September 15, 2011

Frustrating Emails; A Depressing Look at the Capacity for Evil in Any of Us

I am in such an agitated mood this morning. First, I got yet another solicitation from Google Ads. But Google Ads BANNED ME FOR LIFE a few years ago. I spent a long time composing a reply to the most recent one. I explained the situation, and then asked that if they weren't going to tell me why I'd been banned, and their form letter was correct that there was no appeal for this lifetime ban, that they at LEAST take me off the mailing list imploring me to join the club I'm not allowed to join.

I worked pretty hard on it to get the right tone and to use the right words and to not make it anything I'd be embarrassed later to have written. Then I noticed it was a no-reply email address.

Then I got an email from Amazon about their latest deal from a business that is not Amazon. I was pretty sure I'd already "managed my subscriptions" to remove messages about deals from their partners, but I thought maybe I hadn't done it right so I clicked that link again. No: I'd done it right, but this one was categorized as an ELECTRONICS offer, not a PARTNERS offer. Because it was an electronic item offered by a partner, I guess. It's not like this is RUINING MY LIFE, all I had to do was delete the email, but it's just kind of IRRITATING on top of an ALREADY-BAD mood.

Then, I've been continuing to mull over an article excerpt I read somewhere that said The Help was a bad book because it made it seem as if only bad people owned slaves. I thought that was an extremely good point, and not something I would have noticed, and I was glad to have had it pointed out.

But this morning I started working out why I didn't think it was right in an all-the-WAY-right way. And why, if it WAS right, I came away from the book feeling horrible and embarrassed and stricken---as opposed to thinking "Whew! At least _I_ wouldn't have been like THAT," as you'd expect me to think if the mis-portrayal had been effective.

I find that kind of thinking very agitating and frustrating. I'm a slowwwww thinker, so there's all this time of me "feeling like something is wrong but not being able to figure out WHAT IT IS, or HOW TO SAY IT," and that kind of thing leaves me snappish and irritable because I'm working so hard at it but I'm not finding an answer, or I FEEL an answer but can't ARTICULATE it, or things keep legitimately interrupting my focus to ask for breakfast or to be brought to the bus stop. It riles me up unpleasantly as I sort it out---and especially as I imagine the whole new task of trying to communicate the thoughts to anyone else, and then imagine having to listen to them knock those thoughts down Facebook-fight-style.

But here's a piece of what I came up with through much wrinkle-browed effort, and will now wrinkle-browedly try to communicate without screwing it up:

I was remembering the book Switch (I reviewed it here, after the part about Rob Lowe), which is a book basically about getting people (including yourself) to do what you want them to do. One sample challenge was a situation in another country, where they wanted old men to stop paying young women for sex: it was spreading disease like crazy. They didn't think a moral campaign would work, nor a health campaign.

Instead they made a series of ads featuring a sleazy old guy who preyed on young women, and they gave him a name I've forgotten but it started with F. So in these ads, F____ would be pursuing a young woman and looking pretty foolish and unattractive doing it, and then someone in the young woman's life (a friend, a relative, the waitress at the restaurant) would say to the young woman, "Oh, gross, you wouldn't hang around with an icky old F____, would you?" And this name-starting-with-F became a cultural term, so that old men who pursued younger women were associated with this sleazy character, and younger women felt like it would be gross to go along with that, and their behavior actually changed as a result.

Were these ads fair? Did they accurately represent the older men as ridiculous icky sleaze-bags, and the younger women as creatures to be pitied and rescued from their own dimness? Of course not! The real-life old men and the real-life younger women had multi-layered personalities like everyone else---and they were an assortment of good/bad just like everyone else. Some of them were sleazy, but many (maybe most) of them were perfectly nice people, and probably attractive too.

The idea behind the ads was this: if people think to themselves, "Hey, perfectly nice and attractive people do this," they feel comfortable doing it themselves. But if it is widely agreed that only a weak person drinks too much, only a heartless jerk has affairs, only a poorly-brought-up person thinks it's okay to shoplift, and only a bad parent slaps a child, only an ignorant unlikable person would be racist---then it becomes harder to participate in that behavior without compromising my sense of self, and my sense of self MUST include the information that I am a basically good person, and so my inclination is to avoid those behaviors or to feel very uncomfortable if I participate in them.

