Tuesday, July 28, 2009

Whose Prerogative?

Musical taste is immensely affected -- not quite, but almost, determined -- by one's generation. I'm referring to popular music here, not to Bach and Brahms. So, the pop sounds which dominate so much of the airwaves today seem repetitive and uninteresting to me, while the R&B-based music which occupies so much of my shelf (Burden, King, Joplin, et al.) is a bore to many younger listeners. At least the pop genre isn't downright aggravating to me, which probably means it isn't doing its intended job. (There are other types of contemporary sound which succeed, but no one has tried to inflict much of it on me lately.) I think there is something else at work in this generational divide, though, that wasn’t there in previous ones.

Stagecraft always has been part of show biz, but until recently it wasn't dominant in popular music. Sinatra had few stage accessories other than a microphone and a spotlight. ZZ Top’s distinctive appearance makes little difference at a show other than to help us identify them as the real thing. It's the sound that matters. For most current performers, however, the staging matters a lot, sometimes far more than the sound. Fans can be unforgiving when a singer or group stumbles on live performances, as when Britney was so famously unrehearsed and out of shape one occasion a couple years ago. This puts harsh demands on current acts to be well choreographed and sexy at all times. Music alone doesn’t sell albums. Consequently, the odds of modern pop stars having careers to match that of, say, Peggy Lee, who in her 70s sang Fever to full audiences from a wheelchair, are, to put it gently, low.

Sunday, July 19, 2009

The Call of the Riled

The "do not call list" has thinned out, though not entirely eliminated, the sales calls to my home, but several a day still arrive at my business phone. I am polite to callers from respectable companies who offer their wares in a respectable way -- for example, the caller from Pitney Bowes who just now tried to sign me up for a low volume postage meter. It was a No Sale, as such calls to me always are. On unshakable principle born of early hard experiences, I never buy anything offered to me by an unsolicited caller. I'll repeat that. I never buy anything offered to me by an unsolicited caller, no matter how fabulous the value: no business equipment, no lines of credit, no stocks and bonds, no personalized key chains, no anything. I don't accept anything offered for "free" either. If I need something, I know about it without anyone calling me up to tell me, and I determine where and how to get it. Nevertheless, I say my "no" politely to these folks, once anyway. Regrettably, my polite “no” is seldom the last word spoken. I would like to know what training manual for sales reps says to ignore the "no" and to go on rudely pitching; most sales callers have read it. That chapter of the manual needs to be removed. It doesn't work. It just makes me hang up on the caller.

In another category entirely are the callers from scumbag companies who call up and say something like, "I just need the model number of your copier" or "I'm just updating your listing information; you are still at such-and-such address, correct?" as though the call were from your regular office supplier or from some publication with which you have a "listing." If s/he gets an inexperienced office worker on the line who co-operates, you will get an unwanted product or listing in some obscure ad book -- and, of course, an outrageous bill. The "no" these people get from me is not polite even once.

Friday, July 10, 2009

The Marquis and We

Most people are familiar with the Milgram Experiment of 1961 in which subjects were told by researchers to deliver painful electric shocks to “students” (actually fellow researchers) as part of a supposed experiment on learning. All but a handful of subjects zapped the “students” precisely as they were told to do. The experiment was re-created and the results aired a couple times in the UK in the past few years with results virtually identical to the first one. Somehow, the British researchers found subjects who hadn’t heard of the Milgram Experiment for their re-creations.

Somewhat less famous is a 1971 experiment by Philip Zimbardo, though a few references were made to it in the popular press at the time of the Abu Graib to-do. One reason it is less famous is because it produced such disturbing behavior from the subjects that it was aborted midway.

In the Zimbardo experiment, university student subjects were randomly divided into "guards" and "prisoners." The former were given real keys and real authority over the latter. Normal respect and civility broke down between the two groups almost immediately as the subjects adopted the mindsets of their assigned roles. Guards behaved sadistically and the prisoners became emotional wrecks. Zimbardo felt he couldn't allow the experiment to continue and terminated it in only six days. None of the "guard" students had any criminal records or any known predilection for abusive behavior. None of the “prisoner” students had any known serious psychological issues prior to the experiment. Zimbardo concluded that about a third of the guards were genuinely sadistic – they seized an unwonted opportunity to taunt and persecute others – while the others were corrupted by peer pressure.

This is why we need guards on guards. Authority should be limited whenever possible and placed under supervision when it isn’t possible. (The roots of the two words "supervision" and "oversight" literally mean the same thing, but I generally prefer the former since the latter also means a kind of error. However, I love the term "Congressional Oversight Committee.")

All of us have a capacity for cruelty. It is part of being human. We all understand the Marquis de Sade, which is why his books are unsettling. Still, there is a distinction between people like the Marquis and the rest of us. The Marquis deliberately sought out opportunities to be brutal. He needed no peer pressure or encouragement. His pleasure in the pain of others was central to who he was, not some extra capacity he normally stored away in a closet. Let out of prison in the wake of the French Revolution, he was returned there by the Revolutionaries who soon realized their mistake in having set him free.

The descent to sadism is easy. That doesn't let anyone off the hook, of course. 6-year-olds quickly learn "But everyone was doing it," doesn’t work as an excuse; the excuse doesn't work for adults either. Yet it is worth bearing in mind how easily otherwise upstanding folks can fall into what is normally called evil behavior when it is encouraged. The good news is that decency can be encouraged successfully by peer pressure too – so long as those doing the encouraging don’t get sadistically abusive about it.