It has gone from truism to trite to say we live in a culture of outrage, but that doesn’t make it any less of a fact. It seems it is no longer possible to simply offend or commit a faux pas, everything that is done is an OUTRAGE, grist for the social media mill, driving one end or the other of the political spectrum into a frenzy. The latest example of this comes from the Harvard Lampoon of all places.
Now before I go any further I have to, of course, deny in the strongest terms that I am making any attempt to defend their bad decisions. What they did was in very poor taste. It was crude, and quite frankly not even funny. Should they apologize? Yes. Did they apologize? Yes. Case closed? Not by a long shot.
According to the Washington Post (my perennial source for outrage culture), Harvard sophomore Jenny Baker had the following to say about the Lampoon cartoon that started the controversy:
“Holocaust jokes? Never okay,” she began. “Sexualizing a young girl’s body? Never okay,” she continued.
“Sexualizing ANNE FRANK and saying it is a shame she was ruthlessly murdered because of her religion because she would have been hot? So unbelievably not okay,” she emphasized.
Baker delivered a recommendation to the staff of the Lampoon: “try to find other ways to be funny rather than sexualizing and trivializing the murder of a young girl and an entire population of people.”
She concluded, “This is trash.”
Now, having done more than a little humor writing myself, I’m going to offer a gentle rejoinder and say that Ms. Baker doesn’t know what the fuck she’s talking about. Holocaust jokes? Better be funny, but they can be okay. Sexualizing a young girl’s body? Better be damn funny, but it can be okay. Sexualizing ANNE FRANK and saying it is a shame she was ruthlessly murdered because of her religion because she would have been hot? Holy shit that better be the funniest fucking thing I ever read, but you CAN get away with it if it’s good enough, especially if you are using your humor to make a larger point. A couple things we can agree on are that (a) they really should try to find other ways to be funny, because man did they miss the mark on this one, and (b) this is trash.
Lest you think I am merely engaging in some sort of knee-jerk libertarian defense of free speech, let me share some real-life experiences from my own college days. These are from a couple decades ago, back when people were at least slightly less prone to take everything so immediately personal and there was no such thing as the internet. I was working on an independent college paper, which meant we could do whatever we wanted, and we pushed a few boundaries. I’m proud of a lot of the work I did there, and we had a lot of fun. At least twice I can think of our papers were burned in effigy at Take Back the Night rallies because of what we had printed, and I’m still proud of what we published in those issues.
And then there was what I still think of as the incident.
I was the Humor Editor for the paper at the time, which I say only to establish that everything that happened was my responsibility. I made the choices, and I had the authority. I was looking for content for my section, and a new guy volunteered to write a three panel comic for me. Sure, he had a shaved head and looked kind of scraggly, but I had known more than a few cool skinhead punks down in Richmond, so I decided to roll with it. I was also very high on my First Amendment horse at the time.
Long story short, the comic turned out to be about what you would expect. Not so blatant that I couldn’t pretend a certain amount of ignorance or at least try to hide from it at first, but shortly after it ran I had to admit to myself I had run a Nazi skinhead comic in my section. And yeah, I got more than a little hate mail for it, which I freely admit I deserve. I owned it, and still do. I made a bad call, and the reasons why don’t matter. I apologized, we ran a retraction, and while I have moved on I have never forgotten it.
So why do I bring it up now? Because the other material, the stuff that got my work burned on campus, I am proud of. I stand by it today. Because it had a point, and a purpose, and I was saying something with it. And yes, if I thought I could make a larger point with a Holocaust joke, and I thought the joke was funny enough, I would go for it and I would be all in. It would have to be a damn good point and a fucking hilarious joke, and honestly I don’t know if I’m that funny. But it would be worth it. And I’d have Anne Frank in my sights.
And I wouldn’t apologize either.
In the past I’ve railed against the Christmas excess, particularly the consumeristic aspects of it, starting well before Thanksgiving (and even before my beloved Halloween). Seeing as how this year some stores (all of them) are opening on Thanksgiving for their “Black Friday” sales, I’m giving up.
