A Problem Of Lighting

In trying to properly document my beliefs concerning human morality, existentialism and justice I’ve had to write mostly about things that people don’t really enjoy experiencing – let alone reading. Things like suffering, loneliness, abandonment and mourning; important experiences to me but a little heavy on the negative.

I got in a bit of a tiff with my father the other night. I asked him what hearing the news of my spine disorder made him feel; I just want to get inside his head to understand why he chooses to dismiss the problems I bring to him, rather than comfort me and help me figure things out. He responded by telling me that I’m too negative; these events and problems in my life stress him out too much. And that got me thinking: am I too negative.

If the only picture of my life you had was this blog then you would probably think I’m a fairly negative person. Today I went to apply for a provincial benefit so that I could get a new bed. This past Saturday, on a whim, my younger brother and I decided to check out some beds in Sleep Country Canada. One of the sales-reps asked me if she could help with anything. Pushy sales-reps usually really get under my skin, but she was nice and pretty and most importantly not pushy at all. She helped me look at a few beds, and when I described the nature of my back problems she seemed to be genuinely concerned. All in all, it was a good experience. When she asked how long I was planning on keeping this new bed for (whether it’s a five ten or fifteen year investment makes a huge difference when it comes to price), I let her know that I had just purchased a bed from this store not three years ago; the bed I bought then was now broken – the sides collapsed, huge indentations from my body and uncomfortable springs poking through the mattress. Long story short, she spent a solid twenty minutes making phone calls to various distributors, and I ended up getting a full refund for my current mattress; a ticket to go towards the purchase of a new mattress.

So today I went down to start the application process; in two weeks I should have about 850$. To put that into perspective, my current bed costs somewhere around 600 dollars. That means I’ll have $1450 dollars to put towards a new bed. Awesome news, but not exactly the point of this story. The place I went is called the ‘Housing Stability Center’. People from all across Hamilton, Ontario come here when they’re down on their luck. The people you’ll find applying at any given time paint a scary picture of a future most of us fear having. And that got me thinking.

When I first applied seven months ago or so, the other people applying scared the absolute shit out of me. They made my fears real. They were homeless, disabled, forgotten and abandoned. They lived hard, hard lives. And even though I had a moral philosophy at that time built from the idea that the weakest and most at-risk are the most valuable and need the most help, I couldn’t bring myself to even look at them for too long. I’m not quite homeless yet. I’m still young, fairly attractive, and I still have my wits about me; I haven’t suffered for too long. But perhaps to someone like my father, or my brother, or even my old friends, I bring out their fears and make them real.

How do you shine a light on a problem without the illumination becoming uncomfortable?

I realized something as I was walking my dog tonight. I’d be having a fairly good day; I was thinking positively. But I heard something and for whatever reason that triggered this anxiety-response. And that too got me thinking. Chronic anxiety is so difficult to just ‘will away’ because it’s very compelling. Anxiety is like an alarm. Your body senses a problem and an alarm goes off in your head alerting you of that problem. That’s essentially what happens when you’re anxious. When you have problems, like I do, which persist, it’s hard to shut that alarm off. Right when you think you’ve accepted your fate, that alarm will start ringing and you find yourself again piercingly aware of what’s wrong with you.

Maybe I can be a trigger for others without even knowing it. The solution to that is obvious: don’t be a trigger. If you don’t paint a more positive picture, no one is going to help you. The problem with that solution is that it’s not very just to ask the person suffering to suffer more quietly because their pain makes others uncomfortable. But maybe that’s what I have to do. So I’d like to briefly acknowledge some things that I’m incredibly grateful for.

I’m grateful to be born to the family I was born to. I’m happy with the person I’ve become, and although there are many, many things that make my life very difficult (unsupportive parents and siblings, disease, pain, disability etc…), I know that things could have been so much worse. I’m grateful to be Canadian, and to have live in a Country that meets my basic needs for me. I’m grateful to have the opportunity to live, and to grow, and to help others.

