We live in sensitive times. It’s ironic to think that the most prominent voices on the internet promote inclusivity for all, yet having one controversial opinion means you can no longer participate. And it doesn’t even matter if that opinion was said ten years ago. It doesn’t even matter that things have changed significantly over the past ten years. One strike and you’re out. And there are no second chances.
“Your assumptions are your windows on the world. Scrub them off every once in a while, or the light won’t come in.”
― Isaac Asimov
|Changes in time: Associating Language|
Changes in time: Associating Human Behavior
The times they are a-changing
We make assumptions every day. A lot of it is an automated response to our daily routine lives. Like how you assume the bus is on time, or assume your food delivery arrives at your requested destination. But when it comes to people, assumptions can potentially be dangerous. In his book Talking to Strangers: What We Should Know About the People We Don’t Know, author Malcolm Gladwell discusses how our emotions and worldview lead to assumptions about people’s intentions, which often could not be further from the truth. He writes:
“When it comes to judgments about our own character and behavior, we are willing to entertain all manner of complexity, and suddenly, when it comes to making those same judgments about others, we are depressingly simplistic.”
When it comes to human behavior, it seems to me like we often assume because we cannot accept change: we get mad at the driver if the bus isn’t on time, we’re upset if our favorite artists don’t make the exact same music they did 10 years ago, and we’re devastated after a sudden break-up. We assume people behave and think the same, forever.
YouTube star Jenna Marbles recently quit YouTube. She was condemned for racist content she made in the past. Condemnation to such a degree that she felt so overwhelmed, she no longer felt comfortable creating. At the same time, Dutch Prime Minister Mark Rutte acknowledged that the tradition of “Black Pete” will change, after 7 years of resistance. Rutte is seen as fickle and weak for changing his opinions…… Partly inspired by Gladwell’s book, I have some ideas on reasons why we’re so upset when it comes to people talking about racism (or other narratives for that matter, like feminism or sexism, but we’ll stick with racism, because that’s a hot topic). What do Jenna Marbles and Mark Rutte have in common? The answer has to do with our our assumptions, and our inability to understand and accept change.
Changes in time I: Associating Language
So what do assumptions and our inability to accept change have to do with each other? Well, it’s common sense that times change. From our understanding of the world, the language we use, to the way we interact with each other; technology, science, and media developments (among other things) keep altering our existence. Yet somehow it isn’t common practice to embrace that change. We have a hard time diverting from our beliefs, and as we grow older, we seem to lack the ability to acknowledge things are changing all around is, all the time.
Look at the meaning of words for example: just like the many waves of feminism, the meaning of- and language used to describe racism changed significantly over time, and we often go by our own personal connotations to the word. For some, it still refers to slavery during the 1900s. For some it refers to the political construct only. To others it includes individuals using racial slurs. Some see race through the lens of religion. And some groups include intersectionality and micro-aggressions into the mix. This is why you hear people say anything from “racism doesn’t exist (anymore)” to “asking people of color in your own country where they are from is racist,” to “systemic racism isn’t real,” to “if you’re offended by being called a chink, you just need to grow some thicker skin.”
I keep thinking people often believe in- or deny the existence of racism based on where they stopped in time. My mother and I see racism very differently, because she didn’t grow up with today’s understanding of the word (to be fair, it’s hard to keep track). The same goes for feminism: from basic rights (2nd wave) to mansplaining (4th wave); people disagree on what the word feminism should entail. Thus, some people say there is no longer a need for feminism because women already have everything they fought for, while others still feel underrepresented and continue to fight for change. Sound familiar?
