Choosing Your Influences

A few years ago, when I was a baby SJW, some people recommended Laci Green’s videos to me. I liked what she was saying, but something made me uneasy. I was still finding myself and recovering from my fundamentalist homeschooled background, and all the toxic messages that came with that. I was learning that one of the most damaging things from my childhood was how I felt that disagreeing made me stupid and evil. There was no space to be uninformed, still processing the evidence, or still comparing points of view. My choices were to either accept instantly or be utterly wrong, not just intellectually, but also morally.

Some segments of the social justice community were, frankly, triggering, because they shared that mentality. I don’t use that word to mean “unsettled” or “offended,” which is how many people (mis) use it. I mean it in it’s proper, medical sense; bringing back thoughts, habits or behaviors that interfere with the healing process, or cause symptoms of a mental illness. Laci Green was highly triggering, because even though she was saying things that I agreed with wholeheartedly, she was saying them in ways that made me feel that to continue examining these ideas would made me stupid and evil. At this time, those ideas were new to me, and I was afraid of simply accepting the first thing that came along, no matter how much sense it made. So, despite liking what she was saying, I decided not to follow her.

Even though I had no idea what would happen, I must admit to feeling a big smug, given recent events.*

I bring that up because it was a decision that lead to a habit of carefully choosing who I let influence me. That habit, more than any other, has protected me from activist burnout. I do have finite mental space, and some voices are exhausting, demoralizing, and, yes, triggering. It took some trial and error to work out who actually helped me and who didn’t, but in the end I ended up with a few simple guidelines that have served me fairly well.

First Guideline: Look for People Who Blend Positives and Negatives

Constant angry ranting can be tempting, because anger is contagious, and what do you want from your social network more than a highly shared post?. But it’s a toxic mental diet. It ultimately drains your energy, makes you cynical, and encourages you to spend most of your time putting other people down without adding anything constructive.

That said, I’m not sure nonstop positivity is great either. There are too many problems out there. There is pain and damage and systemic oppression that needs to be addressed. There’s a fine line between positivity and complacency, and an even finer line between complacency and complicity.

When an activist can post something about a systemic problem, and something else praising a solution or celebrating a moment of progress, that tells me they are able to see the world for what it is; a broken place that is still worth fighting for. A world full of people beautiful and precious despite their flaws. It reminds me that social justice is an ongoing, self-experimenting process. It makes me less afraid to take part in that experimentation, even knowing I might fail or prove ignorant. It gives me a hope that is grounded, not ephemeral, and it cultivates patience for a long fight still ahead.

Second Guideline: Look for People Who Evolve

I can’t say it enough; nobody’s perfect, and the people with the most problems are usually the ones most convinced they have nothing to learn.

In the social justice community, we have a bad habit of treating every problematic misstatement as a reason to ditch someone completely, but there are two problems with that. First, sometimes people make honest mistakes, which, given time, they will correct. Second, sometimes it’s not the other person who is wrong, but us. I’ve had times when I thought somebody was deeply misinformed or misguided, but in fact I was missing something. If I had dismissed them offhand, instead of looking closer, I would have missed out on a chance to grow.

This isn’t an easy road for anyone. Nobody has all the experiences needed to understand every point of view. Some of the problems ahead still don’t have clear solutions. If you’re following somebody who hasn’t seemed to change at all, that person is either stagnant or dishonest.

What I look for now is evidence that a person is constantly self-evaluating and re-evaluating. I can never expect to find a person without flaws, but I can expect to follow people who are constantly going through a process of reducing them, and I can hope that practice rubs off on me as well.

