Why We Need To Host Difficult Discussions
Updated: Nov 2, 2021
TRIGGER WARNING: Brief discussion of sexual assault -and- physical and verbal identity-based violence.
We are allowed to love the things we love and ship the couples we ship. But, at the same time, there is an immense benefit to being able to have discussions about what elements of these books, movies, and shows promote dangerous misconceptions and biases or harm marginalized populations. Let's dig a little deeper into why it is crucial that we critically reflect on the media we consume in the same breath that we love it.
There is an old adage that "Life imitates Art as Art imitates Life." In my personal opinion, this saying rings true. While the stories and relationships we see in books and on TV are often drawn from the personal experiences and emotions of the creators and thus imitate life, our collective societal pulse of what is "normal" or how we should expect others to behave can also be either informed or reinforced by what we see characters do. I know when I am in a new situation, I often reflect on how something similar has been addressed in my favourite shows. I also know that I am not alone.
The average person, in Western Society, spends 20-40 hours online per week, 35 hours a week watching TV, and reads 1-2 books per month. On top of this, we are constantly bombarded by advertisements, news cycles, and sources of art and bias that we might not be aware of. Numerous studies have shown that our expectations, opinions, and biases regarding gender, sexuality, race, age, mental illness, body shape, "attractiveness," disability, tolerance, political ideology, and behaviour are, at least in part, informed by all the media we consume. The relationship between our unconscious beliefs and the expectations set by media is so well covered that I want to use this article to focus on a different phenomenon.
The pyramid of violence pictured here is specifically used to address the cultural manifestations that make sexual violence possible. Still, I believe it is easily translatable to all forms of intolerance and identity-based discrimination and violence. This illustration was designed by Ashley Fairbanks.
The levels of the pyramid refer not to the severity of the crime per se, but what we, as a society, must accept and condone to allow all those items at the higher levels to exist. A society that accepts the existence of intolerant, harmful, and non-inclusive images, jokes, and ideas is better primed to struggle with institutional biases and stereotypes. From there, a society with deeply institutionalized racism, sexism, or any other form of intolerance is more likely to see frequent cases of harassment and abuse, and so on up the pyramid.
This pyramid can also refer to the actions of individuals. It is important to note that someone who engages in verbal threats and harassment will not inherently continue up the pyramid to engage in physical abuse; but that everyone at the higher levels both condones and engages in the activities at the lower levels as well. Most critically, it is the existence of those who believe the activities at the bottom are harmless and acceptable that empower those who engage in activities at higher levels to believe they are in the right and feel validated in their actions.
Consider this: I rarely if ever hear jokes about harming puppies, at least not ones that are well received. This attitude is informed by our current beliefs that harming innocent puppies is wrong and further perpetuates this belief going forward. As a result, cases of animal hoarding, abuse, and murder against dogs are low, and those that do happen are swiftly and severely condemned and punished. Conversely, jokes and derogatory remarks about marginalized identities are frequent, and biases and stereotypes in this vain are institutionalized in our systems. As a result, we frequently see discrimination and verbal and physical violence against these populations. These instances are rarely prosecuted and are swiftly forgotten because they are supported by our foundational acceptance.
Life imitates art, as art imitates life. Biased, stereotyped, intolerant, and inaccurate depictions that we see in our favourite shows and books are informed by the biases and experiences of their creators. These depictions serve to reinforce these perceptions and expectations, validating and solidifying them as a cultural norm, and providing the foundation for the tolerance of greater harm.
The examples we discuss in this blog tend to be small and relatively harmless on their own, but we need to talk about them for two main reasons:
First, these discussions allow us to reflect on and question the latent perceptions and expectations within ourselves and our collective understanding.
Second, by recognizing that these patterns are unacceptable in our real world, we can ensure we don't replicate them ourselves. We also send the message that neither these patterns nor the actions at higher points on the pyramid can be condoned.