Beyond the SEA Games triumph (or my hero Joss Whedon is a cheater)

This is your brain bending reality to make you feel better. It’s called cognitive dissonance – when our brain is confronted with conflicting ideas such as ‘Joss Whedon is a feminist hero’ and ‘Joss Whedon is a cheating husband’. To avoid cognitive dissonance, our brain tries to bend our interpretation of reality so the two conflicting ideas are not in conflict any more. Photo: VISUAL HUNT/Robert Couse-Baker

So, Monday September 4 is a holiday.

But for me, this celebration of a successfully hosted SEA Games with our greatest ever medal haul has been marred by a report in the Thai press that says “the officiating at KL2017 is the worst... ever seen”. This was the opinion of Thana Chaiprasit who has been Thailand’s chief of delegation at several international events, including the Olympics, Asian Games and SEA Games.

To be honest, I didn’t hear about allegations of bad judging – in events such as race walking, pencak silat and sepak takraw – from local media. It’s only because I happened to be watching some of the events live, or because netizens complained loudly enough.

But my first thought upon hearing all this was: Don’t the judges come from many other countries beside Malaysia? I also noted that the complaints all came from people who lost rather than neutral observers.

To top it all off, despite there being procedures for teams to officially bring attention to bad refereeing, “until now, if I’m not mistaken, we haven’t received any official complaints,” said Ahmad Shapawi Ismail, director-general of Malaysia’s National Sports Council (

So everything is OK then.

But then I stopped and wondered if I was being a little bit too defensive about all this. After all, I am biased.

I had a similar problem the week before when a woman named Kai Cole wrote an open letter complaining about her ex-husband’s infidelity over many years. This in itself is nothing unusual, of course. But the thing is, her husband was Joss Whedon.

He’s only a scriptwriter that I hold in high regard. If the name isn't familiar, perhaps his work will be. He's the director and a co-writer of The Avengers, the Oscar nominated co-writer of Toy Story, and creator and showrunner of Buffy, The Vampire Slayer. I've been a loyal fan of all those works.

Buffy is one of the first TV shows that made me want to write for television. It was self-aware, self-referential and self-mocking, and yet it managed to also be sincere about what it was trying to portray: an allegory of life as a teenager dressed up as vampires and demons.

It was because of Buffy that I paid attention to who wrote the scripts, learned how shows were made in the writer’s room, and gained a greater appreciation of TV as an art form.

And it let a woman, Sarah Michelle Gellar, take the lead in an action show. Whedon seemed to be a guy who understood women; who got that the nuance of having a female lead wasn’t just swapping genders and names but incorporating an understanding of the psyche of that gender.

Gellar’s character – and that of Willow, played by Alyson Hannigan – were strong women who made decisions on their own and took action as necessary to actualise them. Whedon was a feminist at that time, working with male-dominated tropes.

But all this has now been cast in doubt because of what his ex-wife wrote. Cole accused Whedon of being a sham, a charlatan who abused his position of authority, and “hid multiple affairs and a number of inappropriate emotional ones that he had with his actresses, co-workers, fans and friends”.

Geekdom reacted with a mixture of shock, horror and bated breath to know what would happen next.

It had me thinking about how I was reacting to all of it. After all, this is an ideal example of cognitive dissonance – the conflict experienced by somebody holding onto contradicting ideas. A man who I’ve admired and been inspired by for so long is now accused of being a cheat and liar. How do I feel and react?

Conventional theory about cognitive dissonance says that we bend our interpretation of reality, so that the two conflicting ideas are not in conflict any more. Perhaps his ex-wife is lying. Perhaps the word “affair” has a very different meaning from what everybody else thinks. Perhaps these are events that happened long ago, and the man he was then is not who he is now.

What I noticed was how much I struggled to verbalise these thoughts. I was making excuses on behalf of the man when I didn’t even know the full story. I should wait and see what evidence turns up. But Whedon’s silence regarding these allegations is deafening. I’m getting no help from the man himself on how to resolve this conflict in my mind.

This conflict that’s running through me now happens all the time when heroes are exposed to have human flaws. It happens a lot with politicians. We’ve all seen examples of people in power who are accused of wrongdoing, who might even be investigated by their countries’ authorities, who have their faults regularly laid bare in the global media, who still remain in power.

Why? Because there are people who look past their glaring faults, and their supporters are blind to anything negative.

But perhaps I'm wrong. US President Donald Trump’s popularity over the last six months has declined noticeably and sharply. Maybe people are starting to see just how badly – according to the rest of the world – he’s doing in leading the United States.

What I’m saying is, don’t be afraid when facts seem to contradict your beliefs. The brave, difficult thing to do is to take the facts at face value instead of making excuses for them before you even get a chance to examine them. Which means the right thing to do is not only celebrate our SEA Games success, but to also take time out to listen to criticism and take a good hard look at what we can do better.

Logic is the antithesis of emotion but mathematician-turned-scriptwriter Dzof Azmi’s theory is that people need both to make sense of life’s vagaries and contradictions.

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