Our Bold New Virtual World.

When we read something outlandish in a novel, we think that could never happen in real life, and we break that willing suspension of disbelief that makes reading fiction so enjoyable. When we witness a horrible event in real life, we doubt our senses, and a part of our brain tries to convince us that what we’re seeing isn’t entirely “real.” Scientists say this is the way the brain protects itself from the enormity of horrible events. The soldiers who were the first to discover concentration camps at the end of World War II felt this. Many people who watched the first plane hit the World Trade Center, felt the same way.

Questioning  “reality” is an essential part of our education, I tell my students. The internet is far from truthful. Fake news is the latest example of a reality that many people have come to accept as part of the unreal world we live in. But the problem goes a lot deeper than most people think; young people have trouble determining what’s real because they were brought up on video games and reality TV that achieves verisimilitude with a seductive allure to the senses that few great novels can achieve, at least, for those who don’t make reading a habit. What happens when your sense of reality becomes so blurred with the virtual you stop questioning the real all together? What happens when RealityTV becomes interactive and you’re allowed to tell willing participants what you want them to do and say?

A lot happens, and none of it is good. Soon young people won’t just be temporarily duped by the unreal, they’ll be convinced it’s the way life works. Interactive, RealityTV will soon present programming that will allow people to vote for and recommend real sex and real violence.

Can’t we can put a stop to this? Not necessarily. Remember the only censor for live, streaming digital, broadcast is you, the viewer. You can turn the channel. You can write your congressman. Or what you see will appear so horrific that you’ll convince yourself that it can’t possibly be real.

There are laws against that sort of programming, aren’t there? Maybe, but tell that to a young person that’s been given an order to do something that could make them the Queen Bee or most popular boy to millions of viewers. Should we hold young people responsible for “following orders?” And some of those orders will probably be given by adults who are watching and want to see them “go all the way.” Remember, those people in the Milgram experiment were just “following orders.” So were the Nazis. In the coming months you’re going to see this sad reality come to pass. I’m writing to ask you to do two things when you witness the real and try to dismiss it as just a virtual photo-shopping of the perverse.

First. Don’t blame young people. Sure we’d like them to read more and question authority. But young people didn’t create these games. We did.

Second. This bold new world of interactive entertainment isn’t going to go away. Can anyone tell me the difference between “Mixed Reality,” “Virtual Reality,” and “Enhanced Reality?” All three terms are being used by manufacturers of computer game headsets, and while their differences may be nuanced, the result is clear: we’re being robbed of a reality that’s vital for young people, who need to understand the boundaries of what constitutes acceptable behavior.

There may be finger-pointing and hand-wringing by concerned adults at congressional hearings. But in the end, the only censors will be those of us with the courage turn the channel.

 

 

 

 

Why We’re Afraid of Fearless Girl

 

On Wall Street there’s a bronze statue of a girl who looks about the same age as the sixth graders in the middle school that I teach. She looks pretty fearless as she’s standing up to a raging bronze bull; and she’d better be, it doesn’t take much to see that bull represents men, greed and the lack of women in positions of financial power. The artist, Kristen Visbal, maintains that the statue of a child posed with her fists on her hips represents “the power of women in leadership.” Many feminists who don’t like the statue claim she’s a cheap corporate-centric ploy to hide the real issues like equal pay and reproductive rights (the piece was commissioned by State Street Global Advisors).

Everyone loves the image of empowerment represented by a girl standing up for herself in the ruthless, financial jungle our world has become. But, how would some of us men feel if it were a woman standing there? Pretty intimated, right?

But the problem goes deeper than that for men, women and children.

We aren’t just angry at Fearless Girl. We’re afraid of her, afraid for her. We’re afraid because we know in our hearts her future is imperiled. She doesn’t stand a chance alongside a President who is being mocked as “the pussy-grabber-in-chief”; but also brags his daughter (or is that his wife? Even he often gets them confused) is a model–not just for the latest issue of Maxim–but for longer maternity leave. Will our fearless young women be devoured by the wave of sexism that many attribute to the president’s base? Hillary Clinton recently claimed that she lost the election because of misogyny, that America is threatened by having a woman in the oval office. I don’t believe that a majority of us feel that way. I watch young girls stand up for their rights every day in my classroom.

