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A taste for violence

(content note: murder, gets a bit grisly in places, no pictures or anything, it’s basically fine)

A lot of contemporary pop culture is about terrible people doing appalling things.

This is not new or surprising. I mean, real life is so lovely and free of conflict these days, it’s only natural we’d seek out stories of sadism and cruelty as a way to escape the comfortable banality of our everyday lives.

Ahahaha. Oh, what frivolity. Such larks.

Anyway, we’re obviously used to seeing villains and antagonists committing vile acts of evil and terror – killing people, subjugating and enslaving whole populations, and the rest – before being soundly and rightly defeated by the brave heroes. But since they’re not generally the obviously relatable characters we’re meant to empathise with, getting into those bad guys’ heads can be fascinating.

But while it’s written under the guise of “exploring a dangerous and twisted yet still distinctly human and underappreciated mindset”, I’ve noticed distressingly often these kinds of narratives reading like some sort of lefty/liberal revenge fantasy, in a way that’d be creepy and sinister and utterly objectionable if the political allegiances were switched.

And I sometimes wonder how much these “explorations” are genuinely about finding the humanity in someone different from you – finding something human to connect with in a character whose motives and values in general appal and disgust you – and how much they’re about indulging the part of you that kinda does just want to murder people.

You’re not a monster, though, so they’d have to be people whose values seriously disagree with yours – maybe over a political issue like gay rights, or something else far more important than the ethics of killing other people.

The obvious example from TV is Dexter. He killed a lot of people, which we’re not supposed to be okay with. But he also had a career and a family and we liked him. And a crucial part of that dichotomy was the moral code he lived and killed by. The show was pretty inconsistent in dealing with what really drove him and why he felt compelled to limit his killing to those who “deserved” it, to the extent that he did. But importantly, the code was something we could relate to. The people he killed were often themselves murderers, or violent thugs, or rapists, and often tended to be casually homophobic and misogynistic and racist.

In other words, they’re people you don’t mind seeing die horribly. You wouldn’t want to actually kill them yourself, in the real world, obviously – but when you’re watching Dexter, you can kinda get behind him.

And this seems to matter. Dexter’s not a relatable anti-hero because of the contrast between his uncontrollable sociopathic violence and all the other delightful, human, recognisable, charming aspects of his character. We don’t see the good in him and wish he could somehow conquer this one horrifying flaw. Instead, the thing that should be his least likable, most alienating aspect is the primary draw. The fact that he’s a serial killer is shaped such that it’s a positive factor in itself.

In Christopher Brookmyre’s book Snowball In Hell, the viewpoint narrator throughout much of the text is a charming and witty serial killer, who targets a right-wing newspaper columnist and goes to great lengths enacting an elaborately ironic revenge fantasy. (Think Saw, but without the grisly “appreciate your life more” parables.) The book expresses contempt and disdain for the homophobic xenophobic bigot and his inhumane views, it marshals a rational argument against them through our charismatic narrator and ridicules them for the vacuous nonsense they are, and then the main character tortures him to death.

The message, at least in part, seems to be that despising and wishing ill on an asshole with hateful politics is not only wholly reasonable and appropriate, but also not that big a step from sadistically making them suffer and ending their life.

Even the main protagonist’s reaction when she hears about this brutal killing is basically “Well, I’ll try to solve this crime and catch the bad guy, because that’s the technically correct thing to do and it’s my job, but I’m not in any way sorry that shithead’s dead.” Because, you know. Why mourn the malicious and vindictive snuffing out of a human life if they’d said some horrible things about gay people? For all that the murdered journalist was portrayed as appallingly intolerant, he was never so unable to tolerate someone else’s lifestyle or opinions that he slit their throat and let them bleed to death while they begged for mercy. The guy who does that to people is cool and suave; the bigot is just gross.

The narrator-murderer also gives us enough of a direct diatribe about his infuriation with things like manufactured pop music and reality TV, that I’m not convinced we aren’t meant to be going along with it and continuing to agree with his worldview. If it’s really just a satire on the ideas he’s espousing, it’s played very straight and a large part of the audience are going to be taking it literally, missing the satire in ways the author has no excuse not to have seen coming.

It becomes more clearly self-aware further in, I think, but this character’s fashionably cynical perspective provides around 100 of the first 150 pages, and it doesn’t feel at all as if it’s supposed to be alienating or other or different. We’re meant to connect with his contempt, it’s meant to tap in to the way other people feel.

