle-aged woman might have been a jewess sitting up in the bow with a little boy about three years old in her arms. little boy screaming with fright and hiding his head between her breasts as if he was trying to burrow right into her and the woman putting her arms round him and comforting him although she was blue with fright herself, all the time covering him up as much as possible as if she thought her arms could keep the bullets off him. then the helicopter planted a 20 kilo bomb in among them terrific flash and the boat went all to matchwood. then there was a wonderful shot of a child’s arm going up up up right up into the air a helicopter with a camera in its nose must have followed it up and there was a lot of applause from the party seats but a woman down in the prole part of the house suddenly started kicking up a fuss and shouting they didnt oughter of showed it not in front of kids they didnt it aint right not in front of kids it aint until the police turned her turned her out i dont suppose anything happened to her nobody cares what the proles say typical prole reaction they never "


Now back to "Family Guy."  I'm not sure it's okay to watch the show.  I like it.  I don't watch it much anymore, but that's mostly because it's on at inconvenient times for me.  But it's hard to know whether I should laugh at the humor.

Or some of the humor.  Many of its jokes are pretty innocent.  Take the scene where an errant golf ball crashes through a china shop and destroys all the porcelain vases and other breakable things.  A bull, who had been in the china shop innocently browsing the wares, now faces blame from the owner who was in a back room and didn't see what caused all the damage.  (Sorry, I can't seem to find a YouTube link to it, but it's funnier if you watch it than if you read my description.)  Some of the humor also strikes me as decent social commentary.  When Peter meets the crows from Dumbo and makes his comment about "good ole fashioned family racism" [not really offensive, but probably not safe for work], it's hard to deny he's on to something.  There are also a lot of fart jokes that aren't really my thing but are harmless.

But some humor crosses the line.  Take the scene where a barbershop quartet makes fun of an AIDS patient, or the repeated jokes about and abuse toward Meg, or the neighborhood pedophile character.  Everyone's mileage varies and the line-crossing jokes can sometimes be argued to have a point beyond harming others for the sake of laughter.  Examples [not safe for work]:  here, here, and here.

Finding the point—finding the justification for the humor—requires us to rely on irony.  We don't really think that it's appropriate to make fun of someone with a terminal illness.  We don't really think bullying a teenage girl is a good thing to do.  We don't really find pedophilia funny.  Instead, we (by which I mean, "me and others," because this is something I do) say it's so bad it's funny.  In fact, it's funny precisely because it's so bad, because we would never do those things or condone them being done outside movies or tv, or at least outside the cartoon world.  It's the type of thing we laugh at everyday.  We might also say that "Family Guy" is "an equal opportunity lampooner."  I have problems with that argument, both as a general argument and in the particular case of "Family Guy."

But how can we be sure that our laughter or enjoyment is not just another way of performing cruelty?  It's not right to make fun of people with terminal illnesses, but there was a time not too long ago when it was okay or at least not beyond the pale in at least some otherwise respectable circles to make jokes about "the gay disease."  Bullying isn't funny except when it is.  How many times have I made a comment on the internet that I believed to be funny but was probably on some level bullying?  (Answer, probably at least a few.)  Pedophilia and other forms of sexual abuse isn't funny, but I suspect a goodly number of people here have occasionally laughed at "prison rape" jokes or whatnot.

Most people who make such jokes or who find troublesome things to be funny aren't sociopaths.  But I'm not so sure that sociopaths don't make such jokes.  And while it's a fallacy to say that because Socrates is a man, therefore all men are Socrates, the family resemblance between "Family Guy" humor and what cruel people do and probably laugh about is disconcerting to me.  Think of the bullies you may have known or people who have punched down (or even up) at you and the jokes they tell.  I'm not so sure they don't tell themselves they're not laughing at the person or the disability or the racial or sexual identity.  I wouldn't be surprised if they say instead that they're just laughing at the irony of it all.


I began this post with the Orwell quotation for a reason.  What Winston Smith observed at the movie theater is what I'm suggesting happens with "Family Guy."  What entertainment we consume and partake in is also part of what we put out there and might very well contribute to a violent project.  Think of the history of blackface minstrel shows, which arose during slavery and flourished during Jim Crow. 

