Why Louis C.K.’s Apology Is Not the Worst Thing Ever and Is Beside the Point Anyway

A public debate has emerged about whether or not Louis C.K.’s owning of his sexual improprieties constitutes a “real” apology. Now, I’m a semantic nit-picker to a fault and I am aware of the issues with his statement — but in all fairness I must ask — what, precisely, would constitute a “proper” apology here?

I suspect the answer is: nothing really. Because no apology is good or sincere enough at this juncture of history — especially in a world where everyone has a speech writer on call. Let’s face it: we would not even be reading one from Louis C.K., had it not been forced out of him by brute public exposure. Only post-apology actions will show if this person is true or false — and we are not there yet.

The way today’s social and public information channels operate, personal events and pubic trends tend to become conflated into one obnoxious media stream of finger-pointing. We are outraged all the time (which makes sense, because a lot of things are, in fact, outrageous) — and we keep waiting to be handed a tangible relief from all this infuriation. And that means that sometimes we expect too much from a public apology, forgetting that it does not undo damage or redeem motive — and it is in no way guaranteed to make us feel better.

This is what’s happening with Louis C.K.’s admission of culpability in inappropriate sexual behavior: the public statement he released failed to put many people’s minds at peace and, in many cases, made them even angrier.

It is understandable: he done royally f-ed up, there is no denying that. Though I would never put him in same company as sleazebag Weinstein, it is true that Louis C.K.’s case is part of the same trend of powerful men subjecting their colleagues and underlings to unwanted sexual advances that are harmful and long-lasting in ways these gentlemen lack the maturity and intelligence to contemplate.

Some people fault C.K. for not explicitly saying “sorry” but in my understanding, he still communicated strong remorse (perhaps not as humbly as some would have preferred.) But since when is saying “I’m sorry” the golden standard for sincerity? On the contrary, those words have served many a lazy apologizer as the perfect cop-out from putting any active thought into the sentiment.

Then, C.K.’s critics take issue with his lamenting how heavy it is to live with the knowledge that he hurt so many people: he should not be making it about himself, they claim, he should focus on the victims.

But wait a minute — aren’t shame and angst exactly what we want to see from a truly repentant individual?? When someone has hurt us, don’t we want to witness them suffer pangs of guilt and crumble under the realization of how awful they had been? Is that not, basically, the only gratification we can hope for from an apology, considering that the past is irreversible?

I am by no means suggesting we should stop scrutinizing the language of our public figures and villains-du-jour but, in this particular instance, it occurs to me that there is probably not much Louis C.K. could have written that would be received as a redeeming apology.

In part, this is because many of us have considered this person specifically to be an ally to women and have held him up to a high standard of self-awareness. So we feel extra betrayed and duped.

It is doubtful that anyone has ever looked at Harvey Weinstein and said: “What?? That guy is a sexual predator?? You’d never know it, why, with that lovable face and innocent posture!” Nor does it sound like anybody with a body has ever felt particularly “safe” around Weinstein. But Louis C.K. was Our Guy, dammit, our Patron Saint of “He Gets It”. It is unsettling to find out that someone you thought was “secure to be around” is a dud. For many people, instances of sexual misconduct were with those whom they trusted most — and this whole Louis C.K. revelation is a painful confirmation of the harsh lessons learned from those traumatic experiences: a.) “good people” are capable of “bad things” and b.) no matter how friendly, kind, enlightened and gentle some people seem, it does not make them safe-safe when no one else is watching.

But another reason why we are hating on Louis C.K.’s apology is not about him per se: it has to do with the projections of our accumulated need for a scapegoat for all the degrading sexism and abuses of power so many of us experience in our personal lives. His happens to be the only decent guilt-owning statement to come out of Hollywood since the scandals broke — but if we are holding him responsible for the entire Hollywood sex abuse ring of rich scrotumheads, plus every predatory schmuck we had to individually fend off — then, in that context, the apology is, indeed, quite  insufficient

Louis C.K. has some ‘splaining to do to the people in his life that he has hurt. But let us quit picking apart his statement, as if there was more to be done on that front and acknowledge the sadder truth, fellow involuntary members of the #metoo club: no apology from a disgraced celebrity is enough to right the wrongs we’ve suffered, nor to quell the rage we feel for the ways we have been mistreated and dismissed, individually and collectively, for lifetimes and generations on end.

Simply put, there is no such thing as a satisfactory apology for historically systematic human abuses such as slavery or sexual assault because:

— it’s too bloody late for just an apology

— the apology in no way ensures that the abuse will stop

I reckon, they can all keep their soggy sorry’s (though it serves no one to reject sincere attempts at expressing remorse.) It would be encouraging to see a radical reprogramming in attitude, an earnest investment into empathy and a proactive civic involvement, which entails never abusing power via violating sexual boundaries again and having a zero tolerance  toward others doing the same.

Come on, brahs, you are so good at inciting each other into atrocity — let’s see if you can pressure one another into decency.

American Citizens Traveling to Cuba: Updated Information for 2017

Old Havana Plaza Church Travel US Citizen

So many US citizens have been dreaming of visiting Cuba — and now, it is easier than ever! The travel restrictions have been loosened and Americans can finally legally and openly get to know this amazing country with its wonderful people. Read on and see for yourself how un-intimidating and simple getting to Cuba was for us.

When, back in November 2016, we came across a “Newark – Havana” flight for under $250 round trip, my husband and I pounced on the “pirate fare” for the much-overdue week-and-a-half get-away in early January of 2017.

Given decades of the travel ban, it felt strange to be booking a direct flight from New Jersey’s Newark Liberty International Airport straight to Havana’s José Martí International Airport  with a major US-based airline like United. When things are iffy or unclear, the “paranoid Ex-Soviet” in me awakens and doubles down on research, to make sure I’m not missing any pertinent details or caveats.

United Airlines provides an informative breakdown of travel requirements on their website, but let’s elaborate on how it works in real life.

REASON FOR VISIT

Before you can purchase your ticket, you will be asked to certify your reason for visiting Cuba by choosing from the following “general licenses”:

  1. Family visits
  2. Official government business
  3. Journalistic activity
  4. Professional research or meetings
  5. Educational activities or people-to-people exchanges
  6. Religious activities
  7. Sports and public events
  8. Support for the Cuban people
  9. Humanitarian projects
  10. Research
  11. Informational materials
  12. Authorized export activities
  13. Non-immigrant Cuban National

Unfortunately, “Cultural fascination” and “Lifelong dream” are not among acceptable reasons to visit Cuba. Also, it seems that most of the items on that list would require documentation.

However — there are a couple of options that are vague enough to allow for a variety of interpretations, without requiring any official paperwork! We checked off “Support for the Cuban people” and proceeded to book our tickets. It was the right, hassle-free way to go. The exact legal wording for the clause can be found in the Code of Federal Regulations here.

Going through the customs, it seems like a good idea to make the officers’ jobs easier by getting one’s story straight. Jokes, ad-libs and small talk might set off more alarms than chuckles with the border agents. It’s best to have all documents in hand, look ’em straight in the eye and answer the questions to the point and without wavering.

