Fearful Stories

Rainbow_at_half_mast_viaBrianTalbotHorror is all too common of late. It indicts us, and our inaction, and our self-righteousness. It leaves us searching blindly for narrative, for meaning, for sense. It drives us to a place of confusion and darkness because we already have a story, and the story is about being a beacon of the free world and a bastion of hope and a place where anyone can be great, and this is not that story.

Instead, this is a story about how our division and our fear and our posturing makes us weak. This is a story about a nation where horror is disclaimed, but nothing is done to prevent it. This is a story about championing liberty and justice, but refusing to ensure it for all. This is a story about the apotheosis of freedom through empty rituals, while the real freedoms we need are marked daily and ignored.

The people who died in Orlando this past weekend are our common responsibility, and the direct result of our paralysis and division. This is not the first time. It is not the second, or the tenth, or the hundredth, or the thousandth. If we continue as we have, this will not be the last time, because every other time we have done nothing.

So this is a story about us, and our monumental failure to be who we say we are.

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The Dangerous Middle

balance.jpgThere is a point in believing an idea where, regardless of where we began, we lose the habit of refining that idea. Instead of seeking to improve our positions, we begin to defend then. Instead of searching for the nuance, we begin to strip it away.

It isn’t every idea—but certain ideas seem to burrow into our politics, our religion, and our activism, and once they are firmly in place, we refuse to let them go. And we begin to vilify anyone who suggests otherwise. I cannot tell whether it is due to external elements, like deep social division, or internal elements, like an uncritical approach to one’s own beliefs. Perhaps it is both, or perhaps it is something else entirely. But I think it not coincidental that these are tribal ideas: they are ideas that mark our membership as much as they define our position.

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Return to Greatness

Luggage_viaJohnPerivolarisPeople have been going on forever about returning to the good old days, the days of their youth, and the days when America was great long before Donald Trump ever got hold of the idea. Longing for the days of yore is baked into our society, to the point where the very idea that something is old, to many people, gives it weight. So we trust in ancient remedies, recall days of chivalry and valor, and yearn for good old Nuclear Family America.

Unless we studied History. Those of us who studied History know that yearning for the good old days dooms you to an infinite wait at the lost luggage counter for imaginary bags.

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You Can’t Say That

Words_ViaMichelleTribePolitical correctness is one of those things that conservatives love to hate. Understandably; there are few areas where people can indulge in righteous disdain and still maintain broad support (instead of just looking like jerks). And why not? There aren’t many people, I think, who enjoy being on the receiving end of the language police. It’s understandably infuriating to be told that you said whatever you said the wrong way, even though your meaning was obviously clear.

Liberals tend to dislike the label “political correctness.” But that doesn’t stop them from patrolling the boundaries of acceptable language and bending over backwards to avoid including offensive words in everyday life. And why not? There are histories of oppression baked into our language, just as they are baked into every other part of our society. Language often contains fossilized prejudice, and we do well to root it out.

Where these two views conflict, I think, is in their understanding of what we’re supposed to be fixing. For liberals, changing language isn’t the ostensible goal—it’s a marker for change in attitudes. But for conservatives, the narrative of political correctness is the opposite—that changing language is just about framing your attitude in a different way. Continue reading

Triggering Warnings

Caution Tape_viaEugeneZemlyanskiyTrigger Warning: this is a post about content notes and trigger warnings. People who become irrationally angry when they encounter content notes or trigger warnings may want to stop reading now and spare themselves the emotional distress.

I have noticed that there is a subset of the internet who reject both the idea that anyone could be emotionally distressed by content, and the idea that anyone else should ever dare to accommodate them. But, strangely enough, these same people find themselves emotionally distressed and unable to control their actions when they encounter warnings to others about emotional distress.

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Brutal Honesty

treeswallows_viaAnitaRitenourHonesty is the most important thing—at least, that was a value I learned growing up. No criticism was left unspoken, nor was there any thought that it should be. I learned to value blunt, direct language. I learned to say what I thought. I learned to be brutally honest, and to believe it was the right thing to do.

What I learned was not unique. I see a lot of people who prefer to be direct and who find honesty refreshing. I know a lot of people who find subterfuge and subtext exhausting, and who are actively annoyed by people who weave and bob and refuse to say what they think. And I, like a lot of other people, am actively annoyed by the fact the public figures say whatever they think people want to hear with no regard for truth. Honesty, I think, is objectively valuable.

What I didn’t learn, at least for a while, is that brutality and honesty need not go together.

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Slow Violence

P1070060.JPGBecause I spend a lot of time below ground, the raw marks of geology are a regular part of my life. When I think of bedrock and mountains, I don’t think of them as solid things. They shift uneasily in my mind, and their brittle skins are not enough to disguise restless history. People who live near fault lines or volcanoes remember this; the rest of us generally forget it.

I think the structures of a society are very similar. The slow violence of geology and the slow violence of society are both ever ongoing.

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True Stories

books_viaxlibberPerhaps I am too much a student of Tim O’Brien, but I believe that the purpose of stories, literal or otherwise, is to contain truth. In his magnificent opus, The Things They Carried, O’Brien gave us the truth of being a soldier during the Vietnam War. It did not much matter that many of the things in his book were not literal events, because they contained the rich truth of that experience. Stories shine when they convey a truth of experience too big for simple events.

Which is not to say events do not matter. There is another, related role for stories: to provide context for the world in which we live. They are foils for everything we see and experience, catalogues of sensation and emotion, especially and personally constructed to anchor us on deep, shifting sands. So we would like our stories to feel true, in Tim O’Brien’s sense, and also be true, in a more literal sense. And yet, we also conflate those two.

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Quantum Ex Machina

UntoldStory_viaAftabUzzamanWe all tell ourselves stories about the world—stories to help us reduce the component parts into things we can understand. Sometimes those stories describe the world, and sometimes they describe what we wish the world could be. Usually, I think, they are a little of both.

The edges are always fuzzy, and the connections can be tenuous, and sometimes there are gaps in the stories we want to tell ourselves. Sometimes we just leave those gaps there, unanswered and honest. But sometimes we flail in the fuzzy gaps, and sometimes we try to fill them in.

It’s almost a meme, outside of scientific circles, to use quantum physics for this; after all, quantum physics is pretty cool, pretty attention-grabbing, and pretty unintuitive. Can’t quantum effects be that little bit of magic we secretly hope for?

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Antidisestablishmentarianism

Establishment_viaFabioVenniI’ve been having a problem lately with the word “establishment.” It’s a two-part problem, and one part of that problem is that I cannot seem to read anything about our current election cycle without getting run over by “the establishment.” The other part of the problem is the difference between what it means and how we actually use it.

To take the first part of the problem, I keep hearing about how Trump supporters are against the establishment, and how Bernie supporters are against the establishment, and about how no, actually Hillary is also against the establishment, and Cruz is most definitely against the establishment, and to be safe, lets just say all political candidates are anti-establishment.

We’ll gloss right over the problem of who the establishment actually is for now and accept that it’s fashionable to be against it.

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