Wednesday, January 22, 2014

3 Tropes

This will be a rant about the state of my country/world. Feel free to walk away.
According to Nielsen, the average US citizen watches 34 hours of television a week. I have read that most Americans aren't readers, but all of my friends are obsessive readers. Yet, within that crowd, I'm the odd man out because I read almost exclusively non-fiction. The obsessive readers I know are reading fiction.

Subtract sleep, commute time, dead time... some people have more interaction with imaginary worlds than they do with the real world. Almost everyone has more intense interactions with imaginary worlds than with their daily grind. And as such, consciously or not, people are influenced to believe in how the world works by imaginary, scripted drama.

So three tropes, brought to you by Hollywood and popular fiction, that I see becoming accepted wisdom in the real world. Perilously.

The Cult of the Passionate Amateur. The new rookie comes on the team and he's just so much better and smarter than the grizzled veterans that they become resentful. Or Castle hires a mercenary to find his daughter and says, "I'm coming with you." Or the plot line of "True Grit." In entertainment, being a passionate amateur is a superpower. In real life...we'll get to that.

Arguably, there are good reasons for it in Hollywood. Working with professionals is high-speed and there are a lot of communication shortcuts. It is a good idea to have a naive character. For plot logic, it gives the experienced people an excuse to explain things to the audience by pretending to explain to the amateur. But, since the amateur is the one the audience identifies with, if you want the audience to give you or your advertisers money, you are probably going to wind up making the amateur the star. The hero.

It probably doesn't hurt that most of the writers, themselves, are passionate amateurs with no direct experience and damn little skill in what they are writing about.

How does it work in the real world? Let me ask you this. You're going in for back surgery. Do you want the surgeon who has done seven thousand similar surgeries or the kid fresh out of school who has never actually done a surgery but is really into it? You tell me.

Amateurs helping with hostage rescue are about as successful as amateur surgeons.

Even worse-- passion. People do not think clearly under emotional stress. How smart are you when you're in love? Or angry? Passion is worse (look at marriages destroyed for momentary passion.) "Chief, he killed my brother! You can't take me off this case!" Are you out of your friggin' mind? Not only could any good defense attorney destroy the prosecution on that relationship alone, but people obsessed with revenge are not thinking rationally. And rational thinking solves problems. Not passion.

Effect in the world? Emotion seems to be considered to have validity equal to rationality. Feelings equal or trump facts. Irrational fears trump science. And, the people doing it, fear-mongeriong  by spreading bullshit, thinks it's okay. If the cause is worthy, it is worth lying about. And they are spreading the lies to people who react to the emotion and don't fact check.

The Virtue of the Unprepared. I blame MacGyver for this one (and a hat tip to Kathy Jackson of the Cornered Cat for pointing this out.) MacGyver was an eighties TV character who did dangerous jobs but didn't like guns so with his trusty swiss army knife would do some kind of field-expedient explosion or something in every show to save the day using household chemicals and bits of trash...

Get this. He had a dangerous job. Where people would try to kill him and blow him up. And because he didn't like guns he purposely denied himself the right tools. This is not genius, this is blatant stupidity. And somehow it became a virtue. I'm all for thinking out of the box, and creativity, and having a basic knowledge of simple chemistry and engineering in case you need to get rid of a stain or pull a car out of a mudhole and you don't have the right equipment...

But to deliberately deny yourself the right equipment? In the real world, that's just stupid. And, through MacGyver (he's the most obvious, but in every episode of the A-team I saw they got captured or trapped without their toys and had to make things) stupidity has become a virtue.

Let me put it in surgical terms again. Who do you want to operate on your back? The guy with the right equipment, or the one who says, "I don't like knives. What we'll do, see, is I'll improvise a scalpel from a tin can..."

Dreamers. This really contributed to me tossing fiction many years back.  The trope runs like this (it was endemic in fantasy fiction, I hope that has changed):
The sweet, gentle dreamer child is always running off to read books and be alone and daydream about making the world a better place. Her mean, narrow-minded, rough and calloused family are always trying to stop her from day dreaming. If the family isn't out fishing or farming, they are trying to force her to become just like them. Then, one day, a magical creature comes by and recognizes the deep wonderfulness of the dreaming child and takes her away to be trained as a special person, elevated well above her parents where she can become a hero...

Leaving aside all the family issues in this, WTF? You have a family living a hard life-- and if you've ever subsistence farmed, it's a metricfuckton of manual labor. I can only imagine that fishing from small boats would be worse--hard, cold, wet and dangerous. And they have one kid who is just pure lazy. Living off the labor of others, contributing nothing unless forced to, ranting that being forced to contribute to keeping herself and her family fed is a horrible injustice and beneath her. Crap, am I talking about the fictional trope or modern protesters?

