You Must Learn
Recently, a number of seemingly unconnected cultural conversations took place which seemed to me to have a common thread running through them. While I don’t necessarily think they add up to any grand indictment of the Way We Live Today (I’m always distrustful of anyone who cherry-picks a few isolated incidents and strings them together to make sweeping statements about our modern world, even when it’s me), they do all reflect a singular perspective. I’m not convinced it tells us anything about the state of our culture, but it definitely reflects a frustratingly blinkered attitude that I seem to encounter more and more, making a rather petty irony of the Information Age.
A little over a month ago, PFC Bradley Manning was convicted by a military court of a number of serious crimes against the state, including espionage and aiding the enemy. Manning was sentenced to 35 years in prison, and, around the same time, made an official announcement of what had long been rumored: that he wished to be referred to henceforth as Chelsea Manning, and to receive gender reassignment surgery and live out the rest of his life as a woman. Manning’s detractors — and there are many — cited this as further proof that he was an unstable screwball, and many, especially on the right, treated his gender issues as a bad joke at best and an intolerable insult at worst. They seemed to look on the possibility of referring to someone they had previously thought of as male in female terms as a burden too onerous to be borne, and the idea of switching to a different pronoun set as an imposition of epic proportions, as if they had woken up to the usual blue sky and were being forced at gunpoint to refer to it as green. Many liberals, on the other hand, reacted to the news as if Manning’s gender was the most important thing about him, and attacked media outlets who were slow to adapt to using other-gendered language as if it were a particularly egregious hate crime. This all seemed much more worthy of discussion than the fact that an American soldier had been denied due process for years, and had been handed what was practically a life sentence for exposing corruption, misbehavior and even murder by people who would not be punished at all.
Around the same time, African-American movie director Spike Lee, who often finds himself at the center of such witless controversies, prepared a list of films he thought of as particularly noteworthy, the viewing of which he felt would be of particular value to young people seeking to become filmmakers themselves. The list was generally good if tediously canonical, but it instantly generated the ire of a number of feminists, who complained that there were no female directors on the list. Although this was not technically true (Lee included City of God, co-directed by Kátia Lund), a furor ensued, and people began haranguing Lee to make the list more inclusive. After an initial abreaction in which he proved predictably, and irritatingly, cranky and short-sighted about the issue, he finally gave in and issued a revised list including more female filmmakers.
And this weekend, here in my home town of Seattle, the PAX gaming convention took place. The convention is run by Jerry Holkins and Mike Krahulik, the creators of the Penny Arcade web comic, which has made them into millionaires and brought them enough spotlight to get them into a lot of trouble over their tendency to say thoughtless or impolitic things. A while back, a rape ‘joke’ in one of their strips brought them a lot of heat from their female readers, of whom there are more than a few, but worse than the joke itself was Krahulik’s intransigence over the whole affair. He either deliberately or stupidly failed to see why the cavalier treatment of rape wasn’t all that funny to a lot of women, and the pair went as far as to start selling merchandise branded with references to the rape strip before they realized the tide was turning against them and they came across as looking a lot uglier than they meant to. Now, at PAX 2013, Krahulik has decided to double down on his idiocy, claiming they foolishly bowed to feminist pressure to stop selling the shirts, and he wishes they’d never done it.
So what’s the common theme here? It’s not feminism. It’s not gender issues. It’s not what is referred to with great imprecision as ‘political correctness’. It’s that in every circumstance, the people involved in the discussions simply refused to learn a goddamn thing. Presented with that most valuable of happenstances, the learning opportunity, they shook it off, got their hackles up, and pushed all in on ignorance, stupidity, and a maddening reluctance to see any interaction as something more than My Side vs. Your Side, in which My Side must win at all costs. I’ve often joked that “NEVER LEARN ANYTHING” should be on the internet’s coat of arms, but to have it driven home in such a rapid-fire manner from all corners of the culture was both illuminating and depressing.
