The Valentine’s Day Massacre

She loves you, yeah, yeah, yeah...

February 12, 2010

There’s a holiday around the corner. As we speak, millions of men are trying to find out what to get that special someone. Others are just now realizing how utterly hosed they are since they forgot what day it is. Children are exchanging little candy hearts. Drama is nigh. Oh, it is nigh, my friends.

This is the season when Hallmark and others remind us that love is special and we should show it this day by buying their pink frilly products for the one we love. Saint Valentine’s Day has its roots in Christian antiquity and Geoffrey Chaucer, and while we may be jaded by all the pink and hearts and Zales commercials, this isn’t an article about the holiday. This is, after all, a site devoted to language.

It’s about love.

Poets devote themselves to it. Greeting card companies make a killing from it. Rick Astley will never give you up and he will never let you down. A video told me that last one. Movies tell us how romantic it is. However, I firmly believe it is the one word in English that has lost all meaning. We use the word in casual conversation so much that many of us don’t realize it. Try counting how many times you say “love” in a given day.

People often say you don’t know when you’re in love, that you just know it. It’s funny, but no one ever says you can’t tell when you’re angry, happy, sad, or any other of the vast spectrum of emotions humans feel. We just do. For some reason, “love” is a puzzle box of an emotion, a feeling so rare and mysterious that we don’t even know when we feel it, kind of like someone who is colorblind suddenly seeing red and green for the first time.


Colorblind by ~chaos-of-fire on deviantART

Dictionary.com has twenty-two definitions for the word, fourteen nouns, seven verbs and verb phrases, plus six idioms. These cover everything from admiration and longing to sexual desire. Can one word mean so may things?

Part of the problem, like I said, is that we’ve used the word like a roll of duct tape. If it works, okay, fine. We love pizza. We love our country. We love tea in the morning. We’re only happy when it rains. We’re only happy when it’s complicated even though we know you won’t appreciate it. The word’s lost all meaning. It’s not even a word. It’s a comma. Language changes when people change. Dictionaries add new words every year as slang enters common usage and words gain new meanings. I’d love to blame romantic comedies, bad romance novels, or Glenn Beck in some way, but the truth is we’ve interbred the word with different meanings and situations to the point that, were it a horse, it would be sterile and have five legs.

However, there has to be some common ground, something every definition has in common. They all refer to some kind of longing, wanting something or someone. That seems reasonable. If we’re away from the person we love, we want them even more, just like the saying goes. But “longing” is already a word. Besides, it’s too close to “lust” and “greed” in meaning. I’m sure stalkers everywhere could use this definition to justify their actions.

And if you are a stalker and you quote me on this at your trial, I will hurt you in ways they haven’t named yet.

Could it simply be a more severe version of liking something? Does it really just mean you like something very, very, very much? Like, times a million? Maybe I like cheeseburgers, but LOVE flame-broiled bacon cheeseburgers. Is this it? Do you gain enjoyment from something you love? What about unconditional love?

No wonder we’ve been writing about this for centuries. It’s hard. Like Chinese algebra on Viagra.

If it’s simply a word that means we like something so much, why are people willing to die for it? Soldiers, pilots, marines, and sailors all give their lives for the country they love. No greater love hath a man than he lay down his life for another. Most of us will agree there are “grades” of love. You don’t “love” your husband or wife the same way you “love” the Beatles. People don’t like God. They love God. What does “love” mean, though?

I once had a good friend tell me to not use the word “love” unless I knew what it meant. I didn’t, not for a long time. I know what it means to me now, and only a few others know it, too. I’ve since wondered how many people can actually know what the word means when they say it. How do they use it? Does it really mean something no other word can describe, or is a placeholder?

Cultures shape their language. Words have power. I took back this one word and gave it meaning. When I say it, it means something no other word can duplicate. What about you?

Ever loved someone?

And did you know what it meant?

Big Brother’s Little Sister

Obey. Obey. Obey. (wink)

February 10, 2010

A key component in any argument, in virtually every piece of writing, is the ability to not contradict yourself. You have to make your case and use facts, and occasionally emotion, to sway the reader to your side. These past few years, as I watch conservatives go on about how society is evil, how things are falling apart due to everything from the Democrats being in control, the acceptance of homosexuality as a legitimate lifestyle, to violent video games, I can’t help but marvel at the utter set of contradictions I’ve been hearing.

The most recent is Palin’s apparent horror and shock at Rahm Emmanuel’s use of the word “retarded” as an insult, then her apparent joy and support for Rush Limbaugh for decried the incident and used the SAME word in the SAME context.

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Oh, I’m sorry. It’s the R-word now. Maybe I’m being simplistic. Or maybe I like picking on Palin because she’s what the military would refer to as a target-rich environment.

A lot of conservatives, not all of them, but enough, seem to hold on to various apparently conflicting ideas while believing a common cause. Another example I’ve heard a lot in the last several years is this phrase, said in one form or another: “Yes, gays are people too, but as a Christian, I don’t believe they should be allowed to get married.”

…Say what? Also, it’s apparently not fair to point out that Dick Cheney has a lesbian daughter. If you talk about her, she’s real…

How about this one? Conservatives want less government intervention in their lives, yet they also believe government should regulate things like prayer in schools and what gets taught using public money.
We should abolish the death tax because the children of the rich shouldn’t have to work if their parents already have money, but we shouldn’t give money to people who need it through government welfare programs.

Liberals hate the troops but conservatives love them, yet Republican presidents have made more cuts in wages and benefits for soldiers.

