Saturday, October 25, 2014

From criticism to censorship is a dangerously short road

Clickbaiting has gone mainstream in the vanishing mainstream media. The Washington Post has a relatively dense but narcoleptic piece from Alyssa Rosenberg, The culture wars are back, and this time, everyone can win. It is so substance free it is hardly worth commenting on, though the commenters themselves actually add some substance and humor.

Rosenberg's thesis is something along the lines of:
People believe media (plays, poems, books, songs, newspapers, movies, etc.) have content that affect peoples values and behaviors. Some believe those effects to be positive and some believe them to be negative. With technology and the internet, there is much more media than there ever was before. Lower barriers to entry mean that no-one has to be left out. This is a good thing.
I don't believe this thesis to be wrong, just not particularly useful or meaningful. Rosenberg does have some interesting observations but you have to persevere. Some quotes from the last half of the article give a flavor of the piece.
Just as culture itself is wildly diverse and fragmentary, the drive to examine culture through a political lens comes from a huge number of different constituencies, each with its own set of interests, priorities and internal debates.


Critics who are broadly aligned under political labels may have hugely differing interpretations of the same piece of culture and offer very different solutions to the problems they have identified.


For all these debates can be wearying, the new culture wars have been a tremendously exciting time. And I think it is no mistake that they come at a time of incredible growth and technical and creative innovation in pop culture.


Culture warriors on both sides of the aisle who want to wipe out the things that they find offensive seem poised to be as badly disappointed as the decency crusaders before them.


But for those who are fighting for a culture in which all stories have a chance to be told, though, the prospects are decidedly sweeter.


The present culture war is the rare conflict in which almost everyone has a chance to win.
Rosenberg does a good job of retailing vast tracts of popular culture but not such a good job of hiding her disdain for anyone of the non-progressive tribe. In the few areas of popular culture of which I have a modicum of awareness, I can see where she has made some rather egregious summaries that mischaracterize what is going on. Aware that we are all subjects of Gell-Mann Amnesia, I read the rest of her article with some skepticism.

Rather than engage with the absence of substance in the piece, it is much more fun to see what the commenters do. A few highlights:
Finnegans Father
10/9/2014 10:54 AM EDT
Most of this strikes me as a very good thing.

The gate keepers swept away, and an extremely wide diversity in what is offered, reflecting an extremely wide diversity in views of life.

Room for intellectual and thought-leader types to suggest avenues of criticism... but heartfelt debates among everyday people about what is and is not a reasonable criticism of content.

If you don't like this, I question your ultimate commitment to democratic ideals.

Yet, we know that there will be dirty play around the margins, people who will travel from the reasonable "That's crap and here's why not to watch" to the unacceptable "Here's a plan to forcibly silence what I don't like." The trouble is that the road from the former to the latter is littered with marginal tactics, tying particular societal evils to particular culture. Reasonable cultural criticism, but with the goal of censorship. Both the left and the right have such histories.

10/9/2014 1:13 AM EDT
what a tome of an article. I'm still looking for the part where I learn "how all of us can win" in the culture wars.

10/8/2014 7:18 PM EDT
Not for the first time Ms Rosenberg has described a malignant wasteland and declared it art. At least the column illustrates how deeply the media has become enmeshed in the creation of a truly appalling popular culture throughout the postindustrial world.

10/8/2014 5:11 PM EDT
This lengthy Ph.D dissertation courtesy of The Washington Post.

Readers tip - When the headline and the very last sentence are the same, you can bet there's not much new in between.

10/8/2014 5:02 PM EDT
Now we are in the midst of a new culture war, in which fans and creators battle each other and sometimes themselves. It is being waged over whether or not culture is political, and if so, what its politics ought to be and how they might be expressed. That conflict has also diffused beyond the academic, religious and political institutions who were major players in earlier convulsions. Today it is wildly fragmented in a way that suggests vigorous and ongoing debates rather than an easy resolution.
Holy smokes. I trust Ms Rosenberg took a history class or two to go along with journalism? Every generation has gone through similar "convulsions". the 50s, rock and roll, Lenny Bruce, the 60s (when I was coming of age) was filled with the same arguments and fuss. Not sure we are all that different today.
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10/8/2014 5:29 PM EDT
But it's HER generation, so the others don't matter.
10/8/2014 2:31 PM EDT
This rather tiresome article misses the biggest shift in the culture wars; the rise of victimhood. In the 1970s the boundaries of propriety were pushed because it profited media to titilate; the idea was "We show what sells; if you don't like it, tune out." This worked because no one claimed that offense to their sensibilities was actual harm.

These days though, people claim victimhood--that is, actual injury--if they are not adequately represented, or are unflatteringly represented. You don't here Hollywood saying "we'd make more shows with sympathetic lesbian characters if lesbians bought more of whatever our advertisers are selling." The rush to victimhood, and its accompanying desire to punish or boycott all offenses, is the real injury to our society.

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