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Skills I Learned from House Hippos

I have a confession to make. It is a terrible confession. Sometimes, nay, often, I consume media which contains positive discussion of things I don’t believe in.

*shocked gasps*

*looks of horror*

*people fleeing in the streets*

How dare I watch something which contains hints of sinful behaviour or discussion of alternate worldviews? Well, the trick is to not be mindless.

Don’t be mindless. It seems simple enough. Just actually think about what you’re reading or what you’re watching. It’s like that commercial about house hippos (which you can find on YouTube, if you’ve never seen this work of art).  Media should provoke you to think and to form your worldview, even if you end up forming it in opposition. I have trouble turning off my brain, and I love to analyse people, so this is easy for me. I can pull out interesting tidbits or questions from almost anything I watch or read, and I enjoy it.

It’s not that there aren’t things I read or watch purely for enjoyment, like watching a clean comedian or reading kids’ books (which I enjoy on occasion). However, media has great purpose, and it just so happens that it is also a huge part of my life. I love to read. I love stories, both telling them and hearing them. I love seeing how people react to stories and how something like that can shape their life. And I will read, or watch, and often appreciate, something that does not fall directly in line with my own beliefs. There are three reasons for this, which also are three benefits, which also are three personal exercises and ways of looking at the media you take in.

#1: Cultural Understanding and Relationships

a) I live under a rock. For an example of this, I will provide you with an anecdote. I learned the difference between Chris Pratt, Chris Evans, and Chris Hemsworth in… December? January? Because my sister actually convinced me to start watching Marvel movies. Before that, we got a Chris Pratt action figure in at the store (from Guardians of the Galaxy? I think?) and my co-worker wanted to buy it. A couple weeks later, I, foolishly, asked her “hey, do you still have that Chris Evans figure in your bin?”. Her: “It’s Chris PRATT! How do you not know this?” Me: “There’s like at least three of them. How am I supposed to keep track? I live under a rock!”

That is my story. Point being, I really don’t know most celebrities, but if they play a character I like, or are in a movie or show I really enjoy, I will probably know their names and faces. Now I know parts of the Marvel Cinematic Universe, and I have a greater cultural understanding with which to relate to, say, my co-workers, my sister, and people I know who really like superheros. I might be able to recognize someone in a magazine in waiting rooms, even if the magazine is dumb and/or full of lies and slander. This leads into sub-section

b) forming relationships can be hard, especially when you don’t have much common ground with a person. You build most of your relationships off of a common experience, like working together, or the fact that you both like skiing, or the fact that you both know the bride. A story, whether it’s Shakespeare or Supernatural, is like an artificial shared experience. We’ve never met, but we’ve both seen Jessica Jones, and now we can talk about that. It’s a beginning. Stories are a lot of my conversation starters. I don’t have to agree with a character to talk about them. In fact, if I don’t, maybe it’s a better discussion.

#2: Challenging Myself

Anyone who has ever done a sport knows that challenge makes you stronger. Say Lacey, our hypothetical friend, tells me that she wants to run a half-marathon. This is an excellent goal, Lacey. It’s certainly better than my fitness goals. However, Lacey isn’t much of a runner, so she’ll have to train. We set a smaller goal: run thrice around the track without stopping. Lacey begins. Now she has two options: remember, she’s really not in shape, so this could be difficult. Either she can stop, or she can finish it. If she stops running and gives up, then she wasn’t terribly invested in her half-marathon goal. If she finishes it, next time will be easier. And easier, and easier, and then she can run longer, and faster, and one day she can run a half-marathon, because her body is strong.

My body is not strong.

This idea of challenge applies to your ideas and beliefs, too. If we lived in a world where nothing we believed was ever challenged, we would still believe that the sun goes around the earth. My Mum likes to tell about how, when we were little, we all thought that pure cocoa would be the greatest thing, so she let us try some. Turns out pure cocoa isn’t that delicious. This is also a challenge: she set our idea against something tangible, and is turns out we were wrong.

Sometimes I watch something that I know beforehand I will disagree with, or I read a book because it will probably have an opposing viewpoint to my own. I just enjoy a challenge. My life, now that college classes are over, consists of working retail and sitting at home reading. Every once and awhile I go out and see people. But if it weren’t for the voracious way I consume books, TV shows, blog posts, and TED talks, I would be bored. Instead, I take something in, and then I take my time to process the opinions presented. I contrast them with my own. I do a bit of research, sometimes. Then I can find out if maybe, I was thinking about this one way and I would prefer to take another look. Sometimes, I decide I’m still right. In some situations, I live in the uneasy middle ground where I’m still looking for answers. But in any of these situations, my beliefs and ideas are stronger because I have investigated them. They aren’t based on ‘this is what I’ve always been told’ or ‘this is what I read in a Facebook opinion post with zero actual references’, and they start to be ‘this is what I learned reading source material’ and ‘after taking in multiple viewpoints on this matter, I find my values aligning with this perspective’.