That’s right; I’m throwing in the towel. You win. I even wrote a little song for you heartless bastards, just to show I care. Enjoy.
Stores are open, let’s get hopping.
Screw the family, let’s go shopping.
Out into the hurly burly,
Fa-la-la, la-la-la, la-la-la
Black Friday is starting early!
Fa-la-la-la-la, la-la, la-la
Save the turkey and the stuffing.
Human contact we’re rebuffing.
We’ll be loyal Christmas elves
Fa-la-la, la-la-la, la-la-la
All those gifts won’t buy themselves!
Fa-la-la-la-la, la-la, la-la
Fast away Thanksgiving passes.
Lines move like frozen molasses.
Looking for that coat of leather
Fa-la-la, la-la-la, la-la-la
Instead of being all together.
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Use as directed. Caution: contents may be hot. Do not insert rectally.
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Have you ever noticed how misery has become a contest? It seems like no matter where you go, every time you try to tell a tale of woe, someone else has their own tale to tell, and of course it tops yours. Have a rash? They have a burn. Have a cut? They lost a limb. Got dumped? They got divorced and lost the house in the bargain. There’s always something.
I’m not sure if this is supposed to be commiseration or one-upmanship, but either way I’d like to say “you’re doing it wrong.” Commiseration should be something simple, serious, and heartfelt. An acknowledgement of our common humanity, perhaps coupled with words of comfort. “Dude, that sucks. I’m really sorry to hear that.”
While I would prefer not to encourage one-upmanship (I consider it a distasteful habit, like picking your nose in public or voting), if one is going to engage in it should be done properly as well. Save it for when people are discussing something of value, like a house, a car, or a job. The only proper application of such one-upmanship is when someone is being a particular douchebag, for example talking about their new house, car, and job all at once. In such cases a limited amount of one-upmanship can actually be a public service if applied immediately and without mercy.
In order to curb this outbreak of “misery contestants”, I would like to share an idea my wife and I came up with some years ago. It’s a simple little thing that can be done by anyone but, I think, might just help. Just carry around a roll of nickels with you wherever you go. Whenever someone starts in with the misery contest, hear them out. Let them get it all out there. If you’re feeling particularly pernicious, you can even egg them on a little. When they’re done, simply hand them a nickel and say, “Wow, you’re right. Your life is way worse than mine. Here, have a nickel.” Then walk away.
This simple gesture of faux sincerity and honest scorn will hopefully be the antidote to their sincere display of faux commiseration and honest self-aggrandizement.
Recently I was listening to the radio (okay, I was in the car and I happened to have the radio on) and I heard an interview with director Randy Moore about his new satire Escape from Tomorrow. It was the first I had heard of the film, which is not terribly surprising since I’ve never really been a film festival kind of guy, but I think I may end up seeing this one. It’s not that I have anything personal against the Big Mouse, it’s just that I think he made an important point in this article:
“Branding is so much a part of our culture, and it’s everywhere. And (Disney) is everywhere. They’re so ubiquitous, you can’t get away from them even if you tried… To not be able to comment or critique or parody that (ubiquity), I just think it’s morally unacceptable.”
However, in the interview I heard he also made another point that, while I think it’s important, makes me feel he missed the mark somewhat by targeting Disney specifically. He said (and I can’t seem to find the interview online, so forgive me for paraphrasing) that the theme of the film is that you can’t be happy all the time. I think that’s an excellent point, especially in an age and culture where we have lost sight of the idea of contentment and we are constantly being sold happiness in its stead. I believe Dennis Leary put it best in his stand-up routine No Cure for Cancer:
“Happiness comes in small doses folks. It’s a cigarette butt, or a chocolate chip cookie or a five second orgasm. You come, you smoke the butt, you eat the cookie, you go to sleep, wake up and go back to fucking work the next morning, THAT’S IT! End of fucking list!”
