A sensational attraction

[Content note: more of a musing on several disjointed ideas relating to a particular issue than an essay with a unified argument.  For reasons that are about to become apparent, I feel slightly weird about listing all of the possibly troublesome topics appearing in the content — see tags.]

I’ve noticed a general social trend which annoys me.  I guess the best way for me to summarize that trend is to say that any speculation about a person or persons engaging in some belief or behavior which is sufficiently interesting (in a certain sense of the word, to a certain part of society) is accepted by too many as true on insufficient evidence.  Or maybe it would be less clumsy just to give some examples of what I mean.

One of my very favorite historical celebrities is Charles Dodgson, who under the penname Lewis Carroll wrote Alice in Wonderland and Alice Through the Looking-Glass (which together occupy a special place in my heart and on my bookshelf), and who also worked as a professional mathematician and an Anglican deacon while dabbling in photography.  It’s been a while since I read a biography of him or any of his non-Alice written works, but I remember always getting an overwhelming sense that he had a strikingly similar personality to mine and that if timing and geography cooperated we could be really good friends.  The type of very left-brained creativity that he seemed inclined towards seems much like mine, although of course I don’t exactly see my creative pursuits leading to any ground-breaking literature.  We would probably clash on many philosophical matters — that whole God thing, for instance — but I can imagine us engaging in really pleasant debates on these topics over drinks.

Now many still seem to appreciate Dodgson’s literary masterpiece(s) as well as his contributions to mathematical logic, but many also seem to insist on the truth of some thorny allegations surrounding his life.  To start with, I’ve heard it stated as a fact more than once that he produced some of his best work under the influence of mind-altering drugs.  For instance, I once had an English teacher who related that some Dodgson authority (presumably more expert than herself) had informed her that he was “definitely tripping” when he wrote the Alice books.  (I’m not sure what substance he was supposed to be tripping on, as LSD wasn’t invented until well after his time.)  Apparently it would have been impossible to come up with a story as nonsensical and surreal as Alice Through the Looking-Glass without being on something to supplement one’s own raw creativity and wit.  But as far as I know, this is where the “evidence” for the claim ends.

That doesn’t seem so bad — after all, the fact that someone created something marvelous under the influence of drugs doesn’t decrease their merit-worthiness in the eyes of myself or many others — but there’s a far more sinister and pervasive allegation out there that Dodgson was an active pedophile.  Supposedly his interest in young Alice Liddell, the inspiration for the Alice in the books, didn’t spring entirely from affectionate feelings as a friendly uncle figure.  This is an assertion made by a significant number of Dodgson biographers which has caused quite a controversy in the field.  Now I wouldn’t want my own fondness for Dodgson and his work to bias me against believing anything unsavory about him.  And I don’t feel the need to say goodbye to the cherished art of a person who has thought or done horrible things; for instance, I don’t believe the fact that John Lennon had a habit of beating his first wife takes away from the greatness of his music or the secular humanist values he promoted.  So I tried to look into the Dodgson allegations with an open mind.  And I really couldn’t find anything to convince me that he approached little girls with any inappropriate motives or behavior.  The only evidence cited is that Dodgson used to photograph little girls in the nude, which does indeed look pretty damning until you realize that in Victorian times children were considered thoroughly nonsexual and photography of naked children was actually pretty common during that period.  It seems to me that Dodgson was basically a gentle, somewhat shy and socially awkward (although that is disputed by some) bachelor who was friendly and relaxed around some child friends.

Yet there seem to be a lot of people whom it seems impossible to sway by invoking the context of Victorian culture and steadfastly refuse to doubt that Charles Dodgson was a pedophile.  I even argued with one person who dismissively waved away my points with “Come on, we all know that’s what most of those celibate clerics were into.”

Meanwhile, contemporary to Dodgson were two consecutive United States presidents, James Buchanan and Abraham Lincoln, both of whom are suggested by a number of scholars to have been gay.  It seems perfectly plausible to me that Buchanan, America’s only bachelor president, may have been gay, although positive evidence for it seems fairly mild and it seems hard to say with much confidence what a politician’s sexual orientation was from that time.  In the case of Lincoln, I find it somewhat less likely given that he had a fairly decent marriage and fathered several children.  There doesn’t seem to be a whit of evidence for his homosexuality outside of the fact that he shared a (probably large double) bed with several men, most famously his close friend Joshua Speed.  But again, this was not uncommon for the time (indeed I’ve discovered since moving abroad that this kind of thing is still not quite as strange in Europe as it is in the modern American culture I grew up in).  I actually once heard two historians debate this claim on the radio; the one asserting Lincoln’s homosexuality was only able to return again and again to the fact that Lincoln shared a bed with Speed.  In this way, these notions persist.