This is, I think, something that is done in many areas where we as a culture have agreed that something is wrong, but haven't figured out how to get everyone on board behavior-wise. In television and movies and books, then, we see these behaviors deliberately associated with icky people to make it unappealing---just like in an obvious children's television show. Wife-abusers are shown as mouth-breathing cavemen in sleeveless t-shirts (despite how many of them are bright and wear nice suits and go to church), in order to try to make people think "Ick. Is THAT how that comes across? I don't want to be like THAT. I would rather be associated with that pretty girl." Not this always WORKS, or never BACKFIRES, but that's the idea.

I'm talking here about the messages we receive from ENTERTAINMENT---the ones where we're not supposed to NOTICE that our behavior and attitudes are being influenced and that our characters are being worked on. Associating bad behaviors with bad people is a way to get the behavior we want out of people. But certainly in non-entertainment arenas the information that good people owned slaves, and that smart well-dressed men beat women, and that some cultures have made a project out of obliterating other cultures, should be explicitly stated and fully accepted, and everyone who studies the subjects should understand it, and it should be emphasized carefully in schools and discussions.

In fact, I think we should take it further: not only do we need to realize that any of us, if we'd lived in that time, could have been perfectly comfortable owning slaves, we need to realize that any of us, ANY of us, could have been comfortable with it, if we had lived in that particular set of circumstances. ANY of us, no matter what our skin color or nationality, could have gone along with it: not just "us, if we'd been our ancestors, but also "us, if we'd been our ancestors' persecutors." That ANY group of us could enslave or kill or discriminate against any other group of people, and that this is why it's so important that we all learn on many levels and by many methods how terrible such behaviors are.

So, basically, two thoughts:

1. If what we want is to influence behavior, it can help to use fiction to connect a bad guy with a bad behavior.

2. It's important for us to understand that, born into the right circumstances, most of us have a capacity for the kind of wrongdoing we considering astonishing in historical people. And it isn't only the descendants of the wrong-doers who need to consider their potential for evil, itt's every single one of us. History has shown that wrongdoing isn't based on skin-color or nationality, but on humanness.


ssm said...

1. WHY would Google Ads ban YOU? Seriously? That is...uh. Weird.

2. Having an identity that is part of another culture provides a very clear picture that anyone can go along with other frowned-upon behaviors (like, in India it is OK to say people darker than your skin color are ugly/lesser, etc, whereas no one would say it here). No one thinks this is bad in, say, another culture, because they are constantly surrounded by it and it's been deemed just part of life.

Ann Wyse said...

I think there's no simple way to say what you've said here, although it's very important that it IS said. And I agree very much with ssm - about identity and cultural perspective.

That said, I often feel very inspired by your critical thinking process. This sounds sappy, but your kids are very lucky to have a mother like you - makes me hopeful for our future!

Anonymous said...

Very thought provoking... I think I agree with you. It was just "the way things were done" then. And any of us living then would probably have done the same. There are a few things I do in my life that don't feel 100% right, but I do it because it's the way things are expected to be done (at least today, who knows what the next century will be like). Marriage, for example. :)

But on the other hand, I do have a cleaning person now, and a babysitter, and I don't treat either of them poorly at all. I wouldn't dare talk down to them or make them feel like a lesser class of person. So it's hard to say if that's because I am naturally a kind and considerate person or because that's just how WE (the collective we) feel about household helpers in this day and age, which has most certainly evolved tremendously over the last 50-100 years.

Kristen said...

O.K., now I'm going to have to think (very slowly!) about all you just said. I have been sorting out my feelings for awhile about The Help (both the book and the movie) and that is an layer I had not thought about yet.

I did love the book and only liked the movie because one of the things missing from the latter was the examples of good people who were good to their maids. Who included them as "family" and valued them as a person. I think maybe one situation was mentioned, but overall, the movie felt a little different because of it.

So, I'm kinda confused about the article you mentioned and why it proposed that the book had such assertions.

