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Recovering backpacker, Cornwallite at heart, political enthusiast, catalyst, writer, husband, father, community volunteer, unabashedly proud Canadian. Every hyperlink connects to something related directly or thematically to that which is highlighted.

Monday 1 September 2014

Oh, the Inhumanity: War Room Paparazzi

This piece is about celebrities who have had their personal pictures hacked (now I know you're going to click the link).  It could, however, be about any number of people in any number of contexts.

We see people's supposedly private conversations and intimate photos used against them all the time; everything from Amanda Todd's heart-breaking suicide to Peter MacKay's sexist snafu(s) are tied to information that was meant for select audiences being made public.

There are differing rationales for why we share stuff we know wasn't intended for public consumption, private moments and the like - in politics, transparency is supposed to be a good thing and we want more of it, while we may tell ourselves that anyone who takes a naked pic of themselves for whoever is just begging for it to be sent around, like a digital shivaree.

From a cognitive stand-point, though, the justification almost always comes afterwards.  It's the drive to find and disseminate these pictures that, to me, is most fascinating.

We all say and do stupid things - we're only human.  I think it's fair to say that we don't want every little thing we've said in the heat of a moment being thrown back at us; even those who love to pounce ask for leniency when they're in the spotlight. 

I'm sure any one of us would be incensed if nudie pictures of our sisters, or our children, were shopped around, even if we knew those family members had consented to their being taken, only for a limited viewing audience.

Yet how often do leaked sex tapes get viewed?  Do we ever make the association that the person in the video, or who uttered the embarrassing comment is just a human being, not perfect, like the rest of us?

We tend to be more or less inclined to empathy based in part on the context of the individual.  A media celebrity, for instance, is more likely to be seen as fair game, as is a politician.  We're more forgiving when the person caught is someone with less profile.

The logic goes like this - a celebrity makes their money by being an entertainment product.  They do magazine spreads, love scenes, red carpets and breakfast television - they wouldn't be in the business if they didn't want exposure, right?  Even if they don't want that level of exposure, it's considered a risk of the job, like getting burned if you're a firefighter.

For politicians, we feel a certain level of entitlement to the quiet side of their lives, because what they do at home or at a bar is surely reflective of how they will carry out their civic duties.  Rob Ford is clearly the poster-boy here; the guy breaks the law, hangs with criminals and is openly discriminatory - these are all things we need to know to make sound judgment calls at the voting booth, right?

Does the same thing apply when it's any employer creeping Facebook to learn more about what their employees do when they're not at work?

We elect and pay politicians to do a job.  It's a form of employment.  To suggest it's okay for employers in one context but not another is essentially a reversal of the bias.

What they do, though, isn't like cleaning washrooms or repairing roads - what they do day-to-day impacts all of us and therefore, they're more open to scrutiny.  We should be able to watch them, but the reverse shouldn't necessarily be true.

Now let's broach this from a different angle; the beheading of journalist James Foley by ISIS was viewed by many, but I'd warrant a great many people who had the chance, didn't.  Why would this be the case?

The reason ISIS sent the video is clear - they are to be feared, because they don't view us as human and are therefore capable of doing unspeakable acts to us - scary stuff!  At the same time, ISIS suggests that "they" could be our neighbours or friends, meaning we should be worried about how they are dehumanizing us.

The implication in this, of course, is that we should be suspicious of our neighbours, less likely to impart on them a humane level of trust (don't behead others if you would not have them behead you, etc.).  The irony is that those who didn't want to watch the beheading didn't want to do so because they felt "once seen, it could not be unseen" - the implication being that the horror of seeing another human being lose their head was too frightening to consider.

Personally, I watched the James Foley murder - I felt it important, because it was something singularly horrific and sad event that happened to another human being; one, I felt that putting myself through that somehow allows me to take on some of that emotional weight and two, fuck them.  I They're not going to scare me.  We know what happens when you step away from civilization - there are wild creatures out there.

