Werewolves and Social Reflection

Our conception of the werewolf, historically and today, is greatly influenced by, or reflects, our cultural conceptions, and misconceptions, of wolves.  In this, the werewolf is an excellent example of the adage that we create our own monsters.

Medieval sources, fearing the wolf and not understanding it, saw the wolf as a symbol of nobility gone wrong, or bad.  The lion stood for the noble ruler.  Clearly a misconception, in hindsight, as the wolf works with others for the good of its society, while the (male) lion lazes around and lets others do the work.  Regardless, this conception of the wolf as nobility gone bad persisted from the monstrous werewolf tales into the medieval sympathetic werewolf stories.  In those lais and romances, the werewolf himself was sympathetic and good, but something bad still happened amongst the nobility.  In most cases, a queen or noblewoman was disloyal—Gorlagon, Alphouns, Bisclavret.  Or the nobility mocked a holy man—the Ossory werewolves.

Even today, our depictions of werewolves are based on cultural conceptions and misconceptions of animals.  Most of our modern werewolves are pack oriented, from a scientific base.  The monstrous ones tend to be outsiders, the fear of the loner that even permeates our language (the “lone wolf”).  They also tend to be nature oriented, an influence of the environmentalist movement and a 1960s-1980s renewed interest in native American and First Peoples cultures, more than a wolf conception.  On the down side, they have also been, largely, dominated by the idea of the alpha wolf.  That is probably the greatest misconception affecting modern werewolves, as it is based on faulty, bad, science.  But, it has captured some part of the imagination and has been adopted by many urban fantasy, contemporary fantasy, and paranormal romance writers as well as most of the more toxic subcultures, particularly the MRA, “incel” (which is a, frankly, b.s. concept), white supremacy, and neo-Nazi movements (all of which have a fair bit of crossover in membership).

This relationship between the werewolf figure and social assumptions, it’s reflection of social ideals, views, and misconceptions, is one reason that I find it interesting to study.  This interest, of course, also applies to all symbolic, mythologic, legendary, and folk tale figures.


Academic Dead End

I’m going to preface this post by saying that I enjoy my job and know that I am helping a lot of people (they tell me this pretty regularly). That said, everything else below is also true.

It seems strange to call a position in collegiate level education “a dead end job”. Culturally, we’re primed to think “dead end job” refers to food service, retail, etc., not positions that require a Masters degree. However, after a great deal of thought, I think the label is appropriate. After all, I’ve spent nine years in just such a position, with the same employer (for certain external reasons, plus assurances were made by said employer and never followed through), at a near poverty annual income. Frankly, people who have six or more years of post-secondary education cannot live on a pittance, really no one can at least not well.

So, why is this a dead end position?

In nine years, there has been no chance of promotion. There has been no opportunity for transitioning to full time (despite assurances of regular internal hiring, which hasn’t happened). There has been no raise, so someone with 10+ years makes the same hourly as the person hired yesterday. In fact, we’ve had a mandatory 20% pay cut, “to cut costs”, while the school created and hired new, six figure salary VPs.  There’s no incentive to do well, as pay remains the same and there’s a cap in hours that apply the same for the best and the worst.

I say all this not to complain, as such.

Rather, I say it to inform people about the model that’s been more or less standardized across higher ed for the last 40 or so years, at least in the U.S., though I hear it’s catching on in Canada & Europe too.

This is an unsustainable model for higher education. Colleges & universities cannot continue to rely on hourly positions, single semester contract positions, low annual pay positions that require a Masters degree and prefer doctorates. In the end, this practice harms undergraduate education, graduate teaching assistants, and doctoral graduates all; not to mention the fact that it shifts full time faculty more and more to administrative duties (shrinking pool of full timers to draw from) rather than teaching and conducting research.

