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We Need To Talk

Politics 150The season five finale of Steven Universe felt like a perfect encapsulation of what makes the show so great — it made a case for its themes and worldview while acknowledging just how difficult it can be holding to those views. Steven, and the family of Crystal Gems he’s built, have often struggled to navigate the labyrinthine paths of healing and reconciliation with humans, gems, and monsters they’ve come across but they have never stopped trying to walk that path. Steven Universe can be surprisingly dark for a children’s show, but that makes its messages land with that much more weight. The writers know how hard it is to have empathy for everyone you meet, even the enemies who want nothing less than your eradication. Fighting, the shows says, is necessary sometimes to protect yourself and the people you love. But you should never, ever lose sight of your true goal: to change the minds of the people you disagree with, to find a way towards peaceful resolution.

For those who have no idea what I’m talking about, Steven Universe is an animated show about the titular half-human, half-alien boy as he comes of age in an idyllic beachside town. His father is a washed-out rocker who now owns a car wash, and has ceded the bulk of Steven’s education to three genderless (but female-presenting) aliens named the Crystal Gems. His mother, Rose Quartz, was the leader of an uprising against a tyrannical galactic empire ruled by the Diamonds, mysterious but incredibly powerful beings who have set very rigid roles for everyone under them and seek to colonize other worlds to keep their empire perfect.

Over the past five seasons, Steven has matured considerably. He has dealt with problems with his human friends; helped repair the trauma endured by the Gems (his caretakers and Rose Quartz’s lieutenants during the uprising); eased tensions between oblivious, panicky townsfolk and the aloof aliens that share the town with him; and learned just how difficult it is to be who you truly are in a world that is constantly seeking to mold you into a category it feels more comfortable with. As I’ve taken this journey with him, I’ve found myself trying harder to understand where people are coming from and work with them from that perspective. It’s not easy — these days it feels impossible — but it’s also necessary. Steven Universe has given me, and hopefully a lot of the children who watch it religiously, a blueprint for emotional maturity that I’m not sure we can get from too many other places.

One of the many things I love about the show is the nature of its dialogue and how it presents its worldview. Steven Universe is not a preachy show, though it does wear its themes proudly on its sleeve. The Crystal Gems are a wholly diverse expression of femininity: there’s uptight, proper Pearl; tomboy-trickster Amethyst; mysterious, self-possessed Garnet. The culture of the Gems gives us an entire society of women with a kaleidoscope of personalities, body types, and stories without diminishing Steven or any of the other men populating Beach City. Personal and cultural disagreements between characters are handled promptly and discreetly; people talk and listen, truly absorbing someone else’s point of view while advocating their own. Most of the time, everyone involved realizes something they could do better, and commit themselves to doing it.

These days it’s really easy to paint people we disagree as inhuman monsters. On the right, any attempt to square injustices or correct harmful attitudes is met with “SJW” or “NPC”. Folks like us are viewed as hordes of weak-willed communists who won’t rest until white men are left with nothing. On the left, most who question the prevailing wisdom of social justice are branded quickly as bigots, Nazis, or hopelessly clueless and dismissed or attacked accordingly. The division has become so white-hot that any attempt to establish a dialogue is frequently met with derision from both sides. The time, it seems, for discussion is over; all that’s left is the fighting.

And I get it: our reality is far more complex and difficult than the world of Steven Universe. People of color, people of different gender expression and sexual preferences, even the economically disadvantaged — we’ve all been treated so badly for so long despite peaceful resistance, civil disobedience, voluntary separation, assimilation and integration, and so many other coping mechanisms that steadfast, unyielding resistance feels like the only option left to us. If we look to our history, especially in the United States, we see that often the only way to affect change is to disrupt the comfort of the status quo enough that there’s no choice. Eventually, things reach a tipping point where what’s come before cannot continue.