I’ve always been grateful for these things, but I’ve never shown that I’ve always been grateful for anything. Even though it seems slightly unjust that I have to work even harder for attention, help and normalcy, It’s the only way I’ll ever accomplish the things I wish to accomplish.

Personhood and Applied Ethics

An application of mathematical principles requires a basic understanding of the purpose of mathematics, and the function of mathematics. But more than that,across-the-universe it requires knowledge of when and where to apply mathematics – to what problems, and to what end. It also requires an almost intuitive understanding that it’s most basic principles correspond to the natural world.

Math is written into the universe; it is a natural law. The system of principles and axioms we call the Science of Mathematics, is in it’s most basic form, a reliable problem solving strategy (for most people, it’s a way to solve problems). When we engage in mathematics, we realize that we are a part of the systems we’re studying – in likeness, and more often than not, in function. Within our awareness is an innate capacity to observe and understand these mathematical truths. This capacity transcends awareness of the science of mathematics: we are able to ‘do math’ without having ever opened a text-book.

The same I believe is true of morality. I believe morality to be a natural law. Unfortunately for the sake of that statement, I cannot reliable draw parallels between morality as a natural law and math as a natural law. Math doesn’t go wrong; the constants of the universe, as we are told repeatedly by theists, are fine-tuned. Certainly there are probably theoretical cases of math going wrong, but my ignorance leads me to believe that if they exist, they are far from common – and probably the result of our own misunderstanding of the antecedent problems from which they apparently arise. Math doesn’t betray us, but morality does.

Morality isn’t written into the universe in the same way that math is; and so it might seem odd that I’m calling it a natural law. Christians believe that morality is written into the fabric of our universe, but the fall of man broke the world and everything in it; man still retains the capacity for libertarian free-will and moral reasoning, but the world doesn’t follow those moral constants in the same way that it follows mathematical ones.

But even with that admission fresh in my memory, I still have no problem saying that morality is a natural law. Morality is, in it’s most basic form, a reliable problem solving strategy. The problem morality solves for is a universal constant: the problem of suffering. We are guaranteed two things in this life: personhood, and suffering. We are aware of our own suffering, and unlike mathematics, which exists without our awareness, morality doesn’t. It may appear that I’ve contradicted myself, but give me a chance to defend my thesis – I have thought about this a great deal.

The moral precept isn’t well-being – it can’t be. Because well-being depends upon something else (functionally, and theoretically). Well-being can be evaluated biologically as flourishing (and in all the other ways, as maximizing potential within a system). Our assessment of well-being, though, requires us to match well-being with suffering. That is to say, it requires us to take an individual, posit the maximal good (flourishing) it could be likely to achieve, and compare that with where it is in the present moment. Or, (and more often than not) it requires us to look at where an individual is, and posit the maximal suffering it could experience. In either case, well-being requires suffering. Going forward then, it makes sense to use suffering as our moral precept. Not only does flourishing require an individual not to suffer, but suffering is a universal constant; the natural constants in our universe predict suffering, always.

Morality functions as a way to get us towards well-being and away from suffering. The big question has never been why, it’s been how. Well, it’s not practically functional to use well-being as the standard qualifier of moral action (that an action is moral if it increases well-being, and ammoral if it does nothing). This is because definitions of well-being can vary wildly between organisms, people, groups – you name it. Secondly, there are different areas to measure well-being. So which area do we give primacy? Is it existential well-being, physical well-being, mental well-being. Or is it all? Thirdly, who decides when well-being is being negatively affected, and when it has been achieved? It can’t be universal, because people have many different expectations of what well-being means. It can’t be left to the individual, because often people may be objectively unaware of what is ‘best for them’. Then you run into the problem of ego (telling someone you know what’s good for them), civil rights, and the potential for abuse. So what, if any, is the alternative?

Well, what if we could still utilize the moral truths given to us by brilliant men like Nietzsche, Kant and Sarte, even though the moral theories they have proposed have fallen out of fashion and haven’t proven to be practically effective – all you have to do is walk outside and talk to a few peole, or even observe, to find out that their hard-work hasn’t been applied very consistently in the lives of most people. I think we can.

