Saturday, June 29, 2013

Alec Baldwin: Dudgeon is Easy; Understanding, Hard

I think I'm a little late to the Alec Baldwin two-minutes hate, but hopefully not too late to suggest a slightly different perspective.

Apparently, what happened is that Baldwin got enraged by a guy named George Stark, who Baldwin believes is gay (I've never heard of Stark and have no idea one way or the other).  So Baldwin tweeted, among other things, "I'd put my foot up your fucking ass, George Stark, but I'm sure you'd dig it too much … I’m gonna find you, George Stark, you toxic little queen, and I'm gonna fuck…you…up."

From this, various people are accusing Baldwin of homophobia.  Which certainly could be one explanation, but I also gather that Baldwin has done a lot to promote gay equality.  How likely is it that someone who promotes equal rights for gays is homophobic?  Those two things aren't easy to reconcile.  So can I propose another explanation?

I don't think it's so hard to imagine that someone could have no animus toward gays in general while simultaneously, for whatever reason, wanting badly to hurt one person in particular who happens to be gay.  It's been my experience (firsthand and observation) that when someone is gripped by rage, his overriding motive is to hurt the person he's enraged at.  If the only way he can hurt that person is with words, he'll use the words he believes will be most hurtful.  So my guess (and obviously, I'm not psychic so I can't really know) is that Baldwin has no animus toward gays in general, but in the instant in which he desperately wanted to hurt someone who happens to be gay, Baldwin chose the words his enraged mind instinctively sensed would be the most likely to cause hurt.

The thing about rage is, it's a quite primitive state (one reason it's a state better to avoid if you can).  When we're in a primitive state, we do primitive things, including resorting to slurs.  If Baldwin didn't know Stark is gay, presumably he would have chosen some other phrase intended to cause maximal hurt.  If Stark had a skin condition, Baldwin might have called him pizza-face.  If he wore glasses, maybe Baldwin would have gone with four-eyes.  If Stark were overweight, Baldwin could have resorted to fatso.  If Stark were short, I can imagine Baldwin calling him shortie.  Or whatever.  Yet I doubt in these hypotheticals anyone would accuse Baldwin of hating people with acne, or who wear eyeglasses, or who are overweight, or who are short, etc.  Instead, we'd recognize the insults for what they would be:  crude attempts to verbally wound a specific person as badly as possible.

To put it another way:  what's more likely, that Baldwin, who has a history of using his celebrity to promote gay equality, secretly hates gays?  Or that in a moment of pure rage (justified or not, that's not really the point), Baldwin just reached for the words he thought could most hurt the target of his rage?

It's pretty obvious to me the second explanation is the more likely.  And I think the reason people are overlooking it is that it feels better to denounce than it does to try to explain.  Denouncing does feel good, after all -- by creating a clear separation between what the person you're denouncing has done and what you yourself would ever do, it implies moral and character superiority; it often puts you in the company of a mob, which can feel empowering; and it requires no honest reflection or soul-searching.  Whereas my explanation, though I think it does make more sense, offers none of these emotional advantages.

Now, even though I know it should go without saying, I realize I should add that I think Baldwin's words were appalling, especially the part where he calls on his million-plus Twitter followers "and beyond to straighten out this fucking little bitch."  And his apologies are, in my opinion, extremely lame.  But it doesn't necessarily follow from any of that that what was behind his outburst was homophobia, and I don't think it's helpful, in terms of raising consciousness or otherwise, to reflexively misdiagnosis the cause of bad behavior.  Remember, explaining something is not the same thing as justifying it.  And even though I've added this paragraph to explicitly remind people that, in trying to more accurately understand and explain Baldwin's motivations, I am in no way condoning his behavior, I guarantee you some people are going to accuse me justifying what Baldwin did.  Welcome to the Internet, where dudgeon dies hard.

The fact that an individual bears no animus to a minority group -- gays, Jews, blacks, women, Asians, whoever -- probably doesn't prevent the individual from realizing that being part of a minority group can make a person the target of some of the most vicious insults possible.  Remember when Michael Richards, formerly of Kramer, called a heckler a nigger?  The same explanations were immediately trotted out:  Richards had outed himself as a racist!  Maybe that was it -- again, I'm not psychic.  But it seems more likely to me that what was really going on in that instant was blind rage against an individual and a desperate need to hurt that individual.  Trying to hurt another person as badly as possible with words is, by my standards, shameful behavior.  But it's not necessarily the product of racism, homophobia, or misogyny, either.

I could offer other examples.  A good friend of mine who I know has nothing but respect for women once lashed out in misogynist terms against a woman who had offended him.  And to my great shame, I once found myself engaging in similar behavior with a member of a minority group who had scammed me.  I tried to learn from that personal incident, and what it revealed to me wasn't that I'm a closet racist, but that I was capable of saying the ugliest things possible in a moment of rage.  What shamed me was not discovering that I'm a secret racist, but that I could lose my temper, my self-possession, and my perspective like that, and want to hurt someone else so viciously, over something so petty.

If people were primarily interested in educating Alec Baldwin rather than in reeducating him, I think they might focus on something similar.

P.S.  Not long ago, I read a terrific book called Verbal Judo: The Gentle Art of Persuasion, by George Thompson.  Its teachings are simple and profound, and will doubtless take a lot of practice for me to follow.  But I think the effort will be worth it.  I recommend it to Baldwin and anyone else who's ever said something horribly cruel in a moment of rage and wished afterward the words could be retracted.


Gerald So said...

Hi, Barry.

I just wanted to second your recommendation of George Thompson's Verbal Judo. I discovered the book after Thompson's death in 2011, turning to it because I was getting into many unwanted arguments.

Here's video (90 minutes) of a Verbal Judo lecture Thompson gave to Columbia business students in 2009.

Imp said...

Women are a minority group?

Barry Eisler said...

Thanks for the link, Gerald. Debi, literally, no, but as a term of art meaning singled out for unequal treatment, I'd argue yes. There's a fair amount of scholarship (and debate) on this question; for more, Google "Are women a minority group?"

Unknown said...

Thanks so much for this post. So refreshing in the black and white thinking of the internet world. And thanks for the book recommendation.

Unknown said...

Evidently about a million people disagree with me, but why would anyone care what Alec Baldwin has to say about anything? Besides appearing in a number of forgettable films (with the exception of "The Hunt for Red October", after which he stupidly turned down the chance to appear as Jack Ryan in more films) and shilling for a credit card, what has he accomplished? Perhaps his rants give him cred with today's celebrity-obsessed culture, but really now, why bother with him?