In the summer of 1993, at the age of 21, I ran through the streets of downtown Victoria, British Columbia, half-naked, wearing only a pair of boxer shorts and wielding a blunt chunk of metal, which I intended to use to bludgeon the thief who had stolen my bicycle. It had been days since I discovered my bicycle missing from my apartment. When I called the shop where I’d bought it, the manager told me that he had only sold two of this model, and as misfortune would have it, the other one had been stolen just the week before.
A few days later, my phone rang and it was the manager of the bike shop, who told me that the other owner had spotted my bicycle outside of a downtown pub. The pub happened to be a mere three blocks from my apartment, so I didn’t even bother getting dressed. On the way out the door, I grabbed my roommate’s hefty u-lock, the weapon I intended to use to give my bicycle thief a thrashing.
And that is how, in a heaving rage, I arrived at the pub in the middle of the afternoon wearing nothing but my underwear to find my bicycle locked to a parking meter with my own bicycle lock. As soon as I saw it, I realized that the week before I had ridden home from class as usual, but because I was running late to meet some friends at the pub, I did not take my bicycle upstairs to my apartment, and instead had locked it to a parking meter. After a night of drinking, I simply walked the three blocks home.
Even now, I can give you a full physical description of my bicycle thief: a sinewy man, with shifty eyes, wearing a stained light grey t-shirt with a shaved head and tattoos on his arms. My mind had conjured someone to hate. And despite the fact that he didn’t even exist, I was hell bent on punishing him for a crime that never happened.
I’ve learned that I am not alone. Everyone occasionally has dark rhapsodies of one kind or another. The idea of punishing evildoers—of setting the world right through vengeance—exerts a powerful attraction on the human mind.
I began writing this in February, 2019, at a time when the new year already had served up a number of highly public examples of this widespread tendency. The first was directed at comedian Kevin Hart, who resigned as the host of the Oscars following the surfacing of 10-year-old homophobic tweets. Another involved the kid in the Make America Great Again hat who was caught smirking at a Native American elder in such a way that caused social-justice enthusiasts to suggest he should be punched in the face, burned alive in his school or raped by Catholic priests. And then there was Liam Neeson, who made honest but shocking comments about the racial animus he once had felt after a friend of his was sexually assaulted. In the months since, numerous other examples have surfaced.
My own privately experienced vengeance fantasy was contained within my own mind. But in the age of social media, these social panics are crowdsourced, and spread in viral fashion, such that they can cause real ruin to their targets. Moreover, the hair-trigger nature of these campaigns short-circuits any offsetting instinct to serve up education, or even redemption, instead of punishment and disgrace. When people say they want to teach someone a lesson, they often aren’t speaking about the horizons-expanding experience of actual education per se, but are instead talking about unmitigated shaming and social punishment. And we should all ask ourselves what would have happened in our own lives if someone had applied this same heartless logic to us when we screwed up.
* * *
The fact that I made it to university at all was a small miracle. Right from kindergarten, I was identified as a “slow learner.” Thirty years later, when my own daughter began to struggle in school, she was pulled out for testing. I would then learn, through her diagnosis, that I had gone through my entire education as an undiagnosed dyslexic.
Unfortunately, a common coping mechanism for undiagnosed dyslexics is to lose interest in school. Like me, many become class-cutting slackers and general pains-in-the-ass who hold their teachers in contempt, particularly the ones who return the favour. In science class, my teacher once told me in front of all the other students, “my six-year-old son is smarter than you.”
Sometime around grade 11, I attended an obligatory session with my school counselor in which I expressed a desire to go to university. He told me that I had no hope of ever doing any such thing, and that I should concentrate on “shop.” I took his advice, which culminated in my greatest high school achievement: replacing my windshield wiper system and rerouting it through a hole I had drilled in the dash of my Honda Civic, so that I could fill it up with Crown Royal and pull on my wiper wand to pour myself a Rye and Coke.
A few months later, I went back to see the same counselor after he posted a part-time position on the student job board for someone to sweep floors at a local paper mill. I told him that I wanted to apply, and he told me that he would never let someone like me represent the school, even for such a menial position. So I waited until he left for lunch, let myself into his office, went through his job binder to find the name and number of the paper mill, and by the end of the day, I secured the job on my own. I never graduated from high school.
