Discussion Point: Cultural Cleansing

A few weeks ago I showed my Canadian friend Gone With the Wind, since he had never seen it, and I said it was crucial to understanding America. Now, we all know this movie contains some of the worst racial stereotypes, and also lionizes the Confederate south and mourns the “lost way of life” that existed there, including having slaves.

The racial stereotypes were awful, but now, in this cultural moment, they seemed absolutely perverse. I think the film has numerous other merits, and also just is what it is—a huge cinematic monument—yet I was thinking “Could I watch this in the presence of a black person?” How could any theater, at this time, ask general audiences, including black people, to watch it? Can we say “Yes, this movie has lots of merit, if you can get past the part where it’s saying that your people should be enslaved and are lazy idiots?” Can we say “Yes, but this just represents one viewpoint…” and ask black people to just watch it and get into it?

The main feeling was “Wow, soon we won’t be able to show this movie at all,” which causes one to reflect. Later, I re-watched Dressed To Kill, with its male writer/director exploring the idea of women wanting to be raped, and excitement over the idea of prostitutes with hearts of gold, and thought the same thing: “Soon, we won’t be able to show this film at all.”

Given all that his happening, with the films and art of men who have offended, as well as works starring the men themselves, having to be vanquished from existence, it would seem that we are heading into an era in which the culture of the past, including some major works considered to be of very high quality and artistic significance, will have to simply disappear. What do we think about that?

One viewpoint—my own—is that over the past several decades, diversity and anti-racism have taken over school curriculums, so that we have a few generations of people who don’t know much about anything—except that racism is BAD. And that is the only lens through which they are able to see anything—and they are quite ready to lecture your ignorant ass with their Sociology 101 understanding. They can not make aesthetic or intellectual judgments, only moral ones. Exhibit A is this review of Ghost World, in which the (white girl) author can see nothing about the film except the incident regarding a racial stereotype. She misses everything else the film has to offer, and doesn’t seem to get the crucial idea that the bus at the end does not exist at all, but it matters not, because for her, the ONLY thing that film is about is the racial stereotype. One could argue that this is a very important issue to bring up, and it is. One could also argue that there is a lot of other stuff going on in the film, and to ONLY view it in regard to this one small part of it is narrow to the point of exclusion. What do you think?

So I’m just generating discussion about this. I don’t have the answers, I just want to know what you think. Answer in the comments. Please let’s be respectful and not attack other commenters (or me). Comments that attack others will be deleted or not posted. Respect other people and viewpoints, and let me know your thoughts.

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67 thoughts on “Discussion Point: Cultural Cleansing

    • What I’m interested in is what about the people who are offended by the erasing of history/culture just because someone finds it ‘difficult’? Do those people matter?
      I suspect that people older than 60 might not want culture produced by their generation to be swept under the carpet. But do we give a shit about their opinion, or their ‘feelings’?

      It makes me sad to think that past generations had challenging and tough art to deal with, art that made one question one’s views.
      The list of films from the 70s that would not get made today due to issues of representation, difficult subject matter or questionable personal lives of the film makers grows and grows, and I often find myself commenting after a film first and foremost that “they could never make a film like that today”.
      (In recent weeks that list included The Devils, Altered States, Fingers, and even Saturday Night Fever!)
      What a bummer!
      Good thing we have Guardians Of The Galaxy 2, and The Avengers 5.

      Not to worry, Scott. It’s a pendulum, and it will swing back, hard.

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      • Very true about the 70s movies!

        Another recent story in the UK was the cancellation of the revival of 80s play Rita, Sue & Bob Too – guilty of being “highly conflictual”. Happily the charges of censorship stung in this case and they bravely reinstated it.

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    • This gallery story was on BBC radio news this evening – perhaps the massive ensuing publicity is also part of the “artwork”? How clever. Of course if they really wanted to make headlines they should have a public burning of the offensive article.

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  1. I would think that rather than saying I’m offended that you want to stop showing xyz, it might be interesting to have a discussion with the different people that are actually depicted in these pieces of art.
    So what would persons of colour or women say? That is what matters to me most.
    Then you can even screen stuff like this with a supplementary commentary putting it into perspective.
    Let’s say there is a movie, a thriller that is really good but the main thrust is that all gays are really pedophiles. It would be great to hear your viewpoint and perspective to see whether you would say that to people that don’t know any actual gays this might be misleading or whether you trust people to understand that it’s simply an artistic vehicle that nobody will take for real.
    I do think it’s case by case but the discussion will have to be had.

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    • Nobody’s stopping discussion like this being had today though. Could you envisage a situation where such a commentary becomes compulsory? Maybe it will be law that it accompany “problematic” works? It would then only be one further step to a legal disclaimer/health warning as you get with tobacco, alcohol or sugary foods. Perhaps this gallery, instead of banning this picture, could have added a large sign below it reminding viewers that paedophilia is bad?