Which could support the argument that he’s satirising the danger of that whole lefty-liberal revenge fantasy thing, except it’s still just played too straight for me to buy that explanation. He’s not writing American Psycho here. That book – if I’ve in any way understood anything (not a given) – was about the frustrations of modern corporate life, and how close to psychotic murder are a lot of the emotions it genuinely induces, in huge numbers of people. It was about the disconnectedness that its protagonist felt, and it was really saying yes, this destructive force might be in you too, or at least not so far from home, and that should worry and unnerve you because this is not a nice person.

Whereas Brookmyre’s attitude seems closer to: Hey, this guy is kinda like you, only he gets to kill those people you pretend you don’t hate. Fun!

It feels like these kinds of stories aren’t really about getting into the head of someone truly alien, whose desires and feelings and thought processes are beyond us, so that we can try to understand someone with a completely different worldview from our own. The message is that these psychotic murderers aren’t that different from you, and you should feel fine about that. Their moral code is almost always understandable to a large degree – they’re offended by the same things you are, they’re impatient with bigotry and injustice just like you – but they have this extra aspect to them that means killing people is permitted. They’re still likable and charming and you’re inside their head because of the way the story’s told, but rather than helping to normalise the other, what this does is make the angry, violent, murderous feelings buried under your supposedly benevolent worldview seem understandable and human and maybe even not so morally wrong.

Murder isn’t treated as a moral evil in the same way as, say, writing disparaging things about gay people and immigrants in a newspaper column, or objectifying women, or sometimes simply “being arrogant”. It’s not that these aren’t really bad things; the point is that they’re not as bad as murder, yet they often feel like they’re even worse, so long as it’s the right kind of murder. We’re coaxed into empathising with murderous protagonists all the time, but there are certain rules; you can’t kill any children, it’s generally safer to stay away from women, and you have to have a wry quip for every occasion. It’d be more of an actual challenge to make a relatable protagonist out of a bullying homophobic jerk than a socially liberal assassin. Persuading us to understand someone’s humanity would be trickier if you let them consistently and carelessly break that kind of viscerally understood cardinal sin.

In Brookmyre again, while we’re following the murderer-narrator and still finding him kinda dashing and charming, there always has to be some lefty-acceptable reason for the people he kills – a racist comedian, a vapid bimbo WAG. Somehow it’s never just an actual innocent who doesn’t deserve it who gets killed while we’re watching him be all suave and charming about it. If we couldn’t other and dehumanise the victim based on their politics, then their murder might start to feel like a real tragedy.

There’s an element of the same issue in the film of Kingsman. You know the scene I’m talking about (unless you don’t, in which case do catch up), and it is quite breathtaking, but the purpose in making those people Westboro Baptist proxies seems to have been to make sure we’re less distracted when they get slaughtered, letting us revel more joyously in the carnage. Which I totally do, that scene is fucking incredible and just typing a sentence about it has made me have to go and watch this amazing edit again as a substitute for revisiting the whole film – but it’d be harder to enjoy the beautifully shot ultraviolence if the people getting killed weren’t homophobic and racist bigots. Which says something uncomfortable about the value I seem to place on the lives of other humans when it turns out they’re not keen on gay people.

I’m not sure what the answer is to any of this. I’m not sure there’s even a coherently posed question. And I haven’t even mentioned Hannibal.

I often talk about what bullshit copyright law is, and the insane ways in which it stifles and punishes creativity. That you can buy somebody else’s intellectual property and hike the price of life-saving medication several thousand percent, in a way that excludes anyone else from providing fair competition by undercutting you, is one of the more infuriating demonstrations of civilisational adequacy of the moment. That and the way one corporation, until recently, was making millions charging people to sing Happy Birthday.

But sometimes the law isn’t the biggest ass. Sometimes people’s bizarre and authoritarian ideas about property rights are what help to create horrifying and dystopian legal systems, which in turn reinforce people’s outrageously extreme ideas of what’s “right” or “fair” when it comes to protecting your ideas from being stolen, and we end up in a place where George Orwell’s estate wants to control all mentions of the number 1984.

Fuck this suppression of ideas absolutely in all guises.

Shake it off

This is not a post about how you should be fixing all your own problems by yourself, by just cheering up and adopting a positive mental attitude.

There are a lot of things we can do to physically influence our mental state, without introducing any external factors like drugs or alcohol. In fact, we’re unavoidably doing it all the time.

