Monday, March 23, 2015

In Which Vorn Decries Bullying, Then Calls A Bunch Of People Names

I trained as a teacher a few years ago.  One of the most vivid memories I have from that time is a mufti day at a uniform school.  It’s a trope among defenders of school uniform that the most striking thing about a mufti day is the sheer conformity of teenage clothing choices - “They’re wearing uniform anyway,” the defenders cry, “what’s the point?”

Everyone knows the point though, even when they pretend they don’t.  The point is that freed from the institutional uniform, the kids get to wear the uniform of their tribe.  You only have to open your eyes a tiny crack to see a rainbow of variety in the ‘uniform’ of adolescence - the jocks, the geeks, the metallers, the stoners, the skaters, the punks, the gangsters and the goths, who we met in an earlier blog distinguishing themselves through their taste in music, also have their own neatly differentiated uniforms which serve both as badges of identity and as tokens of social position and power.

What I remember most vividly about mufti day was the fear in the eyes of all the teachers I saw.  The lump of grey they were used to moulding was splintered into chunks of subculture, arrayed in a rainbow of black.  Or those idealists used to seeing their students as individuals were forced to see them as members of networks of influence with protocols designed to be untouchable from the outside.  Or, if you like, a simple matter of us and them was turned into a complex and interdependent web of us-es with the teachers forced into the role of them.

Or something.  Frame it how you like, the teachers were scared.  And as we were encouraged to do by our lecturers, I discussed this with my fellow student-teachers.  Most of whom were pro-uniform for the most old and chestnutty of reasons - uniform prevents people being bullied about their clothes.  When I put it to people that veils would prevent people being bullied about their acne and fat-suits would prevent people being bullied about their bodies and a vow of silence would prevent people being bullied about their breaking voices I was told (usually gently) that I was being ridiculous.

But, I would push, as I am wont to push, how is uniform any less ridiculous than any of my proposed measures?  It is the exact same principle, it only seems less ridiculous because we’re used to it.  And besides, it doesn’t prevent bullying - ask fourteen-year-old me as he assiduously drags his brand-new Nomads through every puddle of mud between home and the bus stop in the hope that they will escape notice and subsequent consignment to the school roof.  And  you don’t need my anecdotes either - if you’re into evidence-based policy we have a century and more of school uniforms behind us; we have plenty of non-uniform schools to provide counter-examples; it’s easy to find out whether bullying has ever ceased or even eased slightly as a result of uniforms.

We pretend (I would continue, foam forming at the corners of my mouth) that uniform prevents bullying and makes dressing teens more affordable and contributes to school spirit and shatters cliques, but that’s not why we force kids into uniform.  We do it because we wish to impose our vision of social order on them by coercing them into sartorial conformity.  Which is precisely what bullies do.  And they’re honest about it, whereas we’re mealy-mouthed twats who wheel out lame excuses about preventing bullying or saving parents money or some shit.

At this point those of my interlocutors who were smarter than me* would point out that bullies are random arseholes who arrogate to themselves the right to decide who wears what, whereas school boards and teachers are elected, experienced, trained, and qualified adults who are motivated to act in the best interests of all students; if they fail to do so, they’ll be removed and replaced.  It’s not arbitrary power, it’s a fully accountable meritocracy.

And I’d shut up, finally.

But now that I’ve had a few years to come up with a comeback, from behind the safety of my keyboard, I’d like to question that assertion.  What I think is that schools and governments and police forces and armies are supposed to be qualified and just and accountable. We set them up to be that way, and we delegate responsibility to them on condition that they act in our interests. But the only way to keep them that way is, to borrow a phrase,** constant vigilance.  And I think that institutions often turn into bullies, and that we as human individuals are pretty terrible at noticing when this has happened.  We tend instead to notice when some individual is bullying, and punish them for it, without ever wondering if maybe they’re just behaving exactly the way their organisation demands they do but not disguising it well enough.

That’s right, this is my essay about the X factor.  A recap for readers from the future: X-factor was an international franchise of talent-quest-styled TV shows in which a panel of judges would whittle a huge pool of applicants down to a dozen or so contenders for a relatively unimpressive prize package.  These contenders would perform weekly for the judging panel and a live audience, and one or more would be voted off the program, either by the judges or by popular vote, or a combination of the two.  The contestant not voted off would receive the prize.  The show was conceived by Simon Cowell, who also performed the role of ‘mean judge’ on the English and American versions.  Other judges were drawn ‘from the industry’, meaning they were celebrities (usually singers) who needed money or exposure to revive flagging careers; in the absence of Cowell himself it was understood that someone else would have to play the role of ‘mean judge’ but that (this will become important later) only one judge at any time was to be mean - the others must play the role of loser’s advocate.