So morality is born of a need to combat chance and suffering (the degree of a persons suffering as dependant on who they were born to, where they were born, how most importantly, how other people around them treat this individual person, and what type of environment they create). We combat suffering for ourselves, but the only way to do that, is to combat suffering for everyone (present and future generations; people born, and people not yet born). Suffering is a universal constant. In order to combat suffering, we have to combat all of suffering, for people. Given that you could be born to any person, in any place, you have to be guaranteed that the morality (as a method of combating suffering and chance) will apply to you equally. Luckily, the other natural constants of the universe (the ‘sciences’) work in our favour. We know that every new person can only be born in the future, or in the present. No new person can be born in the past. If they could then it’s possible our morality would fail them (and morality as defined by different means, our morality could theoretically thus be immoral). I haven’t given this a lot of thought, given that this idea just popped into my head, but if we agree that a new person can only be born in the present or the future, than it remains a very meta problem.

So, the moral theory has to apply to persons, not just to ourselves. The moral philosophy applies to person-hood, then; rather than to any individual person. Consequentialism defines moral action based upon the consequences of an action. For example, utilitarians like Mills believe that if the consequence of an action increases the general good (well-being) and provides the most amount of happiness, it is moral. But this theory doesn’t address the underlying issue of chance, because it still views individuals as separate unique entities. We feel justified in eating animals, killing bugs, and generally decreasing the well-being of the earth, because we are so separate and unique from the earth. Similarly, people believe that they are separate and unique from each-other. We are unique and separate, but in ways not determined by chance. Utilitarianism doesn’t address this huge gulf that exists between most conscious people. People think of themselves as entirely separate from other people. That’s not the case – and most rational people, given enough time and enough examples, would agree to this. But that we’re not so different doesn’t disable this thing inside most people telling them that they are. And it’s that belief in some almost metaphysical difference, that ‘I am different than you’, that causes a lot of suffering – and a lot of unethical choices. Furthermore, there’s nothing ultimately protecting you against the existential suffering you feel at the hands of meaningless suffering – the type of suffering utilitarianism allows.

An action is good if it increases well-being, and bad if it doesn’t. But if it’s bad, that really sucks for you – we’ll try and do better next time. For some people, there is no next time. The very fact that some people are born into suffering, and suffer for the duration of their lives, is unjust and re-introduces this need for a more comprehensive moral system – an applied ethics that addresses the very idea of existence, not just bad things that happen after you already exist.

If you haven’t guessed it by now, I’m proposing that we use person-hood as the unit of measurement. That what is moral is moral for all persons, and that what is moral combats against suffering and chance. That chance thing is important. Because we can decide what is moral for a specific action, and a specific situation (like stealing from someone), but doing so without also helping people who have suffering by chance, is immoral and impractical. It’s immoral because we are leaving people to suffer. And it’s impractical, because you could be anyone – you could have been anyone. Our moral theories not only apply to us, they apply to those to come. A moral system has to be consistently effective for everyone.

We are very tied in to our own existence, so it may seem counter intuitive to say something like ‘you could have been anyone’. Strictly, that’s not true, but if you view yourself as having person-hood (being a person, not just being a person), then it does.

Looking from the point of person-hood allows us to apply our moral reasoning to lives other than our own – it allows us to see other types of experiences, and introduces us to many huge problems many people face. As those problems become more familiar, and we start to reflect on what is right and wrong and just, we start to realize that those problems are our problems, and are everyone’s problems. Because if you’ve been fortunate enough not to have been born in a poor country, to incredibly horrible and abusive parents, with a disability, for example, common sense justice and ethics make sense to you. And trying to just ‘put yourself in another persons shoes’ is too difficult and ultimately ineffective – it requires you to find someone specific, talk to them, sift through their suffering with your own bias, and the number of times you can do that is limited, and whatever information you glean is limited to yourself (how can you disseminate it if the method of obtaining it is as important to the new understanding, as the understanding?).