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      • I feel that this picture is not really the right kind to issze to hang to on. It’s a very good pr stunt.
        Gone with the wind is more interesting in that the majority watching might never be questioning the whole setting which is their right. What is not their right is to not be educated on how fucked up the message is.
        I guess people defending that story might take issue with a similar picture about the honest family of a SS officer that led a happy life until the war ended and would prefer to put that into perspective. Man in the high castle comes to mind.

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  2. Viewers DO have the right not to be educated on how “fucked up” the message of any work is. The alternative is compulsory censorship/labelling/warnings. The gallery action may well be a PR stunt (we might never know) but is the perfect symbol for this debate. How about “This evening’s screening of Gone With The Wind has been cancelled, so all of you that have not seen it can have a discussion about whether we did the right thing”.

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  3. As you may have noticed I’m actually not recommending not showing stuff. But I’m positive about confronting (in a polite way) what the background /context of a given thing is. If everyone can then have a debate on how they see it or what it means to them where it’s the harm in that?
    I feel that a lot goes back to that some people that are depicted in a derogatory way suspect that most people still see their kind as depicted in the films like gone with the wind. So the more others insist on “I will watch what I want, don’t lecture me” the more these suspicions might be confirmed.
    I’m not talking about a white college kid debating you but someone who is really connected by the race, gender or sexual preferences. If there is a respectful debate where it becomes clear how understanding everyone is of the other’s position then the whole xyz is racist/misogynistic won’t matter as much anymore maybe.

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    • That doesn’t sound like cultural cleansing, although if officially enforced it would necessarily restrict access to works. If not, then it’s pretty much where we are at already! Thanks for the interesting points.

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      • I am not sure that is where we are already.
        Once again I would recommend asking the people that are the subject of the depictions rather than to have this conversations with people that are only the audience.
        So neither the usual white old guy (“Hitler burned books too! So that is Fascism”) nor the white college kid (“Hitler had movies made about the eternal jew and they aren´t shown anymore either!”).
        It would seem to me that some people that are against “banning!” and “censorship!” are not really keen on the whole discussion at all, along the veins of “nobody has ever complained to me about this in the past, so why all the hullaballoo” etc.

        Steve, I would like refer you to this tasteless joke that somehow seems appropriate here.

        So what is your perspective, Mr. de Merde?

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  4. Seriously though, this joke disparages no one as a group so I do think people would only object on the grounds of taste or impropriety. A racist joke or movie is different because it directly attacks or objectifies people.
    I think everybody has something that they wouldn’t want to see used as a joke by others that are not in the same boat.
    That is what I mean by this long thread. It’s not funny once it’s your own mother!

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    • My interpretation is that Steve was joking about having to remove the joke… because everything could be potentially offensive to someone. But it underscores the difficulty of understanding a range of tones and moods when we’re all just text without context on the internet…

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  5. My thoughts, and I don’t mean this as a cop-out, is that it is incredibly complicated. Thanks Steve and Nik for the interesting discussion.
    I agree that we need the perspectives of the people being depicted, but I also think the perspectives of the person who created the depiction can also be respected… often lately I see the idea that the perspective of the ‘priviledged’ person should be thrown out, or has no value, because they are perceived to be in greater power.
    I can see the idea of also providing supplementary material that gives context to a film or work of art… but in reality (say in the case of a film) who is going to stay around for that? People simply don’t have time to take all of this stuff in. And some people will eventually simply get SICK of seeing little additional notes and asterisks everywhere, and rebel against it. On one level, the message I get from all this is “stay away from all human beings.”
    The one thing I think is a huge element that warps everything is social media. We are now exposed to the most extreme opinions on every issue, and it tips the scale away from moderation, or what the majority actually feels, and toward having to appease those with the extreme opinions.
    And while many on social media have valid opinions, we have to acknoweledge that there are many who want attention, or want their friends to see how enlightened they are. And many of them HAVE the right opinions, AND want to get attention.
    The other thing that social media tends toward is having to develop ONE, blanket-all policy that will apply to everyone and every case, and that often means reducing complicated issues to either/or propositions.
    Like in the Chuck Close case… so, because he did one thing, we can see NO other positive qualities in him? Does this one thing negate EVERYTHING else he has ever done? If you were the person harassed, perhaps it does.
    But do we–and HOW do we–accommodate every single perspective at the same time?
    So I don’t know–that’s why I just asked for discussion, because I really don’t have the answers. But it’s very destabilizing and I’m surprised how PERSONALLY upsetting something like the Chuck Close case can be. And, as usual, I am not opimistic that it will “all work out all right.”

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    • Agreed about social media – it is toxic, present company excepted of course! Disparate viewpoints with little or uncertain common ground, firing increasingly extreme text-based opinions at each other… To have a civil discussion is practically impossible and I even thought twice about posting here. But this topic chimed with a lot of current events and my thinking and I could not resist.

