Tuesday, July 9, 2024

On Labels, Boxes, and Memes: Being Open and Non-Judgmental

Three mannequins on top of a rooftop
Most of the time and throughout our lives, we tend to label things and people. It is a natural tendency of the brain to organize and structure information, which aids memory, learning, and retrieval. We need to define and classify the input to make sense of the data points and information and then to expand and expound upon them.

Labelling per se and on its own is neither good nor bad but it is generally efficient. Imagine going to a nameless store that has no labels whatsoever on any of its products. Where the heck are you at? What kind of meat or cereal are you buying? What’s inside the given product? Does it contain any allergens, gluten, or trans fat? And how much does it cost?

Many years ago, when I was working at a store, someone had mislabeled the price of an electronic item. It turned out that it was at a significantly reduced price. The person’s accidental error came at a cost for the store, but it was an unexpected boon and surprise for its clients who walked out smiling and grinning from end to end with the afore-mentioned item in hand.

Now my memory is a bit hazy on this matter, but I sincerely hope it was not an error of mine as there were times when I was not at the cash till but was designated to price items, a rather monotonous and mindless activity that lacked interaction of any kind. I also hope the store’s manager does not read this. It is highly unlikely but stranger things have happened indeed.

Hence, when it comes to labels, we want to make sure and verify to the best of our knowledge that the information is accurate and true. As an avid reader of cereal boxes, I found the details provided to be somewhat educational as I would learn about the breakdown of vitamins and minerals in relation to portions as well as how all this would change with the addition of skimmed milk.

Yet as a high school student, I was shocked to find out that anything that ended with -ose was essentially sugar. Why not be honest and upfront and label it as it is without trying to trick and deceive us? Sugar by any other name would taste as sweet, and we should not overlook, kid ourselves, or dilute the fact that most cereals are sugary in nature and purpose.

Yet, even when labels are correct, they may have adverse effects and repercussions, especially when they are put on living beings. The label that most of us tend to be comfortable with and often willingly and consciously identify with is our profession. Although it is a label that we generally accept and perhaps embrace, we may wish to peel it off during our off times.

Yet some jobs are considered constant and on a 24/7 basis. This applies to police officers and medics, for instance. They appear to never have an off switch as they are constantly thinking and are always preoccupied with health and safety. When someone is in medical distress, we call out for a doctor; when there is a violent incident, it is police officers who instinctively act and react often without thinking as it is their second nature.

On the other hand, we would blame either one of them on civic and moral grounds for not interfering or intervening despite them being off work at the time the same way we would reproach a lifeguard for not intending to save a drowning person on their break or day off.

As a language instructor, my cases tend to be much lower stakes, but I have been able to help tourists and foreigners with directions or with expressing their thoughts and wishes at different agencies and offices. At times, I may not feel so inclined – again we are not talking about emergencies or urgent situations – and I feel only slightly guilty afterwards, but occasionally I may not feel like helping others out despite having the ability to do so. That should not be an issue on moral grounds though most of the time, I tend to help and do oblige willingly.

This gets juicier and even more interesting when it comes to psychologists. The moment you mention that profession, people tend to tense up, hold their breath and visibly swallow. The assumption is that these professionals may be able to see through us, read our minds, or more realistically, infer and get information from our words and behaviors. The ones who have secrets they prefer to keep hidden under the rug or locked up in the closet will not feel free or willing to continue the conversation at that point.

But what I wish to express here is not just how jobs and professions affect others but the labels that come with them and the effects all of this has on us and on our psyche. Some of these labels seem permanent. Once you are a police officer, you will always be one. You may say that you are an ex-cop, but something generally remains.

An ex-doctor is something you rarely hear; we might say that the person is not practicing any longer, but it is not something you can or would want to just shake off. And then, on the other side of the spectrum, there are spies, drug lords, and criminals who cannot or would not divulge or talk about what they do for a living and must come up with lies and tales to cover it up.

