Absolute Right?

...regardless of the cost?

…regardless of the cost?

As most of you are aware, last Friday a young man named Elliot Rodger went on a shooting rampage near the University of California at Santa Barbara–killing six innocent victims and then killing himself. This was the act of a deranged, hateful person, motivated by misogyny, racism and general misanthropy, and it resulted in a terrible loss of life.

People have different ways of grieving and dealing with terrible events like the UCSB shooting. Some have chosen to examine the killer’s motivations and discuss them in order to gain a better understanding. Some, like the father of one of the victims, Richard Martinez, chose to call for legislation and action to prevent more senseless acts of gun violence in the future.

And some, like former Presidential campaign prop turned political commentator Samuel “Joe the Plumber” Wurzelbacher, chose to write an open letter in response to Martinez’s heartbreaking plea to say “Your dead kids don’t trump my Constitutional rights.” Or no, actually, it was just him.

I deliberately chose not to link to Wurzelbacher’s letter itself, mostly because I don’t want to give it more clicks than it already received. Having read it myself, it’s honestly hard to tell if Wurzelbacher believes what he says, or if this is just him trolling in an attempt to exploit the deaths of several innocent young people to prolong his long-since-lapsed 15 minutes of fame.

He barely touches on his pro-Second Amendment argument before going off on a tangent about whether the shooter voted for Obama and complaining about media bias against “conservative Tea Party Republican Christians,” and implying that Martinez cares more about his political agenda than he does his dead son. Suffice to say, it’s one of the more ignorant, illogical and hateful things I’ve read on the Internet.

But for the purposes of this post, I’ll both assume Wurzelbacher is serious and focus on his briefly addressed and completely unsupported thesis, that the well-being of other humans is not paramount to his right, as guaranteed under the Constitution (or at least his interpretation of the Constitution), to own a firearm.

I wouldn’t even give “Joe the Plumber” the time of day if it weren’t for the fact that this argument keeps coming up over and over. Every time one of these shooting sprees happens (and they are frequent these days), a certain segment of the pro-Second Amendment crowd decries any discussion of gun control or restrictions of gun ownership on the grounds that the Second Amendment grants them the absolute right to own guns, in any quantity, quality or type they desire.

The problem with this argument is that there is no such thing as an absolute right. Every right recognized by the government of the United States of America, and by the United Nations, is qualified and modified by law.

Even though the First Amendment grants me the right to freedom of speech without “abridgment” by Congressional law, that doesn’t protect me from being criminally liable for damages, injuries and loss of life resulting from me yelling “Fire!” in a crowded theater. It doesn’t permit me to threaten people with violence, or print falsehoods about other people, or to practice a religion that involves human sacrifice. My rights to freedom of speech, freedom of press and freedom of religion do not take precedence over the well-being of others who have done me no wrong.

What Wurzelbacher is arguing, and what everybody who repeats this claim is arguing, is that, though the very Amendment that guarantees their ability to say these ignorant, hateful things and rub salt in the wounds of grieving parents is subject to restrictions and limitations, the Amendment that protects their right to own a firearm is not.

That is horseshit.

A person’s rights, under law, end when they infringe on the rights of others. Even the right to life, recognized by both the United States government and the United Nations as a basic human right, is not guaranteed in the event that a person chooses to use their life to bring harm to another. This is the very cornerstone of law. It is the mortar that holds society together. If we were to adopt this attitude of doing what we want without any thought of the harm to others under every circumstance, the end result would be anarchy.

So what, exactly, makes the Second Amendment so special that the very precepts of law and human society, observed by every culture since the dawn of man, don’t apply to it?

The simple answer is, it’s not. Like every other right, the right to bear arms as guaranteed by the Second Amendment is and should be subject to restriction and regulation. But Wurzelbacher and people like him don’t view the right to bear arms as a right. They view it as an entitlement, something they are guaranteed regardless of its impact on others, not unlike how Elliot Rodger shot innocent people to “get revenge” on the world for denying him what he believed to be his entitlement to an attractive woman to be his sexual partner.

Please understand, I realize that “Joe” and others like him aren’t speaking for every gun-owning American citizen. I understand that the vast majority of gun owners, and even the vast majority of NRA members, support gun control legislation. I imagine gun owners and non-gun owners have different ideas about what the details of that legislation should be, but that’s precisely why we need to have this conversation, and it’s a conversation that loudmouths like “Joe the Plumber” and lobbyist groups like the NRA aren’t allowing to happen.