But it does, only in a different way. The underlying illness of anti-social, bigoted, racist, xenophobic thinking doesn’t go away. It merely finds a new way to express itself. Colonialism gives way to capitalist exploitation. Slavery gives way to segregation and institutionalized oppression. While one system is eventually recognized as cruel and inhumane, it is merely replaced by another one that is better on paper but not in spirit. The reason we have Nazis and white supremacists on our streets again is that they never actually went away — they simply changed the way they operate so that they can hide in plain sight. If we turn this tide back, society will change, sure. But we’ll have to keep fighting, and another layer of lingering, generational resentment will form the soil where a new crop of bigots can flourish.

Like Steven, we’re in a time where we have to fight in order to protect ourselves and the people we love from the forces that seek to eradicate us just for being different, for being ourselves and not the rigidly-defined roles society has set out for us. We cannot tolerate the callous disregard of another person’s dignity, right to life, or right to happiness. But we also have to remember that our ultimate goal is something else entirely: the end of a need for fighting. And we can’t do that without changing minds. That cannot be done through violence or total defeat. It has to be done through understanding the motivations behind these attitudes and behaviors, honoring the same impulses within us, and finding a way to shift perspectives so those impulses are put towards a more common good.

We’ll still need to live together after the fighting is done. The more either side uses these scorched earth tactics, the more difficult that will be to do. I’m not naive enough to think that we can just talk our way out of this current flashpoint, but I am hopeful enough to believe that more talking can ease the fighting and build a better foundation for whatever peace can be found here. If we are to take up the mantle of the social justice warrior, we have to have a better sense of what being a warrior means. We’re not seeking the end of our enemies; we are seeking the end of enmity. Part of that work is finding a way to purge ourselves of the hostilities we harbor, even to the people (and yes, they are still people) who have done and said horrific things. That is not an easy thing to do. It might take us our entire lives. But if we don’t want to end up right back here in 50 or 60 years repeating this cycle, it’s what we must do. Anything less is a kind of social insanity, repeating the mistakes of our history with the full expectation that things will turn out different this time.

I’m exhausted being angry all of the time. There are still people I can’t talk to because I know they’re not speaking in good faith; when you know someone is manipulating communication for their own ends, there’s no solid foundation with which to build a relationship. There’s simply no way to trust them. I just have to disengage and hope that they can find their way through some other means. But I try very hard not to write someone off if I can help it. No one is too far gone that they can’t come around. No one is irredeemable. I have to believe this, because I would want someone else to believe this of me. We all want to be accepted, forgiven, embraced. Think about what it would take for a Trump (or Hillary) voter to mend your relationship; use this as your North Star. Even though we might get lost in the fog of war for a time, trust that it’s still there. Always move towards it. Never lose sight of it. It may take an impossibly long time to get there, but any step we can take is a good one.

 

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(Personal) Thoughts From a 38 Year Old

Today is my birthday. It is also the anniversary of the first time atomic weapons were ever used in war, when Hiroshima was bombed on this date in 1945. I’m fascinated by this face, and I like to tell people whenever I talk about my birthday. I used to think I did this because it was an extension of My Brand (™) — self-deprecating comments, weird and unrelatable humor, random uncomfortable facts that no one quite knows what to do with. But over the years, as I keep thinking about Hiroshima and what happened to hundreds of thousands of people decades before I was born, I learned that this is just one of the ways I keep myself in proper perspective. I am celebrating myself on a day that reminds so many of unfathomable pain.

I want to talk (again) about compassion. Recently I’ve been reciting a version of the Bodhisattva Vow every morning as a demonstration to my commitment to my most important virtue:

However innumerable beings are, I vow to meet them with kindness and interest.
However inexhaustible the states of suffering are, I vow to touch them with patience and love.
However immeasurable the Dharmas are, I vow to explore them deeply.
However incomparable the mystery of interbeing, I vow to surrender to it freely.

Learning to be a compassionate and kind person is my life’s work. I have vowed to dedicate every moment of my life, every action I take, towards spreading compassion and kindness however I can. Of course, I’m just some guy. I have my own damage and my own limitations that makes this challenging work. I may never achieve the kind of radical, all-radiating compassion that I want to inhabit. There are still people who tie me up in emotional knots whenever I think about them, and when my heart turns towards them it still hardens instinctively.