Abstinence is the only way to prevent teen pregnancies, yet pointing out that Sara Palin has a grandchild through her unmarried teenage daughter apparently doesn’t count. Not my fault Levi Johnston was doing exploratory drilling of his own.

Marriage is sacred, yet the states with the highest divorce rates are the ones with the highest concentration of admitted religious citizens.

The easy answer would be to just say that conservatives don’t want to flat-out say, for example, they believe all other faiths are false and theirs is the true one or that if they speak out against homosexuals, they’ll be branded as bigots if they don’t hide behind the sanctity of religion. It’s not me, they’ll say. It’s the rules. Follow the rules or Hall Monitor will tell the principal. They want something because of bigotry, ignorance, or whatever you want to cook up, but they want to look like the good guys.

That can’t be it because many conservatives will flat-out read the party line without caring who they hurt. They just believe the contradictions, heart, soul, and whatever they have that passes for a mind. It’s probably a nerf football in heavy syrup.


Brain Damage by ~Bolarg on deviantART

This idea of believing contradictions is familiar to anyone who’s read something beyond the Fox News ticker. In his novel 1984, George Orwell showed a dystopia where the population was taught to doublethink. Doublethink is more than just hypocrisy. It means the ability to not only see the contradiction, but to ignore it and forget it ever existed. You could erase a historical text, input a new one, and believe the new text was all that ever existed.

Conservatives will disregard facts when they do not fit the narrative they have created for themselves. Fox News, for example, has done a great job of creating this story where liberals are the evil foot-soldiers of the Morning Star and Glenn Beck is smart. It’s a bastardization of the scientific method. You’re supposed to first ask a question, do research, experiments, and whatnot, then see if the evidence backs up your hypothesis. Many conservatives have their conclusion first, then look up facts that will support it. Any evidence to the contrary is either a lie, from an unreliable source, or otherwise the result of liberal propaganda.

Damn liberals and their research.

Do many conservatives subscribe to doublethink? The internet, whatever its faults, is full of people ready to do the research. Much like the scientific community, it looks for new data, new things to process. Hoaxes, and they exist, are often uncovered in a short amount of time. Today, with millions of people connected to millions more and endless databases and resources, we can say, with certainty, that our president was born in the United States, comprehensive sex education works to prevent venereal diseases, and you can’t actually buy bonsai kittens.

How did doublethink occur? Are so many conservatives simply hell-bent on following an ideology to its end, no matter what is said and done? Maybe they all hate gays, Muslims, and non-Christians and their policies are designed to crush these groups while exalting Jesus and country.

Possible, but unlikely. People have never been shy about expressing hatred. I can’t help but think that this doublethink goes back to religion, though.

Many conservatives say, nay yell, from the mountaintops that God is the one true source of morality and goodness in the world. All things are possible through Him. When Jesus comes back during our lifetime, He’ll send the sinners to the hot place and the good little Christian boys and girls will grow angel wings and go to Heaven and play with unicorns.

That’s assuming he comes back after the last time.

Where does this morality come from? Christianity is built on the belief that all power and morality flows from God. He can do no wrong, and His wrong is absolute law. The Ten Commandments, an endless source of debate when someone places them in a public space, are the cornerstones of Judeo-Christian morality.

However, American law is very much counter-Biblical. We can worship whoever or whatever we want. If we so choose, we can use the name of God Himself to blaspheme. The Bible says not to covet my neighbor’s possessions, and yet wanting something is not a crime.

All this is true, so why do so many people still follow this or any other religion? Many in the 19th century saw science as the cure for religion. They would look at today’s world and argue that this borders on insanity, that believing something you know to be blatantly untrue is a sure sign of madness. Are conservatives insane? Many of the claims made over the past several years, from the reasoning for the invasion of Iraq, the health care fiasco this year, and even the belief that interfering with business is bad while decrying big business for taking away American jobs, hinge on believing mutually exclusive thoughts. What fuels this?

Faith.

Helen of Troy launched a thousand ships. Faith moved religions. Most of us hold faith to a high ideal. We say that faith manages, faith will suffice, and faith is what lets us keep going when everything else seems lost. Some people mock it. Others live by it.

However, faith is also dependent on having an incomplete understanding. It means you believe in something without knowing all the facts. It’s the opposite of trust. People can earn and lose trust. Faith is blind.

Could this be the key to doublethink? Do some conservatives have so much faith in the ideals of their party, of their families and communities, that they can ignore facts and logic in favor of the narrative? It could be. I’d love to know the percentage of conservatives in this country that are active members of churches. Does having faith in the narrative, that liberals are evil, gays are abominations, and Obama an extremist Christian Kenyan fundamentalist Muslim, allow some people to ignore facts, to not hear the words coming out of their mouths?

Do these people need the facts spelled out for them?

Holding on to blatant contradictions is not strength. It’s stupidity. Ignorance is the absence of knowledge. Stupidity is the ignoring of gained knowledge. I reserve the right to call these people stupid. To their faces. Their stupid, stupid faces.

Babies Can’t Have Steak

Please turn brains off before responding to censorship.

January 24, 2010

The movie Avatar (which I’ve yet to see and I will gut your worthless soul if you so much as give three seconds away) has garnered considerable praise for its technical innovations and the ability to open a whole new realm of filmmaking. This morning, however, I heard a criticism I hadn’t heard. It wasn’t that the plot reminded people of the story of Pocahontas or that the Na’vi looked like the feral offspring of the Smurfs and the Thundercats.


Smurf on Na’vi Action by ~drawerofdrawings on deviantART

Apparently, Sigourney Weaver’s character in the movie smokes.