The imprisonment of Bradley Manning, tied in as it is with the greater story of Wikileaks and information security, has given us innumerable opportunities to have extremely important conversations about vitally important issues such as principle, national and institutional loyalty, whistle-blowing, informed consent, the nature of information and who owns the news, the concept of state secrets, international law, and whether or not one’s responsibility to one’s homeland outweighs one’s responsibility to one’s conscience. Instead of having any of those conversations, though, we have gotten bogged down in petty legalisms, irrelevancies about gender and sexuality, and enough nationalistic nonsense to re-assassinate Archduke Ferdinand. One man (or woman) has been given a chillingly heavy sentence well in excess of many murderers, and another has literally been turned into a man without a country, and in terms of the issues that surround them, we have learned as little now as we did before we ever even heard of Julian Assange. So profoundly misguided has been the conversation from both the press and the public that I begin to worry that people are choosing not to understand it, towards some purpose I cannot guess.
Spike Lee probably didn’t act intelligently by not including any women on his list (he also didn’t include any Iranian, Indian, or African filmmakers, and, strangely, only one black one), and he certainly dug his own grave with his initial prickly reaction. But the badgering of him was identity politics at its most pointless; no consideration was given to quality or agency (how can someone’s personal list of favorite movies be “wrong”?), but only to accounting. Dozens of worthwhile questions could have arisen from such an event: Why didn’t Spike Lee include more female filmmakers? Why hasn’t he, like many other film students, been exposed to a more diverse group of directors? What social, political, and economic factors resulted in a Hollywood where female directors were rare for 70 years? Of what value are such lists, and of what use is the ‘canon’ in a multicultural society? Why do we teach the history of women in cinema as a sort of special-interest elective rather than make it an intrinsic part of our understanding of the medium? But no one asked those questions. A mid-tier film director put out a rather predictable list of great films, and it was subjected to an analysis about as deep as seating boy-girl at a dinner party. No one learned a thing.
The case of Mike Krahulik is the most pitiful of all, because he’s not important like Bradley Manning or talented like Spike Lee. (He is pretty well-off, and thus provides us with a useful example of what nerds are like when they get enough money to run a big business. Penny Arcade‘s repeated and comic pratfalls are evidence enough that it’s no better than when the suits are in charge.) I could not care less about his stupid strip, or about his annual geek convention. But for better or for worse — hint: it’s worse — PAX is at the center of our dominant nerd culture. I have seen with my own eyes the surprising fact that it has legions of female attendees, and it has materially rewarded Krahulik quite substantially. So why commit himself fully to being the recidivist, insensitive moron everyone thought he was in the first place? What is gained from this? The admiration of like-minded dolts who likewise lack for personal growth? Is defending a stupid decision to tell hundreds of rape victims to go screw really worth alienating half your audience? What is it about learning a little empathy and humility that fills Krahulik with terror and manifests in him as scorn? Krahulik is no Buddha, no MLK, no Gandhi; I don’t expect he’s got it in him to become a good enough person to change the world, and I certainly can’t fault him for that. But it’s hard to imagine how any artist — not just some Dostoevskian transformative genius, but even a hacky bottom-drawer entertainer — could possibly grow in their art by making it a point to never learn anything, to never improve, to always be the same person they were the first time they put pen to paper.
As I’ve said here many times, there is no guarantee that you’ll ever become a better person. You may try your whole life long and still finish as a fuck-up, and don’t I know it. But putting in the minimal effort to try and get a little smarter, a little better, a little more in tune with your fellow human beings, is about the only reason there is to not just throw up your hands and call it a life. No one likes to be wrong, but being wrong makes us better, as long as we recognize that it happened and try to get right. Always thinking you’re correct means that you believe no one else has anything worth saying, and that the world has nothing left to teach you; and when that happens, you stop being a person and start being a roadblock. It turns companionship, conversation and interaction from a chance to relate to, learn from, and even grow to love other people into a game you always have to win, no matter what you lose in the process. It takes the joy of knowing a lot of things for knowledge’s sake and curdles it into using that knowledge to feel superior to other people. And it turns every learning opportunity into a miniature theater of cruelty.
Chances for learning aren’t rare. They’re everywhere, every day. People who intentionally ignore them, or turn them into excuses to show off their own perceived superiority, don’t deserve your money. They deserve your pity.