Historian Molly Worthen is fighting tyranny, specifically the “tyranny of feelings” and the muddle it creates. We don’t realize that our thinking has been enslaved by this tyranny, but alas, we now speak its language. Case in point:
“Personally, I feel like Bernie Sanders is too idealistic,” a Yale student explained to a reporter in Florida.
Why the “linguistic hedging” as Worthen calls it? Why couldn’t the kid just say, “Sanders is too idealistic”? You might think the difference is minor, or perhaps the speaker is reluctant to assert an opinion as though it were fact. Worthen disagrees.
“I feel like” is not a harmless tic. . . . The phrase says a great deal about our muddled ideas about reason, emotion and argument — a muddle that has political consequences.
The phrase “I feel like” is part of a more general evolution in American culture. We think less in terms of morality – society’s standards of right and wrong – and more in terms individual psychological well-being. The shift from “I think” to “I feel like” echoes an earlier linguistic trend when we gave up terms like “should” or “ought to” in favor of “needs to.” To say, “Kayden, you should be quiet and settle down,” invokes external social rules of morality. But, “Kayden, you need to settle down,” refers to his internal, psychological needs. Be quiet not because it’s good for others but because it’s good for you.
Both “needs to” and “I feel like” began their rise in the late 1970s, but Worthen finds the latter more insidious. “I feel like” defeats rational discussion. You can argue with what someone says about the facts. You can’t argue with what they say about how they feel. Worthen is asserting a clear cause and effect. She quotes Orwell: “If thought corrupts language, language can also corrupt thought.” She has no evidence of this causal relationship, but she cites some linguists who agree. She also quotes Mark Liberman, who is calmer about the whole thing. People know what you mean despite the hedging, just as they know that when you say, “I feel,” it means “I think,” and that your are not speaking about your actual emotions.
The more common “I feel like” becomes, the less importance we may attach to its literal meaning. “I feel like the emotions have long since been mostly bleached out of ‘feel that,’ ” …
Worthen disagrees. “When new verbal vices become old habits, their power to shape our thought does not diminish.”
“Vices” indeed. Her entire op-ed piece is a good example of the style of moral discourse that she says we have lost. Her stylistic preferences may have something to do with her scholarly ones – she studies conservative Christianity. No “needs to” for her. She closes her sermon with shoulds:
We should not “feel like.” We should argue rationally, feel deeply and take full responsibility for our interaction with the world.
Despite the maxim about familiarity breeding contempt, we usually like what’s familiar. With music for example, familiarity breeds hits in the short run and nostalgia in the long run. The trouble is that it’s tempting to attribute our liking to the inherent quality of the thing rather than its familiarity. With movies, film buffs may make this same conflation between what they like and what they easily recognize.
That’s one of the points of Scott Lemieux’s takedown of Peter Suderman’s Vox article about Michael Bay.
Suderman hails Bay as “an auteur — the author of a film — whose movies reflect a distinctive, personal sensibility. Few filmmakers are as stylistically consistent as Bay, who recycles many of the same shots, editing patterns, and color schemes in nearly all of his films.”
But what’s so great about being an auteur with a recognizable style? For Lemieux, Michael Bay is a hack. His movies aren’t good, they’re just familiar. Bay’s supporters like them because of that familiarity but then attribute their liking to some imagined cinematic quality of the films.
My students, I discovered last week, harbor no such delusions about themselves and the songs they like. As a prologue to my summary of the Salganik-Watts MusicLab studies, I asked them to discuss what it is about a song that makes it a hit. “Think about hit songs you like and about hit songs that make you wonder, ‘How did that song get to be #1?’” The most frequent answers were all about familiarity and social influence. “You hear the song a lot, and everyone you know likes it, and you sort of just go along, and then you like it too.” I had to probe in order to come up with anything about the songs themselves – the beat, the rhymes, even the performer.
Lemieux cites Pauline Kael’s famous essay “Circles and Squares” (1963), a response to auteur-loving critics like Andrew Sarris. She makes the same point – that these critics conflate quality with familiarity, or as she terms it “distinguishability.”
That the distinguishability of personality should in itself be a criterion of value completely confuses normal judgment. The smell of a skunk is more distinguishable than the perfume of a rose; does that make it better?
Often the works in which we are most aware of the personality of the director are his worst films – when he falls back on the devices he has already done to death. When a famous director makes a good movie, we look at the movie, we don’t think about the director’s personality; when he makes a stinker we notice his familiar touches because there’s not much else to watch.
