Them’s Fightin’ Words!
In my book Straight-Up Blatant, there is a chapter entitled “Don’t Disagree With Me,” in which I look at our culture’s current aversion to independent thinking and how it has filtered down to the discussion of cinema. This week has provided further examples to illustrate that many people only want to hear what they already believe, and become irrationally defensive if they hear something contradictory. Although seemingly unrelated on the surface, the Penn State sex abuse scandal and The Dark Knight Rises both illustrate this distressing trend.
As you may have already heard, reviews of The Dark Knight Rises hit Rotten Tomatoes this week. The initial round of reviews were overwhelmingly positive, but two critics – Marshall Fine and Christy Lemire - gave the film negative marks. The comments sections below their reviews were immediately flooded with fanboy vitriol. Lemire was subjected to misogynist insults, while Fine received death threats. The kicker is that The Dark Knight Rises hasn’t yet opened, so the hateful comments came from users who have not seen the movie. Despite that fact; they already feel entitled to assert their knowledge of it, as well as their superiority over the critics who have actually screened it.
Rotten Tomatoes eventually deleted the offensive insults and threats, and temporarily disabled user comments on reviews of the film. But the evidence was still there: a lot of people already had their minds made up, and nothing was going to change them. These fanboys had decided, sight unseen, that The Dark Knight Rises was brilliant. Anyone who challenged this belief was a threat, and therefore deserving of scorn. Their rationale for preemptively declaring the movie’s brilliance was that the two previous Batman movies were highly-regarded, and that director Christopher Nolan routinely delivers smart, blow-you-away entertainment.
It’s astonishing how dogmatic these individuals were. It didn’t matter that Fine and Lemire were strictly offering personal opinions. Nor did it matter that both are esteemed critics. No, they challenged something that a lot of Rotten Tomatoes users had decided was written in stone. By daring to disagree, they were committing heresy. This sort of blind allegiance is scary. When people start asserting moral authority over something they haven’t directly experienced, bad things happen. There was no willingness to see whether the critics might have had a valid point. There was no accepting that every movie has somebody who doesn’t like it. There was simply rage that The Dark Knight Rises, predetermined by them to be infallible, would not receive the perfect Tomato-meter score they knew it deserved. A few sick individuals were even ready to call for the death of a critic who went against the grain. Seriously, what kind of disturbed mind gets so enraged about a movie review that he’s prepared to threaten someone’s life over it? This sort of thing represents a complete loss of perspective. There is only the Belief, and the Belief must be defended at all costs.
A similar thing has gone on with the fallout from the Freeh report, which concluded that Penn State football coach Joe Paterno, university President Graham Spanier, Vice President Gary Schultz, and athletic director Tim Curley had conspired to cover up the fact that Jerry Sandusky was sexually abusing children.
First, a little background: I live right in the heart of Penn State country. There is a thing Louis Freeh referred to as a “culture of reverence” regarding the university’s football program. Others less charitably call it “the cult of Penn State.” Joe Paterno was not just a football coach around here. Lots of people viewed him (almost literally) as a deity. The importance of Penn State and its football team has been passed down through generations. Folks paint their cars blue and white, and have Nittany Lion logos plastered on them. I know women who had the university logo sewn into their wedding dresses. You do not speak negatively about Penn State or Joe Paterno around here. It’s blasphemy.
For this reason, a lot of Penn State fans are understandably upset about the findings presented in the Freeh report. They invested themselves in the team and defined themselves by their loyalty to it. Now they feel hurt and betrayed. The reputations of the school, the team, and the man they love have been tarnished. Still, there is much “Penn State pride” being exhibited in the area, as there should be; academically, it’s a terrific school, and Happy Valley is a beautiful place that many wonderful people call home.
While the majority of PSU fans view the situation as the multi-layered tragedy it is, there is a contingent of people who have great anger – not toward the men who protected Sandusky and brought shame to the school, but toward the Freeh report itself. Some still believe Joe Paterno, in particular, was a saint, and nothing is going to change their minds. I’ve been keeping up with the news articles written by Sara Ganim, a local reporter who won the Pulitzer for her coverage of the Sandusky case. The user comments sections below her online articles have contained animosity toward Freeh. Readers have accused Freeh of “fabricating” parts of the report just to make Paterno look bad. They’ve accused him of having a grudge against PSU and its late coach. They have called him incompetent, crooked, and a liar. One of the very first comments I saw on the day the Freeh report was released said, “We need to go win a bowl game next year! This will vindicate PSU and Joe Paterno!” (As though winning a bowl game makes up for not reporting a pedophile. Yeah, I don’t think so.) On my Facebook feed, I’ve seen similar comments, with people claiming the Freeh report – a multi-million dollar investigation carried out by the former head of the FBI – is a farce and part of a conspiracy to smear Joe Paterno. Just like some fans don’t want to hear that The Dark Knight Rises may have some flaws, a few Penn State fans don’t want to consider that, for as many admirable things as he did, Paterno screwed up royally when it really counted. The mere suggestion of it awakens their anger and defensiveness.
It’s not much better on the other side. Many folks (and I include myself here) are appalled by what Spanier, Schultz, Curley, and Paterno did. We find it inexcusable. We may express those feelings in the occasional tweet or status update. Others feel the need to take the expression to a disturbing extreme. In response to Jay Paterno’s public statement denying that his father knew of Sandusky’s actions, one news website commenter said, “I’m glad your father is dead, you liar!” Others have taken their aggression out on the university’s decision to leave its famous statue of Joe Paterno standing - for the time being, at least. Earlier this week, someone rented a plane, which flew above State College carrying a banner reading, “Take the statue down or we will.” As one friend of mine pointed out, the culprit would have been better off taking the money they spent to rent the plane and donating it to a child abuse prevention charity instead. That the sex abuse scandal has been painful for those to whom Penn State means so much has scarcely been taken into account; these individuals smell blood and are moving in for the kill.
In the cases of both The Dark Knight Rises and the Penn State scandal, people are making up their minds about things and subsequently getting blinded by their own beliefs. It’s absurd to threaten the life of a film critic who disliked a movie you haven’t even seen; see it for yourself and then be open to dissenting views that may enrich your own understanding of that movie. It’s absurd to assume someone is innocent of serious crimes simply because you idolize them; consider the preponderance of evidence and be willing to admit that even the most accomplished of human beings are capable of unconscionable choices. It’s absurd to assume that everyone will share your moral outrage at a situation; express your beliefs with sincerity while still maintaining empathy and respect for those who had an emotional connection to the parties involved.
This week has brought us a lot of rigid thinking, a lot of defensiveness, and many presumptions of infallible correctness. There’s nothing wrong with staying true to your convictions, unless, of course, those convictions are impeding your ability to be reasonable and rational.
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