I liked the job, was paid well, and advanced up the ranks (such as they were). One day, I was pulled into an office where one of the managers called me “a hard worker” and offered to help pay for my tuition if I wanted to enroll in vocational school to get my millwright’s ticket. It’s too long ago to remember my exact reasoning, but I do remember thinking this was now my career path—until two things happened: A man at work whom I looked up to lost his hand (and his job) when his arm was crushed in an embosser roll, and a good friend who owned a lakefront cabin wanted to go on a two-week fishing holiday. So one day, I just didn’t show up for work and went fishing instead.
In my now formalized capacity of high school dropout, I was accepted into community college as a mature student. But I did so poorly on my writing-proficiency exam that I was made to take a remedial English class. So my first foray into postsecondary education was taking a class that was almost entirely populated by students who were studying English as a second language. Nevertheless, after two years in college, I was accepted into the Creative Writing Program at the University of Victoria based on a portfolio of writing that can best be described as a near-illiterate jumble of unreadable nonsense. The only possible explanations for my acceptance were that the school officials didn’t read the portfolios, or that all the other applicants’ submissions were equally terrible.
Predictably, I began to flunk out. In the end, there were three teachers who helped save me. But the one I want to tell you about is my film-studies mentor, the late Brian Hendricks.
Brian had a contagious passion for film, and his lectures were intoxicating. We didn’t just analyze the films, but also studied every important detail of the lives and artistry of those who made them. By the time we screened Sunset Boulevard, we’d already heard Brian lecture on the early work of the actor who played the director character in the film, Erich von Stroheim, and his fall from the ranks of the Hollywood elite (which is what had led the film’s actual director, Billy Wilder, to cast him as “Max von Mayerling,” a washed-up silent film director). Brian could dissect any number of films using the principles contained in Joseph Campbell’s The Hero’s Journey, and he could lecture for hours on seemingly simple topics such as lighting in film noir.
Brian also had an unorthodox habit of giving students A’s for taking bold risks. When we studied Stanley Kubrick, a student handed in a paper on The Shining that in the spirit of Jack Nicholson’s character was simply 10 pages of “All work and no play makes Jack a dull boy.” When the student testified that he had actually typed out every word, Brian very publicly wrote an A on the paper and handed it back.
In my final year, Brian taught an actual filmmaking class, which he hadn’t done in a few years. So I needed a film topic.
In the early 1990s, before going to University, I’d moved up to the mountains to live as a ski bum. One night, when we were in town drinking, some other guys started messing with us and we ended up in a brawl. As I started getting the best of this one guy, his friend stepped in between us and pulled up his shirt to show that he had a gun tucked in his belt. My friend Ryan saw this and grabbed the guy by both arms (Ryan is big and the guy was small) and just started shaking him until the gun fell out and Ryan picked it up.
So the guy says, “Don’t worry, it’s only a pellet gun,” and Ryan says “You better hope so,” and when the guy turned to run away Ryan shot him in the ass.
There’s lots of talk about “toxic masculinity” these days, but no one ever mentions hilariously toxic masculinity. We laughed about that one for years: The tough little guy who brought his pellet gun out for a night of drinking only to lose it and get shot in the ass.
Now years later I’m in Brian’s class making a film and I figured I’d turn the incident into a short. It had not occurred to us that filming this short in the alley outside my downtown apartment was a bad idea. We did however know we had to be careful with the gun; and to our credit we had already taken it back inside when the SWAT team arrived.
My friend Brick was pretending to beat up another friend while I was working the camera with my back to the entrance of the alley when I heard the police tell us to freeze. Even though I couldn’t see them, I knew the danger was real because I could see the terror in Brick’s eyes. I was told to drop my camera, put my hands on my head, get down on my knees and slowly turn around. When I complied, I saw what Brick saw: about six police officers in various shooting positions with their pistols drawn. They handcuffed us and put each of us in a separate car. So now the street in front of my apartment was closed down by squad cars with lights blaring and the TV crew from CHEK 6 was filming it all.
At this point, the police knew we were making a movie. My best guess is that they were trying to determine if we were just a bunch of hooligans with a camera who should be charged for public mischief…or if we were, as we told them, “university students.” Our fate lay in the hands of Brian, whom the police contacted immediately to determine why a bunch of students were filming gunplay in a downtown alley. I don’t know what he told them, but they let us go.