Charlottesville, American Fascism, & White Supremacy

While I generally try to avoid political or real world cultural issues posts here, the events of last weekend in Charlottesville, VA deserve, I think, some commentary. I waited on writing this, and posting it, to fully gather my thoughts and response to the situation. Even so, this may ramble a bit, my apologies in advance. First, despite a certain “world leader’s” claim, there were no “many sides” and the situation was clear cut. The situation is always clear cut when neo-Nazis and white supremacists are involved and there are always only two sides: neo-Nazis/Supremacists & everyone else. There really is no middle ground here. I’m the first to argue against oversimplifying and dichotomies, but, in this case, there are only the two and it really is that simple. Claims of equivalency between the neo-Nazis/Supremacists and the antifa/BLM movement are false; the former use violence against people simply because of their skin color or for being Jewish in order to kill or intimidate, the latter use violence less often, but do so to protect people of all races & creeds from being beaten or killed. Regardless, the default state should always be Nazis = bad, no “buts”, no “what abouts”, no excuses. Nazis always = bad.

A little semi-digression.

My paternal grandfather was the child of Polish immigrants. He was an irreverent Catholic. He was not, to my knowledge, especially political. He was known to occasionally indulge in what can euphemistically be called “ethnic humor”. I never heard him raise his voice in anger (it probably happened, but I don’t ever recall it). He was also an NCO in the U.S. Army MPs during the occupation of Germany after WWII. In this role, he sometimes escorted Nazi officers, particularly SS officers, to their trials. Occasionally, in the process, he shot at, or ordered others to shoot at, Nazis. Keep in mind, the second largest ethnic population sent to the concentration camps was the Poles, possibly some of his relatives. I can only imagine what he’d think of the events in Charlottesville and those on the American Right who stood up for Neo-Nazis.

(To Head off Objections: No, people who fought in the Korean War did not fight communists or Marxists. They fought fascist oligarchs. The same holds for the entire Cold War. Cuba? Military dictatorship. Yes, they called themselves communists, but they weren’t any more than I’m a Catholic, no matter what I may choose to call myself.)

Back to the main point.

The central element of white supremacy, and really the neo-Nazis, is this idea that they are somehow “defending White Culture”. However, “White Culture” (or “White European Culture”) is a myth. There is no such thing. There are many white, European cultures, not a single unified one. A culture involves traditions and tangibles, ex. food & attire. “White Culture” lacks both. Rather, there is Irish culture, German culture, Romanian culture, Canadian culture, etc. The argument that says, “If White Culture is racist, then so is Black Culture” is another false equivalency. In the U.S., if you ask a white person (or Asian or Latinx) what country (or countries) their family originated in, they can probably tell you. Ask the same question of a black individual and the majority are unable to say, because it’s impossible to tell unless their families immigrated in the 20th century or later. Thus, “Black Culture” or “African-American Culture” is not equivalent to “White Culture”, it is equivalent to saying Irish culture or Vietnamese culture or Puerto Rican culture.

That brings to mind another thing I keep hearing: “Let’s get rid of the prefixes, we’re all Americans.” I have two problems with this. First, no one ever says this when a white guy identifies as Irish-American or German-American. The prefixes only seem to be a problem for certain people when they’re used by someone who is black (African-American) or brown (Mexican-American, etc.). Second, those prefixes are an important part of our American culture, a reminder that we are a hybrid culture, a multicultural society, Frankensteinian if you will. In the States, it’s difficult to find anyone, except a recent immigrant, whose lineage is entirely from one country. Virtually all of us are mixed something, e.g. multicultural. For example, I’m a mix of Polish (paternal) and Anglo-Scots-Irish (maternal). This also goes to cultural festivals. There are those who complain about “black pride” festivals or black history month, of course they say nothing about the country’s numerous Irish cultural festivals, celebration of Oktoberfest, etc.

On the whole, the States are an experiment on a number of levels. We’re not the first multicultural society in existence—Rome, China, India, Russia, and others beat us there—nor are we the oldest multicultural society is existence—again, see China, India, Russia. To think otherwise is sheer ignorance. But, we’re, most of us, trying very hard to make it successful despite elements of our society that wish to sabotage society.

Hell With It: “Swearing”, Some Thoughts

I got involved in a brief discussion about the concept of “swearing” recently. The whole thing started with one person’s desire for the popular Facebook page “I F-ing Love Science” to change its name (to remove the “F-ing”). This got me thinking about a lot of things that had been percolating in my brain for a while. Here’s the result.

