On the Willing Suspension of Disbelief

So… big week for the geek set, eh? A trailer for both Jurassic World and the new Star Wars movie? Well, that’s news.

Of course, this being the internet, people are complaining about them. And people are complaining about the people complaining. Brace yourselves: I’m about to complain about the people complaining about the complainers.

I mean… this is the internet, after all.

Quick background, first. The trailers dropped and some people noted things in them that ruined their suspension of disbelief (no feathers on the dinosaurs, trained velociraptors running alongside a be-motorcycled Chris Pratt, a lightsaber with a hilt). Then some other people told them to lighten up, along these lines:

Are you really going to complain about dinosaurs without feathers? It’s just a movie; let me have fun!

Are you really going to complain about the impracticability of a laser sword in a film with space wizards? Your objection to one but not the other makes no logical sense!

Here’s the thing: those people are, rationally, entirely right. Jurassic World is just a movie; have fun! Star Wars is silly; objecting to just one silly thing in it is nonsensical.

And yet, I think they’re missing the point.

Those things that bothered people, rational or not, did bother those people. Enough that it popped the delicate bubble that is the willing suspension of disbelief. Whether it makes sense or not, whether it’s fair or not, whether it can be argued away logically or not… doesn’t matter. All that matters is the effect of the thing. Namely that people were pulled out of the films. Like it or not, the willing suspension of disbelief was broken for these people, and that means, in a very real way, these films (or at least the trailers) screwed up.

“But, but, but, Chris,” I hear the objection, “here’s why, logically, people’s suspension of disbelief shouldn’t be ruined by those things…”

Stop. Doesn’t matter. You’re trying to logic something that isn’t related to rationality. Suspension of disbelief is, in many ways, pre- or a-rational. Logic doesn’t come into it. A piece of fiction either works or doesn’t. And little things — things that don’t matter, things that logically shouldn’t pull someone out of a film — they can get into that a-rational part of the mind and make something stop working.

Or, if done properly, they can make something work that otherwise wouldn’t.

So, look. I get being irritated that people are complaining about things that don’t matter to you — I’m not at all bothered by the things people are complaining about in these trailers. And I get wanting to argue, logically, against complaints that you think are wrong because they don’t make logical sense.

But, people… it isn’t going to work. Suspension of disbelief isn’t about logic. A film either has it or it doesn’t, and no arguing will change that. Moreover, it’s subjective — it will work for some people, and not for others.

And that’s okay.

It works for you? Fantastic, have a great time. It doesn’t work for you? Fantastic, you don’t need to like a film if you don’t want to.

I’m not sure what I’m trying to say, here. Probably just that trying to argue against someone’s subjective, a-rational opinion of a thing isn’t only a crappy thing to do (“You’re wrong for liking/not liking thing X!” is aggressive and minimizes other people’s ability to have their own thoughts), it’s hopeless; it just won’t work.

What I’m trying to say, I suppose, is that everyone has opinions, they aren’t going to all be the same, and that’s okay. Can’t we just, you know, be nice about things that, in the end, don’t really matter?

Oh, right… internet. I forgot.

(And, yes, all of this also applies to people bothered by the trailers who tell people not bothered by them that they shouldn’t like the films because of what broke their suspension of disbelief. Of course it does. But I’m not really seeing a lot of people doing that; I’m seeing a lot of “You should like the film because your reasons for not suspending your disbelief are silly.” So that’s what I’m responding to.)

Remembrance Day 2014

Today is Remembrance Day. I’ve already said all that I think I need to in years past, so go read those entries if you care to. I still stand by all of it.

I would, however, like to leave you with a reading of The Last Laugh by First World War poet Wilfred Owen. It’s part of a wonderful series created by the UK’s Channel 4; I’d encourage you to give them all a listen:

Please, take a moment to reflect and remember.

Lest We Forget.

Cmdr. Chris Hadfield’s TED Talk

Chris Hadfield, STS-100

Commander Chris Hadfield, former astronaut, first Canadian commander of the International Space Station, and all-around cool guy gave a talk a couple of days ago at the 2014 TED Conference in Vancouver. I highly recommend that you give it a watch. I’d embed it, but that involves playing around with some config files for the blog, and I don’t really want to get into that. So here’s a link to the talk. Go click through and watch the video. Then I have a few things to say about it.

Took a look at it? Great.

What Commander Hadfield says is, I think, important. Yes, he tells a story about existential dread and supreme competence in space. It’s enlightening and cool, but that’s not what I twigged on. Yes, he talks about overcoming your fears. Also cool, but still not exactly what I think is important. Yes, he sits up there like a rock star and belts out a very credible rendition of Space Oddity. Really quite cool, but that’s not what I want to talk about, either.

Or, well, I do want to talk about those things, just not directly.

The important thing to take from Commander Hadfield’s talk, I feel, is that we humans have tiny little chimp brains with chimp desires and chimp worries. Chimp limitations. We’re prone to panic. We’re prone to fear. We’re prone to smallness. These are our natural constraints.

