Saturday, February 6, 2021

Pushing The Envelope (The Envelope Pushes Back)

Social media encourages things that are shocking or forbidden.  Where will this lead us?

Back in the 1960's and before, we had comedians who "pushed the envelope" - Lenny Bruce with his dirty talk comedy, or George Carlin with his "Seven Dirty Words."   Today, it seems all so quaint.  The outlawed "Seven Dirty Words" are now part of the lexicon and used by your grandmother.  We've moved on to even more shocking words, deeds, and actions.

On the Internet, you can make a good amount of money if a video or posting "goes viral" but in order to do this, it has to attract attention. And in order to do this, it has to be funny or shocking.  So we see a plethora of staged "prank" videos, in which something "outrageous" is done to an "unsuspecting" person, and we see their "surprised" response.  Hilarity ensues.

Another trick is to have a video of some spontaneous event.  But often spontaneous events don't occur spontaneously enough, so they have to be faked.  You see a video where someone is filming a random person walking and then something happens to them.  Hilarious!  But wait, why was someone filming this in the first place?  Um, I dunno.  I just like filming random people and hoping something hilarious happens.  Or the whole thing is staged.

In order to "go viral" however, you have to keep upping the ante, until someone gets hurt.  If someone is actually hurt - or killed - so much the better. Such videos thrive on the Internet on sites such as LiveLeak.  Before the Internet, odds are, in your lifetime, you would never see someone actually shot or killed or die.   But now, thanks to the Internet, you too, can have PTSD without ever leaving your home!

The problem with "pushing the envelope" is that eventually you run out of envelope - or go so far that the "jokes" you are making are no longer funny. Every so often, another "Shock Jock" on morning radio is shamed for this - making racist jokes or something. They keep having to poke the bear or tickling the dragon's tail to get a response from an audience who is increasingly desensitized to shock and awe.

As a result, we keep moving the football down the field - what we deem "beyond the pale" keeps becoming more and more obscene or scandalous.  Today, the "Seven Dirty Words" are only bleeped out on network television, they thrive on Cable TV and the Internet and in daily conversation.  And this trend seemed to be continuing until the envelope started pushing back.

Somewhere along the way, we started to realize that maybe things in poor taste were in fact distasteful and left a bad taste in your mouth. Ethnic jokes, once the staple of ribald humor and even vaudeville, became passé and were viewed as abhorrent. It is still considered acceptable - at least in some quarters - to tell ethnic jokes if the teller is the ethnicity being made fun of. Jews can tell jokes about Jewishness. Blacks can say the N-word and make disparaging comments about their own kind. Gays can mock gays. White people are free to mock whiteness, of course. I am not sure this makes ethnic humor any "safer" or funny, for that matter.

That is the one fundamental crime in comedy - not being funny.  And ethnic jokes have a history of not being funny, but in fact, being mean.  And maybe that is why they are falling from favor.

But the envelope is pushing back in other ways as well.  In the 1960's it was free love and "do your own thing" but today we have raised the drinking age to 21 and the age of consent to 18.  Many a young high school lothario has found himself in very hot water when he takes a cell phone photo of his 17-year-old girlfriend in flagrante delicto, as today, we deem that to be child porn.  Worse yet, he could be deemed a "child predator" rather than merely a high-school sweetheart on lover's lane.  Laws have had to be adjusted to compensate for this.

But some are pushing back on the envelope pushing back. We are seeing the rise of a new racism, a new misogyny, a new form of radicalism and hate. The events of recent weeks are a case in point. And perhaps it is this need to shock, this need to push the envelope further, that has lead us to this place - this place of Qanonsense wild conspiracy theories and utter madness.

Back in the day, we had gatekeepers. Maybe it was unfair to harass Lenny Bruce, or arrest Jim Morrison, or censor George Carlin.  But there were societal standards that were followed - social norms.  Of course, in some parts of the country, these social "norms" included white supremacy and utter misogyny.  But there was some sort of social enforcement of what was, and wasn't, beyond the pall.

Perhaps Bubba the Love Sponge or Howard Stern isn't the cause of the rioting and unrest we see today - on the Left and Right. Maybe the Donahue show didn't normalize Nazism.  But the events leading up to last week didn't happen overnight - they were the result of this pushing, twisting, and incremental changes over a long period of time.  And much of the "push back" perhaps is from the far right, who is seeing their way of life change - no longer can they put down minorities and women with a joke or a jape. What is considered socially acceptable today has changed from back then.

