Why Super Bowl Fever is a Very Beautiful Thing

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Like so many of us, I have Super Bowl fever.  I actually don’t care about football or even enjoy watching sports in general.  But my kids, especially my middle son, are buzzing with excitement.  And THAT is so fun to watch.  The energy and passion are infectious.  The fun of having friends over just ratchets up the buzz.

I used to think watching sports was a big waste of time.  But I’ve come to see that there is something truly beautiful about the whole experience.   In particular, the beauty of loyalty.  As I witness my kids and friends perched at the end of the sofa glued to the screen, I remember a post I wrote a number of years ago but this topic.  I was struck with the beauty of team loyalty when I was walking on my way to work early one morning.  It must have been about 7:30 AM (well, early for NYC standards anyway :)) and I passed a bar already open for business.  Sitting there was a woman all alone — literally.  The place was empty expect for her!  She was wearing a soccer jersey (I couldn’t identify the team or country as I am terribly sports-challenged) and staring intently, mouth agape, at the World Cup game on the TV.  It was definitely an odd sight.  But it was a moving one too

Sports are a wonderful thing.  Not only do they promote physical activity and cooperation, but they sublimate our warring instinct.  If you examine the pre-game rituals of some countries, you’ll find they are reinterpreting dances and costumes that were once used to prepare for battle.  But another way to look at it is that sports invoke a sense of loyalty among all of us.   No question loyalty can inspire people to do horrible things, from stadium fights to blindly following dictators to kill masses of people.  And for my son, whose favorite team, the Patriots, lost the opportunity for another Super Bowl win, loyalty also means days of being in an outright pissy mood.  For the most part, though, it is a wonderful, beautiful thing!  Loyalty is what bonds us to our friends and loved ones.  Loyalty signifies a human being’s potential for love, community and willingness to sacrifice for others’ welfare.  No wonder being in a stadium is so exhilarating.  Not only do we get to see the game in person but we can also connect and share in our excitement with a ton of other people.  We don’t even know these people but our shared loyalty and energy builds our own and makes us feel connected.  There’s a term for this in anthropology called “Communitas.”

Of course the Super Bowl is a big spectacle.  It’s an opportunity to party with others and stoke our competitive spirits.  And, frankly, it’s a whole lot of brain candy.  I mean it’s just a game right? But this game, like so many others that we watch from afar, is also a moment to embrace our sense of loyalty and commitment.   Who wouldn’t want more of that?

 

 

Beautiful Protests: Don’t Dismiss Beauty Queens. The Chinese Govt is Downright Scared of Them & for Very Good Reason!

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There’s a lot of different ways to protest.  Unfortunately, we’ve seen some of the worst of them over the past few weeks.  But, for the most part, challenging the status quo, the social wrongs we see, or just plain ol’ anachronistic thinking is an incredibly valuable and innate human behavior.  And, tonight being the first night of Hannukah — a commemoration of the Maccabees’s protest against the repressive Greek regime of their day — it’s only fitting to celebrate it!

The more tyrannical or oppressive the object of our protest, the more crafty, clever and creative we must be in our rebellious acts.  We can’t always march in the street or publish our thinking.  We need to use what we have at our disposal.  And that is exactly what a few feisty beauty queens did as they protested against the Chinese government.  Over the course of the last few days, I saw news story after new story highlighting not just one, but two, beauty pageants that have enraged the Chinese government.

At the Miss Earth beauty pageant, the contestant from Taiwan, Ting Wen-yin, refused to change her sash from “Miss Taiwan ROC” to “Miss Chinese Taipei.”  Her explanation: “I was born in Taiwan, my sash now says Taiwan, I represent Taiwan, and I’m going to use the name of Taiwan in appearing at this pageant.”  She also shared in social media the horrible treatment that all the contestants were subjected to like not being served some meals and forced to attend night clubs to flirt with men.  The result? She was reprimanded, banned from certain activities, and not allowed to be in pictures.  Eventually she was kicked out all together. (For more of the story, read here)

Around the same time, another story hit the news stream about Anastasia Lin, a Chinese-born woman who was crowned Miss Canada.  She has been using the pageant’s platform and the subsequent press coverage to speak against the Chinese government.  She has also created films and written essays to share the corruption and repressive acts of her former government.  And the Chinese leadership was pissed.  Majorly.  They tried to ban her from the Miss Universe pageant.  This, of course, backfired creating an even bigger uproar and heightening her efforts that much more.

Needless to say, the Chinese government is super skittish now when it comes to beauty pageants.

What these stories show us is that the “popular” cultural activities, like beauty pageants (and the people who participate in them) which we may snicker at, can play a powerful role in society.  While I have a hard time endorsing the parading of women around in bathing suits, I also have the seen the power of these “institutions.”  Since the beginning of time and into today, pageants have served as spaces where women could achieve something — whether a way out of poverty or a podium to protest.    I applaud Lin and Wen-yin who not only risked their success to tell their stories, but who realized how to best use the gifts they had and the circumstances they found themselves in, i.e., beauty contests, to do it.  Would they have been listened to if they didn’t use this platform?  Maybe…but, then again, maybe not.

It’s easy for us to look down at people who want to show off and get rewarded for their physical beauty.  But many of us aren’t in the same social, economic and political situations as these people.  Moreover, when beauty contestants use their beauty, and the pageants that showcase their beauty, in ways that most of us wouldn’t have the guts to, how can we NOT admire them?