If humanity is a body, the dreamers are the fat cells. They are the soft underbelly of society. The ones the shark can eat first before it tears into something useful. Maybe good for emergency food supply.

This is not a rant against dreaming. Dream big, go for it. But dreaming without sweating is worthless. Dreams and sweat combined? Cool. The Dream is damned and dreamer too if dreaming's all that dreamers do. To quote myself.

But, somewhere, somehow, the people raised with this trope not only believe that fantasy is just as effective as labor in making people's lives better. They honestly believe it is morally superior. That doing nothing works. That making unexecuted plans is just as much a contribution (and without the possibility of error, that's a nice bonus) as doing something. "Visualize World Peace" How's that working for you?

Surgery again. Do you want the lady who has put in the years and hours of medical school and residency? Or the one who has been daydreaming about how cool it would be to do the exact same thing without pain? Especially if some magical animal told her she's special?


Charles James said...

This could be pointed toward todays business world where Dilbert is not far off the mark and managers tend to dream of productivity while dissing the hard grunt work necessary to "get the job done."

Putting the head in the sand syndrome and moving from job to job just when things wrong start to come to the light.


TWW said...

"Surgery again. Do you want the lady who has put in the years and hours of medical school and residency?...Especially if some magical animal told her she's special?"

My wife is having surgery on Friday so I plan to ask the surgeon if a special animal told her she was special:) Her other credentials look pretty good:)

Anonymous said...

The rookie vs. veteran trope is somewhat different than the amateur vs. professional. The rookie-veteran trope is usually about New School vs Old School, with the moral being both Respect Experience and Learn New Things. in the real world, would you rather have the surgeon who has done the same surgery 7000 times, and can guarantee a hospital stay, open surgery, and six weeks recovery, or the new surgeon who is up-to-date on microsurgery, and can do the same thing in outpatient with a half-inch incision and fiberoptic camera? or, even better, the doctor who says "Listen, I've done a ton of these surgeries, and I'll do it for you, but they can do a new procedure at the teaching hospital with new equipment that'll do the job much easier, you should go there."

Anonymous said...

Rory, what do you see as the difference between modern protesters and protesters from, say the civil rights movement? Because there are still causes, like marriage equality, that I'm sure we can agree on.

Rory said...

Anon2- No difference. It's not the causes I'm talking about. I'm sure we agree on a lot of those. as near as I can tell, protests have always had a negative effect on the movement. They are an intense bonding affect for those involved and tend to solidify loyalties, and that may be a plus to the cause, but they always have and always have had a negative effect on the opposition and the uncommitted. I don't know how you feel about the Occupy movement or the Tea Party, but look at the one you _disagree_with. Has coverage of their rallies or protests ever convinced you they were on to something?
The ones who accomplished things in the Civil Rights movement were the ones who went into the deep south and registered voters and did what they could to protect them. The ones who risked and worked. The lawyers and, in the end, the voters changed things. Not the protesters. The essence of a protest is to agitate for other people to solve the problems. The essence of adulthood is to solve problems yourself. More clearerer?

Anonymous said...

That's one of the things about most causes that people so vehemently promote, they aren't achievable. Ending world hunger, poverty, removing bullying from our evolutionary programming, and equality. Nothing is achieved by marching, wearing a bracelet, or walking miles holding hands. Nothing is achieved other than feeling good without actually having to put any real sweat (Rory's term) into whatever is the feel good cause of the moment.

Mac said...

I want the magical animal. Then, anything thing I do is excused because I have an illness. Society will pay me, house me, treat me, transport me and recreate me. It's a form of tribute. WAY easier than sweating. This is the new American dream.

HandsinHead said...

Personally I find the problem is that no one is dreaming for themselves, they are just eating other peoples dream scripts for a buzz.

The fantasy trope I find interesting, because it often goes the other way. Where the dreamer is subjected to difficulties they cannot understand or cope with, which are outside of the norm for the people in their environment, and with that alienation look inside themselves rigorously for a solution which appears 'fantastical' but resolves into physical development and progress.

Fantasy of course can make the protagonist a 'special flower' but that's a by-product of character focused writing.

The more general term of 'fantasy' is not necessarily the same thing as 'doing nothing', nor is dreaming.

Each engages different processes.

Take these two examples.

One; a man repeats the mantra 'world peace' in front of every challenge which faces him. Economy? World peace. War? World peace. Famine? World peace. Waste management? World peace.

Clearly this is a case of trying to fit a square block in a round opening.

Two; a man considers the concept of world peace, how we are nowhere near that, but what it might look like if we were. He fantasizes about this world, considering the different characters who might emerge, and how they might act, and what got them to this point. He gradually incorporates these traits, for the sake of this conversation, intelligent benevolence, measured empathy and compassion, etc.

Has he put in sweat? Not in a labor sense. However he may have incorporated some things during the dreaming process which result in tendencies that have improved his life measurably.

