What’s Good for the Goose…

Today’s word, boys and girls, is “hypocrisy.” It means not holding oneself consistently to a standard one presents as inviolate. In this case, I am talking about the hypocrisy inherent in the different forms of criticism I have received.

Let’s start with my very well established objection to violence. To be clear, I am not opposed to violence per se, as long as it is within a clear context. Rather, it is gratuitous violence, presented as entertainment, which I find objectionable. Further, it’s not violence as much as killing that upsets me greatly. The idea that the only way to solve a problem is to end a life. To execute your enemies. Life is precious, ephemeral, and once snuffed out, is gone forever. Have we such little respect for it?

We live in a violent world, true. The apologists for violent entertainment point that out as a justification. But do we really need to surround ourselves with fake death when there’s so much real death in the world? The answer, apparently, is yes, as book series like The Hunger Games, Divergent and The Maze Runner fly off the shelf and get made into blockbuster movies with “plots” that amount to very little more than, “Children get brutally killed.”

Less than a decade ago, teen fiction wasn’t so nihilistically savage. It was uplifting and inspiring, and we had no problem cheering Harry Potter’s brave and often humorous attempts to achieve the heroic status everyone told him was his destiny. But now we have youthful antiheroes being psychologically destroyed, and in many cases outright killed, by a system they never wanted to fight.  It’s the classic illustration of the laws of thermodynamics writ large: You can’t win, you can’t break even, you can’t quit the game. That’s life, kids. No matter what you do, it will crush you. What a bleak message to send to tomorrow’s visionaries. Anyone wonder why this generation is the most disaffected generation in modern history? And why they would try to salve their despair by turning to the very same violent media that engendered it?

What’s the appeal? Why does violence make so many people feel better? Stephen King, in the oft-anthologized “Why We Crave Horror,” suggests that deep down we’re all crazy, and violent horror is a release for these urges that, left unfed, will manifest in much more dangerous ways. I don’t buy it. For one thing, not everyone craves horror. For another, King is a writer; horror is his bread-and-butter, so he has a vested interest in defending, even promoting it. Similarly, comic book writer Gerard Jones has argued that “Violent Media is Good for Kids.” Obviously, he is defending his own work, and he argues the benefits for children who feel “powerless” to find refuge in violent fantasy. But why must fantasies of power automatically involve killing? It’s limited thinking to equate power with violence, and, as result, children internalize the idea that killing is a valid response to problems. This has been documented.

But let’s set objections aside and take the arguments at face value. Okay, violence isn’t harmful, it may even be beneficial. I am certainly able to grant that the vast majority of consumers of violent entertainment are not then driven to commit violence. But we cannot ignore the counter-argument to the apologists. The one that suggests that people with violent tendencies will be driven to act out violently by exposure to violent media. And those who do not have such tendencies, the argument continues, will nevertheless become desensitized. We do see this among children, who are well-documented as having less empathy than previous generations. As I have said before, violent media may well be a contributing factor in the rise in bullying. Children see violent confrontation as the norm. Because, frankly, it is the norm. Spend just five minutes perusing the television and movie listings.

And then there’s the escalation argument. We actually see this one playing out. The idea is that, once something has shocked us, triggered that emotional reflex King and others would argue needs to be exercised (exorcized?), it no longer has the power to shock. To get the same reaction, we need a bigger shock. Decades ago, Dracula was considered terrifying; modern audiences mostly find it laughable. The envelope keeps getting pushed: more graphic, more horrific. A story where people have to hunt each other to death? Eh, that’s old news. Make it children hunting each other. What happens when we become blasé to that? What happens when watching fake murder on the screen is no longer enough? Won’t we be driven to seek out the real thing to feed the demon?

No, say the apologists, and I grant they may well be right. I would like to believe that human rationality will win out. It’s just a movie. Fantasy is an escape, a release, but sane people know the difference. So, again, I shall accept the arguments, for the moment.