The real problem isn’t just emanating from the oval office. The truth is, Fearless Girl doesn’t stand a chance against the mixed messages the media sends all young women. We want our daughters to be strong, but don’t we also want them to look gorgeous in revealing bikinis? The media thinks so. And the truth is, we who call ourselves “feminists” don’t even know what that word stands for anymore. The most progressive and intelligent young women I talk to at my school don’t consider themselves feminists, because they think it stands for a woman who doesn’t like men and doesn’t enjoy being herself.

To speak against feminism is to speak against basic human rights. But it’s time for someone to admit that the type of feminism that once worked–or at least, forced people to take notice–has changed. Young women aren’t weaker than they were a generation ago, but they’re a lot more confused about how their voices will be heard. Fearless Girl doesn’t just need a woman mentor, she needs an interpreter who can help separate the truth from the bull. 

Trump l’oeil–What Happens When Dystopia Arrives Too Soon.

In my headline, I’ve borrowed the French idiom, trompe l’oeil–“something that misleads or tricks the senses”–to make a point about what we’re experiencing in America today. We love this notion of being “tricked” in painting and fiction, and maybe art’s greatest contribution is to fool our senses long enough to get us to believe something that can’t possibly be real. But what happens when reversals to our core principles such as equal rights, healthcare, and immigration happen so quickly that the righteous anger we feel when our freedom is threatened just isn’t enough?

We’re in a state of shock. The center cannot hold. Those values we thought were rock-solid are being destroyed and that makes us feel as if our reality has become, well, unreal. When are reality becomes unreal we turn to fiction, specifically dystopian fiction, because fiction is what we need to confront all those issues that are too difficult to take “in real life.” Sales of the classic dystopian novels–1984, Brave New World, and Fahrenheit 451, are on the rise.

Dystopian fiction is deeply, cathartically, satisfying. Don’t we all love to read about a world in distress? A world that’s really a wake-up call for all those things we need to avoid. It’s all fun and Hunger Games so long when we close the book we can return to our safe, not-too-troubled world.

What if we woke up and found the most unreal dystopia we could possibly imagine right at our door? (Remember dystopia is only dystopia so long as it stays in the future.)

What we’re feeling now isn’t just righteous anger, it’s fear.

Whenever I turn on the TV, it feels as if I’m watching a reality show that can’t be real. That would be a great compliment to a fiction writer who strives for verisimilitude. But it’s real. At least that’s what we have to keep reminding ourselves.

The YA novel I wrote, Cease & Desist, was supposed to be dystopian, but most of its far-fetched notions will be commonplace by the time you read it. Soon you’ll be able to watch young people have sex and harm each other on digital, interactive, WebTV. You’ll be able to vote on who’ll be the winner, the same way the mob chose the winner in the Roman Coliseum.

Do you think I’m making that up? Think again. The future is coming at us way too fast, and we’ve got to stop it before more people get hurt.

Selena Gomez: A Hollywood Role Model.

For those of you who read my blog and books, you know I teach and try to find role models for my young students. Some of the ones I select lived hundreds of years ago. Some are alive, and giving parents, teachers, and young people better choices than the dismal pantheon of famous teenagers in Hollywood who rely on sex tapes and high speed chases to gain notoriety.

Classes started this week, so I have a lot to hear from my students about who they admire and why. I write the words that are traditionally associated with leaders and role models on the board. “Integrity” “Vision” “Kindness”…but there are other more subtle attributes that we miss, and I think they can be found by looking at two actresses who are making some breakout choices with the roles they take, and some of the off-screen decisions they make about what’s really important in life.

Great leaders and role models share one trait that most of us miss when looking for the next person to follow: Vulnerability. This is an unlikely superpower to most larger than life characters. To make yourself vulnerable is put yourself in a place of risk, to appear weak, to make a choice that tells the world you know the difference between fame and personal achievement, between adulation and respect.

Selena Gomez decided to take three months off to assess her mental health and her career. It was a shocking move to the Hollywood establishment and her fans. Why didn’t she just check into rehab after a wildly publicized and largely manufactured “breakdown.” Instead, she sat down with strangers in therapy and made choices most adults couldn’t fathom. She came back a new different person. What we saw once as a squeaky clean girl with talent and mouse ears has blossomed into a young woman who is ready for a new role. In short, Selena became a real life wonder woman. She made risky choices the way Gal Gadot did in her breakout performance of Wonder Woman.  By showing us her weaker side, she gave us a glimpse into a real superpower we all have the power to possess.

