Tag Archives: social justice

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.

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Activism, Self-Care and the March for Science

A confession; although I’ve been looking forward to this for months, I nearly did not go. Lately I’ve been low on spoons, and I kept asking myself what I could really contribute. One more body? If I showed up and there was a massive turnout, I would not be necessary. If I showed up and there wasn’t, I would not be enough to fix it. On the other hand, I wanted to be able to tell my kids that I showed up. History is always happening, but these days it is happening at a rather more grueling pace.

Still, couldn’t I make up my absence with more concrete action, some other day?

In the end, what convinced me to get out and brave the rain wasn’t thoughts of what I could do. It was the realization that I needed the march more than the march needed me. In the first hundred days, the liberals have won more battles than they’ve lost. But they have had to fight hard, there have been losses, and there’s still plenty of time for the tide to turn. I want to take a break. I’m scared that if I do, that means everyone else will be too, and we will all be blindsided by the next move. I needed to get out there and see clear evidence that my people are still out there.

So I showed up, meandered, listened to speeches and read people’s signs. I’m an introvert with an anxiety disorder; I don’t much like having to interact with people. But I do like being around them. I’m a passionate crowd watcher. At the march, I was surrounded by xkcd shirts, brain hats, Neil deGrasse Tyson quotes, Lorax references and political math puns (apparently if you’re pro-choice, you vote Banach-Tarski in 2020… I was barely geeky enough to get that). There were buttons proclaiming that trans is beautiful and black lives matter. Some people blew bubbles in the rain, and watching them shimmer against the grey sky was one of the most uplifting things I’ve ever seen.

And so many beautiful, dorky, incredible signs. I jotted down a few of my favorites;

  • “I only seem liberal because I think hurricanes are caused by barometric pressure, not gay marriage.”
  • A wordless portrait of Rosalind Franklin framed with plastic tube double helixes
  • (under a dead on Oregon Trail pixel drawing) “You have not died of dysentery. Thank science.”
  • “Donald, you’ll learn soon that Mar-a-lago is only 10 feet above sea level.”
  • “The earth is enormous and fragile, just like your ego. The difference is we can live without your ego.”

And my personal favorite…

  • “Science matters. Unless it’s energy. Then it equals matter times the speed of light squared.”

When I came home, I felt lighter. I also felt empowered, not least because I signed up for email lists to get more ideas for anti-fascist, pro-science and environmentalist activism. I got a reminder of just how many awesome weirdos are out there to fight ignorance and bigotry with me.

Take care of yourselves guys. Pace yourselves, join a team, sign up for a mailing list, and don’t be afraid to show up without knowing what exactly you’ll do for the cause, or how long you’ll even be able to stay. It’s okay. Just be there, to remind yourself that we aren’t doing this alone.

The Electoral College and the White Supremacist’s Advantage

In these first few weeks of the Trump Administration, we’ve seen truly awful executive orders. We’ve also seen a historic rising up of people, organizations, and businesses. Even normally lazy and intractable politicians are taking the hint. This isn’t shaping up to be the smooth ride Donald wanted.

While this encourages me, it isn’t actually him who scares me the most. He’s the current manifestation of something that has been around a lot longer, will probably outlast him and is a lot more dangerous; the white supremacy movement.

How to create a truly diverse and equal world is a complex conversation with many different valid perspectives, but any decent human being should agree that it should exist. If your fundamental goal is to deny the humanity of anyone based on their race, language, nation of origin or ancestral ethnicity, you are not a legitimate political movement. You are an organization of hate. In recent years, white America has patted itself on the back for racial progressiveness, all the while ignoring dog whistling, southern apologists, and the piles of evidence for ongoing institutional racism. Now that white supremacists have put themselves back in the public eye, they have an opportunity to put themselves back on the table as a political perspective that we treat as normal. That cannot happen.

It is well known that your odds of being racist inversely correspond with your actual experience with people from different races. This effect can be mitigated by taboos against discussing race, institutional racism and socially acceptable racism, but in general, when people are allowed to socialize with other ethnic groups, discuss their differences and also find common ground, the idea of institutionalized racism becomes abhorrent. As America moves towards both greater demographic diversity, and also a greater social conversation about race, white supremacy loses more and more footholds. This excellent development means that, as time goes on, they only have a few regions of the country where they even have a chance to spread their ideology.