I arrived to class armed with an apology and expecting to be in something that resembled trouble. Brian was at the front of the class beaming and said, “Well, Cran’s getting an A.” We had made the six o’clock news and someone from the station had already been in touch with Brian to say they wanted to do a follow-up spot on our “film festival.” Originally, we were just going to screen our films for each other in class; but now Brian had booked an auditorium.
The fact that we had been forgiven for our mistake—rewarded, even—didn’t make us any more likely to repeat it. We still realized how stupid we’d been and that we could have been shot and killed on the spot. But no one tried to end our careers or ruin our lives.
* * *
Recently, I talked to a friend of mine who teaches creative writing, and he said that he could no longer teach the way he did 10 years ago. He gave the example of a student bringing in a short story full of misogynist bullshit. If he calls the kid on it, this kid could go home and take to Twitter to smear him for being too “politically correct.” But if he doesn’t call the kid on it, another student could go home and take to Twitter to smear him for allowing misogynist bullshit in his class. None of this has anything to do with learning. There can be no inspired learning in a culture of shame. In many ways, teaching has to be a process of constant forgiveness. But that’s become impossible.
I inherited Brian’s passion for film, and structured my Masters thesis around film history. As part of my research, I learned a story that I think about when I think about forgiveness.
German-American actress Marlene Dietrich never forgave her sister when she discovered that she and her husband ran a canteen and theatre that serviced the Nazis. In fact, the moment she discovered this, she never again acknowledged the existence of her sister.
Dietrich had tirelessly campaigned to sell war bonds. She visited the troops to boost their moral and was so close to the front during the Battle Of The Bulge that she came within meters of being captured by Nazis. She called the allied soldiers “my boys,” and she watched them fight and she watched them die. Rumour has it that she slept with any number of them. I hope that’s true, for no other reason than to believe in an act of tenderness and empathy during one of the most brutal and violent times in history.
When the Third Reich fell, the first GIs driving a jeep into Berlin were sent in with orders to find Marlene’s mother Josephine. Marlene carried immense guilt for working so hard to raise money to drop bombs on the city where her own mother lived. She couldn’t bear it that her hatred for Nazis meant putting aside her own mother’s safety. The GI’s found Josephine alive and patched her through to Marlene on a field phone. The first thing Marlene said to Josephine was, “Mama, forgive me!” Even amidst the euphoria of imminent victory over the Nazi regime, Marlene needed to be forgiven. As we all do.
* * *
I began teaching at the University of Arizona on the one-year anniversary of 9/11. At the time, a majority of kids were coming in with strong nationalistic views, which they put on display with impetuously conceived pro-war postures. They had plenty of empathy for those who died on 9/11, but they didn’t have much empathy for the people on the other side of the world who were now going to pay the price for those deaths.
In his 2016 book Against Empathy: The Case For Rational Compassion, psychologist Paul Bloom examines the risks associated with excessive empathy, particularly the distortions that empathy can inflict on our modes of decision making. As a prominent example, Bloom discusses the exploitation of empathy in the service of waging war: “Empathic engagement, being caught up in the suffering of victims is usually the number one argument in a democratic country for going to war.”
In interviews and articles, Bloom frequently cites a European study in which soccer fans watched strangers receive electric shocks—but before doing so, they were told that the person being shocked was either a fan of the test subject’s favorite soccer team or the fan of an opposing team. When watching a fellow fan being shocked, the parts of the brain associated with pain light up, revealing empathy; but when watching a fan of an opposing team receive a shock, not only was there no sign of empathy but in fact the brain lit up with signs of pleasure. This tells us everything we need to know about what was running through the average U of Arizona freshman’s head in the months after 9/11. And it tells us a lot about outrage culture, too.
My own view is that Bloom is slightly off with his analysis. It isn’t an overabundance of empathy that’s the problem per se, so much as an imbalance of empathy: We empathize with one group, but not another. And our choices about who benefits from our empathy often are rooted in ideology, self-interest and narcissism. The answer isn’t to come out against empathy, but rather to exhibit it in a fuller spectrum. Unfortunately, our social media feeds often encourage us to narrowcast empathy only toward narrow, mob-approved causes.
