In my former life, I loved This American Life. TAL, Radiolab, The Moth…. Give me a good story, sprinkle on some intelligence, and I’m yours. These podcasts accompanied my bike journeys between home and everywhere Portland. Engrossing enough to pass the time and learn me some new stuff, and light enough that half my brain could follow the narrative arc while the other half dodged cars, bikers, debris, humans.
I haven’t listened to any of them in six months. The moments with empty ear time, such as walking through town or taking a bus somewhere, aren’t moments I’m comfortable having technology exposed. Yesterday, however, I started a long-term project, making friendship bracelets for my 7th graders (desires of the heart don’t always make sense), and tuned in to the first episode of Serial, that much-hyped podcast from the TAL team. I liked the story well enough, but what grated was the nasally, detached, self-aware tone of the presenters and even the interviewees. I’d noticed this previously but my interest in the storytelling had been enough to override my distaste. Now, with clean ears, not so much. Couldn’t Sarah Koenig show a little bit of messy emotion as she analyzed the situation, in this case a man possibly wrongly convicted for murder? Rather than sounding impartial, Koenig seems superior to this messy gray-zone battle among truth, lies, and memory. The right words are there and passion is acknowledged, but it’s too pretty and detached to sound genuine. At least Jad Abumrad and Robert Krulwich of Radiolab get goofy and giggly sometimes and are genuinely excited about their topic whereas Ira Glass and family couldn’t be bothered.
After Serial I tuned in to The Moth and, again, was annoyed by yet another nasally, self-aware tone, now with a huge dose of self-aggrandizement, that of Dan Kennedy as he introduced a live show recorded in Portland, Maine. He opened with his appreciation of the city’s beauty while simultaneously making them aware of just how busy he was on his book tour—this was the most beautiful city he’d landed in after all his flights the past four days. He subsequently commented on everyone’s niceness by way of a New Yorker’s desire to protect the innocence of young stranger who greeted him warmly. Yes, Dan, we are aware that you live in New York City. The audience came to hear just how important you are.
Closer to (my temporary) home, my coworkers are women primarily in their late teens/early 20s. Every event is a story told in that stilted, somewhat valley-girl-but-not voice that is self-conscious, self-interested, detached. The storyteller laughs at herself—isn’t this ridiculous? Isn’t this all just so funny? Aren’t those other people idiots? Unintended but no less present is intolerance. Someone comments about an activity she’s done and another comments that he has never done that before…like never eating chicken noodle soup while sick. One of the girls then gets in that person’s face, OMG, really?! How could you have never done that?! Really?! as if we aren’t individuals with different backgrounds, with our own histories. As if this is something very important and the person is very wrong. This lack of compassion can apply toward the kids, in the teacher talk that happens after hours, laughter at the kids’ behavior in a way that isn’t loving and just…surprises me.
The detachment makes me think of reaction videos where someone puts an odd object somewhere or does something silly that startles a stranger. Then the video is put on the internet so we can all laugh at the stranger being surprised. What is this but manipulation for our own pleasure? The expression of some superior, heartless attitude toward others. Ha ha, I just scared someone with a stuffed animal; I just made someone react in a perfectly normal way; I engaged someone’s startle reflex.
I’m also reminded of backlash to the former chief executive of Abercrombie & Fitch two years ago after a 2006 interview in which he commented that he didn’t want ugly people wearing his clothes resurfaced. To protest this sentiment a young man bought A&F brand clothes from thrift stores and handed them out to people experiencing homelessness. Now the dreaded ugly people were wearing the brand. What was this but manipulating people for his purpose? His own desire to make some point about a revolting man. By all means, share with those in need…because they need it. The people aren’t props for you to use for a political statement.
This lack of compassion, this self-consciousness and detachment connects with the You’re Doing It Wrong trend in the media the past several years. BuzzFeed, Slate, Alternet, Huffington Post, et al, regularly, perhaps daily, feature articles about everything we are doing wrong. We are making a peanut butter and jelly sandwich wrong, we are putting on our shirts wrong, we are breathing wrong, and obviously we are having sex wrong. In fact, we’re just wrong all around. My way is not different—it’s wrong. It’s black and white, this world. We must follow The Way. Okay, the headlines are just click-bait (just like my adorable cat picture above), the messages are nothing new in the world of sales, the cosmetics industry is built on it, but with so many competing for advertising dollars the message has spread beyond product purchase to my innocuous daily choices. How can there be a wrong way to make PB&J? I like mine with banana. That’s probably wrong. Why not call it different? Why not let the me of me and the you of you be something interesting to learn about and adopt if desired? Why can’t we just exchange our points of view without there being a right point? This what the uber-religious and the Republican Party thrive on—who you love is wrong, what you want to learn is wrong, what you want is wrong. Perhaps this is just the (US) American way, a lingering Puritan value.
To succeed is to fail, fail, and fail, and in-between failures, stand back up, learn from the dust, rest, and try again. To be wrong a lot of the time so you can occasionally be right…. Wait, no, failure isn’t wrong. Wrong smacks too much of morality. Failure is a key to learning (Oops, I made my chocolate cake without chocolate. Next time I’ll use chocolate.), but if we’re constantly chastising, teaching people to not trust their efforts and points of view, how can we expect our kids to Just Do It if they’re bound to Do It Wrong? I’m afraid of failing. I’m afraid of messing up, and I grew up pre-internet, when messages had fewer means of reaching and corrupting my tiny mind. My kids are slightly less connected than those in the US but they are still terrified of failure, and why wouldn’t they be? When parents get angry over 90% grades, when kids laugh at peers that mess up, when The Church looms over most of their lives, that doesn’t create an environment where kids are ready to try new things. So they turn off their brains, wait to be given the answer, and pout, whine, and get angry when the answer isn’t clear.
And now to go full circle, how does this relate to my criticisms of Serial? Failure means putting yourself on the very edge. It means having all the feels—the sadness, the pain, the extreme joys, the laughing out loud when no one else is, the crying in the corner for no good reason at all and letting the snot run out of your nose. It’s not always pretty and cool. So the vocal detachment sometimes seems a barrier to the sharing of experience. I suppose the idea is to, in reporter fashion, remove the teller from the story, to not influence the listener’s perspective, to allow space for independent opinion, but I don’t hear that. I hear hiding and judgment. I hear apathy. Sometimes. They’re doing it wrong. Or they’re doing it differently, in a way I don’t understand.
But I’m probably wrong.
And that’s okay.
P.S. The above is our new cat Nova. He wandered into our house on Valentine’s Day and hasn’t yet left.