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    • I don’t know about the Chuck Close case… But the most disturbing thing about this sort of internet extremism is the way that once an individual has committed a “crime” (which might not even be a real crime, it may even be an incorrect opinion) they must no longer be debated, or listened to. They must be destroyed, silenced, their work erased from existence. Challenging, outdated or incorrect works must not be seen and debated, they must be shunned, restricted and hidden away. This is not progressive or even really new. It’s happened in many times and places through history – for example under heavily religious or totalitarian regimes. We don’t live under those, why would we want to emulate them?
      Thanks all for the thoughtful – and polite – comments.

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      • Yes, there was a controversy at the Whitney Biennial last year in which the protesters wanted the painting removed AND DESTROYED. And to me, when you are destroying art, you are getting into Nazi territory. But all of this is going under a flag of righteousness and social progress, so the people advocating these things are on the left, and sure they’re doing the right thing. They don’t consider silencing other views as censorship, because to them, those views cause “damage” by even being aired. I remember in grade school people saying “Oh, if something like Nazism ever started again, we would see it and prevent it…” but not when it seems like you’re doing the “right thing…”

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      • Very perceptive post. One interesting thing about this new sort of destructive action is that it’s not really driven by the State – it’s modern, crowdfunded, grassroots “Nazism”! At least there’s far from a consensus about it. Our wonderful social media environment just perhaps makes it feel more pervasive/closer.

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    • While we’re putting the world to rights perhaps we can identify 2 types of controversy here? Firstly there are “innocent” works of art that are later deemed “problematic” due to the artist(s) in question. I don’t know much about Chuck Close but maybe he’s in that category. Then there are works where no particular guilt is attached to the creator(s) but the work itself is deemed incorrect – like Gone With The Wind? In some cases both might apply e.g. Woody Allen, whose work has often included “inappropriate” relationships between older, experienced men and much younger women. Life imitating art, perhaps? Not that I am prioritising one over another or (especially) judging, just trying to clarify…

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    • Scott – I agree that social media is a major contributor, but I would expand the label to ‘technology in general’, with social media being one arm. The fact that we now carry surveillance mechanisms in our pockets at all times, able to video all manner of human behaviour and present it to the whole world to judge, fits into this too, as does our ability to view such material.
      Ease of travel and telecommunications means that people with VERY different ideas about what’s morally acceptable and what isn’t, are mixing, making it necessary for everyone to be more mindful. Etc.
      Globalisation and free market trade are contributors as well.

      However, I’m far more concerned about our institutions and the culture in general giving legitimacy to something like social media by using it as a barometer of public thought. I roll my eyes whenever I see a news clip where we get quotes from Twitter(!) as if they mattered. I appreciate that Twitter is treated like a kind of modern VoxPop, but I think they are far from being the same. It is VERY important to me to know who is making whatever statement is being quoted, and yes, I do treat the statement of a high schooler differently to that of a 40something, working mother of 2. Twitter supposes that the opinions of both have the exact same value, which is bull.

      As for Chuck Close, I had no idea of the incident, but it is an interesting case in terms of where we are in our culture. I am interested in the wording of the allegations: ‘sexual misconduct’. What does that mean? He talked dirty to them? And if he did, is that a crime? And if it is not, then why is he being treated like it is? Perhaps it’s not a crime in the legal sense, but a ‘moral crime’, in which case do we have any kind of carefully thought out way of dealing with it, or are we back in the wild west, trial and error days? Or, perhaps he had a private exchange, and the matter is between him and the women in question, and that should be the end of it.
      Steve, I agree with your sentiments here. Year Zero!
      And Scott, yes. Discrimination is HORRID, unless it’s for right-on reasons, in which case it’s rad. He he, I don’t know whether to laugh or cry.

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      • So many good points – the Twitter/media comment is spot on. All a lazy journalist has to do now is find a couple of offended tweets on Twitter and they can call a work “controversial”. All they need to do is find 2 opposing viewpoints on ANY SUBJECT and it’s “divisive”. Of course you can find any such comments, on any work or topic. Post them yourself if you have to! Hey presto, you have a story that can wind people up or generate a few clicks. It’s not going away any time soon, so we have to find a way of dealing with this or….

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  6. To be honest, this has been the only time I have discussed anything like that online. I don’t know any of you and you could all be crazy or a bit for all I know.
    I go on websites but debates on social media are pointless.
    When I was young, I would walk along the street and could only speculate what kind of dumb stuff people were thinking, believing and promoting. Now there is a constant blast of all kinds of unfiltered thought nobody should spend any time thinking about.
    I do believe cleansing is a problem in many cases because the context and history is still there. But scrubbing to lay bare what’s beneath is important.

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  7. What I find strange is how willing everyone seems to be to just airbrush things out of cultural history. Like, now we’re just supposed to pretend like Cosby’s “Noah” bit wasn’t funny? Or that the stuff Weinstein produced wasn’t good, inspiring, interesting art?