In a 2013 interview on the TV show Uncommon Knowledge, the playwright David Mamet discussed his conversion from liberalism to conservatism. “I realized [that] most of what I thought was political thought was just the reiteration of recognition symbols,” he told host Peter Robinson. “When you look at the left, most of what passes for discourse is recognition symbols: Do we agree? Are you part of my tribe? That’s not the basis for a life lived according to political principles.”
Mamet then went on to describe a lecture he’d once given. A woman in the audience asked him if he believed the earth was growing warmer. Mamet found this to be a clear indicator of tribalism.
“I thought, my god that’s fascinating,” he said. “What I’m looking at is not a request for information or the desire to engage in an exchange of views or even an argument. What I’m looking at is a cultural interrogation. Are you part of my tribe or not, because if you are part of my tribe then we are fine but if you are not part of my tribe then we can no longer talk to each other any more.”
One of the questions I would ask my students early on in my class was this: Are American lives worth more than other lives? The response I remember the clearest was from the student who told us American lives were worth more because places like Iraq were vast deserts without anything of value, whereas America had a number of important things like great restaurants. It’s the sort of inanity that, if captured on film in 2019, could easily go viral. Back in 2002, I preferred to consider these to be teachable moments.
Once a week, all the new teachers in my cohort met in small preceptorships to discuss pedagogy, swap lesson plans and discuss any problems we were having in class. I quickly encountered a problem in my first class when one of my students wanted to do his presentation on a film called Bum Fights. This “film” is in fact the single most reprehensible project I’ve encountered in recent memory, as it consists primarily of middle class kids in San Diego who pay homeless men to fight each other so they can film the violence. This kid wanted to present on Bum Fights, and everyone in the class enthusiastically supported it. They wanted to watch Bum Fights. The more I looked into it, the more upsetting the entire thing became. I talked this through with my preceptorship and we all agreed that I had to (1) give any student the opportunity to recuse themselves from the screening of the film without putting them on the spot, and (2) make sure the kid did one hell of job on his presentation.
I had a number of talks with the student. I remember him nodding along in agreement so I figured I’d be fine. On the day we screened it, the clip he chose included a graphic segment called “how to shit in the street,” and a number of students walked out. Then he began his presentation in a monotone voice by saying something to the effect of: “Some people say Bum Fights is bad and should be illegal but putting someone in jail for free speech is wrong.” As soon as he started speaking, I thought: My god I’m going to get fired and I kind of deserve it.
One day shortly after that, another teacher in my preceptorship came to us with a new problem. Many of us were teaching out of a textbook that included an essay called And Our Flag Was Still There, by Barbara Kingsolver, which basically argued that people on the left should remain proud of America despite the direction George W. Bush was taking the country after 911. The teacher in question assigned it as a possible essay topic, and one of his students handed in an essay whose first line read, “If I ever met Barbara Kingsolver I’d bitch slap her.”
The consensus was that he should report the kid, who was clearly a little piece of shit in need of reprimand if not expulsion. If I’m remembering correctly, I believe that I was also leaning toward some kind of punitive approach. But rather than taking our advice, the other teacher simply thanked us for our input and said that he was going to instead talk it through with the kid.
My understanding of what happened was that he sat the kid down and told him he wanted to talk to him about the problem he may have with violence against women. The kid was shocked and didn’t even know what he was talking about until he specifically pointed out his own words to him. The kid apparently crumbled. He didn’t understand what his words were doing and he was mortified. I think at that point I knew that the other teacher would go on to be a great teacher and I’d just be the guy who taught for a couple years and was glad that he didn’t get fired for screening Bum Fights.
In my second semester, I taught a student whom I hated from the minute I laid eyes on him. I’ll call him Andrew. From the first class, he slouched over his desk with his right arm outstretched so he could lean forward and use his own shoulder as a pillow. He was at best a slovenly disruption and at worst a mean-spirited and smug prick who bristled at nearly everything I said. At the same time, I had an evangelical student named Joy who sat in the front row hanging on my every word. Yet as I stood in front of the class, I couldn’t help but be completely drawn in by Andrew’s disdain. Then it finally occurred to me: This is why nearly every teacher in high school had hated my guts. This kid was me.
