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On not seeing or understanding context

Published by marco on

Here are some features of modern discourse that I’ve noted.

  • It’s very easy to express an opinion publicly.
  • This is the default mode for many.
  • Entire conversations are carried out in public.
  • Speed is of the essence to get attention.
  • Distribution is the same for insipid thoughts as for pithy
  • There is no undo.
  • People writing or saying stupid things is funny
  • Market penetration and remuneration is overarchingly important
  • Learning is not rewarded
  • Neither is apology or correction

Taken together, these do not bode well for constructive thought or criticism. The art of discussion and rational debate is slowly going lost. The line between academic (i.e. rigorous) discourse and all other discourse is being increasingly blurred. Citing sources is for nerds. Anyone can find a source these days, anyway.

These features of modern discourse reinforce each other—they resonate to carry discussions to a lowest common denominator.

A shared context, which ordinarily anchors discussions in reality, is completely missing. Instead, discussions quickly fall into any of the many pitfalls that has nothing to do with the point of the discussion—never to be seen again. A discussion among co-located individuals who know each other are easily able to avoid these.

Instead, a disparate public “group” shares so little that their discussion can, at best, consist only of very broad strokes. They end up re-hashing the same low-hanging fruit every time. Nuance dies. Misinterpretation, taking offense and virtue-signaling carry the day.

As an extended example, I just watched a film called Passengers, starring Jennifer Lawrence and Christopher Pratt. The plot is as follows (spoilers, obviously):

  1. A colonizing starship is on its way from Earth to a planet called Homestead II
  2. The ship carries 285 crew and 5000 passengers
  3. They are all in hibernation sleep, metabolically inert until 4 months before arrival
  4. The journey takes 120 years in Earth time
  5. The ship is incredibly robust and comprises many intelligent systems and enough resources for all forms of upkeep and repair
  6. An accident damages the ship, but it can repair everything but one hibernation pod: Peter’s
  7. Peter awakes after only 30 years of transit—90 years too early
  8. Peter comes to grips with his situation and more-or-less rolls with it
  9. After a long while (unknown, but probably half a year), he starts to comb passenger records
  10. He finds Aurora, who is a hottie but also a writer
  11. He reads everything she’s ever written, watches her videos endlessly
  12. Is he stalking? Maybe. Is he extremely lonely? Definitely. Is he clinically insane? Almost certainly, to a degree. He’s definitely not psychologically healthy at this point.
  13. He toys with the idea of waking her. He knows that it’s ethically wrong. He resists.
  14. Eventually, he caves in and wakes her.
  15. He lets her believe that her capsule malfunctioned like his did.
  16. They grow to know and like each other
  17. They eventually become involved romantically (almost a year)
  18. After a year, it is revealed to her that he woke her deliberately
  19. She will live a life on the ship with him rather than the life that she’d planned. He hijacked her future.
  20. She had fallen in love with him over the previous year. That is now strongly tempered by betrayal
  21. A crew member awakes, but he’s kind of irrelevant for the central socio-philosophical question (other than his commiseration with Peter that he was a “drowning man dragging someone else down with him”).
  22. Peter and Aurora must team up to save the ship
  23. They’re both all heroic and stuff.
  24. He will likely die as part of the plan to save the ship.
  25. She tells him not to do it, that they can die together. He reminds her that there are 5000 other people on board (it’s possibly patronizing to make him remember this while she’s focused on minimizing her pain.)
  26. She forgives him and saves him.
  27. He discovers that the auto-doc could put her back to sleep.
  28. He offers to help her go back to sleep.
  29. She refuses and lives out her life with only him, on the ship. Her previous dreams go unfulfilled, but she seems happy with her decision.

There’s quite a bit to unpack here.

First of all, it was a very decent and classic science-fiction story that incorporated not only science and fiction, but also an examination of the self and humanity. In order to ingest such higher-order literature, you really have to be able to employ real empathy—as in being able to really imagine what it would be like for a character.

While many science-fiction stories are about the present, but with better technology, these kinds of stories ask you to step outside of your own situation and examine it from that of another. That is, it’s not really fair to ignore half of the given conditions, impose your own 21st-century world-view and then call the story stupid and misogynistic.

Both characters were depicted as strong in their own right: he was very mechanical and she was very intellectual. Neither was dumb and neither was mechanically inept. They each had strengths. They were both attractive and athletic. She was much more successful than he was on Earth.