Okay, so what’s my point? And what does this have to do with hypocrisy? I have been told that my objection to the rise in gratuitous violence in teen fiction is an extremely insulting perspective. Arrogant, offensive, and sure to prevent me from ever getting published (it looks like they are right on that last one). This outrage comes from people who read, and write, violent teen fiction. They like it. They are offended at my implication that there’s something psychologically wrong with people who get off on that sort of thing. Some have posed the rhetorical question, suggesting that I want everything to turn into some sort of Pollyanna, sweetness-and-light utopia where everybody is happy and gets along and is never angry or hateful and there’s no violence. My response to the people saying that is very simple: “You mean you wouldn’t want that? You prefer a world full of death and hate and despair?” How incomprehensibly sad.

But that sort of reductive response to my position is a gross oversimplification. There are people in my writers’ group who enjoy and write some of the most awful horror imaginable, and they are kind, gentle, compassionate people. They aren’t crazy, or dangerous. They would argue that violence is, ultimately, harmless entertainment, a visceral thrill that gets the blood pounding and pulls us out of the mundane of our lives for a brief moment. Fair enough.

That’s where we get to the hypocrisy. You see, at the same time as people have criticized my for my hatred of violence, for my belief that it can be harmful and at the very least it says something very depressing and disturbing about humanity, I have also been criticized for something else entirely: my attitude towards sexuality and nudity, and especially my assertion that the ideal female role-model is strong, smart…and sexually empowered.

I’ve discussed the changing role of sexual content in my book. It’s been added and removed enough times that my readers must be seasick by now. But the fact remains that the story I want to tell has sex. Teen sex. Underage sex. Let that sink in. My romantic leads are both sixteen years old. The girl is more sexually assertive, and far more experienced. She is from a culture where polyamory is the norm, and has had numerous sexual partners, of both genders, since her very early teens.

She is undamaged by her sexual life, and unapologetic. I present it as a perfectly acceptable way to be. I also have the boy, who is the one making the case for commitment and love and all those things. His case is compelling, and the girl realizes that there may well be something to it. It’s a dance between two equally valid perspectives.

Add to this another character, a thirteen-year-old girl in the process of discovering her sexual identity, and, while that doesn’t play out much in this book, there are two more books in mind. As far as I’m concerned, sooner or later she will have sex. Preferably sooner. Because I intend it to be a major positive turning point in her character arc, with profound story implications.

And then there’s all the nudity. People get naked with abandon. Often there is a symbolic element, particularly in the case of the thirteen-year-old. But I also have a ten-year-old girl who is unabashedly, innocently naked as often as possible. Let me point out that, while different readers have different favorites among my four main characters, all are universal in loving the ten-year-old. None see anything salacious in her nudity, but rather find it a natural part of her character and charm, and they objected vocally when I took it out at one point.

Whoa! Sexually active sixteen-year-olds, with multiple partners? A thirteen-year-old in the beginnings of a same-sex relationship very likely to turn sexual? A ten-year-old running around naked? That’s sick! What kind of perverted mind would come up with this sort of thing, let alone write it? It’s certainly not appropriate for teens, nor even adults. Child pornography, that’s what it is! I should be locked up, or at least put in a mental ward, and kept away from children!

Ladies and gentlemen, I give you hypocrisy. I am going to take up this issue in the next article, coming soon. In meantime, I ask that you re-read all the arguments above as to why stories involving horrific violence are not only not harmful, but may well be beneficial, including to children, because I intend to revisit every single one of them, and explain why my book, with all its sex and nudity, is at least as beneficial to teens as all these books full of death. See you soon.

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The fall school term starts next week. That means I’m getting ready to apologize to my students. That’s right. I begin every course by laying out the class procedures, and that includes an apology on behalf of my colleagues, most of whom would never apologize themselves, nor even accept that they have something to apologize for. But many of them should. They are in a very esteemed, important position, and they abuse it, to the students’ detriment.

I spent this past week in assorted faculty meetings and workshops. I’ve been to some real doozies. I actually ended up walking out of one discussion session that purported to debate the merits of open-book vs. closed-book exams. I’m totally open-book. For me the whole point is to apply what you have learned, and to effectively use the resources available. As one of my students once put it, the world is open book. But I certainly want to hear other perspectives, so I went.

