Theres a 50 Shades of Grey controversy? Is it the Christian extremists?
Im sure they’re not thrilled with the book, but they might be more upset with Twilight (for the ignorant among you, 50 Shades of Gray is Twilight fan fiction. Yes, that is true.) because it has supernatural stuff in it. In this case its the certain branches of feminism that are in a tizzy. Theyve declared that “50 Shades Is Abuse” (with or without hashtag) and are calling for a boycott.
And now, it is time to own them.
Well… lets just take a look at the whole phenomenon, as its pretty interesting. What is striking about this controversy, or as the British say, con, troversy, to me is that it illustrates how some people either do not understand, or pretend to not understand, how fantasy works in our lives.
And you do?
I think so. Ill have a go at it, anyway. I think its lazy not to when you comment on these things. You know, like if you say rap music causes shootings or video games cause rape or TV shows cause single motherhood. First explain to me what those things are, how they function in our lives and the place they occupy in our consciousness. If you cant do that, you might as well be saying that jelly doughnuts cause rape or shootings or single motherhood.
Youre telling me that X causes Y. If you cant provide me with an account of what X is, it remains an empty slot and you can just plug in anything you want to, which is exactly what people tend to do.
OK. So what are we hairless monkeys doing when we look at images of other hairless monkeys doing things in a fake reality? Or read made up stories about hairless monkey goings on?
One of our main methods for navigating the world seems to be by making up stories or narratives about the world and then trying to understand external realities through those stories. Maybe this started off when we began to perceive cause and effect. Then we needed to create subjects and actors, like trees and fire. Then we came up with the notion of the self, to include our role in these phenomena so we could try to engineer stories that promote our survival. At this point we arrived at something like big rock make Thog go squish, which we could apply by avoiding rocks, or squishing our enemies with them.
Noam Chomsky over here!
No, I really dont know much about that stuff. But something along those lines happened. So now, we still have all of these stories we use to navigate the world. We still have rock make Thog go squish. But we also have The Bible, science and Marxism and countless variations in between.
So science and The Bible are equally true and…
Shut up. Now, most of the time we are dealing with narratives that are ostensibly true or real. If you jump off a cliff, you will fall to your death. We should invade Iran because they are bad and they are trying to make nuclear weapons to do bad things with them. Girls would really like me if they got to know me. On 9/11 I was eating breakfast and blahblahblah. Whatever.
That must get really complicated. For example, one of those is a memory and another is a normative claim mixed with moral claims mixed with factual claims.
Yeah. This is where my brain runs out of fuel. But, the point is that all of these stories form a rickety, shifting structure held together by bubblegum and denial. Its impossible to move through the world acting only on empirically proven facts and logically airtight beliefs, so we rely on narratives that appeal to us and function reasonably well, even though many of them are inconsistent.
That structure allows us to navigate the world and to balance things, like our own base desires and the restrictions on our behavior required for a functional society. However, there are many points of high pressure in this house of lies.
So how do we balance it all out?
Well, it gets really complicated. Some people become ideological fanatics: they choose one story that supposedly explains everything and make a leap of faith, ignoring any input that contradicts their ideology.
I think humor can be another way of coping. A lot of humor comes from the fact that all of the stories we operate on from day to day dont quite add up. We have little choice but to act as though they do most of the time. The funny makerpoints out some contradiction or absurdity in our thinking or behavior, we have a good laugh at the situation to release some tension, and then we resume our absurd thinking and behavior.
What About 50 Shades Of Gray?
Well, thats a fantasy. Specifically, a sexual fantasy. A fantasy is, of course, a made up story. We take a break from trying to understand the world with accurate and often unpleasant stories bymaking up stories that are false so that we can take a break from reality. Fantasy stories are not descriptions of reality and we know it, but we are able to suspend disbelief enough to enjoy them. Within these made up stories, we are free to experience any events that we find satisfying, free of real-world consequence.
So the fantasy story allows us to enjoy things that we like or desire, but which would create conflict, suffering or other problems if we tried to incorporate them into the stories we use in the real world.
