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Nice people and truths.

Several years ago I was sitting in a lounge with a small group of female friends, just out for a few drinks.  Roughly an hour or so into the evening, a familiar scene played itself out.  There were a couple of guys at a neighbouring table; one seemed fairly normal and was preoccupied watching a game on one of the TV screens mounted in the place, the other guy was one of those guys that pretty much any girl who got out more than once a month could pretty much instantly tell was one of those creepy guys.

Naturally, the creepy guy started talking to us. I can’t remember specifically what he said to us, but he had a habit of interrupting our conversation and trying to get the attention of at least one of us. It wasn’t that he’d been eavesdropping and wanted to add his own two cents; he was clearly too self-absorbed to be paying attention to what others were doing or saying. Nor did he have much to say apart from giving us the sense that he felt entitled to our attention.  Although we were all polite, he was not someone who interested any of us starting with being easily a decade older.

I was in the midst of some particularly animated conversation with one person when this same guy apparently figured it was my turn to pay attention to him.  Out of the blue, he tapped me on the shoulder and said: “I’m a nice guy you know.”

I turned around, as he was sitting behind me, and said to him, “I didn’t say you weren’t”.

“Well, you don’t have to ignore me you know.”

“I wasn’t,” I shrugged and gesturing in front of me and away from him I said, “I’m facing this way and talking to my friend who’s sitting in that direction.”

“But I’m a nice guy, and-”

“Get lost, creep” my friend Sam butted in (thanks Sam!).  She had more guts or whatever it takes to say such things. I was raised to be far too polite and find it hard, even to the most obnoxious person, to tell them straight out to buzz off.  Normally I hope that they get the hint, but some people need to be told. Really, on what planet is it appropriate to try to strike up a conversation with a complete stranger you’ve never before exchanged words with by interrupting them while they’re speaking to someone else while asserting what a nice person they are?

Anyway, the point of this little story is this: I have yet to meet anyone who tells me they’re a nice person, who actually IS a nice person.  If someone is genuinely a nice person, they never have the need to tell anyone. Such a quality can be determined through a person’s behaviour: nice people behave nicely, and rude people behave rudely. However, rude people often think of themselves as nice people, but seem to be surprised when the world doesn’t respond to them accordingly.  So instead of reflecting on this and perhaps changing their approach then instead just insist, but I’m nice. Or perhaps there are people out there who simply take what a person says about themselves at face value when they’d be better off presuming the opposite.

It’s the same with pretty much any character trait – honesty, intelligence, patience and so on. There’s never a need to tell anyone whether or not you possess these traits since if you do, they are readily apparent to anyone who’s even remotely observant.

Therefore, it is often the case that precisely those people who lack those characteristics in themselves who have to verbally assert that they do indeed have them.  The ditz who insists she’s really smart if only you get to know her, the used car salesman who claims to be ‘an honest guy’, or that creepy guy in the bar who interrupts complete strangers to tell them how he’s actually really nice.

Whenever someone has the need to tell me that they possess some positive character trait the first thing that pops into my mind is, why do they feel the need to tell me that?

Similarly , whenever someone claims they’re the ones in possession of The Truth, or they are interested in presently reality, I look for, and quickly find, plenty of lies.

The Cultural Studies Drinking Game (TM)

Controversy surrounding an alleged ‘art’ student, who shall remain anonymous, at least in my little world, suddenly took me back to my own university days. There was much controversy, blah blah blah, then a ‘manifesto’ – just like real artists have (at least back in the 20s) – that seemed to be cribbed directly from my old student reading material.

I studied Communications which unfortunately also involved Cultural Studies and Critical Theory. This stuff would be perfectly familiar to any one who took Feminist studies, anthropology and probably most senior-level arts classes too.

I say unfortunately in the sense that it was often a rather tedious challenge to get through a lot of obfuscation and unnecessary abstraction to the the actual ideas, some of which could be pretty insightful and interesting. For example, the concept of ‘hegemony’ the way it is used in Cultural Studies/critical theory is quite good, but rarely do people outside that realm have any idea what you’re talking about if you use the term.

However there’s a tendency for certain academics, and even more so their students, to hide weak ideas (or none) behind confusing and important seeming words in order to come across as intellectual. It really is so bad that Physics Professor Alan Sokal submitted an utterly fake paper to a then non-peer reviewed journal that was subsequently published.

Years later I had a room-mate who was growing frustrated with his International Relations courses – largely stumbling through the all the extraneous verbiage. Unfortunately for him, he lacked the filter in his brain that could just shut this stuff out. Most of it is neo-marxist tripe of one sort or another, some of which has some merits, but some of which is often just a hodgepodge of postmodern terminology that when actually ‘deconstructed’ can be nearly void of any actual meaning, or coherent train of thought beyond vague and dubious claims of western Imperialism.

So in the honour of my former struggling-student roommate and the spoiled Yalie, I’ve decided to invent the “cultural studies drinking game” (or if you prefer, the “critical theory drinking game”), which after 30 seconds of Googling, I’ve confirmed has not already been invented by someone else and is therefore mine.

Fiction – when referring to anything other than a book that is not non-fiction: pretend to take one shot

Myth – unless debunking a widely held belief such as changing lightbulbs will stop global warming: one swig of beer.