When they ask: “What is your reason for visiting Cuba?”  — avoid coming back with: “I hear the rum is pretty good!” It deviates from the script. Because “booze tourism” — or any kind of tourism — is not on the bloody list of 13 permit-able causes for entry for US citizens!! It is wiser to answer: “Support for the Cuban people” (or whichever one you picked when you booked your ticket) and move along when prompted. Save the “adventure” for after you successfully cross the border, wise guy 🙂

The Paranoid Ex-Soviet Sez: As an added measure of security, I brought back-up materials, in the off-chance we would be asked to explain what, precisely, we mean by “support for the Cuban people”.

It so happens that my husband works in library science and visits libraries wherever he goes, always on the look-out for potential collaboration. I printed out a list of libraries across Cuba to point to, if questioned by customs. Our story was: the husband is visiting libraries for establishing contact / I am a sociologist and serving in the capacity of Spanish translator to my husband. This narrative demonstrates how it’s not tourism, and establishes the potential benefit to the Cuban people in the form of intellectual exchange and professional networking. It helps that ours was true.

Mark Twain quote truth remember anything

HEALTH INSURANCE

It is mandatory for U.S. citizens entering Cuba to have health insurance recognized by Cuba which, apparently, excludes most, if not all, US-based health plans. Thankfully, United Airlines built a temporary health insurance from ESICUBA into the cost of their ticket, covering the passenger for the first 30 days. I imagine other airlines flying into Cuba do the same — but I would check with them to make sure.

The Paranoid Ex-Soviet Sez: I just couldn’t take United Airlines’ website’s “word” for this and contacted their representative to clarify. The operator confessed that the route and rules were brand new and they did not have all the answers ready. Eventually, she confirmed that a $25 portion of the United ticket, indeed, accounts for 30-day health coverage.

Later, at the airport, upon my request, the check-out representative printed a separate receipt and circled the $25 charge for health insurance on it for me. It’s listed in fine print as OOCU25, which could stand for absolutely anything. But I felt safer having the print-out to point to, if need be. Gratefully, it was never disputed.

Can you spot the Health Insurance tariff?

If anyone is wondering why the “paranoid Ex-Soviet” me is so obsessed with print-outs — it’s because she knows that in socialist regimes, when the shizzle hits the proverbial fan, a piece of paper can be mightier than the proverbial sword. Nothing greases the wheels of a bureaucracy better than a nice, crisp sheet of papyrus with some text, official-looking stamps and, preferably, a signature or two. Conversely — to loosely paraphrase a Soviet Russian saying — “Without paper, you are vapor.”

AND THAT’S WHY                                                             YOU ALWAYS BRING A PIECE OF PAPER

CUBAN ENTRY PERMIT

At the Newark Liberty International Airport, the United Airlines check-in line for the Havana flight was sectioned off in a separate corner of the terminal. In addition to charging $50 for the “entry permit”, the Cuban Travel Service collected a service fee of $25 each, which comes to a total of $75 a person for visa expenses.

MONEY: WHAT TO KNOW IN ADVANCE

It used to be that US Americans were not supposed to spend a single penny on anything in Cuba, evidenced by complete lack of “stuff” or receipts brought back stateside. This is no longer the case: Americans can spend liberally and bring back all kinds of goodies (most seem to opt for cigars and rum which are now legal to bring back to the USA, allegedly, in unlimited quantities, as of recent.)

In a complete 180-degree turn-around from the preceding rule, US Americans are now expected to hold on to all their receipts from Cuba for one year. I had full intention to do that until I set foot in Cuba and saw that almost nobody was willing to issue a receipt for anything, like, ever…

In fact, shopping itself in Havana, seemed neither easy nor fun. Shopaholics will be shocked disoriented underwhelmed by socialist marketplace offerings — Cuba is no retail paradise.

But who goes to Cuba for shopping — other than buying pieces from local artists? Go for the beautiful people, the vibrant culture, the gorgeous nature, the unbroken spirit, the awe-inspiring history, the  musical language, the voices in the streets, the whispers in the night and, yes, even the ears in the walls — and you’ll have the time of your life!

Credit Cards

The use of credit is not terribly widespread in Cuba, especially away from the couple of touristy spots in the country, so we did not even bother trying to use ours, as we did not purchase any high-ticket goods or services.

Also, we have heard multiple rumors that U.S. bank cards are not likely to be accepted by Cuban ATMs and did not want to chance it. We brought the amount of cash we conservatively estimated to carry us through the vacation without getting nervous about it.

The Paranoid Ex-Soviet Sez: Make sure to alert your bank / credit card company about going to Cuba — or they will cut you off after just one charge having anything to do with “those commies”. Back in Newark airport, my husband paid for entry permits and Cuban government service fees with separate credit cards and, in a matter of minutes, both bank companies shut off all access and texted him a suspicious activity alert. By then, we were rushing to get on the plane and had to leave it unresolved until our return stateside.

…Methinks charging a Cuban visa on a Visa credit card must have raised some red flags in America…

Cash

So, the Internet will tell you: don’t bring US dollars to Cuba — bring Euros or British Pounds! With USD, you will get slayed on the extra fee they tack on to punish the United States for the trade embargo. The official currency exchange services pay out just 87 cents on the dollar and it hurts.

OK, I hear that! And if you’re coming from Europe or you’ve got a big stash of Euros / Pounds lying around, by all means, do bring them to Cuba!

But I’ve done the calculations and it does not make sense to convert USD to Euros or Pounds and then exchange them into the Cuban currency — you’ll pay conversion fees TWICE! That will leave you with even less than 87 on the dollar.

The verdict: bring US dollars. Suck up the crappy government exchange rate — OR — engage with local people for a better deal. Obviously, don’t fall for the fast-talking street con artists — but there are plenty of decent, enterprising Cubans who will have an honest and mutually beneficial transaction with you.

Your best bet will be your “casa particular” hosts, who will likely oblige with a rate between 90 and 94 cents on the dollar. Or they’ll find someone else who will. The key is to be super tactful and indirect when broaching the topic with a new person: instead of “Do YOU exchange money?”, a less threatening phrasing is: “I am looking to exchange money — can you recommend where I can do that?”

Currency: CUC vs. CUP

Yep, Cuba has the frustrating double-currency system: the Cuban Peso (CUP) used by Cuban citizens and the Cuban Convertible Peso (CUC) for foreigners. The two sets of bills are similar looking but have dramatically different value and buying power. At the time of writing this, 1 CUC is worth 26.5 CUP.

[The Paranoid Ex-Soviet has some very strong feelings on how insulting and hypocritical the Cuban double currency system is to its own citizens, but she will have to save it for another post…]

As a foreigner, you will be using Convertibles (CUC). Exchanging dollars for Cuban Convertibles is easy math because it corresponds one-for-one with the US Dollar. Say your exchange rate is 90 centavos on the dollar. If you give $100, you get back 90 CUC; if you trade in $200, your return is 90 x 2 = 180 CUC, etc.