Assessing quality in art is difficult if not impossible. Maybe it’s a hopeless task, one that my students, in their wisdom, refused to be drawn into. They said nothing about why one song was better than another. They readily acknowledged that they liked songs because they were familiar and popular, criteria that producers, promoters, and payola-people have long been well aware of.
“In the summer of 1957,” an older friend once told me, “My family was on vacation at Lake Erie. There was this recreation hall – a big open room where teenagers hung out. You could get ice cream and snacks, and there was music, and some of the kids danced. One afternoon, they played the same song – ‘Honeycomb’ by Jimmie Rodgers – about twenty times in a row, maybe more. They just kept playing that song over and over again. Maybe it was the only song they played the whole afternoon.”
It wasn’t just that one rec hall. The people at Roulette Records must have been doing similar promotions all around the country and doing whatever they had to do to get air play for the record. By the end of September, “Honeycomb” was at the top of the Billboard charts. Was it a great song? Assessment of quality was irrelevant, or it was limited to the stereotypical critique offered by the kids on American Bandstand: “It’s got a good beat. You can dance to it.” Of course, this was before the 1960s and the rise of the auteur, a.k.a. the singer-songwriter.
Hollywood uses the same principle when it churns out sequels and prequels – Rocky, Saw, Batman. They call it a “franchise,” acknowledging the films had the similarity of Burger Kings. The audience fills the theaters not because the movie is good but because it’s Star Wars. Kael and the other anti-auteurists argue that auteur exponents are no different in their admiration for all Hitchcock. Or Michael Bay. It’s just that their cinema sophistication allows them to fool themselves.
Yesterday was Super Sunday here in New Orleans, the one day each year that the Mardi Gras Indian tribes come together to be seen by the wider community. The tradition dates back to at least the mid-1800s, belonging to the African American population of New Orleans. Today there are over two dozen Mardi Gras Indian tribes.
Here’s a snippet from my Instagram (click to watch with sound):
Indian tribes mask together groups, often family and pseudo-kin. It used to be an all-male activity, but now women are heavily involved (as “big queens” to the male “chiefs”), and children make regular appearances. Their tough faces are part of the performance, as one of the most well-known mottos of the Indians is “Won’t bow, don’t know how.” These are some of my photos:
Originally the intent was to honor the local Native Americans who took in and rescued escaped slaves in the mid-1700s, though they probably took some inspiration from the “Wild West”-style entertainment that was popular at the time. Until the ’60s, tribes sometimes engaged in violent conflict, but today they encounter each other in order to perform ritualized non-violent conflict resolution, fighting only over who is “prettiest.”
With the exception of Super Sunday, when the Indians go out, it’s not a show. It’s a tradition by and for their own communities and one has to be “in the know” to know where to see them. They’ve been largely left out of tourist attraction-type activities for this reason, and because they’re almost entirely African American and New Orleans has only recently embraced it’s multicultural history and present as part of its appeal.
Still, their elusiveness makes them tourist-resistant and even Super Sunday doesn’t attract many tourists because the event is rescheduled at any hint of rain (because, feathers).
Sociologically speaking, there are lots of fascinating directions to go from here — including the intersection of power, cultural borrowing, and the evolution of artistic vernacular — and I’ll try to get to them in future posts.
On Mardi Gras mornings before dawn, members of the North Side Skull and Bones Gang prowl the streets. It’s a 200 year old tradition belonging to African American residents of the city. They first prowled in 1819.
Members of the gang dress up like ominous skeletons. At nola.com, Sharon Litwin writes:
Because the origins of the Gang were with working class folk who had little money for silks and satins, the skeleton suits are made from everyday items and simple fabrics. Baling wire (to construct the shape of the head) along with flour and water to bind together old newspapers, create the head itself.
Their message is to “warn [people] away from violence” — says the North Side Chief, Bruce “Sunpie” Barnes — especially young people, and especially gun and domestic violence. He explains:
The bone gang represents people… waking people up about what they’re doing in life, if they don’t change their lifestyle. You know. We’re like the dead angels. We let you know, if you keep doing what you’re doing, you’re gonna be with us.
Up before most residents, members of the gang cause a ruckus. They sing songs, bang on doors, and play-threaten their neighbors.
When you travel, the option to stay in a private home instead of a hotel might seem like a nice idea. Your experience of the city might be a little more authentic, maybe you’ll meet a local, and you can keep your money out of the hands of giant corporations. It’s a tiny way to fight the shrinking of the middle class.