Nevertheless, I do feel you're right that Hollywood and the media in general do often present obvious, one-dimensional, cardboard characters without much depth of feeling. Probably most of us real folks are paradoxes in one way or another, but I guess that's too difficult to portray onscreen. :/

lifeofadoctorswife said...

I love your description of how you thought through this, and I love the conclusion you came to.

I think part of the reason that kind of "evil portrayal" works is because we like to draw a line between Evil and Good. It's upsetting to realize that people - including us! - can possess both at the same time. There should be easy ways to recognize evil in the world. Black clothing. Tank tops. Mustaches. Whatever. That makes us feel more in control, I think. It's so much more disturbing to realize that evil exists in the kindly nurse who ministers to the old person, or in the distinguished principal of the school, or within ourselves.

But just because it's more COMFORTABLE to think you can spot evil in the wild because it leaves a mark doesn't mean we shouldn't push, as you suggest, to realize that we're all capable of those things.

This is probably repeating most of your point - but I find it really interesting and thought provoking.

Amanda said...

I was also banned from Google Ads long ago and also frequently get emails from them begging me to join and then when I try, they scream DENIED. I have no idea why. It is annoying.

Lots of other things to think about...

Heather R said...

I think it is very impressive the way you think these kinds of things through so thoroughly. And I think you are great at putting all of these thoughts into words. I used to be a "deeper thinker" before kids and I miss that part of myself. I feel like I am just getting through the day.

You made very good points! That's why I love reading your blog! You do all of the thinking and analyzing for me so I don't have to do it! :)

bluedaisy said...

I didn't come away from "The Help" with that impression at all and agree with the idea that any of us, in any given time/era, could be guilty of doing the wrong thing. One of my history teachers used to say something like, "It only takes one generation to forget..." He said it in reference to immigrants who were once persecuted turning around and doing the SAME thing to another group of newer immigrants. If we don't learn from experience, then what good is it?

Mairzy said...

I, too, am a slow thinker. I generally like your conclusions when you get to one.

I am irritated at the critics of "The Help" because they cry "stereotyping"! and "unfair portrayals"! (only of the black characters; nobody cares if the white characters are accurately portrayed).

The book was a light read. It didn't try to delve into complexities. It told a simple story, and used simple cardboard characters to do it. But I still came away from it thinking that had I lived then, I'd have loved to be like Skeeter, but probably wouldn't have been. My grandparents and parents were in Mississippi during those years, and there were no activists in our families.

(Well, my mom did say that my dad was an usher at a church and the elders were sitting around wondering what would happen if a black family came into the church. Daddy said, "Well, first I'd show them to a seat." But that's as revolutionary as we got, really.)

It made me wonder what we accept today that later generations will rail against. And it did make me want to be courageous like Abilene and Skeeter. So I think it did its job.

Superjules said...

I've definitely harbored this "oh crap" feeling for awhile. As in "oh crap, I probably would have gone ahead and owned some slaves if that was the cultural norm at the time and everyone around me was doing it and that was how I grew up, etc etc." And I thought of it as a personal character flaw-- I am weak and can be easily molded by my surroundings.
So I like your explanation-- ANY of us could have been in this situation and been okay with it.
Okay. Not just me. Whew.

Slim said...

My favorite anti-The Help review says that there is a failure to show the historical fact that in the Civil Rights movement, white folks *were* the help. The book/movie seems to depict the domestics as having no higher calling than helping the white ladies.

This post has me thinking about Terry Pratchett's Hat Full of Sky.

Slim said...

Also, I am reminded of a workshop I once went to at which, invited to share personal experiences with racism, the women (the workshop was all white women) talked about how they'd observed *other people* being racist.

Bailey said...

I've pretty much got to echo Superjules, right down to the skeevy feeling. I told my mom and she seemed really disappointed that I would admit to it. Then she said, "You're Hawaiian/Chinese/European, kiddo. You'd probably have been a slave too." So charming, my mother.

Anne said...

