From the Oscars to Jussie Smollett, Where Does the Performance End?
Nathan and Cameron begin with a lighthearted consideration of the Oscars, which quickly morphs into a searching conversation on the ability of the arts to tell us about what it means to be human. The two hosts then turn to consider the controversy surrounding actor Jussie Smollett, and the increasingly difficult task of distinguishing performance from reality.
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Cameron McAllister: Hello, and welcome to Thinking Out Loud. Thinking Out Loud is a podcast where we think out loud about current events and Christian hope. I'm your cohost Cameron McAllister.
Nathan Rittenhouse: And I'm your cohost Nathan Rittenhouse.
Cameron McAllister: Okay, the headlines are quite lively as usual. This time we thought we'd begin on a bit of a lighthearted note and then work our way to some heavier material. First off, we're going to talk a little bit about the Oscars. How can we not give a nod to the Oscars? Everybody's been talking about the Oscars.
Everybody's been talking about whether you even should watch the Oscars, whether they're worth your time at all. But then we want to move on to discussing the whole Jussie Smollett controversy. Obviously some heavier territory there, but really fascinating incident in and of itself, and one that provides, I think, some real insight into our cultural moment. So, if that sounds like your cup of tea or you cup of coffee, we hope it is, please stick around with us. We'll start, I guess, on an Oscar note here. Nathan's got some thoughts.
Nathan Rittenhouse: Yeah, I want to right off the bat challenge you.
Cameron McAllister: Okay, let's do it.
Nathan Rittenhouse: Did everyone watch the Oscars? Did you watch the Oscars?
Cameron McAllister: I did not watch the Oscars, Nathan.
Nathan Rittenhouse: I did not watch the Oscars. I, just for fun, googled "what are the Oscars, why care", and got a whole page of Google results about the fish the Oscar.
Cameron McAllister: Yeah.
Nathan Rittenhouse: So, maybe you can answer that question for us then. Again, I'm being a little bit flippant here and not totally dismissive of all things ...
Cameron McAllister: Yeah.
Nathan Rittenhouse: ... in the Academy. But I think there's a bit of a sense of that, like this isn't really what it used to be. Whey are we-
Cameron McAllister: Yeah, there's been a growing cynicism about the Oscars for a long time. I think one very revealing feature of the Oscars this year, of course everybody's been focusing on it, is the fact that nobody wanted to host them. Everybody was afraid to host the Oscars, because we are at such a point in our cultural moment where humor itself is quite radioactive, and so people are being very careful.
But also, there was a big kerfuffle because they wanted to do away with some of the more specialized Oscars that come around, having to do with editing and cinematography. Regardless of whether you're a full-on film nerd or cine-file, these are key features of the art of cinema. The fact that the Academy Awards would consider sidelining them was just pretty outrageous, I think, to many of us, especially those of us who really love film, and view it as-
Nathan Rittenhouse: Oh yeah, I'm all worked up about it.
Cameron McAllister: Yeah, because I know you're just so upset, Nathan, over there. So, they reinstated them, that was their first kind of faux pas, one of many. A lot of people though did say that they loved the performance of Lady Gaga and Bradley Cooper from A Star is Born, that that was one of the few heartfelt moments.
There's so much going on there. Spike Lee was very displeased with the film that won best picture. I think a lot of people essentially think, "Okay, there's a lot of really great movies out there, but they won't really get serious attention because political motivations are taking over the Oscars."
It's interesting ... here is a fact that I think you'll find interesting, Nathan. Everybody across the political spectrum seems to think along these lines.
Nathan Rittenhouse: Uh-huh.
Cameron McAllister: I follow some of these actors on social media, and most of them are associated with more progressive lines of political thinking, and they felt the Oscars were over-politicized. Then you talk to some of your conservative friends, and they feel the Oscars are over-politicized. So, if you're reading the National Review, they're going to say it's over-politicized. Or if you're looking at the Hollywood Reporter, some of these other more left-leaning voices, they're going to say "over-politicized". And so, everybody seems to be displeased in general.
To put my own personal cards on the table, I have thought ... I've said this a few times, I don't think I've said this on this podcast. I'm a huge film guy. I thought the movie First Reformed was absolutely remarkable, a very powerful film. Ethan Hawke is one of my favorite actors. His performance in that movie is just stellar. Amanda Seyfried is amazing. Everybody's amazing in it.
