Internet Groupthink and Slippery Slopes

fucking internet

To be the kajillionth dude writing about the Donald Sterling controversy  had me thinking twice about doing it. However, now that we are almost a month removed from the Racist Comments Heard Round the World, I think we can reflect on the events (and the national discussion) in ways that we could not a couple weeks ago. Not every scandal or controversy (sports or otherwise) has me as riveted as this one, and I think part of this is because of the swift and extreme reaction.

After the tapes of Sterling’s ridiculously nonsensical and bigoted ramblings were released, it was met with widespread condemnation instantly. Why? Because we knew (or were quickly informed) of Sterling’s horrid past. Still, we are used to seeing a backlash to the backlash, right? A counterpoint to the initial opinion. I mean, remember the Richard Sherman Incident last January? Almost immediately following the outrage over Sherman’s rant was a defense of either his actions or Sherman himself. People brought up how he was still in the heat of the moment or his Stanford education (as if either of those are actual excuses for classless behavior). Not that you can equate blatantly racist remarks with postgame competitive trash talk, but Sherman is no longer really seen as a full-on villain. A counter had formed on the Internet and other places that didn’t allow him to be universally reviled.

With the Sterling controversy, there was no other side to take. His comments were akin to those of a plantation owner and no reasonable person could defend him. He’s a racist dinosaur in an age of smartphones and Twitter.

However, is this kind of one-sided reaction the best thing for our future? I’m not so sure. In this case, I’m not really talking about the reaction to Sterling’s comments, but the overwhelmingly positive reaction to the NBA’s decision to boot him from the league and force him to sell his team. For those who value nuanced conversation and greater understanding, this kind of Twitter pile-on – where there is no room for any further discussion – is not something we should welcome.

To be clear, the NBA probably did what they had to do. With a potential player boycott during the playoffs threatening the short term and an anemic franchise due to no one wanting to play there looming over the long term, Adam Silver didn’t have much of a choice. While the NBA looked the other way during Sterling’s previous issues, they couldn’t allow him to stay in the league after this.

However, that doesn’t mean this is a simple situation. It is still immensely complex, even if most people would rather see it as cut-and-dry. This is where that Internet groupthink comes in. With all the Sterling condemnation raining down, there wasn’t any allowance for clarification or perspective. What about the fact that these comments were made in private and sleazily released to TMZ? Surely freedom of speech has to fit into this somehow?

I’m not saying Sterling shouldn’t be punished or banned, I’m speaking more about the precedent this sets. When a team’s owner can be forced to sell his team because of personal views that were privately expressed and then illegally recorded for public consumption, what does that mean for the future? I only saw two high-profile figures even wondering about this issue. Soon after the release of Sterling’s tape, Mark Cuban made the point that this is a “slippery slope”. He expressed concern that the league could hand down extreme punishment because of “what people say and think, as opposed to what they do”. Of course, soon after the NBA banned Sterling, Cuban tweeted his full support of the decision, possibly thinking it’s not worth it to deal with the backlash that would come from semi-opposition to the NBA’s conclusion.

The second figure to openly wonder about this was actually Kareem Abdul-Jabbar – yes, he of Airplane! fame. In a piece for Time, he called for outrage over not just Sterling’s racism, but the fact that intimate conversations can be sprayed all over the Internet without any foreseeable repercussions other than newfound fame and an eventual book deal. Abdul-Jabbar is essentially saying that while he is angered by racism, he is also perturbed by the violation of basic freedoms. I don’t know his politics, but here Kareem sounds straight libertarian.

Do NBA owners now have to watch what they say privately, in fear of what might happen if the wrong sound bite gets out? For example, if an owner makes comments disparaging same-sex marriage or criticizing feminists, can the league move to ban him for his views? It’s a question worth considering before we all instantly applaud Adam Silver for his decision.

In the Internet age, particularly the Twitter era, does the number of voices lead to better discussion? I would say no, it doesn’t. Groupthink can be a powerful thing.  With the 160 characters of Twitter, many times complex circumstances can be oversimplified and all those voices tend to just collapse into one mindless mob. We essentially end up with discussion that is less dynamic – not more. In events such as the Sterling controversy, perusing the Internet to form your opinion can just lead to a quick dismissal of anything that might question the majority viewpoint. And, without a chance to voice a differing opinion, nothing can ever really change.