We tend to assume that being happy makes us smile, being tired makes us slump into a pathetic heap, and so on. That’s how we imagine bodies work. In fact, the way we feel and the way we express ourselves to the world is not at all a one-way street.

For instance, if you adopt a superhero stance, or a “power pose”, it will make you feel more powerful. And adopting a withdrawn, nervous, low-power posture will make you feel more anxious and reduce your confidence. You might adopt such a position because of anxiety and low confidence, but if you do, your posture will likely reinforce it. Even if you feel great and only stand like that in order to pretend, you will still start to feel anxious and less confident, because of the way your brain takes on feedback.

Also, smiling makes you happy. Botox can both treat depression and cause depression, because it suppresses the ability to both smile and frown. Also, exercise is useful in treating depression.

In all these cases, your brain notices how your body is behaving, and uses that to decide how it must be feeling. It’s really not meant to work that way around. But it does.

For years now, I’ve been reading the kinds of blogs and listening to the kinds of podcasts that often talk about fascinating, important, and deeply counter-intuitive features of human psychology, so this kind of thing gets brought up a lot. And, having been saturated in it for so long, I now regularly try to incorporate it into my life.

If I’m not having the best day at work, sometimes I’ll hide in the toilet and spend a few moments grinning ridiculously and leaping around a bit, in the kind of way that could only possibly be explained by my being in a fantastically good mood. And honestly, if I let myself go along with it, this is pretty good at making me feel better. Acting like I’m really happy seems to remind me that I don’t have to be mopey by default just because I’m not actively thrilled to be in the office and I’ve got resting bitchface. My brain sees me looking goofy and bouncing around, and goes “Oh yeah! Things are pretty good apparently!” Even just remembering to stand up straighter can improve my outlook.

Science has learned some wonderfully bizarre and amazing things in this area of psychology, and there are many ways for us to take control of our own state of mind and have a significant impact on our feelings, motivations, and emotions.

That’s all good and important and if I were a more consistent writer I could fill a dozen blog posts about all this stuff.

But none of that’s the point.

The point is: it is incredibly difficult to talk about this in a way that’s actually empowering.

What I’d love to discuss is some uncontroversial scientific data, and my own recent experiences with some very light brain-hacking. What I want to do is talk about how everyone can find this data useful in their own lives, in the same way that I have.

What I’m in real danger of actually doing is patronising everyone and inadvertently blaming them for all their problems.

Because everything I’m talking about is a hair’s breadth away from terrible popular advice that everyone’s heard a million times before. People with depression or mental health issues are constantly told to just pull themselves together and get over it, by people who don’t understand what they’re experiencing. Men never seem to shut the fuck up from telling women to smile. And the supply of folk who think fat people maybe just haven’t encountered the advice “try eating less” before, and consider it their moral duty to deliver this important message to them for the first time, is apparently endless.

The thing about this advice is that it’s always about the giver, not the beneficiary. If you shout an instruction to smile at an irritated stranger, that’s not going to make them want to smile. It’s far more likely to irritate them further, and it’s hard to imagine someone not understanding that without being wilfully oblivious to other people’s actual emotions.

Ditto with “just cheer up”. Nobody says that because they think it’s going to help. They say it to try to browbeat another person into complying with their wish for a more artificially cheerful environment. They say it when somebody else is bothering them by not being in a sufficiently upbeat mood.

This is true even if the woman walking down the street being harassed from a building site really is only in a mildly bad mood for no good reason, and really could make herself feel better by changing her stance and facial expression and choosing to shake it off. Unfortunately, you’re not introducing her to a useful and empowering psychological tool in a safe environment, where she might be able to take it on board and use it to improve her life. You’re just being a selfish dick.

So how do you talk informatively about the potential for positive psychology to improve people’s lives, without just being part of that same unhelpful crowd? There are just tripwires everywhere. Already it might seem like I’m nagging at people who hide in the toilet at work to cry and feel shit about themselves, like they should do what I do instead, and just choose to put on a brave face and force themselves to feel better. That’s absolutely not my aim. I really don’t want to make anyone in that position feel worse than they already are, but it’s so hard to get a constructive point across without putting my foot in it like that.

Self-defeating emotional behaviours are innately extremely good at defending themselves from treatment. There’s so much science can tell us about how to improve ourselves as much as we claim we want to, but the problem makes us want to solve it by doing things that actually make it worse. The often insurmountable difficulty of applying solutions that work, despite their easy availability, is one of the great frustrations of the modern age.

I get told every so often that I should have been a teacher.