When you separate yourself from your ego, and your well-being, or your suffering, you can see yourself as just one of a type of consciousness. You can see yourself as a person and make moral decisions that apply to person-hood, rather than a (individual, unique) person.

That’s where I stand. That’s something I see as very important to moral understanding. Other moral theories don’t work universally because they don’t take person-hood into account – or that they don’t give it primacy. They apply to groups of people, or individual people, not to the idea of people. We’re guaranteed suffering, and the degree of suffering is largely dependent on chance. You (as acting for someone, or) as someone who could be born in the future, or is being born now, have a very basic need for a way to combat this suffering, and this chance. In order to meet that need, you have to meet that need for every possible person. In order to meet that massive need, you simply have to meet the needs of the idea of a person. From there, you can make rational moral decisions for others, you can act morally in your life, and you can have a way to solve moral problems that arise in the world (whether at random by chance, or by individual people acting in ‘evil’ ways).

Genetically enhancing our genome won’t do. Guaranteeing food supplies and a safe environment for individual people won’t do. We can’t just make a world where everyone who may come into it, has an equal chance, without acting for person-hood, rather than meeting the needs of every single possible person as they come and as those needs arise.

I’m afraid I may be doing a poor job explaining, so I will come back to this again. If it doesn’t make sense, just think about it. We’ve all had intuitions, thoughts like ‘why did I have to be born to you. I don’t think that we have a soul. I just think that humans are very similar. We don’t have the gap between us that we have between other animals – not really. That gap that we see exists in our minds (as a product of religious teaching, ignorance, social and cultural factors etc…). We are capable of putting ourselves in others shoes, because we are capable of putting ourselves in all ‘shoes’. Given the right circumstances, you could find yourself in many, many unpleasant situations. And you could find yourself developing into someone you would never picture yourself as – given the right conditions. An ethical theory that serves the fortunate first, and the consequences of our actions second, ultimately serves nobody.

We see this in the world – you just have to walk outside, talk with someone, or observe. The world is broken, but we have a contingency to generally safeguard against massively immoral actions. We don’t have a contingency to safeguard against chance – or at least, to guard against meaningless suffering. The hardest part about seeing suffering isn’t  the fact that due to our biology (mirror neurons, memories etc…) we can experience others’ suffering, it’s an unconscious recognition that ‘this is how it’s always going to be’. That recognition, braids meaninglessness into life. It’s that meaninglessness, that unncessary yet somehow unavoidable suffering that produces what I believe to be the worst feeling we could possibly feel. People sometimes say that emotions are relative – citing some post-singularity sci-fi A.I. conscious logic machines as reference to living within a world of suffering unnaffected. But I don’t believe that; I don’t think it’s possible not to feel something when confronted with that thought that some suffering is meaningless. But for the first time in my life, I don’t feel that way. It’s a tragedy that people have died so unjustly – not just people, but animals, and species, and things we never could have imagined. Because there is an answer. That answer is rational, and applies always. We don’t need a God to have absolute Justice, or to defend us against the fortunate, strong, hard-evil Chance and suffering occasionally create. We just need the idea of person-hood, and people. So long as there are people, there will be morality and justice.

I was just watching the second season of House of Cards. In a moment of sincerity Francis Underwood turns to the Camera – a personification of his psychotic ego-self – and says ‘… for those of us climbing to the top of the food chain, there can be no mercy. There is but one rule: hunt or be hunted’. The message is alarmingly clear, and it’s one we hear all of the time. The fortunate elite who resist any ethic of compassion or empathy, betray themselves. The need to hunt is a product of being hunted. You hunt, because you fear being hunted. Others hunt, because they recognize you’re hunting, and fear being hunted. Which in turn, affirms the belief. What they take as sophistication and superiority, is just impractical and ineffective weakness – and immoral. They all have their emotions, their own suffering. Sustaining a sadistic self-centered ethic is impossible; what they end up effecting, is a broken shadow of the theme they marry with their story. Anything that is ‘immoral’, that hurts others, can be broken down and demonstrated as false. Replacing what is broken is the hard part – and knowledge of a replacement almost always needed before most people will even consider taking on these power structures (eat or be eating ethics and their real-life benefactors).