So, Selena is up on my board in the classroom as this month’s young woman to watch. One parent of course took issue with my choice and asked how I could be so admiring of a girl who sings the ultra sultry songs “Fetish”, and “Bad Liar”. How could I endorse an actress who wears a string bikini and sucks off a gun barrel in Spring Breakers. And my answer was because Selena, like any girl who needs to find womanhood on her own terms, is growing and exploring the complex difference between passion and true love in ways that give us the kind of conflicted character who is tired of playing a little girl. The world doesn’t pull any punches when it comes to shoving teenage sex in our faces, why should Selena? Can’t you hear her pain between the lines of those so-called “inappropriate” songs? Can’t you see why she’s supporting 13 Reasons Why as a way to stare down teen suicide? We parents and teachers still have a lot to learn on what it takes to survive as a young person today.

Thank God, Selena is showing the way.

 

“Whitelash” on the day MLK Jr. was killed

MLK jr.

Of all the new words that entered the lexicon last year, “whitelash” was the hardest one for me to share with my students. I felt relief when a local media source in San Francisco chose “Xenophobia” as the word of the year, because that word’s easy to accept. Phobia is a powerful suffix we review in my class because it gives us a lot of leverage to help decipher hundreds of words–it stands for fear, and hatred.

It’s opposite is philia.

“Xeno” stands for foreigners, and it’s easy to admit that many people have a fear of foreigners. We’ve been this way for a long time. (Did you know “Xeno” actually  comes from the name of a Greek general. A guy who lived a long time ago, and you guessed it, didn’t like foreigners.)

Whitelash, however is much worse. According to one news source it means,  “backlash by white racists against black civil rights advances.” It doesn’t hide from it’s racist intent the way a word like “xenophobia” and “superpredator” does. We blame the politics of Donald Trump for this word, but anyone who studies fiction and language can tell you that the fear and resentment of black civil rights advances has been hardwired into our language; into the stories we write, the words we create.

The secret life of racism can be found in words.Words are created to help explain, but the truth is they’re just empty boxcars used to hide our darkest fears. As Toni Morrison eloquently elaborates in her Nobel Prize speech. “The systematic looting of language can be recognized by the tendency of its users to forgo its nuanced, complex, mid-wifery properties for menace and subjugation. Oppressive language does more than represent violence; it is violence…it must be rejected, altered and exposed.”

If you’ve been following this blog you know that I think young people have it a lot tougher than most people think. They’re confused; no–they’re downright stupefied–because we give them dangerously conflicting messages on what it takes to be a man or a woman in our world. They come to teachers and need help. We show them facts, have them recite history, and then with all those stupefying words explain the past cannot repeat itself, because we know who all the bad people are.

Instead, we should quote Toni who gave this dire prediction ten years ago:

“There will be more diplomatic language to countenance rape, torture, assassination. There is and will be more seductive, mutant language designed to throttle women, to pack their throats like paté-producing geese with their own unsayable, transgressive words; there will be more of the language of surveillance disguised as research; of politics and history calculated to render the suffering of millions mute; language glamorized to thrill the dissatisfied and bereft into assaulting their neighbors; arrogant pseudo-empirical language crafted to lock creative people into cages of inferiority and hopelessness.”

Pretty heady stuff, but let me boil it down for my students and their parents: Donald Trump may be a racist. Donald Trump may be the antichrist. But Donald Trump isn’t responsible for whitelash. We are. And if you really want to find a way out of the hell we may have to endure; only fiction can save us. because fiction sees all the fears that we’re too ashamed to admit, and Toni Morrison, is a much better prognosticator than those clueless Washington pundits, because only Toni can see that language is little more than a racist straightjacket we hide a lot of our fear in.

Today as we celebrate the life of a great man, some of us will point fingers and wring hands at who is responsible for all these new words that just stand for a timeless hate we should’ve seen coming. Evil politicians didn’t create whitelash. We did. And maybe the only way to see the real truth is to read the fiction of a great writer like Ms. Morrison.

toni