Born That Way, Or Not

Was pointed today to this interview with developmental psychologist Lisa Diamond, on the subject of sexuality, and additionally, whether it matters whether people who identify as gay or bisexual are “born that way” or not. She takes the position that ultimately it really doesn’t matter:

It is time to just take the whole idea of sexuality as immutable, the born this way notion, and just come to a consensus as scientists and as legal scholars that we need to put it to rest. It’s unscientific, it’s unnecessary and it’s unjust. It doesn’t matter how we got to be this way. As a scientist, I think it’s one of the most fascinating questions out there and one that I will continue to investigate. As a lesbian and a progressive, I think it’s totally irrelevant and just politics.

I don’t know if in fact Diamond is correct, but I’ll note that for a very long time now I’ve personally held the position that I don’t care why or if someone decides to love someone of the same sex (physically and/or emotionally and all the stuff in between), simply that if they do, that love should be respected, legally and socially. I think it’s entirely possible that some people are “born that way,” that some people become that way through environment (Diamond notes that “environment” should be considered a term rather more expansive than “how you grew up and with whom”), and that others might have become so by a combination of both, or some other factor entirely. Ultimately it doesn’t matter, outside of a dry and somewhat abstract set of academic questions. However you got there, you got there.

Diamond also talks about sexual fluidity, which “means that people are born with a sexual orientation and also with a degree of sexual flexibility,” which is to say (at least as I understand it), you know your general sexuality, and you also know how much leeway you give yourself inside of that understanding. So for example you might identify as straight but be willing to acknowledge that every once in a while you find someone of the same sex attractive, or gay but with occasional hetero crushes, or bisexual but with a lean one way more than another on average. Or, you know, you might identify as something rather more expansive than that.

This also makes a great deal of sense to me. People have been talking about the Kinsey scale for years, but I find that sort of linear sexuality tracking a little limiting. I picture it as multidimensional with a number of axes: Gay-straight might be one; sexual-asexual might be another; conservative – opportunistic might be a third. A guy who is largely straight but highly sexual and somewhat opportunistic might not turn down a same-sex encounter because, hey, sex; another man who is gay but closer to asexual and conservative might turn down the same opportunity.

These three axes are not necessarily the complete set, I would note; likewise I would note that not every dimension of sexuality has the same range on every person. And finally, of course, one’s understanding of one’s sexuality may change over time — again for various reasons.

All of which is to say, sexuality: There’s some complex shit going down there.

And all the more reason, from the point of view of social and legal acceptance, not to actually care how someone arrived at their sexuality. The law should care if sexual encounters are consensual; society should discourage (to use a word mildly) non-consensual encounters. Other than that, you know, fair play.

Note that I think that people should know, as much as they are interested in the subject, the hows and whys of their own sexuality. I think knowing who you are and what led you to that understanding is useful to help you avoid behaviors that aren’t good for you, and to help you find which ones are. But your personal knowledge of yourself is different than society or the law demanding you are who you are, sexually, is because of one factor exclusively, or more than another, in a precise recipe. You should care about your sexuality. I’m not convinced the law or society needs to care anywhere as much.

And Now, Today’s Masterclass on Leaving Passive-Aggressive Notes to One’s Offspring

Look and learn, people. Look and learn.

The Big Idea: Gary Whitta

“Go Big Or Go Home” — it’s an idea, all right, but it is a good idea? Or could a big idea be something on a smaller scale? Gary Whitta asked himself this question with his novel Abomination. What was his answer? It awaits you below.

GARY WHITTA: 

My big idea is actually a very small one. And in some ways it’s a reaction to a frustration that I’ve felt in my day job as a Hollywood screenwriter — and as an audience member — for quite some time. In recent years we’ve seen the rise in popularity of what I believe is a false conflation of stakes and scale, the idea that the grander a story is in terms of scope and scale, the more we’ll care about what’s at stake. This is why so many movie plots hinge on the fate of the entire world/galaxy/space-time continuum. IF I DONT DISARM THIS BOMB A MILLION PEOPLE ARE GOING TO DIE. Except it doesn’t work that way. Oftentimes the greater the scale of a story, the more the stakes become abstract, something foreign and hard to grapple with for the people living everyday lives who make up movie audiences.