An adult in a science fiction movie doing something that is legal and socially accepted in 20th century Earth?! Next thing you know, they’ll have phone cords in space!

Let me give you juice bits if you don’t want to read it, although it IS a very short article. David Edelstein says that we should give films that feature smoking an automatic R-rating. His exact words:

A kneejerk “R” for cigarettes would be a threat to artistic freedom, a restraint on capitalism. It would be Puritanism! Censorship!

Right? Well, no. I think it’s a good idea.

Now, let’s be clear from the get-go. There should be one culture for all ages, and one for grown-ups. In an R-rated movie, I don’t care if people do things too vile to say on TV. I don’t care if they eat cigarettes. With kids, it’s a different ballgame.

He then goes on to say that no one’s talking about banning alcohol in movies, just making it harder for kids to see smoking.

Okay, kids, take out your Number 2 pencil and a piece of paper. Today we’re going to learn about the Kansas City Shuffle, otherwise known as a con. You make the mark look one way, then you run in the opposite direction.

Davie here is actually saying two things while apparently saying one. By not denying his previous hyperbole that automatic R-ratings are not censorship, he agrees it is censorship, and then goes on to say it should be done. Censorship is the omission of information that may be considered harmful in some way, whether for religious, political, or social reasons. Would this tactic be censorship? Yes. Would it be good? Yes, according to Davie here.

I’ve already talked about cursing, violence, and some of our culture’s weirder standards on entertainment in a previous article, so I’ll try not to repeat myself too much. I’d just like to know if this same standard would apply to alcohol. He does say that this rating policy should have some wiggle room. Classic movies can keep their smoking, but new movies need to button up and think of the children. Won’t someone think of the children!?

Who, may I ask, are these children that apparently don’t have any guidance on what to do and what not to do? I think there must be caches of feral orphans wandering the streets. Eventually, they wander into a movie theater and are exposed to something that makes the bestial lives worse. And who in their right mind, in 2010, does not know smoking is unhealthy? Every time I hear someone complain about this and alcohol in movies, it’s always for these children who apparently have never heard of cancer, drunk driving accidents, and the fact that inhaling smoke is bad for you. When I have a beer, I know full well my reflexes are going to get slower and that if I have enough, I should probably not drive and should find the shortest route to pay homage to the Porcelain God should the need arise. I know this. People who smoke two packs a day know what they’re doing, too.

No one forces you to smoke. You smoke because you make a choice. You KEEP smoking because you’ve exposed yourself to harmful and addictive compounds. A piece of art with smoking may make you think about it, and there are several studies that show that children who are exposed to smoking in the movies are more susceptive to smoke later in life and become regular smokers, but that misses the point. It’s still the initial choice of lighting that first cigarette. People drag race all the time here in South Texas. Some people get killed. I don’t recall seeing anyone calling on a ban on cars.
This idea of increasing film ratings for showing someone smoking is ridiculous for other reasons, not the least of which is this supposed “no retroactive rating” thing Davie mentions towards the end. Films based on historical people can have smoking since it was apparently necessary for the plot. We can’t take Bogart’s cigs way either. Davie then, most likely for a final joke, says he wishes the movies actually told you things like what age these actors died from cancer caused by smoking, just to let the audience know the facts.

It makes sense. It’s kind of how I want to hear how many kilowatt hours James Cameron burned while rendering Avatar or the dozens of CGI films released in the last few years. Or how many gallons of gasoline got burned and how much greenhouse gas was created while filming everything from Apocalypse Now to Independence Day.

The other part of the argument that misses the mark is this belief, apparently prevalent in our society, that entertainment must target either everyone or just adults. We have this idea that there is a magical point between “child” and “adult.” I was under the impression that there was in fact a spectrum and the middle point was called “adolescence.” I’m not even condoning this with the idea that teenagers already know about smoking and drinking from the movies. This would be a circular argument. Unless these kids grow up in a world WITHOUT smoking, cursing, and violence, they’re going to come into contact with it at some point. If you watch a movie and you wonder why one of the characters has a piece of rolled up, smoldering paper sticking out of his or her mouth… get out of the cult, throw away the robes and manifesto, and come back to society.


Brainwashing cult by *Kaaziel on deviantART

Why do older movies get a pass, too? Could it that there is some artistic merit to showing these things? Davie doesn’t seem to have a problem with showing blood, guts, and glory as much as he does with smoking. I’m assuming this is because violence serves the story. If a writer has a character smoke or drink, it’s probably for a reason. If he or she doesn’t, it’s a choice.

And this is the key word. Choice.

Writers do things for very specific reasons. At least good writers do. If the main character has a tattoo on her face in the shape of a robin, that means something. If the villain is clean-cut and speaks with a Wisconsin accent, there’s a reason for that. If Sigourney Weaver’s character asked for a cigarette as soon as she woke up, that tells us something about her character. It tells us something about her state of mind and the kinds of things she does. It’s a tool.


Words by ~PhotoLovexo on deviantART

I’m all for people knowing the dangers of tobacco, but don’t turn the movies into soapboxes unless you’re making a movie about the dangers of smoking. Even then, it’s going to have a very predictable ending. The most backwards part of this article is the belief that real people can smoke in movies, but fictional characters can’t.

Why the exception? I guess it’s the same kind of logic that states that educational programming can show a woman’s bare breasts if she’s part of a tribe or culture that doesn’t think anything of it, but if a woman on NBC took her top off, the network would get fined so fast that Johnny Carson would have to pay.