These power structures exist as ideas too; they are ideals and the people who follow them always fall short. It’s the ideal that keeps them afloat; the idea.

Morality is a natural law not because it’s as obvious and consistently observable as physical constants, but because it fits perfectly with the physical constants that shape our universe.

A Moral Sketch of Psychopaths

In psychopathy intention plays an integral role in the observers evaluation of the moral weight of the psychopaths actions.

So a psychopath slices and dices a person up. Is the psychopath wrong. Well, consequentialism would tell us yes, duty would tell us yes, and so would utilitarianism.

But, his motives may have been largely determined. Such that, an incapacity for moral autonomy decreases the ethical weight of motive in the context of an ethical crime.

This understanding of a psychopaths moral autonomy only serves the purpose of developing the idea of choice. That choice depends upon many different things. For psychopaths, the choice is comparatively very narrow.

Living things have certain biological needs. Humans have a biological need to eat. That need is reflected in us evolutionarily as a desire (explain complexity of that need-desire relationship). Yet we only call eating in certain contexts a ‘choice’.

A choice is presented when there are two or more options, reflected in one or more alternatives. In respect to people eating, there aren’t generally any choices (irrespective of feeding tubes, liquid diets, supplements etc…). The alternative to not-eating increasingly grows in complexity, leading up to fatality. If you choose not to eat once, the consequence is hunger. So the options are ‘don’t eat’ or ‘eat-later’, or ‘be hungry’ (without any plans to eat later). The third choice, is almost never a choice – because eating is a need, the third option represents an implicit understanding or admission that food si readily available, and so the choice to eat has still been made (eating later). If you repeatedly ‘chose’ not to eat, over time, you will suffer and eventually die. So in that sense, eating isn’t a choice, it’s a need.

Needs are reflected in people internally as a very compelling requirement – as a non-option (you have to do it). If you were to apply the same logic used above for ‘choice’ to ‘needs’, for the individual the options would be: a) fulfill need-requirement, or b) die. Needs represent vital biological requirements an individual must meet to survive. They are quantifiable in the life of an organism. If the needs aren’t met, there are consistent, and obvious biological implications. (There are social needs as well, but we don’t have to get into them for this explanation.). Needs are the function nature uses to awake awareness within an organism or individual.

It’s possible that for some people, certain things are biologically encoded as needs which do not represent a vital biological requirement, but are gross exaggerations of other needs taken to extremes. For instance, we can all agree that organisms have needs that positively increase with the organisms complexity, the communities complexity and the complexity of it’s environment. So things like ‘competition’ which isn’t a vital biological requirement to keep an organism alive in isolation, become vital needs in the context of a community. In certain environments (most, actually) competition is required for survival. Other needs will then act on that need depending on the environmental cues. If food is at stake, the need for competition increases. If a mate is at stake, the need for competition increases. Those needs then will evolve into requiring other needs. So aggression becomes a need in certain circumstances. (These needs can be represented giving increasing and decreasing primacy (primary, secondary etc…)

 

In psychopaths, it’s been consistently demonstrated that certain things distinguish them from any average representative in a given population of humans. They tend to be male, have a reduction in non-verbal communication, empathy, cortical dysfunctions (prefrontal cortex and amygdala), higher-than-normal levels of testosterone (there are other correlates as well) as well as certain personality traits (narcissism, a-social, detachment etc…). What all of these things share in common is that they express a decrease in the individual for a capacity of what we would call ‘free-choice’. To the Psychopath, killing, hurting, is a need. It comes at a cost – ‘choosing’ is as compelling as eating.

In the psycopath, choice is subjectively, as well as objectively, expressed far differently than in the general population. This effect has a noticeable effect on psychological functioning, on survival, on mental health and well-being, on happiness, and on morality. It’s grossly dysfunctional, but in the context of morality, whether or not the psychopath can be judged as similarly as a ‘normal’ average person (a morally autonomous individual) is still up for debate. This is particularly confusing giving the extreme weight of the moral violations which are so common to psychopaths. The crimes represent moral polarities, and so the need for conviction in our moral outrage is high. But I think this added complexity needs to be matched with added complexity – if we’re to establish some equilibrium. Or else we risk losing sight of our moral philosophy and the principles that cement it to our reality.