Or take the frequent allegation that Walt Disney was horribly racist despite otherwise being a kind and inspirational man.  I’ve heard his name casually brought up in conversation as an example of a WWII-era figure whose work was admirable and who seemed like a nice, normal fellow but who treated blacks and/or Jews as inferior.  I’ve looked into this claim and after some searching, all I’ve really been able to find is that Disney (along with other notable figures such as Ronald Reagan) joined a particular actor’s/producer’s group in the 1940’s which has since been shown to have harbored some anti-Semitic sentiment.  Evidence that he was a Nazi sympathizer amounts to stray rumors and seems pretty thin on the ground.  Yet people seem to immediately accept the “Disney was a racist!” narrative without actually investigating the origins of the rumor.

So what is going on here?  At first glance, these might appear to be examples of the insistence within the modern internet-based social justice movement on believing any allegation of racism, abuse, etc. in accordance with what some believe to be the best strategy for combating those evils.  But of course this breaks down when one considers the “Lincoln was gay” theory (homosexuality was generally met with societal judgment until relatively recently, but it’s certainly not considered sinful by social liberals today), or the whole “Dodgson was high” thing.  Plus, I don’t think that many of those who are trying to get everyone to realize that racism and sexism persist today are all that concerned with our recognition that some celebrities of the past held abhorrent views and engaged in abusive behavior.  After all, it’s not really so debatable that a lot of values considered horrible today were either the norm or treated with a blind eye in olden times.

No, something else is at the bottom of this, and I’m reminded of Jon Stewart’s description of how he viewed the biases of mainstream media.  He once characterized news media as catering to “sensationalism and laziness” (linked to the full interview because it’s really good, but the relevant part starts around 4:30).  Well, I suggest that maybe the same holds true for the ideas we let through our own filters: we too often have a weakness for sensationalism, for ideas that are provocative in an immediate way that doesn’t require too much thought or reflection.  That is what the above examples all have in common.  Our society as a whole is sort of obsessed with a number of sensational things including racism, drug use, and pretty much anything to do with sex, especially if it’s something taboo or that once was considered taboo.  These speculations each serve as a sort of cheap momentary distraction which entertains us each time we recall it.

When certain types of content begin to attract our sensationalist and lazy urges, I imagine a lot of it has to do with novelty.

I’m pretty sure nobody who remembers what it was like to grow up will disagree with my impression that a lot of kids, from quite young children to preteens and beyond (sometimes pretty far beyond) are kind of obsessed with joking around about anything sexual, drug-related, or violent, the more shocking the better.  Now I don’t know much about child psychology and I acknowledge there are already several very obvious causes of this — actual desire for sex or interest in drugs, for instance, or the obvious awkwardness and/or smirking from older people when they’re talking about these things — but I don’t think any account of the contributing factors is complete without considering the attraction of novelty.  In my experience, children begin to be prone to talking about these things just when they’re first learning about them.  This is probably due to the shock factor being much stronger when these concepts are newer.  In addition, the impression of understanding these things gives the child a sensation of worldliness.  As kids grow older, the fact that these subjects become less taboo gives them more boldness in bringing them up all the time, while at the same time the subjects are invoked in slightly wittier and less blunt ways as there is no longer so much need for them to signal that they know the basics.  Eventually the presence of such content in all social conversation (in my opinion) wears out its welcome somewhat — I often consider it kind of immature to go on treating everything to do with sex and drugs as all that interesting and funny (not that I’ve never been guilty of it myself) — but it’s kind of hard to stop fixating on those things when the world around you seems pretty addicted to hearing about them.  Eventually, for some individuals, certain topics become so old that they’re no longer worth invoking gratuitously or responding to appreciatively, but in many cases that stage never seem to be reached.

Society as a whole seems to go through a similar set of stages with regard to certain forms of sensationalist content as it goes from almost completely unknown and/or taboo, to the very basics just beginning to become common knowledge, to becoming fully and widely understood and needing to be discussed nonstop, to lingering on as popular subject material despite having been talked/joked to death, to finally (only in some cases) being retired as rather boring or cliché.  We are more or less at the nonstop-discussion stage, for instance, where pedophilia is concerned, which explains the insistence on the unpleasant Dodgson allegations: we as a group want to show ourselves that we’re worldly enough to understand the prevalence of such things.

I always think of a certain routine by the singer-songwriter/comedian Tom Lehrer which was recorded on one of his live albums as an intro to the song “We Will All Go Together When We Go” (it can be heard here; warning: very dark nuclear-apocalypse-related humor, though admittedly not much more macabre than Lehrer’s usual).  Lehrer is embarking on a ramble having little to do with the song to follow, something about some (probably fictional) eccentric guy he used to know, and he throws in an inconsequential joke: “I particularly remember a heartwarming novel of his about a young necrophiliac who finally achieved his boyhood ambition by becoming a coroner.”  A slightly tentative, uneasy laugh comes from the audience.  Lehrer then adds, “The rest of you can look it up when you get home”, which is followed by a much louder laugh and some applause.