You know, the wild - where there aren't humans, but all those beasts we are entitled to what we please with.

Which is what it all boils down to.  We have a hard time doing to others what we'd not want done to us; like cannibalism, the underlying reality is that if we can treat them in wanton ways, they can do the same, and none of us are safe.

It's why folk who are at risk of kidnap/capture (soldiers, spies, diplomats) are taught the value of empathy and given cognitive tricks to try and humanize themselves to their captors.  It's also why we have a habit of referring to people we want to be abusive of in dehumanizing ways; bitches and rats and fucking animals, all of that.

In the mess that's been made of the Middle East by multiple actors, we see ISIS hating and dehumanizing their foes so severely that they can cut their living heads off.  That's pretty extreme and not something that would ever happen in, say, Ferguson, where police brutality is a bit more civilized (though less so as the police attempted to put an Iron Curtain around the community).

Closer to home, political War Rooms are even more civilized in their dehumanization, serving more as paparazzi for their political opponents.  Anything that can be mined, exaggerated, taunted with is fodder for the brand-hurt machine.  The more you can demoralized and wound your opponent, the better:

Can you dehumanize someone for a select period of time, incite them to do the same, then get right back to acting brotherly to each other?  Not really.  Yet the dehumanization game has become (and perhaps always been) a crucial part of our political process.
Of course, it's also what we accuse politicians of - lining their pockets with public dollars, turning their backs on the suffering of ethnic minorities or the job challenges faced by youth, etc.  They are the dehumanizers; we're trying to force them to be accountable to all of us, including those not like them by partisan stripe, skin-tone, geography, whatever.
So they close their doors further and the gap widens, and what happens behind closed doors becomes more removed from the human reality of the majority.  The majority, plus internal minorities, react in kind.
So what does this have to do with nudie pics of celebrities?
We are consumers of celebrity; at the same time, celebrity does go out of its way to create a larger-than-life product, air-brushed, carefully framed, perfect - superhuman.  We want a piece of that, because it's sexy; to be close to celebrity is to have a piece of it.  At the same time, we want to bring it down; fame is power that we don't have but are attracted to like moths to flames, and far too many folk are uncomfortable with the notion of others having emotional power over them.
There are plenty of hot bodies out there willing to be seen; if we're so desirous of porn, we can pay for it or find it wherever else.  Porn involving a celebrity, though - that takes them down a peg, makes them more human.  The beheading of a fellow person, however, moves too far in the other direction - it implies that we're all lower on the power-and-safety scale than it's perhaps comfortable to believe.
We have the whole spectrum of behaviour, but the constant is this - as an aggregate we try to find the mushy middle.  The further one cohort goes in one direction, the further another will go in the opposite direction.
The reason why one cohort may move further along the spectrum is because of the distance they have from the centre; the more fabulous your life is, the less connected you are to the plight of mortal folk.  Meanwhile, the less power you have, the more radicalized you're likely to become.
When radicals become the powerful cohort, they will seek legitimacy for their status from those generally accepted as the super-humans, or to take them down a peg so as to reinforce their own superiority.
Finding and viewing intimate pictures of celebrities, in this regard, is no different than cutting off the head of an American journalist as a warning to the US President. 
Infamy, as we know, is a form of celebrity; fear is a powerful weapon.
This is why I'm a big fan of celebrities who legitimately walk the walk when it comes to engaging in communities and with problems so different from their reality - by so doing, they are creating bridges of humanity.  The same is true of people from marginalized communities who rise up and go to the places of power, carrying the story of their people with them and never forgetting what they've learned.
At the end of the day, what we feel and believe is entirely internal, selfish, individual.  The world we live in, though, as human beings - that's something we create together, whether by choice or not.
Which is probably why Do Unto Others as You would have Them Do Unto You is a universal golden rule.
Humanity isn't something that can be taken from us; it's something we can only build together.

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