For a psychopath, the intention to do harm is not present like it would be in someone like myself. I understand the consequences of a wrong action, and so if I am motivate just to hurt someone, than I am intending to be immoral. For psychopaths, it’s much different.

Being a zero: and how you become a plus-one

Astronaut Chris A. Hadfield Mission Specialist...

Astronaut Chris A. Hadfield Mission Specialist Canadian Space Agency (CSA) (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

“Over the years, I’ve realized that in any new situation, whether it involves an elevator or a rocket ship, you will almost certainly be viewed in one of three ways. As a minus one: actively harmful, someone who creates problems. Or as a zero: your impact is neutral and doesn’t tip the balance one way or the other. Or you’ll be seen as a plus one: someone who actively adds value.”

Partway through the book Chris tells a story about a fellow astronaut, Jerry Ross. Trying to learn how to strike a balance between confident and overly ambitious, Chris watched Jerry to “see how he did things”. He noticed that Jerry was regularly going into the office early to answer emails and take care of all the administrative details so that the mission commander could focus on more important matters. He wasn’t asked to do this, and other than Chris, no one else probably knew what he was doing; he wasn’t doing it for recognition. In Chris’ words, “it was classic expeditionary behavior, putting the needs of the group first”. He acted like he considered himself a zero, but everyone on the team knew that he was a plus-one.

A zero is someone who believes they are reasonably competent, but ultimately no better than anyone else.  As seen with Chris and Jerry, there appears to be little difference between a zero and a plus one: they both believe they’re reasonably competent, but ultimately no better than anyone else. The only difference is, they actively add value to the group. In order to be a plus one, it seems you must also consider yourself a zero. A plus one isn’t constantly doing glorifying things. Being a plus one, subjectively, is the same as being a zero; often sitting back, listening, doing your best and contributing whenever and wherever you can. A plus one doesn’t treat or view herself differently, others do. Being a plus one is having most people agree that you’re doing a whole lot more than they are. People make you a plus one, because it takes sincerity, and respect and admiration; something that comes out of acting like a zero, not drilling into people’s minds the idea that you’re greater.

I think this is an important distinction to make. Too often I try to value myself in terms of how other people see me, and too often I confuse adding value with gaining glory. As a result, I end up taking something away from the group, rather than add something to it – the definition of a plus-one. I take away attention (a valuable resource), and as it’s reasonable to expect that because most people think along similar lines, and want to be ‘plus-ones’, constantly seeking affirmation that I’m ‘better’ and ‘more valuable’ takes away something else from people: it takes away self-confidence. Actively making sure people know that you’re better than they are doesn’t inspire them to be like you, it quite often just makes them view themselves in a more negative light – and you along with them.

The way we view ourselves has a profound impact on the way we interact with, and treat others. If your motive for doing good things, for trying to help (whether that’s in school, at home or at work), is to solidify a ‘plus-one’ beside your name, you’re always going to miss your mark.

Unlike Chris and Jerry, I’m not anything so prestigious as an astronaut. Most of us aren’t.  The stakes in my choices aren’t anywhere near as high as theirs, but that doesn’t make my actions any less valuable to me. Most people aren’t ever going to know the pressure of being an astronaut, but most of us know what it takes to be a good brother, or sister, or mother. The minutiae of everyday relationships (work, social, family) lend themselves to the idea that ‘slip-ups’ don’t matter (we’re not planning an outer-space voyage, so being a bit of a dick, or a slightly selfish, doesn’t really matter all that much). We all want better lives, but the only way to get the best out of the lives we have is by believing that our actions and decisions are as valuable to us, as going into work early to answer emails was for Jerry. Thinking you’re better or greater isn’t just self-defeating, it’s impractical. People have a knack for picking up insincerity. If you want a good relationship, or a happy life, be a zero – because trying to be a plus one won’t ever get you there. You get there by believing your competent, but no more competent than everyone else, and delivering your best effort with as least friction as possible.