Also, the writer is Paul Schrader and the director is Paul Schrader. Paul Schrader was the screenwriter behind Taxi Driver, a very famous guy, with a Dutch reformed background, actually, so interesting, interesting guy. I thought that movie deserved an award.
That's the other thing, we all think now that the public exercises more power, and should have an opinion. So, everybody's got an opinion of which movies got snubbed, which should get ... so I think the Oscars just don't fit in so well with our web 2.0 moment either, and there is a lot of factors.
Nathan Rittenhouse: Let me interrupt here a second and say I think that part of the reason, even for people who aren't big film folks, is that in some ways the Oscars have served as a bit of a barometer for the atmospheric pressure and direction of our culture.
Cameron McAllister: Yeah, absolutely.
Nathan Rittenhouse: And so, is that still true, and is it just that our movements in the direction, kind of the fronts that are moving are shifting in different ways? That could be in our political interest and our cultural interest. It could also be in the way in which we're viewing film ...
Cameron McAllister: Yep.
Nathan Rittenhouse: A lot of people are just streaming stuff now. Even the whole idea of going to the movies, and that being a core part of our lens into culture, is that slipping?
Cameron McAllister: Think about the fact that one of the key Oscar winners, I think in the category of best foreign films, a film called Roma, that is a Netflix original. Did you know that?
Nathan Rittenhouse: Yeah. I'm just saying we're in new water here, we're in new territory.
Cameron McAllister: Exactly, totally new territory. Now, it did get a theatrical release, I think, for a limited time. Of course, all the serious critics had to give their due deference and say, "You must see it on the big screen." But the truth is, not only are people not watching it on the big screen ... I mean, get on an airplane, people are watching it on their phones, on their iPads, on those tiny little screens on the back of your seat if you're on an international flight.
Nathan Rittenhouse: Yeah.
Cameron McAllister: I'm still enough of a nostalgic snob to think that, if it's a really great film, I'm not going to watch it on any of those formats, because I really want to see it in it's full dimensions. I want to get the whole cinematic experience.
It's a little bit like watching Lawrence of Arabia on your phone. Part of me just recoils at that. But, by and large, convenience beats out quality, and that's changing the face of movies. And also with streaming, increasingly you've got more access to films or access to films within a similar time frame as critics. It used to be critics would see all this stuff, screen it way before you, but there's no longer that distance, really, between the critical establishment and the public. That line is getting blurred.
Nathan Rittenhouse: Let's zoom out here a little bit and ask the questions of ... I think a lot of people who won for play acting roles so to speak, character actors, what is our fascination with watching other people pretend to be other people?
Cameron McAllister: Yeah, that's a much broader question. And of course, that's been around since time immemorial. People have been doing that ever since ... all ancient cultures. You think about, whether Aristotle and Plato were, they were talking about that.
Nathan Rittenhouse: ... it's just a broader thing of the whole format of theater, the arts.
Cameron McAllister: To go real broad here, I think the arts, and, in specific, theater, literature, there's some close affinities there although they are quite distinct. Movies, for instance ... May I get on my soapbox for just two seconds?
Nathan Rittenhouse: I'll even hold it up for you for a second.
Cameron McAllister: There we go. I really love movies, and I am of course a Christian, as well, who loves movies, Protestant Christian and Protestant tradition here. So, we are very, very big in Christian circles on doing what I call reading movies.
Nathan Rittenhouse: Uh-huh.
Cameron McAllister: Not watching them, reading them. So, that means we are mining them, essentially, for information. We're looking for world view. We're looking for the underlying philosophies, some of the ideas. But films communicate mainly through images. It's a very holistic art. And so, often a lot Christian film criticism can be quite tone deaf because it's missing what's right in front of your face. It's a visual, rich language. When we're talking about film, in specific, that's I think a little side note that's very, very important.
Films communicate through images, and a great deal of the "message", I'm going to say that in quotes, is you're going to see it encapsulated, embodied, in film. The same with the stage as well, these are embodied arts. But there's a sense in which, much of art, I'm almost willing to say all art is really about capturing human experience, in all of its complexity, in all of its richness. And so, the value or the beauty in seeing these performances and seeing people make believe, pretend, is when it catches on when it captures some aspect of human experience.