Cuban Convertible Peso Travel US Citizen

Cuban Convertible Peso: the currency for foreigners

It is my impression that, in Cuban cities and tourist resorts, local pesos are not something you will ever need, unless you are absolutely set on paying the lowest price for the lowest-cost items, such as spending the bottom penny on a single loose cigarette, sold by an elderly lady in the street.

If paying 50 cents for a 20-cent item absolutely kills you, pocket-change CUP used by locals won’t be hard to obtain: go to a non-tourist tobacco / water / sweets stand, store or   window and buy something trivial with a Convertible bill. The vendor is likely to give you change in local pesos.

Cuban Peso Travel Che

The Cuban Peso: the currency of the Cuban citizens.

Obviously, there is a ton more to know about Cuba but at least now, you can go ahead with the ticket booking process without anxiety 🙂 More Cuba posts coming soon — in the meanwhile, check out our podcast detailing the entire trip.

Happy Trails! Enjoy the wondrous country that is Cuba and please be a kind, respectful and generous representative of the ole U.S. of A. 🙂

“Sociologically Speaking” with Fashion Designer Shwetambari Mody

Fashion Forecasting Board, Fall, Shwetambari Mody

Fashion Forecasting Board, Fall 09/10 © Shwetambari Mody

I have been looking to start writing little sociological features on things and people outside of the immediate realm of the social sciences — to see how our worlds correspond. Fashion has been on my mind lately. And, as luck would have it, I just recently came upon a young international textile designer, who also turned out to be a lovely person, who fits the bill perfectly.

I first saw Shwetambari Mody in an online interview with ITV. She was talking about her work and, just for a moment, flashed images of these gorgeous neck-scarves she created. Those scarves made an impression on me with their colorful pastels and breezy stylishness.

Having just recently moved back to NYC, I was reconnecting with old friends and professional contacts, some in the fashion industry — and lo and behold, was introduced to Shwetambari Mody! She agreed to answer a few questions and even let me see some of her work.

As it turned out, those scarves I liked so much were special. Shwetambari and her sisters conceptualized three scarves as a gift to their mother for her 60th birthday. They came up with three phrases that would capture the different sides of their mother’s personality and Shwetambari then sketched and Photoshopped out the rest and brought them to life in light boxes.

Light Box Scarves Shwetambari Mody

Light Box Scarves © Shwetambari Mody

Now that I got a closer look at these scarves, I can explain their appeal to me better. First of all, they were made with love and you can feel it, somehow. I see a classic look with deeply personal details. As a human, I am drawn to the emotion behind them. As a semiotician, I think of it as intimate content, wrapped in luxury form, which is an attractive and, dare I say, seductive combination.

As a person who has watched multiple seasons of Project Runway, another comment that comes to mind is “it looks expensive”, which is another way of saying “high-fashion”, I think. Accessories tend to serve more than one purpose: they are a form of artistic expression and are supposed to compliment your look, but also, they are a calling card of sorts, announcing your socio-economic standing to the world. Some people consider it frivolous to think or talk about such things, but we take for granted how much social identity management most of us do on a regular basis.

There are very few among us who do not, to some degree, consciously or not, care about the status and class they are projecting, in addition to just looking nice. Getting teeth straightened or whitened is not typically a medical necessity. We invest into “looking healthy” because good health, hygiene, neatness and time to work on one’s appearance are a sign of economic prosperity and, implicitly, social trustworthiness. Getting nails polished? It’s a message you are sending that you don’t do manual labor.

Now that I have met Shwetambari, I am additionally impressed with her level headedness and ability to combine the artistic with the pragmatic, which is a struggle for many creative types. I asked her why and how she went for both, the design degree and an MBA in branding. She said it was because she is an artistic personality from an entrepreneurial family and was always encouraged to pursue her own ideas and interests, as long as she worked very hard at it and kept in mind the business side of things. 

Shwetambari sees too many designers in the industry, who think only in terms of artistic pursuits, but have no understanding of the structural, economic and logistical workings of the industry. As a result, they run into snags when their plans crash and burn against the financial realities of the fashion business.

This problem is actually endemic to many professions that forcefully combine the creative and the pragmatic. This is certainly true of academia: some professors exist in their own intellectual and ideological bubbles, unaware of how their salaries get paid, how academic enrollment works or what the student lives are like. Academic administrators can be equally out of touch with the faculty’s intellectual orientation and the students’ best  educational interests.

Creative freelancers can be lightening-fast at their craft but incredibly slow — and I would go as far as to say psychologically paralyzed — to promote themselves and to set reasonable, sustainable, consistent prices for their services. It is quite understandable: not all are raised and socialized to think in business terms, not everybody has the acumen for it and not everyone cares. But for most creative types, some business courses, books, internships, apprenticeships — any way to get an idea of how things run and what things cost, will spare one of having to reinvent the wheel on a daily basis, if / when one chooses to become self-employed.

I would like to thank Shwetambari Mody for showing me her beautiful work, sharing a bit of her story, explaining to me new things about the fashion industry and indulging my sociological rants. Maybe she will let me follow up, when she releases her collection of Indian Luxury accessories in the future.

ELECTION 2016 H A N G O V E R: I’VE HAD WORSE

So… Maybe it’s because I anticipated this outcome for months and had time to freak out and, eventually, make some sort of peace with it — but I just don’t feel so crushed by Trump winning. Like so many others following the election countdown, I felt my brain overheat, couldn’t stop cursing and had the dissociative sensation of being transported into the Bizarro World. But it was not due to surprise that Trump was winning — it was more of a weary “groundhog day” effect of watching your gloomy predictions play out, as you idly stand by saying “yup”. Maybe if I scream “I told you so” at my TV a few more times…

The surprising part is that, a day later, things don’t feel as bad as I thought they would. For one, there is just the sense of relief that [this particular part of] the circus is finally over, for better or worse. *Exhale*

Then, the embittered cynic in me is kind of amused by all the shocked arm-wringing in my own “camp”. I get that people are traumatized. I am too. But none of what happened was unforeseeable or unpreventable. So, people who feel that Trump’s victory came out of nowhere, this is a wake-up call, and not to martyrdom but to ignorance. “We had no idea! Guess we live in our own world here in the North East / West Coast,” is being said a lot. Shouldn’t this revelation be more humbling? Elitist obliviousness is nothing to shrug off as no big deal. It played the key part in the outcome of this election.

Instead, social media is blowing up with  “OMG, I feel so disillusioned and betrayed that half of my compatriots are INHUMANE MORONS!” We are the 47-ish percent of the voting population that imagined themselves to be a shoo-in majority, and we’re calling them — the winning side — stupid?? Then again, they are a pushy majority who believe themselves to be the persecuted minority. Up is down, left is right. I won’t lie, the irony of it all has its own perverse beauty.

they're so stupid that i didn't see them coming

They’re SO stupid that I didn’t see them coming!

There is also a part of me that is kind of curious to see what happens next. We know all the terrible predictions — but what if there’s something positive there too? I mean, we are familiar with good progressive intentions leading to bad unintended consequences. Maybe in the Bizarro World, the narrow-minded, self-serving motivations of our leader will accidentally backfire with spectacular goodwill and prosperity for all?