Ambiguity – one shot. Maybe

Adding ‘ity’ or ‘ities’ to any adjective in an attempt to turn it into a noun: e.g. ‘domestic’ vs ‘domesticity’ : two shots.

Adding any other extra syllables to any common word to make it sound more ‘academic’ – one shot per each syllable.

Relation to power or ruling class – everyone takes a shot.

Social construction – see ambiguity

Oppressive State Apparatus/Instrument of State Apparatus – throw your shot glass at the person sitting opposite

Appropriation – take the drink of the person to your right. If used in the same phrase as “class relation”, then three shots.

Discourse – everyone yells ‘chug chug chug!’ while you swallow the remainder of whatever is in your glass.

Consciousness – you’ve now lost consciousness from drinking too much. And you’ve only read two paragraphs.  Game over.

How safe are YOU

The media get blamed for a lot of social problems that they’re not really responsible for, such as anorexia in teenage girls, violent behaviour in children, cigarette smoking and so on.

However, there is one thing I think can be blamed squarely on ‘The Media’: the public’s distorted perception of risk. Granted, with the rise of the internet ‘The Media’ is a lot more complex and amorphous than it was even ten years ago, but often the same distortions that make the headlines on the local news channel are mirrored online. For every atm scam that makes it to the evening news on CP24, there are five that I get via email.

Not everyone knows about snopes.com or thinks to check it every time they see or get emailed a scare story. Though they probably should. Or at the very least, understand that ‘The Media’ is really the world’s biggest Drama Queen.

Take terrorism, for example.

According to a study by HealthyAmericans.org, seventy percent of Americans ranked chemical terrorism as a major concern in 2007. Never mind the odds of anywhere in the US being the subject of such an attack for now, or the fact that if you combined the populations of all the major cities that could possibly be victim to such an attack it wouldn’t add up to anywhere near 70% of the US population.

Instead, just take the real-life scenario of a chemical attack that did happen, under the worst-case scenario, which took place almost 12 years ago to the date I post this. Picture one of the most crowded places, most populous cities in the world – Tokyo, Japan. Then picture an attack using one of the scariest chemicals of them all – nerve gas. Then imagine it being released in the scariest of all urban places – subway stations full of commuters at one of the busiest times of the day. Not just one attack either, but FIVE. How many people died as a result of the attacks – that occured in one of the most densely populated parts of the world? TWELVE.

So even under the worst-case scenario of something that’s highly unlikely to happen the first place, the odds of dying from it are still miniscule.

Another scare story making the rounds is Bird Flu. This is probably something that is cause for concern – for birds. For people? Not so much.

How is The Media to blame for this? Take this headline as an example, from one of the world’s most reputable news sources, the BBC. The headline reads: Bird flu ‘could kill 150m people’. A hundred and fifty MILLION? Holy crap!

Then take a look at the sub-heading: A flu pandemic could happen at any time and kill between 5-150 million people, a UN health official has warned.

The BBC, not known for being a scare-mongering tabloid, took the highest, scariest number and plugged it into the headline.

That headline was from about 18 months ago. How many people has it killed so far, in the entire world? 169. Most of those deaths have been in Indonesia, one of the most densely populated, impoverished parts of the world. In their entry in the CIA World Fact Book, there is a long list of diseases to be wary of if you plan to travel there. Their entry for avian flu:

“highly pathogenic H5N1 avian influenza has been identified among birds in this country or surrounding region; it poses a negligible risk with extremely rare cases possible among US citizens who have close contact with birds (2007)”

Obvious (except to their own audience) fear-mongering outlets are the tabloid news. Take this, from Fox News: Iran, Iraq, Etc.: Email Your Pick of Top Terror Threat. “Are you tired of trying to make sense of what bogeyman, country or crazed group is trying to do us in from week to week?”

Even reputable organisations do the same thing – such as this report from the New Scientist: US ‘unaware’ of emerging bioterror threats. Part of the article speculates that “Terrorists could potentially develop bioregulators that disrupt the immune system, neurological system or endocrine system.”

Why do these stories crop up over and over? Most media depend on advertising or subscriptions for their revenue. The more viewers they claim, or the larger share of audience, the more money they earn. The more dramatic the headline, the more likely that someone is going to read it. Even someone such as myself will click on a link to a dramatic headline if only to see what kind of BS someone is trying to scare me with.

That isn’t to say that terrorist incidents don’t happen. It’s obvious that they do. My husband has a relative who was killed in a bomb attack in India. It’s terrible what happened – to a very nice person, a family man, minding his own business, on his way home from work one day. My husband’s family couldn’t care less about the odds of something like that happening, because it did happen. The same goes for victims of such attacks everywhere.

But what could the victims or the Indian government have done to prevent it? In reality, pretty much nothing. There are a lot of crazy nutjobs in the world who can come up with all sorts of dodgy rationalisations for violence. No amount of policing or social control can stop everyone who has an agenda and is determined to carry it out. Part of life is that tragedy can strike out of the blue, from anywhere at any time. But that’s no reason to live in constant fear or suspend civil liberties. It’s no reason to believe the crap spewed on Fox news or vote in power-hungry whackjobs who promise to protect you. It means to live life as fully as possible because you never know when your time is up. And in the meantime, look both ways when crossing the street.

For further reading: http://www.time.com/time/magazine/article/0,9171,1562978-1,00.html

http://www.junkscience.com

http://www.schneier.com/essay-155.html

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