The example that I'll often give in the realm of literature is all literature is, in a sense, about what it means to be human. We don't keep reading Charlotte's Web, for instance, to our children because we think it captures what it feels like to be a pig or a spider. We read it because it captures key aspects of friendship, and we cherish those. We think that they're worth celebrating, and it's beautiful and it's fun. And so, in a sense, I really do think the art that resonates, the films that resonate, the plays that resonate the stories that resonate are those that capture an aspect of what it means to be a person.
The experience of being a person in inexhaustible. There's an amazing wealth. We're never going to come to a place where we're going to say, "Okay, well we've mastered human nature. We've got it all figured out, so now art is irrelevant." I think, broadly speaking, that makes a little sense there.
Nathan Rittenhouse: I totally agree with you. While I was listening to you I was polishing and dusting off another soapbox for you, if you want to just step onto this one ...
Cameron McAllister: Oh great.
Nathan Rittenhouse: ... and pull you back to another thing you're passionate about, the writing of David Foster Wallace, who I think talks about some of the visual arts. He was speaking specifically about TV. He was a little bit before some of this newer form. He's saying that people watch TV because it depicts humanity the way that we want us to be, not the way that we are.
Cameron McAllister: Yeah.
Nathan Rittenhouse: Do you see a link there in our modern film and interest in that of we're looking for things that explore what it means to be human, not just descriptively, but also there's a hope embedded in it that we're looking for something else in the human experience that film speaks into, and those are the one's that captivate us.
Cameron McAllister: So yeah, you're referring to his essay E Unibus Pluram, from A Supposedly Fun thing I'll Never Do Again, very David Foster Wallace titles both of those. It's a great essay. It's weird to go back and reread it because it's, at once, so powerful and so incisive, but then it also feels dated because he's talking about TV, television culture. That feels, in some ways, like the distant past because of the advent of the internet.
However, so David Foster Wallace is going to draw a distinction between what he'll call-
Nathan Rittenhouse: And folks just so you know, I did not tell Cameron about this. He's pulling this all out of his head from memory. So, go for it, Cameron. We're going to stand back and watch you-
Cameron McAllister: As you can see, no strings, no gimmicks. Wallace is going to draw a distinction between what he'll call commercial art and sort of more serious art. Lest you think he's being snobby or elitist, this is the guy who include Tom Clancy novels on his syllabus for his writing students. When they would scoff and laugh he would say, this man packs more information into a book than most scientists can.
So, this guy is not turning his nose up. He's pointing out, by a commercial art, he means art that's principally made to make money, right, so popular level television shows. In that sense, he talks about the sad irony of all of us who will go home, dream about having a better, richer life with great friendships and great experiences, and we feel we don't have that so we watch them on a television screen. And so, the very activity of seeking that in a television screen is actually keeping us from pursuing all of those experiences, because we don't leave our homes and we don't have those vital friendships. We would rather sit at home and watch Friends or Parks and Rec, than actually go out and meet with real flesh and blood people.
And, yeah, there's sense in which ... but that's again, where he's going to say that a film that's more challenging, or a work of art that's more challenging, let's take the film First Reformed that I mentioned earlier. It's not an easy watch. And by not an easy watch, I mean also not as entertaining. If you've got a choice between Wonder Woman or Captain America and First Reformed, those other films ...
First of all, if you even look at ... they've got oodles and oodles of frames per shot. That means it's moving really, really fast. First Reformed has half those frames. That means it's incredibly slow, meditative, long takes, long conversations, difficult subject matter.
We all know this. In a sense, we all know that a book by John Grisham can be very powerful and valuable, but it's not going to make the same demands on us that say a book by William Faulkner is going to do, or Virginia Woolf.
Nathan Rittenhouse: Dostoevsky, yeah.
Cameron McAllister: Yeah, and the list goes on. But there is a sense in which, yeah, when it comes to entertainment and recreation we often do have visions that are given to us, and they do kind of meet our wishful thinking. But, again, the interesting feature here is, and here's where the Oscars come back in, the distinction between what used to be called high and low art, or what Wallace calls commercial art and serious art or "A"rt, those lines are being blurred as well. And again, you'll have people making certain demands of, "well, this film needs to be much more fun and entertaining," even though it's a film that's more perhaps serious in nature.
I think a lot of those traditional boundaries, that's our cultural moment in many ways too. We're constantly trying to get rid of boundaries. I think Chesterton had a great quote here. Chesterton has a great quote for almost everything, doesn't he? He talks about if somebody's taking down a fence, it makes a lot of sense to figure out why that fence was there in the first place. But, increasingly, we just take down fences unquestioningly or as Os Guinness would say, "We're a cut flower society. We're cutting down all of the flowers of our traditions, some of them good.