So yeah. While there’s something to be said for taking a few shots at (as Moore describes them) a “ubiquitous” company that specializes in selling happiness, I think there’s something he loses sight of: Disney is only selling what we’re buying. Yes, Disney Theme Parks™ are the Happiest Place On Earth™ (made so, I have been told by a former employee, by sucking all the happiness out of their employees, powdering it, and then sprinkling it over the park; that’s your “fairy dust”), but they don’t force anyone to go there and then whistle Zippy-Doo-Da out of their assholes a-la Clark Griswald. I think there may be more to be found in making a movie that critically examines a culture fixated on perpetual bliss, rather than the companies that strive to provide it.
Which is not to say those companies deserve to be completely let off the hook; they are a part of the culture, they help make and drive that culture, and they deserve a certain amount of grilling in the space of exploring that culture. But to single out one company for catering to the desires of people to have happiness is akin to blaming one company for Americans being obese.
For decades, the ideal of collegiate admissions has been to be “blind” to a range of criteria that (theoretically) should be irrelevant to the admissions process, and among those criteria has been the ability to pay. But as a reported by Marketplace, a recent George Washington University student paper report found that school’s admissions office was “wait-listing students based, in part, on their need for financial aid.” The report goes on to cite Joyce Smith of the National Association for College Admission Counseling as saying that more universities are also taking this approach.
So here’s the big question: is this right?
On the one hand, there’s a reasonable argument to be made that, in an economy that fetishizes college degrees and higher education has become mandatory in order to get a decent paying job, requiring students be able to pay for a degree before they enter school is dooming lower income students to a cycle of poverty. The haves will continue to have, and the have-nots will continue to not-have. On the other hand, with the rapid and continuing rise in the cost of higher education irrespective of anyone’s ability to pay (or market desire for the product being produced) resulting in crippling student loans, it’s more than a little disingenuous to suggest there is any equity to be had in admitting students to a school where they will be spending the majority of their income for decades to pay off their education. In that scenario, those who come in with the ability to pay will continue to have a decided advantage; the haves will still have, and the have-nots will simply have debt.
I would suggest the answer is not need blind admissions, but at least (as GW seems to be moving toward) “need aware” admissions, an acknowledgement that simply taking out loans will not be sufficient and that ability to pay must be taken into consideration at some point in the process. Ideally this would factor in financial aid that does not require repayment, such as scholarships and grants, so as to still allow lower-income students an opportunity to access more competitive schools. This should be paired with a discussion about what should be charged for education at schools, as well as what is and is not supported at those schools; as access to higher education becomes more elusive and more expensive this becomes more of a priority.
I also believe part of that discussion should be at least some consideration for stated major intent. Students who plan to spend a significant amount of time and money pursuing a degree that is statistically unlikely to yield a career that will allow them a decent ability to support themselves and repay any loans they needed to take out should be ranked lower. Perhaps that seems cruel, but I have seen too many students who already come out of universities without the necessary skills to succeed in business; if someone wants to spend $35,000 and up on a Master’s degree in Puppetry they may feel free to do so, but at some level we need to at least take into account the very real possibility they will not be able to get paying work at all, let alone sufficient to repay the loans they have accrued. Giving them sympathy for staging protests in the park doesn’t help; giving them some sense of market demands actually might.
Speaking of market demands, part of the problem here is the incentive structure, and I’m not just speaking of the incentive to get students to take on debt. The incentives to get students to apply just to reject them in a bid to look “selective” is ridiculous, but it’s all about gaming the system. We need a better way of ranking schools. Here’s one: perhaps we should come up with a rating system that judges schools based on the percentage of their graduates who graduate within five years, have a job within two years of graduation, and what salary they are making five years after graduation. Mix in some formula of lower-income admissions if that’s something we value, and be sure to include a percentage rating of how much of their student debt the average student admitted in the freshman class (not just graduates) has paid off within five ten years of starting at that institution.
Wonder how schools would fare then?