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Asymmetric Humour

Why is it okay for the weak to make fun of the strong but not the other way around? I’ve heard of the saying that it’s okay to punch up, but never to punch down, but why? What is it about our culture that allows the ugly to joke about the pretty, the fat to insult the thin, the poor to lampoon the rich? In other words, why is humour asymmetrical?

The simple answer is that if you’re in a position of status and power, ridicule isn’t necessarily mean-spirited. The edge is taken off because at the end of the day, you’re still on top and a few jokes aren’t going to change that.

Western European culture and its derivatives have had a strain of thought that assumes that everyone has equal worth. If one of your basic premises is the equality of all people, then when faced with the reality of inequality, those at the bottom would need to be taken up and those at the top brought down to bring the world into balance. Thus if you feel this way, you would find it vaguely disgusting when the strong prey upon the weak and vaguely pleasing when the weak get their comeuppance on the strong.

This is something that’s been going on since ancient times, though the strain of thought was never as dominant as it is today. Whether it’s stories of the ugly yet quick witted slave Aesop getting one over on a dull and oblivious master, whether it’s Christianity’ assertion that all people are equal in the eyes of God or the egalitarian Germanic traditions that gave us Common Law, it manifests itself over and over in our culture.

Maybe this assumption of equality is something that’s somehow innate in people, but I’d be inclined to think not. There are many examples of societies in history where floating the idea that all people are equal would have gotten you laughed out of the room.

For instance, the very first account of a peasant weeping when it wasn’t a subject of ridicule happened in the Gospels, when the Apostle Peter was overwhelmed with regret over having denied knowing Jesus three times. This may have something to do with the fact that writing was, up to this time, the near exclusive preserve of the ruling elite and their records are the ones that get preserved. Still, history is replete with examples of people who clearly did not believe in equality. Imagine the response you’d get from a medieval Mongol or an ancient Spartan if you asked them what they thought about the basic equality of all people.

If we were to see how a Spartan might treat a Helot slave or a Mongol one of his subjects, we would call that bullying today, even if they were not physically abusive. These people were strong and their victims were weak and as their cultures believed that might makes right, making fun of underlings was just part of the natural order of the world. Because we see equality as a basic ideal, such attitudes become distasteful.

In the modern world, we see this yearning for equality in the political correctness movement. Its aims, at their base, are to promote equality by couching touchy subjects in scrupulously neutral terms. Encouraging people to use less scornful or insulting language regarding anyone in a position of weakness puts people on more equal footing within public conversation.

A side effect is that it encourages the asymmetric humour I pointed out.

When a Chris Rock (to use a famous example) pokes fun at white America, he gets a free pass because he is doing so from a position of cultural weakness. As an African American, he is part of an underclass that is still struggling to achieve social parity with the dominant culture. Were a white comedian to make similar comments regarding black culture however, that comedian would be a pariah because they would be speaking from a position of cultural strength.

The same applies for women making fun of men or the poor making fun of the rich – the strong are fair game. After all, they’re strong.

They can handle it.

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Thoughts on Nero

I have just finished re-listening to all 179 glorious episodes of Mike Duncan’s amazing The History of Rome Podcast (not all in a single sitting – I’m not that crazy) and not only did it once again capture my imagination, trying to put myself into the shoes of these ancient people, but it also got me thinking that perhaps someday people will look back on us in the same way we look back on Rome.

The thing about the history of the era, and a point that Mike Duncan was always at great pains to point out, was how lumpy the record was. There were some periods for which we have quite good information, varied written sources and a lot of physical evidence with which to piece together the events and the world people lived in back then. Other periods however, regardless of how transformative they might have been, have infuriatingly scanty evidence. For the reigns of some emperors, for instance, we have but a single source or one that was written much later based on previous sources.

The problem with this is one of bias. Writers back then, and especially history writers, rarely wrote with even the slightest pretense of neutrality. Biographies especially tended to have an agenda, their aim being to teach the reader moral lessons or push a particular political view rather than relate the facts as they actually happened. The tough, charismatic men who became emperors became paragons of manly virtue or depraved villains depending on whether the author approved of them or not. Powerful women in those shockingly misogynistic times were invariably portrayed as virtuous matrons or as oversexed, overbearing harpies.

It puts us in a weird spot in terms of how to treat some historical figures.