I feel like this is one of those posts that I'll read and then think really hard about for days and days and never come back to comment on because by the time I figure out what to say or how to say it two weeks has passed and I feel dumb going back to comment on something.
So - mostly I just want to say that I like your thoughts here, and how much thought you put into it, and it was an interesting read and I totally agree with you, and I never would have thought about any of this (I, too, am a slow thinker like you describe) and thank you for writing this.

Joanne said...

I get impatient with critics of The Help that aren't criticizing the writing or the book as much as criticizing the FACTS of the book, which, um, deserve criticism! I also feel very slow and stupid when I read this post, it has taken me several re-reads to understand your point. I should point out this is NOT a criticism of YOUR writing as much as a thickness on my part. I have high hopes that I would always act in some wonderful, ethereal way, in times of trouble, but of course I wouldn't, probably. I'd probably act like myself in whatever situation I'd be in.

meanliving said...

These "what kind of monster could *I* be" thoughts occur to me frequently. I tend to obsess about WWII, largely because I just can't figure out how an entire society went insane. I know that there were resistance movements, and that some who lived during the time claim to have not known the full extent of the awfulness that was going on, but STILL. Huge sections of the population either agreed or were too afraid to act out.

I think a lot about why more people who were not directly imperiled didn't FLEE. Sell everything you own and just get your family as far away as possible. But then how threatened do you have to feel in order to risk everything? I feel increasingly worried about what the next 50 years in THIS country will look like and wonder if 100 years from now people might wonder why we didn't get out of Dodge before all hell broke loose, and will view those of us who aren't doing anything NOW as being complicit. Which probably makes me sound like a complete lunatic, but there it is. My Society and my Politicians are scaring the bejeezus out of me.

Nicole said...

Interesting yet disturbing thoughts. It's true, we like to be high minded and all, but in a different time/situation we could be all very different.

And you were banned for life? You're so BADASS!

artemisia said...

Swistle, I am so glad you took the time and energy to think this through, then took the time and energy to write it, and post it.


This tickles on something I've been feeling/thinking for a couple of years but don't dare try to say for fear of really screwing it up: all this PC bullshit - that I loudly advocated as a young person -- is screwing people up.

You can't learn anything or change anything if you hide uncomfortable things/pasts/idea/differences behind the curtain of PC. It just FURTHER divides people and creates new animosities. Gah.

I know I didn't really communicate what I am feeling, but, gah.

Thank you for not fearing any wrinkles you may get by the wrinkled-brow thinking. You are great, Swis.

artemisia said...

Oh, and good points ssm, Ann Wyse, and meanliving.

Also, this sort of thing leads to microagressions, and that is another whole ball of OH SHIT wax.

Diane said...

I was just going to comment that this is one of the smartest, most well thought out things I have read on the internet in a VERY long time, but then I started reading the comments, and now I'm all thinky myself. It was what meanliving said about WWII and an entire society going insane. When I say this, know that I am not speaking to anything that is specifically happening right now, but I'm thinking about all the atrocities our own government could be committing right now, as we speak, that are either being hidden from us or fed to us via the media as Just and Right. And even if they were doing horrible things and we knew about them, what could we honestly do? You and me, I mean, what could we do? And then 50 years from now, 200 years from now, whatever it is, history could look back on us and wonder -- how did all of us go insane?

I think that's the most terrifying bit in all of this. When we read history books, even though we know it really happened, it's still in books. The people seem like characters. When you really think about it, they were all just people, living their lives like you and me. Anne Boleyn. An ACTUAL woman, a mother, a human being. It blows my mind, honestly. They didn't seem themselves as Historical Figures. They were just living in their time! Like us! My brain can't even wrap itself around it.

Anyway, seriously, Swistle. Wonderful post.

Josefina said...

Bless you, Swistle. This is a beautiful post.

You know, I am a slow thinker, too, and it is very frustrating to me. I tend to follow my sense of what is right or wrong, but it upsets me to not be able to EXPLAIN in a timely fashion why I am doing things or think certain things. It helps me when someone else (like you) provides explanations like this.

I remember when your Thought Number Two dawned on me (as my own, unnumbered thought), it was an epiphany. Distressing and temporarily discouraging, but I think in the long run it was the beginning of true empathy and the end of me being quite as much of a judgmental butthead, although I haven't lost my ability to judge, DON'T WORRY.