I put the term “swearing” in quotes because I don’t really believe in the concept as such.

First, there have been a number of psychological studies that indicate significant benefits from “swearing”. Psychology Today lists seven positive effects from pain relief to non-violent retribution, elevated endorphins to humor. Positive Psychology News builds on physical pain reduction.

There are cultural elements too. For instance, traveling in Ireland and England, I noticed a tendency among natives to use “swear” words regularly and naturally. I’ve noted their use occasionally when CSPAN airs sessions of Parliament. No one seems to bat an eye, it’s natural not scandalous, in my experience. In Russia, the Kremlin recently put in place a ban on “obscene language”. These particular words, mat, “helped the country survive the brutalities of Stalin-era slave labour camps, win over Nazi Germany in World War II and ride out the turbulence of the Soviet collapse, supporters say.” They were extremely useful for centuries in expressing views about the government and other issues.

In English, at least, virtually all “swear” words focus on bodily functions and sex. Demonizing the words may reinforce the message preached for centuries by Roman (and later Protestant) Christian hierarchy that the body and sex are dirty and bad.

And some claim that the words are used for “shock” value. Honestly, I think that effect died long ago, though it may move in cycles. Few contemporaries, if any, were shocked when Chaucer used “swyve” (the 14th century equivalent of “fuck”) or when Shakespeare throws out his word play on “ass”. In the 1950s, I suppose some folks would be shocked to hear the words. Personally, by third grade (in a Catholic school) I could out-swear the proverbial sailor. Ironically, proscribing their use actually adds to shock value. Making them non-proscribed, commonly used words, weakens the words and lessens their “shock” value. This is one reason I think the “shock” value is gone today.

But, that leaves the question: why proscribe certain words as “obscene” or “swears” and not others?

For the English speaking world, specifically the U.S., I think the answer lies in a mix of religion and classism. I’ll hit the latter first.

How often have we heard that those who “swear” are demonstrating a small vocabulary (e.g. lack of education)? That’s an inherently classist take, based on the old, pre-1940s days when only the upper class regularly attended post-secondary education and the middle class aspired to live like (their rose-tinted view of) the upper class. Shakespeare knew that “swears” were part of the language of the common people, the groundlings. That’s one reason he used them, to connect with the people who made up the majority of his audience. The same is, arguably, true of Chaucer and others.

Religion, specifically Catholicism and its children (Protestants), has had its effect too. Often the claim for a religious proscription of “swearing” is the third commandment: “Thou shalt not take the name of the Lord thy God in vain.” This is a major stretch, I think, unless the Biblical deity is named after bodily functions or sex (which, as noted, make up the vast majority of “swear” words in most languages). What the commandment means is not to trivialize the deity’s name or commit blasphemy, it has nothing to do with alternate (commoner, peasant?) words for urine, sex, or feces.  This proscription is, I think, one of thought control, since words shape how we think and how we interact with the world and people around us.

Bill O’Buffoon, or Equality and Straw Men

A few years ago, an older (and rather politically & socially conservative) student referenced an absent student with a learning disability. The first student asked, “You don’t really think she’s equal to you, do you?”

Fairly recently, a notable TV personality, referenced in the title, claimed equality is impossible because he’ll never be a famous basketball player.

My answer to the first inquiry was, “Yes, I do.” My answer to the second is, “Nice straw man fallacy.”

When we talk about equality in society, we don’t mean that everyone can do everything equally well. What we mean is socio-political equality. That is, what we mean by equality is that everyone gets treated the same, legally, socially, and politically.

For example: everyone gets paid the same for doing the same job at the same level of experience, regardless of race, religion, gender, or orientation. Likewise everyone has the same opportunity to nurture their talent, whatever those may be, instead of being held back by the accident of birth into a given socio-economic level or prejudices about race, gender, religion, or orientation (or whatnot).