The people telling me this are disregarding the massively antisocial aspects of my personality to reach this conclusion, but I do kinda see where they’re coming from. Aside from the whole human interaction element, I quite like teaching.

I guess the way I tend to think of it is that I enjoy explaining stuff I understand. In front of a chalkboard staring at a couple of dozen pre-adolescents is absolutely not somewhere I’m ever going to feel at home, but some one-on-one maths tutoring is something I’ve been meaning to do for a while. I’m good enough that it could provide a nice little side-income.

And, like, a good chunk of what I’m trying to do on my blog is explain stuff that interests me to other people. I think I can be a bit teacher-y, so long as it’s well outside the standard classroom environment.

And I sometimes remember that I have definite Opinions about teaching, and how it can be done well and badly. I’ve been convinced for a while that many people’s profound aversion to anything involving numbers can be largely explained by a crappy standard of teaching with regard to all the fundamentals. If you think you hate maths, there’s a good chance you could understand a lot of its bewildering ideas much better if they were introduced in a better-structured manner.

In fact, I started a series of posts back in my LiveJournal days called Happy Funtime Maths Hour, attempting to do exactly that. It was inspired by the polite curiosity of my humanities-oriented university housemates, starting a longer time ago than I’m comfortable thinking about. So when I said I get told I should’ve been a teacher “every so often”, I guess I meant “fairly regularly for over a decade now”.

And I might actually have to start listening, in some form or another. There’s a couple of things that have made me think about this again lately. The first was listening to the audiobook of Tim Ferriss’s The 4-Hour Chef. There’s a lot going on in there: it’s partly a cookbook, with recipes and so on, but it’s also a treatise on the process of learning itself. It examines the path taken by the author to becoming a skilled cook, and picks out the crucial parts of how that learning actually happened. It builds a system of teaching skills based on the way they’re likely to be most efficiently acquired.

Not everything in the book entirely hit home with me, but it definitely had an effect how I think about the process of learning. I’m learning to cook myself, not in quite as organised a fashion as Tim, but in some way inspired by his methods.

One thing I was inspired to do was actually crack open one of the hardcopy cookbooks we have on our shelves. We recently picked up three volumes of Delia Smith’s How To Cook in a charity shop, thinking it might be a good starting point for me to pick up some more basic kitchen skills. These books are somewhat well known for starting from the absolute fundamentals, explaining in simple detail the basics of how to boil an egg, and I vaguely remember them attracting some negative commentary from people who found something risible about this perfectly fine idea.

After some introduction and opening preamble, page 16 of the first volume kicks things off with the header: “How do you boil eggs?”

Just overleaf, on page 19, is this picture:

Now, I’ve never actually taught anything, and I didn’t read the intervening pages in full, so technically I don’t even know how to boil an egg either. But if you’re talking to someone who you’re assuming knows nothing about cooking at all, and they turn a single page to find themselves expected to produce that, something really seems to have gone awry somewhere in the pedagogical process. Maybe other people really have learn loads about cooking from scratch by this exact process, but to me it feels badly disconnected from anything someone clueless and hoping to learn things could actually engage with.

Educating people in ways they won’t get distracted or put off by may be becoming one of my Things. Watch this space.

No tax please, we’re Irish

Apple Inc. have been paying an effective tax rate of under 2% in Ireland over the past decade.

There’s now a legal dispute over this, but not the way that you might think, or that might make any sense whatsoever. The question being disputed is actually whether the Irish government might be “forced to recoup tax” from the company. The state is apparently going out of its way to make sure this large international corporate behemoth doesn’t make any further contribution to public services.

I’m going to try to bear this in mind the next time the anarchist commentary on a news story about some capitalist atrocity seems a little over-the-top.

(Also, between scribbling the above and getting around to posting it: Facebook.)

Good call

Thirty-two years ago today, one guy decided not to start a nuclear war.

He was a Soviet military man named Stanislav Petrov, whose job at the time involved checking whether America had launched at nuclear missiles at Russia lately. If they had, he was to escalate this up the chain of command, where the standard strategy that would presumably be enacted would be for Russia to launch some of its nuclear missiles back at America.

On 26 September 1983, due to some technical glitch, it looked like America had launched a nuclear missile at Russia.

Stanislav Petrov decided not to report this to his superiors, and so Russia did not launch any of its nuclear missiles at America. No superpowers killed millions of each others’ citizens that day.

Let’s spare a moment today to appreciate the line of reasoning which led to this decision.

Hyperbrief summary: Conservatives are disingenuous about their views on government intervention and liberals fall for it.