The New Zealand version was funded by New Zealand on Air and by large sponsors such as McDonald’s; this was presumably because Simon Cowell is so poor he can’t fund his own business ventures.  I for one am very glad to know that some part of my taxes has gone to helping him through his obvious financial difficulties.***

Two of the judges on the New Zealand X Factor were a husband-and-wife team, pseudonymed Willie Moon and Natalia Kills.  Both were natural choices as X Factor judges as they had already demonstrated their ability to independently generate media attention vastly disproportionate to their artistic output, whether your preferred measure is quantity or quality.  They proceeded to do their jobs, on camera by taking turns playing ‘the mean judge’ and off camera by playing the role of ‘entitled celebrity type’.

The X-Factor, as Russell Brown notes, markets itself to its sponsors not only in terms of ratings but also in terms of engagement; this means that the number of people talking about the programme is of equal importance to the number of people watching any given episode.  This means that controversy is a necessary component of every episode.  Merely watching a lot of good singers singing well every week may attract fans of good singing, but it will not set water-coolers buzzing.  This series of the X Factor, for example, featured a contestant who had been convicted of manslaughter somewhat downplaying his role in the death of the person he helped kill.  The family of the victim were understandably upset.  The X Factor issued an apology.  This served both the aims of ratings and engagement - anyone who wanted to see the apology would have to tune in; meanwhile, water-coolers buzzed with discussions of justice and sensible sentencing and debts to society and the possibility (or lack thereof) that they can be truly repaid.  It’s important to note that from the point of view of the format, none of this was necessarily a mistake.  This is the machine doing exactly what it is designed to do.

With the show’s pet killer having been quietly removed, and Moon and Kills busily establishing their credentials as Mean People Who Aren’t Nice,  an obvious next step was for them to say some mean things which weren’t nice to one of the contestants.  They did.  The water-coolers exploded.  The pair were accused of crossing a line, described as bullies, and sacked following a petition demanding they be sacked.  It’s important to note again that from the point of view of the format, none of this is bad.  Over 70,000 signatures on an online petition represents concrete evidence of engagement.  As a bonus, the sponsors were able to go on record denouncing the judges’ behaviour, which means that the word McDonald’s was repeated often, on air, and in print,**** without the company having to pay a single cent.  This is the machine succeeding spectacularly in doing what it is designed to do.

Meanwhile the consensus, in my social media bubble at least, seemed to be that bullying had been successfully dealt with.  New Zealand could rightly be proud of our zero-tolerance approach.  Members of the public and celebrities alike joined in heaping opprobrium on the offending pair.   To the point where you could be forgiven for thinking there was a bit of bullying going on, actually…*****

This is the point at which I started following the story.  As a late arrival I can’t be sure whether the actual convicted killer featured on the earlier episode faced this level of public hatred, but it doesn’t seem to be the case.  His victim’s mother’s statement was a model of dignity and balance in the face of an experience very few of us can even imagine.  And of course that man paid his debt to society, according to our current laws.  There’s room to argue that Moon and Kills faced bonus vitriol because there’s a sense that their dues are not sufficiently paid - they haven’t earned the right to be so mean, the way that say, Simon Cowell or Gordon Ramsay have.

But there’s more to it than that.  Ramsay and Cowell have spread far more hatred and bile than Kills and Moon could ever hope to, but no petition for their sacking will be forthcoming, because they are Proper Bullies; Cowell with his carefully-modulated RP tones and his empire of clone shows and his troop of show clones; Ramsay with his ex-footballer physicality and the raw essence of alpha male suffusing every drop of spit that flies from his lips to his victims’ faces.  You wouldn’t bully those.  You might not win.  Kills and Moon are the other kind of bully, the kind that grew up nerdy and unaccepted.  Think about it: if these two were the kind of musician that was popular in High School, they’d have stuck around in New Zealand and formed a cool kids’ band****** like The Black Seeds or The Feelers.  These two left the country as soon as they could, away to London and New York, the great centres of world anonymity, to recreate themselves somewhere where no-one knew they were geeks.  And like so many geeks, once handed a tiny bit of power, they revelled in the chance to turn nasty, to become bullies themselves. And (I told you this would be important later) they ganged up on the contestant, violating the X-Factor’s unwritten one-mean-judge rule, and opening themselves up to the classic coward-bully callout: you wouldn’t be so tough without your mates here. They revealed that they were the kind of bully you can face down, because you know there’s a nerd inside. So proudly, as a nation who doesn’t accept bullies who haven’t earned their bully status, we bullied them out of the country.  For a second time.