Joseph Stalin, a chap I always like to quote when talking about popular entertainment, famously said, “A single death is a tragedy; a million deaths is a statistic.” We understand intellectually that a million deaths is awful but we can’t really grasp the idea emotionally. Human beings don’t scale emotion that way; a million deaths doesn’t hit us a million times harder than a single one. So when a million faceless, anonymous lives are on the line in the plot of a movie or a novel, it doesn’t actually have that much of an impact on us. Coupled with the fact that we’ve seen this pulled a thousand times and more in movies particularly, we just kind of stop caring. James Cameron perhaps framed it best when he talked about his narrative approach with Titanic, a movie which I am led to understand was fairly successful. I’m paraphrasing here, but basically, “I can’t make an audience care about two thousand people on a sinking ship, but I can make them care about two people.” By focusing his story on two characters, spending the first half of the movie getting to know them, he made the audience care about them when their lives were put in danger. The movie is epic in scale but the emotional stakes are actually very intimate. The rest is just background.

This is a lesson Hollywood still largely needs to learn. The fallacious idea that the bigger the action is, the more we’ll invest needs to go away. It’s sad to say, but Die Hard would not get made today in its current form. “Too small,” the executives would say. “What if the terrorists had nuclear bombs planted all over Los Angeles?” they’d helpfully suggest, as if that somehow is more potent than the simple story of John McClane, an everyman we like and care about, trying to survive against impossible odds while coming to realize that he needs to make things right with his estranged wife. Ditto Jurassic Park. “So these dinosaurs are just on one little island that’s mostly deserted? How can we make this BIGGER?” Well we just saw the answer with Jurassic World, a film that’s inferior to the original despite its far greater scale.

Though film is my first language as a writer, I chose to write my most recent story, Abomination, as a novel because I didn’t want to have to conform to these false ideas, or to see it inevitably subjected to them during a film development process. It is by design a small story, because as Cameron said, I believe it’s more emotionally affecting to tell an intimate story about a small group of characters with relatable emotions and goals than it is a vast, fate-of-the-world, “stake-tistical” epic. The structure of Abomination, which is about a medieval knight dealing with the human consequences of a battle against a plague of evil magic, doesn’t lend itself to a typical movie narrative template. Movies tend to escalate as the story goes on, with all the “biggest” action reserved for a climactic third act.

This is why so many modern movies end with massive battles, often so massive that we tend to lose track of what’s actually at stake and just stop caring. There is a big battle scene in Abomination, but it takes place about a third of the way through the story, and happens largely “off-screen”, referred to only in broad strokes. After that the story scales way down to focus on the characters, whose goals don’t have repercussions for anyone other than themselves. But if I’ve done my job right that matters to you because you’ve come to care about these people.

I think this is crucial, and it goes back to the idea that high stakes don’t require grand scale. Look at Little Miss Sunshine. What’s at stake there? Whether or not a little girl will win a regional talent contest? And yet we care deeply, because we care about those characters and so what’s important to them is important to us. My second-favorite Denzel movie, Man on Fire, also does this brilliantly. The whole first half of the movie is spent painstakingly establishing a relationship between a young girl and the man hired to protect her, drawing them gradually closer, caring more and more about one another — and in turn making us care about them — so that when they are violently torn apart, the fate of that little girl is all the stakes we need.

The author William Zinsser said, “Dare to tell the smallest of stories if you want to generate large emotions.” You’re damn right. And you do have to dare to do it, because the prevailing wisdom tells us that everything has to be bigger Bigger BIGGER for an audience to care. The reverse is true. Zero in on the lives of your characters and let them expand to fill your entire story. Reject quantity. Go small. The fate of the entire world may be at stake.

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Abomination: Amazon|Barnes & Noble|Indiebound|Powell’s

Read an excerpt. Visit the author’s site. Follow him on Twitter.