Cultural shifts

There is perhaps no better time to contemplate the cultural shifts that are taking place in our lives than at the end of what seems like an astonishing year.

Abroad, news about movie and political celebrities being accused of sexual harassment and assault dominated the final weeks of 2017.  One by one, the subjects of these retrospective complaints have found themselves stretching the limits of language to convey remorse without necessarily admitting guilt.  The public reaction to these revelations suggests the mainstreaming of a feminist sensibility that makes it not only possible but also right to view past behavior in the light of contemporary norms and values.

I watched in dismay at how the famous actor Dustin Hoffman, the iconic hero of many socially relevant films, tried to defend himself against allegations of sexual harassment that happened 40 years ago. The issue came up in the course of a Tribeca Film Festival panel discussion of the film “Wag the Dog,” which starred Hoffman. Talk show host John Oliver unexpectedly brought it up midway through the discussion: “This is something we’re going to have to talk about because … it’s hanging in the air.” Oliver said he had found Hoffman’s response to these allegations inadequate.

Feeling unfairly treated by Oliver, who was moderating the discussion, Hoffman asked: “Do you believe this stuff you read?” He was referring specifically to the allegation that he had groped a 17-year-old intern on the set of the 1985 film “Death of a Salesman.” Oliver replied: “Yes, because there’s no point in [the accuser] lying.” Hoffman retorted: “Well, there’s a point in her not bringing it up for 40 years.” Obviously pissed by the actor’s defiance, Oliver wrapped his hand around his head and sighed, “Oh, Dustin.”

Jane Rosenthal, producer of the film under discussion, and one of the panelists, tried to offer context: “You also have the way men and women worked together [in the past]; you are in a situation where ‘that was then, this is now.’ What difference is all this going to make? … This conversation doesn’t do any good. We have a platform here. How are we moving [the issue] forward?”  Indeed, it is not easy to move forward on an issue like this.  The issue is one of cultural shift, and the lack of the appropriate semantics to deal with it.

Here, at home, the killings in the name of the so-called war on drugs have continued unabated. But, contrary to the belief in the sacredness of life that our predominantly Christian culture teaches, we seem to have become numb and indifferent to what these killings signify.

Many have persuaded themselves that these killings are no more than society’s way of cleansing itself of harmful elements. Those in authority assure people that they have no need to be concerned about these killings so long as they themselves are not into drugs. The phrase “drug-related” has become a public script that accounts for every dead body that turns up nightly in the dark alleys of slum communities.

Police officers who arrive at the scene of such incidents neither express surprise nor profess any need to investigate.  Indeed, the actual participation of the police in these murders has become less and less visible, as the gory task of assassination is taken over by civilian death squads with dubious ties to the police.

In politics, the use of profanity in speech is the new normal, as if to compensate for time spent on political correctness in an earlier era. Tough, crude, and insulting language has become the signifier for authenticity.  Longwinded and meandering speeches, peppered with narcissistic tales, have taken the place of inspiring oratory, now regarded as the archaic sport of distant statesmen.

Rudeness, meanness, and the power to humiliate and hurt with words have replaced civility, courtesy, and compassion. Name-calling often trumps rational argumentation, and righteous judgment takes precedence over facts. Any attempt to introduce context and perspective is regarded as evasion of responsibility. The number of “likes” one receives for one’s opinions matter more than the coherence and proof of these views.

These culture shifts have been nurtured mainly in the soil of social media, which permits mass dissemination of information and opinions without the accompanying responsibility to substantiate them. Access to social media, often under the cloak of anonymity, has enabled individuals to voice their sentiments about a lot of things, typically using the same rhetorical frames they encounter in social networking sites.

The provision of information and knowledge about what’s happening in the world used to be the monopoly of mainstream media, whose conventions tended to be protective of the existing hierarchy of power, wealth, and privilege. Social media has disrupted this traditional state of affairs by opening new channels of mass dissemination that make the roles of sender and receiver of information interchangeable.

The impact of this development on the larger society has been anything but predictable. Social media has enabled the general public not only to augment mainstream media’s account of events, but also to challenge and, quite often, to preempt it.  This is social media’s bright side — its grand promise to lead the democratization of public opinion. But there is a sinister side that is hidden behind social media’s vaunted function as a vehicle of unfiltered public opinion. And that is its potential for manipulation as a concealed instrument of state power, serving no other purpose than to control public opinion, using fake websites, trolls, and bots.

Happy New Year!