Meanwhile, the real bully goes completely unpunished; in fact it’s been rewarded and reinforced.  The X Factor is a bullying machine, and the machine is doing exactly what it is designed to do.

Just before I outline some of the ways in which the X Factor is a nasty, small-minded, cowardly bully of the first water, I’d like to address the idea that these shows somehow ‘celebrate’ or ‘develop’ ‘talent’; and anticipate a couple of objections. 

First of all, if your aim is to celebrate talent, you don’t need a competition at all - you just need a showcase.  People come on, and show their stuff, and we celebrate them.  As someone who’s highly suspicious of all competitions, and of art competitions in particular, I’d pay good money to go see a show called “Isn’t This Fucking Choice?” in which people who are fucking choice at something get to perform to a big audience, and we all clap because it’s fucking choice.  In fact that’s as close as I can get to a working definition of ‘celebrating talent’.

But I am aware that you people (by which I mean all humans) are obsessed with competition, and I grudgingly admit that there are some good side effects of competitions in terms of motivation, and the kind of personal development that only happens under pressure.  So how about a competition based on this idea of ‘developing talent’?  You could have a show called “New Zealand’s Got Something There, But It Needs Honing”, where developing artists show their stuff to a live audience, who at the end of each show vote for one winner; the winner gets 6 weeks of intensive mentoring from an industry professional - this is where the celebrities come in, rather than playing ‘judge’ - an unintended bonus is that their role as mentor will require them to actually have some knowledge worth sharing, thus obviating the whole “Who the fuck is Judge X” meme.  The final show is an extravaganza in which all the weekly winners show how far they’ve come under their mentor’s tutelage, and the audience votes for one team (mentor included) to be funded for six months to develop a live show they can tour, with a view to becoming a self-sustaining, working act.

But of course it’s not about celebrating or developing talent, really, is it?  Because if it was, we’d be using something like the above formats, which took me approximately 30 seconds to come up with, starting from a one-word brief (‘celebrate’, ‘develop’).  It’s about competing, and judging, and picking a winner.  So why not, at the very least, have a competition, do judging, and pick a winner, but be less of a cheapskate about it?  Why not do regional heats, where the winner gets a meaningful prize like a lump of cash or a bunch of awesome gear as well as a shot at the national title?  Why not make the national prize big and good and useful, like free hire of a touring rig complete with sound girl and stage manager, and enough marketing budget to do a tour of the country of your choice?  Or free use of a studio and enough time to record a decent album?  Or a biiiiig pile of gear?  This is roughly the model that Smokefree Rockquest was organised around, though that franchise has much less to spend than Simon Cowell does. And Rockquest is both genuinely competitive and reasonably good at generating lasting success for its alumni; at least compared to the X-Factor model.*******

I’m asking why not, but we know why not, because the X-Factor doesn’t give a fuck about celebrating or developing or even fucking competing. 

The X-Factor is a bully. 

It proudly displays its bully colours right from the first show, where clips of the hopefuls are carefully edited to showcase the large proportion of hopeless among their number.  The audience is openly invited to laugh at these dreamers and their weird clothes and their off-key yelping and their Dunning-Kruger confidence.  And the very idea that this first show is the bit where they thin out the number of applicants is a dirty little lie - the applicants come pre-thinned.  As anyone who has seen the career arcs of former contestants knows, all that awaits the winner is a brief run of shopping-mall openings followed by a slow descent into obscurity.  And it’s no secret that they don’t get anything approximating a fair share of the monster profits they help generate.  So people who combine real ambition with a sense of perspective don’t even consider entering, and thus are automatically disqualified.  This is not an accident, it’s the exact reason the prizes in these shows are so paltry - the last thing the bully wants to deal with is a large number of motivated individuals who are also smart enough to potentially see through its bully bullshit.