Dreams and fantasy are schemata. There is a value in encountering large volumes of schemata, and there are measurable and scientific correlations with reading fiction/fantasy/dreaming and increased empathy, problem solving, and inventiveness.

The question is are you actively engaged with dreaming and fantasy, or are you rather relinquishing yourself to the dreams and fantasies of someone else?

The real problem are those who have given up on dreaming and fantasy (which are both active processes), and have relinquished themselves to apathy and oblivion. Filling the void in themselves with other people’s dreams and narratives and fantasies.

That is the real fat cell of humanity. Those who cannot even imagine that things could be different, or self reflect skeptically, or develop new scripts and conceptual models.

Those who have abnegated self determination.

Although there is a fetishism around dreaming, much like the 'melancholic artist' fetish, and a growing schism between concept and implementation; the real danger is those who don't dream for themselves.

Those are the ones who will accept the dreams of others, and hold them close as if they were their own.

The man who learns 'visualize world peace' hasn't dreamed it for himself, he has adopted a very simple low-functioning meme.

It will not get him or world peace very far.

Dreams are objectively neutral. But the act of dreaming certainly can have deep and lasting implications, and developing skill will improve your critical or functional faculties in that area.

Those who relinquish their dreaming faculties have less reference to see what good or bad dreams are.

Dreams vs labor is a false dichotomy.

The real cognitive dissonance is that of ‘ideal’ vs actual.

Ideally we want productivity, but without doing the work. That is the passive state of attempting to impose an ideal on a situation which is realistically not aligned with that ideal state.

Those who are passive in their labor will be more likely to find activity through active fantasy than with a passive script from external sources.


HandsinHead said...

(Part two)

What am I trying to say here...

I guess simply that developing dreaming and fantasy as active qualities is somewhat intrinsically beneficial, whether they are implemented or not.

Not everyone will be useful or functional in this world, that's just a reality. Not everyone embodies their potentials. The dreamer has developed a tool-set of one kind at least.

However I think you may have mistaken the act of dreaming for its opposite, passivity and the relinquishing of agency.

That may be the real enemy. Emotional passion is often portrayed as a relinquishing of control, so is the 'unpreparedness as virtue'.

Harnessed passion and improvisational abilities are their natural counterparts which are good skills to develop in context.

Taken to their caricatured extreme, of course they are unhealthy and detrimental.

But most mass consumption works on these extreme caricatures, and generally speaking people either embody their higher or lower aspects.

I'm undecided as to whether the media, or peoples consumptive habits, portends anything other than a status quo (which may be a gradual slope to somewhere else.)

Just some thoughts. Thanks for the great blog posts!

Randy said...

Just to throw it out there on the theme- "Silence of the Lambs" is a modern retelling of Cinderella. Lecter is the fairy godmother.

Jose Tadeo said...

You are absolutely right with all three points Rory. And the worse thing is that these dreamers and fear mongers are trying to pass laws and legislate according to their distorted view of the world.

Ryan M. said...

Every time I read a post (or the comments) I feel like a child sitting at the table listening to the adults talk and hesitating to speak for fear of not being able to contribute.

With that said: the question(s) that surface from this post are: how do we begin to change that habit of living in fantasy worlds? Is it as simple as just deciding to see reality instead of creating a fantasy? And right up until the actual action, even the decision to act is just a dream. What's preventing the action itself?

Rich said...

Rory, please keep writing. To read this degree of joined up thinking/common sense is an all too rare joy. Thank you.

Rory said...

Ryan M.- It's not hard. Put down the remote control and
Go see a new city. People watch
Go for a hike in the desert.
Take a class-- survival or first aid or forging or...
Meet people you have nothing in common with
Make sure you have at least one friend who is smarter than you who disagrees about everything (Hi, Barry!)
Volunteer: SAR or reserves or rural FDs or...
Do the things that scare you until you get uncomfortable when you get too comfortable.

It's not hard to do stuff. It's a big world and full of things.

Neil Bednar said...

"..Emotion seems to be considered to have validity equal to rationality..."
This is the result of the continued attack on the masculine in our society. Men in our culture are no longer revered for anything, they are made fun of. Homer Simpson is the perfect popular manifestation of this. The clueless dolt has become the "hero" and we are feeling the ramifications.

Tia said...

"Emotion seems to be considered to have validity equal to rationality. "
Although most people can distinguish between thoughts and feelings it's become acceptable to use "I think that" and "I feel like" interchangeably. We've been taught we can challenge thoughts and ideas but not feelings. So saying "I feel like this is right" relieves the speaker of accountability and makes it socially unacceptable to challenge the idea.
I'd be curious to see how reversing this trend could increase appreciation for rational thought in society.

Josh Kruschke said...

What is the difference between a rally and a protest?

A change of focus?

RXian said...