    I think that there needs to be two conversations, in fact; one about the art *qua* art, independent of everything except its existence. Treated as though it sprang fully-formed into existence from nothing, like Aphrodite from the waves. And the other conversation is about the *business* of art, the work of creating it.

    And I think that people can’t separate those two concepts in their head. It’s reasoning via contagion, which is so regrettably common these days; A likes B, and A is awful, therefore B must be awful too. (A variation of the “Friendship Is Transitive” Geek Social Fallacy.)

    I think it is entirely legitimate to say “this person made a piece of great art, and they should never be allowed to do it again because they are such an awful person”. I think that’s a level of intellectual development that few people can manage.

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    • Interesting points.

      I watched The Searchers the other night – which to some would be the very definition of a “problematic” film. The Indians are the baddies – and the chief is played by a white guy “blacked up” (redded-up?). The “hero” is an out-and-out racist. Really this is beyond the pale… But you could ask interesting questions about how a film like this should be “framed” for modern audiences. It’s out on Bluray and is not presented as any sort of controversial work. Should there be an unskippable lecture before the start of the film? A leaflet inside the case? What if somebody turned on or walked in halfway through and was unprepared? What if a university lecturer showed a clip in class (without apologising first) and then asked students what they thought?

      The possibilities for trouble are endless!

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      • Yes, The Searchers is an interesting example as it has not been red-flagged yet and marked with the red R.
        Perhaps there needs to be some kind of spark to create a cultural conversation?
        Maybe the Native American lobby is not as strong as the Black American lobby and hence their perspective is not being addressed yet?

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    • Great point about separating the process from the result.

      Of course there should be fairness, diversity, respect and safety behind the camera – but I see this discussion as being more about what we do with the results, the work! Should one influence the other? Of course people will start to “see” things in the work that make them uncomfortable – but did nobody notice earlier the sexual politics (e.g. Manhattan) in Woody Allen’s work before the real-life controversy? In many cases though there is NOTHING objectionable in the work itself, it just happens to have been contributed to by a criminal or possible criminal…

      It’s almost like the opposite of being angry at an actor because he plays a “baddie” in the weekly soap opera or whatever. People get angry at the work because of what the real-life person did.

      Also – while we trying to separate the real-world from the fiction-world – it’s important to think about the rule of law, due process etc. There is a legal system out there and unless we think it’s totally useless or discredited, should we not respect it? We have an unfortunate phrase “no smoke without fire” but you only have to be accused (via media) to be effectively “guilty” today.

      Back to my first point – a work may of course present the OPPOSITE of fairness, diversity, respect etc. if it so wishes – satirically or any other way. It’s up to us to respond – a nasty piece of work should get the reception it deserves. But banning and placing restrictions might well have the opposite of the intended effect.

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  8. Thanks Scott for the excellent topic, and to everyone contributing too. I’ve been thinking about it since you initially posted.

    It’s certainly an interesting situation, and complex too. And I think that we are indeed heading for a situation where perfectly good (or not, depending on your opinion) cultural artefacts will have to be locked away, at least for a while, as they represent an ‘old’ way of thinking that has no place in our modern society.

    I think the reasons for this are many, but I feel that ultimately this is about power, and is a manner of dominance.
    Banning cultural products or making them socially unacceptable reminds me a great deal of the way that monuments are deemed as offensive and torn down, or street names changed whenever there is an overthrow of the establishment by a new order. And, of course, getting rid of culture is the introduction of a kind of Year Zero. Be it Russia, or Cambodia, or East Germany, all of them made great efforts to get rid of old, ‘incorrect’ thought in pursuit of their utopias.

    The social justice movement, while making some excellent points, is behaving more and more like a moral police, and are not far from fascism.
    I agree with Scott that this problem is visible in schools, and seems to be bred in universities, with the Brett Weinstein incident in the US, and the Jordan Peterson incident in Canada, being prime examples.
    The most interesting incident I’ve come across was that of Lindsey Shepherd, a Teaching Assistant at a Canadian university, Wilfrid Laurier I think, who was dragged before an actual ‘committee for right thought’, and lectured on ideas that are NOT OK for her to present to her COMMUNICATIONS class where young people paid good money to be exposed to a variety of ideas. The meeting was captured on tape and uploaded to youtube; it’s a worrying listen.

    I’m not sure how far all this is going to go.
    Perhaps it’s a fad, and will evaporate in a matter of months.
    On the other hand, perhaps it is a genuine shift in social vlaues, ala the 60s movement, and something that we’ll all have to get used to in time.