These options, though, may not be a panacea. After discovering that his Brooklyn neighborhood had 1,500 listings on Airbnb, Murray Cox decided to take a closer look. How many residences now invite tourists? How small scale were the profits? Did the money really go to locals?
New Orleans wanted to know the answers to these questions, too. The city has been hit by what nola.com reporter Robert McClendon calls a “Airbnb gold rush.” It turns out the city currently has about 2,600 rentals on Airbnb, plus another 1,000 or so on VRBO.com. This has sparked a heated debate among residents, business owners, and politicians about the future of the practice.
So, Cox jumped in to give us the data and figure out where the money is going.
Are Airbnb hosts living in the spaces they rent?
Cox found that they generally are not. Only 34% of rentals are for rooms or shared rooms; 66% of listings are for an entire home or apartment. More than two-thirds (69%) are rented year-round. Almost half of all hosts operate at least two rentals.
These numbers suggest that your modal Airbnb host doesn’t live in the home they rent out. Some may actually live in another city altogether. Others are using Airbnb as an investment opportunity, buying homes and turning them into full time rentals.
What’s the downside?
Locals are complaining about deterioration in the feeling of community in their neighborhoods. It’s difficult to make friends with your neighbors when they turn over twice a week. Tourists are also more likely than locals to come home drunk and disorderly, disturbing the peace and quiet.
And they are pricing people who actually live in New Orleans out of the rental market. Short-term renting offers owners the opportunity to make four or five times the amount of money they could make with a long-term tenant, so it’s an economic no-brainer to sign up for Airbnb. But, as more and more people do so, there are fewer and fewer places for locals to live and so the supply-and-demand curve increasingly favors owners who can jack up long-term rental prices.
So, when you give your money to an Airbnb host in New Orleans or elsewhere, you might be giving some extra money to a local, but you might also be harming the residential neighborhoods you enjoy and the long-term viability of local life.
In Greco-Roman wrestling, boxing, and mixed martial arts, there is a rule that you never hit “below the belt.” The area of biggest concern is the testicles. As the Ultimate Fighting Championship rules specify, “groin attacks of any kind” are a foul. This is probably because groin attacks might make for short fights or ones where everyone just goes around protecting their balls. In any case, the skills being tested are of a different kind. But, even aside from that, this seems like a good idea and very civilized. I do not advocate for testicle kicking, not groin attacks of any kind, for what it’s worth.
I do think it’s somewhat odd, though, that men who fight each other outside of controlled conditions—men in street fights, bar brawls, and parking lot scuffles—also usually avoid hitting below the belt. These fights aren’t about training or skill, like those between professional athletes, they’re real attempts to do some damage out of anger or defensiveness. So, why no hits to the balls?
The question was posed by a woman on Yahoo! Answers: “If you dislike each other enough to want them to get hurt,” she asked, “why not do the worst?”
The answers, admittedly unscientific, were interesting. One of the common responses involved the idea that not hitting below the belt was “an unspoken rule.” Maybe it’s the Golden Rule—do onto others as you would have them do unto you—and some men mentioned that, but others suggested that it was a rule specific to manhood. It’s a “cheap shot,” said one. A “low blow,” said another.
But why? Why do men agree not to kick each other in the balls? Why is that part of the code?
I think it’s because it serves to protect men’s egos as well as men’s balls.
What would street fights between guys look like—or professional fights for that matter—if one could go below the belt? For one, there’d be a lot more collapsing. Two, a lot more writhing in pain. Three, a lot less getting up. All in all, it would add up to less time looking powerful and more time looking pitiful. And it would send a clear message that men’s bodies are vulnerable.
Not hitting below the belt, then, protects the idea that men’s bodies are fighting machines. It protects masculinity, the very idea that men are big and strong, pain- and impact-resistant, impenetrable like an edifice. So not hitting below the belt doesn’t just protect individual men from pain, it protects our ideas about masculinity.
When a man hits below the belt, he is revealing to everyone present that masculinity is a fiction. That’s why one guy said: “For ‘alpha male’ fights, nut shots are just wrong.” Alpha male fights are about figuring out which male is alpha, while preserving the idea that the alpha male is a thing that matters.
This is why men are quick to criticize other men who break the code. One of the best ways to control men is to threaten to kick them out of the man club. “If a guy kicks another guy in the balls on purpose during a fight,” one replied to the question on Yahoo, “he will forever be banished from manhood.” Another said: “Winning like this means that you cannot beat up the other guy by ‘real’ fighting.” It’s a matter of one’s own reputation: “A man who kicks another man in the balls,” said a third, “immediately loses all manliness and respect.”