I am probably displaying the ultimate level of agreeableness here (I am known to never pick sides. I’d be a horrible politician), but I think all of the above-mentioned examples have some truth to them, depending on the language we use to which we associate our beliefs. I mean, consider all the misunderstandings that could arise from incorrectly attaching meaning to someone else’s words, and assuming your associations are always right. Language is a very powerful tool; the fact that the meaning of a word has gone through a lot of change over time, and now encompasses a lot of different ideas, can make it difficult to understand someone else’s views. If, for example, you believe racism merely applies to things like apartheid and slavery, then it sounds valid to say that systemic racism doesn’t exist in current Western societies. That’s your worldview. But if you believe individual racism, like using a racial slur, is seeped into larger racial or systemic thinking, then it should be just as valid to say that racism is still very prevalent in today’s society, right? I feel like we should get to a point where we stop lecturing other groups about right and wrong based on the meaning of words, because I don’t think we’ll find actual common ground. But we could try to come to a common understanding that someone else may not think of the exact same thing when expressing a similar topic. Language, what words represent, and how we view them are continuously changing. We can’t just assume that our own convictions or associations are true by default.
Changes in time II: Associating Human Behavior
Another thing we can’t wrap our heads around, is how individuals change their minds or their opinions. For example, YouTuber Jenna Marbles recently apologised for content she made 10 years ago and is taking an indefinite break from YouTube because of the backlash she received from that content. But 10 years ago, a lot of similar content circulated the internet and people were not as concerned with racism the way we are now. It wasn’t at the forefront of people’s minds, and their convictions were different back then. Within today’s race and gender narrative, Jenna would probably never make that kind of content.
On The Flipside (see what I did there?), Dutch Prime Minister Mark Rutte is actually beginning to understand that times are changing. From colonial slavery, to arranged marriages, to strict gender roles; long-standing Western traditions or beliefs have been subject to change since the beginning of time. In 2013, Rutte refused to give up the tradition of Black Pete, a character part of a traditional children’s holiday the Netherlands has been celebrating since the 1700s. This year, 2020, he has done some self-reflecting and acknowledged the experiences of minority groups. He now believes the tradition will change. He’s even having discussions with anti-racism advocates about race in the Netherlands. Ironically, he’s gotten a lot of hate for altering his opinions publicly. Where Jenna Marbles is considered racist, even though she’s no longer the same person, Mark Rutte needs to stick with his beliefs and stop changing his mind. Sounds silly doesn’t it? It’s like it’s no longer part of being human to have different opinions or to have a change of heart.
People change. Meaning Changes. Times change. It’s exactly because of our false assumptions based the (weird) preconceived notion that nothing changes, that we seemingly have the power to eliminate or condemn a person, regardless of knowing what their actual convictions are, or how they changed throughout the years, or how time changed what is acceptable behavior, or what language can or can’t be used. One assumption can ruin another person’s life. And what good does it do in the grand scheme of things? (no good, is the answer).
The times they are a-changing
The human strength, as opposed to other animals, should be our ability to reason and self-reflect. But sometimes our hard-wired behaviors still overrule our rational minds. We need to try and self-reflect on our emotional triggers and how they are linked to our assumptions about others, as well as understand that current narratives are no longer what they used to be. Someone’s political preferences or actions in the past are not an indication of someones actual or current beliefs or experiences, and we cannot possibly know how other people are impacted by something. If we can understand that, maybe we wouldn’t feel the need to cancel Jenna Marbles, and we would have more respect for Mark Rutte’s capability of change. If we can listen to others and acknowledge their opinions, instead of letting our emotions get in the way, I think we’re on the road to a better understanding of ourselves and the world. And yes, I get it, it doesn’t necessarily solve any problems. But more humanity and a better understanding of others and the world around us probably helps get there faster, don’t you think?
Come gather ’round people Wherever you roam And admit that the waters Around you have grown And accept it that soon You’ll be drenched to the bone If your time to you is worth savin’ Then you better start swimmin’ or you’ll sink like a stone For the times they are a-changin’ - Bob Dylan
|The circle of social media life|
How change became something to deny
Making mistakes is human and we all need to do it
These days, everyone has an opinion about everything. Even not having an opinion means something. What’s more, online opinion influences the real world. It’s propelled movements and developments ranging from racism to cancel culture. In this case, both the Dutch Prime Minister and Jenna Marbles are prime examples of the current mechanisms that drive change and discussions.
