Saturday, June 6, 2015

Uncompromising and Aggressive Impatience

“It’s kind of like everyone complimenting Jenner while offline calling him a f**knut… why can’t we just be honest if we think he’s a f**knut?”

Caitlyn Jenner bum rushed our collective show with the public relations force of ten tsunamis.

A conservative-leaning friend sent this text in the days after the hype invaded America’s pop culture and news fronts. We had a brief text debate about her (and the coverage of her), with a kind of frankness that friends can express privately but cannot, in 2015, express openly.

Let me be very, very clear on my own personal opinion of Caitlyn Jenner: I mean her no harm. I wish her health, psychologically and otherwise. I do not pretend to fully understand her situation, but I want very much not to judge her for her struggle with identity. (NOTE: italic emphasis here is supremely important.)

On Facebook, and in the media, I (and others) felt this wave of aggressive, borderline pugilistic support of Caitlyn. The message, loud and clear and on heavy repeat, was this: “Support her, be OK with her, consider her a hero, or you are an evil caveman.”

This aggression was instant and unflinching. It started happening the minute the Vanity Fair cover began to make the rounds. It was sort of a continuation of the aggression that arrived with Jenner’s earlier TV interviews. Accept her, you closed-minded stupid backwater Americans. And if you have to think twice about it, or if you dare express a sliver of doubt or uncertainty, you are scum.

Meanwhile, I’m wondering who voted Caitlyn Jenner the queen of this cause. Who decided she was the best person to speak for, or represent, the transgender community, its struggles, its realities?

Why not, just for random example, Laura Jane Grace?

Can we be honest here? Can we admit that Bruce/Caitlyn has lived a life that is chock full of problems, many of which we know about only because this family has invited all curious bystanders to watch them as if they were zoo animals on an international stage?

Can we admit s/he has been a horrendous parent, horrendous with relationships in general? Can we be honest with ourselves and acknowledge that maybe her gender struggles explain some of it, but maybe that doesn’t explain all of it, and maybe it shouldn’t excuse all of her wrongs?

My fear -- and it’s grounded in history -- is that pop culture and the media is in a hurry to proclaim her a hero and an icon so that we can enjoy watching her fall off that pedestal in the not-too-distant future. There is nothing easier to predict, knowing what we know, than the inevitable collision of Caitlyn Jenner with a Really Bad Decision or Event. So now we just sit back and wait for it, drooling and ready to recalibrate our uncompromising and aggressive judgment.

Can we admit that her decision to become the focal point of yet another reality TV show deserves a moment’s pause? Is this the decision of a sane person? Is this decision about wanting to be a hero, in a selfless and healthy way, a Public Icon for the Struggle? Or is it the choice of an unstable narcissist who has managed to raise or be related to an entire culture of narcissists, whose family is practically synonymous with the modern American definition of narcissism? Is it simple greed with no concern about exploitation?

Or must any questioning of her or her decisions be passive-aggressive, cowardly ways of masking prejudice and hate? Increasingly it feels like this, that pausing over something socially controversial, to hold off on pronouncing one’s support or condemnation, to actively try not rushing to judgment, is being judged by our culture as a sign of small-mindedness or things unhealthy for our society.

We are so hungry to be Publicly Supportive and to Take A Stand (on social media and the Internets, mostly) that anyone who won’t rush there with us, with the same passion and volume as us, makes us feel challenged, or weak, or cowardly. And that makes us angry.

In a column by David Brooks about the troubling environment on college campuses, he writes, “Today’s campus activists are not only going after actual acts of discrimination — which is admirable. They are also going after incorrect thought — impiety and blasphemy.”

Is this exclusive to “(college) campus activists”? Or has it become far more endemic to our entire Wi-Fi-connected society? I fear the latter.


Bob said...

I'm not on Facebook, which you may take to be a glib or irrelevant response, but I'm pretty sure, as you suggested, that most or all of your friend conversations on this topic were more nuanced than the Facebook/internet versions. Hasn't public discourse always been black and white?

Based on my reading of Brooks' article, by the way, he hasn't been on any college campuses to draw these conclusions, and his 4 or 5 examples are meant to represent the entire nation of colleges. Typical Brooks, which is why he sucks.

Billy said...

Bob - So you can't learn or know anything unless you've been there yourself, physically? I wonder why we teach history. I wonder why you don't exclusively teach via field trips. Be careful, Bob. The "you weren't there so you can't be sure" is the kind of logic used by Holocaust deniers. How many examples can Brooks reasonably squeeze into a 600-word essay?

Jerry Seinfeld and a number of comedians have written or spoken the same thing, that they no longer feel comfortable or welcome on college campuses. The "trigger warning" thing is real. The challenge of finding "non-controversial" graduation speakers is real. Campuses have always wrestled with thought control while they proclaim the values of free expression, but lately it's a different kind of ominous vibe.

Your observation (as I understand it) that Facebook comments and news story comments are not friendly discourse but something far coarser and simplified is valid. To be sure, shame on me for wishing it were a more thoughtful environment.

Bottom line: a culture where people feel unsafe to express even non-violent, non-extremist opinions because of people who can claim their words as assault is a culture where the pendulum has swung too far.

Bob said...

The colleges Brooks and the others cite are liberal arts colleges in the Northeast, except for Northwestern, which has a similar vibe. To extrapolate from that to college culture in the United States is a huge leap. It's like when he went to Princeton for "The Organization Kid" and talked to 5 students and came up with his theory and the rest of the school and others like it said, Woah, you haven't captured us at all. Challenging the social insights and extrapolations of David Brooks is a far cry from being a Holocaust denier, I'd suggest.

I read Kupnis' piece, which I enjoyed and sometimes agreed with, though I take issue with her "it used to be okay to date students and grad students" notion. We had a visiting professor sleep with one of our writers in our MA program. She was 22; he was a married with children, internationally-known author aged 38. We thought he was a piece of shit back then, and that was 35 years ago.