Job labels can come at a cost as we can see, yet they are, of course, not the only type of labels we must cope and deal with. There are labels and stigmas associated with our gender, sexual orientation, marital status, ethnicity, nationality, age, religion and political beliefs, to name a few. Sadly, these tend to be fixed and inflexible and are often filled and peppered with hearsay, anecdotes, and stereotypes. There are often untested and unexamined assumptions and preconceived notions associated with each of these labels.

Apart from the labels that we carry and that we may or may not identify with, there are also those that we impose upon ourselves. We may come to see ourselves as a product of them and not feel free in our choices and decision-making. For instance, I may feel pressure to conform to the lack of punctuality of my ethnic group so that I do not stand out like a sore thumb or offend others who expect me to arrive late.

This is evidently a rather humorous example of the link between label, expectation, and peer pressure; nonetheless, there are much more serious cases and occasions where people go or feel they have to go against their own nature to appear a certain way so that they can gain approval or avoid and circumvent disapproval.

Labels are like fashion, and they can change, or new ones can be created anytime. When I was growing up, people who dressed or acted oddly or who tended not to be in conformity with the norms of society were seen as weird and labelled rather pejoratively as “weirdos”.

Flash forward to our modern day and age, and they are not seen as outcasts but are essentially celebrated as heroes that everyone must accept for inclusivity’s sake; they are even put on pedestals so that others (feel pressured to) emulate them. People may claim they are being progressive and liberal-minded by removing all labels whatsoever but, as a matter of fact, they are just replacing one label with another, while, for better or for worse, they encourage discriminating and going against anything that is not weird, i.e. the norm in this case. No, there is nothing wrong with being normal or even slightly boring and mundane.

The one place in which labels continue to have negative effects as they box people in and where despite goodwill and intention only little advance has been made is that of mental health. There is an equal tendency of completely going the other way of seeing (or at least claiming and pretending to see) mental illness as normal, which is too extreme and harmful both to the individual and to society at large. It is not akin to celebrating obesity for the sake of aesthetics and inclusivity while ignoring, disregarding or even turning a blind eye to the myriad health risks and complications that are associated with that condition.

Although things have somewhat improved and people talk more openly about their emotional and psychological struggles and feel generally less conflicted about seeking help to maintain, boost, and improve mental health, this has been of course also exploited or taken advantage of by many and for different, often harmful and nefarious purposes.

For many, mental health has become an empty word, a slogan, an excuse, or a political rallying cry. We are far from fully accepting it and of taking away the stigma and label attached to it but, at least, we are more aware of it, and it has become a topic of conversation instead of immediately being swept under the rug or rapidly dismissed.

Labels may designate the box, but they are not the box. In any ways, labels are just that, yet we exaggerate their importance and relevance and feel boxed in. We are then afraid to think outside of the box but rather feel restricted in our thinking and behavior and essentially vis-à-vis our unique way of being. Conformity can create the feeling and illusion of harmony, but it comes not only at an individual cost of freedom, but it is also not something that is healthy especially if done over a prolonged time.

Notwithstanding, these same labels and boxes have now become a meme. A meme can be anything that goes viral, that is, it is repeated on a seemingly endless loop without much thought or consideration. It is the modern earworm where notes seem to get stuck in our head whether you enjoy them or not. The same way, not only images and posts can become memes but also words, ideologies, or ways of thinking.

Not only are they being accepted and taken as is, but they are also endlessly and mindlessly repeated until we give up and accept and embrace them, be it consciously or unconsciously. This goes hand in hand with Nazi propaganda claiming that for others to come to accept a certain falsehood, it is important to bombard them with it on a continual basis, i.e. drill them with carefully chosen and selected memes. These memes then become lodged in our brain and are not based on critical thinking nor are they checked for their level of truth or falsehood, but they become stuck and keep crawling in our heads like the earworms of old.