There really is a difference between child and adult programming, but we have to be conscious of the fact that adolescents are neither children nor adults. Communicating to this demographic, we have to remember that teens know a lot more than we think they know. The internet already gives them a window into the world they would not have known a generation ago. The distinction that art needs to conform to the ideal of “adult-only” and “everyone else” is narrow-minded. There are more areas than these two extremes.

We all have a choice. The choice is informed by background and influenced by those around us, but art cannot make us do anything we don’t want to do. It shows us things about ourselves and the world. It changes the way we see things. If someone smokes because they saw it in a movie, then they made their choice based on a movie.

Now just shut up and let Sigourney smoke her cig.

Adults Only

Porn and social studies... Man, homeworks going to be WEIRD.

February 8, 2010

When I was in high school, teachers sometimes used films to highlight points in science, English, and history classes. We’d read a short story, then watch an adaptation of it and try and find the differences, discuss its themes, and otherwise enjoy the lesson more because the lesson came alive. Even the kids who didn’t like to read could participate, though not as well, as the ones who read. Science films let us see our lessons instead of just reading about them, and in a world where multimedia now applies to everything we do, it’s really the next logical step in education. Films are a new tool.

And every new tool needs a determined opposition. Click on the image to go to the story.

If you skip the link, here’s the deal. Council Rock high school students are protesting a movement led by several parents to ban the use of R-rated movies for educational purposes. The school uses films such as Schindler’s List, Merchant of Venice and Saving Private Ryan to supplement lessons, and the district already has a policy that allows parents to not give permission for their children to see the films. Some, however, say that this creates an unequal playing field and R-rated movies should be banned completely.

Said one concerned parent, “Do we not have filters on our computers? These movies are potentially harmful to our children…I can’t help but think that these things will have an effect on our children. There are many other school districts in the area that have excellent educational programs that do not allow Rated R films to be shown. So why do we?”

Oh the children. Who will speak for them?

Several hundred high school students have signed petitions asking the school board to not proceed with the ban, but as of this writing, no action has been taken.

Yeah, because high school is already such wonderful preparation for the real world, right?

There are really two issues at work here. First of all, do these movies enhance the learning experience? Secondly, are these movies harmful?

Let’s talk about the second issue first. Are movies harmful? The parent who gave the above quote seems to think so. How is a movie harmful? Will it teach children that certain kinds of behavior are acceptable? That really depends on the individual movie. One of the movies referenced is Saving Private Ryan. It’s bloody, violent, and features scenes during one of the most far-reaching wars of the last century. High school students won’t see these images of men getting cut down by machine gun fire and suddenly come to the realization that they too must get a fifty-caliber machine-gun and go PCP-monkey-crazy on someone.

These are the kids that play GTA, remember? This is the Modern Warfare generation. They know what it’s like to see someone get shot in a FICTIONAL account because THEY’RE the ones doing the shooting. They may be desensitized, a by-product of society taking a much more lax view of violence, but they aren’t going to suddenly see the Battle of Normandy and get some insight into violent behavior. At best they’ll realize that these kinds of things actually happen, that real people have suffered in wars, and maybe they’ll get a certain respect for the men and women that actually put a uniform on then put their lives on the line. Besides, if a student can see history, even a recreation of it, it makes the lesson much more real.

Movie ratings are a knotted affair, so all I’ll say is that an R-rating is not the harsh stamp many people think it means. The MPAA says:

An R-rated motion picture may include adult themes, adult activity, hard language, intense or persistent violence, sexually-oriented nudity, drug abuse or other elements, so that parents are counseled to take this rating very seriously. Children under 17 are not allowed to attend R-rated motion pictures unaccompanied by a parent or adult guardian. Parents are strongly urged to find out more about R-rated motion pictures in determining their suitability for their children.

An R-rating doesn’t mean much concrete information. What, may I ask, is an “adult activity” and an “adult theme”? I guess showing people working in a cubicle farm would be considered an adult activity. Is menopause an adult theme? Not a lot of teenage girls with inactive reproductive systems. And what exactly does “hard language” mean? If I use the word “pneumonoultramicroscopicsilicovolcanokoniosis,” I think most people would consider that hard language. I can barely pronounce it. The rating, as many other people much more highly qualified than me have said, is highly subjective and open to debate. It’s, at best, a highly imperfect gauge of a film’s content and themes. Furthermore, the argument that we have filters on our computers and should use the same kind of logic when shielding students misses one very crucial point. YOU set the filters. You can put them up, lessen them, increase them to eleven, whatever. But it’s YOUR choice.

This brings us to the second point. Everyone learns differently. Some people are visual learners and others need to read information. Some learn by hearing. In a class, I try to use as many senses as possible. Pictures, diagrams, charts, hands-on activities with groups, anything to get the kids motivated. I’m sorry, but high school students need a swift kick in the pants. They can be… well, dense.

I’m sorry, but I loved my students and I wanted them all to succeed, but I’m a realist. I know not all of them will pass. I know it. They know it.

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If there were movies that actually taught English and writing, I would have shown them. The sad thing is that parents, according to the article, didn’t say much other than the movies were inappropriate and they might hurt the students.

How?

How does a movie hurt a 14-18 year-old? Does the DVD jump out of the case and slit someone’s throat?

The movies work. The students themselves, the ones being “affected” by these images, are the ones who are lobbying to keep them. They’re saying the tool works, and yet some parents still want to take them away based on the fear of the hypothetical student hearing a naughty word or otherwise seeing something bad.

Next they’ll be dancing!

