I wrote this post a few months back, then didn’t push the publish button. I suppose I’d run afoul of one too many articles this political season that made me mad or upset and I didn’t want to add to the noise. But in light of the escalation of the events at the Dakota Pipeline and the election now less than a week away, I think it’s worth revisiting. So when you read this, know a) it’s a post about politics again, so you’re forewarned, and b) the news articles and events mentioned at the beginning are from a month or so back. From there, enjoy.
I woke up this morning restless. It’s been a problem lately for me, an inability to sleep that’s had me feeling tired all day and irritable. I’ve stayed away from reading the news, which only seems to be making it worse. Only this morning, I woke up and turned on a video by Keith Olbermann cataloguing the myriad offenses by Donald J. Trump since his rise to the candidacy for president. If there’s anything to get irritable about, it’s Trump. But the video helped lock into perspective a lot of things that have been plaguing me for the last few months.
I’m a writer. Connecting points to make a cohesive narrative is what I do for a living. So when I look at today’s media reports, I often look for a coherent narrative to give me a view on the world. It’s what we all do for context of our lives. So I looked at my items in my feed the last few days and try to contextualize.
Item: Donald J. Trump leads one of the most bigoted campaigns in history to staggering approval from right wing Republicans. His candidacy brings out those who previously hid prejudiced ideas, uniting them under his banner in their rush to blame every ‘other’ group they can for their plight in life. All while ignoring the dangerous, uniformed, erratic, terrifying behavior of the man they support for the highest seat in the land.
Item: A pipeline is being created through Native American territory in the Dakotas, drawing protestors from across the world attempting to save sacred ground holding the bones of native ancestors. While many stand with the protestors, the media at large has remained silent on the unfolding issues, including the mauling of protestors by dogs.
Item: Recent Hugo awards winner N.K. Jemisin faces racist responses after winning for her novel, The Fifth Season. Hers is only one story in a continuing narrative of barely veiled hatred aimed at progressive storytelling in the science fiction and fantasy genres, led by conservative factions that wish to return to a time when fiction was less diverse in subject material and in creators.
Item: Stories trickle in from various media outlets about “alleged” rapists like Brock Turner receiving absurdly lenient sentences after being convicted in a court of law. Comparable crimes being perpetuated by people of color get more aggressive punishments, while white male defendants are often let off with nothing more than a slap on the wrist. The most recent unfolding case involves a man having sex on video with a toddler. While people outcry these deplorable cases, politicians still make statements about rape victims “just keeping their knees together.”
Item: A game organization issues a statement about not including potentially triggering content about sexual assault and rape in their game’s plots. This practice, while already standard in many organization’s policies (including my own), draws fire for constituting censorship and sparks bitter, often vicious debates, across the internet and convention spaces. The conversations become so embattled as to require admonishing posts asking people to remember that the person on the other side of the keyboard is a human being and not an invisible punching bag. This hallmarks a disturbing trend of harassment of creators for content that steps over the line from critique and conversation to bullying, exemplified by recent harassment by fans of a Steven Universe creator for supposed “queer baiting” in the show.
Item: A football star chooses to protest the rampant murder of black people by police by taking a knee during the National Anthem before a game. The incident draws a maelstrom of controversy wherein pundits and media alike try to paint the protest as unpatriotic, as an affront to our military and veterans, as worthy of sanction. They refuse to engage with the heart of the protest, namely the rampant trend of police brutality and violence against minorities across the country.
Item: Articles abound calling millennials lazy and directionless, citing their habits as killing everything from the housing market to our country’s competitive job market. Meanwhile, studies show most millennials face absurd financial burdens from student loans in an economy flooded with workers from a previous generation that has not retired. The narrative remains the same: the young are weak and directionless and ruining the world. The dialogue across generational lines goes on.
I could keep giving examples from the news. Yet here’s one from everyday life.
I was waiting on line for a prescription and chatting with my roommate. I point out how absurd it is that Hillary Clinton is being criticized for developing pneumonia while still going out on the campaign trail. I indicate how sexist the arguments against her have gotten, and how her behavior is indicative of so many women forced to work through their illnesses to survive in a male-dominated world. A man on line turns to agree with me and bemoans the chance of Trump getting into office. Yet when my roommate walks away, the man steps closer to add that Trump does have one thing correct: immigrants are stealing all our jobs, he says. When I protest that our country is made of immigrants, the man indicates his family come from immigrants too. But that “these Russians and Syrians” are the ones he means. Not every immigrant is bad. Just those.
