ELAYNE RIGGS: Jesus in the clouds
In entertainment, as with so many other subjective phenomena, many of the old clichés come into play, the main ones being "Beauty is in the eye of the beholder" and "I don’t know much about art, but I know what I like." While one purpose of entertainment may be to seize on the universal in order to create a bond between creators and audience that explores or delights in our common humanity, it’s also a fact that everyone brings their own unique experiences to bear on their chosen entertainment, so different people can often have very different reactions to the same creation.
And this is fine, if it’s understood. But people often also use experiences to reinforce their preconceived notions, and the more extreme or emotional their experiences have been, the more adamant the reinforcement. This is true whether the subject is religious, political, scientific, cultural, whatever. Our unique prisms color our perceptions, and always will.
Let’s look at the most recent example from the political blogosphere, involving a pundit named Melinda Henneberger who wrote a New York Times op-ed about why Democratic candidates should abandon one of their current core values and risk losing their base in an effort to perhaps maybe possibly woo a few people who don’t much care for their core values anyway. One reason a lot of liberal bloggers have come down hard on Henneberger, besides the absurdity of her premise, is how she backs it up:
"Over 18 months, I traveled to 20 states listening to women of all ages, races, tax brackets and points of view speak at length on the issues they care about heading into ’08. They convinced me that the conventional wisdom was wrong about the last presidential contest, that Democrats did not lose support among women because ‘security moms’ saw President Bush as the better protector against terrorism. What first-time defectors mentioned most often was abortion."
On its face this is an anecdotal confession, with no more solid evidence to support it than anyone else getting on a soapbox or pulpit or keyboard and backing up their personal agenda based on things they’ve been told in private conversations or email, made even more nebulous by its deliberate vagueness. Upon deeper examination, it seems to be typical of "inside the beltway" know-it-alls who start out with a certain premise then deliberately seek out confirmation of that premise. As Avedon Carol observed, "where do you start when you’re actually looking for women to interview who were ‘first-time defectors’ to voting for a Republican in 2004?" And Tom Hilton notes that this is nothing new: "This, of course, is how it’s done in the exciting fast-paced world of professional columnizing. David Broder goes out among the Common Folk and finds a deep yearning for bipartisan compromise. Tom Friedman takes a taxi and learns that globalization is a force for good. And Melinda Henneberger talks — no, ‘listens’ — to women and discovers, amazingly, that they agree with her on abortion. They go out with an agenda and ‘hear’ whatever confirms it."
Confirming agendas isn’t what science is supposed to be about, yet far too many modern scientists misinterpret the word "proof," as in "subject your theories to challenge and peer review," as "defend your theories from detractors." This leads to an irritating certainty, which only serves to make scientists look foolish the next time their pet theories are succeeded by new information. I watch a lot science-based "infotainment" and this attitude permeates throughout the programs’ narration and interviews, with expert after expert using phrases like "We know that this happened" rather than "we believe this happened based on this evidence." During a time which has seen ever-greater leaps in technological advances, it’s not uncommon for theories to be overridden every few years by new information that could not previously be ascertained. So scientists should know better than to talk about anything as a foregone conclusion. Too much of that leads to a general discrediting of the scientific process itself, which plays right into the agenda of modern flat-earthers who’d like nothing better than to score points in favor of the supremacy of faith and fairy tales over facts and real-life observation.
And faith doesn’t really need much bolstering, if you ask religious adherents given to pareidolia, when a psychological phenomenon involving a vague and random stimulus (often an image or sound) is perceived as recognizable, and therefore often assigned significance where none exists. One of the most common examples is of the moon having a face ("the man in the moon"). One dictionary definition says pareidolia is an "erroneous or fanciful perception of a pattern or meaning in something that is actually ambiguous or random," and I don’t have a problem with the perception being fanciful. I still like to imagine patterns in cloud formations, for instance. It’s part of honing one’s powers of observation, a very important skill in the creation of comics. But when your preconceptions lead you to see visions of Jesus or Mary in pieces of toast or water stains? I can understand the veneration of even common objects as wonders of creation, but to encourage this sort of erroneous perception en masse is dangerous. Our society is under quite enough collective delusions to begin with.
On the other hand, it’s certainly not pareidolia or even paranoia to react to patterns when there’s ample evidence they actually exist. In the case of female comic book fans, just a cursory glance at how the "mainstream" (Big Two) comics industry dismisses their concerns via ill-advised artistic decisions about comic book covers, interiors and even ancillary products like statues, it’s easy to get to the point where you automatically assume the powers that be just don’t care or are going out of their way to deliberately insult over half their potential consumer base. And as the built-up badwill doesn’t allow the female reader to assume that sometimes a cigar is just a cigar, the reaction to what seems to be milder fare can be baffling to many guys, who in turn might understandably respond dismissively, which can perpetuate the cycle even more. The thing is, even if they have a point, it doesn’t help if the idea of being dismissed in the first place is at the heart of the women’s frustration.
So how can we engage in any substantive discussion with other fans if we know our personal prisms won’t necessarily match up? Well, that’s where universality comes in again. We need to recognize when common ground allows us the vocabulary to communicate our concerns and delights about general trends in our entertainment, while also being willing to step back and perhaps walk a mile in another’s moccasins to see why some things we may consider blindingly obvious are, in fact, partly composed of our own blinders. We must all open ourselves to the validity of other interpretive possibilities. And as serious as we may consider our pet causes and core beliefs, we need to be willing to laugh at our tendencies to go overboard with them. When you pick your battles by realizing that not every circumstance demands an equal amount of attention and energy and righteous indignation in response, you gain a lot more ground in the overall cultural war in winning hearts and minds and increasing the number of entertaining things we can all enjoy.
Elayne Riggs is ComicMix‘s news editor, and would enjoy her life a lot more if she didn’t sweat the small stuff, and if she just remembered it’s almost all small stuff.