Finally, I don’t know about you, but I’m just happy we didn’t get bombed. Concerns of explosions and active shooters have become a routine part of public commuting and space-sharing these days — and the election day was extra tense. Granted, the heightened anxiety does not stop New Yorkers from crawling all over the city like ants day and night, but I, for one, could do without the apocalyptic dread and the nagging anticipation that something is about to blow up beneath me. Talk about irony? As a child in the Soviet Union, I grew up expecting those damn Americans to drop the nukes on us any day. Lifetimes later, here I am, an American, waiting for those sneaky Russians to go off the deep end on us. And ISIS. And psycho locals. Great time to be alive, people.

Nonetheless, this fatalist is optimistic 🙂 There is room for unprecedented social unity and solidarity to grow from all this — though, perhaps not as a flower blossoming in a richly manicured garden, but as a wild mushroom materializing from the decomposing matter in cow dung. It might be random and kinda gnarly but also organic and maybe even magic.

ROCK 'N TROLL

GIRLY DRINKS DON’T MAKE YOU A WIMP — BUT CODDLING YOUR MASCULINITY DOES

manlydrinkerpussy

Consider this scene from an NYC bar, witnessed just a few days ago:

Man: Hey, I’m getting a drink — you want one?

Woman: Yeah, an energy drink please.

M: An energy drink?????? Ugh… I don’t want to order that, it’s fucking embarrassing!

W: Why? That’s what I want.

M: It’s emasculating.

W: Emasculation is a myth.

M: Then get it yourself.

W: Alrighty then, I will.

M: Can you order my drink, while you’re at it?

Honestly, I thought that people have caught on to the ridiculousness of claiming emasculation. Don’t they get that the concept itself is wrought with internal contradiction? If you’re such a strong, independent, in-control dude, no one has the power to strip you of those things by definition. If holding a non-alcoholic drink in your hand for 30 seconds or coming in contact with something pink renders you completely demoralized, I hate to break it to you, but you are a weak, weak individual.

I cannot fathom being asked a mundane favor (especially after I explicitly offered to be of service) — and then, being like, “Nah, what you want / need is too lame and doing this for you will make me look too uncool to complete strangers surrounding us. So, uh, no.”

What’s happening here is not a degradation of a man’s dignity. A “man’s dignity”, after all, is just human dignity, applicable to everyone, not just men.

What’s happening is taken-for-granted privilege (is there any other kind?). Men have been socialized to feel entitled to say yes or no to others at whim. Having not been taught to doubt himself or invest into a bit of introspection (e.g.: why do I feel threatened by the color pink?), this pseudo-masculine type is not spiritually equipped to confront the roots of his uneasiness. All he knows is that he is uncomfortable and that it is someone else’s fault. Things he does not like or understand are simply “unbecoming” of him.

To bring this back to the opening example: refusing a woman a drink because it’s too “foofy” and then, in the same breath, asking her to get him one. If “hypocrite” is a type of masculinity, then you’ve got it up the wazoo, buddy. Just drop the pretense that women are anything more than a social accessory to you. Here’s the simple formula favored by such “gentlemen”, which, sadly applies to a much wider range of real-life scenarios than just drink-fetching and purse-holding:

  1. Pretends to be courteous by offering to do something for a woman;
  2. When she indicates a choice he does not understand or approve of, feels free to deny her request, judgmentally putting her down along the way;
  3. Thinks nothing of asking the woman to do the exact thing for him that he just refused to do for her;
  4. Gets furious if the woman does not comply.

What you are, dear cis men who use the “emasculation” excuse, are insecure and lazy. You rely on your delusion of grandeur for getting out of cleaning or serving others. You hide behind it to justify being a half-assed parent. You reach for it to cover up your ignorance of the female anatomy and unwillingness to learn to be a giving lover. You punish women for your own feelings of meekness and smallness next to other pseudo-manly-men, fooled by their empty, shallow fronting. The notion that desired masculinity is predicated on “not being like a woman” is a crock of shit you are still joyfully feeding from, while the rest of us have to put up with the stench.

COMMON MYTHS ABOUT THE “GOOD OLD DAYS” YOU HAVE TO BE A LITTLE BABY TO BELIEVE

“Make America Great Again”, eh?

Sure, it is tempting to yearn for the good old days. Most of us do it when we feel dissatisfied with the present or anxious about the future, especially as we age and the grass seems wilted and rotten in the “here and now” and crisp and glossy on the other side of the time-space continuum fence.

It is only human nature to revise and embellish the past to fit our wishful thinking. But there exists a treacherous slippery slope, when people actually start believing those rosy dreams of the wondrously charmed past and let those delusions reflect too negatively on their perception of the present. You hear people “reminiscing” about times before they were even born, convinced that those were the best years — especially compared to the shitshow of modern realities.

simpsons-perfectpast

Watching TV reruns and hearing our politicians and media peons proclaim the end of morality, this nebulous “back then” comes off as a simpler and a fairer place. “Back in the day”, everyone was doing great-o: families stayed together, small businesses thrived, lawyers were honest, bankers were generous, the police were friendly and young people were just so gosh darn polite.

“Not like today”, we gripe to ourselves, “Not like this bleak, dickful world I must occupy, a victim of cruel timing!! I belong in an era when everyone knew how to work, how to love, how to live! But certainly not in this cesspool of weak, ignorant, apathetic morons!!!”

Well, my friend, you might want to start drinking or toking to loosen yourself up, cause these loathsome nincompoop contemporaries of yours are actually as good as it gets! And so is the theater of the absurd we call modern life. As hard as it is to believe, the world, in all its supreme crappiness, has never been safer or gentler. Not because the now is great but because the before was even more obnoxious. Let’s walk through the five most frequent laments for the “good old days” heard from your garden-variety crabby citizen — and debunk them for the fairy tales they are.

MYTH #5: TODAY’S WORLD IS SO VIOLENT – WOULDN’T IT BE GREAT TO GET BACK TO THE MORE PEACEFUL TIME IN OUR PAST?

Most of us are horrified by the onslaught of narratives, images and sounds of violence piping out of everywhere. It feels like the world is unraveling with gratuitous brutality and is about to reach a critical mass of FUBAR-ness that will result in “Michael-Bay-and-James-Cameron-had-a-baby” level of planetary wipe-out. In times like this, it is instructive to remember that our species’ rap sheet is actually improving.

It is a relief, of sorts, to know that our century does not hold a monopoly on human cruelty: people have been joyfully offing each other for thousands of years with impressive creativity and gusto. Despite emerging science making mass annihilation more possible than ever, we actually do less physical damage to each other today than in past eras.[1] The modern unprecedented advancement in information technology makes conflict and injustice more visible rather than more prevalent.

goodnews-tortureless2

 It is increasingly easy to feel like the walls are caving in and the sky is falling but let’s not overlook the silver lining on the noxious crudplatter that is our modern life.  At the very least, we have reached a level of civilization when we can begin to theoretically conceive of a fair, just, safe society. We have laws for complex notions such as “privacy”;  we have words like “ethics” and “inhumane” at our disposal to use in public debates on topics such as “Is it wrong to torture?”

