A year ago, after attending the Seoul Queer Culture Festival (Pride), my elation was destroyed by the Pulse shooting and after some time to process the grief and anger, I wrote this. Now, with the political climate of the US and the world drifting more and more into divisive, unhealthy, and downright dangerous territory, I think it’s important to remember these things, so I’m reposting.
It’s not a traditional rant, but I’m not soft-balling it either. I’m not going to curse and yell and insult people. That doesn’t help. But I’m not pulling punches and guarding every turn of phrase. I’m pretty sure if you’re reading this, you have an open mind (I don’t have a big enough following for trolls yet) so I’m hoping you’ll be open to some different perspectives on the issues this has brought up and won’t nitpick every detail or metaphor to death in an attempt to avoid the message.
Disclaimer: I have employed the word “you” here as a general term for “a person” or “a group of people” because it’s shorter and more convenient than those phrases, and because it sounds less awkward than “one”. If you (actually you) don’t feel like you fall into those thought patterns, please feel free to observe how other humans do. If you (personally) think it applies to you, then please do the awesome thing and admit your past errors and strive for personal improvement.
The problem of violence in America has no quick fix. It’s not one type of problem. It’s a gun problem, and a mental health problem, and a male problem, and a sexual entitlement problem, and a loneliness problem, and a homophobia problem, and and and….
The fact that I can’t remember which shooting this came after is a horrible sign, but someone pointed out that socially well connected humans don’t go off and kill a bunch of fellow humans. I don’t mean socially acceptable people, by the way. Not the kind of person everyone says “he seemed so nice” about. I’m talking about connection. Genuine meaningful social connection is possibly the most important thing we can do for another human being. Love and belonging are the third tier of Maslow’s hierarchy, only overshadowed by the need for food and safety and integral to achieving esteem and self-actualization. They are NOT OPTIONAL for humans.
In order to make the connections that provide us with the sense of love and belonging we need so much, we have to feel safe (second tier) and have our physical needs met (first tier). This means things like jobs, minimum wage, enough to eat and no fear the power will be cut off soon are important not just for the person at risk of snapping and being violent, but for all the people around him (yes, him, they’ve all been men) who need to be in a safe place in their lives in order to be available for social connections. It’s not about handouts and food stamps for the lazy or entitled. It’s about creating an environment where people are capable of achieving love and belonging, because only then can they start investing back in that environment in a positive way.
To make social connections we need to be mentally and emotionally healthy too. Mental health care availability and removal of mental health care stigma are a big part of making that happen. Plus, it has the side benefit that people who are really struggling can get some extra help before they feel the need to lash out violently.
We need a social value of peer care. This whole “every man for himself”, “not my circus, not my monkeys” attitude is destructive. A society is dependent on co-operation and co-care for success. It’s supported by science and religion. But I don’t even know how to get this idea off the ground in the US. Rugged individualism (aka “selfishness”) is deeply ingrained in the American identity these days, but it hasn’t always been. Once upon a time, there was a horrible war against some evil men and our country banded together. I don’t know if it takes Nazis to make us help each other, but it does prove that we’re capable.
2017 Add on: I could not have dreamed when I wrote that sentence what was coming, I thought I was speaking in hyperbole about Nazis…
The “Or” Problem
America is fascinated, hypnotized, enslaved to the idea that every issue has two and only two sides which are so opposed to one another that any form of compromise or middle ground is simply unthinkable. I don’t mean uncomfortable to think about, I mean, people’s brains are actually incapable of thinking the thought. Thought rejected. This is known as the “false dichotomy”.
Example: All the guns or none of the guns. If you are for gun rights, you must be in favor of all the guns. If you are for gun control, surely you want to destroy all the guns. Many of you say, no no, we don’t think that way. BUT, when you tell a die-hard NRA conservative you want gun legislation, all they hear is “‘Bama wants to take our guns” and the next thing you know we’re being moved at state owned gunpoint into UN appointed Orwellian style living blocs. Madness! (I’m not making this up, I wish I were.)
