While acknowledging that it’s impossible to argue someone into loving something they hate, and vice versa, it’s still often enjoyable to attempt the argument. When we talk to people whose opinions directly contradict ours, we’re forced to defend our tastes, define our opinions, and analyze why we react the way we do. Which is why we have Why Don’t You Like This?, in which two of our staffers will attempt to discover whether people with opposing opinions can get beyond “No, you’re wrong!” and have a civil, constructive, and possibly even convincing discussion about their points of contention. Because no matter what talk radio says, there’s still a middle ground between “We agree utterly” and “I’m right, and you’re stupid and evil.”
You prefer the things you own because you rationalize your past choices to protect your sense of self.
In experiments where people were given Coke and Pepsi in unmarked cups and then hooked up to a brain scanner, the device clearly showed a certain number of them preferred Pepsi while tasting it.
When those people were told they where drinking Pepsi, a fraction of them, the ones who had enjoyed Coke all their lives, did something unexpected. The scanner showed their brains scrambling the pleasure signals, dampening them. They then told the experimenter afterward they had preferred Coke in the taste tests.
They lied, but in their subjective experiences of the situation, they didn’t. They really did feel like they preferred Coke after it was all over, and they altered their memories to match their emotions.
They had been branded somewhere in the past and were loyal to Coke. Even if they actually enjoyed Pepsi more, huge mental constructs prevented them from admitting it, even to themselves.
Had there been an Opinion Science course to complement Deductive Reasoning in universities, the world at large would be a magnificently different place than the one we live in today.
I watched Up In the Air, and it gave me Feelings.
The plot boils down to an American male choosing between his ‘successful’ nomadic life or settling down with a family. George Clooney’s character works for a company that fires employees on behalf of CEOs who are too big of pussies to do it themselves — a job so toxic that I feel a little ill whenever I imagine working at such a place should it exist. Clooney relishes his nomadic lifestyle of flying all over the US as a swingin’ bachelor, but at the end of the movie he predictably goes “Oh hey, maybe I’ve had it wrong all this time! LOL!”.
While it had a somewhat-satisfyingly irresolute ending, the film was still wussy: everyone in the movie spent their time telling Clooney that he is doing the Wrong Thing, You just haven’t met The One to settle down with, You Look Happy But Are You Really Happy?, and so on. It was uncomfortably preachy when it repeatedly asked the viewer “Look at your life; Does your life compare favorably to others; Do you have a wife yet because if not then everyone is going to tell you that you are a Wrongperson, so, make sure you’re prepared for that.”
The movie reinforced the idea of a universally ideal life, the American Dream made of mortgages and a spouse and kids. But the way it was presented, the way that Clooney chose a life other than what is canonically considered the American Dream, painted him as a rebel, a person who lived his life as a challenge to what everyone goes out of their way to tell him is the Right Way to Do Things. He seemed to be constantly rationalizing his way of life not just to the world at large but to himself, as if he was desperate to tell the world that he was Truly Happy without a wife and kids. If it were more convincing, if he really did appear to be a person comfortable being alone, that his lifestyle really was what made him happy and not just the protest of Canonical Happiness, then it would have been an interesting story.
Clooney’s character didn’t choose this lifestyle because he’s an abrasive sociopath — he shows real, useful empathy when he fires people. He views his job as a service, and in more than one scene the suddenly-jobless person on the other side of the table is practically thanking them for the kick in the ass that they needed to start chasing after their “dreams”.1
But in the end, Clooney is faced with the choice of a nomadic, bachelor, impulse-driven life with no static home to speak of (which he lives with the style and finesse and coolness that only Clooney can bring), and the promise of a wife and a family and “settling down”. He made his plane-hopping lifestyle look attractive — not just to viewers who truly do relish nomadic unmarried life, but to everyone. It looked like he was on a perpetual vacation dotted with occasional pit stops to fulfill salary requirements. It’s mythical and fun, this life he leads — but the depiction of him suddenly “coming to his senses” when a suddenly-worthy-of-being-more-than-just-a-fling love interest gets introduced was a slap in the face not just to him, but to the viewers who are comfortable with and happy in this life that Clooney has made for himself.