Andrew’s behavior progressively got worse (or it least began to bother me even more) and I went to my preceptorship and told them that this kid’s attitude was affecting my ability to teach. They were supportive, and we all agreed that I should make my boundaries clear and remove him from class the moment he steps across the line. My thoughts on this smug shit kept me up at night. I dreaded even walking into the classroom because just the sight of him made my stomach turn.
Then, laying awake one night, it hit me. I wasn’t going to throw the little shit out of my class. I was going to make him my top student.
In the introductory class, I always did a day of introductions to get to know the students. When listing his interests, Andrew had said he was into punk rock. And when I asked him what bands he liked, he mentioned a bunch I had never heard of. The only one I remember was Blink 182. Neither he (nor anyone else in the class) had ever heard of The Sex Pistols, The Clash, The Ramones or The Dead Kennedys. What they called punk was something I would have called pop with a Disney punk makeover.
After my revelation about Andrew, I came to class and instructed my students to ignore their syllabuses. I told them that thanks to Andrew’s interest in music, we were now going to study “the rhetoric of punk rock.” And to get started, we’d be watching the Sex Pistols documentary The Filth and the Fury.
Our first assignment was to write a letter to Jello Biafra, the former lead singer of The Dead Kennedys and the co-founder of their still active record label, Alternative Tentacles. At the time, Biafra was touring a spoken-word album and he had a date booked in Phoenix, so I wrote him a letter asking him to visit my class.
In the meantime, I was marking their first term papers and I did something I thought Brian might do: I inflated Andrew’s grade because I felt like it. In my comments, I went out of my way to praise the few adequately formed ideas that were in his paper. Then in class, I gave a short speech about how strict I was as a marker and how the highest grade in the class was an A-minus, which I had given to only two students. Then I walked around the room handing back the papers. When I got to Andrew I said, “If you worked a bit harder on this you would have had a better grade.” He looked at me with the same shitty smirk that he gave me in every class. Then I handed him back his paper with one of the A-minuses on it and that was the last time he gave me anything close to a shitty look.
The problem now was that he hadn’t put in the work to earn my respect, but that quickly changed. From that day moving forward, he came to all my office hours seeking criticism on his writing. He sought recommendations for books he could read. He wanted extra work, and sent me drafts to read before handing them in on the day they were due. He started to grasp ideas that in the beginning I couldn’t have imagined he would have even bothered to consider.
At the end of the semester, I received a note from the department that I had received a box and to come collect it. It was a box full of CDs, books, t-shirts and stickers from Tentacle Records, and a letter from Jello Biafra saying that he was sorry that he couldn’t come for a visit but that I should make sure that each one of my students got something from the box. I’d say at least half of my students were Republicans or right-leaning, including the aforementioned evangelical Christian. But when I brought these presents in from the anarchist Jello Biafra, they were nothing short of ecstatic. There was a real world out there that we were studying, and they had just touched it.
That would be the last time I ever taught. I liked teaching, but I had a deep fear of writing things on the board because I was afraid that my students would find out I couldn’t spell, and that I was really just a dyslexic high-school dropout who’d been told he would never attend university let alone teach at one.
When I graduated from my Master’s program and moved back to Canada, I got an email from Andrew thanking me and letting me know that he had been debating dropping out, but in the end stuck with it because of my class. He said I had changed his life, much as Brian had changed mine. Most teachers have at least one story like this.
Shortly after moving back to Canada, I took a trip to Victoria. And while having breakfast, my daughter began acting up, so I took her out into the public square in front of the restaurant. I was chasing her around when I looked up and found myself face to face with Brian. He said, “Mr. Cran, of course you are here.”
Brian was wearing a lurid pink scarf and holding a leash with a small dog on the end of it. He launched right into an update on his life. He had recently been diagnosed with cancer but beat it and had separated from his wife. He had a friend he wanted me to meet who was a young writer and he figured we would be fast friends and he had thought of me the moment they’d met. He said teaching had never been the same since the year Brick and I and the others graduated. He didn’t socialize with students anymore. But he had recently become friends with Tom Robbins and Ethan Hawke and he thought I’d like them very much, too.
I told him that it was good to see him and that he looked great. He did. Then he said there was one more thing he wanted to tell me and when I asked what, he said, “I’m tripping out on acid.”