Ugh. I said I didn’t want to have a conversation about guns. Sorry. You can look at many aspects of American life and see that you’ve been sold on an idea that something must be A or B and there simply is no alternative or middle ground. Political parties and candidates are another great example. Republican or Democrat… anyone heard of the Green Party? Many people seem to think that the alternative to hating LGBTQ+ is embracing it wholeheartedly. And, while I wish you would, I also know that it’s totally possible to disagree with a person’s life choices and still not hate them. I do it every day.
Even in this way, Americans are dichotomous. You love it or you hate it. Well, you know what? I don’t love or hate pistachio ice cream. I bet there’s a lot of that stuff in your life and you don’t even think about it. But, when it comes to a hot button issue, you must choose a side. Team Tony, Team Cap. Team Edward, Team Jacob. Team Coke, Team Pepsi… really, that’s what you’re reducing complex social issues like religion and sexuality to when you do this.
And while we’re at it, a side note on false equivalencies. , such as this lovely comparison of Obama to Hitler. Both were in favor of a policy, therefore they are the same? No. Obama =/= Hitler. I could spend the rest of the year finding examples of how this is used in all these polemical arguments, but the ones I want to bring up are: anger =/= hate, and dislike =/= hate.
I’m angry at my sister for staying in a crappy city, but I still love her. I’m angry with my friends when they are stubbornly stupid about writing in a vote that won’t count in their state, but I still love them. I’m angry with my students when they don’t do their homework, but … you get the idea.
I don’t like Donald Trump. I don’t like the creepy homeless guy on the street corner who smells funny. I don’t like Kanye West. But, I still think they all deserve fundamental human rights and that old American goodie: “life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness”.
But Kaine, that kind of anger/dislike isn’t the same as what I feel toward (insert group here… oh, let’s say Westboro Baptist, but pick your own if it helps). Yeah, it’s smaller maybe. WB makes me want to pull my hair out. Makes me want to scream. Makes me want to go to a junkyard and smash things. BUT, it doesn’t make me want to kill them. It doesn’t make me want to take away their right to free speech. It also kind of makes me want to make them some tea and say, hey do you need a hug cause you’re clearly very upset about something (though in the case of the homeless guy, maybe not a hug until he’s showered).
We need to stop buying into A or B. We need to ask “why” about everything over and over until we discover the root issues. We need to remember it’s “liberty and justice for all” full stop, not “all white Christians” or “all men” or “all heterosexuals”. And then we need to take a long hard look at “life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness” as it applies to everyone. We’ve already decided that taking someone else’s life (murder) or property (stealing) is not a liberty anyone is permitted no matter how happy it will make them. We’ve decided that absolute freedom to do whatever you want is not the path to a healthy society. We already curtail certain actions deemed destructive to the well-being of our nation and its people. Of course we must be careful about what we choose to curtail, but we cannot act like it is an anathema to do so. Ben Franklin said that a person who would surrender freedom in exchange for security deserves neither, but that’s become another “or”: freedom or security. Why? Why can’t it be and?
Freedom and security.
Dislike and respect.
Disagreement and compassion.
Can v Should: As It Applies to Free Speech
When I was living in the Middle East, I learned some very valuable lessons about free speech. I’ve been working on a separate post about that, but the core of it I think is important to this issue as well. But let me be clear: I am in NO WAY advocating for the government control of speech or expression. I am talking about social and civic responsibility that comes with having that freedom. Abraham Lincoln once said that “we should be too big to take offense and too noble to give it.” There are some people out there who are just easily offended by things that are genuinely not damaging to others. There are things that need to be said that will be hard to hear. I will support the legal right to free speech forever. But, the second part of that quote is damn important.
In America, when someone says something insulting (about your faith, your lifestyle, your weight, appearance, gender, orientation, skin color, etc) the result is all too often “You’re an adult, suck it up”. The expectation is that adults should just be able to deal with being insulted or having their feelings hurt (even though arguably many of these insults are signs of bigotry and oppression and not just about hurt feelings).