Josh K, by strict definition, a rally is an aspect of or form of demonstration. Popular use can shift the semantics a bit. How I view them: 1. rally tends to be a gathering of like-minded persons in support of something (think pep-rally) or to drum up support. The audience and the presenter often share the same view. 2. In a protest, the entire group is the presenter, and the opposition is the audience. The presenters are giving a show of strength/numbers.

Just my interpretation.

Very thought provoking thread here.

Maija said...

Seems like this quote:
"..Emotion seems to be considered to have validity equal to rationality..."
Is a popular jumping off point.

I'd just like to throw in that purely 'rational' thought and decision making can be just as prone to delusion, and thus should not be deemed wholly reliable in comparison to 'emotional' decisions ...

Also, though I accept and understand that 'caring' about something, caring about the outcome, clouds judgement, I think there is a third 'place' that decision making is made from, sometimes confused with the emotions, though not exactly emotional (hence the 'I feel/I think' confusion) but yet not totally 'rational' as it is not objective -

The 'gut feeling' when something 'feels right' without being able to articulate why (which could be wrong, could be right, who knows), and I bet this place is also tied in with the 'location' of one's personal ethics and moral judgement.

These seem to me to be a combination of rational thought AND personal biases (from society/culture/experience).

Neil Bednar said...

Regarding "...purely 'rational' thought and decision making can be just as prone to delusion, and thus should not be deemed wholly reliable in comparison to 'emotional' decisions..."
I would have to strongly disagree. If rational thought (essentially, logic) has value relative to emotion, it is in it's relative permanence. Whereas emotion is capricious and often whimsical, subject to change in any direction for any reason, rationality is (by definition) grounded in fact, and usually has some sort of generally agreed upon framework. The only way to establish meaningful communication is when people speak the same language. Mathematics is an exaggerated form of this. The unpredictable nature of emotion make reliable communication extremely challenging if not impossible.

Maija said...

Ah, Neil, I am not arguing the fact that emotions can make debate very frustrating, illogical if you like, and is certainly not a great basis for problem solving.

However, humans have a long, long history of 'rational' decision making that is just as illogical when compared to 'fact' .... Just because it is 'rational' frontal lobe reasoning, does not, in my humble opinion, make it 'true', 'right' or factual.

Scott said...

MWM- Smart, competent, experienced, hard working, cooperative, rational, professional, sweats a lot, dis-passionate, thoughtful, plans ahead, and carries a gun. And a knife.

Is seeking same in collaborators to populate a new planet. Must bring own mate.

Please send answer to the following question:
1. If you find yourself on an adventure with a magical emotional animal who needs surgery, and is passionate about protesting, and never has the right equipment, do you...
a. give it your gun,
b. give it your knife
c. put it in charge of all decision making
d. make an egg salad sandwich

Neil Bednar said...

Maija, I agree with that. Not fact, but better at problem solving than emotion! By the way, I love emotion. Just fails miserably when applying to fixing my computer that's for sure.

Maija said...

Neil - That's why you need a hammer ;-)

RXian said...

This is gonna be quick and unpolished...

Maija, if I may, is describing intuition in this sentence: "The 'gut feeling' when something 'feels right' without being able to articulate why (which could be wrong, could be right, who knows), and I bet this place is also tied in with the 'location' of one's personal ethics and moral judgement."

Intuition develops from personal experience.

This is becoming a bit of a logic vs emotion thread. But remember, empiricism (knowledge gained through experience) trumps pure (and abstract) logic/reason. Greek philosophers were heavily into this approach. Something might look great on the logical drawing board, but only application will show if it works or not.

And application (experience) can become heavily associated with any number of environmental cues that will set off emotional triggers in future events/settings/encounters.

An emotional reaction is faster than a logical one. Intuition will alert a person to a problem often before he/she can consciously and logically recognize a problem.

Unknown said...

I like reading fiction- including fantasy- but I know "The Secret" is bullshit.

Unknown said...

I like reading fiction- including fantasy- but I know "The Secret" is bullshit.

Unknown said...

I like the general theme, but I have to disagree with Randy.'Silence of the Lambs' is 'Hanzel and Gretal'. There's a chicken bone and an unexpected bang at the end and the young girl turns out to be the one who saves the day.

Unknown said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Unknown said...

I so agree. Raising a son and trying to imbue in him the level of commitment, respect, discipline and joy my father possessed was and seems to be a losing battle. My parents raised a strong daughter ahead of their times...or with their times, since most of my female predecessors have been strong and accomplished women in my family. But raising a son to understand that turning a Barbie doll into a gun is fine and that a man is only as good as his word and his will? To take responsibility for your own actions in this world? Whew! Sucks! I think lack of being responsible for your non-action and laziness, etc is more a problem than actual dream. But I think you are right in that traits often seen as inherently masculine are being down graded in Western society and have been for many years.