Right. For example, we here at RR love vigilante fantasies. In real life, people get away with wrongdoing far more often than not. Naturally, part of us wishes we could track them down and punish them, but the reality of a semi-functional criminal justice system is preferable to the chaos of a world full of self-appointed Bronsons and Batmans.
50 Shades Of Gray is about a woman who submits psychologically and sexually to a dominant man. Most people have some submissive characteristics; its probably more prevalent in women. Sexual submissiveness is, without a doubt, more prevalent in women. Rape fantasies, for example, are about as common as liking french fries.
This stuff might not work out so well in real life, or at least it must be balanced out with other considerations. But a lot of people seem to like a fantasy land in which male dominance and female submissiveness can be acted out without caution or restraint. Others might like it the other way around. The truly enlightened see the appeal of both.
So, we make up a story, like Death Wish 3 or 50 Shades. It is not real life, but we get to watch a bunch of thugs get their comeuppance or watch a woman become enthralled to the power of a dominant man. Nobody is hurt or killed. We have our catharsis, or our moment of escape, and go on with our lives.
But I think its bad for women to be submissive! At least to the point that it’s taken in the book.
No problem. I think vigilantes are bad. War is bad. Physically injuring people for laughs is bad. Conducting heists is bad. Being possessed by the devil is bad. I imagine most women who like 50 Shades would not want to live it. These are just things we like exploring in a fantasy world, specifically because it is separated from real life.
But doesnt Death Wish 3 program you to go out on a mass murdering spree of criminals? Wont 50 Shades Of Abuse program women to love being abused?
There is no evidence of this. For one thing, fantasy seems to be a perfectly normal function for most of us. I think that needs to be emphasized. It would be peculiar if we did not know how to handle this basic function of our consciousness: fantasy is just a regular part of what we do, like eating, worrying, reproducing or dreaming.
We also happen to be living in the middle of a great experiment. 40 years ago, there was no such thing as video games, at least not to any significant degree. Now, they are the most profitable branch of the entertainment industry. They also present some of the most elaborate and violent fantasy worlds humans have ever constructed. Decades ago, nobody played them. Now millions of people spend hundreds of hours a year playing them, and in countries where video games are most prevalent, violence has declined.
Maybe there are other factors.
Of course there are. More than we can comprehend. But this change has been the equivalent to dropping a fantasy A-Bomb on our culture. Again, we went from there being no such thing as video games, to video games playing a huge role in the lives of millions. Its as if there had been no such thing as breakfast until 1977 and then everyone suddenly started eating breakfast at current levels. If our health improved over that time, it would be hard to argue that breakfast has catastrophic health effects, even with other factors in play.
If video games had a significant effect on normal people, as opposed to the occasional lunatic, the effects would be observable. So, its no surprise that the largest study on the matter shows that video games do not cause real world violence. Now, if you want to say they’ve helped to promote obesity, for example, you’ve at least got a prima facie case.
So it turns out that people can do a pretty good job of differentiating between fantasy and reality?
That seems to be the case. And, if you consider the fact that fantasy is a normal part of human functioning, thatshouldn’t be too surprising. We can generally fart without crapping ourselves. I can be a meat eater without killing and eating your family pets. I can like sports without liking war. I can love war movies and oppose every American war in my lifetime. Basically, we people are pretty dumb, but were not THAT dumb. Otherwise, we probably wouldn’t be here anymore.
Can a fictional work ever shape our behavior or world view?
In my humble opinion, this probably does happen to some degree, when the fiction purports to depict a reality.
Like a movie based on a true story?
Yes, though I don’t think that is a critical part. If the movie is said to be based on a true story, I think most people will believe it roughly parallels what happened, with varying degrees of skepticism. Alternatively, the story might be completely fictional, yet mean to be realistic in terms of setting or some other aspect.
I think our ideas about what law and order look like are probably a bit distorted by Law & Order and other TV shows. We might have unrealistic notions about war or mob life or certain aspects of science because weve seen them portrayed incorrectly. Now, most thinking people realize that these portrayals are exaggerated, but we just dont know to what degree and we assume there is some kind of correlation to the real thing.