Chris talks about being in a simulation with a few senior astronauts (one a commander). He knew they were more experienced, so went into ‘student mode’. He was paying such close attention that when the commander went to reach for a button, Chris stopped him and said it was the wrong one. The commander readjusted, and nothing was spoken about it afterwards. A few months later at a debrief with that same commander and the head of JSC, the commander began ‘extolling his powers of observation’. Shortly after, he was assigned to his first mission. “There may not be a connection, but one thing is certain: aiming to be a zero didn’t hurt my chances.”

I think we should all strive to be zeros, not plus-ones. Because I think we can all agree, thinking you’re better than everyone else actually doesn’t make people think you’re better than everyone else.

Am I supposed to feel this way?

I feel a certain amount of entitlement when it comes to  my feelings of loneliness and depression. I feel like I deserve friendships and relationships. Like I’ve somehow paid for a product that hasn’t been delivered. I feel anxious that I’m alone, and anxious because I’m alone. The synthesis results in a state of constant anxious depression. Clearly I’m doing something wrong – or could be doing something better. Because this anxious depression does not an attractive friend make. Could I be doing something better? Is there any validity to my feelings of injustice and entitlement? Do they matter? Or should I just ignore them and try to be the type of person I’d want to be friends with – and just cross my fingers and hope for the best?

‘The Amazing Spiderman’ and The Problems of High-School Dramas.

165743-marvel-marvel-comics-friendly-neighborhood-spider-man-4The amazing Spiderman (2012), directed by Marc Webb, has garnered a lot of attention; from fans loyal to the comics, from critics, and from the general public. While at times too gritty and too try-hard, I thought the Amazing Spiderman was a moniker Andrew Garfield truly deserves.

I have always been a fan of drama. Of course I love comedy and action too, don’t get me wrong, but you can’t beat the character development, the ethos, of drama. I am always much more vested in the characters, their journey and the dynamic relationships, than I am in any particular storyline itself. Consequently, a story in which the characters are unbelievable (in a negative way) and poorly developed, just doesn’t come together. For instance, Seth MacFarlan’s Ted came out this past year and received tremendous support from fans and critics for being ‘witty and refreshing’. I watched the movie a little late, and after reading and hearing dozens of positive reviews. Sitting down to that movie with those opinions in mind, I found myself really let down. I thought the movie came and went far too quickly. By the end of it I was left wondering what I had just seen.

If you’ve ever seen a teen drama (which you probably have), then you most likely share my frustration with how unbelievable the characters are. I understand that the success of a film or of a television show depends greatly upon the skill and the marketability of the actors and actresses who play the roles. And so logistically it seems improbable that you would be able to find age-appropriate actors to fill every role – as if there is this infinite bank of incredibly talented and diverse child-actors. I also understand the need to market and promote a movie, and that a slightly older and more attractive cast is likely more appealing than average, realistic looking actors. Everyone, at one point or another, wants to be the centre of attention – part of the reason why the film and T.V. industry is so successful. Movies and T.V. shows help us to temporarily buttress what for most of us is a fiction ( that we’re popular, smart, important and incredibly and undeniably attractive… oh, and don’t forget mature). However, within those shared projections lies an insidious functional flaw – we are almost always wrong about ourselves.

In high-school I can’t tell you how ‘cool’ and ‘chic’ it was to be mature. An ineffable quality possessed only by the very odd and the very beautiful. At the time I found it both an unconvincing, and an impossibly difficult and abstract standard to live up to. Girls all made fun of boys who were immature. It was immature to make fart jokes, or to run around. It was immature to laugh a lot and to struggle with age-appropriate problems like fighting with your siblings, or parents. Basically, it was immature to be a teenager. That was the basic theme of high-school: pretend like you’re not in high-school, and that you’re so much cooler than everyone else for doing so (everyone after high-school quickly realized the fantasy that consumed them for so long was a lie ).