This is why Trump ranted about flushing the toilet 12 times. He is pushing back against "politically correct" low-water toilets, LED lightbulbs, and other societal changes that people perceive as limiting their freedom and choices.  They want to be able to say the N-word in its fullest - shout it in fact - and tell depreciating jokes about women and minorities, just like the good old days.

We have changed the standards of what we used to call "Decency" and this is upsetting a lot of people - but liberating far more. The fundamentalist Christian sees Gays as "indecent" - and not long ago, being Gay was not considered a societal norm.  Today, it is, and in some quarters, celebrated.  This creates a disconnect for the person raised in a different value system.  What do you mean, we have to accept this?  What next?  Telling me Blacks are equals and not just wild animals that need to be kept down?

I am meandering a bit here, but this goes somewhere, trust me.  Or I think it does, anyway.

Our generation - my generation - wanted to toss aside societal norms in a temper tantrum of swearing. Thanks to George Carlin, we can now say "shit" and "fuck" with impunity, all day long. Where did that get us?  Nowhere, really. And while George Carlin seemed funny at the time, when he railed against "Baby Boomers" did he fail to see the irony that he was railing against himself?

Maybe instead of abolishing societal norms, what we really wanted was to change them.  And to some extent, we have.  But in another aspect, "do your own thing" has encouraged people to take things to extremes - to normalize Nazism and white supremacy in the name of "free speech" and "presenting both sides of an issue."   But there are no "both sides" to some issues.  Nazism, racism, antisemitism, white supremacy - the whole works - do not merit "equal time" or consideration.

Yes, we needed to change what was considered "decent society" from the excesses of the past.  This did not mean we needed to abolish all societal norms.  What is considered "decent" and "indecent" should be based on kindness, fairness, and sense of what is best for the greater good.

And I think we are heading this way. Many today are upset over the actions of the last few weeks - extremists, in every sense of the word, trying to use violence and intimidation to enforce their twisted world view.  Maybe it is too little, too late, but social media is finally clamping down on what is "indecent" and goes against societal norms. It is gatekeeping, but then again, we need gatekeeping from time to time.   We can't let ideas like white supremacy or Nazism flourish under the guise of "free speech"  We need to shame people for holding such ideas, and elevate the better aspects of human nature - the "better angels" that Lincoln talked about.

I guess this is kind of a muddle, but I am optimistic that perhaps this cataclysm is like a child birth - messy and painful, but leaving behind something beautiful in its wake.  Maybe the rest of us will finally wake up and realize that by letting hateful people dominate the national conversation, we are letting go of what few societal norms that are left.

Some folks have said they are literally afraid to put up signs or flags supporting Biden or Democracy, or criticizing Trump.  "I don't want my car tires slashed or my house vandalized" they say.  Is this what our country has come to?  Where normal people live in fear of the fringe?  Where mentally ill Qanonsense believers can dictate to us what is, and is not allowed to be expressed?

It seems bizarre to me. Free speech and free expression is a fine thing and all.  But just as you can't negotiate with a terrorist group whose first and non-negotiable demand is "You die!"  You can't negotiate with a political view whose non-negotiable demand is "everyone has to agree with us or remain silent!"  Republicans call that bi-partisanship or "working across the aisle" and then whine when the Democrats won't go along with it.

There will always be fringe beliefs. There will always be societal norms. The problem occurs when fringe beliefs become norms, and those fringe beliefs promote violence, intimidation, racism, misogyny, and the whole nine yards.   In other words, evil.

I guess that is what it comes down to - good versus evil.  You know the stuff the Bible was trying to tell us.  Sadly, over time, people have used the Bible to promote evil - to justify everything from religious wars, to slavery and lynchings, to gay-bashing, and misogyny.

Will good triumph over evil?  It will in the end, as people eventually get tired of being mean to one another.  Most wars end not when one side wins, but when both sides just get tired of killing and being killed.  Human nature is an odd thing, and it seems right now we are going through one of these pre-war or war periods, where worldwide, people are losing their minds and embracing strong-arm dictators.  It isn't just us, or the US.

We just have to hope that people get tired of this and they turn away from it. Because with each successive iteration, the stakes are that much higher.