As for what meanliving said, I think about that a lot, too. My kids and I talk about it often because they have so many questions about all time periods mentioned in the comment: then and now and what could be coming.

Jessica said...

I'm confused. Maybe I read it too fast (I couldn't stop reading and finished in a 24-hour period), but the impression I got from The Help WAS that anyone could have owned slaves and not thought twice about it. Even good people. Sure, there were some bad people in the book, but I saw them as the kind of people who will treat ANYONE badly. Today they would be the kind of people who are rude to waiters or, really, anyone with a blue-collar job.

Of course, maybe I got that from the book because it's what I already thought and people generally notice things that reinforce their opinions and dismiss things that don't.

Anonymous said...

Excellent thought-provoking post :-)

St said...

Excellent post! I waded through this concept a few years ago as a result of watching The Magdalene Sisters and then Dogville. Both movies led me to the conclusion that any time people collectively determine that a person or people group is "less than", they are suddenly freed to do horrible things they never before would have considered.
This reinforces my feeling that equality and respect are the most important values we can hope to instill in our children.

Carrie said...

I actually thought about this when there was criticism of the show Glee for portraying a homo-phobe on the show as being a closeted homosexual. The argument against it was that not all homo-phobes are gay, maybe they are just true ignorant assholes.

I agreed that in reality many/most homophobes probably fall into the later category, but as a society I think it can be a positive thing to influence our culture to question the motives of a homophobe who is outwardly harrasing gays as people in the closet so that they will refrain from that behavior in order to not be labeled as a closeted gay.

Does that make sense? Anyway, very thoughtful and interesting ideas (yours, not mine). :-)

Bibliomama said...

Great post AND comments. I would totally be plotting an intricate and hideous revenge against Google Ads because really, banning you for life and then inviting you to join? In twenty-first century terms that's, like, a SERIOUS breach of something or other and some kind of hell should rain down on their heads.

I read Far To Go by Alison Pick last year, and it was the best fictional treatment I've read so far of people gradually, tentatively and then confidently deciding that Jews were 'less than' and deserved what was starting to happen to them, and of how the Jewish families themselves, even when things were starting to go badly, couldn't believe how bad they would get, and for this reason were reluctant to flee and leave their homes and jobs and possessions. It all made perfect sense at the time, and reading it was chilling.

Farrell said...

I really like jessica's response to your post.

I will disagree on one thing though - I do believe that actually our society and esp. Hollywood romanticizes affairs - think of how many people are so happy that Brad and Angelina are together - despite the fact that they are both home-wreckers. Think of all the movies that deal with affairs where things end up happily ever after, and we're supposed to be happy for the cheaters to have finally found their love of their life, even if it meant stealing that person from someone else, and/or breaking someone else's heart - or both - in the process.

That's just one small point of this post, I know, so please don't think i'm trying to pick on you.

Kristi said...

Why do I find it SO AMUSING that you were banned from Google. BANNED! Hahaha!!! Heelarious!!!!!!

B said...

Great post. I haven't read the other comments yet, so I apologize in advance if I am repeating something someone already said here. Your point about portrayal of types of people doing negative things lead me to this thought: I have a huge issue with the advertisement and justification of what I feel are negative behaviors, namely, the continuation in our society to completely sexualize woman and normalize things like infidelity. With shows like Mad Men, The Playboy Club (new, so haven't seen it yet, just going by ads), etc., the media is sending the message that attractive, successful men cheat on their wives and this is totally fine because, hey, they are powerful and can do whatever they want. It sickens me. I mean, does everyone cheat and I'm the one clueless woman who thinks it's wrong? The ads and tv shows and our own elected officials -vomit- are kind of making me wonder if people are changing their own moral codes.

meanliving said...

I just caught up on these comments and went to look up the book that Bibliomama mentioned, Far to Go ( That book has the same cover photo as another WWII book I've read, A Woman in Berlin ( This is really not at all relevant, but, well, I already have it typed out and maybe one of you will be amused as I was.

juliloquy said...

You nailed it, Swistle!

Anonymous said...

But they're bad people because of what they did...