We all want to be good people. However, everyone has different definitions of what constitutes “good.” For example, I do not think going to church is good. While there are some positive aspects of church, on the whole I find it to be a delusional patchwork solution to a much deeper intrinsic human anxiety or insecurity; the positive byproducts of going to church are merely coincidental. However, many people think going to church is good. They give it more value than I do. (I don’t necessarily think going to church is “evil” either, but I’m merely pointing out an example of variance within value systems.) They have a different framework of the universe and therefore of its ensuing moral matrix. So, clearly in the context of “good,” there will always be a varying spectrum on which the totality of humanity lies. I know; this observation is nothing novel.
The question of “right vs. wrong” becomes tricky as you zoom in and out on the issue or context at hand. If we are judging ourselves, we have near total control of both our behaviors as well as our working definitions of “good,” so the equation has two erratic variables, as we can not only direct the behavior, but also “bend” our idea of what good is to fit whichever behavior is (often) simplest or most convenient. A quick example is if we are running late to meet a friend, even if we believe being late is “bad,” we can say, “Oh, well. He/she won’t mind,” or, “Well, they’ve been late before so it’s okay for me to be late too.” We make little excuses so we don’t suffer our own crippling judgment at all times. I get that. It can be a survival tactic. However, when we are our own subject of judgment, as the “act of wrongdoing” gets more intense, the more complicated the moral dilemma becomes.
On the other end of the spectrum, one that is unfortunately ubiquitous in the world of Internet and social media, is our (tyrannic) judgment of the actions of celebrities we do not know personally. Whether it’s Lindsay Lohan going to rehab, a politician’s policies, Lance Armstrong lying about doping, Sandusky fucking kids, or any of the myriad of other over-hyped story lines that dominate the (WiFi) airwaves in a systemic attempt to drown out and eliminate any semblance of independent — and therefore potentially dissident — thought left in our collective consciousness, “the public” always has something to say, some opinion to share, some judgment to make. People make these assertions proudly: “FUCK LANCE ARMSTRONG!” — “SANDUSKY CAN ROT IN HELL!” — “RICK SANTORUM IS THE DEVIL!” — And so on and so forth.
These types of criticisms serve two purposes: for one, they allow the individual to feel like he/she is participating in the “important” social discussions; in addition, they give the individual an outlet for the frustration and hostility that builds within them due to their overwhelming lack of control and influence over his/her immediate environment (work, society, etc.) as well as his/her lack of complete understanding of his/her relationship with said environment. We are all suffering from an inability to impose ourselves on our surroundings, and since we are not able to deal with those things directly — For example, if a dude is serving tables 40 hours a week, he is required to conform to such un-human standards of behavior (customer is always right, smile at all times, always be helpful and upbeat, etc.) that it causes him to not only feel like a total piece of shit, but also like he doesn’t have control over his own situation. He is at the mercy of the protocol since he relies on the money it provides. So he feigns respect for an incompetent manager or smiles at the most annoying shit-fuck of a customer in order to retain that source of income. The frustration this breeds does not simply go away when he clocks out. That must be dealt with. — we have to find outlets for that frustration. Sports is a great one as it deals almost directly with aggression. We can root for one team and hate the other and yell and scream about things that don’t affect us. It’s like recess for adults so we don’t “act out” in class (work).
There are many other of these types of unhealthy and misdirected “outlets,” but an important one is what I mentioned above: making moral proclamations and judgments on celebrities and other broad or vague entities or issues. Chucking your half-baked opinions into the ethos is emotional masturbation. And like actual masturbation, it keeps the demon at bay. For a time.
The reason people do this is that it’s incredibly low-risk. It’s really easy to yell judgments when you stand to suffer precisely zero backlash, save for a few “negative” comments on your Facebook post.
A Case Study
Recently, two writers for the Chicago Tribune, Nina Metz and Chris Borelli, came out with an article that, in essence, defended and, at times, advocated heckling in a live stand-up show. This was met with near unanimous vehement disapproval by the stand-up community. Every comedian in the country had a Facebook post or a blog entry devoted to dismantling the asinine article. I sat back and watched and I arrived at a curious conclusion. I posted on Facebook:
“I wonder if everyone would be so vocal about their opposition to the heckler article of Chris Borelli and Nina Metz booked a comedy club.”
The insinuation, if it wasn’t obvious, is that I felt that people were able to be so loudly opposed because they really had nothing to lose. These were “out-of-the-loop” writers that are not gatekeepers and are therefor in no way a threat to someone’s (budding) career. Combined with the fact that the article was so vacuous and ridiculous, they made for easy targets. So I suggested that if they booked a comedy club, or otherwise controlled access to something comedians wanted, people might think twice before they burned that bridge.