Her strengths were what he said drew her to him in the first place. That’s probably not true. Her hot face and body drew her to him in the first place. That she opened her soul to him through her writing is what kept him coming around. It’s what made him want to wake her up. He didn’t wake her up because he wanted someone hot to fuck. I pity anyone who saw only that.

Once she was awake, he was extremely hesitant, taking months to even ask her on a date, because he didn’t want to ruin a relationship with a woman that he was already in love with. Also, she was the only person around. Things were a bit more delicate than the singles scene in a major Western city.

And what about him? Why did he wake her up, when he knew it was a death sentence for her? Again, we need to imagine what it must have been like for him, alone on the ship for a year, knowing that company was just the push-of-a-button away. He went a little mad, I think. Understandably so. Once he’d done it, he was horrified with himself, like an alcoholic who sees a half-empty drink in front of himself.

This was not the story of a horndog who picked the hottest woman he could find to dominate. Again, I feel sorry for anyone who views any and all media through such a lens.

And yet, you don’t have to look far to find dozens of such superficial condemnations of the movie—each with it’s own tail of “sing it, sister” comments. I venture that many of these people hadn’t even seen the film.

Watching a movie before offering an opinion on it is important. But who has the time?

As well, those saying that it’s completely misogynistic for her to fall in love with him are deliberately getting the timeline wrong: she fell in love with him while he was (A) the only person on an otherwise empty ship, (B) also a victim of a malfunctioning hibernation pod (as she thought at the time, which is essential) and (C) a pretty good-lucking and funny and capable man.

As soon as she found out he’d “murdered” her—killed the person she’d hoped to become by traveling to Homestead II and back to Earth and then writing about it—she expressed two emotions. One was the expected hatred of her murderer (which is an interesting emotion to be able to have, actually), but even more so was betrayal.

She now had to hate the man she’d come to love because she’d fallen in love with him under false pretenses. How hard would it be to get out of that psychological cul de sac? Should she just double-down on her hate, condemning herself to a lonesome existence (remember, she didn’t know about being able to re-hibernate at that point)? Or should she capitulate and reconcile? It would be possible, since she had loved him (and probably still did, despite her anger). But then she would be betraying herself because he’d killed her.

This is a fascinating drama that plays out with a lot of food for thought. It’s a shame that so many so-called reviewers were happy to nibble at the edges and virtual-signal instead. Perhaps they would have been better able to see the subtleties had the gender roles been reversed. But does gender matter that much? Perhaps it does, still. I’m not certain that I would have come to this same conclusion had the film reversed the gender roles.

It’s unclear whether the film would have seen the same level of success, though, right? Because it’s a story and a story has to appeal to enough viewers—unless you’re independently wealthy and can just make whatever you want (looking at you, Lars von Trier).

You could read the plot summary above and point out that it’s a very neat way of cordoning poor Aurora into enjoying a life she didn’t choose—just like the woman always has to do. Or, if you’re being honest, just like most people have to. Don’t we all have to make the best of non-optimal situations every day? Isn’t that where storytelling comes from? It describes interesting situations that make us think and make us happy. If you twist things around too much, you’re describing a different story, all the while claiming that you hate this one.

It’s a good story and an entertaining one. It’s well-acted and more thoughtful than most. It’s a two-hour movie with four actors (I don’t count the captain at the end) that isn’t boring. Good for them. They probably even thought they’d dotted their gender-role i’s and crossed their strong-woman t’s—but they didn’t count on completely ignorant people, who seem not to have even seen the movie, promulgating their agenda.

If you want to be mad at a movie, choose something else, with more cookie-cutter gender roles and story lines, like … Mechanic: Resurrection or even Mission: Impossible − Fallout. Although, in fairness, even these two give much more power and poise to the classically femme-fatale role than any movie ever would have 40 years ago. In both of those examples, the women kick more than a little ass of their own.

Movies still don’t necessarily pass the Bechdel test, but it’s not nearly as bad as it was. It’s a shame that “equality” means “women kick ass in mindless action movies as well”. We won’t get there in a day. The line’s long, but it’s moving.

Obviously, a lot of the progress we’re seeing is precisely because people have complained about the two-dimensional representation of women in mainstream cinema. And continued complaining will likely result in continued improvement. We should be careful, though, not to burn our bridges or to see partially fallible allies as outright enemies, scorching anything that doesn’t pass the personal purity filter. That’s not constructive and it’s not going to contribute to continued progress.