Saturday, January 7, 2017

Getting What We Deserve

Snapshot One: A few years ago, I attended a concert by Johnny Lang and Buddy Guy. While Lang’s performance left me in awe, a different memory has lingered just as strongly. When Buddy Guy finished his first song, he said something along the lines of, “Where’s the f****** crowd?”  Within minutes, audience members were shouting the f-word back at him. When Guy left the stage and began to work the audience, his speech, songs, and actions were full of innuendo – and once again, the audience responded in kind. It was all part of the stage show – Guy knows how to work a room – but I’ve never forgotten how the entire mood changed when Guy gave the audience permission to interact with him in a certain way by establishing what was appropriate. He didn’t have to tell them they could; they rightly inferred it from what he demonstrated. [1]

Snapshot Two: I once attended a soccer game in Costa Rica between two teams with a long and intense rivalry. My friend who took me, thinking himself funny, bought me the jersey of the visiting team to wear.  “Oh,” he noted, “don’t be surprised if people walking past you say insulting things.” Indeed, that’s exactly what happened. I wore a visiting rival’s shirt to a rivalry game; what else should I expect?

Snapshot Three: I saw a documentary that included some scenes from a music festival a few years back. A band introduced a song by saying, “There’s only one rule tonight: there are no f****** rules!” Shockingly, fans swarmed the stage, and the band had to stop while security enforced that particular rule. Limp Bizkit (“Break Stuff”) and Rage Against The Machine (“Killing In The Name”) have seen similar incidents at their concerts when fans went ahead and acted out what the band sang.

Snapshot Four: Last week, one of Mac Miller’s fans came up to him and said about Miller’s girlfriend, Ariana Grande, what Miller says all the time about women – specifically, how great it must be to “hit that.” If you are wondering why that fan thought it was appropriate to say that, just check out some of Mac Miller’s lyrics. Or not. The message matters.[2]

* * * * *

The Cambridge Dictionary defines 'deserve' as, “to have earned something or be given something because of your actions or qualities.” This carries both positive and negative connotations: one can be given good or bad things as a result of one’s actions or qualities. It’s a commonly understood principle. The concept of karma is based on this; the Old Testament’s “eye for an eye’ command limits reciprocation but allows that justice is served when the consequence mirrors the act; many ancient ethicists said that we must not do to others what we don’t want done to us; one of Kant’s famous Categorical Imperatives is that we should only do things that we would will as a universal law.

It’s just a variety of ways of saying the same thing: be prepared to reap what you sow. It won’t always be good; there is good reason to argue that mercy and forgiveness must be added to this ‘goes around comes around’ kind of justice to break the cycle. However, it’s a principle that people have always recognized to be embedded in the world. When we open a door, people usually walk in.

If the language of ‘deserving’ seems to coldly calculating, think of it in terms of ‘inviting.’ What do we invite from others by our words and actions?
  • If I yell at my kids, I am inviting them to yell back by establishing a conversational norm.
  • If Trump tweets an insult, he can expect insults back. 
  • If I punch you and you punch me back, I had that coming.
  • If I wear clothing specifically designed to draw attention to or reveal particular body parts, I invite the looks I receive. (It does not justify abusive language or actions, but if something is intended to draw the attention of others, it will draw the attention of others. That's just the way it works.) 
  • If I blare a certain kind of music from my car, I invite a particular kind of response from those who hear. Beethoven, Carrie Underwood, Justin Bieber or Eminem all invite people to make a call about what kind of person I am because I have put my choice of music into the public square. If someone hears Eminem blaring from my car and then starts a conversation with me using a word that rhymes with truck, well, I had already set the bar.
  • If a group of people go out to eat and they aren’t sure about whether or not it’s acceptable to order alcohol, all it takes is for one person to break the ice. That person's beer gives permission. That action invites others to participate by establishing a norm.
  • If Mac Miller wants to sing about ‘hitting’ or 'tapping' women, he better brace himself for how his fans will describe his sex life with Ariana. 
How we talk, dress, and otherwise present ourselves invites those around us to respond in certain ways. If we sow crudity, objectification and disrespect, it ought not shock us when we reap that in return. If we sow politeness, modesty and civility; well, that typically comes back too.

This happens on a cultural level as well as a personal one. There is a zeitgeist, a mood, that permeates cultures and communities. This makes what we sow even more important, because there is a sense in which we also reap what others sow. Our actions sow into the soil of a culture, and the roots of what all of us plant grow more deeply and broadly than we realize. [3]

I’m not saying this is a cycle we ought to desire – once again, a world without forgiveness and mercy is a lousy world - but it unfolds like a modified, sociological version of Newton's Third Law: for every action there is an equal and mirroring reaction.  

* * * * *

I wrote last week that Ariana did not deserve what that fan said. By that, I meant was that no one ought to be objectified or dehumanized no matter what they say or do. That is what Ariana said she experienced; in that sense, I empathize with her anger and hurt. 

But if I am to take the Cambridge Dictionary definition seriously, I must acknowledge that Mac Miller and Ariana Grande appear to have been “given something because of their actions or qualities”; particularly, their remarkably crude lyrics and highly sexualized public persona invited a mirroring response – which is precisely what they got. Their actions got a reaction. I’m not glad it happened; I’m just not surprised. Nobody should be.

Ideas have consequences. If we don’t like what we are reaping as individuals or as a culture, maybe it’s time we all personally and corporately challenge each other to sow something else.

[1] Read up on the concept of mirroring,"behavior in which one person subconsciously imitates the gesture, speech pattern, or attitude of another."

[2] Read this summary from the Council On Communications And Media to get a thorough overview of the power of lyrics and images in entertainment.

[3] Philip Yancey addressed this in a recent article. After talking about the loss of civility as embodied by the language Mr. Trump used during his campaign, he notes: "Trump let the bats out of the cave, in effect legitimizing the darkest side of a free society.  When he won, a devout Christian friend sent out an email with a headline referring to Hillary Clinton, “Ding, dong, the witch is dead!”—I cannot imagine her saying that before the Trump campaign."

Then there is the left-wing mocking of the death of a pro-gun conservative. This kind of response does not occur in a cultural vacuum. 


  1. "Reaping What We Sow" might be a better title for what you wrote, Anthony. I admit you got my attention with your title because I was set to disagree. None of us get what we truly deserve because of God's grace and mercy. If we did get what we deserve we wouldn't be alive, Then I read what you wrote and totally agree with everything you say about reaping what we sow.

    1. Thanks for the thoughts, Linda. I titled it the way I did because that terminology had come up in conversation with some friends recently. It's a tough term because the connotations often carry more weight than the actual denotation. I wonder - would it be fair to say that you think that apart from God's grace and mercy, we do get what we deserve?