Now this was recorded back in 1959, and I can tell.  It’s obvious that this had to have been recorded a long time ago, because our collective understanding of and attitudes towards unusual preferences like necrophilia has changed to the point that the joke above just wouldn’t be considered funny by that many people.  I can’t imagine a quip that serves as almost literally nothing more than an acknowledgment of the basic definition of necrophilia being considered worth putting into one’s comedy routine today.  But for the 1959 audience of Tom Lehrer (who was well known at the time for pushing the envelope), kinks like necrophilia were just beginning to enter the collective consciousness so that a few of them were able to get the joke and laugh at it, albeit a little nervously since the concept was still quite new and scandalizing.  Perhaps an audience ten years later would have laughed more fully and easily at the same joke, which might then have reached its peak freshness.  But today it sounds pretty stale.  People still bring up necrophilia in a humorous context left and right of course, but typically not as a joke whose only real element is the definition (“This guy was a necrophiliac, so he decided to become a coroner!” *BA-DUM tsss*).

Meanwhile, other subjects that I expect were sufficiently provocative and sensationalistic to have been fodder for comedy routines at one time eventually seem to have either been deemed offensive or to have worn out altogether.  For instance, I have the impression that old-fashioned comedy contained many more jokes about married men lusting after their neighbors’ wives back this was considered a sufficiently sensational thing to talk about than in modern times, now that our culture has found many fresher and more exciting topics for gratuitous entertainment.  A criticism I sometimes hear by young adults of old-fashioned comedy is that the humor of past generations feels rather cliché, and I suspect this is what causes that impression.  In my opinion, the irony here is that younger humorists seem to overuse certain topics in their content just as much, and while those topics seem fresher today, that might not be the case thirty years from now.

One positive effect of our collective preference for sensationalism is that it leads to greater awareness of people and issues that once went unrecognized.  The drastically increased visibility over the last several decades of gay people in the media is largely due to activism of course, but a lot of it has to do with our culture as a whole discovering some “new” thing, making it gradually less taboo, and finding it engaging enough to portray frequently.  This has helped a great deal to increase visibility for the LGBT community in general.  But clearly the portrayal of diverse sexual orientations has continued to evolve and is still evolving.  Certain types of “gay jokes”, especially the ones whose entire substance is “Gay people exist!”, are now rightly considered offensive, and the moral message of “Gay people are people too!” is now being conveyed in more subtle and nuanced ways.  However, we are only just beginning to reach what I’d considered to be a desired goal of commonly seeing characters who happen to be gay (or any other minority sexual orientation) but who aren’t “gay characters” per se — if we get there, only then might we be able to say that gay culture has reached full mainstream acceptance.

We’ve seen a slightly similar phenomenon with portrayals of mental illness.  Back 50 years ago, the main forms of it portrayed in fiction were very severe disorders featured for shock value (as in Hitchcock’s Psycho).  During my lifetime, however, characters with more common mental illnesses are seen increasingly frequently, which helps bring awareness to a very important issue.

The downside is that there are other issues and groups that also deserve awareness but aren’t fodder for immediate entertainment in quite the same way.  I think asexuality might be the prime example here.  I imagine that many if not most folks are aware of the ace community or at least that some people don’t experience sexual attraction, but you sure wouldn’t know it from the media we consume or even from the assumptions we make in our social interactions.  Asexuals comprise what may be one of the most invisible minority groups in our society, and even though there’s not much explicit anti-asexual prejudice rooted in our traditional culture, there doesn’t seem to be much effort to increase visibility for this group.  The reason behind this is clear: the notion of someone being asexual is interesting in an abstract way, but it isn’t sensationalistic.  Asexuality doesn’t lend itself to interesting situations or plotlines, at least not at first glance.  It’s been widely noted that sitcoms tend to adhere pretty closely to the Everybody Is Single trope where unrealistically few of the characters are in relationships.  This is for the obvious reason that more characters on the dating market means greater potential for engaging stories.  And a character who is single but who just isn’t interested in dating and/or sex seems even less likely than a character in a steady relationship to provide engaging stories of the kind we’re used to consuming.

A similar principle applies to certain kinds of more “mundane” disabilities.  It even applies, say, to high schoolers who (like past-me) aren’t obsessed with drugs, sex, reckless driving, and generally getting into trouble, and yet who (unlike past-me) also aren’t super stereotypically nerdy.  You wouldn’t get the impression that such adolescents exist either from media or from the way most conversations about teenagers go.

This doesn’t mean that it’s impossible to portray someone of one of these groups in a film, TV show, or book in a way that sells.  I believe it can be done with a little creative effort, and that such an effort should be made wherever possible.  And I hope to see our culture adopt an attitude of greater self-awareness of the assumptions that arise from our insatiable attraction to sensationalism as well as a willingness to push back against it.