    Where do movies fit into this?
    Its’ hard to listen to people talk about an old film and the FIRST thing they mention is that it’s racist/sexist/etc, as if it were made for the current audience and the current moral climate. It’s an absurd argument, and a short sighted one too as today’s cultural product will no doubt be offensive to some people in 2050.
    But the thing that really irks me about it is that we should watch older films PRECISELY because they are documents of an era that’s passed. I return to 70s cinema, where you can feel the grit and grime and crudeness of the period even when the film has nothing to do with the socio-political climate of the decade. Likewise films from the 50s, and all other eras (including today’s politically correct one!).

    As with the universities above, galleries, theatres, cinemas, etc are forums for ideas, and open discussions. Once we start closing them off to certain subjects, we are getting onto a rocky road.
    Again, I think whenever someone tells someone else what is and isn’t morally acceptable, it is ALL about power, all about imposing one perspective onto another.

    The saying goes that if you want to know who is in charge, find the person you are not allowed to offend, and I think it is applicable here.

    Again, thanks all for a hearty and thought provoking discussion.

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    • I just listened to the “Lindsey Shepherd tape” and it is stunning. Everybody should listen to this and make up their own minds about what this means!

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      • Yes, it’s quite something, isn’t it.
        Worth checking out are the statements/apologies put out by the president of the university, and especially the chief interrogator from the tape.

        And, if you want a good chuckle, seek out the youtube video of the public statement made by the university president, and note the cynical manner in which she informs the world that her university is an open environment which supports debate and ALL opinions, the video being released a few short days after a tape proving the EXACT opposite was made public.
        I especially appreciated the hostage video quality of the piece, the president’s wide eyed stare suggesting fear and desperation.
        (here it is: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=XtH_HHZ0XTQ )

        It would be sweet irony if this case became a part of the curriculum in some future class on free speech, especially at Laurier itself!

        Sorry Scott for veering off the main topic, but I think this is an example of the same thing that’s driving the debate around what’s appropriate art and what isn’t, and who decides.
        ‘Appropriate art’? Now that’s an interesting expression.

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    • You make a great point. See my comment (elsewhere on this increasingly-long page) about The Searchers. Without watching popular films like this from the 1950s how would we know how people felt and what they thought about any number of issues? Cannot the modern-day viewer place a work in context without being extravagently warned? Should they be protected from them altogether?

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    • I think another point worth making about film in particulary is that it is a very collaborative form – thanks to the “auteur theory” and modern-day media we see a film as being the work of one man (or sometimes woman) – the director. So, ergo, a film “by” Woody Allen or Roman Polanski must be suppressed (I know Allen writes his films too which is important, but I think my point still holds). What about all the other artists that contributed? Great actors, writers, photographers etc? Are we going to suppress all films Kevin Spacey starred in or featured in? What about all the other contributors to whom no blame has been attached? Their work gets suppressed too?

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  9. Was reading an interview between Stanley Kubrick and Joseph Heller (Catch-22) at the weekend where they discuss Dr Strangelove and satire. Kubrick talks about satirical works “stating the opposite of the truth” and says that when making one it’s hard to resist eventually stating the REAL truth in case people don’t “get it”.

    It made me think that satire is another form that may potentially struggle (or may already be struggling) in the new cultural climate. Typically people complaining about a particular satire either don’t “get it” themselves or they do get it (or claim to) but are concerned that other, presumably less intelligent people, will not “get it” and therefore (as it’s deliberately stating the opposite of the truth) it could be considered dangerous etc…

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    • This makes me think of Starship Troopers, which never shows it’s hand, except maybe in NPH’s gestapo leather coat, although I don’t think even that is too obvious a hint. (I know the tone is hyper-real, but that is left to the viewer’s interpretation. It’s not like Mel Brooks winking at the camera, or something.)
      Verhoeven didn’t include anything else that clarified that this was indeed a satire, so to this day I have discussions with friends about whether Starship Troopers is satire or just a sci-fi action spectacular.

      Same goes for Robocop, and probably the rest of Verhoeven’s American output. The guy is a prankster!

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      • Great example – the leather coat in Starship Troopers might have been a step too far, I even remember my much younger self twigging that! Although the film doesn’t quite “show its hand” in the sense that even at that point though there is conflict between the leads they are still basically assumed to be on the right side. There can’t be many better examples of a full-length cinematic satire, although whether the fact that many people still don’t “get it” denotes success or failure is an interesting question…

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      • Of course, following my earlier train of thought, Starship Troopers should definitely be banned as it literally promotes fascism. Sorry!

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      • I’m OK with Starship Troopers working as either exclusively an action flick or as a satire. Whatever one gets from it is one’s own business. But, I wouldn’t want somebody to prevent me from seeing it because of their interpretation and feelings about the film.

        Starship Troopers though is unlikely to offend due to ‘the other’, the bugs, not being specific enough to be seen as a take on any one group. Perhaps the best way to avoid friction and offence is to leave these sensitive topics to science fiction, even when the analogy is obvious, as in Alien Nation.
        But then, would that not be one group imposing themselves on another by telling them how to express themselves?

        It’s a debate, I suppose, but that in itself is healthy.
        The opposite, shutting down debate, isn’t.