Simply put, they are better off in rural regions than urban areas.

This advantage doesn’t come from any moral superiority of city dwellers, but simply the fact that in a city you become more and more likely to run into people who are different from you on a daily basis. You are more likely to get inoculated against white supremacy, even in a society where racist institutions still exist. Rural areas are more isolated, and so easier for white supremacists to infect.

Now, the fact that they are so isolated should give white supremacists a disadvantage politically. This is where the Electoral College comes in. Because of the Electoral College, every Presidential election, voters in highly rural get their votes weighted double or treble over voters in states with major cities. With every Presidential election, they get a chance to control the public conversation about race. They get a chance to appoint Supreme Court Justices by proxy. They get a chance to dictate global policy. Without the Electoral College, white supremacists today would have no chance of putting their platform on a global or even national scale. With it, well, we are all seeing what has happened.

I think we will defeat Donald Trump. He’s too easy to mock and rally against. What scares me is the prospect of someone taking advantage of the galvanized white supremacist movement that he created. I worry that someone will come along who is smoother, more subtle when it comes to concealing their crimes, and altogether far less easy to mock. Not only do I think this is possible, but right now I think it’s inevitable.

What isn’t inevitable is that person’s victory. Even now, with so many racial problems still infecting our country, I believe our population has become too diverse for a true white supremacist to win the national popular vote. But as 2016 has proved, it’s possible for even a very unlikable one to win the Electoral College.

Activism against the current threat is wonderful, and we should keep doing it. But we should also have an eye on the future. The Electoral College is life support for neo-nazis. We need to unplug it.

This is part of an ongoing series on why I care so much about the Electoral College and the National Popular Vote Interstate Compact. If I’ve convinced you that the Electoral College is something to be concerned about, or just want to know more, please check out the NPVIC’s site. If you want to take action, the best way is to call your state governor and representatives and tell them you want your state to sign the NPVIC. On their homepage is a search bar, where you can type your zip code and find out who they are. 

Good Offense, Bad Offense

Whenever I write about social justice and writing, whether I’m sharing my own perspective or asking for someone else’s, typically someone will come along and inform me that it’s impossible to avoid offending everyone. Therefore, apparently, my entire effort is fundamentally pointless. I was recently in an argument with a particularly belligerent person, out to save me from my futile quest of political correctness, and I realized he was misunderstanding something very basic to my goals. Contrary to his assumption, I’m actually all for offending people with my writing.

I’ve heard people say that good writing is often offensive, and I’ve heard that idea attacked by fellow social justice geeks. I actually think that attack is misguided. It’s not that the very concept of “good art offends” is wrong. It’s just normally presented as part of an overall bad argument. It’s like a seed that’s been planted in one of those tea candle holders. It won’t ever have room to properly bloom and fruit, but that’s not the seed’s fault. It’s the fault of the dumbass who planted it there.

Offense is the reaction of people who have been made to question something that they profoundly did not want to question. Sometimes that reluctance itself needs to be challenged. Some things stagnate and decay when they aren’t shaken up and re-examined regularly. Politics and religion in particular are improved by periodic interrogation. Great storytelling hacks our brains to make us think about something in a way we didn’t expect, so we should want it to occasionally offend people.

However, that principle doesn’t apply to everything. A person shouldn’t have to question their basic self-worth; their behavior or habits, sure, but not their fundamental value or basic human rights. That’s my first issue with the whole “you can’t please everybody” argument. No, I can’t please everybody. That’s why I try to prioritize pleasing people by treating them like humans, as opposed to pleasing people by tiptoing around their worldviews.