But that’s OK. I know that this is a learned response to intense pain I’ve endured in the past. In order to understand these difficult people and accept them, I must also accept and understand the pain that lives within me. When I feel myself becoming angry and unbending, I know now that’s a signal flare from the many scars I bear, calling me to tend to it. In order to properly heal it, I must learn to hold my pain with patience and love. When I can do this, I can see into the pain of others more easily through THEIR actions, and learn to hold theirs with the same patience, the same love.

We live in a time that feels like two sides are marshalling their forces for the total war that allowed up to 145,000 lives being lost through the most destructive act in military history. As we entrench our positions and collect our troops, we begin to think of the other side as abstractions, as extensions of their ideals instead of grasping, complicated human beings just like us. We call them The Enemy, The GOP, The Administration — we call their supporters fascists and racists and white supremacists. Make no mistake, these labels fit; I’m not saying that we shouldn’t call them what they are, now more than ever.

But at the same time it’s important to remember that they are more than these labels, just as we are so much more than what they call us. If we lose sight of their humanity, if we make them less real, we are priming ourselves towards inhumane actions. We are whetting our appetite to inflict more suffering, not eliminate it. That is a dangerous road. While dropping the first atomic bomb on Hiroshima ultimately lead to the end of World War II, it also dramatically increased the suffering of millions directly, billions of us over time and space. We have lived in the shadow of that action ever since, and to this day we fear the time when just one of those weapons will be used again. If it happens, the world will again change into something we cannot recognize.

I think about the many articles these days that ask us to listen to the Trump voter or the white supremacist, or offers the reason for their destructive, hateful actions as mere economic anxiety. The reason so many Americans are falling into the trap of fascism is much the same that so many Germans did — a deep frustration about their inability to feel safe and secure with their families, and the mistaken perception that this is because of some foreign interest taking resources from a system that enables it. In order to break the spell these people are under, we must first understand the very human motivations that enable them to do such monstrous things. If we can do that, we can respond to it with the patience and love that we use to hold our own pain.

This is a very difficult thing to ask of people, especially when we’re afraid of what these people are willing to do (and have done) in order to claim a bit of happiness for themselves. So many of us have been through so much, and we have given our understanding and compassion so often and it’s meant nothing. Many of us are tired, sick, terrified. How can we be asked to be vulnerable enough to feel the pain of our enemies when they are also posing an immediate and existential threat to us and the communities we’ve worked so hard to build. I understand why there are so many people who reject out of hand the notion to keep extending compassion to those who have weaponized our principles to silence our protest and haze the issue. But I also feel that the only way to keep the proper perspective — to keep seeing these people as people — is to treat them as such. I’ve fallen into the trap of dehumanizing Trump supporters, and it’s made it so much more difficult to be the person I want to be because of it. I just can’t do it anymore.

That being said, I wouldn’t think about telling anyone else to try to be compassionate towards someone who wants to render them second-class citizens, strip away their basic human rights, who are completely fine with separating families and putting children in cages. We are rightfully shocked and angry about the abuses that continue to pile up under this regime, and I believe that the comparisons to 1930s Germany are apt. This is a very dangerous time, and we are facing very dangerous people who are dedicated to eradicating anyone who doesn’t fit their idea of what America should be. We can’t let that happen. We can’t allow these people to extinguish the hope of a compassionate society because we’re too worried about how much it diminishes us.

But we can fight in ways that allow us to uphold our own principles. What I would tell other people is to try to be as kind as you can. Kindness is in such short supply these days, and that, I believe, is the root of our problems as a society. If you can only be kind to your family, friends, and allies — focus on being as kind to them as you can. Fight the enemy, but be mindful that the fight doesn’t blind you to the necessity of compassion. The more you understand the people around you, the more you can tend to the needs expressed by their actions. All of us just want to be happy, and to feel safe. Some of us think this is a zero-sum game, that they can’t be happy or safe with us in the world, but we know better. The more compassion we share, the safer and happier the world becomes.