Lesson here? First, let’s never ever assume that beauty queens are dumb.  Second, we shouldn’t assume that the popular, seemingly frivolous events, like beauty contests, don’t have a potential role for social betterment.  Finally, let’s appreciate the fact that we live in a society where we CAN protest a multitude of ways without fear of reprisal.

 

What Do Beauty & Cannibalism Have in Common?

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The title isn’t a tease.  I’m going to give you the answer but I need to back track a bit.

Beauty can now be judged by artificial intelligence.  Yep, there is going to be a beauty contest using robots to judge people’s appearances.  The reason for the new type of contest?  According the recent article about this contest, Beauty Contest Features Algorithmic Judges, human judges are too biased to judge beauty fairly.

As a tech-lover and someone fascinated with A.I., I wanted to appreciate this new type of contest, but the idea is all wrong.  I’m sure many of you would begin by protesting the whole concept of a beauty contest.  I have mixed feelings about the benefit of these contests, and I’ve written about the pros and cons of them in many past posts.  But, for today, I’m actually going leave that argument alone.

What I will challenge instead is the idea that a robot can truly detect beauty.  This isn’t an argument for embracing inner beauty (though I appreciate that too).  Rather it’s argument against the idea that our definition of beauty is only measurable.  I agree that we are attracted to symmetry and a certain ratio of eyes to chin to forehead, etc. as a survival mechanism from our ancient pasts.  The thinking here is the more symmetrical our features, the healthier we are, and the healthier our offspring would be.  Of course a digital device would better discern these measurements.  I also agree with the story that human judges can be biased due to cultural norms.

My issue with such a contest is that what we perceive as beautiful is strongly associated with a person’s “essence.”  I’ve written about this concept in an earlier post, the Pleasure of Beauty.  According to author and Yale psychology professor, Paul Bloom, in his book How Pleasure Works: The New Science of What We Like What We Like, we derive pleasure from things like art, sports and beauty.  But this pleasure doesn’t just come from the rational combination of factors (think technical skills like amazing batting speed or the perfect pirouette) but from the ESSENCE of things and people.  The essence is that which lies beneath the surface –the history, background, personality, you get the picture.  As Bloom writes: “things have an underlying reality or true nature that one cannot observe directly and it is this hidden nature that really matters.”  This is why we pay tons of money for an original painting versus a counterfeit.  It also explains, not to gross you out, why some people are cannibals…they want to connect with the “inner-ness” of the person.  Net net, we seek the essence to truly get pleasure from things.

This goes for physical beauty too.  We all have an essence that comes forth to make us more or less beautiful.  Maybe you call that our “stories”, a certain depth, or our many sides.  And this essence shapes our perceptions of others’ beauty.

Bloom cites an experiment with college students in which classmates were asked to rate people’s looks.  The participants weren’t acquainted with the classmates beyond sitting with them in the same lectures.  Interestingly, attractiveness ratings went up when classmates saw people more often.  It’s not that now they had a better view of the people they were rating.  The point here is that more exposure to who a person is — their ESSENCE — the greater the appreciation of even his/her physical attractiveness.   In fact, what I think is even more interesting is that the subjects (i.e. the people assessing others’ beauty) didn’t even interact with their classmates!  They didn’t form their opinions because one was nice or the other was obnoxious.  It was merely the closeness that developed over time, and the greater recognition of the others as human beings, that affected their views.

This is not a call for eschewing physical beauty in favor of inner beauty.  And I’m not saying inner beauty determines our assessments of who is beautiful.  Rather, what I take from Bloom’s analysis is that beauty is a combination of physical characteristics and one’s essence.   Our sense of attraction can’t be deconstructed to include ONLY physical characteristics.  We just aren’t wired to see the world this way.

Yes, a bizarro beauty contest can turn beauty into something scientific and objective.  But, and what we all probably know at some level and what Bloom confirms, our physical attractiveness is actually quite deep.  We are beautiful because we are not just perfect, symmetrical robots, but because we are human beings.

 

Weekend Observations: A New Place, A New Perspective

My family and I have begun our yearly vacation in Chatham, MA (Cape Cod).    While the town is as similar to New York as you can get on the Cape, e.g., gourmet coffee shops, nice restaurants, expensive clothing and jewelry shops, it’s still quite different.

It’s always amazing how you can take yourself out of your usual environment and feel totally different.  I frequently remark to myself when I leave my home or office and spend even just a day or two away, how my home life feels so distant.  But how can that I be?  I’m sitting here with my kids around me, wearing my own clothes, working with my own computer and writing posts like I do every day.  And yet, I feel so removed.

Why?

Anthropologists write that we need to connect with the physical spaces and places that surround us.  That’s why we care about furnishing our homes or want to know about, and frequent the bars and pubs around the corner.   They call it “place making.”  The physical spaces ground us emotionally.  Perhaps that why we’re so affected by a change a place.  We are literally changed when we find ourselves amongst new surroundings.

And this is the reason we need to invest in the beauty of our neighborhood streets.  A beautiful avenue, neighborhood, office — you get the idea — don’t just announce an appreciation for the aesthetic.  They affect us deeply.

I’ll be sure to share some more of the beauty that surrounds me throughout my stay.