Third Guideline: Look for Empathy, Not Consensus

While this criticism has often been misapplied, I think there truly is an echo chamber problem in social justice. Unfortunately, many people seem to think the solution to that is to listen to hatemongers on the far right. I’ve noticed that those who embrace that solution are actually often those who have been least interested in paying attention to inter-community debate. There is so much disagreement among leftists and moderates. Even within small communities, from environmentalism to feminism to LGBTQIA, there are people who see problem A but have no experience of problem B arguing with those are ignorant of A but deeply entrenched in B, and people standing aside, bogged down in problem C, asking “excuse me, excuse me, hello? Anybody hear me?” Then, even when we can all agree that a problem exists, there’s the problem of agreeing on solutions. Clear, straightforward paths are the exceptions, not the rule. Most of the time multiple possible solutions exist, all of which have positives and negatives, all of which have advocates and critics.

It’s dangerously easy, in social justice, to get hooked on one problem you are familiar with, and one solution that appeals to you. But we are all a tiny fraction of the big oppression problem, and while one person’s philosophy might be infuriating because it’s wildly ignorant of your reality, yours might be as infuriating to them for exactly the same reason.

When I’m trying to decide who to engage and argue with, and who to ignore, I find it’s helpful to ignore what they are saying, and instead look at why they are saying it. Sometimes there’s evidence that they are just looking to put others down. There’s no point arguing with someone like that. They don’t really want to listen to you, and it doesn’t matter whether they’re on the far right or only a faint tint bluer or pinker than me. As far as they are concerned, your job is to either puff them up by becoming one of their converts, or puff them up by letting them stomp all over you to the applause of their cheering fans.

Others, however, agree with my basic values, and share my goal of making the world a better place. They just have an idea I disagree with. Those people are worth arguing with, whether the gaps are vast or small, because there is some hope of mutually educating each other.

The only type of philosophy that’s not worth listening to is one that devalues the fundamental worth of a human being. So long as there’s agreement on human value, everything else is just a difference of how we fight for human rights. Don’t engage with people who, with their words or their actions, make a habit of putting other people down. Do engage with people who have different plans to create a world that’s fairer and freer for everybody.

Zeroth Guideline: Trust Yourself

This is the zeroth guide, not the fourth, because it transcends all the others. I didn’t predict what Laci Green would end up doing. In fact, it was only retroactively that I could put any words to it. Even after my vague negative vibe turned into a nameable thing, I never would have anticipated what actually happened. I was just following my gut about what seemed emotionally healthy to me.

Do that thing.

Do challenge yourself. Sometimes you’ll hear something that makes you feel uncomfortable, but that also makes you better for hearing it. It’s worth pushing through that discomfort. But when you feel like you’re becoming a person you don’t like, or your mental health is being negatively affected, you don’t need to spell out exactly why you aren’t comfortable. Nor do you need a reason why nobody on earth should listen to that person ever; you aren’t everyone, you’re just you. Listen to the voices that make you a stronger, happier, better informed and ultimately more loving kind of person. Don’t waste time on all the rest.

*For those who haven’t followed it or haven’t heard of Laci Green; She’s a prominent Youtuber who vlogs about feminism, consent culture and sex ed. In the past she’s received a lot of praise, but also been criticized as an example of White Feminism; the problem of mainstream feminism being synonymous with the issues of white women, or erasing issues and perspectives of Black women. Over the past several weeks, she has announced that she started dating an anti-social justice, “alt right” white supremacist Youtuber. She also has been using her various platforms to legitimize voices of white supremacists, anti-feminists and anti-trans activists. Her defense has been that SJWs are too sensitive and PC and won’t engage with the other side, which, given previous criticisms and my original reason for ditching her, is highly ironic.

Reviewing Veggie Tales as an Atheist; Are You My Neighbor?

(note: I’m now a vaguely spiritual neopagan witchy-type. Otherwise, I stand by pretty much everything here, though)

This episode covers loving your neighbor. “Neighbor” is Christianese for “everyone under the sun and possibly aliens.” I talk a lot about messages I received during my upbringing that I later had to unlearn, or edit, or heavily amend. This, however, is one of the cases where my Christian background did a great job preparing me for my life as a godless liberal social justice obsessed queer freak. “Love all the people,” is nicely transitive.