This does not mean that everyone gets to play professional basketball. But, it does mean that anyone who has a talent for basketball should have an equal chance to potentially play professionally. Likewise, my own talents are in the teaching and writing realms, therefore equality means a fair chance for me to develop and make a living from those talents (despite my total lack of basketball ability), regardless of unchangable factors (e.g. race, gender, orientation, or even religion). The referenced personality’s talents, from what I can see, are conning, bullying people, and fearmongering . . . but are clearly not in formulating logical argumentation.

In the example I started this post with, the absent student was/is a proficient (maybe even talented) computer programmer, something I’ve tried and found that I have no talent for. On the other hand, said student’s writing needed a fair bit of work and did not come easily to her. We’re equal, nonetheless, even though our talents are different and we’ll never be identical.

In short, equality means equal opportunity, not everyone being identical.

P.S. The first student mentioned above was also the inspiration for my morality post as (s)he stridently claimed that religion is an absolute necessity for morality.

Governments Ask Too Many Questions

Societies hidden from normal mankind, organizations even entire cultures existing beneath the common experience of normal society. These are staples in many genres of fiction from fantasy (most sub-genres) to mystery, action to sci-fi. And whenever they appear, some worldbuilding is involved.

The very fact of the existence of hidden societies in a text is worldbuilding. Yes, we have hidden societies in the real world, some more hidden than others – the collegiate greek organizations to the sort of gentlemens’ clubs that have smoking parlors (and no dancers). But the ones in works of fiction are almost exclusively fictitious societies, the creation of the author. Because of the nature of most such societies, the author has to create a world in which hidden societies of a given type can exist and are indeed assumed to exist.

Four major types of hidden society come to mind immediately:

Government Agencies — Whether Jason Bourne’s Treadstone or The Brotherhood of the Rose, the British Secret Service or IM Teams, whether James Patterson or David Morrell, Ian Fleming or someone else, action novels, shows, and movies are filled with top secret government agencies, many of which not even the heads of state are aware of. These agencies are often tasked with assassination, intelligence gathering, or other high stakes missions during which they must maintain a (relatively) low profile for political or other reasons. And we know from a wide range of sources that this sort of organization is not how real world intelligence agencies work, for a variety of reasons (including technology – Bond, Ethan Hunt).

Criminal Organizations — Secret criminal organizations are common fodder as well. From SMERSH to Moriarty to HYDRA, secret criminals and criminal societies are everywhere. Ian Fleming and Arthur Conan Doyle created theirs precisely to have a core villain for their respective heroes, and Fleming’s has the added bonus of existing after the Soviet specter died with the Cold War. Marvel comics created their’s, I think, to balance the teams of heroes. It also makes sense that if superheroes band together, supervillains would do so in response.

Secret Societies — The staple of conspiracy thrillers, secret societies add an element of clandestine fear to a story. Whether David Morrell’s society of Merovingian descendants or assassins hunting the Church’s enemies or David Brown’s sinister Catholic sub-organizations, they give readers the sense of accessing some hidden threat. They also give the protagonists a way to kill with impunity, because they’re saving normal society from the hidden threat.

Hidden Magic — Everyone in the world who hasn’t been living under a rock for the last two decades knows about J.K. Rowling’s hidden societies of wizards and witches. Other examples include Tanya Huff’s hidden witch family (The Enchantment Emporium) and Rick Riordan’s hidden societies of Greek demigods, Roman demigods, and Egyptian magicians. In each case, the concealment comes in part from fear – of being hunted, exploited, or bothered, or something else – in large part. But, being hidden also keeps them apart from modern life (except Huff’s) via technology among other things.

What do hidden societies need for their existence?

First, a world in which their existence is assumed (by the writer and the reader). After that, they need a way to remain concealed. This can be the fog that hides Riordan’s demigods from normal mortals to control of some supertechnology to global influence over governments and corporations. How they remain hidden is especially important in contemporary and sci-fi settings as it becomes more difficult to conceal things due to the prevalence of information technology (e.g. camera and video phones, cctv, the interwebs).

Bonus things a hidden society could use include some means of funding (MiB’s patents on velcro, etc.; Treadstone’s federal CIA funding; HYDRA’s crime sprees), facilities, equipment, and transportation (after all, in a post-2001 world, it has become rather difficult to transport weaponry across national borders in many cases, not impossible though).