I was dismayed to discover that pretty much everyone else in attendance was from the psych department, and they were earnestly engaged in drawing up clinical support for continuing to use closed-book exams that could be done on scantrons. I was also appalled to realize just how utterly closed they were to any other position. I kept trying to make the case for the way open-book fosters critical thinking, until one attendee, who had up until that point contributed nothing to the discussion, accused me of being obstinate. I pointed out that I wasn’t making things personal and asked if he could do the same. He responded by saying I was refusing to “get it,” while others nodded in agreement. The moderator just sat there. I realized I would get nothing more out of the discussion and left. Not, I confess, before directing a very personal comment in his direction.

It would be easy for me to dismiss this as laziness on teachers’ parts. As an English teacher, I chose my job, and that means taking home stacks of essays and devoting hours of time to reading them (one of the things that has made it extremely hard for me to read non-critically, for pleasure). But it’s galling to realize there are other teachers getting paid the same as I do for little more than delivering canned lectures to a big hall full of students, and then three times a semester offering the same multiple-guess test that takes ten minutes to run through the scoring machine. Then they congratulate themselves on a full day’s work. At the end of one semester, as I sat facing one of several piles of papers that would occupy the weekend, one teacher stood feeding scantrons through the machine while another came up behind him, waiting his turn. He remarked to the first guy, “It never stops, does it?” It took all of my self-control to not shout, “It hasn’t even started for you!”

But it’s not mere laziness. In the exam workshop, the frequent argument for closed book was that it increased retention. Again, they were relying on psychological studies. But they had no interest in explaining why retention of facts was actually so important. It made me sad. They see learning as being synonymous with memorization. They had deaf ears to my observation that most of their GE students had no interest in psychology and weren’t going to pursue it as a career, and making them memorize dry facts wasn’t going to change that; if anything it would have the opposite effect.

They didn’t understand that. They, like many teachers, couldn’t comprehend how everyone wasn’t as fascinated by their subject as they themselves were. And, of course, they also fell back on the old conceit that, even if you aren’t interested, these facts are the most important facts in the world and everybody should know them.

There’s an arrogance to my profession, and, in truth, when it gets to that point, I suppose I’m glad they just want the students to memorize facts; it’s better than what other teachers do. I attended a workshop on “sexism in the classroom,” where I noted that everything we offer in the classroom comes down to differing interpretations of the material. Several history teachers shook their heads smugly at each other and one of them said, in the most condescending tone imaginable, “Well, that might be true in English class, but in History we deal with facts.” I wanted to point out that the real study of history isn’t about facts, but the interpretation of facts. In the words of Woody Allen, “If the Nazis had won, people would understand the history of WWII very differently.” I listened to them then go on about how they saw the primary purpose of their classes as being to correct all the historical misinformation the students have learned over the years, due to the erroneous, fallacious ways it used to be taught. I wanted to say, “And I’m sure it was taught by teachers every bit as confident in their ‘facts,’ as you are in yours.” But I didn’t. What would be the point?

These are the teachers I have to apologize for. The ones who agree with me that it’s all about critical thinking, but have confused critical thinking with “right thinking.” The ones who are certain that, if you have all the facts, you will inevitably form the same opinions they have, and, if you don’t, it’s because someone hasn’t explained it to you sufficiently.

People accuse higher education of being a “hotbed of liberal indoctrination.” Guess what, they’re right. I consider myself a knee-jerk moderate, and I cringe at how proudly some of my colleagues would actually embrace that role. I once heard a fellow English teacher tell another, “I couldn’t possibly give a passing grade to an essay that advocated such-and-so position.” Really? Then find another job, because you’re grading their writing, not their opinions.

I know a number of science teachers who make it clear that, no matter what class they teach, they really make it about advocating for “ecological stewardship,” or whatever the current buzzword name is, and encourage their students to get rid of their SUVs and drive hybrids instead. What, do you have a stake in Tesla? I’m all for environmental responsibility, but not when the course subject doesn’t warrant it.

