Wednesday, April 01, 2009

Evelyn, please please be reasonable

The line everyone remembers from Chinatown, one of the best films of the 1970s and one of the best written films of the twentieth century, is the final sentence: "Forget it, Jake.  It's Chinatown."  But there's another line a minute earlier where the villain speaks in a soft voice on an open street to the heroine, "Evelyn, please please be reasonable".  Anyone who doesn't understand the context would have no reason to object, but to anyone who does understand it the words are unspeakably wrong.

Robert Towne, who wrote the script, explains some of the background in an interview:

The title had come from a Hungarian vice cop. He had said that he worked vice and he worked in Chinatown. And I asked him what he did, and he said “As little as possible.” And I said “Well what kind of law enforcement is that?” And he said “Hey man, when you’re down there with the tongs and the different dialects, you can’t tell who’s doing what to who and you can’t tell whether you’re being asked to help prevent a crime or you’re inadvertently lending the color of the law to help commit a crime. So we’ve decided that the best thing to do when you’re in Chinatown is as little as possible.”

Who's honest and who's sending up smoke?  Chinatown plays upon the conventions of film noir in which the leading lady is almost always the nemesis, so through most of this plot Evelyn (played by Faye Dunaway) is a murder suspect.  By the end the protagonist (played by Jack Nicholson) learns who the actual murderer is, and also learns that she has been acting from honorable motives, but before he understands that much he has led the villain to the victims and is powerless to intervene as the police seal the victims' doom.

Noah Cross (played by John Huston) is one of the great movie villains because his manners remain so courtly that one has to think about it to realize what he's doing and hate him properly.  The character Noah Cross is never willing to be reasonable.  The writer Robert Towne had the insight to distinguish politeness from reasonableness.  When Noah Cross exclaims "Evelyn, please please be reasonable", he is pushing past the daughter he had raped about sixteen years before to get at the daughter/granddaughter he wants to rape, and he is framing his older daughter for murder while very skillfully giving an appearance to onlookers that he is simply an affectionate old family man.  No one who knows the truth is in a position to contradict him.  His civility inspires hope that hell exists, to quietly wish him there.

You knew this was going to segue to Wikipedia, right?

Obviously Chinatown is fiction, with all the caveats that entails.  One of the reasons it's such an acclaimed film is because it nails the human dynamics so well.  Unreasonable people--the ones who get away with their unreasonableness--also manipulate situations so they appear reasonable to passersby.  What an unreasonable person chooses to be unreasonable about varies widely; most actual examples are far more mundane than Noah Cross.  Yet there are only so many ways to succeed at unreasonableness; one of the most effective is to have excellent social skills.  A reasonable and knowledgeable person who stands in the way can get cornered into a situation where the only responses they can think of are either to remain passive or to else take action and appear absurd.

Wikipedians are prone to the mistake of presuming everybody in an ugly situation is equally wrong, and Wikipedians are also prone to confusing civility with reasonableness.  Some individuals simply aren't reasonable.  We give them chances to be reasonable, we try different approaches to achieve reasonableness, and in most instances that works because most people really are reasonable.  But occasionally someone who is not reasonable comes along with smoothness and affability.  When that happens there's a very good chance that individual is busy undermining the people who stand in their way and also blowing as much smoke as possible.  

This evening I was composing an email about Wikipedia dispute resolution, and really could have applied the same ideas to two dozen situtions, when that line came to mind:  "Evelyn, please please be reasonable".  Wikipedians repeat a mantra to "avoid drama"--that's our site culture's preferred response to really messy situations--and it carries echoes of the Hungarian police officer's explanation to Robert Towne.  In Towne's story the way to get a promotion in the Los Angeles Police Department was to do as little as possible; intervention could lose a man his job.  That was fiction, of course.  How much better are we doing?

1 comment:

Unknown said...

As I recall I mentioned this when we spoke on Skype a while back, but it may interest your readers...

This has a direct bearing on consensus - what it means, how it's measured etc. Consensus is explicitly a consensus of reasonable people. This is taken to heart on many wikis, and works well, for reasons that should be clear enough. However, English Wikipedia's community fails to realize, I think, that you have many unreasonable people. As such, they cannot form a part of a consensus of reasonable people. Instead of constantly voting and hoping reasonable people are more numerous in a particular situation, I think it's be better for the health of the community to recognize that some people simply aren't reasonable, and that entails that they needn't be heeded in community discussions.

Of course, this is true enough to some extent on other wikis, but to a lesser extent because those communities somehow already have that understanding.