I’m speaking as a teacher, tutor, and writer. If a tool works, we need it. We’ve coddled the students in this country so much that you can actually pass high school without doing any work. Seriously. The United Independent School District in Laredo, Texas, will pass students for the sake of moving them to another level on the theory that they’re not going to pass their current grade level, so they should try in the next one. In this way, a student who never passes a single gradel can graduate high school without any comprehensive reading, writing, reasoning, mathematics, or even study skills. Budgets get slashed and teachers have their hands tied by bureaucracy and the ignorance of a few paranoid parents.

If I’d had the time and resources to show movies, I would have done so if I felt the movie would contribute to the lesson. You can’t discount any strategy when you’re trying to teach. If you need to bring hand-puppets and do voices, do it. Learning is a skill. Many people don’t have it. Teachers need to pick up the slack and use whatever means possible to make sure the students retain knowledge. Movies are one such tool. It’s not like the district was showing Showgirls or Battlefield Earth.

Now THAT would be a crime.

Felonious Use of Carnal Knowledge

Ever had one of those days?

January 21, 2010

Raise your hand if you get frustrated. Now keep the middle finger up if you curse on a daily basis. Lewis Black once famously said that if you step into a particularly cold morning and you don’t at least curse in your mind, you have anger issues.

He may have a point.

Certain words have the power to make people gasp, cringe, or otherwise run to the nearest censor for validation that the ears and souls of children have been tainted by words! Who will think of the children!? They just heard and/or read something that will stunt their growth, lead them away from Baby Jesus, and make them smoke. At least, that’s the reaction I see every time someone slips on live television and says something “naughty.”

We’re all familiar with cursing, mostly because we have so many safeguards for it and are constantly reminded of what steps someone else has taken to ensure we never have to deal with it. We have the FCC in the United States, parental controls on televisions, internet filters, positions within companies and government bodies designed to keep language in check, both in the office and when dealing with others, and any number of language speed bumps both imposed by others and personal. We have a cultural aversion to certain words. We’ve given them power. This in itself isn’t revolutionary, so I’m not expecting a Pulitzer for this article. What does intrigue me is the idea that the words themselves, not necessarily the meaning, make people uncomfortable. Even more amazing is that swearing is less taboo than, say, gratuitous violence or gore. Why? Why do these words have so much power? Is-

Wait… Before we go any further, why do we call the use of profane language “cursing”? Or even “swearing”? Dictionary.com wasn’t any help, simply listing the various definitions and origins of the words, but not going into detail on why we are said to curse and swear when using profanity. A curse is something that is bad luck, something designed to hurt something or someone. A curse is something terrible. It’s an ill-omen, the full moon, blood dripping from the walls and little kids appearing in the hallway, and I’ve seen enough horror movies to know that none of these things is good. What about swearing? Swearing is supposed to be, according to Dictionary.com, the act of making a powerful declaration, typically upon something holy or divine. The examples it gives are the Bible and a deity. I won’t deny certain swear words can indeed be powerful and denote a great deal of emotion, but I don’t think this was the original intent. These two euphemisms for using foul language just make things more confusing. They mean opposites!

Anyway, back to the main topic: the power of profanity. All of us watch television. It’s unavoidable. Certain shows and channels don’t use expletives, so they either beep them out, which is distracting, or they re-dub the line with another word or phrase, usually to unintentional comic effect. We hear “heck” for “hell” and “crap” instead of “shit.” Here’s where things get interesting though, because no matter what euphemism we use, we’re still relaying the same meaning. If I stub my toe and yell “Aw, excrement,” I’ve conveyed the same meaning as actually using language the FCC would ban. If I were a television station, I would have gotten fined…

Thank you, internet.

Why do we allow the “tame” version but not the full expletive? It can’t be the meaning. Both phrases mean the same thing, and it’s the same intent!

Is it the WORD itself? The spelling, the specific arrangement of letters? Do we see them, not as a series of symbols, but rather an alchemical formula for something so devious that merely looking at or hearing these words will cause untold damage? Will it curse us? Will God strike us down? Shall it open the Forbidden Gates and unleash a torrent of Lovecraftian abominations to besiege our sanity?

Something is at work here. All these profane words can’t simply have power in on themselves, can they? Just because we say one word for another, does it make it better?

Apparently, television standards say it does. When the re-imagined Battlestar Galactica went on the air in 2004, the writers decided to keep the made-up swear word “frak” (spelled “frack” in the 1970’s version) so they could have their characters curse and swear without having to use bleeps or cut the audio. “Frak” has the same meaning and connotations as its equivalent four-letter F-word and characters use in the same colorful ways.

This sounds strange since BSG premiered and aired on SyFy, a channel over which the FCC has no jurisdiction to censor language. However, all television shows in the United States receive a rating and BSG already had a TV-14 rating due to violence and mature themes. I guess when the good guys resort to torture and suicide bombings, you have to make a few concessions. It makes sense to want to make it as easy as possible to syndicate the show on networks that aren’t under the same level of freedom, so “frak” was born.

Orson Scott Card wrote that if a writer wants to use made-up foul language, it had better be for a good reason, but it was simply easier to use real profanity. It really does have the capacity to sound downright stupid. And yet, sometimes, it works. Farscape got away with a plethora of alien cursing that does sound like word soup, and yet the viewer gets so involved in the action that the meaning of the words comes through, not whatever strange alien phrase just popped out of someone’s mouth.

Just like “frak,” Farscape’s cursing worked. Some of these made-up oaths have even bled over into popular culture.