And I’m left staring at him, as I often stare at my computer screen or at someone who tells me yet another example of unbridled prejudice running rampant in our society. From rape culture to the profiling of people of color as criminals, the blaming of millennials for society’s ills to the desecration of native people’s holy lands, to the hatred aimed at both Israelis and Palestinians from various sides, the list of things I simply boggle at is overwhelming. Because I often wonder… didn’t people grow up knowing this shit is WRONG?
I watched a lot of TV and movies as a kid, and read a lot of books. For that reason, I grew up with a lot of those media tropes we all know and love: Be a good person. Share. Love your neighbor. Stand up for what you believe in. Be yourself. Love others. Stand up to bullies. Eat healthy food. Friendship is magic. You know, all the good stuff. And what’s more, I believed it because these messages created a framework that backed up what I believed about the world: that being a good person, not just a ‘nice’ person but a person striving to do good, is what a person is supposed to do. Not only that, looking at the heroes of both fiction and the real world, they all are remembered for striving for better goals. Advancement of the world, it seems, has come from aiming for ideas like acceptance, fairness, equality, peace, courage, and empowerment.
And then I grew up and realized maybe some folks didn’t get the same programs when they were kids. Maybe they looked around and said “this is malarky” and looked for someone to blame, to other, over their problems. Maybe they rejected the narratives of tolerance for something else, a darker look at the world where the dog eat dog mentality is the only way to survive. Their narrative is so different to me it boggles the imagination. The future they envision is not mine.
I watched a lot of Star Trek growing up. And for all its flaws (and there are many), Star Trek presented a view of the future where people of all kinds existed side by side. Where people strive for a higher goal. Star Wars presented us with a narrative of people fighting for freedom against tyranny in a galaxy far, far away. Lord of the Rings showed a band of people unlike one another gathering to fight against a terrifying despot. X-Men battle not only despots but bigots willing to murder those unlike them. Harry Potter fights the wizarding form of white supremacy along with Voldemort. Katniss Everdeen fights a regime that represses the poor for the enjoyment of the rich.
The list goes on but the fiction of my life has carried the thru-line of people fighting for a future that involved equality, freedom, peace, and acceptance.
So it boggles me when I look at the world, at people, who can imagine a world where these are not the watchwords for their future. Where their peace and security comes at the expense of the hope of others.
Theirs is not my future.
“But Shoshana,” you may say, “these fictions aren’t real! They’re just stories, and things are easier in stories! Being the kind of good guy you’re talking about is hard and in a complex world-”
Not to paraphrase Kanye, but I’m gonna stop you there for a second. First off, isn’t part of the reason we create narratives like these to inspire us? To bring us to new heights and give us examples of better things, better times, heroes that point us to the better parts of our nature and say, “See, this is possible!” We aren’t going to be Gandalf in this world and hopefully we’re never going to be tossed into a child fighting ring on national television like Katniss, but we have choices in our lives we need to make and narratives like those I mentioned help can help us aspire to do better, be better, even in the face of hardships.
Also, and I’m going to say this with all due respect: who said choices to be good were meant to be easy? Or binary? Sure, in the books it’s simple. The bad guys wear dark colored hats and everyone knows Sauron is the bad guy while we root for the scrappy little Hobbits. Everyone knows making the right choices in life is harder. But just because it’s harder doesn’t mean we shouldn’t aim for it, aspire to it. Fight for it.
There’s a concept I’ve heard before: being on the wrong side of history. It presupposes, and rightly so, that history is written by the victors in any conflict and though context will remain part of a more complex narrative, events are remembered through the lens of the dominant viewpoint that survives. Anyone studying history realizes that historical time periods are washed in the context of who survived to take dominance during that time. So I often wonder, when we look back, what this decade and our current time will reflect. And I realize it entirely depends on whose ideals take root going forward.
Whose future will survive?