Nathan Rittenhouse: Is it a lamppost in Chesterton?
Cameron McAllister: Is it a lamppost?
Nathan Rittenhouse: I think so.
Cameron McAllister: It might be a lamppost, yeah. But there you have it.
Nathan Rittenhouse: That was really helpful. Let me then say, okay, you're speaking as a human, looking at the projection of the human experience. We have these high art, low art, commercial images being displayed. We're looking at things rather than reading them. And then, to speak specifically as a Christian then, how do we, without stretching it, look at a theology of image and the visual of, obviously, God creating a visual and a good world, and then this whole idea that the trajectory of our salvation and our sanctification is to be conformed to the likeness or to the image of Christ, that he is the image of the invisible God, that he is the true imago dei.
Nathan Rittenhouse: So, in some ways in our theology too, we also have this beatific vision of that which ought to be. It's cast in front of us, not just in something that we memorize, but in the life of a person. I don't know. Is that a stretch? What are the parallels that you're seeing there, as far as our longing for humanity for an example beyond ourselves? I think Socrates even speaks of this, of looking for this beauty of ought-ness to be embodied in an individual? Where do we go with that?
Cameron McAllister: With regard to images and representations of the human and longing for the fully human, there's a danger of aiming too low, and there's a danger of aiming too high. Too low, you risk getting... It's needlessly dark, it's needlessly ugly. I think, the novelist Saul Bellow once said, "I don't appreciate a lot of modern art that just tries to bottle up or put filth in jars, and hold it up and say, 'Look how profound." That's too low a vision, right?
Nathan Rittenhouse: Uh-huh.
Cameron McAllister: I would say a lot of our entertainment that is really critically acclaimed, that gets passed off as realism, it's basically just incredibly cynical and takes an extraordinary pessimistic view of human beings and all human behaviors unmasked as being wicked and vile and hypocritical. That's not fully true to reality. That's part of reality. That's not all there is.
But then there's the too high, which risks being sentimental and out of touch with reality and not as true. So, I think if I have to go to a theological paradigm for this, I go to Jesus' ascension in the book of Acts. The reason I do that is because, in the incarnation, you have, as many theologians would say, when Jesus becomes fully God ... let's not lapse into heresy here. He is fully God, but when he becomes man, so he's fully God, fully man, that's an amazing affirmation of creation. That's an amazing affirmation of humanity.
Nathan Rittenhouse: The physical and material part as well.
Cameron McAllister: The physical and material part, exactly. And then, as John Njoroge, our colleague and friend always stresses, Jesus doesn't just come to go to the cross. He also comes to show us how to live, what it means to be fully human, to live the perfect life that none of us can. And so he does that, he's fully human and fully God. He goes to the cross, rises again, and then there's the ascension which doesn't get as much attention sometimes in Protestant circles. As Tim Keller would say, you'll have Christmas cards about the incarnation, all that, but the ascension doesn't get much attention. It's remarkable because a great deal of emphasis is placed on the bodily aspect of it.
So when Christ ascends and the disciples are standing around staring into the sky, angels appear and they say, "Why do you stand there looking like that? The same one who ascended will return in the same way that he ascended," meaning bodily. So, I think, in there, we've got the balance. We've got the affirmation of the human. We've got the affirmation of creation, it matters. The creation mandate is operative. We are stewards of creation while we're on this earth, but we also have the promise of Jesus' return to make all things new.
So, on the one hand, we've got the affirmation we need to be invested in this world. But, on the other hand, we know that Jesus is returning to make all things new. So, this world is not all there is, and, indeed, this world is passing away. So, when things do go wrong, when causes do fail, when human beings do mess up, and we do see the dark side of human nature, we can be sad but not fall into total and complete cynical despair. And many of our artists, I think, who are very honest, and when they view life under the sun they see a lot of cause of sadness and sorrow, so I think that's the balance there.
Nathan Rittenhouse: That's really helpful, and I hadn't linked that image into kind of our view of humanity and art in the balance there. That'll, I think, give me something to think about. I wonder too though if there's a distinction in Jesus being an image that also invites us into it. Whereas sometimes art, we can look longingly at it and say, "Oh, I wish that that was true," and the message of Christ is that what I present to you is true. Not only is it true, but you're also invited into it.