“Love thy neighbor” is also the origin of the famous Good Samaritan story. When Jesus declared this the second greatest commandment (the greatest was that God was like, the coolest shit ever, everything else can be at most moderately cool) somebody came up and said, “so… are we talking next door neighbors? People across the street? Three blocks over?” Jesus came back with the Good Samaritan story, which was cryptic religious leader speak for “neighbor includes those people you hate literally worse than the people who just invaded you.” To which the smartass said, “Oh. Well. Fuck.”

When Veggie Tales decided to tackle the issue, they figured if it was good enough for their Lord and Savior, it was probably good enough for them, so they start the episode off with the Good Samaritan. Except its Veggie Tales, so it’s a story about two rival vegetable towns who hate each other because in Flibber-o-loo they wear shoes on their heads, and in Jibberty-lot they wear pots.

For the record, my ten minutes of internet research revealed that the big difference between the Samaritans and the Jews was that the Samaritans had their big temple on Mount Gerazim and the Jews had theirs on Mount Zion, so the shoe/pot thing isn’t a bad translation. I mean, there were layers of historical racial tension and culturally significant symbolism inherent in these two places of worship, but I’m sure that in the town of Flibber-o-loo, the shoe demonstrates their humility before the great leader Uggs McStrappy, while Jibberty-lot contains those descendants of Uggs McStrappy who also intermarried with the descendants of his ancient enemy, Kettie Crocker, and the pots on their heads are symbols of their merging traditions from both lines, which to the people of Flibber-o-loo is an abomination. But you know, it was a ten minute short, so they didn’t have time for all that backstory.

The story is a pretty straight retelling. Larry the Cucumber, from Flibber-o-loo, gets assaulted and left for dead by bandits. He gets passed by two prominent other shoe-headed veggies before Jr. Asparagus, playing our Good Jibberty-lotian (doesn’t quite flow as well, does it?) rescues him.

And then he sings the moral, self-righteously and a little out of tune.
And then he sings the moral, self-righteously and a little out of tune.

Afterwards the two towns make up, unlike in the real world, where the Samaritans still got picked on for no good reason.

The second story opens with Dad Asparagus tucking Jr. Asparagus into bed, and taking the moment to talk about his upcoming birthday party. As Jr. lists off the friends he wants to invite, Dad asks him about Fernando. Jr. isn’t sure about Fernando, because, in Jr’s words, he talks funny and is kinda weird. Dad tries to explain that Fernando is actually just from another country and that different isn’t bad, but he can’t quite make the message stick, so he  leaves the room in hopes that something bizarre will happen to teach Jr. the lesson of the evening.

No sooner has the door closed than Bob and Larry show up to cart him away to a Star Trek parody. The USS Applepies is in danger of being smashed by a giant popcorn ball. All seems lost until Jr. notices the two weird new kids, Jimmy Gourd and Jerry Gourd, who do nothing but eat and sing. Jr. realizes that, when the ship’s main threat is edible, a couple of big eaters might be exactly what the situation requires. He launches the brothers at the popcorn ball, and they eat the whole thing in just enough time to wrap up the episode with a song about embracing our differences.

Hey, it’s an unconventional parenting strategy, but it hasn’t let Dad Asparagus down yet.

Dad Asparagus takes the time to clarify that, in the real world, the differences that bind us together are less likely to be “can eat a giant ball of popcorn in less than a minute thereby saving a spaceship,” and more likely to be “can introduce you to foods and things from their culture that you might like if you give them a try.” Then its time for Bob and Larry to wrap up the episode by clarifying, just in case any of us missed it, that its really important to be kind to people who are different than you. Its in the Bible and everything.

There are two arguments presented for loving your neighbor. Well, three, if you count the many times we hear “love each other because God loves us,” but that’s an argument we are told, not shown. In the second story, we are given a pragmatic reason. Different can be good. Diversity can bring things like fun new experiences, novel solutions to problems, and diversified strengths in case of unexpected obstacles, like popcorn balls in space. The first one gives us a more subtle, empathetic reason. It tears down the artificial sense of separateness that lifestyle and cultural differences give us. It reminds us of our shared humanity, and our desire for others to be kind to us. It says that our words and our external traits do not always predict our actions, and we shouldn’t be too quick to judge by what we see on the outside.