Take Nero, for example. We know for instance that he died by committing suicide, friendless and abandoned by the people and Senate of Rome. That much makes a lot of sense and there’s little reason to dispute it. We also know that after his popularity took a sharp nosedive following the Great Fire of Rome, vicious (most likely untrue) rumours spread of his having started the fire deliberately. To take the heat off himself, so to speak, he blamed a widely disliked minority group for starting the blaze. These were the early Christians, weird impious atheists (yes, really – they were called this for denying the existence of the traditional Roman gods) whose secretive get-togethers apparently culminating in the eathing of human flesh and the drinking of blood. This started the first officially sanctioned persecution of Christians, which killed a number of prominent Christian leaders, including (traditionally) the Apostle Peter, who counted among Jesus’ original disciples.

That this treatment of the man who would later come to be seen as the first Bishop of Rome (i.e. the first Pope) came at his hands, it’s little wonder that Christian sources at the time came to portray Nero as being nothing short of the Antichrist. In fact, there’s reason to believe that the author of the book of Apocalypse/Revelations was referring to Nero and his persecution when writing down his visions of the Beast from the Sea. Nero’s name can even be equated to the infamous Number of the Beast, 666, in Jewish numerology. It is surely no coincidence that the Great Whore of Babylon was said to sit upon seven hills.

Suffice it to say that if you wanted an unbiased view of the man known to history as Nero Claudius Caesar Augustus Germanicus, you would not look to Christian sources.

Another source we have is Tacitus, a gifted historian who wrote his account of the reign of Nero decades after the fact. Having lived not only through Nero’s reign but also that of the hated Domitian, he seems to have been trying to condemn rulers whose paranoia culminated in widespread and arbitrary political executions. What he wrote about Nero’s reign seems to be mostly within the realm of the plausible, barring a few colourful anecdotes regarding incest with his mother and playing the lyre while Rome burned.

If you ignore these dramatic flourishes, the story that emerges is one of a pampered princeling who came to the throne at too young an age. As emperor, he was first an irresponsible layabout who allowed his mother and close advisors to call the shots as he played music and wrote poetry, but became a capricious despot as he broke free of their shackles and lived a life of depraved excess, spending recklessly, appointing favourites to important positions over men of merit and arbitrarily having people executed, either for their money or because they had been accused by someone in his inner circle. He seemed determined to alienate everyone and undermine his own reign at every turn. By the time the Great Fire of Rome happened, it was little wonder people were ready to believe that he’d had it lit deliberately.

Then we have his contemporary Suetonius, who seemingly cannot wait to relay to us all the salacious details of Nero’s depravity. No story is too shocking, no rumour too outrageous for Suetonius, who gives us a picture of a man gone insane with power and whose sexual habits make him out as no less than a monster. I won’t repeat the stories here, but sexual murders, castrations and public humiliations all feature in Suetonius, who spins a tale that disgusts as much as it fascinates. He seems to conflate the perversion of the emperor with the decadence and rot he sees in Roman society. In condemning Nero, he condemns the world and times he lives in, yearning for a simpler time when men were virtuous, tough and good, thinking nothing of themselves and given wholly over to public duty and manly pursuits.

Put together, these accounts give us an image of a cruelty and depth of sadistic evil that is practically inhuman. If you take everything said about the man at face value, you could almost believe Nero really was the Antichrist.

But is this an accurate picture?

Probably not.

One thing you have to remember when you’re reading ancient sources is that to accuse your enemies of sexual deviance was a tried and true rhetorical tactic. Roman senators openly accused one another of being perverts all the time. Accusing someone of sexual misdeeds called other parts of their character into question, because it seems that in the popular imagination, people were either righteous or they were morally defective, wholly good or wholly rotten. Somebody born with a disability or disfigurement was seen as having being punished by the gods for one crime or other, and conversely, someone who was handsome or lucky was smiled upon by the gods. Someone with abnormal sexual appetites had to have something else wrong with them. It was just common sense.

It therefore wasn’t enough to simply call your political enemies liars, frauds, scoundrels and thieves, you needed to accuse them of partaking in sexually abhorrent acts to give your accusations some punch. You needed to besmirch their good name among society and not leave any room for sympathy. In the cut-throat world of Roman law and politics you couldn’t just accuse your opponents, you needed to destroy them.

In fact, the tactic is so common, it even shows up in the Bible. In one of Paul’s letters to Greek-speaking Christians, Paul accuses his correspondents of having been sexual perverts before having converted. He does it, not because he necessarily believes that all the Christians in that city had partaken in the acts he described, but because he wanted to shame his readers into contrition, to recognise that by Jewish standards, the worldview they had once lived by was considered evil and to contrast that with the clean lives he was asking of them. Basically, he was saying “You’re not as good as you think you are” using a common rhetorical tactic of his day.