I once passed a classroom near the end of semester where I heard a teacher saying to her students, “I know many of you hate my guts. But I also know that, as a result of this class, two of you have joined the National Organization for Women. That makes it all worthwhile.” Seriously? Alienating a large number of students in order to get a couple to join your pet political cause? Horrific.

I’ve known sociology and political science teachers who require students to participate in a political protest rally. Required. I wonder if they would get credit for joining an anti-abortion protest in front of Planned Parenthood. Raise your hand if you think the answer is, “Hell no!”

I’m self-aware enough to realize that I am not above advocating. All teachers have their pet issues, and I consider myself very fortunate that one of mine happens to be individual expression. I make it central to my heavily discussion-based classes. I tell my students I know they have had classes where they quickly learned that the objective was to figure out the teacher’s pet issue and parrot it back, and, if they didn’t agree, to keep their heads down and try to survive. Many of them nod, having experienced this more than once. I tell them there’s nothing that can be done about that, but my class is different.

I tell them that, if they have an opinion they know others will not like to hear, it’s their duty to express it, so we can consider it. I make it clear that if their opinion is full of crap, we will explain that to them, in very clear terms. But that’s not to belittle them, but to make them strengthen their arguments, to think critically about what they believe. I tell them to never be afraid of their opinions, and in my class to have the confidence to disagree with each other. And with me. I tell them I love being disagreed with (good thing, too, because it happens a lot). It’s nice to hear another spin on something I believe, something I can use to strengthen my own argument, but just having my opinions bounced back is narcissistic. It’s much more interesting to hear other views.

I love to jump into the fray. Alas, that’s usually when it goes sour, because people tend to take being disagreed with personally. They can’t separate their opinions from their identity. That’s the mission I have. I want the students to see that holding a particular opinion doesn’t make you a bad person. Or a good one.

I like to think it works. I’ve had multiple students tell me they didn’t like English class until mine, that they actually looked forward to class, and finding out new ideas. For many of them, it’s the first time they really listened to what others think, and realized there may be validity to it. It’s the first time they ever really thought about why they believe what they believe. And for a tragic majority, my class is the first time they ever felt anyone was interested in their opinions, or that they were worth writing about.

They’ve been indoctrinated all right. Indoctrinated to sit silent, take notes and just regurgitate “facts” and proscribed opinions. That doesn’t teach them to think for themselves. It does the opposite. I can only assume many of my fellow teachers have themselves never thought critically about what they do, or else they’d be saddened by the results. I hope.

Not that I think I’m likely to change things. My arguments fall on deaf ears, even among my colleagues who claim to be about being open to other ideas. It’s tragic. They see their mission being to challenge, undermine and subvert their students’ biases. But if anyone challenges their own biases, look out! They will vent their full wrath on any student with the temerity to do so.

But I’m not afraid to try. As I tell my students, you rarely ever change people’s minds. But if you can get them to say, “Damn it, now I have to consider this!” that’s success. It’s often the best you can hope for. It’s how we learn and grow.

That’s why I’m sad that people rarely see fit to comment on any of my articles here. I want to start a conversation. Even if you disagree. Even if you call me a sexist jerk. Say something. My students participate. There are days where the conversation is so vibrant, and so many hands are raised, that I have to assign numbers and encourage them to write down what they want to say so they don’t forget before I get to them. “Write it down!” becomes a catch-phrase. I never discourage anyone from speaking up, but I tend to favor calling on the ones who don’t as much. I don’t want the loud ones to talk less, I want the quiet ones to talk more. And sometimes there are no quiet ones. Those are the days I love my job. And in my advanced class, I eventually even bow out and sit down, and let the students themselves take over the class and lead the discussion. It’s exhilarating.

I’m not out to make them think the way I do, to indoctrinate them. And yet, I am making them think the way I do: critically, with an open mind. I want you to do that too. Please, join the conversation.