Both arguments are good, although I think the empathetic one cuts more to the heart of why loving each other is important. We should all value each other because we all share in the condition known as humanity. Many Christians assume that, without belief in God, atheists cannot understand love. This is completely false. You don’t need God to love. Love does not require the stamp of divine approval to be valuable. Like wisdom and happiness, it is a thing that is valuable for its own sake, without any outside justification needed.

"Love is a many splendored thing. Love lifts us up where we belong. All you need is love!"
“Love is a many splendored thing. Love lifts us up where we belong. All you need is love!”

So yes, in conclusion, great message, great episode, good times.

Ferris Bueller and the Nature of Goodness

*spoilers abound throughout*

During a recent bout of sickness, my boyfriend and I watched Ferris Bueller’s Day Off, because it is a wonderful, happy movie that makes life seem less awful even when you have to periodically pause it to rush to the bathroom. While I was watching it, two things struck me. First, it is a wonderful happy movie that makes life seem less awful even when, well, I guess I covered that already. Second, Ferris Bueller does almost nothing I approve of, and yet I can’t help liking him and rooting for him. He rejects education for entirely juvenile reasons. He lies to every authority figure, bullies his best friend into going out, takes another person’s car out for a joyride and cons his way into taking someone else’s dinner reservation (both of which are on the borderline of stealing), all without showing a hint of guilt. Now, there are many stories out there with an amoral, rule-breaking protagonist, but often I root for these protagonists while cringing. I don’t want them to be doing what they are doing, but I still care about them and hope that somehow things work out for them. They are often tragic protagonists who are punished in the end for their wrongdoing, and though I didn’t want to see them suffer I also wouldn’t have been satisfied by any other ending. Ferris, however, is someone who I root for unreservedly, and when, at the end, everything works out for him, I am completely satisfied. It is the one movie that can make me forget all my normal values while I watch it.

Or is it?

The antiheroic characters I described above earn my sympathy through two methods. First, they tend to be charming, cool and often funny, so they are likable. Second, they tend to oppose characters who are unlikable, sometimes even characters who are more morally corrupt than they are. Both of those do apply to Ferris (he is funny and charming, and his main antagonist, Principal Rooney, is so rude and unapologetically overbearing, it’s impossible to root for him) but there is another layer to Ferris’ success as a character. While in an academic sense everything he does is wrong, while you are watching him do things the way he does, it’s hard to disapprove of them.

For one thing, his misbehaving is incredibly harmless. He never seeks to do harm, only to enjoy himself. I’m trying to think of bad things that could have happened offscreen as a result of his actions, and I can only think of one; the maitre d’ who was duped into giving Ferris someone else’s reservation probably got chewed out by his manager. That’s all, and odds are if he’s a decent maitre d’ who doesn’t normally make this kind of mistake, and if the manager is willing to listen to the full explanation, it’s doubtful he suffered any long term consequences. Ferris never steals from somebody who isn’t capable of easily replacing what was taken, he never lies with the intent to cause somebody else physical or emotional pain, and in general he never shows ill will towards anybody, even Mr. Rooney.

In fact, the humiliations Mr. Rooney experiences are entirely unrelated to anything Ferris does. In another movie a Ferris-like scalawag might set sadistic traps for him, but that’s not Ferris’ way. Ferris is content to get out of school, and leave Mr. Rooney in peace. It is Mr. Rooney’s own actions that hurt and humiliate him. He is rude to a lesbian who he mistakes for Ferris, and gets soda spat in his face. He trespasses on the Bueller’s property, and their dog chases him down. He trespasses again, frightens Ferris’ sister and gets the police called on him. I’ve heard some people argue that Mr. Rooney is actually just doing his job, and we just root against him because he is unsympathetic, I think that is a hard position to support. While it is true that Mr. Rooney has a responsibility to maintain his school’s attendance rate, do you think any court or review board would say that responsibility justified abandoning his school for an entire day to chase down a single absent student? Or intruding on someone else’s property? Dropping a flowerpot on their dog? Even though his anger at Ferris is somewhat reasonable, his actions are not.