Which brings me to the core issue. The kind of offense I’ve been targeting these days really doesn’t come from any kind of intentional statement (most of the time). Instead, it comes from laziness. We have built up a vast tapestry of tropes that center around treating straight, white, heterosexual cisgender non-disabled men as normal and everyone else as subtly less human. Writers, from romance novelists to screenwriters to stand-up comics, draw from art that came before them, and often that means borrowing racist, sexist, ableist or homo/transphobic tropes. Even recognizing them takes conscious thought. Figuring out how to write without them takes serious effort. But failing to put that effort doesn’t make you the good type of offensive. It’s not thought provoking to stereotype Black women. It’s not constructive to question a disabled person’s basic worth and dignity.

Every norm eventually takes on a basic comfort; even ones that have no other redeeming quality. Challenging bigoted norms, therefore, is offensive. It isn’t even just offensive to people who are actively invested in oppression. It’s offensive to people who intellectually dislike oppression, but also have gotten comfortable with the rhythms of it. They don’t like to be confronted with the idea that their own story ideas, inspired by bigoted works, might have inherited bigotry. They really don’t want to be challenged to do the work to undo it. That’s the real reason for the ubiquitous pushback. It’s easy to tell others that the real world doesn’t have safe spaces, or that other people need to grow a thicker skin. It’s a lot harder to grow one yourself.

So to everyone out there who makes it your mission to remind people that they’re eventually going to piss off someone, or that they’ll kill themselves trying to make everyone happy, or that good art is sometimes offensive; take a moment to consider that maybe you’re the one they are willing to offend.

This rant has been brought to you by a really annoying conversation, a bad case of staircase wit, and my sudden realization that I hadn’t met my four posts a month standard. You probably picked up on that. You smart reader, you. 

November 9th, 2016

I don’t know what happened.

I’m writing this at ten minutes to 1 AM. Unless a miracle happens between now and dawn, Hillary Clinton will lose the election.

I don’t know what happened, but I can guess.

People were complacent that someone else would do the right thing. They knew one thing would feel morally superior and one thing was what most people needed to do to protect us as a whole. Instead of casting their vote in the best interest of the nation as a whole, they did what they could pretend was morally superior. Or else they just stayed home.

People swallowed a myth about the lesser of two evils. True in it’s substance, woefully inaccurate in it’s scale.

People let themselves be swept up by a story instead of fighting for the issues that will really matter to us over the next four years.

People turned out to be depressingly more bigoted and hateful than I wanted them to be.

I am scared, and sad, and feel like I haven’t even fully processed the weight of how bad this is. It will probably take a while before I do. Eventually, though, I will have processed this.

I will see injustices; I have no illusions. Real people will be hurt. In some situations, I will be one of them. In others, they will be people different from me; women, POC, and Muslims in particular. Things will not be fine.

In the meantime, I will love my partner, my sister, and my best friend. I will keep talking about injustices and protesting them. When I can do something to help, I will.

And eventually, I will regain my hope in the American people.

It’s just not going to happen today.

An Open Letter to Gary Johnson, on Hillary Clinton, Donald Trump, the GOP and LGBT Rights

Dear Gary Johnson,

Google, in it’s infinite algorithmic wisdom, has decided to throw an ad of yours my way, several times over the last few weeks. It can be summarized as, “vote for me, I supported gay marriage before Hillary Clinton did.” Initially I treated the way I treat most sidebar ads; I glanced then ignored. Then I found myself mildly irritated by it, and every time I saw it, I thought a little more about that irritation. And now here we are, with me ranting on the internet.

First of all, I looked up the date you came out to publically support gay marriage. I got December 1, 2011. Hillary Clinton supported civil unions but opposed marriage back in 2003, but changed to fully supporting equal marriage rights in March of 2013 (references in same link). So congratulations; you beat her by a full fifteen months. A baby went from lying in a crib to kind-of walking in the time it took for Hillary to catch up to your courageous public support of my love life.

Second, it doesn’t really bother me that Hillary Clinton played it safe back in the day. She’s been politically active for a long time, and her stances on numerous issues have evolved with the times. I’m okay with that, because I’m not naive. In her case, I’m especially inclined to forgive, because while she’ll bow and pander and obfuscate to get power, she then uses that power to do awesome stuff. She has fought hard for healthcare, environmentalism and women’s rights.

And no, it doesn’t bother me that you weren’t always openly pro-gay either.