Those public conversations did not exist before! The civil rights of “bad guys” have not always drawn so much interest and empathy from the general public, you know 🙂 And “the unwashed masses” were not always invited to participate in discussions or decisions of any real importance.

The bottom line is: for most of human history, you really had to be a one-percenter to feel secure from being driven off the land, maraudered, enslaved and violated.  Everyone else was in a tight race for survival, vulnerable to exploitation and oppression. The power elite got to live it up until they were “accidentally” poisoned by their own kin or casually dumped to rot away in a dungeon. And, occasionally, the rabble would throw down a revolution and behead everyone rich and fancy. So, no one was safe, really.

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Clearly, humans are still a very aggressive species, but today, some of our violent nature is seeped by “wars” we wage on the virtual battlefields. Instead of hitting each other with sticks and rocks, people express their anger and fear by furiously typing out profanities on anonymous discussion boards, bullying peers or stalking love interests’ social media accounts. Instead of going outside and picking a fight with a rando, intoxicated tough guys have to option to log on to Facebook and rip into some poor bastard who committed the ultimate treachery of not fact-checking their memes before posting. “I don’t care that you raised me, Grandma, you’re a fucking liberal fascist scum for “liking” O’Bummer’s speech! Gawd, how do these douchebags survive getting out of bed?”

So, perhaps we are just as violent in our minds, but not as much in our deeds. Online trolling is the lazy and / or cowardly person’s bar brawl. As luck would have it, there are many, many lazy cowards out there.

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MYTH #4: BACK IN THE DAY, PEOPLE TREATED EACH OTHER WITH RESPECT

No one will insist that today’s world is a glowing bastion of mutual respect and simple dignity. But to suggest that it was any better in the olden days is to erase all the blood and human tragedy of the hellish struggles for civil rights and basic life necessities denied to the majority of the world’s population by the very few in power.

In the United States, unless you are a white male of the upper class, you have no reason to long for the status quo of yore because all those old-fashioned courtesies the “yore” is so fondly remembered for would not have been available to you. But even if you are a wealthy Caucasian male, wishing for those days reflects quite poorly on your character. Are you suggesting you actually want to go back to the days of legal slavery, overt misogyny, religious morality police, child labor, etc.?

Because that’s a pretty damning thing to admit to wishing for. When you say that people aren’t respectful like they used to be, what you really mean is that you’re not being given “due” reverence as the undisputed master of the planet and every living thing in it, solely on the basis of the imaginary formula: low melanin + Y chromosome = *winning!*. The fact that your entitled ass doesn’t get automatic, unearned respect anymore is a heartening sign that the world is getting better, not worse.

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      Maybe don’t be insufferable?

MYTH #3: KIDS TODAY ARE UNEDUCATED, MANNERLESS, ANTI-SOCIAL IMBECILES

This should be common knowledge, but let’s repeat it anyway, for the older crowd, god bless them: there has never been a single cohort of aging adults that did not consider the young people of their day to be the sure sign of the impending apocalypse! Those arrogant, crusty little blah blah blah blah *trail off* “This was, surely, not at all the case when I was a child – we were all thoughtful, well-behaved youngsters who worshiped and obeyed our parents.”

Of course you were, Dearie. You also always did the right thing and said all your prayers, so it’s shocking that God would punish you with these (check the rant that applies to your generation):

___ arrogant, defiant, oversexed, drugged up, barely literate little shits

___ pathetic, anti-social, vanilla pansy-ass, attention-deficient, barely literate little shits

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The irony of ragging on their own spawn for being doomed, incompetent idiots seems to be wasted on parents who, after all, popped out and raised those funky creatures. And who, pray tell, came up with all that technology that you claim is sapping their brains and social skills? Stop blaming the inventions of the brilliant and/or evil minds of your own contemporaries on your unsuspecting offspring, people!

And while we are at it, let’s back off on holding them responsible for all the ills of the universe. Remember, you once inherited this turd of a world from your own parents! So, it seems hypocritical and mean to gloat to the next generation, like: “Ewww, you’re holding a turd! Way to catch a turd, dumbass!” Like you don’t know where they got the turd. From you. They got the turd from you.

To be perfectly clear, the young people of today are, indeed, arrogant, entitled little shits — but so were you and your parents and their parents and so on and so forth, to the dawn of human existence, so let’s zip it already.

MYTH #2: IN THE PAST, PEOPLE KNEW HOW TO LOVE EACH OTHER MORE

In today’s USA, approximately half of marriages end in divorce. This is a statistic many people find depressing and threateningly reflective of their own dwindling chances at romantic bliss. It’s true, divorce numbers have never been higher but let’s rid ourselves of the false premise that continued marriage equals a wholesome, “good-for-you” marriage.

Comfort, security, routine — marriage is designed to provide those things. At the same time, it is perfectly possible to be married and quite miserable until your dying day — and it becomes highly probable if you only get one chance to get it right. An entrenched sense of settlement, combined with social fears, unwillingness to change oneself and the hesitation to take a risk and “end up alone”: those are the guiding reasons why many people remain in marriages, not love, devotion or happiness.

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Even if people had more technically “durable” marriages in the past than today, it sure as hell was not because they knew the secret to keeping passionate love alive for all eternity any more than us schmucks of today. It was for two decidedly un-warm-and-fuzzy reasons:

1) people needed to stay bonded for life out of socio-economic necessities and / or

2) marriage was compulsory and divorce was either completely illegal or socially stigmatized to the point where it was not a real option.

So, kiddies, instead of bemoaning the death of Love as we know it, be grateful for the unlimited opportunity to find a new lease on life and fulfillment. High divorce rates are actually a sign that the search for true love is quite alive: people are willing to leave their current partner and upset their established routines, identities and social lives — just to give themselves a chance at finding “the right one”, the fools.

Pretty romantic, no?

MYTH #1: WHEN *I* WAS YOUNG, THE WORLD WAS A BETTER PLACE

Who, among us, isn’t guilty of strolling down the ole’ memory lane and yearning for the magic of childhood? This tendency is so strong in humans that we start mourning the passing of our youth, while still in it.

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Go ahead, indulge in nostalgia — just don’t confuse the deeply personal experience of being a child with the historical time period that coincided with it.

Listening to some folks talk, they seem to genuinely believe that “back then”, life was objectively more exciting and full of opportunities, and that food tasted better and the air smelled fresher. Suuuure — and people and objects were much larger and distances were farther apart too  😆

In fact, the world had been aflame all along. It is just that your young brain was, first, too underdeveloped, sheltered and naive and, later, too drunk, high, horny and generally overstimulated to pick up on all the misery and atrocity surrounding you. If obliviousness shielded us from reality, all children and drunks would be immortal.

The truth is, the world of our youth was full of sudden possibilities because WE were full of untapped potential and it still remained to be seen what we would do with all those natural gifts. Then, somehow, you find yourself a grownup — with a hefty baggage of rejections, betrayals and losses and the lingering aftertaste of humble pie on your breath. Whether or not you are doing “well” for yourself, by a certain age you realize that adulthood is not the smooth ride of wish fulfillment you once imagined.