Do mafia families really have a consigliere, like in The Godfather? Wikipedia says they do, but they function a bit differently. My only awareness of this stems from movies. I figured they were probably a real thing, but I wasnt sure without looking it up. It could have been a fiction and Id have more or less believed it was real because I saw it in the movies.
There are anecdotal examples of people rushing into a profession that has been glamorized in the media. Navy enlistment was said to have surged after Top Gun. Something similar is supposed to happen after CSI became a hit.
What I think happens there is that people see the depiction. They realize that its not totally realistic, but it sounds cool to them anyway. Maybe they thought of sailors as just floating around swabbing decks, and didnt realize that some of them flew fighter jets and landed them on boats. It sounds cool to them, so they look into it and wind up joining the navy instead of the army. Maybe they also figured girls, who also saw the movie, would be keener on navy men. What I dont think happens is that someone is a pacifist at the opening credits of Top Gun and is foaming at the mouth to kill commies at the end of it. The media present a representation that you might believe, but they cannot program your behavior and attitudes, especially in the long term.
Does this contradict what you said before?
No. These representations are basically just telling us something about the world. Its perfectly reasonable for us to assume there is some measure of truth to them, barring any other evidence.
I figure most of us are very open to revising those loose beliefs we arrive at from fictionalized depictions of the world. If you meet a real cop or DA or public defender and they tell you all the stuff Law & Order gets wrong, youll probably shift your notions of what that world looks like towards the account of someone who lives in it. Youre unlikely to say, sorry my friend, but I know the truth because I saw it on some ludicrous TV show.
Im visualizing this as concentric circles.
Me too! Must be a coincidence. The innermost circle is the reality. The outermost circle is the most casual understanding of that reality, gleaned from entertainment, rumors, or maybe one or two journalistic accounts.
I know almost nothing about, say, South Korean politics. I have some vague notions. I watched a great movie about a presidential assassination in South Korea… blahblahblah. If I really wanted to clear things up, Id research it and maybe talk to some people and move towards rings of understanding that were closer and closer to reality, and the stuff I saw in movies would matter less and less.
So when people who participate in BDSM point out errors in 50 Shades of Gray, it doesnt follow that the movie will generate real world sexual abuse?
No. Its not as if anyone is surprisedto learn that Law & Order is not a completely factual account of the criminal justice system. Nor do I think many are surprised to learn that fan fiction based on a book about vampires is not a completely factual account of BDSM. We know theres plenty of bullshit mixed in, but thats fine, because its a fantasy.
Nobody is going to say, well, I guess I rape is cool, because the BDSM relationship in 50 Shades is pushed to an extreme that would constitute abuse in real life, or contains inaccuracies or unrealistic events.
What about people who believe in UFOs and Noahs Ark and stuff?
I think we would be wise to remember that we all believe in many bogus stories.
You know what I mean. Dont these people prove that theres a shade of gray between fantasy and reality? You know, even if one religion is true, then all the other ones are still false andtherefore something likefantasies andthat whole spiel.
Maybe they dont really have trouble distinguishing between fantasy and reality, but are in the habit of believing what makes them feel good, or satisfied or psychologically sound. As I said, we all do this to at least some degree; they push it further. Its sort of fun to believe in alien conspiracies that control our lives, and it releases you from accountability to some degree. It can be satisfying to believe you are more righteous than others because you support a particular interpretation of a sacred text. With enough determination, maybe these people can ingrain these beliefs pretty deeply in themselves.
But even then, they still know that comic books, sexy novels and horror movies are not real life. Partially because nobody is claiming that they are real life. They are clearly marked off into the world of fantasy, where stories about UFOs or other supernatural phenomenon are often meant to be factual accounts.
The fact that we speak of faith, or leaps of faith, demonstrates that it is difficult to believe in a fanciful story, even when the story professes to be true and there might be a great deal of social pressure on you to believe it. Religious zealots and ideologues invest a great deal of time and energy in understanding and believing their stories; they often feel compelled to rigorously monitor themselves and others to act in accordance with the teachings of their story.
So, if believing in and following an ideology that is supposed to be true is like a part time job, what are the chances that a 90 minute movie, a song, a video game or a book that is notsupposed to be true is going to inadvertently brainwash you into practicing or tolerating sexual abuse?