So, men generally agree to pretend that the balls just aren’t there. The effect is that we tend to forget just how vulnerable men are to the right attack and continue to think of women as naturally more fragile.
I still don’t want anyone to get kicked in the balls, though, just to be clear.
Tristan Bridges PhD and CJ Pascoe PhD on December 29, 2015
Robin Thicke’s song, “Blurred Lines,” achieved international recognition in 2013. But the lyrics were also heavily criticized as promoting sexual violence by celebrating “blurred lines” around sexual consent. Indeed, the song and video prompted an online photo essay in which women and men are depicted holding up signs with words they heard from their own rapists — some of which were almost direct quotes from Thicke’s song. The song received a great deal of negative and positive press all at the same time.
It’s not a new argument to suggest that many elements of what feminist scholars refer to as “rape culture” are embedded in seemingly pleasurable elements of pop culture, like songs, movies, and television shows. And Robin Thicke’s song served as an example to many of how we not only tolerate rape culture, but celebrate it and render it “sexy.”
Recently, Rebecca Traister discussed just how much rape culture even informs what we think of as “good sex” in her piece “The Game is Rigged.” In it, Traister challenges the notion that all consensual sex is good and shows just how messy the debate about what qualifies as “consensual” really is. In many ways, our national discussion around sexual assault and consent is taking up themes raised by feminists in the 1980s about what actually qualifies as consent in a society in which violence against women is considered sexy.
Compared with “Blurred Lines,” Justin Bieber’s newly released hit single, “What Do You Mean?” has been subject to less critique, though it reproduces the notion that women do not actually know what they want and that they are notoriously bad and communicating their desires (sexual and otherwise). In the song, Bieber asks the woman with whom he’s interacting:
What do you mean?
Ohh ohh ohh
When you nod your head yes
But you wanna say no
What do you mean?
The lack of clear consent isn’t just present in the song; it is what provides the sexual tension. It’s part of what is intended to make the song “sexy.”
Sexualizing women’s sexual indecision is an important part of the way rape culture works. It is one way that conversations about consent often over-simplify a process that is and should be much more complex. The song itself presents Bieber nagging the woman to whom he’s singing to make a decision about their relationship. But there are many elements suggesting that the decision she’s being asked to make is more immediate as well — not only about the larger relationship, but about a sexual interaction in the near future. Throughout the song, the click of a stopwatch can be heard as a beat against which Bieber presses the woman to make a decision while berating her for the mixed signals she has been sending him.
Bieber is presented as the “good guy” throughout the song by attempting to really decipher what the woman actually means. Indeed, this is another element of rape culture: the way in which we are encouraged to see average, everyday guys as “not-rapists,” because rapists are the bad guys who attack women from bushes (at worst) or simply get them drunk at a party (at best).
The controversy over the ad in Bloomingdale’s 2015 holiday catalog urging readers to “spike your best friend’s eggnog when they’re not looking” shows that this kind of rape culture is also casually promoted in popular culture as well. But, the larger discourse that Bieber’s song plays a role in promoting is the notion that women do not know what they mean or want. Bieber plays the role of someone simultaneously pressuring her for sexual advance (“Said we’re running out of time”), helping her work through her feelings (“What do you mean?”), and demanding results (“Better make up your mind”). And, like the Bloomingdale’s advertisement, this is not sexy.
Indeed, the music video takes this a step further. Bieber is shown at the beginning paying John Leguizamo on a street corner and asking him to make sure “she doesn’t get hurt.” We later find out that John was paid to orchestrate a kidnapping of both Justin and the woman. Both are taken by men in masks, driven to a warehouse in the trunk of a car, and tied up. Justin is able to free them, but they are still in a room with their kidnappers.
They back up to a door that leads outside the building and see that they are one of the top floors. Justin turns to the woman, holds out his hand and asks, “Do you trust me?” She takes his hand and they both jump out of the building. They jump and fall to the ground, landing on a parachute pillow only to discover that the whole thing was a trick. The kidnapping was actually an orchestrated ruse to bring her to a party that they entered by leaping from the building away from the men who’d taken them. The men in masks all reveal themselves to be smiling beneath. She smiles at Justin, recognizing that it was all a trick, grabs his face, kisses him and they dance the night away in the underground club.