So, of course, it’s nice to long for the “good old days” of boundless energy, trust, the delight of having so much to discover in the world. Underneath it all, we all long to be a clean slate, free from responsibility and unburdened by disappointment — in essence, to be an innocent baby again. Our mouths are grumbling “back in my day” but our brains are sputtering “goo-goo, gaa-gaa”.

Buck up disgruntled Gen-X-ers and jaded Millennials! There’s a “teaching moment” and  a self-bettering opportunity in all this infantile snot-wallowing. Next time you get the urge to miss them “good old days”, ask yourself: how do I feel about my life today? What is so unsatisfactory / disillusioning about my present that I’m willing to invent a fake past to distract myself from it?

The good news is that there is plenty of wonder and magic and “good” left in the world for all of us to tap — it just has to be accessed from the advanced spiritual plane of gratitude and empathy, afforded by experience accumulated through life. The less-good news is that, while aging bears much fruit in the way of anxiety and cynicism, it in no way guarantees maturity or wisdom, so… Good luck with that, let me know how it works out for you — and I’ll do the same…

 

[1] For a detailed history and analysis, check out Steven Pinker’s “The Better Angels of Our Nature: Why Violence Has Declined.” (Public Library)

8 SIGNS YOU HAVE WAAAAAY AGED OUT OF COLLEGE PARTIES

There comes a time in life when it hits you with astonishing clarity that you are just “too old for this sh*t”. Here is a handy list of red-flag experiences, sensations and realizations that will let you know, in no uncertain terms, that you are definitely too old to be at this kegger.

One. Upon entering a party, you become painfully aware of every safety violation in the space. Your eye is immediately drawn to shoddy flooring, loose railing, gaping holes and faulty electrical wiring. Instead of enjoying the cool artwork or hip music, you find yourself entertaining thoughts like “Who was the sick psychopath that put this together?” and “I don’t want to die like this”.

At basement concerts, you cannot help but imagine “something” going terribly “wrong” and the inevitable stampede of freaked out agile drunks that will clusterfudge towards the solitary tiny staircase leading up and out. Anxiously eyeing multitudes of candles precariously balanced on stacks of books, you calculate the best and worst case scenario outcomes and realize they are not far apart. Your eyes frantically search the area for the “EXIT” sign, despite knowing all too well the ridiculousness of such an expectation. As you squint around looking for potential escapes, it hits you that your eyesight has gotten really bad and it’s time to make an appointment with an ophthalmologist.

Two. You used to play drinking games to lose, because drinking was the fun part. Now, you play drinking games to win, because drinking is the deadly part. For years, you went on demolishing your health, throwing down like there was no tomorrow. Now that “tomorrow” is here, you are either a frail invalid with zero ability to hold down liquor, or an intolerable alcoholic with a violent streak. Either way, you NEED to win at beer pong, if you don’t want that disgusting stuff hitting your leaky gut and agitating the IBS.

And that’s another thing – with age, your liver has developed a more refined palate and refuses to process Popov vodka anymore. As this rules out approximately 97% of all liquor served at college parties, you are out of luck. And this means no jello shots. And without jello shots, what’s the point?

Three. Your definition of and tolerance for noise have changed — and not in a life-improving way. You see no point in trying to interact in a loud room. You grow increasingly frustrated from being unable to hear a single word the other person is saying. No amount of yelling will cut through the zoological bleatings emitted by what people are referring to as a “band”, “playing”, as people are referring to it, two feet away.

And so, you are forced to nod along with the “conversation” as if you understand what is happening, which you resent having to do. Watching the other person make faces and laugh as if they understand what you are saying reminds you of the pointlessness of life and your own mortality. The next thing you know, existential dread sets in: “Who am I?” “What am I doing here??” “Are they really making a gravity bong out of that fish tank with a live octopus in it???”

You wearily make a note to self that you simply no longer have leisure time, intellectual motivation or life energy to pretend to talk and listen, while having your senses assaulted by the musical stylings of what can only be tone-deaf quadrupedal marsupials honking their noses and flapping their pouches. The whole thing seems like a blood-pressure-raising exercise in futility, so you return to the nervous scanning of the perimeter for signs of fire hazards. There are even more than the last time you checked.

Four. You routinely stop yourself from saying something “inappropriate” because you’re worried about setting a bad example. You and your generation went a bit trigger-happy with all the sex and the drugs and the rock-and-roll – and now that you have a doe-eyed audience hungrily attending to your wisdoms, you realize that what you have to offer may not be so kosher.

Even as you proceed with caution, you can’t shake imagining the parents’ disapproving looks and scornful questioning: “Why are you telling our children about the cocaine trade of Colombia? Is this a responsible thing to do?” *blush* “No, our child does not need to know about the ping-pong shows of Bangkok’s whorehouses, what’s wrong with you?” “But, I brought it up in the context of talking about the Marxian / Engelsian “false consciousness” of the oppressed masses.” “Well, our child definitely does not need to know about that!!”

So you hold back and don’t tell them about that time you had to pay off the Chinese border patrol from busting you and your friends smuggling uranium to the Russians. Because you are a responsible adult and should not encourage espionage in young people.

Five. Women in tiny outfits don’t turn you on or feel like competition – they make you cringe. Upon beholding the flesh parade of coeds in teeny tank tops and tiny mini skirts teetering around on stiletto heels between bars and parties in subzero winter temperatures, you don’t even think to sexually objectify them — you just want to help them survive the night.

Merely looking at them makes you feel cold – and concerned for their health. “Here,” you want to say wrapping each girl in a Snuggie and handing her a hot cup of tea, “you’ll catch your death out here in this weather! And while we’re at it, here’s some comfortable flats for you to walk in – do you have any idea what those heels are doing to your knees and ankles, guuurl?”

Six. Speaking of interrupted sexual objectification… Cruel fate of aging mutes the “sexy goggles” and adds on a layer of “parent / authority figure goggles” prompting you to see college kids as actual KIDS. Before, you looked at young, fine, able-bodied college students partying and were like, “Yeah!! That’s hot!! Bring it ON!” Now you behold those same people socializing and see wee babies sipping on their little juice boxes, rolling and poking around in a sand pit.

You are struck by the realization that, while the problems in your life can be expressed in numbers with dollar signs and unpronounceable pharmacological terms, these little creatures’ immediate worries only run the scale of A+ to F-, and they even left out the E. You don’t want to screw them, you want to grade them.

Seven. You are no longer impressed with or seduced by what passes for “sweet talk” at college parties. Let’s face it, when you were young, the shallowest compliments flattered you and the dumbest revelations blew your mind. But now that you have been alive for a while, fresh, unique or original material is very, very hard to come by anymore.

Simply put, beyond a certain age, you start walking through life knowing that everyone in the room, including yourself, is full of shit. You have heard — and used – all possible lines from the book of universal pick-ups and every epic tale of personal heroism / awesomeness. As the result, now, everyone is transparent and predictable. Oh, you’ve been to Burning Man? And what, pray tell, happened there? You had a spiritual awakening?? No way – really?? And it was –what? – life changing?? NOOOOOOO!!! You don’t say!!