Recently, I was informed that a comedy club booker, whom I have always thought was a deceitful and atrocious human being, has been arrested and charged with aggravated assault with a dangerous weapon. He knocked his (now ex) girlfriend to the ground by throwing a box at her head, after which she spent multiple days in the hospital. Yet the “community” remains silent. Now, I understand there are some trepidations with the lack of concrete evidence, etc. (Even if this particular story is not true, this thought process is applicable to many other instances of awful behavior we either have witnessed or will witness.) However, the reticence to commit to a particular “stance” seems to be motivated mostly by weighing the opportunity costs. “Should I stand up for what I know is right or continue to get booked?” Some people even found convenient loop holes: “I’ll work the club, but I won’t like doing it.”
But, see, this is how the broader, more systemic issues arise and are propagated. It’s precisely because people close to the issue say nothing for personal (or capital) gain that the issue itself ripples outward until it has changed and become a different, more substantial problem. For example, everyone loves to rag on politicians, but we don’t know the complex inner workings of the games that they need to play in order to survive (or thrive). Maybe it’s necessary for so-and-so politician to take an anti-gay stance to appease his voter base to guarantee votes and therefore money/power, etc. How is this any different from our little situation here? We are all slaves to our own game.
What To Do?
People love to criticize broad issues like rape or domestic abuse, but what would they do if forced to actually take a stance on it while making a sacrifice? If we are faced with an issue that is local, that we can actually influence, and we stand to gain or lose something by taking a particular stance, that is the true test of our moral character. There is no permissible “cognitive dissonance” here. I don’t think one can work for a small business and simultaneously “not support” the person who runs it.
Now, of course, we can’t do background checks on every single person we work with. I understand this. I also understand that certain “horrible” behaviors are permissible. For instance, if a booker cheated on his/her significant other, I don’t know if that is a compelling enough reason to cut ties. Some people might think it is; for me it’s not. I have worked with some people that did things I didn’t agree with. Some of them I tolerated, others I did. In some cases, if I had to do it again, I would not support them. I am accountable for my past mistakes. Regardless, there is clearly a lot of personal variance within the context of our own moral thresholds.
I know myself. I know that I don’t want to be involved in anyone else’s bullshit, but it is tough to isolate my own behaviors. How are we supposed to know what our net effect is on the rest of the world when society and life is so incremental? I know certain things. I don’t want to be complicit in the wars the U.S. starts; I don’t want to be involved in the systemic propaganda that brainwashes the public; I don’t want to contribute to the status quo that distances humanity from its roots and perpetuates a psychologically problematic social norm; I don’t want to propagate corporations that mistreat workers or suppress the rights of children. I don’t want any of that. That’s not me. I just want to be me. I want to write and perform. I want to be in love. I want to have great conversations with my friends. I want to laugh. I want to cry. I want to live. I don’t want to play games. I don’t want to posture or fight. I don’t want to climb ladders. I don’t want to pretend. Is that possible? Or am I constantly going to have to give foot rubs to the devil in order to retain some semblance of success and production? Has society become so homogenous that the options are that black and white? I’d like to think not, but it feels like I’m constantly killing myself to learn the rules to a game I don’t want to play in the first place.
At the end of the day, it’s not about what anyone thinks. It’s about what I think. (Just like for you, it’s about what you think.) I’m not trying to convince anyone of anything; I am trying to make sense of this myself. I’m sure there are different ways of looking at it that I don’t see. But I want to try and be aware of the consequences of my own actions, as I think we all should. The consequences are not simply what is directly in front of us. Our actions create waves that can turn into tsunamis if enough waves are thrown in the same direction. If you sweep an issue under the rug and say, “Yeah, but I need the work.” Okay, that’s fine. That’s valid. But then can you criticize anyone else who makes the same choice in a different set of circumstances? Can we truly criticize people for “permitting” abhorrent behavior in a similar fashion? Where does it end? How, then, can we hold anyone accountable if we are willing to justify our own selfish motives at the expense of basic decency? I think we lose our credibility and therefore our right. For those reasons, it’s always difficult to figure out what’s right. We either have to man up to our own judgments or stop throwing them so freely at targets that either can’t hear us or don’t care, and accept our own human flaws in others.
I suppose, ultimately, we are all left with same questions that are, admittedly, difficult to answer honestly:
Where do we draw the line? How does that compare with where we claim to draw it? And can we live with that?