And so, there's a call for participation into that beauty, with a real hope and a real possibility of saying, yeah, you're not going to be able to bootstrap yourself into this, but I will enable you to grow in this direction. And if there isn't something that's deeply satisfying and appealing about that invitation, and to not just modeling a different way of life, but then an invitation into that different way of life. That is a unique feature, it's an enabled movement.
When I watch a character or an actor on the film, he doesn't do anything to help me become like that vision of humanity that I want. I'm just left with a longing, but no enablement. Whereas, when we look at the life of Christ, his purpose in coming, and the reason that he sent the Spirit was to enable us to move in that direction. So, there's a key distinction there that we're looking at projections of humanity, but one of them enables us to make progress, and the other just leaves us longing, I think.
Cameron McAllister: One way to think about that, Nathan ... and this is going to be a longer episode. And you know what, I do something that Nathan's doesn't always do. I read some of your feedback, listeners and reviews, and several of you have said, "Feel free to go a little bit longer. Please do go a little bit longer," so be careful what you wish for. But I want to hone in a little bit on what Nathan's saying, because I think this is really important.
When you look at making a character, the hardest type of character to create is a believably good character. A villain is much easier to create than a good character. I call this the Satan ... how do I put this? I'm drawing a blank here, but this is basically the Satan conundrum. Because remember, John Milton in Paradise Lost, he didn't intend this, but the most vivid and interesting and relatable and compelling character in Paradise Lost ends up being Satan. He looks like this sort of defiant, powerful rebel, and he ends up kind of stealing the show in some ways. Now, in other ways you could say that's a misreading, but he's definitely the most memorable character in there.
That's because it's much easier, much more relatable to us, fallen as we are, to create a villain. It just is. Think about, in popular culture, what's the most vivid character from all of the new Batman films? Who's the character we always talk about? What's the performance we always talk about? It's Heath Ledger in the role of the Joker. In many ways, that is a very Satanic character. But when you actually see a believably good character, it's an immense artistic achievement.
Dostoyevsky, we mentioned him earlier, tried to do it. I think the results were a bit mixed. Some other people here, Joe Carittini, our coworker totally disagrees with me on this, so take it for what it's worth. In his novel, The Idiot, he tries to paint the picture of a truly saintly Christlike person. In some ways he succeeds. In other ways, the character looks a little bit weak and ineffectual.
But in recent years, I think the novel Gilead by Marilynne Robinson, Reverend John Ames is a believably human, but a very, very decent, good person. It's amazing that she maintains the splendor of that for the length of an entire novel.
Nathan Rittenhouse: Alright, sorry for a rabbit trail here but I got to jump in on this and ask you about this because, in order to fabricate a good character, you need a ton of context. And so, Dostoyevsky's novels are like you need 400 pages of setup in order to get the context. And even Gilead is part of a whole different created world. You have Lilah and Holme and-
Cameron McAllister: Right, but those come later.
Nathan Rittenhouse: Those come later. It's fascinating though to fully get into the depth of a good character. It takes time and context to develop that, whereas you don't necessarily need that to create a bad character.
Cameron McAllister: Right.
Nathan Rittenhouse: And so, the amount of time that's needed to form a concept of goodness is different than the amount of time needed to form wickedness.
Cameron McAllister: And to make goodness believable and interesting, both of those are extremely difficult to do. I think that this shows our shortcomings as human beings, that making goodness believable and interesting are both so exceedingly difficult, especially in the world of the arts. I think that's deeply revealing, which is why, as Christians, increasingly in conversations, I think the point these days is ...
I was just in India, and what I am doing more and more is really going into the very specific sayings of Jesus, looking at him as a person, looking at the character of Christ, and looking at the uncompromising, completely baffling things that he says, things like, "I saw Satan fall from heaven like lightning," or "Anyone who does not hate mother or father, brother and sister, is not worthy to follow me, not worthy to be my disciple. Anyone who does not hate his own life, let the dead bury the dead. You follow me."
Cameron McAllister: To show Christ in all of his uncompromising and powerful and challenging glory, because it's a vision that is so at odds with a lot of just the day to day human struggles around us.
Nathan Rittenhouse: Okay.
Cameron McAllister: I think it's just powerful.
Nathan Rittenhouse: I can prove your point though here, both of our points. When was the last time that you heard a Christian song on the radio that had anything to do with any of those things you just talked about?