What’s worse, it begins to irritate you that these poor bastards are listening to your lame lines and tired stories with wide-eyed amazement. Are they seriously buying this old-ass folklore you’re spinning at them? You’ve heard yourself vocally torture these narratives and the characters in them too many times – and now, your inner critic won’t quit with the eye-rolls, spoiling all the fun.

Eight. The final nail in the coffin of belonging at a college party is the sharp spiraling of the cultural divide. Out of nowhere, you find yourself in a one-sided linguistic incompatibility loop with everyone around you: they can understand you but you cannot understand them.

There’s nothing like realizing that you are speaking different languages with these people and the difference is, alas, generational. *GASP* References are being made to things you cannot begin to identify, while words you have never heard before – as well as words you thought you knew the meaning of until just now – dominate the conversation, making you work way too hard to follow along.

It is a sensation similar to when you are learning a foreign language and get into a conversation with a native: all your energy goes towards piecing together the few familiar-sounding words you caught – with the general context of the conversation – with hand gestures and facial expressions of the speaker – just to make some kind of sense of it all. Except that not understanding a foreign language makes you feel like an infant, whereas not understanding college slang makes you feel HELLA old.

You heard WHAT on WHAT?

You heard WHAT on WHAT?

CONSUMED WITH GUILT OVER OVER-CONSUMPTION

Garbage in Ipanema, one of the wealthiest neighborboods in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil.

Does anyone else suffer from crippling sense of helplessness and guilt about being a pathetic hypocrite in a society of unapologetically wasteful over-consumers?

I try hard but I can’t help being wasteful and it’s looking more and more like a “damned if I do / damned if I don’t” type of situation. Everything that is mass produced comes in quadruple packaging, so even when you don’t buy many things, you still end up with a lot of non-perishable byproducts. So much of this packaging is beautiful and useful — but when you try to hold on to them for re-use or art projects, you end up with a bit of a “hoarding” situation — since the volume of incoming “parts” is never-ending.

Then, to throw away or even recycle a perfectly usable high-quality plastic container or glass vessel is the other option. Which is wasteful! To me, it feels like I did not “honor” this object enough — by ignoring its longevity and utility. Big props to Marx about the whole “alienation” observation. I have come to believe that “alienation” is a two-fold truth:

 — the laborer / farmer / craftsperson is no longer in touch with the fruits of their work, as well as appreciation from the buyers — and this disconnect (alienation) from their creations cause mental anguish and makes it an inhumane way to work;

the consumer is disconnected from the product’s originators / creators completely (with literally, several layers of packaging): temporally (when was this made?) geographically where was this made?), socially (who made this?) and morally, in the sense that the consumer feels no duty to value the labor and the material that went into the production of an object. Many times, machines assemble our wares and the parts that are assembled by humans, well, it’s best not to know the complete story, if you don’t want to feel like a monster for buying and using this stuff.

Well, I do feel like a friggin’ monster and it is not making me a better person, only making it hard to enjoy life. Despite painstaking reusing, recycling and distributing goods among friends and donation centers, I am still consuming a heck of a lot of stuff and resources: the food I end up wasting, the convenient wipes/towels/tissues/napkins of various kinds that make cleaning so much easier, the disposable bags / plates / cups – things I reuse but toss sooner rather than later, etc., etc., etc.

Things become more complicated when we zoom out from the singular wastefulness of one person or one item to the surrounding system of self-perpetuating wastefulness on a much larger scale. Every time I recycle a piece of glass or plastic, I use water (a precious resource) to clean it out and it takes fuel-powered transport (using up gasoline AND polluting the environment) to deliver it to the recycling plant which uses a godawful amount of electricity to process it. Obviously, there will be some kind of trade-off no matter what we do, but the current system in place is not efficient enough — and not thoroughly networked among corresponding industries — to be sustainable.

Overconsumption weights heavy on my heart and mind, to the point of causing OCD-like distress. Almost each time I throw something into the garbage that’s not organic matter, some recess of my mind summons the image of this thing rotting away in a landfill for centuries / thousands of years. I also can’t help but picture some poor creature hopelessly ensnared, dying a slow painful death inside some superfluous piece of plastic I carelessly tossed into the trash (forcing me to obsessively cut up and shred “tangly” garbage.) This type of thinking is paralyzing as there is no solution to alleviate the problem and my mind races in a loop, unquiet.

Thus, the “big picture” only adds an element of futility and despair to the processes. I spend inordinate amount of breaking down and sorting waste — all with an acute awareness of the fact that my “contribution” is such a tiny drop in the bucket relative to negligent residential buildings, companies and factories funneling unimaginable amounts of waste into our soil, water and air every minute of every day. It is a special kind of torment to feel guilty for being a part of this wasteful culture but helpless to turn it around. Contemplating one’s feebleness in the face of a gloomy future is a major bummer for mental health. Living with the perpetual feeling of being an asshole is not good for morale.

And so, I feel disappointed with myself for not doing more and more and more to cut out the human, natural and resource exploitation from my consumption habits but it is not realistic!! Everything that I can afford is made by some quasi-indentured laborer – quite possibly underaged – “somewhere else” not in the U.S. I resent ad campaigns that capitalize on people’s sense of moral superiority by fooling them into thinking they are “saving the world one dollar at a time” with their consumer power. I do not need my shopping to make me feel like I am “rescuing” someone by “participating” in a “social cause”! How about I just want my shopping to be blood and tear and rape and pillage free!!!!

It is frustrating, being a captive of this lifestyle. As an urban person with neither much access to “nature”, nor appropriate skills with agriculture, I cannot simply quit going to the supermarket and subsist off the land, as some people will be quick to advise. In many parts of the U.S., you have to be quite rich to be a “conscientious consumer” (e.g. pay very high prices for organic / humanely harvested food, clothes made in USA or France or Italy, non-mass-produced home furnishings and wares, etc.). Or – you have to devote all your waking hours to managing this sustainable lifestyle: in addition to cultivating food, you’ll need to learn to sew your own clothes and synthesize your own antibiotics and develop all kinds of other specialized skills and knowledge nobody can be expected to just “pick up” as needed.

If all involved factions pulled together into a unified, synergized alliance, we could set up a super-streamlined infrastructure in which all recyclable materials would be collected, funneled to proper facilities and processed into new, also completely recyclable things. The best part is that it would be mutually profitable for all parties: the manufacturers, the government, the consumers, etc. It would, however, require the kind of cooperation and reorganization of priorities for the common good we cannot currently expect from our corrupt rulers and politicians. It would also mean that the rest of us have to suck it up and make an honest committment to reducing the production and consumption of useless and frivolous crap and start paying attention to finite natural resources we are pillaging as if there is no tomorrow. Also a tough sell…

Having thought about this a lot, I am willing to give up quite a few “luxuries” of modern living and have a simpler life. And I imagine there are things I will be more reluctant to relinquish from my life but, so what, I’ll adjust. But here is the thing: we may soon not have a choice in the matter anyway. In the not far off future, the problems of today will seem altogether blissfully manageable compared to snowballing issues of overpopulation coupled with exploding unrest over dramatically unequal distribution of simultaneously dwindling natural resources.

