Removing The Frame And Dropping The Context

In The Real Frank Zappa Book, Zappa wrote:

The most important thing in art is The Frame. For painting: literally; for other arts: figuratively-- because, without this humble appliance, you can't know where The Art stops and The Real World begins.

I was thinking about this quote in the context of "political correctness," "cancel culture," and other forms of rigtheous indignation. 

Let's take an old example. There are numerous instances of the n-word's being used throughout the books To Kill A Mockingbird, and The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn. For this reason, both of these books have at times been subjected to bans. The n-word is considered too triggering and hurtful to be included in many libraries and school assignments in today's world. 

And yet, both of these books are not only about racism, they can indeed be considered treaties against racism. In fact, they are quite explicitly about racism against blacks, and in both books, the n-word is used to accurately depict racism while telling a story about how we all ought to overcome racism and treat blacks equally. Part of the message of both of these books is not to use the n-word. The books use the n-word in order to show how ghastly and racist it is to do so. Use of the n-word is presented as an example of people behaving badly, so that the authors can go on to show how people ought to be behaving instead.

It is only by removing The Frame from these books that we could ever consider their use of the n-word to be hurtful. We remove The Frame by interpreting the dialogue in the books as though it has been spoken today, right now, right in the same room as the reader, possibly directed at the reader. It is only by taking the books in this light that we could ever be offended by their use of the n-word. 

By maintaining The Frame, however, we maintain that these are fictional stories, we observe the behavior within those stories, we reach the end of the book, and we come away with an important moral message: to eschew racism, treat other people as equals, and not use the n-word.

In short, it's The Frame around "the picture" that enables us to do this. Without The Frame, it's just some old white people using the n-word at us. But with The Frame, they're good stories with important anti-racist messages.

There are plenty of other, more modern examples out there. Certain jokes told by comedians could be considered hurtful and "problematic," but only if we consciously remove The Frame; only if we deliberately refuse to allow the comedian to tell his or her joke as a work of art or an act of performance. If we instead allow the comedian to play his or her role and put on an act, then our sensibilities can remain intact. Jokes might be made at the expense of us and "our kind," but it's all in good fun. It's all an act. There is A Frame around the picture. It's only hurtful or problematic if we deliberately remove The Frame.

This is exactly what happens during heckling. When a comedian encounters a heckler, the heckler has decided to remove The Frame from the comedian's act. Every time the comedian tries to tell another joke, the heckler steps in with a comment that removes The Frame and forces the comedian to be a normal person again (rather than an actor). The comment might be something simple, like, "You're not funny!" Or, it might be a case of someone's taking offense at what the comedian has said, and arguing against it. It's then the comedian's task to attempt to best the heckler, reclaim the audience and The Frame, and continue his or her act.

Here's a really good example of this. Comedian Norm MacDonald tells a joke about teachers, and a teacher in the audience becomes offended. She tries to remove The Frame from MacDonald's act, but he deftly reclaims it:

What makes this so great is the fact that Norm MacDonald is an expert at using hecklers' own tactic against them. When hecklers try to be funny, or try to make a point, Norm MacDonald either refuses to acknowledge the joke or takes their statements very literally. In doing so, he removes the hecklers' own Frame, and takes back control of the situation.

In every-day interaction, human beings use humor to reach out to one another and let each other know that, despite any difficulties or miscommunications, "we're still friends." When it's properly received, that humor can mend almost any fence. But when the interlocutor refuses to acknowledge the humor - or, as the psychologists call it, the "repair attempt" - the interaction goes sour. The other person has to want to get along with you. If he or she refuses, there isn't much you can do. If they remove your Frame, you can't paint a picture. It's a power-play. They do it to gain the upper hand in the interaction. You can either give it to them, or walk away. 

Another person who wrote about this concept was Ayn Rand. She called it "context-dropping." If you "drop the context" in To Kill A Mockingbird, and instead just focus on the words printed on the page, then the n-word is the n-word, and that's despicable. If you maintain the context, then you see it as a story in which awful people said awful things, and the reader then learns an important message.

If you maintain the context of a comedy act, then you can hear all kinds of funny jokes. I've had stand-up comedians single me out in the audience before, and tell a few jokes at my expense. I could get really mad and feel insulted, and that would be dropping the context. It would be removing The Frame. Instead, I could appreciate the humor of the situation, laugh at myself a little bit, and have a good time. The choice is mine, but whatever I choose, the situation depends on The Frame, and whether it is allowed to separate the picture from the real world.