All we can do is the best we can do. I’m still finding the best way to walk my path, but I have traveled down the road of “righteous” hate and I didn’t like the places it lead me to. I can’t tolerate bigotry or willful ignorance, and I don’t think I can forget the things people have done to bring us to the state we’re in. But I can’t hate them anymore. I want them to feel happy. I want them to feel safe. I want them to be free from suffering. Because I believe that’s how all of us get out of this alive. That’s the future we work for. That’s the world we build.

I am so grateful that I’ve made it to 38 years old today. My heart is so heavy for the victims and descendants of the Hiroshima bombing. I worry about my country, gripped in the fear of the future and trapped in its trance. I vow to attend all of these feelings, to meet them with kindness. I vow to extend this same kindness to all of you, as much as I’m able.

 
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Posted by on August 6, 2018 in Buddhism, Self-Reflection

 

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(Politics) Your Light is All You Have

Politics 150The world is on fire and nothing is okay. At a time when climate change is chugging along exactly as scientists said it would, when we’re running out of fresh water and the crude, polluting oil we’ve built our entire society around, the world is caught up in a wave of xenophobia, authoritarianism and weaponized resentment. Instead of looking at our planet and wondering how we can live on it more sustainably, or looking at each other and rolling up our sleeves to figure out how we can take better care of each other, we’re rolling back protections for the last bits of unspoiled land and taking increasingly drastic measures to make sure no one else can ever take what we have. The Internet — a platform that could lead us to come together as one people and stand up for each other — is a hornet’s nest of outrage-memes, rhetorical back-alley brawls, tribal cheering and jeering. It is getting increasingly hard to look anywhere without cringing at the sight of what it’s become.

The current frame of the unending debate between Right and Left in the United States is “civility”. A few representatives of the Trump administration have been challenged in public, or refused service in restaurants, and now conservative pundits (aided by the media) are wondering what happened to our civil discourse. These are the same people who assassinate the characters of unarmed black people who’ve been killed by the police; who have targeted Democratic leadership with misogynist and racist rhetoric for a generation; who have tacitly or directly approved the coarsening of our political discourse by courting racists, “men’s rights” activists, Tea Partiers, Christian supremacists, and all manner of people who have refused to offer almost anyone the basics of respect and decency. When they went low, we went high — and lost 33 Governor’s mansions, 31 state legislatures, the House of Representatives, the US Senate, the Supreme Court, the White House.

Republicans have taken control of the American government on just about every conceivable level by being shameless and unrepentant about taking power and fixing the system — through gerrymandering, voting restrictions, blatant lying, and the consistent corrosion of the people’s faith in our institutions. Their grip on American politics is anything but civil, and it rightly makes those of us on the Left angry when, after a decade of increasingly-blatant racist backlash against our first Black American President, they’re suddenly worried about the tone of protest in the air.

As angry as I am, as disgusted as I am at their blatant hypocrisy and social manipulation, I have to admit that I’m worried too. As I watch the feeds of my friends, fellow activists, and fellow minorities, I see the tone subtly but steadily changing. Words like “fear” and “hate” are becoming more prominent. Where before we were angry at the abuses of the administration and the feeble justifications for them by complicit parties, now it feels we’re just angry. At everything. And in a time where the news is nothing but the well-catalogued descent of democracy peppered with perspectives of the people who voted for this to happen and finger-wagging about how we need to understand them better, I understand that. The idea that we were building a just and equal society — or that we’re even capable of it — feels faint and fragile and hopelessly naive now. The belief that we could overcome our problems if we just worked harder and smarter feels ignorant and dumb. For so many of us, these past two years has been the dissolving of a dream we were glad to be a part of; getting woke is a nightmare.