That brings me to my third point. Your accomplishments, as far as LGBTQ rights go, consist of, well, saying you aren’t against them. The tide of public opinion on gay marriage turned quickly. You jumped into the water a year before Hillary Clinton did. But while you paddled in the shallows, she struck out swimming.

She even started working for us ever unpopular transgender people. As Secretary of State, she pushed through legislation that enabled trans people to get passports that affirmed their gender without jumping through medical hoops. Imagine life with an ID that can out you, that can expose you to violence. Imagine needing a surgery to get that ID changed, and needing a job to pay for the surgery, and being denied the job because your ID outs you as transgender. Long before I knew who was responsible, I knew a trans woman who carried her passport with her all the time. She carried it because she didn’t “pass” well, because she sometimes did get attacked, because the security of a gender affirming government-issued ID was something she needed daily. The passport bill is the kind of work Hillary is best at; small, not too glamorous, but with significant practical benefits for real human beings.

To this day, if you go to her plan on her website, you see trans issues explicitly spelled out. She will fight for our rights in bathrooms, as she will also fight gender conversion therapy, appoint Supreme Court Justices who will uphold our newly won marriage rights, and continue to vocally, openly support us.

I couldn’t find any evidence of your support for trans rights, or that you’ve even mentioned them. I don’t see what you say about conversion therapy. You are socially liberal, but fiscally conservative. When you pick the new Supreme Court Justice, which will be your priority? Do you already have a list of highly qualified judges who are your fellow libertarians? If you can’t get one, would you appoint someone who is socially and fiscally liberal? Or will your primary concern be appointing someone in favor of “small government” even when that means making the government too small to protect people like me?

Those are the questions that concern me, a person who has to live in this country while being queer. Not “who liked us before we were cool?”

Fourth, why the hell are you criticizing Hillary Clinton at all? She’s not the person I’m afraid of. I’m afraid of the party who, this year, reached new lows in their vehement opposition of LGBTQ rights. I’m scared of the people who are actively anti-gay marriage, not the one whose support of it is only three years old. I’m scared of the party that grins approvingly at conversion therapy and would refuse to let me adopt a child.

I’m scared of the fucking Republicans.

It’s possible you’ve got ads targeting the GOP and appealing to young, gay-friendly Republicans, and I just haven’t seen them because Google knows I’m not a Republican. It’s possible.

Although I do see an awful lot of pro-Trump ads these days though. So Google is letting Trump, Clinton and you being anti-Clinton through, but not you calling out Republicans on the most anti-LGBTQ platform yet? Yeah, that’s definitely more likely than you calling out the kettle and ignoring the pot.

What the hell, man?

All this together makes me think that, honestly, you don’t give a shit about people like me. You don’t see our rights as worthy of real time and action. But you’re happy to take credit for liking us, even if that means stealing votes for somebody who will actually make us a priority.

I think you can see why I’m a bit pissed.

The Long Fight For Progress

Dear Bernie Sanders Voters,

On June 28, 1969, the Stonewall Riots kicked off what most historians see as the modern LGBTQ movement. We had roots going back before that, but this was the moment that set us on fire. It was the day we found our power. It was the day we said “enough.” After decades of work from that movement, I was given the right to marry my boyfriend, only a year and a month ago. We are now like any other couple, wondering if the finances are right and whether we’ve waited long enough to not be “rushing it,” not wondering when our country will be willing to recognize that I’m his and he’s mine.

And even with this landmark crossed, I feel the fight for my extended queer family is nowhere near over. I still see my little brothers, sisters and non-binary siblings harassed, beaten, killed or driven to suicide. I still have to mourn fallen trans comrades every November 20, on Transgender Day of Rememberance, including far too many beautiful trans women of color. As a trans man, I experience the humiliation of hearing people debate whether or not I have the right to use a bathroom.

I think Bernie Sanders was for leftist socialists what the Stonewall Riots were for the LGBT movement. The ideas were there before, but this year I saw people taking action on these economic policies in a way I never have before. I saw unity and passion. Bernie lit a fire for you, and it warmed my heart to see it.