This is not a political issue of left versus right as propaganda and falsehoods are perpetuated by both sides on the spectrum if not at the same level and quantity. They further undermine our freedom of action and thought and the expression of certain ideas that soon become taboo. This leads to a type of self-censorship and peer pressure in which many do not utter certain words or unpopular statements out of fear of retribution or attacks.

It also makes some scientists and researchers either willingly drop research interests due to their potentially polemic nature or in other cases when they attempt to do so, there will be no funding or grants for that line of research for the very same reasons. In such cases, the box is synonymous with a noose muzzling and even killing not only research and science but also putting a stranglehold on creativity and humor.

The consequence of all this is ironic. In a time that we are claiming to be most diverse, we are less so. In a time when we claim to be open-minded, we become more bigoted. In a time when we claim to stop judgments, we are being judgmental. In a time where we claim to abolish boundaries and combat stereotypes and prejudice, we essentially foster and encourage them.

It is more than ever important to embrace and feed our creativity and to not let ourselves be boxed in by thinking outside of the box. In fact, the box represents our own limits and limitations that we and others have set for ourselves. We can choose to accept the labels and boxes, or we can discard them and connect with who and what we truly are.

Labels are just that; they do not compare to the actual product. At best, they would be the trailer to the movie, but you are the real thing and are not the label unless you choose to identify as such. If it helps, you can expand a label to become a box. That way, it would be less limiting because a label sticks to you but with a box you have at least some legroom and you a have a bit more freedom. Plus, boxes come in different shapes and sizes and can be easily expanded.

And as you are considering and weighing your options and responses, you would do well to take things easy and take them with a grain of salt. Moreover, allow yourself to have a good time, to enjoy the process and the journey, and, most importantly, remind yourself to have a good laugh every now and then.

Saturday, June 22, 2024

Don’t Bank on it: Neoliberalism with its Reckless Pursuit for Money and Financial Gain

Large Monopoly and old man with bags of money driving car
Before reading the insightful and eye-opening book “The Quiet Coup: Neoliberalism and the Looting of America” by Mehrsa Baradaran, I was under the impression that neoliberalism is synonymous with capitalism. Part of it is because neoliberals have presented themselves in a broad light and they have touted not only market freedom with healthy and productive competition, hallmark signs of capitalism but also claiming to be free and independent from government control and intervention.

Yet when I think of freedom, it is essentially democracy that comes to mind in which people are the emblems of the society, nation, and community and, as a result, they keep politicians accountable for their decisions, seek transparency and demand honesty from the elected members of the parties. The views and opinions of the people enshrined in the constitution as a collective “we” would matter because they are (or at least ought to be) the ones that are calling the shots and that select and determine who is going to be at the helm of the government.

Yet since the coup of neoliberalism, there has been more instead of less government intervention; the laws have been surreptitiously tipped in favor of the big corporations. At the same time, because there are fewer legal limits and limitations, there is less pressure and accountability on the side of these corporations, and they have become – or at least they claim to be - too big to fail and hence must be bailed out at all costs and regardless of the circumstances. It is no longer an issue of left versus right but is now deeply embedded and ingrained within legal bureaucracy essentially and effectively holding both parties at bay and in the palm of neoliberal hands.

At the same time, there is no longer much competition to speak of as large corporations have either bought and engulfed the smaller businesses or they have run them into the ground and out of business, or in some cases, they have done both. What is touted as freedom is now a subject of control, and where there seems to be a plethora of choice, it all comes back to a handful of companies that are essentially running the show and pocketing all the money and profits.

There is not much in terms of rule of law and much less in terms of fairness and justice as the prime objective of neoliberalism is the darkest side and corner of unbridled capitalism itself, to make maximum profit in the shortest amount of time with little consideration or respect for the environment or people’s lives.

Anything that would bring in a quick buck or two, namely, an increase in financial capital and monetary value would be all good. The easier, the better, and, in addition to the ubiquitous loopholes, specific rules and regulations have been set in place to protect the companies from prosecution, failure, and even bankruptcy. In other words, and as Mehrsa puts it herself, the game is rigged.