The Purple Bicycle

When I was in elementary school, the sport of mountain biking was just starting to gain mainstream traction, and given that I lived in Utah, you can only imagine what that would have been like for my peers and me. It was exciting.

I remember one store in my local shopping mall, called "Pedersen's Ski & Sports." (I Googled it just now, and it appears that the store still exists, although it has relocated from Provo to Layton, Utah.) Throughout the winter, the store was full of skis and ski boots, but during the warmer months, it was stocked bottom to top with bicycles. Bicycles of every color, shape, size, and price-point! It was not a fun "sporting goods store" to go into when I was into basketball, tennis, and soccer; but when I gained an interest in riding a new bicycle, Pedersen's was a dream world.

I had outgrown my old BMX bike and I wanted something really cool - a nice mountain bike with eighteen gears (more gears is better, right?) shock absorbers (new-fangled devices that I was amazed to find on a bicycle), hand-brakes, and everything else that a little kid might get excited about. One day, my family was at the mall, and I wandered into Pedersen's to look at the bicycles. My eyes gravitated to one that was a metallic grey in color that sort of color-faded into a deep, dark purple. I have no recollection of how good the actual bicycle was, but the color was mesmerizing. I was completely captivated by it.

For weeks and months, I would go with my parents to the mall on any conceivable pretense, just so that I could get another look at this bike. I would dream about it. I would ride around on my Walmart BMX, pretending that I was riding on this fantastic purple bike instead. I would sit and daydream about it. 

I was totally obsessed. It was a good obsession, though. It gave me something to dream about. It gave me something to hope for: maybe when my birthday or Christmas came, I would discover that my parents gave me an amazing purple bicycle. 

In hindsight, it doesn't matter to me at all that my parents ended up buying me a different bicycle. I was a little disappointed at the time, but what I ended up with was still a really fun, white bicycle that I faithfully rode for years and really loved. I got what I needed; the story has a happy ending.

However, this morning I was thinking about that purple bicycle in the context of dreaming about it. My white bicycle ended up being my next, beloved bicycle, but that purple bicycle was my dream. Every child deserves to dream about something. And what I realized was that I never would have had that dream in the first place, had I not grown up at a time and in a place where shopping malls existed and products could be displayed and demoed to random children window shopping as their parents ran errands.

Today, I shop almost entirely online. I don't step into a store if I can help it, because going into a store is an annoying waste of time for me. Besides, I can usually find a better price online, anyway. So, my life is much better now that I can avoid malls and stick to online retailers. 

I wonder how my kids feel about it, though. They don't have a frame of reference for going to malls and checking out what new toys exist, so they don't really know what they're missing out on. But I know that they're not getting as much exposure to the array of available toys and bicycles and items of interest as I did when I was their age. 

An ascetic might argue that they are able to content themselves with the simpler things they can easily access: drawing pads, educational lessons, Amazon Echo games, and so forth. But how much more fun might they be having if they had access to a dream? Again, the fondness I have for the memory of that purple bicycle wasn't that I actually got to own it and ride it every day. No, the fondness I have for that memory is that it was a really beautiful, simple dream for a young boy. I wanted a cool bike, and that was the coolest bike I had ever seen. And I allowed myself to dream about it every day.

What do my kids dream about if they don't pass by bicycle stores with purple bikes on display? That's for me to find out. And to nurture.


On Trusting Experts

In 2019, I had a lot of friends who encouraged people to "trust the experts." A common criticism they made was to denigrate people who had "done their research," which was usually maligned to be something like watching three hours of ideologically motivated YouTube videos. The basic idea was that "Karen" and her having "done her research" was no match for an expert's years of study and advanced degree.

2020, of course, put an end to that sort of argument, at least as far as I've observed. No need to rehash the details here. The so-called "experts" gave befuddling and contradictory advice on managing the COVID-19 crisis, and then shut down the country for a year or more while the global economy ground to a halt. It was a disaster. Importantly, many of these same friends I had stopped criticizing people for "doing their research" and instead started criticizing people for "trusting the experts." 

These friends of mine were always on the side of what I would consider to be "the truth." That is, when the experts were largely correct, so were my friends; when the experts were largely incorrect, my friends were great sources of better information. But on the moral issue of advising people to trust experts, they flip-flopped.