Once the X-Factor has had a good laugh at all the no-hopers it attracts by deliberate design, it then sets about systematically bullying the contestants it has systematically selected.  It has the mean judge say mean things to them, which is straight bullying; but the nice things that the nice judge says are also part of the technique of the bully;  Good Cop Bad Cop is hardly a new or unknown technique of manipulation.  And it’s manipulation all the way down: people with unique or odd or original ways of performing are ‘helped’ by an array of coaches and mentors and choreographers to shed their idiosyncrasies and conform to an arbitrary pop norm.  Make-up artists descend upon them, making sure they’re wearing the appropriate uniform - tight jeans for rockers, baggies for the urban artists, or, say, a suit© and a quiff™ for a touch of retro chic®.  Audiences are carefully whipped into a frenzy or put into their place by the judges’ comments; ‘disagreements’ between judges serve to articulate and shape the way the audience will discuss the performance around the water-cooler; the ‘mean judge’ plays to our evil streaks just as the ‘nice judges’ provide the sense of balance that makes all our sneering seem okay-in-context.  Even the text votes play into the bullying dynamic - the whole playground is simultaneously invited to point and laugh at the Nigel No Mates and to validate the anointed Cool Kid.

And should the whole playground become momentarily aware that they have considerable power en masse, that if they wanted to they could band together to see the bully off, the bully has a built-in contingency plan.  The bully has a whole gang of judges who bask in his reflected power and do his dirty bullying work for him in the hope of an incremental increase in their playground standing.  And it’s the easiest thing in the world to deflect the playground’s attention towards them and away from the real villain.  After all, they’re not even real bullies, just dorks in jock’s clothing.

So they are pilloried, these tools in both senses of the word, and new tools are brought in to replace them, and nothing changes and nothing will until the whole playground identifies the real bully and stands up to it.  Which leads to Simon Cowell’s response to the debacle.  I mean the convicted-killer debacle of course; he hasn’t responded personally to the judges-saying-mean-things-to-a-contestant debacle, because as far as I can tell he is a massive cunt, not a massive hypocrite.  Cowell publicly voiced his disapproval of that contestant’s inclusion because licensees to his franchise undertake not to bring the X-Factor into disrepute.  Which can be interpreted two ways - one possible interpretation is that the X-Factor shouldn’t be seen to do mean things to people, which seems an unlikely interpretation given that the X-Factor is a machine engineered specifically to do mean things to people.  The other and only real interpretation of this statement is that if you wield the meanness-machine in a cack-handed way, people will see it for what it is, and that is the last thing that Simon Cowell wants.  There is a reason that Cowell selected himself to play the ‘mean’ judge in the big-nation iterations of the show,******** and that is because ‘mean judge’ is actually a vital and nuanced role: you have to take upon yourself the accumulated evils of the organisation, so that people may hate you as much as they like without ever, even for a moment, directing their attention to the real villain, which is the bullying behemoth for which you are only the front.

My favourite mentor when I was teacher training was a well and truly mean and authoritarian classroom despot, who was beloved of all under her fief, because in the demilitarised zone governed by her tyranny, bullying was unable to flourish.  The wannabe bullies in Her Room were too cowardly to fly their bully flags, and that was the way everyone liked it, bullies included.  Everyone got a break from shitting and being shat on, and for fifty minutes or so, they could all try and learn something, which is in some parts still considered the point of the exercise.  My fledgling attempts to run a more democratic affair led to predictable and occasionally nasty chaos.  There’s no denying that despots, well-placed and aimed in the right direction, can be a force for good, an anti-bullying gun. 

There’s little denying that the baying mob that saw off the bad mean judges from X-Factor can perform the same function.  We just need to find a way to aim the gun in the right direction.  Vote the X-Factor off. Show the world that New Zealand has guts as well as talent.

*Yes you’re right, that was all of them.  Very droll, by the way.
**Shit, I just borrowed a phrase.  I hope Marvin Gaye's family don't sue me.
***Gnnnnnnarrrrrrrrr, rage.
****And in this blog, fuckit.
***** I genuinely love this photo; if the entire internet were to burn tomorrow and only this jpeg remained, anthropologists would be able to reconstruct the entire culture with near-100% accuracy, from the image itself - a Fake artist posing with a fake Artist - to the casual racism, to the Spelling So Bad It Must Be On Purpose, Surely, to the plain-weird inability to see one’s own hypocrisy.  Not to mention the emoji bomb…
******I mean a band whose members are cool kids, not the fans.  I can smell a thesis in there actually, now I come to think of it.
*******It also spends a lot less time being a dick to its competitors, who it recognises are young and developing, preferring to pick winners according to set criteria and leave the bitching to the haters.
********…apart from the fact that he is a massive cunt, of course,