Sunday, August 14, 2016

Oh, the Irony! A Look at Values in a Changing World

Forty years have passed and a lot has changed for me, my Army, and my Nation. 

I was 15 years old and something of an aspiring athlete when Bruce Jenner won the 1976 Olympic Decathlon in fairly dramatic fashion. From 1979 to 1984, I attended Notre Dame on an ROTC scholarship (read: not an athletic one!) and was subsequently commissioned an officer in the Army Corps of Engineers. I served in the Army on active duty from 1984 to 2012. My regard for Bruce the athlete was so high that I paid little attention to his demeaning and confusing appearances in reality TV shows in the role of Bruce, the husband of Kristen Mary "Kris" Houghton Kardashian Jenner beginning in 2007, or indeed to his surprising decision to come out as a woman in 2015. Now, 40 years to the day after Bruce Jenner was the hero of the Games of the 21st Olympiad, the world seems to be very different. Are we moving in the right direction? Is society evolving in a manner that will be seen as successful in hindsight? 

This post is not about irony, per se, but irony is involved in the telling of it. Given all the buzz around the ironic absence of actual irony in Alanis Morissette's song, "Ironic," I'd like to begin by stipulating to the following definition of irony. With a little help from our friends at Merriam-Webster, we believe irony is the expression of one's meaning by using language that normally signifies the opposite, typically for humorous or emphatic effect. So, irony is similar to sarcasm, causticity, cynicism, mockery, satire, and sardonicism, but quite different from, say, coincidence, such as rain on your wedding day.

Are we good?

I want to dispense with the terminology question because I am more interested in a deeper issue. This post is also about intrinsic values and the evolution of values in a social context. Our subjects for exploring this question are Olympic Champion Bruce Jenner, erstwhile commentator Terry Coffey, artist, photographer, and survivor Mark Hogancamp, psychologist Carl Jung, and the US Army. We'll look at how the values espoused by groups such as the Army can, do, and should change over time. Our success as a species depends on it.   

Here we go...  

Bruce Jenner in the 1976 Olympics and Caitlyn Jenner on the July 2015 cover of Vanity Fair.

“As I see post after post about Bruce Jenner’s transition to a woman, and I hear words like, bravery, heroism and courage, just thought I’d remind all of us what real American courage, heroism and bravery looks like!” --Terry Coffey, June, 2015

Insert grainy black & white photo of a wounded major being hauled through the mud to safety while defiantly firing a pistol at his attackers, and--BOOM!--an Internet meme is born.

Like millions, I saw the original post as it flew around . Were you one of the 800,000 who not only saw it but shared it? Did I see it because you shared it? For any of you who somehow missed this message and image that touched such a nerve, here is is again:

As an career Army officer, now retired, I place a high value on personal courage. The image Mr. Coffey attached to his comment and the courage it represented was one that resonated with me. I saw lots of my Army friends "liking" this image and commenting on social media. For some reason, I held back and did not share my opinion one way or the other. More on that later.

I can relate to the example of courage in the photo. Honestly, the example of Bruce transitioning to Caitlyn is harder for me to relate to on a personal level, but who am I to question or judge another's struggle? Truly, I am not sure which battle would require more courage.

Whether Mr. Coffey's comment was intended as a mockery of Jenner or merely a rebuttal to all the attention being paid to Jenner's public transition is unclear. However, supporters and detractors of rights for trans-gendered people soon took up sides. Mr. Coffey was praised by some, and slammed as a "trans hater" by others.

Who is Terry Coffey

As it happens, Mr. Coffey's commentary about "real" courage was ironic in a way that he couldn't have imagined. In an interview following the popularity of his post, Coffey admitted he had conducted a quick image search online, and simply chose an image that fit his words. Again, I think lots of people like me might have selected the same image as a depiction of true courage. After Coffey's post went viral, he decided to identify the photographer so he could give him or her proper attribution. Imagine Coffey's shock when he realized that the photographer was actually a cross-dresser who had been savagely beaten by a gang of five hate-filled and bigoted thugs.

“In an ironic twist, I have discovered that the photo is part of a documentary created by a man who was beaten nearly to death outside of a bar in 2000,” Coffey posted.
The photographer, Mark Hogancamp, spent nine days in a coma and suffered severe brain damage and other injuries, Coffey learned.
Hogancamp coped with his pain afterward by creating an imaginary world set in World War II – where he created the image that went viral years later – but Coffey was gobsmacked by something else he learned.
“Why was [Hogancamp] nearly beaten to death by 5 strangers?” Coffey asked. “Because he was a cross-dresser.”
“I could have chosen any one of hundreds of photos depicting bravery, but I chose this one,” Coffey said. “Do I think it was an accident? No, I don’t. What happened to this man was cruel, wrong, and unforgivable,” Coffey said. “Hate helps nothing, love wounds no one, God heals all, and irony makes you think.”
Oh, the irony! And, even though no one could have scripted Mr. Coffey's comeuppance, there is a script accompanying Marwencol, a 2010 American documentary film that explores the life and work of artist, photographer, and survivor Mark Hogancamp.
On April 8, 2000, Mark Hogancamp was attacked outside of a bar by five men who beat him nearly to death. After nine days in a coma and forty days in the hospital, Mark was discharged with brain damage that left him little memory of his previous life. Unable to afford therapy, Mark creates his own by building a 1/6-scale World War II-era Belgian town in his yard and populating it with dolls representing himself, his friends, and even his attackers. He calls that town "Marwencol," a portmanteau of the names "Mark," "Wendy" and "Colleen." The film was shot in New York State between 2006 and 2010. The film received widespread critical acclaim, holding a 98% approval rating on review aggregator Rotten Tomatoes. The site awarded the film their "Golden Tomato" Award for the best-reviewed documentary of the year. The Los Angeles Times called the film “an exhilarating, utterly unique experience” while the Village Voice said that it's “exactly the sort of mysterious and almost holy experience you hope to get from documentaries and rarely do.”
Suffice to say, this is a movie I would like to watch. Again, forty years have passed and a lot has changed....