But we aren’t chimps; we’re humans. Which means we get to choose what we do rather than have nature dictate it for us. Yes, by nature we’re panicky, frightened, and small. But we can choose not to be. We can apply ourselves–our intelligence, our perseverance, our daring–and we can become more than nature alone would allow.

We can overcome our lesser impulses and ourselves. We can overcome that which is “natural” in favour of that which we deem to be good and useful and ennobling.

We can refuse to panic when we are blinded while hanging in an infinite void. We can continue to send men and women far beyond the sky. We can eradicate (very natural) diseases. We can extend the healthy human lifespan beyond what it was “naturally meant to be.”

We can choose our own destiny.

And when we’ve done the impossible, what do we do then? Well, we sing a song, because we are human, and that’s what we do. While it’s good and right to discard those parts of human nature that hold us back, we need to always be careful that we don’t lose the good parts of our nature in the process.

That’s the important thing that I took from the Commander’s talk.

Yes, nature constrains us. But that’s no reason to accept those limitations. It’s a reason to push past them. And to say that we shouldn’t because there’s something special about what is “natural” is foolish.

So climb on board your spaceship. Stick your tongue out at the people crying “Hubris! Unnatural! Wrong!” Just remember to bring your guitar.

Remembrance Day, Once Again

For What?

Today is Remembrance Day in the Commonwealth, and Veterans Day in the United States. I hope that all of you take a moment for quiet reflection.

As I said last year, I’m not one for flag-waving or ostentatious displays of thanks to veterans on November 11th. I’d like to talk a bit about that.

To me, Remembrance Day is about, well, remembering. Remembering times when human stupidity, human pride, and human aggression were turned into human misery. Remembering the suffering of human beings, in and out of uniform, both ally and enemy. Remembering that the vile atrocities of war are both unnecessary and self-inflicted.

To wave a flag with nationalistic pride, to aggressively thank a veteran as a way to demonstrate your patriotism or political affiliation, to say you “support the troops” when you really only support your nation’s military adventures despite the costs… these all strike me as unseemly at the best of times. To do so today is reprehensible.

Look at the image at the top of this post. It’s a painting by Frederick Varley held by the Canadian War Museum entitled For What? It doesn’t glorify war. It doesn’t beatify soldiers. It doesn’t wave the flag. What it does is humanize warfare and show it for what it really is: a squalid affair resulting in a cartful of anonymous human bodies—normal people, just like anyone—being planted in the cold mud halfway around the globe from home. And for what? A family squabble between the royal houses of Europe.

This is not a thing to celebrate. It is a thing to reflect on. It is a thing to avoid.

Yes, we should be grateful to veterans. Yes, sometimes war is necessary. Yes, we should be proud of our countries’ contributions to world peace. No one would argue that Allied involvement in the Second World War was unjust, or that peacekeeping in the Suez is a thing to forget as shameful. Those are the sorts of things of which we can rightly be proud. Those are the sorts of things for which we should be grateful to those who fought and died.

But don’t be blinded by the flags and the bunting. While the ends were good, the means were atrocious. Reflect humanely on all those who have suffered in war. Think deeply about uncomfortable truths. And always remember that we can, we should, we must do better.

Lest we forget.

It’s (Nearly) That Time of Year Again

DB7Time to watch a bunch of internet video nerds torture themselves with the worst video game ever created, for your amusement and for charity, that is! The more money donated through them to Child’s Play, the longer they play!

Yes, today is one week from the start of Desert Bus for Hope 7. Here’s why you should tune-in and, if you can, donate:

First, all the money goes directly to Child’s Play, the charity dedicated to making the lives of children in hospital (and now, in domestic abuse shelters) just a little bit less crappy. Child’s Play provides games and toys to these kids in order to make their day-to-day easier and more joy-filled. It’s a thing that matters. The Desert Bus folks help. And so can you, by donating or just tuning-in.

Second, Desert Bus is one of the most entertaining things you’ll see this year. I mean, look at this:

And this:

And this:

How can you not want to see more of that? Guaranteed you’ll get some chuckles out of watching this marathon. It is, no joke, one of my absolute favourite things.

Third, did I mention that the more you donate, the longer this goes on for? That means that you have the power to extend these people’s misery… while at the same time reducing the misery of children! It’s win-win! Watch people you have paid to torture themselves with boredom and exhaustion fall hilariously apart live on the internet, all while knowing that it’s the moral thing for you to do!

Can’t beat that.

Desert Bus for Hope 7 begins at 10:00 AM PST on Saturday, November 16th.  If you’d like to know more, head over to their website or about page.

Rob Ford

The mayor of Toronto, Rob Ford, has admitted that he has smoked crack cocaine.

To those of us who have been following the story, this isn’t a surprise. What is surprising, to me at least, is the level of glee, the schadenfreude, that the Mayor’s political opponents have been displaying ever since the allegations first became public months ago.