The deaths of six innocent young people on Friday, May 23rd, 2014 were a terrible loss of life, and a horrible crime committed by a hateful, disturbed individual. The fact that we’re allowing people like Wurzelbacher and self-interested industry lobbying groups like the NRA to drown out the voices of the victims is a tragedy.


Your participation trophy, sir.

Your participation trophy, sir.

Recently, my wife had a night out with some of our friends, and this event prompted a realization; of the women in our circle of friends, she’s one of the few who is married. And of our female friends, the majority of them are single. This observation was interesting both to her and to myself, since really, this is a scenario that, a generation or two ago, would have been surprising. We’re all in our late 20s and early 30s; in the mid-20th century and earlier, most of these women would have been married by now.

I started thinking about that change, and its broader implications, and I came to an interesting conclusion; in modern society, a woman no longer needs to be in a relationship with a man to function and thrive.

Now, don’t misunderstand me and think that preaching the “men are unnecessary” slogan. I’ve always been of the opinion that human society needs everyone to be on equal footing for society to function properly. All genders bring something to the table that the others don’t, and in an era where critical thinking and new ideas are becoming increasingly important, that’s incredibly valuable.

But prior the the last 60 years or so, a woman was expected to get married to a man and start a family, not to start a career and pay her own way. It simply wasn’t generally feasible for a woman to get a job that she could earn a real living at, due to wide array of social pressures and realities. But even though pay inequality between men and women hasn’t gone away and the “glass ceiling” still looms in many workplaces, that situation has changed. Women are not only able to earn their own way in society, they’re expected (and many desire) to make just as much as men do.

In other words, women no longer require a man in their life to be the breadwinner and provide for them just because they were born without a Y chromosome. A fundamental reality that characterized centuries of human civilization has, within our lifetimes, dramatically shifted.

My wife’s observation brought into focus a concept that had been rattling around for awhile: Why doesn’t our fiction reflect this change?

Pick any story off the shelf at random, regardless of the time in which it was written, whether it was written by a man or a woman, or what medium it’s conveyed in, and odds are the story you picked has a male lead and a female lead who fall in love and wind up in a relationship, if not married, by the story’s close.

It doesn’t have to be a love story, and indeed, the relationship between the characters doesn’t even have to be a key part of the story. This is such a common trope in fiction that a term has been coined to describe it: LINETS, or “Love Interest Non-Essential To Story.”

And it’s not just that the male and female leads almost always end up together, but these stories are mostly told from a male perspective, and the female has no agency in this relationship. She’s not another character who makes a choice or falls in love; she will be with the male lead. She’s a prize for reaching the end of the tale, a trophy for the hero. And as the old saying goes, everyone is the hero of their own story. This kind of thinking can apply to real life as well.

You may see where I’m going with this…

Fiction is many things: entertainment, an industry, an art form. But first and foremost, it’s a teacher. People tell stories because it’s one of the easiest ways to learn information. Our histories are constructed into narratives with villains, heroes and climactic battles, abstract concepts of mathematics and science are taught through simple stories, even simple bits of information from our daily lives are conveyed through anecdotes.

And perhaps most importantly, stories are how we convey our morals and social norms to our children. This is the reason that every religion has a canon of stories and parables associated with it; we teach our young by examples as demonstrated in stories, and children absorb what they see and hear. It shapes their understanding of how the world works.

So, we have an enormous, constantly-growing body of fiction, much of which is consumed by young boys, and almost all of which is telling them that simply for being what they are, the hero of their own story, they are entitled to, nay, guaranteed a woman to be their love interest. And boys are being taught this lesson in an era in which, strictly speaking, women no longer need a man by default.

There’s a lot of talk about what dangerous lessons fiction might be teaching our children. People worry about violent films, television and video games turning children into school shooters. Religious fundamentalists decry what they believe to be pro-gay messages that could turn their children into homosexuals, or books about magic like Harry Potter turning kids into Satanists.

But nobody seems to be talking about the dangers of teaching young boys that, when they grow up, they are entitled to a relationship with a woman by default. And to me that seems like a far more dangerous message, because it’s insidious.

Even the most forward-thinking young men, who support gender equality in every way possible, can fall prey to this misconception, because it doesn’t inherently conflict with a pro-feminist value system. After all, sticking up for women’s rights makes you a nice guy, a good person, a hero. And doesn’t the hero always get the girl?