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The recent death of Robin Williams has hit the media like a small shockwave. Particularly the implications that he committed suicide have surprised and startled people, along with the revelation that he suffered lifelong Depression. “How could it happen?” we ask. Nobody saw it coming.

Actually, yes, people who knew Williams probably did see it coming. Perhaps they just didn’t want to see. It’s too painful. It’s easier to turn away. And, to be fair, mental illness such as Depression often requires a considerable force of will on the part of loved ones to not turn away, indeed, to not run away entirely. I know this, because I’m there.

I have Depression, along with a couple other potential diagnoses it’s not worth going into. I have been in and out of therapy my entire life and have tried every medication there is to try. Some work better than others, but none of them have had significant, long-term benefit. So I just have to manage it. Let me tell you what that’s like. This is not based on any sort of psychiatric research. It is merely my own perspective. Take it for what it’s worth.

Depression means seeing the worst in things, especially yourself. Depression magnifies every little setback and inflates it to disaster proportions. Depression makes you quit before you start. Depression makes you resent the things that should be helping you, preventing you from reading books in your genre because you are seething with jealousy that this author got published and you haven’t. Depression clings on to every scrap of pain, bringing it back again and again. Things that other people simply “get over,” whether it be the rise of violent content in teen fiction or a polite rejection from an agent who wasn’t even on the top of your list, magnify and stay with you, and every mention brings on just as much anger, sadness or frustration as the first time. It doesn’t get easier with time. Small challenges become insurmountable barriers. Fear and doubt consume you.

Depression is to be your own worst enemy. When you have Depression, you know how you get, and you do your best to control it. Some do so with greater success than others. Success is a key element. Some channel their pain, as Williams did into comedy. This is common. Others write or paint or create music. And some do so to a degree that actually allows them to find real success, again as was the case for Williams. But for the majority, this is not the case.

Success might give you something to use to reassure yourself, a tangible validation, but your symptoms impede success. When you have Depression, you can’t trust your own abilities. You are full of self-loathing. Even when others tell you you are good enough, you just can’t believe it. Eventually they give up, and you see this as proof they didn’t really mean it.

Except it’s not that simple. You do know they meant it, and when that doubt manifested, you wanted to remind yourself that there are people who believe in you. But you can’t help yourself. That’s the worst part: knowing how you get and feeling powerless to stop it.

Now let’s take a moment and address the obvious reply. Those of you who have not experienced real Depression are no doubt saying, “So when you get those feelings, just remind yourself and don’t let them pull you down.” Even therapists offer variations of this attitude. But it’s like telling someone with cancer to just stop having tumors. Or telling an infertile woman to just get pregnant. She can’t. Neither can someone with Depression. You can’t just “feel better.”

But it’s tiring for people who don’t understand that to feel like they have to keep propping you up. They get tired of being encouraging over and over again, only to have you blow it off and keep going on your downward path. They may well take it personally, and tell you your attitude is hurtful. And eventually they withdraw.

But you know your attitude is hurtful. Your pain is increased by the knowledge that it is affecting others. That’s what drives you to pull away, and even to contemplate, or actually attempt, suicide. “They’ll be better off without me,” you think. And that’s based on knowing with utter clarity just how unpleasant you can be to be around.

Even worse, for most of us living with Depression, it may well impede us in reaching our fullest potential, but it’s not enough to keep us from basic function. That’s why people are so shocked when you suddenly take drastic action. “I had no idea,” they say. Because you go up and down. Not in a bipolar way, but simply because some days are better than others. You find those things you can hold on to, that make you feel better, at least for a time. It might be music or nature or exercise or games or any number of other things. Some of them don’t always meet with approval, such as gambling or thrill-seeking or pornography or meaningless sex, but you cling to them as some sort of lifeline.