Now when I see disappointed Bernie supporters, I feel a range of emotions. Part of me honestly sympathizes. It’s hard to see yourself come so close, to imagine you are about to hit a goal that once seemed unbelievable, to feel momentum pushing you forward and then realize it wasn’t enough. I’ve been there. It sucks.

Part of me also feels a little bemused. I shake my head and think, “did you really think things were going to change that fast? Have you not looked at the history of progressive movements? Progress has never been a sprint. It’s always a marathon.”

But most of me fears the movement being put out too soon.

It has taken the LGBT movement so long to hit even the landmark victory of marriage equality. That doesn’t mean we were stagnant for forty-six years. We took small achievements when we could. We didn’t want civil unions, but they gave couples rights that they needed. There were people whose life partner was dying in a hospital, and they couldn’t visit, because they “weren’t family.” Those people couldn’t wait for us to make some all or nothing stand. So we took what we could get, then we got up and kept fighting. The same thing goes for Don’t Ask Don’t Tell. It wasn’t the acceptance we wanted, but it gave LGBTQ people in the military at least a veil of privacy. We took it. Then we kept fighting. We elected gay leaders. We saw them shot down. We survived an AIDs epidemic. We kept fighting.

You’ve done some truly awesome things this year. You exposed issues with the system, showed that progressive socialism isn’t toxic to a campaign, and, in Bernie Sanders’ own words, forced the Democrats to adopt their most progressive platform in generations. You got the Democratic establishment’s attention, and just because your candidate didn’t make it to office, that doesn’t mean you can’t leverage that attention to push the party further and further to the left. 

But if you let the Republicans take control of the government, those victories will mean nothing. We can’t put that progressive platform to action if the man we have in the office spends all his time boasting about an imaginary wall while handing out tax cuts to the wealthy. 

I only just got marriage equality. More than that, I only just got the ability to go back to college. My parents kicked me out and I’ve been struggling on half a degree ever since. With my testosterone prescription and my anxiety disorder, I can’t go back to school without insurance to cover my medications. I can’t pay insurance without help. Obamacare is letting me get ahead. If Trump is elected, he will steal my hopes of marriage and college in a heartbeat. Along with that he will destroy environmental regulations, a diplomacy-based approach to foreign relations that keeps us from constantly declaring war, the whole concept of raising taxes on the wealthy, Roe v Wade… Even when he’s gone, the Supreme Court Justices he elects will remain. Those of us who have been fighting for basic human rights, as women, as racial, religious or ethnic minorities, as disabled people and LGBTQ folk, we will all experience setbacks. We will experience repercussions for years.

You can avoid that setback, for yourselves and all the rest of us. You can use this moment to move forward, not backward. Unite to put that progressive platform into power, and if Hillary Clinton disappoints you, take her on again in 2020! Elizabeth Warren, anybody? I’ll be right there with you. 

So what do you say? Were you just in this fight for a sprint, or are you ready for a marathon?

Activist Audiences

I really enjoyed this video on whitewashing. It’s by Philip Wang, one of the geniuses behind Wong Fu Productions, a company that publishes comic and romantic short films on Youtube. All of the owners are Asian, as are most of the actors they work with. I highly recommend them.

Philip Wang makes the point that there have been many good conversations about whitewashing, what it is and why it is bad, but not enough done to actually correct it. It’s not just about complaining. We also need to create, and support creators. He talks largely about the fomer, but I’ve also been thinking a lot about the latter.

These days activists talk a lot about paying attention to where our money is going. Are we supporting fair trade, ecologically sustainable practices, humane treatment of animals, human rights? Or are we inadvertently telling companies that child labor is awesome? Sometimes, because of our budgets and time, we can’t help but buy something that’s a little less ethical than we would like, but being aware at least lets us maximize the choices we have. When we choose to watch all of the Avengers canon movies, and then complain about Black Widow, our money means a lot more to the executives than our articles. When we choose to spend money on quality stories with diverse casts, like the new Star Wars films, the recent Jungle Book adaptation, and Dope, we tell those who are financially motivated that such things are worth their time to support.