Matters of fairness and justice are being ignored ever since this economic ideology has infected politics, and now mega corporations are running our lives. Democracy is on the decline as money, to borrow from Bob Dylan, does not speak, it swears, and reaches and extends its spiky tentacles in practically all areas of life and existence. What was seen and presented as market freedom has delivered its opposite, not a state-controlled economy but a corporate-driven state turning everything into minable commodities.

Add to that corruption and cases of unchecked and even unlimited lobbying, and everyone’s hands become tied and sullied with mud. As Mehrsa explains, it is not necessarily single individuals that are responsible and to be blamed but it is a system, a big dumb machine that has been the culprit and like memes, it keeps incessantly and mindlessly reproducing itself with the aim of increasing profits up to unimaginable heights and draining the pockets and livelihood of honest and hard-working people everywhere within its reach and vicinity.

In fact, this is eroding and undermining the middle class and thus creating a larger divide between the super wealthy and the very poor. Not only do most people need to work harder to barely make ends meet but they are also bending under the burden of serious amounts of debt. Without regulation and skyrocketing debt, usury, a practice frowned upon by major religions across the world since time immemorial, is not only good but excellent for business. It is dumb money in action as capital reproduces itself at high speed with little effort and not much productivity to speak of.

And yet, to my surprise, it has not always been like this. Previously, with the help and aid of government rules and regulations, corporations were made aware of the duties they have to the public. Often with various government contracts pending and at stake, corporations aimed to address social problems while equally contributing to the overall wellbeing of society. This was another dimension of corporations because it was actually good for business.

Embracing their role of corporate social responsibility made economic sense and it was not driven out of the goodness of their heart but for more practical reasons. They were seeing and treating people as their prospective clients and treated them with a certain amount of respect or tact. Yet in the world of absolute power, the same people are just viewed as mindless consumers that can be and are exploited in various ways and via different, often shady and even nefarious means.

In fact, modern day corporations seem to take people and their influence and their many contributions for granted. It is because of the honest and hardworking taxpayers that corporations have the infrastructure to move their goods and services across the world as well as police and security in each of the towns and cities to ensure safety, safe transport, delivery, and consumption. It seems so unfair and frustrating that while citizens are pulling their part and paying their dues, corporations seek tax havens to escape paying their much needed and obligatory share to us, the people.

Yet it is not corporations alone that are causing issues and ripple effects across the economy to the detriment of ordinary citizens. Banking, which used to be restricted and constrained in its operations to ensure that it would give less cause or occasion to abuse and to provide additional layers of protection to the public became another corporate structure piece under the helm and guidance of neoliberal stewardship.

As a result, banks started taking reckless risks with other people’s money. And it did not stop there since it gave rise to “shadow banks” that, not unlike corporations, are driven by financial benefits and profits. Enter the derivatives, which are seen as “synthetic” as opposed to what are considered “real” assets. There is no productive value in this except the possibility of increasing one’s own financial assets at the expense of others.

Yet this erodes what has been the staple of the banking system and the currency itself, namely people's trust. It was the erosion of trust that was a significant catalyst for economic crises, be it the Great Depression or the Wall Street crash of 2008. Banks need and bank on people’s money for their own investments, which can incur considerable risks and losses, yet when there is distrust, bank runs become more likely and possible.

The problem is that banks cannot guarantee the availability of each patron’s money at the same time. If everyone takes out their money within a short time span, the bank will not be able to pay out the necessary and requested amounts and would essentially become bankrupt. This is what Roosevelt was concerned about when he talks about perceived fear being potentially more dangerous and threatening than actual and real threats and dangers.

This is additionally troublesome because money, with the absence of any guarantee after the elimination of the gold standard is essentially only paper, or in the digital world, flickering numbers on a screen. The economy runs on trust and so a lack thereof can trigger or be its downfall.