The takeaway from all of this is that Nero probably was an irresponsible, spendthrift, drunken, debauched and cruel ruler, but it was probably not as bad as advertised. Did he engage in a systematic persecution of an innocent minority and subject many innocent people to horrific and painful deaths? Yes. Did he rape a vestal virgin, seduce his own mother, marry a boy he tried to castrate and kick his pregnant wife to death? Probably not.

Just remember – Tacitus, Suetonius and Christian sources just really, really hated the guy. It makes me wonder what people will be saying about hated figures like Adolf Hitler 2000 years from now.

Categories: History, Society

Jurassic World

Ah, the Jurassic World trailer… where to begin?

I was just the right age, back in 1993, to be fascinated and addicted to dinosaurs sometime prior to seeing Jurassic Park for the first time. In truth, my eight-year-old self, knowing all there was to know about dinosaurs, was even somewhat skeptical that the movie could possibly live up to the hype.

Critics and audiences were, for instance, cowering in fear of a new bogey, a nightmare villain that most had never even heard of up until this point – the velociraptor.

“Pah!” I went. “I’ve known about velociraptors for ages. They’re not even accurately depicted. They’re way too big. Real velociraptors were the size of chickens. The dinosaurs everyone is afraid should have been called deinonychus, or even utahraptor. Don’t these people know anything?”

Then, for my birthday, my mother took me and my cousins to go see a movie. The only choice for the dino-obsessed birthday boy was naturally Jurassic Park, even if I would have to suffer through the gross inaccuracies.

Needless to say, mislabeled deinonychus aside, Mr Spielberg blew my eight year old mind. Jurassic Park would forever hold a special place in my heart.

The sequel, The Lost World, came along a few years later. While I was pumped for the movie and among those who saw it on its opening weekend, it left me a little cold. Something was missing and the T-Rex’s romp through a city was a bit silly. JP3 came out, starring Spinosaurus as a big bad, a dinosaur I was pretty certain the latest research revealed as a fish-eater. At this point, I was old enough to know to read reviews. As a movie, it was a stinker. Its science was worse still.

I still haven’t seen it to this day.

Fast forward to the other day, when I stumbled upon a link to the Jurassic World trailer. I clicked, thinking “Why not? Even if the dinosaurs don’t have feathers, it might be worth a look”. The sound of¬†a soft, tinkly version of the Jurassic Park theme, the sight of the park operational and updated with modern technology, the sight of a mosasaur leaping out of the water and eating a shark… I’ll admit, it all got me pretty excited. I began to feel the exhilarating butterflies you only ever get when you’re in love or you’re a small child anticipating Christmas. Could this be the one that brings me back?

Then somebody mentioned the word “hybrid”.

Never had a movie trailer made me so happy and then so sad in such quick succession.

I have to wonder whether or not I’ve been watching a different movie to everybody else all this time. For me, Jurassic Park was never a monster movie. It was a movie about animals. Ancient, dead, magnificently large and fierce animals, but animals none the less. The original movie entranced me because it brought (most of) the science I loved to life on the screen and introduced to the world the idea of dinosaurs as agile, birdlike creatures. Its later iterations haven’t done that, preferring to retread the path¬†Jurassic Park forged. From the moment the announcement came that the movie wouldn’t feature feathered dinosaurs, I knew the people making it weren’t interested in the dinosaurs themselves, but rather the fear those creatures represent.

At least I’ll always have the original.

Back in the Saddle Again

It has been quite a while since I’ve updated this blog. I can put it down to various reasons, work, life, my own laziness and the seizing-up that happens when I go to post and feel as though I have nothing to say. To be honest, the same thing happens on my twitter account, with the word limit severely handicapping me even when I think I’ve thunk a deep thought. Those are all excuses, however, and I need to stop making it.

It is now December and I’ve just gone through my third NaNoWriMo in a row, having written ten chapters of a sequel to a book I nobody will ever read. Still, the experience of actually getting words on paper and watching as my word count graph grew to reach the goal of 50,000 has given me a renewed vigour. It’s amazing how therapeutic it is to simply write, especially when I make it a habit.

Suffice it to say that along with all the rest of my new years resolutions for 2015 (the usual, change jobs, eat better, excercise more etc.) is to write every day. Even if I only get down a single word, I think I’ll be much happier for it.