Cameron McAllister: Exactly. I know that we sometimes shy away from them because we think we've got to position these conversations carefully, and we don't want to scare people off. Well, no, I don't think we need to do that. In fact, Jesus doesn't do that. In fact, we talked about this before, Nathan. From a PR standpoint, Jesus does everything wrong. He's got all these people following him, and he keeps saying this stuff.
Nathan Rittenhouse: Tries to chase them off.
Cameron McAllister: Yeah, it's like he's trying to talk them out of following him, but he's saying, "Count the cost." Remember he gives the examples of nobody who undertakes some huge project of whether it's building something, or a king meeting another army, nobody does that without careful planning and carefully counting the cost.
Nathan Rittenhouse: Yeah.
Cameron McAllister: And so, I think yeah, you got to press into the specificity. And the strength of the arts is that they are all about specificity. They're all about getting to the details, that's what matters. I think we've got a segue point here, because when it comes to honesty in a portrayal, when it comes to the disguise, artifice, the deceptive nature of acting, I think many of us still carry with us that old suspicion in our hearts.
And so, the incident with Jesse Smollett kind of highlights this aspect, because here's where, in a sense, you see what appears to be art imitating life. Real quickly for listeners, to bring you up to speed if you haven't been following this story, Jesse Smollett is an actor. He's on the show Empire, and he recently claimed that he was attacked, and he was the victim of a hate crime, that two people had targeted him and attacked him. It was, I believe, 2:00am in the morning in Chicago, freezing cold.
These two men attacked him, placed a noose around his neck, and covered him with a bleach-like substance, and yelled racial and homophobic slurs at him, and then ran away. This was obviously, he was saying, deeply traumatic and horrifying. But it turns out, now this is still contested, and the news being what it is, there may be new developments by the time this podcast reaches your ears. It's still being contested, but it's increasingly looking fairly like the whole thing was fabricated, that it was staged, that he in fact paid these two people to stage the attack.
The current story is that he was dissatisfied with his salary on the show, and that that was the main motivation behind this. Obviously, this is a horrifying and fascinating incident, and there'll be lots of commentary going forward. I think it really in some ways provides a window into, we talked about, the erosion of lines, the erosion of the line between a person's professional and their private life.
Also, the court of public opinion continues unabated on social media and everywhere, even if the Chicago police chief has officially said, "No, this man has staged this incident. He's going to be indicted, and this is actually a felony. He's fabricating a false crime report," and so on. Just an absolutely fascinating incident that I think also highlights our cultural moment in a number of fascinating ways.
Nathan Rittenhouse: I think the sad thing of it is nobody wins from this.
Cameron McAllister: Exactly.
Nathan Rittenhouse: It makes light of really terrible things that have happened. It allows people who want to be flippant and dismissive about some of these things to continue doing that. It feeds into a fake news thing. It feeds into all sorts of racial, political ... everybody can use this and weaponize it in a way that they want for their own aim, without thinking about some of the deeper issues here. So, I think we want to be very careful not to follow some of those lines of thinking that have developed around it.
Cameron McAllister: Yeah. I think to date, one of the best pieces of analysis that I've come across in popular culture is The Atlantic article by John McWhorter who is himself African Americana and teaches linguistics at Columbia University. Sometimes these publications keep changing the titles. The titles are chameleonic, but, at present, the title is What the Jesse Smollett-
Nathan Rittenhouse: I want chameleonic to be the word of the day. That's awesome.
Cameron McAllister: That's the word of the day, look it up.
Nathan Rittenhouse: Sorry.
Cameron McAllister: ... What the Jesse Smollett Story Reveals, that's the current title. He makes a number of very bold claims in the article. You need to wrestle with it, but he employs a very even handed and measured tone. I think it's tremendously thought-provoking. One of the areas where he really drills down, I think, quite powerfully, is on the whole identity politics aspect of this particular incident. This issue comes up repeatedly, but here he coins a phrase that he calls "victim chic". That requires a wee bit of unpacking.
Essentially, what he's talking about is the kind of cultural capital that people can gain with victim status. Now again, thinking about what Nathan just said, when a victim status is used, it's not always used, but when it's used for political gain or for financial gain, when it's abused in any sense like this or exploited, everybody loses. Because as he just outlined, serious instances of this, of racism and discrimination which do continue, there's a good chance they won't be taken as seriously. This represents a huge distraction from other crimes that are legitimate or taking place, or it tends to give ammunition to people on all sides of the political divide, and it furthers that divide.