Who we pay attention to also matters. Nowadays our eyeballs are practically money. Views determine who gets ad revenue, as well as who moves up the ranks of the publishing business. I follow a number of artists (musicians, comedians, short film creators etc) on Youtube. Many of them have stories about gigs and deals they got largely because of their internet followings.

None of that is revolutionary. I also think reinforcing creators can be complicated, because creators themselves are imperfect. I can’t think of many who are flawless social justice masters. I’m not even sure such a thing can exist. The conversation about what social justice is and how we can best create it is, itself, an ever evolving discussion. For me, supporting diversity is less about trying to find someone who is perfectly attuned to the current consensus on Tumblr, but about supporting creators who want to participate in the conversation. Whose work evolves over time? Whose portrayals of women are getting more nuanced, and who is still writing one token sexy action chick? Who is apologizing and actually trying to do better? Who is making promises and carrying them out?

In a way, this is an umbrella introduction to a number of posts I have in the pipeline. I want to write more about how I make decisions on what to read, watch and spend money on. And I want to hear about how you make those decisions, as well as your recommendations of works for me to check out and review.

Until next time, thanks, as always, for reading.

Gorillas in the Phone Booth

One of my favorite writing resources is Writing Excuses. It’s four writer friends hanging out and talking writing in a way that is accessible and encouraging and just overall wonderful. If you write, please check it out. Over the years they’ve developed their own jargon, which they are pretty good at explaining for newcomers. One of my favorite phrases of theirs is “gorilla in the phone booth.” It is for those cases where a writer accidentally puts in something, as an aside, that is so unusual and interesting that the readers halt and demand an explanation. If in the middle of a chase scene the characters ran past a gorilla using a phone booth, everybody in the audience would say “hey, what’s up with the gorilla?” and be highly disappointed if they never got an answer.

I’ve realized this is one of the many problems that confronts writers who aim to represent human diversity. For example, an earlier draft of the novel I’m currently working on had an asexual protagonist. The story wasn’t about asexuality, nor did it contain any romance or sex of any kind, but the character had an asexual vibe to me, so in my head she was asexual. I wanted to make that text instead of subtext, but every time I tried, the story ground to a halt. I couldn’t bring any explanation of asexuality into the story and make it seem natural.

Right now, unfortunately, asexuality is a gorilla in a phone booth. It’s real, but even those who have heard of it probably don’t really understand it. I couldn’t put it in a story without explaining, and I couldn’t explain in a way that was natural to that particular story.

As portrayals of a given minority become more common, it becomes easier for all other writers to write them. It’s almost like there’s an assembly line. First a type of person is never represented, or actively demonized. Then there are the stories that double as PSAs, and for a while this is a relief. Then the demand comes for that type of person to be an integral part of the cast. If that demand is listened to, eventually the old strange becomes the new normal. I don’t have to halt a story with a love story between black and white characters to explain why no, this is totally a fine thing to happen. Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner already broke that ground for me, along with countless other portrayals of healthy interracial relationships.

Eventually I actually changed protagonists altogether. My current protagonist is mildly schizophrenic, which ties in well with the themes of illusion, secrecy and how to know what is true. I can debunk myths about psychosis in a way that enhances the creepy psychological thriller that forms the main plot. Meanwhile, my asexual character waits in my head for a new plot. I have every intention to use her, when the right story comes along.

Mad Max and the Damsels Who Do Things

I saw Mad Max a couple nights ago, and I got at least two blogs worth of thoughts out of it. My overall impression of this movie was that it not perfect, but I enjoyed it and if you’re in the mood for a lot of good action scenes you will probably love it.

(major spoilers avoided, but beginning and subplot spoilers ahead)

One thing that stood out to me was how many of the characters, specifically the protagonists, were women. In fact all but two of the good guys were female. Charlize Theron was absolutely terrific as Imperator Furiosa, a badass hero who really wasn’t written as a Female Action Hero TM, but just a complete all around boss who happened to be female. Eventually she is joined by other characters who are fabulous and heroic and happened to be women. Then there were five damsels in distress, whose escape early on kickstarted the plot.