It’s insidious because, even for writers, it’s hard to get away from. It’s everywhere. In many ways, it’s become as intrinsic to storytelling as the three-act structure. But like that structure, this trope of the woman-as-trophy can be subverted. It can be played with. It can be changed.

As writers, it’s our duty to do so. As society changes and progresses, so must the lessons we teach. A society should move forward because of its stories, not in spite of them.

Compulsive Storytelling

Nothing to do now but wait. *Sigh.*

Nothing to do now but wait. *Sigh.*

Recently, I started watching the anime series Attack on Titan, which just recently began its US television run on Cartoon Network…and by “started watching,” I mean that I shotgunned the entire first season on Netflix in about four days. Attack on Titan is one of the most compelling, compulsively watchable shows I’ve ever seen, and once I finished watching the first season, and after the realization sank in that now I was stuck waiting for the second season to be released when it hasn’t even started production yet in Japan, I began to think about why that is.

Even those of you who haven’t seen Attack on Titan yet (which you totally should) can probably relate to this. I think everybody has found a TV show they can’t stop watching, or a book that’s almost impossible to put down until you reach the last page, or even a video game whose story grabs you and won’t let you go until you finish all 30-odd hours of it. Every storyteller’s desire is to create a story like that; something that grips the audience all the way through and leaves them wanting more.

I’ve been to a few writing workshops with authors who shared their opinions on how to achieve that effect, but I’m not sure that there’s a magic formula to create that “can’t put it down” quality, so much as it’s the result of a kind of synergy, an effect of a work being greater than the sum of its parts. So here are my thoughts on the assemblage of individual parts that can combine to form a Voltron of an awesome story, just based on the works I’ve experienced this feeling with.

The first element of any show or book that grabs me this way is always the cast of characters. These compulsively-consumable stories, for me, at least, are always character-driven more than they’re plot-driven. They tend to revolve around an ensemble cast, all the members of which get enough time in the spotlight to be developed, all of whom have some room to grow at least a little, and all of whom interact in interesting ways. In some ways, this may be the easiest element to achieve; even stories that aren’t that interesting overall often have a solid core cast. As long as a writer doesn’t make his characters boring or unlikeable, this is very doable.

The second element that I’ve seen is having long-term questions that need to be answered over the course of the story. Now, I need to clarify this with a few qualifications. First, the number of questions needs to be fairly limited, typically to just a few items, or only to one. Attack on Titan has the looming question of what the Titans actually are, and a few sub-questions I won’t spoil for those who haven’t seen the show yet. Firefly mostly deals with the ongoing question of what had been done to River and what the government wanted her for. The Dresden Files has had a series of these questions, introducing new ones as old ones are resolved. A long-running mystery gives the audience reason to get invested in the story.

However, introducing too many questions often results in a show where everything is a question, and typically means the writers haven’t bothered to figure anything out beforehand. The poster child for this formula is Lost, and many shows have tried to follow in that tradition. Typically this bogs down a show and results in a situation where nobody in the audience has any idea what’s actually going on, which I know is entertaining for some people, but many (including myself) find it incredibly frustrating and dull. I find that this works best when the number of questions is kept small, and when new questions are introduced only as old ones are answered, thus creating a sense of progression and deepening mystery for the audience.

Speaking of Lost, the second major caveat is that all the story’s important questions need to be answered at some point. Some ambiguity can be okay, but any major question that’s been driving the plot at any point needs a definitive answer. Additionally, the writer should know the answer to a question when the question is introduced. There are few things more frustrating than watching through several seasons of a TV show only for the overarching mystery to have an answer that the writer clearly pulled out of his ass at the last minute. A writer doesn’t need to outline his plots with a Dickensian level of detail, but he should at least have a general idea of where the story is going; it’s never a good idea to fly by the seat of your pants when writing a mystery.

Finally, the third essential element I’ve found to a gripping story, and perhaps the hardest of all to achieve, is pacing. The right pace to one of these stories will have an episode or a chapter leave the audience wanting more, but also make them feel like that episode or chapter wasn’t a waste of time. The story needs to move fast enough that things happen quickly enough to keep the audience from being bored, but not so quickly that not enough time is devoted to individual character or story elements. Also, there needs to be an incentive for the audience to keep going, an ending that has some resolution, but also leaves room for doubt and uncertainty.

A story that hits the sweet spot will have its audience saying, “OK, one more chapter before bed,” or “Just one more episode…” And really, I think that’s every writer’s dream come true; to create a story so good that the audience never wants it to end. It’s certainly a goal worth striving for.