The unfortunate thing is that we’re back to where we started. It’s not the intent and meaning itself that society objects. It can’t be. The euphemisms mean the same thing as the original word, and we’ve shown we can substitute new words that make no sense but still have the exact same meaning, even similar phonemes. Process of elimination says that the words themselves are the problem, but why are we so afraid of so much language? Is it the association these phrases and terms have attained as being used by the uneducated, the callous, or the amoral? It must be. We don’t want our youth exposed to such filthy words!

Wait, don’t we see blood splatter, open bodies, and murder on CSI, Law and Order, every cop show in the last fifteen years, and, oh yes… FX aired a slightly edited version of Starship Troopers a month after 9/11. The only thing they cut out was the profanity and left in every Bug-induced murder. How do I know? I watched it. Every week, millions of us watch dismemberments, dead bodies, and all manner of gooey fun on basic cable, and it’s the kind of thing that you’d see in a Saw movie. Don’t get me wrong. I love these shows. I just wonder who thought saying “shit” was wrong but THIS was fine:

We seem to have more disdain for specific words, specific sounds, than we do for violence. When the recent red band trailer for the movie Kick Ass came out, a lot of people were outraged over an 11-year-old girl using the c-word and cursing like a sailor, and yet fewer were bothered by, oh… same girl cutting off a man’s leg, shooting someone in the head, and making John Preston look downright arthritic. It’s a perfect example of the kinds of weird standards we seem to have infused into every corner of society. Violence, gore, and dismemberment? Fun! Someone swears? Shock and gasp and a hefty fine!

It’s dumb. What do these words do? They describe. That’s all they do. They do have societal consequences, sure, but that’s because we all “know” they’re bad words. I tell my students that “Why?” is the most important question they can ask in college. If you understand the cause of something, you know more about it. You can come at an argument from a different angle. You have power. Even in Harry Potter, they knew that not saying Voldemort’s name made him more powerful. The only reason we don’t use this language is because we’ve stigmatized it. Why? Because it’s bad. Why? Because we’re not supposed to use it. Why? Because it’s stigmatized. Why?

Do you see the pattern?

Language is a tool. That’s it. It expresses ideas and it is, admittedly, imperfect. Until we develop telepathy, it’ll have to do. We’re uncomfortable with these terms because our society has certain taboos against sex, defecation, and other topics, so the words used to describe them are obviously going to have their own taboo, yet euphemisms for these terms don’t bother us. Only highly specific terms will get you in trouble.

What the frak?

Snuggies, Vampires, and Captain Kirk

Yup. Edward and Kirk in the same image. Can you just feel the universe collapsing?

WARNING: This article contains spoilers for the movie Serenity.

January 20, 2010

My name is Michel Martin del Campo, and I am a geek. It’s been two weeks since my last Battlestar Galactica viewing. I had the urge the other day to watch Revenge of the Sith, but thank God my sponsor came over and we talked until that feeling went away.

Yeah, I’m addicted.

I can pin-point the exact thing that led me down this dark path. Transformers. You tell a five year old boy that the really cool red truck he’s looking at can also turn into a three-story tall robot with lasers and it can crush tanks with its bare hands and that boy has suddenly seen the greatest thing he will ever see. Until he sees this:

But that’s another story.

The point is that fans have that moment where something, a scene, a line, a piece of music, something grabbed our attention and drew us in. We got hooked. My youth was spent with Optimus Prime, the Ninja Turtles, and a slew of other wonderful 80’s work. It’s carried over into franchises like Star Trek, Star Wars, the aforementioned Battlestar Galactica, and it’s inspired my reading and writing habits. In fact, Orson Scott Card’s How to Write Science Fiction and Fantasy is the reason I decided to become a writer. Not a speculative fiction writer per say. I fell in love with writing for writing’s sake. That’s the kind of impact this hobby has had on my life…

Which makes me wonder what Twilight, Jonas Brothers, John and Kate Plus Eight, and other fans who obsessively watch and follow these institutions will be able to say a few years down the road. Why did they watch these shows? Were they “good”? Why? “Good” tells me nothing. People say avocado is “good,” but it’s one of the few foods I actually don’t like. I’d like something more insightful.

I’ve actually gotten into very heated discussions with people about this. I am not afraid to say that I’ve mockedTwilight fans, and the Twilight books and movies, for shallow stories, badly written characters, and a fan-base I can only describe as a cult on par with the Snuggie Cult.

The same goes for soap operas, Dan Brown books, and any number of fictional works that seem to inspire legions of followers. Why do so many people become obsessed with these shows, books, and movies? Why have millions poured into Stephanie Meyers’ account? Why do we care what John and Kate are doing? How much more of the English language will Dan Brown destroy? Where does this fanaticism come from?

Let’s get real, though. My beloved D&D, Trek, and others are as guilty as others.

I’ve dressed up to the premiers of Attack of the Clones and The Dark Knight. I own two retractable plastic lightsabers. Red. I have a picture autographed by William Shatner. I learned the Cortex gaming system for the sole purpose of playing a Serenity RPG. And I’m tame by comparison. I don’t know Klingon. I’ve never LARPED. I didn’t petition to get Star Trek: Enterprise brought back when it was cancelled.

Why?

Because it sucked towards the end! I love these shows and movies, but when they started to stink, I had to back away. Did Star Trek influence me? Of course. Did it suck like a Paris Hilton movie at times? Oh, most definitely. And there’s the crucial difference between a fan and a, well, let’s call it a cultist. If someone tells me Star Trek is unrealistic, infantile, and badly written, I’ll very likely agree to a point. Episodes like The City on the Edge of Forever, Chain of Command, and movies like Star Trek II and the recent prequel are fine examples of what the show could be when it really tried. Then you have… other things. Nemesis, Insurrection, Star Trek V, Star Trek: Voyager… oh it hurts.