Everyone builds their life around their relationships or their careers or both but how long until a new opportunity changes your plans? And how long must you live a certain lifestyle until you feel like you have to defend it when someone or something comes along and challenges it? This film doesn’t address those issues; it shows one man being told he is childish for not settling down, and then suddenly wanting to settle down and needing to overcome the pride in admitting that he might have been “wrong”. He isn’t depicted as someone aware of the plasticity of human wants and needs, nor as a person aware that his priorities might be different today than they were yesterday with the introduction of a new variable (a love interest, potential career altering, etc.). Instead he is shown to have had an epiphany, to have “grown up”, and that is kind of infuriating to me, this suggestion that not adhering to societal norms is a sign of immaturity and that eventually everyone falls into the same groove, into a particular lifestyle because it is the most frictionless way to live, and because it is frictionless it shows that it’s widely-practiced and well-documented and therefore you should walk up to these same potentially miserable problems as everyone else, problems like relationships and marriage and even the ridiculousness of a wedding that no one dares challenge the tradition of, but those things, all those things are common, they say, and you should Grow Up and be equally or at least similarly unhappy as the rest of us. The movie says that avoiding these problems is childish, that creating easily-avoidable but still-commonly-faced problems for yourself in order to fulfill the checklist of arbitrary success is a sign of maturity, definitely not one of compliance, and that choosing the common lifestyle is the Adult Thing To Do, so hurry up and get a wife and a career and procreate or else you might wake up someday and decide that you’re lonely and think “What have I done with my life?”.
Fuck that! Everyone is lonely! I’m lonely just as often as I’m happy to be alone. I don’t need to go out and find a catch-all solution for this fluctuation of feelings. Western culture treats marriage as the Penicillin of all life problems. Tired all the time? Get a girlfriend! Lonely? Better find a mate! Money problems? Shit son, you need to get yerself a woman!
One scene in the movie has a character who had a life all planned out with marriage and a career and everything. When her marriage plans fell through, Clooney and Suddenly-Not-a-Fling sat down and told her “Oh, having plans is something you’ll grow out of. Stop trying so hard, and start being swinging bachelors like us!” Their sympathy was genuine, but it was so self-congratulatory that it was clear that they viewed this girl’s failed marriage as evidence that they were Doing It Right, and being the ones to get to say “Oh, you’ll grow out of that sort of thinking” was so self-affirming that it was clear that they enjoyed being viewed as wise sages by this little girl who “didn’t know any better”.
Human relationships are never a constant variable, and adding a nuclear family shouldn’t be treated as a patch for reproducible bugs. Acting as if the addition or subtraction of people in a certain place and time is a catch-all solution for any one problem is astronomically more childish than finding real, tailor-made solutions for your problems. Treating people as “solutions” is not only potentially harmful to yourself, but to the person you’re interacting with and possibly courting. It’s square pegs and round holes - and Up In the Air reinforces the idea that changing yourself until the square pegs fit is Adult, and looking for differently shaped pegs is Childish. This movie merely nudged the protagonist a little closer to that frictionless groove of canonical adulthood, reinforcing the affirmation that starting a family is the only way to True Happiness, and if you think that isn’t true, then don’t worry, you’ll grow out of that.
Fuck you, Up In the Air. It’s irresponsible for such an A-Listed movie to make an assertion that any one way of living is the “right way”. And telling me “Oh, you’ll grow out of that” because I disagree with your ideal is the narrative equivalent of Godwin’s Law.
I was reminded of the scene in Fight Club where Tyler Durden puts a gun to the Asian kid’s head and says “If you aren’t in college chasing your dreams by this time next month, I will come to your house and shoot you.” I can imagine that the trauma of being fired from a high-paying, decade(s)-fostered career and suddenly no longer being able to pay the mortgage or feed the kids could be as (if not more) traumatic than a threat to your mortal life. ↩