Even though the song is about feeling like a woman really can’t make up her mind about Justin, their relationship, and sexual intimacy, the woman in the video is not depicted this way at all. She appears sexually interested in Justin from the moment the two meet in the video and not bothered by his questions and demands at all. Though it is worth mentioning that he is terrorizing her in the name of romance, indeed the terror itself is a sign of how much he loves her — also a part of rape culture. This visual display alongside the lyrics works in ways that obscure the content of the lyrics, content that works against much of what we are shown visually.
Part of what makes rape culture so insidious is that violence against women is rendered pleasurable and even desirable. Thicke and Bieber’s songs are catchy, fun, and beg to be danced to. The women in Thicke’s video also appear to be having fun strutting around nude while the men sing. The woman in Bieber’s video is being kidnapped and terrified for sport, sure, but it’s because he wants to show his love for her. She’s shown realizing and appreciating this at the conclusion of the video.
Rape culture hides the ways that sexual violence is enacted upon women’s bodies every day. It obscures the ways that men work to minimize women’s control over their own bodies. It conceals the ways that sexual violence stems not just from dangerous, deviant others, but the normal everydayness of heterosexual interactions. And all of this works to make sexualized power arrangements more challenging to identify as problematic, which is precisely what makes confronting rape culture so challenging.
In his book named after the idea, sociologist Stjepan Meštrović describes contemporary Western societies as postemotional. By invoking the prefix “post,” he doesn’t mean to suggest that we no longer have any emotions at all, but that we have become numb to our emotions, so much so that we may not feel them the way we once did.
This, he argues, is a result of being exposed to a “daily diet of phoniness”: a barrage of emotional manipulation from every corner of culture, news, entertainment, infotainment, and advertising. In this postemotional society, our emotions have become a natural resource that, like spring water, is tapped at no cost to serve corporations with goals of maximizing mass consumption and fattening their own wallets. Even companies that make stuff like gum.
As examples, Meštrović describes how our dramas and comedies feed us fictionalized stories that take us on extreme emotional roller coasters, while their advertisements manipulate our emotions to encourage us to buy. Serious media like the news lead with the most emotionally intense stories of the day. Our own lives are usually rather humdrum, but if you watch the news, you vicariously experience trauma every day. A cop killed another kid. An earthquake has killed thousands. Little girls are kidnapped by warlords. Immigrants die by the boatload. Do you feel sad? Angry? Scared? Your friends do; you know because of Facebook, Twitter, and Tumblr. Do you need a pick me up? Here’s a kitten. Feel happy.
Importantly for Meštrović, the emotions that we encounter through these media are not our own. The happiness you feel watching a baby laughing on YouTube isn’t really your happiness, nor is it your sadness when you watch a news story about a tragedy. It’s not your daughter who has treasured your tiny offerings of love for 18 years, but you spend emotional energy on these things nevertheless.
In addition to being vicarious, the emotions we are exposed to are largely fake: from the voiceover on the latest blockbuster movie trailer, to the practiced strain in the voice of the news anchor, to the performative proposal on The Bachelor, to the enthusiasm for a cleaning product in the latest ad. These emotions are performed after being carefully filtered through focus groups and designed to appeal to the masses.
But they are so much more intense than those a typical human experiences in their daily lives, and the onslaught is so constant. Meštrović thinks we are emotionally exhausted by this experience, leaving us little energy left to feel our own, idiosyncratic emotions. We lose our ability to detect our own more nuanced emotions, which are almost always small and mundane compared the extraordinary heights of grief, rage, lust, and love that we are exposed to when the news chases down the latest mass tragedy or the movies offer up never-ending tales of epic quests. Meanwhile, in consuming the emotions of others, we get lost. We end up confused by the dissolving of the boundary between personal and vicarious; our bodies can’t tell the difference between friends on TV and those in real life.
Meštrović is worried about this not just on our behalf. He’s worried that it inures us to real tragedies because our hearts are constantly being broken, but only a little. When we are triggered to constantly feel all the feelings for all the people everywhere — real ones and fake ones — we don’t have the energy to emotionally respond to the ones that are happening right in front of us. His work was originally inspired by the bland global response to the Bosnian genocide in the ’90s, but applies equally well to the slow, stuttering response — both political and personal — to the refugees fleeing the Syrian Civil War and the constant news of yet another mass shooting in America. The emotional dilution that characterizes a postemotional society makes us less likely to take action when needed. So, when action is needed, we change our Facebook profile picture instead of taking to the streets.