Recommended?: Yep, especially as it’s available free.

Dean Baker is an impressively credentialled American economist. He’s written a bunch of books, many of which are downloadable for free from his website. The subtitle of this one represents what seems a common theme in his work: How the Wealthy Use the Government to Stay Rich and Get Richer. Its basic idea is something that’s been seeming increasingly obvious to me for a while now, as I grow incrementally less dumb and ignorant about politics and economics.

According to the popular narrative, left-wing liberals believe that there are things we can’t get done as a society without relying on government to do them for us, whereas right-wing conservatives support independence, personal autonomy, and minimising government interference in lives of citizens. The public debate is commonly framed in these terms, and both sides tend to argue as if from this premise.

In fact, this is an entirely inaccurate basis for discussion, and liberals regularly leave themselves at a massive disadvantage by capitulating to this idea, allowing conservatives to claim a monopoly on fundamental American concepts like freedom and independence. Conservatives want and demand state intervention in the “free market” as much as anyone, generally to further entrench and concentrate the money and power of the rich and powerful.

One of the book’s main strengths is the consistent recognition that the way things are right now is not the only way they could possibly be. In numerous areas of life, there are clearly major drawbacks to our current way of doing things, and it’s our responsibility to be open to the possibility of substantial change. (I mean, he could do with turning that healthy revolutionary attitude up a notch on subjects like taxes, but in general it’s pretty good, and a lot better than most mainstream conversation.) The intended purpose and substantial downsides to our current systems are examined rigorously, and it’s sensibly analytical about the positives and pitfalls of alternative approaches.

It’s efficient in its writing, more than being particularly charming or witty, or otherwise infused with the author’s personality. Which isn’t really meant as a criticism, just something I noticed in comparison with most other books I’ve encountered that attempt to do a similar job. If you aren’t expecting too much of a casual chat, but want to see someone making their point articulately and concisely, it’s a good read.

One drawback for me was the way the word “state” is almost never used throughout the book without the word “nanny” preceding it. I get that this phrase is what summarises the thesis behind each individual argument, and he’s essentially right about all of it, but referring quite so often to “nanny state conservatives” as the people supporting the policies he argues against starts to feel like unnecessary name-calling – especially when “nanny state” becomes an inappropriate metaphor for what he’s describing.

I’ve never liked it that much anyway, as a term for an over-meddling government. Nannies are people we hire to come into our homes and provide a vital service looking after our children. They might have a stereotypical image as overbearing and overprotective, but that’s not inherent to the job, and they only exist because the tiny humans they’re looking after would be in serious danger of harm or death if a nanny wasn’t around to keep them safe. I guess the idea is that children are genuinely helpless, and need someone to take basically full responsibility for their lives, which is what some people act as if they want the government to do for all of us, but it still feels a bit weak as an epithet, especially when so overused.

Most of the time it’s not so bad, because the over-bearing intervention of the state is the correctly identified problem. But there are times when it talks about the wrong sort of intervention, or even when the government refuses to meddle in ways the book thinks it should – to let rich people get away with things in ways the less privileged wouldn’t be allowed to, say – at which point the overbearing nanny allegory entirely fails.

It’s not like his criticisms of government policy are suddenly any less valid or acutely observed at these points, but the patriarchal actions of a “nanny state” aren’t a good descriptor for the problem.

I was especially interested in the section on Social Security in the US, and how it compares to other systems. According to the figures cited, the administration costs of running Social Security are around 0.5% of the tax revenue that pays for it, compared to a figure of 15-20% of revenue going toward admin costs in privatised social security systems, such as in the UK.

Embarrassingly, given that I’ve worked in the field for several years, I had to google the name of the paper in the citation to figure out that the UK’s “privatised social security system” refers to pensions, in particular the system by which insurance companies sell annuities. (My mind only went to the socialised free-at-point-of-use NHS, which was more of a given when this book was published in 2006.)

But he’s obviously right that all the costs associated with being an annuity provider, such as executive pay and advertising and whatnot, are hugely inefficient. It’d never occurred to me to make the direct comparison to the US’s government system of Social Security; I’m going to need to read up on this in order to better understand the distinctions.

The Conservative Nanny State is a free e-book available on the author’s website. If you have any kind of political investment or personal leanings as regards liberalism, libertarianism, conservatism, or any of the ways humanity attempts to get its shit together, you’ve got no excuse not to read this and learn some more about how the system you think you understand actually works.

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