Saturday, November 12, 2005

What Friends Are For...

One of the best things about friends is that even if you don't agree with them, they can make you think.
I dropped by the studio today to visit Mike and we ended up getting into a debate about a comic series. I absolutely adore the series and had loaned him the reprint volumes, expecting an equally enthusiastic response and a glowing report. I was surprised that he felt it had major shortcomings. Oddly enough, what I felt was its greatest strength (the writing, most notably the pacing) was what he saw as its greatest weakness. We went back and forth, and I left, still thinking about how two fellows who see eye to eye on a lot of stuff could see the same thing so differently. Brain-gears turning, I realized that the dynamics in our conversation related back to both a former blog post AND to some problems that the world faces today.
I wrote a few months back about how writers can create any sort of universe they want to, but to sell their vision to an audience, the logic of that series has to be internally self-consistent. This was the first point where we differed: I felt that the cues in the storyline were not only perfectly adequate to explain the character's reaction, but the characters' reactions themselves were important parts of the information process. Mike disagreed, because he felt that the character reactions did not adequately inform about the universe's background. That's fine; we have differing opinions. It was the realization I had in the car that was most interesting (to me, anyway).
It's not just that the internal logic of the story must be consistent. The audience must have some sort of contextual knowledge of that logic. What do I mean by this? Let's take a controversial comedian... say, Sarah Silverman (who uses a lot of normally taboo racial nomenclature and subjects in her act). If you were given a transcript of one of her stand-up routines without any surrounding context and asked to read it, you would no doubt conclude that she is a racist. However, seeing her live, hearing her delivery, watching her body language, and understanding her intent and purpose… to make fun, in an ultra-dry, tongue-in-cheek way, of the racists themselves… you would come to a totally different conclusion. Her routine is logically consistent within the boundaries she sets, and thus her controversial material can be safely laughed at.
This was the reason (one of them) it took awhile for Japanese comics to catch on in the U.S. The cultural context was totally different, as was the subject matter (which is a different level of cultural context). Once folks here began to understand the cultural cues and embrace the wider range of subjects, it caught on like wildfire. It wasn't that the humor wasn't funny, or the action didn't make sense... the U.S. audience had to learn a new shorthand, a new series of symbols, a new "language" of visual representation in order to accurately decode the foreign art and writing styles.
It's kind of like reading Shakespeare... "Get thee to a nunnery!" sounds like an odd thing for our pal Hamlet to say to Ophelia... even comical. When you know that "nunnery" is Elizabethan slang for "whorehouse", the statement becomes a lot more forceful and insulting. Either way, we know Shakespeare was going for a poke to the audience's ribs... but knowing something of the context (folks in Elizabethan times knew full well what ol' Will was trying to say) gives us a better understanding and a new appreciation.

In our debate, it seems that I’m more familiar with the genre and setting that the author of the comic series is attempting to parody, as well as a bigger fan of the associated movies, folktales, and books. In other words, no one is right or wrong here… I just “get it” on a different level, because I happen to be a fan of the associated culture. In the same way, Mike can enjoy “Kill Bill” a lot more than me because he has a deeper understanding and appreciation of both the associated genres being paid homage to AND of the shorthand of the action / martial arts film, which I am admittedly unfamiliar with.
So, applying this to the world at large… it’s more than just getting the fellow across the negotiation table to agree with you. It’s getting them to understand the underlying logic and context of the deal… as well as making sure that both sides have an equal interest, or at least an equal stake, in the matter under discussion.

In short… one person’s garbage is another’s treasure. Now, hopefully, I’ve explained why.

1 comment:

SafeTinspector said...

Something I say very often is that mistaking differences for faults is, along with greed, the root of all conflict on earth.
This is true in minor human to human interactions as well as in societal interactions.
I tried to apply this truism to your post, and struggled. This is why:
It is possible for you and Mike to disagree about something without necessarily condemning one another's opinion.
So the lack of cultural context can explain how differences can be met with bewilderment, but not how they become tagged as faults within the psyche of the observer.
That is the job of mammalian nature. More specifically, we fear what we cannot understand.
The bewildered observer, unable to understand the difference, fears it.

It becomes a fault. The difference is bad, the difference is evidence of wrong.

That you two remain friends shows your mastery over a little of your mammalian nature. The average person, living their unexamined lives, acting without thought and allowing themselves to be ruled by their animal nature, would identify their disagreement as certain evidence that the other party was a wrong-thinking or, possibly, bad person.

I've often thought that, if we could just bring people to the understanding that differences are NOT necessarily faults, then the world would be a better place.

But, is it easier to simply accept the differences without understanding as I thought, or is it easier to bring people to understand the point of view of eachother, to render the acceptance moot?