So there is one reason why Ferris is easy to identify with. He never harms anyone directly, nor does he intend to hurt anyone. That doesn’t necessarily make him a good person. If he cares only about his own pleasure, without any intent to hurt others, that makes him an amorally blithe spirit. To really be considered a good person, he has to care about others in addition to caring about himself. Does he meet this criteria?

I think he does. He brings two people along with him on his day off; his best friend Cameron, and his girlfriend Sloane. At first, when Cameron is sick in bed and conflicted about going, this seems selfish. Ferris claims that Cameron’s illness is all in his head, that he is chronically depressed and anxious and what he really needs is to get out of his head and have some fun. For many characters, this would be just another sort of manipulation, or justifications made for the speaker’s  own convenience, but this movie backs this up. Once Cameron gets out of his house, he really does stop showing any signs of sickness. His facial expressions and mannerisms are very consistent with being anxious, and his parents are described as being both strict and neglectful (speaking as someone who was in the same position for a while, I related to Cameron quite a lot). After Ferris has gotten Cameron out of the house, he continues to have asides to the camera about Cameron’s mental state. Ferris only drops his carefree attitude when he talks about Cameron, because he is genuinely afraid that Cameron will never loosen up and find his confidence. At one point Sloane suggests that Ferris planned this whole trip for Cameron’s benefit, and we aren’t given any reason to think she’s wrong.

I’ve heard some people suggest that Ferris is a sociopath, and it’s true that he is manipulative and shows a callous disregard for the rules, but neither of those are the defining traits of sociopathy. What separates sociopaths from non-sociopaths is that sociopaths completely lack empathy. In fact, people who have many traits of sociopathy, but whose sense of empathy is normal, are known for being extreme altruists; the kinds of people who run into burning buildings or dart into traffic to save small children. Ferris is not a sociopath. He does two things a sociopath would never do. First, when Cameron falls into the pool, seemingly catatonic, Ferris dives in to save him. The look on his face when Cameron falls is of shock and terror, and it’s not for the benefit of any audience. Nobody else is there, except Sloane, who is behind him and couldn’t see his face anyway. Second, when Cameron, at the end of the film, destroys his father’s car, Ferris offers to take the blame. He begs for it. He says this is too much heat for Cameron to take. His feelings for Cameron are both selfless and genuine.

One of Ferris’ most morally questionable acts in the beginning of the film is stealing Cameron’s father’s red Ferrari. I say it’s the most morally questionable because, while Ferris doesn’t intend for it to be damaged, it easily could have been, and because, while Cameron’s family is probably financially capable of replacing it, it has strong emotional value to Cameron’s father.  The car is kept shut up in a garage, never driven, never used, just polished and admired and doted on. Many kids would complain jokingly about their parent’s loving some trinket more than them, but when Cameron says his father loves the Ferrari more than his own son, nobody treats it as an exaggeration. It is this transgression of Ferris’ that worries Cameron the most.

In the end, the car is returned to the garage unharmed, but Ferris’ plan to take off the miles they have driven turns out to be based on a complete lack of understanding of how cars actually work. Cameron goes catatonic for a while, and Ferris’ blithe demeanor is shaken for the first time. He is truly anxious for his friend. Then, Cameron comes out with it, and suddenly trashes his father’s car. He has lived his whole life in terror of his father, and now, facing the imminent threat of his father’s wrath, he decides the fear is not worth it. He wants to face his father, accept whatever consequences there are. This is how you get rid of fear; you stare the thing you fear in the face, and you accept it. From this point on, Cameron does seem more confident. Initially, he was a rule follower, not because he had an internal moral compass telling him to do so, but because he feared authority and devalued himself. Ferris takes him on an adventure to show him that authority is not all powerful, and that Cameron is worthy of the good times that the rules would so often deprive him of, and in the end, this pays off, though not quite the way Ferris had expected.
This movie, while portraying actions that I would never ordinarily condone, does in fact have a moral core that I completely agree with. Ferris breaks the rules because he knows that the rules aren’t always good. In this film, everyone who follows the rules does so for completely the wrong reason. They are either like Mr. Rooney, insisting on the rules because they feel the rules should benefit them personally, or like Cameron, following the rules because they are afraid of the consequences. Their morality does not come from a place of compassion, empathy, or desire to make the world a better place. Instead, it is Ferris’ mischief that actually comes from concern for others, and that makes the lives of those around him better.