The social media circle of life
It basically works like this: someone in the spotlight does something noteworthy. In Rutte’s case it’s taking a different stance in the “Black Pete” discussion. In Jenna’s case it’s doing skits and portraying certain characters for a wide public. Discussion ensues and everyone comments about what happened. Then, society changes and the public reviews everything and sees it with new eyes. Renewed support or backlash ensues. Rinse and repeat.
In the process, we all forget that change is human and totally normal, healthy and necessary.
But the cycle is speeding up, churning away at an ever faster pace through everything that’s happening online. It’s come so far that there’s almost immediate repercussions in the real world from what happens online. This discussion can definitely be fruitful. Because society changed and the Dutch who oppose “Black Pete” have gotten a stronger voice, it somewhat forced Rutte to flip his opinion. The flipside is, however, condemning people for the wrong thing. Because we’ve changed in what kinds of things we find acceptable to portray or make fun of in society, we suddenly hold up Jenna’s old stuff to these new standards.
What’s not entirely the same for Rutte and Jenna is their agency and representation. Rutte is a politician, representing a certain party and part of the population. People expect him to actively speak out about his viewpoints and opinions. Jenna and many YouTubers on the other hand first and foremost want to entertain their viewers. Since social media have become deeply personal, this means their outputs now reflect on their ideas and viewpoints which they probably didn’t consider when they created the content at the time.
The lines have become blurry. If your skit featured racist stereotypes, how much does that really reflect on you as a person?
How change became something to deny
It feels like we’re trying to collectively change how we view and approach things, by erasing past mistakes. That’s natural, we now have tools that allow us to get closer and have immediate discussions across cultures and borders. But in this whole overhaul, I feel we’re ignoring some very fundamental foundations that our communication is built upon. Former President Barack Obama said this perfectly in a New York Times piece from 2019:
“This idea of purity and you’re never compromised and you’re always politically ‘woke’ and all that stuff, you should get over that quickly. The world is messy; there are ambiguities. People who do really good stuff have flaws. People who you are fighting may love their kids, and share certain things with you.”
Personally, I used to be pretty judgmental about things. When I was little, the “Black Pete” discussion wasn’t as visible and heated as it’s now. I’ve never thought brown or black children were this character either. So when I was in university and the discussion started to get overheated, I simply didn’t see what all the fuss was about. I dismissed it as kind of irrelevant, just because I hadn’t ever encountered any of the stuff mentioned by the protestors. But, I now know that your own experience and bubble are only part of why these issues exist. I’ve read somewhere that good habits easily persist. To keep bad ones alive, we call them traditions.
“Just because something is traditional is no reason to do it, of course.” - Lemony Snicket, The Blank Book
Making mistakes is human and we all need to do it
Believing to be open-minded and actually embodying it, are two very different things. True, on the one hand I see the flip-flopping of Rutte as being hypocritical. But at the same time, I’ve been through the same process and I definitely like where I ended up on the other side. Some of Jenna’s past material was racist and cringy, especially if viewed now, but everybody has her or his right to make mistakes. If we can’t make any mistakes, how will we ever learn? What’s the point of doing anything if we’re going to be held accountable for every little thing that goes wrong?
John Oliver of Last Week Tonight described it very aptly when interviewing Monika Lewinsky about public shaming and cancel culture. Basically, at the age of 22, which was when Lewinsky got ‘fully canceled’, we all do stupid things. When I was 22 I still had a lot of anxiety and behaved very immaturely. I’m happy that the stupidest thing I did at that age is not fully available on the internet for everyone to see and judge. I’d be mortified.
In another interview for the NYT, one of the teenagers says this about cancel culture: “It’s a way to take away someone’s power and call out the individual for being problematic in a situation. I don’t think it’s being sensitive. I think it’s just having a sense of being observant and aware of what’s going on around you.” This is a slippery slope to me. Who gets to decide who gets canceled? And how can we be okay with just taking away someone else’s agency?
To be honest, it’s also concerning myself a bit. I am, albeit in a much less widespread fashion putting myself out there as well, and it’s definitely impossible to never flip or do something thoughtless. I can only hope that the audience I reach will be smart enough to understand. Or just not get famous at all, that’s a good Plan B.