The "victim chic" aspect is worth talking a little bit, I think, because I think we've all notices that there's a unique kind of cultural bulletproof vest, sometimes, that will come from weaponizing, in a sense, your identity and saying I have specific experiences that are absolutely exclusive to my, whether it's cultural or ethnic background or my orientation maybe puts me in this camp, that allow me to basically say what I want with impunity, and nobody else can speak against me. And by the way, you're not in my shows, so therefore you can't comprehend what I'm going through.
And, on a deeper level, just to get broad immediately - and I'm really curious about Nathan's thoughts here - I think that part of what's reacting in me there is, well, on the one hand, yes, people do have certain experiences. Somebody who has grown up, for instance, in a minority group or in impoverished circumstances or struggles in some of these areas, there are aspects of their experience that I have a lot to learn, and that are completely unknown to me in a sense.
But in a deeper sense, I do believe the category of humanity is a universal category. I'm not a nominalist, so I do think that we do have bonds that link all of us, even across cultural divides. So part of me, what I'm responding to here in some of these cases where it's this "victim chic" mentality is that I think, no, but, on the one hand, you have distinct experiences and I have a lot to learn from you. But, on the other hand, we can still join hands together as human beings. We've got that basic primal bond, that obtains through all of this. I don't know, Nathan. What are your thoughts here?
Nathan Rittenhouse: I guess some of this isn't totally new. Maybe somebody who kind of popularized this, you see some of Johnathan Haidt's work on this. I'm thinking specifically some of his lectures at Duke, talks about victim culture and what that means to gain status through identifying as a victim. There's a bit of that, and a number of other people have been speaking on that, writing and lecturing on it.
I guess one of the things that we have to wrestle with in reality is does a victim mindset inherently bind me to being identified by my past.
Cameron McAllister: Ooh, interesting.
Nathan Rittenhouse: That's where I'm curious about, we need to label things what they actually are, and so that's good. If you have been a victim that's tragic. How we should feel about that is lament. Okay, so that's where we are right now. What does your future look like? Is that the defining characteristic of yourself and how you primarily want to identify yourself?
I think you can go too quickly and just sweep stuff from the past under the rug, and say, "Ah, you know that doesn't ... sticks and stones, man." That's a little bit too dismissive, and we do have things we need to deal with there. I think that's one of the things that good counseling can help us with is thinking through, realistically, about the things in the past that really do have a bearing on our future now.
On the other hand, to take a fall off the wagon on the other side or out of bed on the other side, is just to revel in that identity. So, I think part of the point that the author of the article you referenced is making is that it's a fascinating point in our culture where the victim is the most privileged position.
And, again, recognizing that's a totally loaded phrase, but part of where he's going with that is to say you could have somebody who is a well-paid, successful, by all metrics of the American dream, so to speak, still feel like he's missing this element of his platform, is a wild thought that I've got it made except I don't have this thing, and this thing that is missing is status, nationally, as a victim. That's a tricky one-
Cameron McAllister: Right, to think of being a victim in some sense in the past, or in the recent past, as a kind of credential
Nathan Rittenhouse: As a necessary identity actually.
Cameron McAllister: Yeah, right. It is an interesting moment. I think also, when you look at it there's a lot of people who are also just saying, "What about what actually happened? What are the actual facts of the case?" I think more people are saying that, in this instance, than they have in the past because what makes this unique, and McWhorter touches on this in the article as well, but what makes this case unique is that here is a person with the victim credential, so to speak, and I don't mean that in a dismissive sense. I mean that just in the sense that we've been saying earlier.
This person also has some of those identity markers that tend to give them a little bit more cultural capital, namely, he is, himself, a member of a minority group and he is also self-identifies as a gay man. So, you've got that as well. Then you have this incident, and so now there are people, basically, on all sides of the divide who are paying attention, and who are interested. Now, the fact that there seems to be a fabrication going on here, suddenly everybody, and, maybe the tone will change, but suddenly everybody's really interested in what actually happened. What is the truth?
And so, when they actually press into the evidence, the fact that these two people who attacked him have come forward and said, "No, we were paid. We were given a sum of money," and that they actually have footage of these two people purchasing some of the items that were used in the attack. Suddenly, all of that takes a lot more precedence. It gets a lot more important.