Seriously, our current petty societal dysfunctions and international disputes will seem really-really silly compared to the mondo turd that will hit the jumbo fan in a matter of decades! As things stand now, we are inching towards a FUBARed humanitarian crisis that will spill out into major global rebellion of the overpopulated, angry, starving masses. It would also be wise to prepare for disasters of unseen proportions dropped on us by Nature to remind us who is The Mother around here.

It is not fear-mongering if it is true and necessary: for now, we still have some semblance of a chance to salvage our planet and its life support system. Doom is not unavoidable but it is where we are headed if we stay the current course of arrogant sociological and ecological short-sightedness.

Even putting the complicated science of climate change aside and focusing solely on over-consumption and over-disposal of non-perishable goods, what we are doing right now is akin to spitting and tossing refuse into our own laps, blind of the space around us shrinking. The way this story ends is: the garbage piles rise and, eventually, close in over our heads, devouring us, making us indistinguishable from garbage. Drowning in one’s own waste is not a terribly dignified way to go, Humanity. Let’s not go down in the annals of the Universe as the species who crapped themselves into oblivion.

THE PITFALLS OF GOSSIP

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Have you ever been surprised or horrified when you catch yourself publicly saying something completely out of character for yourself and wonder: Why did I fall for the obvious bait and get trapped into a political argument? Why did I brag and show off so obnoxiously to friends all night? Why did I reveal so much personal, private stuff to a stranger, or worse, someone from my own social network? Why did I say something so catty about so-and-so, when I really do not harbor any negative feelings towards that person? Why did I help pass around a rumor, though I quite consciously and as a matter of principle detest gossiping?

Sure, alcohol comes to mind, but let us not focus on it because it is a catalyst, not the cause of the phenomenon. It is true that the more relaxed and “loosened up” people are by alcohol, the more they tend to lower their filters and yak with wild abandon. But drunkenness is not a necessary condition for gossip and other TMI blunders: I would wager that people gossip just as much over tea!

The true culprit is the social climate created by the awkward combination of fun and anxiety. Even though we all like to think we are in complete control of ourselves, social contexts dramatically shape our behavior how we express ourselves.

Socio-economic necessities force us into unwanted interactions (having to talk to bosses, associates, family members) and social pressures dictate the topics we end up discussing publicly. One moment you’re having innocent lunchtime banter with a coworker, next thing you know, you’re talking about Johnson’s outfit and speculating about her sexuality….

I have always considered myself a keeper of secrets and not a passer-arounder of confidential information. Likewise, I have always felt uncomfortable around people talking negatively about others behind their backs and avoided fueling the fire.

And yet, on a number of occasions, I have caught myself saying something suggestive about people – with remarks that felt innocuous and funny and a propos at the time – but seem questionable or straight-up inappropriate in retrospect. I meant no harm, I swear, but this fact neither excuses the behavior nor lessens the resulting shadow of doubt cast upon another person’s character.

This problematic tendency to get carried away with unintentional mudslinging emerges when we get swept up in the group dynamic: everyone is “on a roll” of discussing others and one is instinctively drawn in, compelled to contribute something funny / interesting / intriguing to the lively conversation. If the tone of the gathering is to badmouth someone, badmouthing becomes easy and natural. These little acts of slander happen under the guise of humorous, friendly, playful chatter and seem to especially thrive in certain groupings, like those of colleagues, relatives, teammates and super-closely-knit friend cliques.

Certainly, some people are quite purposefully vindictive and actively stir up “drama” as a means of self-validation. But most gossipers are not being harsh or acting as a saboteur intentionally: they are simply in the habit of mindlessly recanting other people’s secrets and thoughtlessly criticizing and ridiculing others – to keep boredom at bay and to find something light-hearted to connect over with people.

Unfortunately, when you get enough gossip instigators together, it creates enough momentum to suck in the rest of us who, under other social circumstances, would not think to say something inflammatory about a peer. But when inside the rumor mill, we suddenly find ourselves blabbing away, surrendering to the impulse to fit in, to go with the flow. You really don’t have to be a mean-spirited person to gossip but it becomes a slippery slope, if you go there. The potential social fallout from publicly maligning a friend, colleague or relative can have unintended harmful consequences for the target of gossip as well as people who started and passed it around.

There are myriad explanations in the social sciences for why people gossip. For instance, we have an evolutionarily developed psychological propensity to crave social acceptance – and gossiping offers a temptingly fast ticket to popularity. Gossiping and sharing secrets also strengthen camaraderie and increase a sense of belonging to an exclusive club or community when we share intimate knowledge with the select few individuals. It makes us feel special to be a part of a “circle of trust”.  

Another major component of universal human psychology engaged in gossip is the rule of reciprocity: that magnetic sense of obligation we feel when people say or do “nice” things for us. Symmetrical, ritualistic exchanges of favors keeps the power dynamic balanced, which is why most of us do not like to feel indebted to someone, not for too long. So, when people around us are sharing bits of gossip, they entrap us into feeling that we, too, must now “contribute” some sort of insider information, in kind. We respond by sharing more gossip.

If one willingly surrounds oneself with thieves, thievery will eventually become the “new normal” and the person runs a pretty high risk of succumbing to it. Likewise, gossiping and other social vices, like casually throwing around sexist and racist language, can seep into our behaviors inconspicuously and organically. We see people we love, admire or fear saying and doing all kinds of things and we can’t help but want to emulate them.

So far, my conclusion is: if you don’t want to be a gossiper, avoid social scenes in which judgmental or mocking commentary about acquaintances is the main source of entertainment. Otherwise, sooner or later, you’ll likely find yourself caving to human nature and, if you are like me, feeling like a real jackass and kicking yourself for it later.

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Our peers carry huge potential in shaping our social habits and setting roles, norms and boundaries. It can be hard to recognize “toxic” environments if the venom is not directed at us personally and when everyone is laughing merrily and having a great time. Complicity in bullying thrives in the same environment, by the way. Gossip can certainly become an indirect tactic of bullying. It can even seem that we are all “getting away” with it. But, no, we are not. There is a golden tenet in social interaction and it goes as follows:

The way a person talks about others with you is the way this person will talk about you with others.

Period. No exceptions. And because this rule seems so elegantly fair, a small, idealistically moronic part of me keeps hoping that, by the same logic of justice, some social grief in life can be avoided by being a decent person. If I keep my karma cache clear by refraining from saying “iffy” things about others, I may be spared being put through the ringer when it is my name’s turn in the grapevine spotlight. Right?

AsDontBeAHater if!..

The pragmatic realist in me who has been alive (and actively so!) a number of decades among fellow humans knows this to be an unreasonable expectation, to put it mildly. No measure of cosmic justice will prevent haters from hating. The nectar of meanness is just too sweet for some to give up 🙂 The rest of us should try really hard to not feed the trolls.