Growing up, my generation was spoon fed this fantasy. T.V shows like the O.C., whose characters had amazingly complex lives, never told a poop or far joke,  never ran anywhere, were awkward, were angsty, yelled or screamed. They all woke early, drank black coffee, were very rich and were always involved in overly complex plots and plans. One tree hill: same thing. Vampire Diaries… enough said. These shows associate certain specific behaviours with generally ideal outcomes; cool and mature = great life of wealth and happiness. We all want wealth, comfort and happiness; it’s an ideal most people aspire to. When we watch these programs we get to escape into that fantasy, and when we leave, some things stick with us.

In the case of the storylines, there usually isn’t a direct causal link written in between wealth and maturity. Our minds are very symbolic, and we constantly seek for patterns amidst this endless entropy. When I watch the O.C., I see this ideal which I don’t have (extreme wealth, comfort and happiness), and I am instantly drawn to that. I see people in my age group who are far better looking than me, and far better looking than most of my peers, and I am drawn to that. Then as I watch them as they navigate through things I experience, I see that they behave differently than me. The way they behave seems normative for their lifestyles – a lifestyle I want. We end up spending a tremendous amount of time trying to maintain this standard of cool, and we never really end up doing anything for ourselves.

It’s this ironic paradox; we ‘see’ hints hidden within these T.V. shows, we follow what we think are rules of success, constantly seeking positive affirmations, leading us to spend more time watching more T.V., or spend more time hanging out with friends. We never end up doing anything truly constructive or beneficial for ourselves. After a few years we graduate and we end up precisely where we started, and that’s incredibly frustrating. These shows aren’t great stories, they don’t teach us any complex moral system, the characters aren’t pushed to make moral sacrifices; we aren’t told anything valuable about life, or about humanity at all. So why do we continue to watch?

They are immediately satisfying and enjoyable; like a drug. There’s no effort taken to enjoy them, like reading a book, or doing well on a test, or even understanding the rules of a table top game. It’s immediately gratifying and requires only that we sit back and open our eyes. They are damaging and pointless.  The reason The Amazing Spiderman is so amazing is because Andrew Garfield plays a high-school student precisely how a high-school student should be played – as high-school students are. When we watch we see something so similar to ourselves that we can’t help but concentrate on the story. He does a great justice to his craft and to his character, and I find it incredibly comforting that that character is one whose own personal life is so intricately tied to concepts like justice and responsibility.

The Amazing Spiderman is about a high-school student who becomes a superhero. The story is there already, full of ethical and moral dilemma’s, personal tragedy and triumph, hard-work, passion and love. In his origin story, Peter Parker is a nerdy, kinda socially awkward kid, and that’s exactly what Andrew Garfield gives us. He has lived through tremendous tragedy. His gift is his intellect, and that’s something he has had to work very hard for. He runs around, skateboards, looks at his feet when he’s talking to people (especially girls). He’s kinetic and studies on the roof of his house. When his uncle stares up at him in disbelief, he shrugs it off in the way only a kid who isn’t constrained by social norms does. Andrew doesn’t take that tendency to play the character as an ideal just because the story is an ideal story, which leaves much more room for the story itself – and it’s a damn good story.

When you’re writing, directing, or acting in a drama, you have to write to, direct for, and act as a character. The story informs the character, but without the character you don’t have a story. In order for the characters to be believable, they have  to be relatable. It’s not enough that they are a projection of what the ideal is, they have to remind us of ourselves, and of our own stories, or else we will spend more time watching the characters in their behaviour, and less time really watching the characters in the story.

There are other, better, ways to entwine in the story projections of the ideal anything; ways which don’t sacrifice the credibility of the characters, and the actors who play them.

We can live with 30 somethings playing teenagers, and we can live with incredibly attractive people playing incredibly fortunate, ideal, and lucky people. What we can’t live with is 17 year olds who look and act like they have grand-children. If you’re playing a kid, be a kid. Andrew Garfield did, and that’s why he’s our friendly neighbourhood Spiderman.