People misunderstand the love between a student and teacher. Even the word love is too loaded, being associated with romantic notions and lurid images right out of Don’t Stand So Close To Me by The Police (another band my students wouldn’t have known). But I think that if you’ve gone to school for four years and not fallen into something that resembles love of a teacher then you’ve probably had a mediocre education.
People say, “I love her like a sister.” Or, “I love him like a father.” I loved Brian like a teacher, and I was crushed when I heard that his cancer had returned.
I last saw Brian one afternoon in Vancouver when we met at a hotel restaurant and sat up side by side at the bar for a chat. He relayed the details of his diagnoses with matter-of-fact plain speak, which gave me the impression he was going to beat it again.
He was back with his wife and their relationship had never been stronger. He had recently been on estrogen hormone therapy and said that while taking the estrogen for the first time in his adult life he felt totally at peace and without any pretense in the presence of women.
I’m not sure I’ve ever had a conversation with anyone who was so plainly honest and at ease with himself. His optimism was inspiring. Then at one point there was an awkward silence and he said, “I don’t want to die.” I’m embarrassed by my reaction, which was to effusively praise his optimism and tell him he was going to beat it again. It was the only part of our conversation that wasn’t honest and after all he had done for me I had in that moment glossed over what he was going through. I wish now that I had simply said “Brian, I don’t want you to die either.”
After he passed away, The Times Columnist newspaper in Victoria wrote an extended obituary detailing the impact that Brian had on students and how many of them walked into his classes knowing nothing about film and walked out being lifelong cineastes. The obituary said that he was survived by his wife, their two sons and 12,000 former students. I was lucky enough to be one of them. He taught me from the time I was stupid enough to find myself running half-naked through the streets of Victoria to assault a non-existent criminal for a non-existent crime, which brings me back to bicycle thieves.
After every class, Brian’s students lined up to speak to him. One day, during a discussion with me about Robert Altman’s film The Player, Brian referenced Vittorio De Sica’s famous 1948 film Ladri di biciclette—which translated to “Bicycle Thieves,” but became well known to North Americans as The Bicycle Thief. I told him I had never seen it. He said, “Wow, you’ve never seen The Bicycle Thief? Amazing!” But he didn’t mean this in a condescending way. In fact, it was a statement more accurately laced with envy. It was as if I had told him I was a virgin and in response he said, “Wow, you’ve never had sex? You should go home right now and have sex for the first time. You’re going to love it.”
The Bicycle Thief is in fact the one piece of art I think about most in this golden age of shame culture. The film is set during the depression in post-war Italy. The protagonist Antonio hasn’t worked in over two years when he wins an employment lottery, and is picked from amid a crowd of unemployed men to get a good job in the city. The only hitch is that he must have a bicycle and he had already hocked his in order to put food on the table for his family. He tells his wife he is cursed and cannot take the job but she is determined and has been praying that Antonio would finally get work. So she strips the sheets off of all of their beds (the last thing of value they own) and hocks them in order to get the money to get Antonio’s bicycle back.
On his first day on the job, Antonio’s bicycle is stolen while his back is turned. The remainder of the movie consists primarily of Antonio frantically wandering Rome with his young son Bruno in search of his own bicycle thief. As the film progresses, so does Antonio’s intensity, as well as our growing empathy for him and our hatred of the scoundrel who stole not only Antonio’s bicycle but also his dignity and ability to provide for his family. Antonio begins to crack and we crack with him. When he begins to eye the other bicycles in the street, Bruno can tell something is wrong.
At this point, it’s hard to not yell at the screen “don’t do it.” As Antonio steals another man’s bicycle, we realize that De Sica has been playing us all along. “The bicycle thief” in the title is not, as we were meant to believe up until this point, the scoundrel who stole Antonio’s bike, but Antonio himself.
The owner of the bike yells “thief!” and Antonio peddles away in a desperate attempt to escape. But the mob catches him and they begin to slap him, shame him and deliver the punishment we’ve just been wishing would be brought down on the man who stole Antonio’s bicycle. Bruno is watching, and it’s his tears for his father that convince the bicycle owner to let Antonio go.
As the mob releases Antonio, Bruno takes his hand and they walk back into the street to join all the other people heading home at the end of the day. The film ends with a long shot of the two walking away as they integrate alongside everyone else in the street. Antonio is once again part of the masses. Nothing is again simple, but everything is clear. This is the great lesson of empathy. We are all the bicycle thief.
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