This does not only happen with non-fiction. This can just as easily happen with fiction, where I might be forced to ask ‘is this a just war?’ or to say ‘I know Natasha Romanov is supposed to be a good guy but also she’s an assassin; what do I think about that?’. These are the hard questions of life.  

I spend a lot of time pacing around the kitchen, eating peanut butter toast and carefully forming arguments and counterarguments. Or, occasionally, angrily forming counterarguments, but I try to keep my anger to my lonesome pacing, and bring my calm, rational side into human discussion. Which leads to our last point.

#3: Dealing with Difference

[This sounds like a catchy title for the curriculum materials for a grade three conflict resolution class. This section may read like a grade three conflict resolution class.]

Look, there are two truths we need to acknowledge. One: The world will never be perfect. To anyone. Until the end, when the world has passed away and we’ve all settled into our eternal life, we will have to live (and probably die, too) in an imperfect world. Nobody will get to look at the world and say ‘this is perfect, I wouldn’t change a thing. Everyone agrees exactly with my way of thinking and the laws enforce it.’ I’m sorry, that’s just how it is. Two: you can’t just ignore or walk away from everyone that disagrees with you on something. You will find it very difficult to keep friends if you do. I’m a little bit socially inept, but I know that much. Sometimes you will disagree on little things, like whether Tangled is better than Frozen, and sometimes it will be bigger things, like religion or politics. But if you want to have healthy relationships, you have to figure out how to navigate these things.

So, the question becomes: ‘how do I live in this imperfect world? How do I interact with these people when they don’t accept everything I believe as the unquestionable truth?’ Well, my friends, it’s difficult. As a culture, as a group as well as as individuals, we are doing terribly at this. Look anywhere on the internet and you can see people behaving like elementary school children who aren’t getting their way, complete with name-calling, insulting people’s intelligence, and using the excuse ‘it was just a joke’. YouTube comments are renowned for this, but it also shows up in blog comments, and in comments sections on news sites, which presumably is where the adults are. These places are like a ‘what not to do’ manual for civilized discussion.

All these things said, I often practise my ‘Dealing with Difference’ skills when I’m consuming media. These skills do take practice, because we don’t like it when things don’t go our way, and – I was going to say we don’t like it when others are wrong, but perhaps I should rephrase. We do like it when other people recognize our superior knowledge. But they are necessary skills.

Skills like ‘How to not automatically walk out on someone when they express an opposing opinion’. When I’m reading blog posts or watching videos, this may mean that I read or watch to the end of an article without plotting what I would say in response. These are listening skills, the ability to believe that other people, who are different from you, might be valuable, and their thoughts and experiences are worth your time.

‘How to know when is an appropriate time to start a discussion and when you should let something lie.’ Especially online, many places are not a good forum for rational discussion. Some places are, but you have to find the right community, and you have to abide by their rules. Places with rules of engagement are much better for this, because they encourage you to follow the same rules you would in in-person interaction, like ‘be polite’. I play ‘know the difference between a video meant to spark debate and a video meant for a community to agree with’. Like music videos. A YouTube video that’s just a place to hear a song: not a place for argument. You don’t have to go to a concert if you don’t like the band’s message, and you don’t have to finish this video either.

‘How to find commonalities between yourself and others.’ For example, take the character Captain America. There are some things we disagree on. Cap is a fighter, and he kills people. I don’t think that’s right. Another of Cap’s well-known character traits is that he doesn’t like bullies. I, too, try to operate on the foundation that we should be kind to each other instead of tearing each other down. From that basis, we might be able to come to an understanding of each other, should I ever meet Captain America. This is closely related to

‘How to find reasons and ways to respect others even if you don’t always agree.’ Like Hank Green and I do not share religious beliefs, and sometimes I watch a video of his and find myself disagreeing. But I think he does a lot of great educational work online, and he encourages people to be curious and to pursue their passions, and he’s intelligent and funny and generally kind to the community formed around him and his brother. All of these are things that I respect, and I think he’s someone I would like to know.

So, I’ve given you three things. Three reasons for watching or reading something that expresses a different viewpoint, or even displays behaviours I don’t encourage in a positive light. If I am not a passive consumer, then my habits can not only not be harmful, but can be actively beneficial, encouraging me to think about what I believe and understand it, to learn how to deal with it or engage on the topic, and to go out and talk about it. I think that, for most people, the things that they object to in any given media are things that are real world issues, like violence, sexuality, and politics. Being a mindful consumer is a good way to learn, and developing the skills and knowledge to understand and navigate issues is essential. I highly recommend picking  up something difficult and/or controversial this summer.

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Posted by on June 16, 2016 in On Media


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