Categories: Uncategorized

On the Frances Abbott Affair

I thought I’d comment on a political story that had emerged recently here in Australia wherein Prime Minister Tony Abbott is being forced to answer embarrassing questions about whether or not he used his influence to expedite the accreditation of a school attended by his daughter Frances. The school in question, the Whitehouse Institute of Design, is a private vocational establishment in Surry Hills, a gentrified suburb of inner Sydney known for its fashion.

The main thrust of the story is that the owner and director of the school, a close friend of the Abbotts, awarded Frances a one-off scholarship worth $60,000. This scholarship is not advertised, not regularly awarded, not open to applicants and conferred only at the discretion of the managing director. Ms Abbott received it after a single one-on-one interview between herself and said managing director and no announcement of any kind was made about the award.

In Australia, politicians are expected to disclose all gifts and donations they and their families may receive as a result of their positions in order to provide transparency to the public. A politician may be invited to attend a movie premiere or gala and such a thing might be declared. However, if a benefit is earned, say a political scion is paid a bonus at work or wins a competition, it need not be declared. This is only fair. After all, the proceeds of their own hard work is their own business.

The scandal then in this case, all stems from Mr Abbott’s failure to declare the scholarship. When the story broke, the Prime Minister’s office held to the line that the scholarship was earned and thus did not need declaring. Opponents in turn say that it was given in the course of lobbying by Whitehouse and accuse Mr Abbott of having a conflict of interest, especially in light of proposed sweeping changes to the way higher learning institutions are funded.

It seems to me that such accusations and insinuations are overblown. The director of Whitehouse probably saw in young Ms Abbott an opportunity to greatly enhance the prestige of her school at minimal cost to her bottom line. Counting among your alumni a child of the most actively powerful man in Australian politics is no small thing. That it would ingratiate her to the Abbott family on a personal level was, I’m sure, just a valuable bonus.

Much of the story sounds like people doing favours for their friends, something that happens all the time. Far from being frowned upon in private life, it is positively encouraged by many as the primary way to get ahead in life. Among business owners, this can take the form of discounted or gratis services, preferential hiring/promoting and referrals to/contact with other prosperous or influential people.

This kind of favoritism (dare I say nepotism?), while understandable and commonplace, has the effect of accruing these unearned personal benefits at the top. The list of rich people’s friends tends not to include many people on the dole, after all. This is fine on an individual moral level, but bad for society as a whole if you believe that equal opportunity is a public good.

Which is why this behaviour, which is perfectly acceptable in the private sector, is abhorred by the public when exhibited by politicians. The Commonwealth exists for and belongs to all of us, not just those who were born into the right families, attended the right schools, live in the right postcode or have the right hobbies and priorities. Fitting the correct mould should not, by definition, be a prerequisite for fair treatment in a just society. People who presume to legislate and control the public purse strings are held to a higher standard for just this reason.

I’ll be honest, to me it doesn’t look as though there was intent on the part of Mr Abbott to grant Whitehouse any kind of preferential treatment and I don’t think any evidence of such actions will be found. That doesn’t mean that Mr Abbott hasn’t failed multiple times to live up to the standards expected of a public servant, let alone the office of Prime Minister.

I couldn’t tell you if this is a scandal fit to bring down a government. My gut says no, that it lacks substance and will blow over in a month or so, though not before causing untold embarrassment to the Abbott family and especially the young woman at the centre of this furor. The fact is however that it looks bad, and looking bad, from a political point of view, can be just as corrosive to public trust as being guilty.

What rankles me the most about this is the sheer hypocrisy. At a time when the government proposes to deregulate tuition fees, impose real interest to HECS/HELP loans (government-provided student loans hitherto interest free and linked to inflation alone) and gut the welfare schemes that allow many students to study in the first place, the child of the man presiding over these changes gets her degree for free and for no other reason than because the director of the school likes her. It’s appalling and flies in the face of the personal responsibility mantra the Abbott government preaches.

Liberal Party ideology sees the world split between the ordinary and the excellent. The excellent, as they see it, have an outsized role in driving the engine of society and it is only just, they believe, that they should get to accrue as much of society’s rewards as they can get their hands on. Similarly, the ordinary, making less of a contribution, are thus deserving of less. This is why high taxes are bad – they take money from the pockets of the excellent. This is also why welfare is bad – it puts money in the pockets of the undeserving.

That those who see the world this way and would count themselves among the excellent get such an unearned head start on the rest of society and do it so unapologetically puts a bitter taste in the mouth of anyone who has had to work their way through university or carries an unpaid student debt into their 30s (and following fee deregulation, their 40s). Life isn’t fair, obviously, but public life should be about doing as much as possible to make it fairer.