So, Ive noticed that the people who usually object to or try to censor fantasy stories tend to also be fervent believers in ideological stories.
Yeah me too. We could be here all night with this one, so I’ll try to keep it on the rails. When I first noticed this correlation, I thought maybe it was part of a general mingling of fantasy and reality.
Like, people who tend to have a great deal of belief in the truth of stories have difficulty turning that on and off?
Something like that. But that hot take didnt really add up, so I had to go with a more nuanced take. There are really two tendencies at work: the first is some kind of difficulty in viewing the world through a fractured prism of self-deceit, like a normal, healthy person.
That sounds kind of like a good thing.
Im sure there are positive aspects to it. But the problem is, we cant really plug directly into all encompassing knowledge of the truth. All we can do is plug into some ideology that purports to bethat. We cant handle the fractured prism of self-deceit, so we replace it with a windowpane of self-delusion. It is more consistent, though not as consistent as we pretend. It encompasses everything we take in. It even tells us how to think and behave.
I feel like you might want to make an aside.
Well, remember when I said that one of the main sources of humor was acknowledging the inconsistencies in our thinking and behavior?
Fill in the blank. Religious zealots, Stalinists, Objectivists, anti-sex feminists and most other ideologues arewidely considered to lack a sense of _____.
How dare you mock my work! Stop oppressing me!
I think there is some barrier to such people enjoying escapist fantasy, particularly when the stuff in the fantasy seems to conflict with their ideology, but I dont really think this stems from an inability to perceive the difference between fantasy and reality. Its more like, they are in the business of believing that made up stories are absolutely, 100% real and tell you everything you need to know, and theres some kind of tension or competition that occurs when they are presented with the other stories.
For example, if my ideological story says that women should never be submissive to men, you (you’re a girl) believe my story, but you enjoy 50 Shades Of Gray. You might start to wonder about that claim. How come you never felt this way when a male ally whispered of his respect for your intelligence? If you think about it, isnt the dominant man governed by his desire for the woman? Maybe thats what you like…
But now you’re saying that a fantasy can program you and before you said the opposite.
No, in this scenario, the book did not program a person who was not turned on by submission into liking it. Such a person would not enjoy the book at all, unless maybe she dug the prose. The problem arises because the ideological windowpane is supposed to account for everything with perfect consistency. That means that even fantasy stories that we know to be false can pose a threat to it, especially when the ideologue suspects on some level that their story is not true, and that they have chosen to believe in it for social, emotional or psychological reasons.
But ideologues believe their stories to be true.
It varies, but I think most of them have doubts. As we said earlier, most ideologues are open about the fact that a big part of their life is maintaining and following the dictates of their faith. Not that many people who learn of an execution or terminal illness say Awesome! I get to go to heaven even sooner! It takes a lot of faith to believe such a story, and competing stories can be disruptive, even if they are marked explicitly as being fictional.
And whats the second aspect of this?
Ideologues are people in the habit of believing what satisfies them. If you are engaged in an activity that is harmless, but which I find unpleasant or distasteful, what is the belief that will be most satisfying to me?
The most satisfying thing for me in this scenario is to convince myself that this activity somehow really is dangerous or harmful, so I can poop in your Cheerios and feel righteous about it. Even if all you are doing is reading a made up story that everyone knows is made up, and you are merely enjoying a fantasy that you can clearly distinguish from reality, I will invent a way to claim that this causes real world harm. Maybe Ill say it normalizes the fantasy behavior in your mind, which is to say it brainwashes you into believing the behavior in the fantasy should be applied to real life. You would tell me that wasn’t the case; I would say that you don’t know what’s going on in your own head because you aren’t plugged into the absolute truth of my ideology.
Especially if the fantasy story puts some kind of pressure on your ideological story.
Yes, though it doesnt have to. The other side of the coin is that I might use the fantasy story to verify my ideological story. Like, objecting to Harry Potter allows me to pretend that witchcraft and Satan are real, so I imagine that the book promotes these things and that I am a noble crusader against them by calling for its ban.
Either way, it always boils down to someone trying to impose their ideology on everyone else. Dont enjoy your fantasy, live in mine.