As for me, I never criticized people for "doing their own research," because that's precisely what I believe everyone should do. No one should ever take for granted the idea that the experts probably know what they're doing. One should always verify information; and the more controversial or the more widespread the impact of that information, the more important it is to verify it. This kind of attitude comes easy to a type 1 diabetic, because we diabetics often know more about our condition than most of the doctors in our communities. We certainly know more about our own bodies than the "experts." We are used to "doing our own research" and arriving at life-saving conclusions to better manage our lives and our blood sugar.

Today, many people (say, about half the country) still insist on "trusting the experts" or "following the science" or whatever the canard happens to be. This morning, I thought about a hypothetical scenario that might help them understand the value and importance of skepticism.

Imagine you're a woman who has recently gone to her doctor to get a prescription for birth control, for the first time. You fill the prescription and start taking the pill. Very soon, you notice that your body feels very different. In fact, it feels awful. You're really uncomfortable all the time and you're struggling to just be normal. So, you go back to your doctor. He tells you that this is a common set of symptoms and that many women take time to adjust to the birth control pill. He advises you to stick with it. So, you do.

But months go by, and your discomfort doesn't let up even a little bit. Every time you think about going back to the doctor, you remember what he said. Some days you figure that you probably just need a little more time to adjust. Other days, you shrug and figure that even if there is some kind of underlying problem here, going back to the doctor is pointless, since he'll probably just tell you the same thing again, anyway.

One day, you come across a website or an internet forum of some kind, where many women describe symptoms a lot like yours, and many of them insist that the problem went away when they switched to a different kind of birth control pill. You know it's not real medical advice, but the women all seem very emphatic, so you figure, what will it hurt to try a different pill?

You make an appointment with a new doctor, you tell her that you want to try a new birth control pill. She shrugs and says sure, you can try it. She writes you a new prescription, which you fill. You make the switch and, sure enough, your symptoms let up a bit, and then a lot, and then after a few weeks, you feel completely normal again. You're back to your old self.

If you've ever been through something like this - or know someone who has - then chances are, you already understand the value of being skeptical of "the experts." You have gained some familiarity with internet research and you have an informed opinion of which other patients to listen to, and which to take with a grain of salt. You have developed a more nuanced understanding of which kinds of risks are worth taking, and which are not.

In doing so, you have equipped yourself with the tools required to verify the information that the nation's "experts" are giving you, and you have come to a point where you feel confident in the kind of research you are willing and able to do on your own time. There should be more people like you in the world, and fewer people out there who blindly trust "experts" just because they're "experts."


Why It's Important To Get The Diagnosis Correct

I have seen multiple people on social media and in the media attempting to make the She'carri Richardson marijuana issue into a racial matter. I think this is an incredibly bad idea, and will here attempt to explain why, being as brief as possible.

First let me state that, unlike many of the commentators on this issue, I have actually been involved in amateur athletics. I have known perhaps a dozen Olympic competitors and many dozens of NCAA athletes, including myself. That means that I have firsthand knowledge of the kinds of problems athletes face when it comes to the draconian rules foisted upon amateur athletes and the somewhat arbitrary enforcement of those rules.

Second, let me state in as emphatic terms as possible that many if not most of the rules governing amateur athletes are utterly preposterous and ought to be eliminated. This includes the rule against marijuana use. While my readers know that I am adamantly opposed to recreational drug use, I am also a fervent believer in both marijuana legalization and and end to the continued hounding of people who simply choose to live life differently than I do. But the laundry list of terrible rules that amateur athletes are subjected to is long and far more problematic than the rules surrounding marijuana. It is all of these rules that must be changed or eliminated, not merely this one rule about marijuana.

Finally, regarding the racial angle of this issue: By turning this matter into a question of racism, we allow the olympic committees and other amateur athletic governing bodies to continue to enforce these absurd rules while lazily promising to do something about racism. Racism, while terrible, is not the problem with amateur sports. The horrible list of preposterous rules athletes face is the real issue. We should not deflect from that issue with a sideshow about racism just because complaining about racism currently happens to be chic. If the olympic committees solved their race problems overnight, She'carri Richardson would still be in trouble for using marijuana. Is that what we want? No! We want - or should want - an end to the list of ridiculous rules we saddle innocent competitors with. 

So, please, I beg of you, stop making this a racial issue. The issue is not race or racism. The issue is that these oppressive athletic organizations and governing bodies heap unreasonable rules upon all athletes. The mere existence of these rules is bad enough, but allowing them to continue also allows the administrators to choose who they will punish, when, and how; which, in turn, allows them to subject athletes to the administrators' private biases as well.

We will never fix these problems if we continue to misdiagnose them. In this case, race is not the problem. Bad rules and bad governance are the problems.