The distrust and frustration with mega corporations are already present, their influence and control upon politics is suspect, and with it, democracy is at stake. This can only forbode impending disaster, and it becomes more important than ever to change course and to ensure that faith and trust of the people are slowly and carefully upheld if not restored. Otherwise, it will not merely be the end of democracy but the rise of totalitarianism, and we already know from painful experience what it can do to the social and human fabric and existence.

Wednesday, May 29, 2024

The Iron Claw of Trauma and Toxic Masculinity and Going Beyond the Family Cult

Still from the movie with wrestling brothers Von Erich on a sports show
It is rather strange that someone who does not like wrestling or fighting should enjoy movies about them. Oddly enough, I am not referring to David Fincher's Fight Club, a classic for many, a masterpiece for others but which failed to impress me, and I thought that, at least in some ways, it contributed to instead of being critical of toxic masculinity. Yet, when it comes to family drama/trauma, two of the best movies out there are Gavin O’Connor’s Warrior and Sean Durkin’s The Iron Claw. Both films tackle fighting and competing in the ring, and both have endings that broke my heart and made me cry.

As usual, there will be spoilers galore and then some, so proceed with caution; it is best to have already watched the movies and trust me they are worth your time. While Warrior focuses on mixed martial arts, a sport that I find violent and abhorrent, The Iron Claw tackles wrestling, and yet interestingly, both are driven by dysfunctional families with flawed fathers at the helm. While in the former, the father is an alcoholic former boxer, played stunningly by Nick Nolte, who fails to hold the family together, in the latter, the father is an imposing figure that demands unconditional loyalty and unwavering obedience and respect from all its members.

While Warrior focuses more on the sibling rivalry between two rather different feuding brothers, the impetuous and rebellious Tommy (Tom Hardy) versus the family man Brendan (Joel Edgerton), in The Iron Claw, it is the unity and the cultlike adoration of the father that is its focal point. What moves us more is the fact that the latter is based on a true story and the various devastating and heartbreaking tragedies are not just a figment of the imagination but are grounded in real-life flesh-and-blood people and experiences. While Warrior moves us, The Iron Claw cuts deep.

Fritz Von Erich is the glue that not only holds the family together, but he is also the existential driving force of every individual within this circle. He projects his own dreams and failures onto his family. Essentially, he wants each of his sons to succeed where he personally failed, namely, to make themselves a name in the field of wrestling. The Iron Claw is his signature move and his legacy, but it is also symbolic of the tight grip he has on all his sons and his wife.

Not only are they to be blindly obedient to his wishes regardless of their own desires and passions, but they must be disciplined and hard-working throughout. There is no room for individuality or finding your own talents or even creating your own life; they are supposed to do as he says without doubts or hesitation. The ideology or reasoning is that the world out there is not a safe nor a fair place; yet there are two ways to protect oneself and to reach success: one, it is important to be physically and mentally strong to thwart opposition and challenges, and two, the family must remain united and support each other to the max.

The Von Erich family is a brand and a cult-like entity. Interestingly, one of filmmaker Sean Durkin’s previous movies Martha Marcy May Marlene dealt with the repercussions of identity and trauma after having been in an abusive religious cult. The gospel in this case are the sayings and proclamations of the father and the ring is the place where salvation can be attained. The tenet is masculinity in its rawest and most muscular form, men who fight and bully themselves to the top with an iron will and with no room for emotions or vulnerability. When in pain, be it physical or emotional, one must man up and suck it up as Kevin (a brilliant Zac Efron) is painfully reminded of throughout the film.

Not all the sons commit to this ideology because they believe in it but all of them accept and embrace it because they want to impress their father and yearn for his love and respect. In the case of Mike, the youngest of the clan, he would much rather be a musician, and yet, he is discouraged from doing so and is thrown into the ring against his will. Each of them suffers the consequences and breaks down from the physical and emotional tolls, and sadly, only one of them manages to eventually stand up against the abusive father and break away from this cycle of trauma.