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      • Of course science fiction (in film and elsewhere) has been used as a vehicle for ideas too edgy for the mainstream since, probably, its invention! I think Star Trek or The Twilight Zone could tackle subjects that, in the context of 1950s or 1960s TV, if done “seriously” would have put the programmes into a whole different bracket. It would be ironic if a more modern censoriousness or “sensitivity” meant edgy topics were pushed back into that sort of genre…

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  10. That university apology is quite interesting too – at least the fact that it shook them is something. But it’s becoming less and less surprising when supposedly educated, enlightened people adopt tones of oppression and censorship. You might naively imagine an academic environment to be a more appropriate environment for encountering and (literally) studying “problematic” or differing opinions than, say, the cinema or TV – but you might be wrong! Personally I am willing to encounter those things in entertainment, books, anywhere. It does mean sometimes being upset or offended – but what’s wrong with that? The alternative is worse.

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    • Exactly!

      By the way, I think the interrogation featured on this tape is something that could be happening in endless institutions. This university was shamed simply due to the poor woman undergoing the ‘re-education’ being astute enough to record it. But, I would not be surprised to hear such recordings appearing from other places of higher learning, and beyond, in the future.

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  11. Let’s throw in a different angle – if we can bear to! Often censorship-type arguments are thrown about in the light of protecting the oppressed from the dominant (white, male) viewpoint. So it’s been amusing to me when I have encountered works which have supposedly offended white males! To give two recent examples:

    * Get Out received criticism online for being anti-white, it portrays “all whites” as being untrustworthy, scheming racists.

    * War For The Planet Of The Apes got stick for being, er, anti-human! It portrays “all humans” as being untrustworthy, scheming racists.

    In a way you can’t argue with their logic, but it made me think about why I hadn’t been offended by either of these films. Could be the critics were just playing the “offense” game, or maybe they were genuinely upset?

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    • Regarding Get Out and War For The Planet Of The Apes, I’ve seen neither.
      But, yes, I imagine that the offence is in the eye of the beholder and indicative of the current cultural conversation. One sees what one is focused on, and, as Scott pointed out with the Ghost World example, if one is ALL about racism and cultural appropriation, then it’s possible to get just that from an otherwise rich, contemplative and textured film.

      And, here’s a point: I don’t care if that’s all one gets. But I don’t want them imposing their singular views on me. And I would LOVE our media to reflect a VARIETY of points of view in this debate, including the one which totally ignores those racial themes.

      PS: your take on War For The Planet Of The Apes as suggesting that ALL humans discriminate, makes me interested in seeing it. That would at least be a refreshing take on this tired theme.
      A great sci-fi about discrimination is Gattaca, as it is ALL about discrimination and privilege, but never mentions skintone. Maybe WFTPOTA accomplishes the same.

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      • WFTPOTA is interesting because (spoiler alert!) the whole story is told from the apes’ point of view. Not that they are all on the same side, but all the main “good” characters are apes and typically humans are THE ENEMY. Every viewer can have their point of view but far from being offended by this I thought it added an interesting dimension to the film. (In fact one of the human characters may not be so bad but I shouldn’t say any more!). Perhaps some of people making that comment were just pissed off that they didn’t like the film, who knows? I didn’t have this new Apes series pegged as being as “political” as the 1960s/70s originals but perhaps there is some interesting subtext there.

        As for Get Out, it is self-consciously hitting many modern-day debates over race head on so that’s quite a different film. A lot of the haters probably think this is a totally OTT social-justice warrior type movie which “hates white people” – which makes it an interesting case in the context of this discussion! But it makes its “arguments” (if you want to call them that) with such cleverness and humour you would really have to go out of your way to be “offended”. Either people are over sensitive or they just think it’s their turn be shocked. Or perhaps they are secretly the racist whites the film so gleefully depicts as its baddies!

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  12. Scott, I would love for you to write about The Girl With All The Gifts, especially in relation to how the various characters are represented, and the political position the film seems to be endorsing.

    Have you seen it?
    If you haven’t, it’s worth a view, but seeing it with as little foreknowledge as possible is advisable for the strongest impact.

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  13. It’s depressing to think of all the knowledge and art we’ve lost through time due to ignorance, violence, disaster, etc: The great libraries at Alexandria, Nalanda, Constantinople, etc., the art destroyed by the iconoclasts, the incredible buildings that were sacked or destroyed by natural disasters. In time, will people look back on this period of whitewashing American history and feel the same sense of loss? I like to think so, because I want to believe that future generations will continue to seek out ALL knowledge which, in its purest form (unaltered, uncensored) is the ultimate teacher.

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    • Unless we are talking about absolute destruction of works I hope we are not there yet – we still have relative freedom to read and see the things we wish, and think and talk about them. But that doesn’t mean we shouldn’t be on our guard of course!