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(Re)Watch and Learn

There Will Be Blood

I recently went back and watched Paul Thomas Anderson’s 2007 insta-classic There Will Be Blood. It was my third or fourth time seeing it and, as with most truly great films, my appreciation grows every time. What makes it so compelling isn’t just PTA’s direction or script, or even Daniel Day-Lewis’s lived-in, masterful performance. It’s the beautifully fleshed-out early 20th century American themes of capitalism, religion, greed, among others that run though it. American cinema – hell, all of cinema – can’t quite replicate the unique, powerful vision on screen. And yet, the first time I saw it, I hated it.

In fact, I didn’t even finish it. You have to understand, this doesn’t happen to me – ever. I will sit through just about anything. That includes D.W. Griffith’s 3-hour, silent Civil War drama The Birth of a Nation from 1915 (Spoiler Alert: It’s really racist). I take pride in not quitting on movies – no matter how bad. I sat through 2006’s The Wicker Man with Nic Cage. In theaters.

Now that I’ve proved my credentials for enduring horribly unbearable movies, I can get back to how big of a deal it was that I didn’t have time for PTA’s California oil epic. I remember taking in the first hour – as we are introduced to Day-Lewis’ character, Daniel Planview, whose ambition and greed and selfishness clash with Eli Sunday (Paul Dano), the local preacher – and being hopelessly bored, totally unconvinced it would lead anywhere interesting.

This was just a year or so after it had come out. About a year later, I gave it another try and realized I had dismissed what was clearly top-notch filmmaking. So, the question begs: What changed, exactly? How could the same piece of art or entertainment inspire apathy one moment and awe the next, when all that was different was an extra viewing?

Well, the short answer is that obviously that isn’t the only thing that was different. Between viewings (roughly a year), I hadn’t stayed the exact same person. For one, I had taken a Film as Literature class junior year of high school, which had ignited a flame of interest in movies as an art form. We watched the classics of course – Citizen Kane, The Maltese Falcon, Psycho, etc. – but we also took in a few unusual, yet compelling choices, like quality Harrison Ford-vehicle The Fugitive and Kenneth Branagh’s little-seen 1991 mystery Dead Again. It was an excellent way to get introduced to watching movies more seriously, with a critical eye. Since we were viewing 1940s classics in the same class as “mediocre” 90s action flicks, we weren’t allowed to conflate only Citizen Kane-esque pictures as Serious Film, and everything else as mindless entertainment. We were taught to pull something out of everything we watched.

Back to There Will Be Blood. Throughout the year between viewings, I had cultivated a deeper appreciation for difficult, challenging films. This newfound respect made the second time I saw it totally different. So, my film tastes had refined, but I also had grown on a personal level in a year’s time, as we all do. I experienced more (and a greater variety) of life, and I came back to a movie I had already seen. This is the crux of why it’s so important to re-watch what we have already seen. It’s not just about “getting” the jokes in a comedy or suddenly understanding the themes in a drama (which is a simplistic way of putting it, really, since we all know comedies have themes and dramas can have jokes). It’s about learning about ourselves by remembering where we were personally the last time we saw it. I’ve probably seen The Shawshank Redemption ten times. Every time I see it again, I’m not just reminded of its uplifting themes of hope and freedom, but where I’ve been in the past.

Doing this with a particular director helps draw out this point. My favorite thing to do when the latest Christopher Nolan or David Fincher or Wes Anderson or Darren Aronofsky or the Coen brothers (among others) movie comes out is to re-watch a chunk of their filmography. This allows me to grow with filmmakers I love. As they explore various styles, methods, and messages, I can observe this and potentially see their films differently as I grow right along with them. It’s as close to dialogue with these geniuses as we can get.

As we learn about their art, we’re growing into ourselves. Not necessarily in an “I’m a man (or woman) now” child-to-adult sense, but in a way where we are learning to live as our own critical-thinking self. When we re-watch, we begin to recognize what has changed in us. This is part of what makes film so special. It’s almost like a two-hour window into one of our past selves. In a way, when we re-watch, we’re also watching how we have grown.