What Makes Weird News Weird: A Thought Experiment

From time to time my attention goes to news of the weird [1], some of which have hit literally and figuratively too close to home at times.  What I wish to do is to think of some weird stories that I have come across and ponder what elements about them made them weird.  It is my experience, at least, that what makes news weird is not so much the bare facts of the situation as much as the context in which they occur.  A few hypothetical examples ought to make this clear:  It is weird to encounter a Burmese python in Florida, but not weird to encounter it in Southeast Asia–we’ll get to Florida in a bit.  It is weird to see gangs of people stumbling around drunk at a nerdy business conference in Salt Lake City, but not weird to see these same people stumbling around drunk in Las Vegas.  The context in which events happens is what gives them their weirdness.  Weirdness requires that something be different from the norm or expectations, and for that to occur we have to have some idea of a norm and expectations.

Among the most obvious bits of context that matters a lot is place.  As was noted earlier, we would expect to see Burmese pythons in Southeast Asia but we would not expect them in South Florida, except that happens to be a place where can survive in the wild after being introduced through the illegal pet trade.  Florida is a good example of a place where the weird is expected and so it is found.  Other areas, like Portland, for example, cultivate their weirdness but have to try a bit too hard.  Florida is an example of a place that is weird without having to try to be weird.  As someone who grew up in Florida, I have long wondered why this is the case.  I think a lot of what makes Florida so weird is the blend of cultural and geographical and social factors.  Geographically, Florida is in the tropics, and cultural it sits at a fault line between the culture of the South (which is often viewed as weird) and the culture of the Caribbean (which is thought to be exotic).  Socially speaking too, Florida is a place full of transient people–most people are from other areas or from other countries, and a lack of solid roots tends to make people more weird than they would be at home.  Being a place where people flee too on boats from failed states or drive in RV’s from colder places up north as snowbirds or where old people go to die are all things that make an area weird.  Having a different climate than the areas around also make an area weird, and Florida ends up being a classic weird place.  It is for a similar reason that the area of Cascadia is weird, because it is an area where people go to after failing in other areas, an area with a Mediterranean climate near much drier areas, and an area that has interactions between people going east across the Pacific as well as West across the great expanse of the American West.  All of these make areas weird as well.

There are other aspects that make stories weird, apart from where they come from.  Let us consider these as a group of supporting elements.  Odd stories about animals tend to be considered as very weird stories.  For example, an exploding whale is definitely a weird story.  Exploding anything tends to make a story more interesting–like, say, exploding ordinance from World War II at a museum that had been dormant for decades.  However, exploding volcanoes are not really weird, for the most part, because volcanoes are supposed to explode, unless the volcano creates a new island or its lava flows are stopped by pumped seawater, then that becomes weird again.  Today I was reading about a plane that had to stop for a pit stop because its bathrooms stopped working and passengers couldn’t hold it in anymore.  What makes this story weird is the fact that apparently all the plane’s restrooms stopped working.  Passengers cannot be expected to restrain their natural bodily functions for hours–that is why there are lavatories on planes–but it is weird that all of the restrooms of a plane would stop working.  It is not weird for there to be a car accident, but it is weird for there to be 100 cars in an accident–often the proportion of something increases its relative weirdness.

There is one other aspect of the context about odd stories that we often neglect, though, and that is the context of time.  Often things appear weird to us because of chronological snobbery.  Because the past is so different from the present, when we judge the past by the standards and norms and expectations of the present, we tend to find the people of the past to be odd, rather like Floridians in fact.  The same is true when we find people in the present who live as they did in the past–the Amish, for example, are definitely weird, but often in a good way to those who have somewhat old-fashioned moral standards.  The people of North Sentinel Island in the Indian Ocean are weird in a bad way because they are a stone age people who kill any intruders on their island.  It is also weird when the past has elements that appear to be more advanced than one would expect.  The antikythera mechanism and other ancient technologies are weird because we do not expect that level of advancement from the distant past.  The same is true of the inventions of Hero of Alexandria, which appear unsettlingly close to our own technology given the large intervening gap of time.  On the other hand, the tendency of previous generations to marry cousins or have large age gaps between the first marriage of husbands and wives strikes us as weird because it is contrary to our own current norms.  We can take comfort, though, in knowing that our ways will be just as weird to those who come after us, and we will seem like Floridians or Portlanders to those who will judge us by their own norms and standards and wonder why we were as strange as we are, though most of us think ourselves perfectly normal.

[1] See, for example:

https://edgeinducedcohesion.blog/2017/10/24/no-rhyme-or-reason/

https://edgeinducedcohesion.blog/2017/08/30/instant-karma/

https://edgeinducedcohesion.blog/2016/05/18/dont-let-go/

https://edgeinducedcohesion.blog/2016/01/06/dont-mess-with-the-crazy/

https://edgeinducedcohesion.blog/2015/11/13/a-whale-of-a-deal/

https://edgeinducedcohesion.blog/2015/10/24/fur-for-the-future/

About nathanalbright

I'm a person with diverse interests who loves to read. If you want to know something about me, just ask.
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