Look, I lived in Toronto for four years. I lived there when Rob Ford was elected mayor. I didn’t vote for him. I think his politics are regressive and his political style is repellent. I am one of the Mayor’s political opponents. But I’m still made very uncomfortable by many people’s reaction to Mayor Ford’s spectacular crash and burn. Why that reaction, and why my discomfort?

In order to answer that, we need to recognize that this mess has raised two distinct questions: Should Rob Ford be mayor? and What is going on with Rob Ford’s personal life?

My answer to the first question—and the answer of the Mayor’s other political opponents—is clearly “No.” I won’t speak for others, but my answer has been “No” ever since I voted for someone else in the mayoral election. The Mayor’s policies and actions since being elected, from the irresponsible (tearing up bike lanes to score political points with his base) to the morally reprehensible (his merely tepid and reluctant support for the city’s LGBTQ community), have done nothing to dissuade me from that view. That’s a given; that’s why I voted for someone else.

But that doesn’t mean I have any personal animosity towards the man. Even his personal misbehaviour since entering office—bouts of public drunkenness and now admitting to having smoked crack cocaine—aren’t enough to make me hate, loathe, or even disdain the Mayor. Are these things indicative of a person who isn’t responsible enough to be mayor of the largest city in Canada? You bet. Entering, in his own words, “drunken stupors” fairly frequently is not conducive to being able to carry out the duties of public office. Smoking crack cocaine, while in one of these stupors, in the company of alleged gang members is not something that we want our leaders to do, and is an action that diminishes the dignity of the office.

So, no, I don’t think that Rob Ford should be mayor of Toronto. I never did, and the Mayor’s subsequent policies and actions have done nothing but cement my initial impression.

What about the second question? What about Mayor Ford as a human being, rather than as a politician? Well, here’s where I feel I depart from many others who think that Rob Ford should not be mayor. I said above that, for all that I think Rob Ford is a bad mayor who never should have been elected, I have no negative feelings towards him as a person. I don’t hate him for having bad policies. I don’t loathe him for governing poorly. I don’t disdain him for having a substance abuse problem. I disapprove of him, sure, but nothing beyond that.

And now that he’s fallen apart entirely, I don’t feel any sort of joy or superiority. In fact, I feel very badly for him.

Watching the Mayor admit to a scrum of reporters that, yes, he had smoked crack cocaine, I wonder how anyone could feel something other than pity and empathy for him. It was clearly not an easy thing for him to do, he was plainly very emotional, and it was obvious that he’s been in severe mental and emotional distress for some time.

How could anyone not feel some sympathy for a man whose life has fallen apart, and who has only recently admitted it to himself?

I feel bad for Rob Ford. Because, no matter how much I think he should never have been elected, no matter how unsuited I think he is for the job, no matter how reprehensible his politics… he’s a human being. In distress. And no one seems to be interested in helping him.

It makes me sad. Nothing else.

And that’s why those people who oppose Rob Ford politically, but who are somehow pleased with the Mayor’s personal implosion, confuse and disturb me. I suspect that they’re unable to separate their answers to the two questions from each other. To many, the view that Rob Ford should not be mayor necessarily implies that Rob Ford deserves no sympathy as a human being. Likewise, on the other side, many think that because Rob Ford, human being, does deserve sympathy it necessarily follows that he should be mayor.

I don’t think either of those is right. Rob Ford clearly should not be mayor—not just because I disagree with his politics on a fundamental level, but because his personal behaviour is inappropriate for high office. At the same time, Rob Ford clearly should not be mocked for having a substance abuse problem. His opponents shouldn’t lord it over him; they should want him to get help. Because, after all else is said and done, Rob Ford is just another person. A human being like the rest of us.

We should treat him with the dignity and compassion that every person deserves.

Update: I realize that to some, it may appear that my calling on people to treat Mayor Ford like a person–profoundly troubled, but still a person–is a tacit endorsement of his views or a dismissal of those who oppose them.

I assure you that is not the case.

Mayor Ford has some deeply worrying views. He refused to attend the Toronto Pride Parade a number of times, and though he attended the most recent one, he appeared to be very reluctant to do so. Moreover, he is alleged to have made homophobic and racist comments in the video taken of him smoking crack. He’s also been criticized for allegedly making other racist and racially insensitive remarks.

None of these are okay. If Mayor Ford holds homophobic or racist views, I condemn them and him in the strongest terms. Such views are morally repugnant and anyone who holds them should be held accountable.

But that’s not what I’m talking about. My objection in this post is to the seeming glee and excitement that many people have at the prospect of another human being’s suffering. I’m not okay with that. No matter how irresponsible, distasteful, or immoral a person, such delight at suffering is at best unseemly and at worst itself immoral.

Should we delight in another’s pain? Even if we don’t like them? Even if we think they hold immoral views?

I can’t say yes to that.