As a person who grew up worshiping Bruce Jenner the athlete and then served 28 years in the Army, how did I get to the point where Terry Coffee's public excoriation leads me to an interest in a documentary about Mark Hogencamp's struggle to recover from senseless brutality?

I am what pioneering psychologist Carl Jung would call an ENTP (Extroverted, Intuitive, Thinking, Perceiving). As an ENTP, my preferences are to:
  • interact with others as a means of generating ideas and soliciting feedback in an environment that fosters interaction and synergy (Extrovert, E); 
  • use my intuition and deductive reasoning rather than facts and inductive reasoning to fill in the gaps in my knowledge (Intuitive, N); 
  • to think as opposed to feel my way through the world (Thinking, T); and 
  • to look for ways to improve processes and products rather than to judge them against a standard (Perceiving, P). 
As a consequence of my ENTP personality type, I spend a lot of time studying and perceiving (P) others such as Bruce, Terry, and Mark without judging them. Despite my extroverted (E) tendencies, I saw but did not share the original Coffey post. Now that the rest of the story has come to light, I am glad I listened to my intuition (N) and did not comment right away. How I felt about all of this at the time is not as important to me as is what I think (T) about it now.

How I respond to the Caitlyn Jenner story is a function of my personality type combined with my experience serving in the Army. The Army experience can be summed up as shared hardships around selfless service. In this environment, an individual Soldier's worth to the squad, platoon, company, and battalion is based on what he or she can do under pressure. I love this about the Army. If you can shoot, move, and communicate, you can succeed--regardless of your race, sex, sexual orientation, or gender identity.

Most folks think of the Army as a very conservative institution. Bear in mind, the Army has long been at the forefront of important social change. The Army integrated minorities before the nation as a whole (1948). The Army integrated women before the nation as a whole (1948). The Army integrated gays and lesbians before the nation as a whole (2011). The Army integrated trans-gendered people before the nation as a whole (2016). The Army is leading the way in terms of valuing people based on who they are and what they do, not where they are from, who they love, or how they pray.

The Army's current values statement expresses seven distinct and important values captured in the acronym, LDRSHIP. These Army values are: Loyalty, Duty, Respect, Selfless Service, Honor, Integrity, and Personal Courage. Although this particular value statement is fairly new (2003), I doubt there is much in there to which our WWII veterans would not ascribe. 

Seven values is a nice number of values to keep track of, but I think we can safely bump that number up to nine or 10 without undue burden--particularly if we are clever enough to do so, and spell LEADERSHIP properly to boot! And why would we want to do such a thing? Because times have changed. The core values are timeless--service before self, and merit-based promotion. What needs updating is how such selfless service and merit is recognized, valued, and rewarded. 

Therefore, thanks to the lessons we have learned at Terry Coffey's expense, to the Army's list of seven core values I would add three more: Equality, Acceptance, and Ethnic Diversity. Biases of bygone days must be challenged and the unhelpful ones removed. Expressly emphasizing the values of Equal treatment of all persons, Acceptance of various backgrounds, and appreciation for Ethnic diversity takes nothing away from the old values but strengthens the core.

  • Loyalty
  • Equality
  • Acceptance
  • Duty
  • Ethnic Diversity
  • Respect
  • Selfless Service
  • Honor
  • Integrity
  • Personal Courage

The Army is not a homogeneous bunch of xenophobic, misogynistic, bigoted, middle-aged white Christian men, so the Army's Values should explicitly reflect the institution's commitments to promotions based on merit and character and achievements independent of religion, race, sex, sexual orientation, or gender identity. The Army is a high-performing organization. The Army is a self-governing profession with a body of knowledge worthy of study and thought. The Army takes volunteers, transforms them into Soldiers, and provides society with Veterans who espouse the values inculcated into them. The Army can and should espouse values that enable Veterans to be the strength of the Nation.

This realistic depiction of personal courage was created and photographed by a talented human.

Are we moving in the right direction? Is society evolving in a manner that will be seen as successful in hindsight?  Ironically, er--I mean, coincidentally, Terry Coffey has the best answer to that question.

“Hate helps nothing, love wounds no one, God heals all, and irony makes you think.”--Terry Coffey