Hang on.

I just felt a little chicken from dinner come back up. I can admit when the things that I love, the things that helped shape both my life and career, fail me. Why? Because I do something weird. When I see Captain Kirk, I don’t think I’m Captain Kirk. When Wash got killed in Serenity, I was sad because he was a fun character, but I didn’t have a funeral for him in real life. I have personally met so many people who follow Twilight, and I’m singling it out because it’s the one that annoys me the most, with a fervor I can only call religious. Nothing bad may be said of their Edward. Yes, they call him “their” Edward. I can’t say the stories are badly written because at least they’re getting people to read, or so the opposition reminds me. Popularity doesn’t negate bad writing. I can look at that novel and probably at the dialogue in the movie if I ever get the will to actually sit through it, and point out specific, objective things that are wrong with it. They’re not based on whether or not vampires should sparkle.

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The reason people fall in love with all these things, from Kirk to Edward, John and Kate to Roslin and Adama, is that we find something to identify with in these characters. At least, that’s the idea. We may look up to them or use them as surrogates. I won’t deny that there are times I wish I could have those kinds of adventures on the Enterprise or fought in some major battle against Decepticons. The life of a writer lacks lasers and green women. The problem arises when we can no longer make the distinction between “us” and “them.”

Let’s go back to Twilight for a moment. What does our heroine (and I gag to call her that) Bella look like?

Anyone? Based on the book? Description? We know the color of her hair and skin, but pale and brown hair apply to so many people that it’s difficult to not get a fuzzy image. Was this bad writing? Probably. However, look at what it does for the reader. Suddenly, the main character is blank. You can fill in anything you want. Bella becomes a surrogate for the reader. This is the same reason reality television is so popular. The contestants and cast are portrayed as real people, so we’re supposed to feel a kinship with them. They are us. We can vote for the next American Idol. We have power! They are us and we is them who are me! At least, that’s the plan.

The producers made the show. They had a plan-

FOCUS!

Here’s where a fan and a cultist diverge. The difference between comedy and drama is empathy. Mel Brooks said it best when he said that tragedy was him getting a splinter in his finger. Comedy is if you fall into an open manhole and die. What does he care? To me, Twilight is a comedy because I find nothing in common with its characters. The story has no appeal to me. The same goes for a bad horror movie. I’m not saying that you can’t feel anything for the characters in a comedy, but if you’re completely detached, then nothing that happens to them is going to matter to you. It’s the reason why white kids getting slashed to pieces in a bad horror movie is hi-larious.

Ever wonder why romance novels are so popular? They do a great job of putting the reader in the story. Despite all the near-rape that occurs in every romance novel ever published, it’s an accessible escape for many people. If you think that’s weird, when was the last time you let a stranger strap you to a small metal car so you could careen through a wooden track within nothing but a few metal bars holding you in place?

When someone identifies that closely with a work of fiction, suddenly, the fiction becomes his or her life. It doesn’t necessarily have to be that immersive, either. The reader or viewer may already be predisposed to not like his or her life, and the idea of a new one to become a part of may be too tempting. The cultist takes these new worlds and makes them part of his or her new reality. That’s what creates the attachment. Someone criticizes these shows, movies, books, whatever, and you’re actually insulting their own reality. That’s what causes fanaticism for entertainment. Most people can detach themselves from fiction. When the show ends, they may be left with a feeling of sadness for the characters, but they remember that they’re characters. The ability to differentiate between fantasy and fiction is one of the key indicators of sanity. If you can’t detach yourself from something that’s clearly and obviously fake, you have a problem.

These shows, movies, and books can get pretty crappy, but many will stay with them for the good times they remember. It’s the same principle as any abusive relationship. Battered women. Abused children. Edward and Bella.

ZING!

People become attached to these works, artists, fads, whatever, simply because they got something from them at one point. It was something they needed, and now they keep going back. Like a heroin addict looking for the same rush of the first high, they’ll never find it, but they keep looking, or maybe they never even got that. Maybe they just saw something that was better than the life they had and the saw a piece of themselves, however small, in that world. Whatever the reason, they can’t let go of something that should be, at worst, a hobby and at best something to admire. I’ve let go of childish things. I still like Star Trek and Star Wars despite recent… entries into the genre. I just can’t to wait until Eclipse comes out. Never read it, but it apparently involves vampire C-sections performed with fangs, werewolf pedophilia, and a host of other socially ambiguous behavior.

I’m curious if this will be the straw that lodges itself in the fans’ eyes.

Or something like that.

Anarchists, Elementary School, and The Gap Between The Ears

Damn Nazi pagans and their propaganda! Go back to Mexico!
Damn Nazi pagans and their propaganda! Go back to Mexico!

January 18, 2010

I remember going to school within the United Independent School District in Laredo, Texas. From third grade all the way to high school, I went through the system, did the state-mandated training for the state-mandated test, ate the food that couldn’t decide if it was gravy or mashed potatoes, and was in the badly-funded art and science programs, so you can imagine my surprise when I found out that my district is apparently in league with anarchists, Marxists, and terrorists. And the source of this destructive influence?

BrainPOP.