      Perhaps the most shocking recent event was the enormous ancient statues dynamited by the Taliban out in Afghanistan (apologies if that wasn’t the location) for being “un-Islamic” or whatever. I don’t think I had ever previously considered that something like that could be done – then filmed, and shared with the world which such apparent pride. It was like somebody bombing Stonehenge or something. Compared to that, a gallery taking down a painting for “debate” might seem like no big deal – but there are still parallels…

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      • In a sense we are there in this country. The statues depicting southern war heroes, the buildings/bridges/etc. being renamed…If I could, I would buy all those statues and place them in a park. Not because I want to preserve misguided southern heritage, but because I think all art has value. I don’t think those statues have any place in public places (they don’t allow Hitler statues in Germany, right?) where people HAVE to see them everyday, but there’s certainly no reason to destroy them. They spur us to dig deeper, to come to our own conclusions rather than being force fed the “this is good that is bad” dogma we get from the media, textbooks, etc.

        I feel the same way about film, music, and all media. Of course a lot of it is reprehensible, but those artifacts still represent history (perhaps a distorted version of history) from SOMEONE’S point of view.

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  14. This article praises the actions you describe and criticises the UK for not pulling down statues of our own pro-slavery heroes:

    https://www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/2017/aug/22/toppling-statues-nelsons-column-should-be-next-slavery

    Perhaps such statues are “complicated” but pulling them all down seems like an over-simplification. It’s like we can’t accept the complexity of 100s of years of history and must reshape reality into a positive, inclusive, simpler mode.

    It certainly follows a similar logic to the urge to suppress, say, Gone With The Wind – but which is more influential? A film or a statue?

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  15. My thoughts on this are probably too volatile and too complicated for a single posting. What strikes me about modern-day cultural cleansers is their complete indifference to artists’ intention in favor of the theoretical reactions of offended pressure groups. There are two major works on race whose original intentions were bizarrely inverted over the years. Going back before “Gone With the Wind”, we find D.W. Griffith’s “Birth of a Nation”, the famous silent Reconstruction epic that drew wild standing ovations from (white) audiences when it was released in 1915. It features white actors in blackface and a sympathetic portrait of the formation of the KKK. For years it was pointed to as a vile, inflammatory recruiting tool for racists. Actor/director Nate Parker sought to redress this by using the same title for his movie about the Nat Turner uprising. While it had effective moments, Parker’s movie is actually inferior to Griffith’s as a movie (the original “Birth”, although vile, is also riveting) and it was subsumed, ironically, by Parker’s past involvement in a sexual assault case. His career became a pre-casualty of the #MeToo and #TimesUp movements.

    Then there is “Uncle Tom’s Cabin”, Harriet Beecher Stowe’s Abolitionist classic which is credited in popular mythology with starting the Civil War. One of the first bestsellers of the New World, it gave an emotional basis to the Abolitionist movement by forcing Americans to confront the fact that the institution of slavery forcibly broke up families (slave children are separated from their mothers at least a dozen times in the novel). Very few books have had such an influence upon an entire society—Southern authors actually wrote “anti-Tom” novels painting a rosy picture of slavery. Yet the plays and films based on the novel distorted it to the point that “Uncle Tom” became known (and misunderstood) as a shuffling, race-betraying sycophant. Stowe’s original intention was turned on its head and her novel is now seen as a stereotype-laden travesty (mostly by people who have never read it).

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  16. Hi all… sorry I’ve been silent for a while, but I have been reading everything as they come in. Thanks everyone for all the interesting comments… I’m just going to offer some general points based on what everyone has said…

    Agreed it’s not just social media but tech / internet in general, and now being exposed to everyone’s opinion, and the most EXTREME opinions, which get more attention, because they’re extreme. But they distort the issues, because instead of considering what most people think, we’re now having to please the most extreme opinions. Very much agreed that the news media relies in Twitter WAY too much as a barometer of opinion (three tweets on a topic is NEWS, five tweets is a SOCIAL TREND) when Twitter may just be a smoke screen–it reflects an unreal “reality” that we are currently trying to legislate toward.

    I read one of the founders of Facebook saying “Don’t you get it? THIS is reality now,” and in a way, the social and media reality is becoming more real than actual reality. And this disconnect is how someone like Trump gets elected, because the media ignore what a large group of actual people are thinking–people who are not living based on what the media says and may not read newspapers at all–and orienting toward this online reality. Another example is all the feminist talk in the media, while meanwhile Kim Kardashian has a hundred million followers on Instagram.

    And then there’s the media. Now “the media” includes anyone who starts a blog, and freelancers who are just trying to get something published and build their resume, by expressing big opinions that get attention… and also distort the issues. Thus the Boston museum that canceled the Chuck Close show has to pacify opinions from Hong Kong and Australia, over what the actual people in the community might feel.