Rules don’t exist to make people good. Rules can’t make people good. Rules give us a sense of how the world work, they give us a framework to live in, but it’s up to us to live in that framework in a way that is empathetic and giving. As long as the rules are consistent with that kind of inner goodness, it is good to follow them, but when that’s not always the case. Sometimes the rules are made by people who don’t really have our best interests at heart, like Cameron’s parents, or maybe the rules become just an excuse for people who aren’t acting in a way that’s really good, like Mr. Rooney. For those times, we need characters like Ferris to remind us that sometimes the best thing to do is take a day off.

Communities and Stories; A Lesson From Being Late to Harry Potter

A confession; Harry Potter is not one of my favorite series of all time.

That is not to say that they are not excellent books. I cried at the deaths of Hedwig, Sirius, Dumbledore, Fred, Lupin and Tonks. I have a Hagrid keychain. It hits the perfect blend of entertaining and intelligent and I would recommend it to anyone without reservation. But when I think of my favorite books, or series, or fictions of any sort, Harry Potter does not come immediately to mind. It trails along at the end, helped along mainly by its street cred with all my favorite nerds. This has no relation to its objective quality.

It’s not my favorite because I read it alone.

My parents were the sorts of Christians usually seen as side characters in sitcoms. It only took one demagogic editorial to convince them their children’s souls depended on Emblem of Secular Culture X being banned. Harry Potter was banned; like Halloween and Pokemon, it might lead to Satan worship. I read the first three books in secret at age 17 while the rest of the family was on a beach trip, and finished the series years later.

When I talk to people who are hardcore Harry Potter fans, they don’t just talk about the excellence of the series. They played the computer and board games, dissected the books on forums, bought the legos, and stood in line together at midnight for the latest copy. It was not just that the books were fun and smart; it was that there was an abundance of people to share the enjoyment and analysis. By contrast, when I finished the series, the last book was already three years old. The mysteries had been solved, the characters and themes analyzed to death, and while the fandom is still around it is no longer active. It has a nostalgic feel to it; people whose geekly lives are now dominated by other obsessions periodically looking back to an old, eternal favorite. Sharing my thoughts with these old fans is always a little bit of a letdown. No matter how clever or insightful my thoughts feel to me, they nod and smile in a way that suggests I have not said anything that was not already said, debated, and possibly put on a T-shirt somewhere. I missed the glory days.

I have not, however, missed out on the experience of shared geekery. I have Supernatural and Doctor Who. I listen to Welcome to Night Vale with two of my best friends. Any book, movie or series that my sister and I find, we will eventually share with each other, and when we do the enjoyment doubles. When I think of my own actual favorite books, mostly they are either books that someone I love introduced me to, or that I introduced to someone I love. That goes all the way back to my earliest favorites; The Chronicles of Narnia, my parents choice of bedtime story, and Calvin and Hobbes, my big brother’s choice when he babysat.

Reading books and watching movies are often treated as solitary pursuits, suited mainly to introverts, in contrast with sports and parties. The bit about being suited to introverts may be true, but solitary? If they are, why are there book clubs? Why is “what do you like to read” such a common first date question? In the days before movies and TV, the typical evening pastime was sitting around the fire while someone read aloud. Even the shyest bookworm is a social animal, and the best compliment that can be paid to a story is, “I want my friends to read this!”