What’s left but anger when you realize how firmly entrenched, how deeply rooted and mutable, the connection to white privilege is in American life? How can you not be angry when you watch people you know quibble about whether or not to compare Trumpists to Nazis when refugee families are being torn apart and children put in cages? How can you still believe in America when the institutions we’ve built over hundreds of years have been powerless to stop the unchecked stripping of rights and protections for our most vulnerable citizens? Wouldn’t you be furious too if you realized your country had been lying to you for your entire life about what it stood for?

I can’t read the news, not because the suffering of other people makes me uncomfortable, but because I can barely tolerate the heat of the anger I feel. I felt myself flaming out through most of last year, and I’ve tried hard to pull back from letting that rage consume me completely. And I see so many of us losing that battle, letting the light of our kindness and empathy grow red and smoking with the fury of watching an unjust world kill people because they were different, or powerless. We’re afraid of what America is turning into, and angry about what it’s been for far too long, and the space we have for anything besides that fear and fury is dwindling. I get it. I feel it too. But if I let it happen, if I give myself over to it, then the fear and the fury consumes everything I am. There will be nothing left. And that’s just as good to the parties that want me (and people like me) gone as them eliminating me themselves.

The light that gives me the ability to be angry about these things is the same light that can be extinguished by that anger. Anger chokes our ability to be kind, open, and self-aware; fear freezes our perspective. In order to build the kind of society we want, we must be able to imagine it — and that requires seeing past our fear and fury and frustration. We have to imagine the kind of people we would need to be in order for that society to work. We have to work on ourselves in order to become those people. I think that means being aware of our anger and fear, accepting these emotions as just another part of ourselves, of working with them in healthy and helpful ways.

People might think that’s a whole different kind of work from social justice, but it’s not. It means fixing ourselves as much as fixing the world around us, because anything that’s not right within us will not be right with the world. If we want to live in a world where we’ve dealt with our worst impulses, we’re going to have to deal with our worst impulses. The things we do based on anger and fear are often just those things. If we find those emotions guiding our actions with fewer checks from other influences, we have to stop and consider if that’s what we want.

I am not saying that it’s wrong to be angry, or that we shouldn’t be afraid. Those are both completely normal reactions to what’s happening right now. But we do have to think about where anger and fear leads us, what kind of people we are when we’re nothing but anger and fear. We have to think about how we get from here to some place better, and how we’re going to light the way. If we’ve been immolated by our rage, all that’s left is smoke and ash. We still need our values to guide us. We really do.

I’ve been trying very hard to think about what I’m fighting for — not just the things I’m confronted with and fighting against. What do I want? What do I believe? Why do I believe my values are the right ones? And does the form of my protest align with the answers I come up with?

I want to be civil not because I give a shit what those hypocrites think, but because civility is something I value. I want to believe that my principles can be tested against the crucible of reality, and that they’re strong enough to endure. I want to be the kind of person that still believes we can overcome these problems if we work harder and smarter, if we’re clear about the sacrifices that need to be made and the compromises we cannot allow. I know that the United States isn’t the land of the free or the home of the brave — that’s a lie we’ve been sold to allow the cowardly and the greedy to do what they want. But I also know that it can be, and that if it’s going to be each and every one of us must be free from our anger and fear.

Reminding ourselves and our brothers and sisters to be positive, to hold fast to the values we hold dear, is a necessary component of our protest. So please, think about what the world could be like, and think about what you can do to get us a little bit closer to that, and do it. Lift up your allies as much as you tear down the institutions that have failed us all this time. Tend to your light. Keep the light of your fellows safe. Let in a little sunshine so that we don’t choke on the smoke of our collective anger. Find something — anything — to smile about. Remind yourself why this world is worth saving, why YOU’RE worth saving.

Our voices can be loud and firm without rancor. We don’t have to put up with injustice, but we do have to live with ourselves in a more just world. Saving the world, and the United States, is not just about reshaping society. It’s about preserving ourselves and our sanity so we can keep doing the work that needs to be done.

Let’s hold the things we love in our hearts while we’re out on the streets protesting the effects of Trump in ways both large and small. As long as we do, we save a little space for the goodness we’re working so hard to preserve.

 

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