The trope of damsels in distress is a sticky one. The damsel exists to be victimized, but then her victimization is not explored from her perspective. Instead, it is in the story to set up an end trophy for the hero, with the implications of a traumatized wife never explored, nor the question of whether his possession of her constitutes salvation or just a different kind of prison. Played straight, it can’t avoid being incredibly sexist. However, Mad Max subverts the damsel trope in ways that are both obvious and subtle.

The most obvious subversion I have already mentioned. The damsels do not sit around waiting to be rescued at the end of the movie. They start the plot themselves by breaking free together. I’ve seen other examples of this, but in this film it felt particularly appropriate because of what they were escaping from.

The damsel in distress trope is highly objectifying. It effectively turns a human being into a living MacGuffin*. The villain of the movie, Immortan Joe, is also highly objectifying. The beginning scenes set his world up as one where humans are regularly treated and used as machines, as cannon fodder, as cattle, even as living blood bags. The girls are his breeder concubines, and when they leave they write on the walls, over and over again, that they are not things.

In too many movies, this promising start would end there. The hero would enter the film and it would once again center all around him. The girls would not emerge as real characters. However, this does not happen.

To begin with, they do have individual personalities, and small subplots to themselves. The Splendid  Angharad is the leader, brave and aristocratic, and fully willing to sacrifice herself for the rest of the group. Toast the Knowing…

Okay, I have to take a break to acknowledge the weirdness of the names in this movie. Because they are all collectively so weird, it sort of works, in that they feel like they all belong to a world where naming practices have changed radically. Still, I have to ask what kind of drugs or drinking game aided the invention of these names? Anyway…

Toast the Knowing is quiet, and as such is the hardest to pin down, but she is the one who is able to handle guns, not fire them but load them and identify which bullets go with which weapons. In several scenes she reiterates their goal of finding “the green place,” which suggests to me that she is highly focused. Capable is the most compassionate, the kind of person who can look into an enemy’s eyes and see someone vulnerable, maybe in need of a second chance. The Dag’s suffering has made her fierce. She is delighted when she finds a mentor among the other female characters. Cheedo the Fragile lives up to her name. She is the most frightened and the most tempted to surrender. Typically she is seen standing behind or under the arm of another character. This makes her the most classical damsel in distress of the five, but when the time comes to be brave she finds her courage.

I liked that they were individualized, because it made an interesting counterpoint to the villain’s objectification. He treats them as inhuman, as women valuable only for being beautiful and fertile, but the writers and actresses take steps to remind us that they are people. On top of that, I loved the way they continued to be worked into action scenes as the plot continued. Letting them scream in the backseats would have been bland and expected, but the expected subversion, letting them all be action heroes, would also be cheap. It would reaffirm that the only kind of person worth being in an action movie is a stunt master, and would also be unrealistic given their background. And yes, I realize I’m talking realism in a movie which features an electric guitar that’s also a flamethrower.

But what happens is a kind of realism that is appropriate even in a movie so self-indulgently absurd as this one. They don’t become magical shots or martial artists just for the convenience of the plot, but they continue to find ways to help the characters who are actual warriors. Sometimes it’s loading guns in the backseat, sometimes it’s doing something incredibly brave that I won’t mention because spoilers, and sometimes it’s just defying genre expectations by bracing themselves in the background and not screaming. Honestly, these damsels scream less than in any other movie of its type that I have ever seen. It’s because they are brave, they knew what they were getting into, and they understand that when the action heroes with actual action hero training are stunt driving, dodging bullets and solving Inconvenient Equipment Malfunction #37, probably more noise is not what the situation calls for.

The point is, whether by action or by consciously chosen inaction, these characters participate in their own escape from beginning to end. This wasn’t heavy handed, but it still felt like the result of deliberate action taken by the creators to not do what they were condemning the villain for doing. Damsels or not, they weren’t going to erase these characters’ humanity, or their agency in their own story.

 

*A common trope in which something exists not to influence the story directly, but spur others to action by being desirable; the letters of mark in Casablanca, the diamonds in Notorious, the quest objects in the Indiana Jones movies, etc.