That wasn’t onomatopoeia. It’s the name of the website that is apparently going to lead our children down a long, dark road that’s going to make The Road look like the Yellow Brick Road. BrainPOP is actually a website that helps educators by offering games, lessons, and puzzles. I went in for a few minutes and remembered things like Bill Nye, Beakman’s World, and games good teachers use to help lessons stick.

According to a letter written by a concerned citizen named Phillip W. Dyer in the local paper this morning, if you go to the Social Studies section, then to Culture, then look at the icon for War a the bottom… that little symbol? The one no bigger than a baby’s fingernail? That black fist is a sign for the Black Panthers. And leftists. And communists. And if you’re not careful, this symbol will lead our children down a road to terrorism.

The author then says educators are unqualified and people in charge of making decisions for our district are pushing leftist agendas on our children by exposing them to these symbols. I don’t have a subscription to the site, according to my mother, who is an elementary school teacher here, the site contains general information presented in a way that elementary school teachers can use to explain complex topics. There are games, quizzes, and other tools to make learning fun for an audience that may be starting to think its job prospects don’t go further than a paper hat. The interesting thing is that the letter goes into what can only be described as mental spasms towards the end as the author rants about the danger our children are in. They could be indoctrinated by seeing this symbol! No, I’m not kidding. The author actually believes that seeing a little black fist will help convert children into terrorists.

I think it’s how people think that if you hang around gays you become gay. Like living in Indiana made me blond. Right?

Oh right. I’m not blond. And I still don’t really care for the Colts.

It’s things like this, such as Glenn Beck’s excruciatingly painful art analysis a few months back, that make me wonder if people really understand the nature of symbols.

When analyzing any symbol, you have to have some information of who used it. We have nothing, absolutely nothing, to gauge the website author’s politics, if any. We do, however, have the writer’s fears. Instead of analyzing the website, we can analyze the writer of the letter to the editor. If he sees all this danger, would it be too much to ask if he looks for it? If I’m afraid of getting dirty, I’m going to see dirt and grime everywhere. Is this man so afraid of corruption and leftist ideas that he sees them everywhere? I can’t help but think of a witch trial where everyone accuses their neighbors of being in congress with the beast if they don’t say “bless you” after someone sneezes.

Is the little fist on the BrainPOP website the same as the Black Panther symbol? Well, yes, and while the symbol is also used by Marxists and anarchists, it has other meanings. During the Spanish Civil War, it was a symbol of anti-fascism and a gesture of the liberty the revolutionaries fought for. Women’s liberation movements have also used the raised fist as a sign of solidarity, as have the recent Tea Party Protesters, the Jewish Defense League, the National Equality March, and Food Not Bombs. Otpor!, the youth organization that helped overthrow Slobodan Milošević, also used the symbol.

What Beck and a lot of people don’t realize is that the same symbol can mean different things based not just on who uses it, but what the new symbol looks like. Take the symbol on the far left corner of this website. What does it mean? A few people know, but it has its own meaning to me. You can guess all you want, but that will be the meaning YOU give it, and it will likely mean something completely different from the meaning I gave to it.

Let’s look at another symbol: the cross. Oh dear. Between this and the picture on the top, I can already hear the ol’ inbox filling up. Two lines perpendicular to each other. All sides can be the same side, one short end on top, whatever. Make it red, and suddenly you have a symbol for any of the various organizations affiliated with Red Cross. Put a flame nearby and you have the symbol for theUnitedMethodistChurch. Put the cross itself on fire and you have a Klan rally and very angry phone calls from the neighbors. To many Christians, it is a symbol of hope, joy, and power. To those who are critical of Christianity, it is often a symbol of repression.

What about a swastika? It’s outlawed in Germany. A black swastika in a white circle on a red background is infamously associated with Nazis, but the same symbol, sans colors, represents eternity and a host of other spiritual ideas in many Asian religions. In fact, the symbol itself was a popular good luck charm in the United States before the Nazis adopted it. Now, it’s forever stigmatized even though it is still used for religious purposes.

The five-pointed star, often called a pentacle when one point looks up, is a poplar symbol for many neo-pagans, witches, and occultists. It has a myriad of meanings, including the five senses, harmony between four elements and the soul, and at one time it represented the five wounds of Christ. Put it upside down and elongate the bottom point and now you have a simplified form of the Seal of Baphomet. This last little meaning has made many, especially Christians, weary of the five-pointed star since they instantly associate it with devil-worship.

Snakes? Oh geez, let’s just make this one quick. Knowledge, cunning, poison, underhandedness, wisdom, Slytherin, take your pick.

Okay, maybe that last one is a stretch, but it does highlight my point. A symbol gets its meaning from the person who uses it. Symbols carry no meaning unless someone gives it to them. If the author of the letter wishes to say that the black fist means the Black Panther party, that’s what he wishes the symbol to mean. Maybe the creators on the site just used it because it can also mean strife seems to denote some kind of conflict. In the end, what we really get is not a page-turning analysis of the site, but rather a back door into the writer’s mind. There could be a hundred thousand reasons why the company chose that image, and yet you want to hear the sad thing?

This letter to the editor probably will turn a lot of parents off BrainPOP. I’m not trying to make this a promo for the site, but any tool that helps teachers is a breath of fresh air. Trust me. If I’d had something dependable to use with my students, I would have used it. Many will take this symbol, this one 30×30 image and hold it high as proof of the larger conspiracy to turn children into anarchic communist leftists with ties to the gay agenda. Also, they’ll eat babies.
At least that’s the fear people who look for witches all share. Their world is apparently so fragile that anything can topple it.

Watch out. There’s a symbol out there that wants to melt your brain.