In the past you have crimes that are well, and you have controversies that surround this kind of territory, and oftentimes people's sense of symbolic or poetic justice kind of can sometimes take precedence, and the truth can take a backseat. But that doesn't seem to be the case here. Everybody seems to be saying, "But what actually has happened? Is this really a fabrication?" Because, if so, again as you've said Nathan, everybody loses.
Nathan Rittenhouse: Yeah. One of the things that popped into my mind as this story was developing is way early on in one of our first podcasts, you used the phrase "suspending immediate judgment" I think. Do you remember what your exact phrase was? We got a lot of negative feedback for that. Do you remember?
Cameron McAllister: Yes, absolutely-
Nathan Rittenhouse: What was the phrase?
Cameron McAllister: I think it must have been something along those lines, that you're talking about the episode where we discussed Alex Jones. Right?
Nathan Rittenhouse: Was it that one or was it the Starbucks one?
Cameron McAllister: Oh, it was the Starbucks one.
Nathan Rittenhouse: It think where we said, "You know, it seems like there's some other information we need here before we can make a judgment on this."
And people felt like, "No, here are the facts. You have to decide now."
Cameron McAllister: Oh, right.
Nathan Rittenhouse: It just struck me that this was story where the wisdom that you had offered there was really helpful. If you look at the flow of how this whole thing spilled out, taking a day or two to breathe there, and saying, "What actually happened?", is worth it.
Cameron McAllister: Absolutely. That's a really good piece of counsel from you, Nathan, quoting me.
Nathan Rittenhouse: Yeah.
Cameron McAllister: So there we go, a little roundabout way to compliment myself. But honestly, I think you're right.
Nathan Rittenhouse: You're very chameleonic like that.
Cameron McAllister: There you go, good use of chameleonic again. A new article has just emerged here saying that a lot of the Empire execs are saying, "If he was dissatisfied with his salary, none of us knew about it." So I think there are going to be further developments. And, again, people react so strongly, I think, when you way suspend your judgment, because don't you care about what's right and what's wrong? Don't you care about the facts?"
Cameron McAllister: The answer has to be, "Of course, because I care about what's right, because I care about the facts, I need to take time to process and to think and to allow the story-
Nathan Rittenhouse: To know what the facts actually are?
Cameron McAllister: Yeah, because we don't know always. One of the unique features of our time is that these news articles break instantly. If you take a little trip down some of the true crime shows that are coming out constantly these days, one of the interesting aspects is that if they're highlighting cases from the '80s or the '90s, a lot of criminals could stay way, way ahead of the law, way ahead of the media because information didn't travel nearly as fast as it does now. Now it's instant.
But the disadvantage of that is we reach premature conclusions all the time. We do it all the time. And so, I would say you are ethically justified in withholding judgment sometimes, or just taking time to see that you really understand, to see what the facts actually are. So, I think that's a very helpful word here.
Nathan Rittenhouse: I think one of the classic examples of this, this is not new. I'm just thinking of like the Boston Massacre, which sort of turns out as a bunch of drunk guys throwing snowballs at British troops, then gets publicized as the British attacking US citizens ... ta-da! Revolutionary War.
Cameron McAllister: Yep.
Nathan Rittenhouse: It's not new for us to take bits and pieces of truth out of stories, and really whip them up in the media to serve an agenda. So, I think, if there's any takeaway message from this, is for us as Christians to try and be extremely careful with the ideas that we're propagating and spreading and sharing. I know that's difficult to say as we're speaking on a podcast. But just before we click share or send or like, to really make sure we've clicked through all the links, and we won't have 100% perfection there on everything, but let's not use what we hope to be true or want to be true in order to determine what is true.
That might, in some way, loop us back around to the way in which we view film. Let's not take what we hope to be true and see that that necessarily is unobtainable. On the other hand, let's not take what we hope to be true and say that it totally is indicative of the reality of the world that we live in.
And so, we're calling here for, I think, a bit of realism in our appreciation of both that which intentionally art, and that in which we have sort of an artistic commodification of our actual lives and their representation and presentation thereof, is that as Christians we want to be able to speak directly to the heart of the issue. We want to be realistic about the human condition. We want to be realistic about our hope. We want to be realistic about the challenging things that Jesus says. And so, the call there is for clarity on what, actually, is going on in the world around us.
And so, certainly more that could be said there. There's a whole lot to all of this. Hopefully we sparked some ideas for your conversations and thinking as you travel through life. Thanks for joining us. You've been listening to Thinking Out Loud, the podcast where we think out loud about current events and Christian hope.
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