I grew up on Star Wars, on super heroes, on Harry Potter. I grew up the child of a thousand stories about how the world can be made a better place if we all come together in peace. The world outside is a far more complicated place than those stories, with nuance and difficulties so complex as to be nearly Gordian in their knotting. The impulse to throw up your hands and state that the ideals of our fictions cannot be applied to the muddled, gargantuan issues of our realities is strong. Yet history shows evidence of time periods where regression led the dominant narrative, and saw the backslide of civilizations and societies. Is that the story we want people to see when they look back at this time period? Is that the future we want to build?
I’m just a writer. I don’t make world policy, or social policy, or any policy at all. What I do is tell stories. I make games for people to live in through role-play, and spin fiction for people to enjoy. And I know in my own way, I have a limited impact on what the future will look like. But I think about how I can perpetuate the ideals I hold so dear. So I pledge to try and be conscientious in my creation. I will continue to strive to create fiction that reflects the kind of world I hope to see. I will push aside concerns about being labeled ‘progressive’ or ‘liberal’ or (heaven forfend) a ‘social justice warrior’ and instead recognize that everyone has an agenda in creating, and mine is to continue forward the ideas that drove me to believe in a better world when I was little.
I will acknowledge that we are all fallible. And we always have more to learn, and ways to improve, even if we think of ourselves as on the side of progressiveness and equality. I will recognize that one can make a choice that is progressive one day and then make a decision the next that harms another, even unintentionally. I pledge to try and learn from my mistakes, to listen to those around me, and to acknowledge and make amends when I’m in error or do harm.
I am fallible, but I pledge to try.
Nobody can tell me what my narrative will be after I’m gone, when it has become the future and my actions now are the past. As a favorite musical of mine laments, you don’t get to choose “who lives, who dies, who tells your story.” But I know that in a world seemingly at tug-of-war over acceptance, peace, and equality, I want to create towards a better, more equal tomorrow.
So I can say to those who perpetuate intolerance and bigotry and hate and fear: The future isn’t yours. The fate of this country, this world, belongs to all of us, together. And that is the exact opposite of your beliefs. The future isn’t yours, because your selfish ideas don’t believe in a future that includes others, and that selfishness is the opposite of what is good and true. I know it because even conservative views say so: be charitable, be welcoming, treat others as you’d like to be treated, love thy neighbor, etc. Except when those beliefs become tinged, tainted, corrupted, by intolerance do they become conditional and become the things we must fight against. When they become, “Love thy neighbor, except if thy neighbor isn’t like you.” Except.
That future of exceptions isn’t mine. It doesn’t belong to so many out there who stand as the exceptions to conservative, myopic rules. And since we have as much right to the world as anyone else (sorry, we do!), then your future doesn’t get to overrule ours. Your future isn’t ours and cannot hold sway for us to exist. Because you can’t wish people out of existence and your hatred cannot drive our world. Good people won’t let it happen. We can’t. And those views will only put you on the wrong side of history and resign you to a life in conflict.
And hey, I know even the most bigoted, intolerant person isn’t some mustache twirling villain. They’re people with concerns and fears and the earnest right to life, liberty, and all that… as long as that pursuit of happiness doesn’t try to snuff out that happiness for others. Once you step over that line, then we got some problems. I don’t have to be tolerant of intolerance as an ideal, because by its very nature, intolerance does not afford the same allowance to others. I don’t need to accept bigotry as an ideology because it doesn’t respect my right to exist. And that is where I draw the line and say to the bigots, the intolerant: think about how things go in the stories with the best happy endings and wonder, where did the bigots end up? Do you want to be Harry Potter, or a Death Eater? Folks might think evil is a little cool in stories, but in reality, it means harming others by your choices, your actions, your beliefs. Do you choose to bring harm into this world, or strive for a higher standard for yourself and others? You get to choose.
To quote Hamilton once more: “History has its eyes on you.” On us. On what we build as our legacy, especially right now.
And if you need any evidence that such fights can be won, look at the struggles progression has won over the years. Happy endings to battles aren’t like they are in the movies, because the struggle for a better world doesn’t end. It’s just little wins, stacking up into a better tomorrow.
This is our eye of the hurricane. We stand in it every day. And the question is left to all of us, in our own lives, in our individual arenas: what will you help make the future?
End note: We’re six days to what might be the biggest elections in our nation’s recent history. And history has its eyes on all of us now. Go out and vote, and consider what you’d like our future to look like. It really is in each of our hands.