To rationalize the amount of tremendous suffering they must go through as a family unit, they catch and hold on to the belief that the family is cursed. At first glance, it may look like it but when we look and dig deeper, we see that the curse is trauma itself, a trauma that is propagated by false and unhealthy beliefs and lifestyles. Everything becomes centered on wrestling with the coveted belt as the Holy Grail, the same way others may blindly and unquestionably worship religion, money, or political ideologies to reach their aims and purposes. Neither of them is bad per se, but when it becomes an obsession and a compulsion at the expense of life itself, then it poses a serious problem.

So much so that two of the Von Erich brothers (three in real life!) commit suicide. They are unable to continue living under the tyranny of such an utterly restrictive, bleak, joyless, and pointless world. Slowly, the family unit becomes more and more disentangled and fragmented, and only Kevin is left at the end. He who had dedicated all his life to the support and wellbeing of his brothers whom he loved dearly and whole-heartedly was on his own now with all his brothers having passed away.

Yet, fortunately, he manages to break away from this vicious cycle and from the grip and power of his father. Anyone who has not experienced abusive relationships or a dysfunctional family of that ilk may criticize its members for staying and holding on against rhyme and reason. But it is much easier said than done.

Your family is the starting point of life. Views and values are shaped by its members, and they become embedded and embodied by each person. As you take them at face value and for the God-given truth, it is very hard, but not impossible, to shake it off and look beyond it. Cults tap into that mindset and often claim to be your ersatz family to better control your mind and behavior while they restrict the contact with others who are not likeminded. This is because often a close third-party outsider could serve as a sounding board and can encourage one to move away from the abusive and toxic environment.

In this case, a lot of credit must go to Kevin’s wife Pam (Lily James) as presented in the movie. She is the very opposite of toxic masculinity and unlike Kevin’s subdued and submissive mother Doris (Maura Tierney), she does not go along with it, nor accept or tolerate it. She is a strong, determined, and independent woman who knows from the get-go what she wants. This becomes apparent in the first meeting of the two. Like other fans, she asks Kevin for his autograph, but then, she basically makes him ask her out. Kevin is shy and has had little contact or experience with women (he is a virgin), but none of this poses a problem here as she makes up for all that and rectifies the situation.

But it is not just this determined quality that makes her stand out; it is also and further bolstered by her empathy. She understands and supports him. On their first date, after he talks about the pain of losing his elder brother (yes another one!) at a young age, she hugs him and gives him what his mother is unable or unwilling to provide him with, emotional support.

At the same time, he supports her and her ideas and lifestyle. She bluntly tells him on that first date that she wants to have children but that she also wants to work as a vet, and if he would be all right with all that. He does not hesitate and accepts. We can see that the toxic masculinity is not ingrained in him; it is just used as a means or a tool to please and wring and wrestle love and respect from his father.

When Kevin finally goes against the will of his father by not only giving up on wrestling but also selling the company, he ends up becoming a stay-home Dad. He seems much happier in this role and embodies this lifestyle and in a sense also transmits it to his two boys. The trauma bolstered and fueled by toxic masculinity has come to an end. He can tune into and be himself with a healthy sense of being male albeit with muscles and a bad haircut.

And then, there is the unforgettable and heartbreaking ending as he is watching his kids. They are engaged in playing sports, and he suddenly begins to cry. His sons immediately come to his side. For the first time, Kevin processes his grief and immense pain and tremendous loss. He says that he used to be a brother and that was his raison d’être before having his own family. In an impulsive act and show of beautiful empathy, his sons tell him that they could be his brothers if he wants.

And that makes him (and us!) cry even more. When Kevin apologizes for crying, as it is not a masculine thing to do, the kids, i.e. the new generation, tell him that it is in fact quite a natural thing to express one’s emotions and that there is absolutely nothing wrong with it. And they are right, and with them all, we can cry freely regardless of age and gender, and be free to be ourselves while loosening the iron grip and bolts of toxic masculinity and letting it rest in peace.