But inevitably the darkness returns. You can feel it coming back. You don’t want it to. You wish with all your heart that you could keep the tiny positive you had claimed. Even in the depths of despair, there’s a tiny piece of you standing on the outside, begging the rest of you to please stop. Yet at the same time, in some strange, indefinable way, you also almost welcome it back, like a comfortable old friend, albeit a toxic one. You find a perverse pleasure in the darkness. And sometimes you wish it would come on even stronger, strong enough to give you the motivation to overcome your fear and really do something to end the pain once and for all.

But you don’t. So you pretend. To avoid losing what little support you have, you learn to put on a happy face. Sometimes it slips, in bursts of anger or cynicism or dark sarcasm that goes too far. Other times your game face is good, but the pain is still there, and comes out in other ways. Keeping it down doesn’t make it go away, it just increases your sense of isolation, your resentment that you have to pretend, you have to put a lid on your intense pain so that the people around you don’t get slightly bummed. That thought increases your anger at the unfairness of it all. So you let it out in some different forum. Social media has been a real problem, allowing you to say things on line you would not say in the real world.

It’s a cry for help, but it’s an odd one, because it sounds like “The hell with you all, don’t help me!” But you just want someone to understand, so that you don’t feel all alone, and jealous of all the people around you who really are happy. Yeah, you know their lives aren’t perfect, they have their own struggles. But you resent the fact that you know that on some level, they are mad that you keep going on about it. They have a hard time too, but they deal with it and don’t keep acting all miserable, so why the hell can’t you? “None of us have it easy,” they say, “But when you go on about how you’ll never make it, it just makes us feel worse about ourselves. Don’t give us your problems, because we have problems of our own.” True. But one of them isn’t Depression. Again, putting it in medical terms, it’s like trying to climb a mountain while dealing with a collapsed lung. Your companion has no such condition. You are in pain as you labor your way up, but you dare not say anything, because he’ll just say, “Hey, I’m short of breath too, but you don’t hear me complaining!”

Of course, you can reject the analogy as flawed, because someone with a collapsed lung has no business climbing a mountain. But that simply proves my point. A person with a collapsed lung has no business trying to climb a mountain, so a person with Depression has no business trying to _________. What? Go ahead, fill in the blank. Take your time. What do I have no business trying to do? Be happy? Be successful in life? Maintain healthy relationships? Continue to be alive? Guess what, if you said any of those things, the Depressive person will likely agree with you whole-heartedly.

In my case, I have to keep myself from feeling like I have no businesses trying to break into a competitive industry like contemporary publishing. More than one of my fellow authors has told me that, with my negative attitude, I’ll never make it. They are right. The industry has no room for negativity. This wasn’t always the case. Many of history’s literary and artistic giants had psychiatric disorders, making them very difficult people. The internet is full of inspirational anecdotes about people ranging from Lincoln to Einstein who struggled, yet managed to achieve greatness. The long-standing assumed connection between genius and madness has in fact been confirmed by recent research. There is a proven correlation between creativity and mental illness. This is strong enough that there is a rising movement to stop prescribing mood-stabilizing medications to kids with ADHD as it may be destroying the spark that makes them special. A whole meme has popped around Bill Watterson’s Calvin going on Ritalin, with the result that Hobbes ceases to exist.

But today’s publishing industry is all about results. Agents and editors say they want to nurture a brilliant talent, but in fact they want someone low-maintenance, someone who will produce. Even if the results are mediocre, the important thing is that there’s something being delivered. And anyway, all the literary subtleties will get erased when they make the movie.

True, there are exceptions. Veronica Roth suffers from severe anxiety disorders, yet has managed to become very wealthy in her early twenties. But she’s an exception. When agents look up queriers on line to make sure they are stable and happy, how many great talents are they passing over? I’m not saying I’m one of them. My Depression won’t allow me to think that. And it also keeps me from sending out those queries because I’m sure I’ll just get rejected, so what’s the point? A self-fulfilling prophecy. As I said, my own worst enemy. But I’m also cognizant enough to know that, if I do generate interest, if I do get picked up by an agent, if I do get a lucrative book deal, if my book does become a best-seller turned into a series of blockbuster movies, it won’t matter. I’ll still have Depression.

RIP Robin Williams.

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