The analogy is not perfect.  I wouldn't be surprised if in Smith's dystopic world, people are required to watch such movies whereas in our real world we have a choice whether or not to watch "Family Guy."  And Jim Crow has been dismantled, at least formally.  There's also the idea that as consumers of entertainment we are detached.  We suspend disbelief.  And in so doing we are, as I noted above, "laughing at the irony of it all."

Am I just being puritanical?  Not in the Menckenian sense of the word.  I'm not tsk-tsk'ing.  I'm not arguing that "Family Guy" should be banned.  I'm not endorsing a letter-writing campaign or boycott to get it off the air.  I'm not even urging anyone else not to watch it.  I'll probably watch it or reruns someday in the future.

Maybe I am being puritan in another sense, though.  I believe that what we--by which, again, I mean "you and I"--perform and do is part of who we are and shapes what we become.  I resist calling that "puritanism" because doing so seems to imply that only puritans care about such things.

And we should consider what we laugh at.  It's not always an easy call.  The "prole" in Smith's passage might be on to something. 

Saturday, February 7, 2015

Duress on the dotted line

[Cross-posted at Hit Coffee, which Will Truman has invited me to join.  His site's a good one--and he and his other co-authors are pretty good writers, so you might want to check it out.]

Free will in the marketplace is a useful construct.  But it's a construct nevertheless and can't explain everything.

About 15 years ago, I was interested in joining a gym.  There was one near where I worked—it's part of a national chain that I'll call "23-Hour Fitness."*  I went there on my 30-minute lunch break to check out their prices.  What I got was an aggressive sales pitch that lasted about 45 minutes.  They gave me a tour of the place and a sit down discussion over the various "membership options," which varied so slightly in price and services that it was hard tell the differences among them.  When the people I was speaking with couldn't find a "membership rep" (who, apparently, was the only one there with authority to sign me up), I finally made my escape, telling them I had to get back to work.

This may seem weird to someone who hasn't experienced a similar ordeal or who has a stronger will than I do. But I felt guilty about leaving them without signing up, almost as if I had unfairly taken their time only to leave them in the lurch at the last minute.  In fact, if they had found a "membership rep," odds are at least even that I would have signed up just to leave with a clear conscience.  And for the record, I knew in the first 5 or 10 minutes that I didn't want to join at all.

What if I had signed and wanted out?  There probably were (and are) some consumer protection policies that could have helped me.  Maybe a grace period of 3 days.  Maybe a cause of action in small claims court or other court.  Maybe some government consumer protection commission.  There probably also were (and are) some non-governmental opportunities.  I could have gone to the "consumers' advocate" that most local media seem to have.  I could have gone to the Better Business Bureau.  I could have closed my checking account to prevent the automatic debits.

I'm not confident most of those things would have worked or that I would have availed myself of them.  I can imagine feeling just as intimidated going in on day two of the grace period and speaking with these same folks as I had during the signup meeting.  And I wouldn't even know how to pursue a claim in court.  And the media option is luck of the draw (they probably get scores of complaints a month and can follow up only on a handful) while the BBB option amounts to a harmless tsk-tsk against the offending company.  (Closing the checking account might have worked, but I'll leave that aside because it's not convenient to my narrative.)

My point, though, is that I might have done something because I felt compelled to even though I "knew" that I had no obligation to do it and "knew" doing it was a bad idea for me.  That's a problem.  But I'm not sure what solution—policy solution or otherwise—can adequately resolve that problem, where "adequately" means, I suppose, that which would protect others similarly situated.  Grace periods can be lengthened.  Causes of action can be made easier to pursue in court.  Etc.

Some solutions are better than others.  I wouldn't ban gym contracts, for example.  And something is to be said for an adult taking responsibility for her or his actions.  And at the end of the day I guess the important thing is I didn't sign, and the problem (for me, in that instance) is hypothetical.

*Disclosure:  23-Hour Fitness is not necessarily related to any organization with a similar sounding name.