    This also pushes toward the illusory need to create blanket policies that cover every possible situation all around the world, which pushes toward absolute, either / or viewpoints. For example, that “women should be believed.” I see “socially responsible” people espousing this view, seeming not to think through to the point that this also means that they are also saying that men, in all cases, should NOT be believed. Or when intelligent people, who are against judging people based solely on race, proudly state that any person of color would be better in positions of power than any white man.

    And this moral simplicity, and broad, blanket-all statements, play much better in the media than complicated, nuanced arguments.

    Which leads to the current trend to judge artists entirely based on one aspect of their lives. We can no longer say that someone is a bad person who does good things, or a good person who has done bad things. We cannot say that Woody Allen is a flawed person who has made good films, or that Roman Polanski raped a minor but is an excellent filmmaker.

    PS: When are we going to decide that we must jettison Michael Jackson from the collective memory? Yes, he made great strides for black people, but he faces serious allegation of child molestation. It’s complicated!

    There’s also the conflict between wanting artists that are “edgy,” when we can no longer tolerate any edge.

    But what’s disturbing is that simplistic, either / or thinking is currently being portrayed as morally responsible, and intelligent and reasoned. As well as the rush to judgment based on accusation alone… and these are the lauditory, “responsible” people. And they are blind to the idea that they are becoming the totalitarians, because they’re so sure that they’re right–and they ARE right–but the line where that starts infringing on freedoms is being ignored.

    My personal view–and you know that I’m bitter and jaded, right?–is that we have allowed education levels to drop (not to mention schools being ideological battlegrounds), and people do not read anymore, and as a result are less and less able to process complex thoughts or parse conflicting points of view. And the media and social media are much more oriented toward simplistic thought–it simply makes for better articles–while rendering those who have complex thoughts invisible or irrelevant–not to mention that those people avoid the simplicity of social media and mainstream media entirely.

    So I think it’s entirely possible that the pendulum will NOT swing back, that rather than “oh, there’s always been conflicting opinions,” we are actually heading to a place where The Searchers and Gone With the Wind will, in fact, be eliminated. It may not be a policy, or a conspiracy, it may simply be that we don’t show them anymore, and they de facto disappear. And I think it’s entirely possible that people with the best intentions will decide that people who hold certain views should be eliminated from society–this is, in effect, already happening, when Kevin Spacey (as but one example) must be ERASED from films, and cannot ever work again.

    Call me a negative nancy, but I think it’s quite possible that “good, socially responsible” people might put you in a concentration camp because you think Roman Polanski makes good films.

    Like

    • See, that’s thing about Spacey is just what I mean. Like, we are supposed to pretend like “The Usual Suspects” wasn’t good? Like “Seven” wasn’t good? Is that just supposed to not be part of our cultural history anymore?

      I think you’re really into something when you talk about how people don’t read. Or when they do, it’s YA fiction that’s had all the rough edges and complicated personalities filtered out. Like, people kept saying “oh the kids are into Harry Potter, it’s so great that they’re READING”, like reading words is some inherently magic thing that leads to enlightenment. I’m all, dude, if they were scarfing down Big Macs you wouldn’t be saying “isn’t it wonderful that they’re EATING”…

      Like

      • Speaking of YA fiction, I read this interesting article yesterday:

        http://www.vulture.com/2018/02/keira-drake-the-continent.html

        The book was apparently rewritten due to a Twitter backlash – is this an unprecedented process? Amusingly it seems to have been updated with respect to to both “racist” AND “Trumpian” ideas. It seems that even analogies in science fiction or fantasy works are no longer a vehicle for subversive or challenging material?

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  17. Your mention of Woody Allen puts me in mind of something I just heard from Goodspeed Opera House, which had been planning on presenting Allen’s stage musical version of “Bullets Over Broadway.” They recently (and abruptly) canceled it, specifically because of the #MeToo movement publicity. I find that infuriating–not because I have great love for Allen, but simply because very few great artists have private lives and personal beliefs that would pass current PC approval tests. Richard Wagner still gets grief because he was Hitler’s favorite composer, for heaven’s sake (as though he could help that). And don’t most artists have some kind of inner scar or torment compelling them? How many good, upstanding citizens create complex works of art?

    It happens in fiction as well–numerous people have attacked “Three Billboards” for introducing a hateful racist character (played by Sam Rockwell) who gets something of a “redemption arc”. Excuse me, but isn’t it the flawed people in life who NEED redemption the most? It’s as if people want the black-and-white moral codes of 1940s Hollywood back again, where movie characters who do “evil” things must always die or get punished, whearas “good ” people must always be saved. Even if they are seeing an “edgy” movie like “Three Billboards” (which was openly influenced by the novels of Flannery O’Connor, who knew about moral ambiguity), they want superhero-movie good vs. evil absolutism.

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  18. I just read that Michael Fassbender is facing scrutiny for supposed domestic violence incidents in his past. Does that mean that we can’t watch “12 Years a Slave” any more?

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