In the Middle East, when I had conversations about such insults, I explained that we didn’t want the government to police what we could say about religion or anything else for that matter. This is the core of our free speech amendment, that the government can’t punish you for the insult. People understood that part, but what they couldn’t wrap their heads around was why anyone would want to be so insulting in the first place.
Sometimes I get to explain about how important it is to be able to speak out against powerful institutions that may be corrupt or have a corrupting influence, that may be stealing or hurting people. That’s the reason we have the first amendment, after all, not simply to protect the Westboro Baptist Church screaming insults at a funeral, but to protect people like Edward Snowden who tell us when our government is breaking laws, or in a less controversial light, people like Neil Degrasse Tyson who speaks out about climate change and evolution despite how unpopular those things are in the US.
In other words, the right to free speech is protected so we can punch up at those in power who are ostensibly abusing it. Using your words to hurt, bully, intimidate, threaten, marginalize or oppress other people isn’t exercising your first amendment rights, it’s just being an asshole.
When you tell the story of someone who is insulted for their race, religion, gender, orientation, etc and the reply is “You’re an adult” the follow up shouldn’t be “suck it up”, the comment isn’t directed at the victim, it’s directed at the attacker. “You’re an adult. You should know better”. Kids insult each other, bully each other, and call each other names because they are learning. As adults we tell them it’s wrong. We ask them to think of how they would feel if someone called them that name. You’re an adult, you should know better than to insult someone that way for no reason other than to prove you can. What are you 6? Like two kids in the backseat of the car, one sibling holding a finger just millimeters away from the other’s skin. “I’m not touching you! There’s no law against it. I have free speech.”
Just because you can, doesn’t mean you have to.
You’re an adult. You should know better.
2017 Add on: Freedom of speech also doesn’t come with a guarantee of platform or audience. No one is obliged to invite someone to speak at an event, and no one is obliged to listen to them. People like Ann and Milo don’t have a right to an auditorium or TV air time and failing to give them a chance isn’t an infringement of their right to speak without persecution or prosecution by the government, which is what the amendment guarantees.
And, because it’s come up more than once over the last year
YES THERE ARE LIMITS TO THE FREE SPEECH GUARANTEE IN THE BILL OF RIGHTS.
The first amendment does not give everyone the right to say whatever they want without legal consequences. Things not protected include: incitement to violence, false statements of fact (slander, libel, perjury, etc), obscenity (with caveats), child pornography (thank goodness), “fighting words” and offensive speech, plagiarism, and a few others. So before you get all defensive of that alt-reich, neo-nazi’s right to free speech, check out if his words really qualify.
The Crab Bucket
When I was learning how to be happy (another one of those things I keep meaning to write about in more detail), I read a lot of studies, and listened to a lot of psychiatrists, therapists, sociologists and neuroscientists. One day, I’ll make a comprehensive list with links and you can all take the shortcut to the searching I did, but until then, it gets doled out piecemeal.
Today’s piece: toxic relationships & crab bucket tribes. I had to learn about vulnerability from Brene Brown. I had been hurt so much that for part of my life it was easier not to feel. But Brene reminded me that is not a sustainable model for happiness, it’s only a barrier to pain and the absence of pain is not the same as the presence of joy.
Being vulnerable is the only way to experience love, and love is key to happiness. Don’t just take my word for it, watch her TED talks, read her research. Being vulnerable means you open up to people and experiences. You let them in. That means people can hurt you. As a result, it’s really important to back away from the people who will hurt you often and badly. They may have the best intentions. They are certainly worthy of love, but that is not your job.
Additionally, I learned that our mental tracks, our personal narratives if you will, are greatly influenced by the people we spend time with. If we hang out with people who have no ambition, who are negative and critical all the time, who always find something to complain about or some reason not to try, then it becomes harder for us to break out of those thought patterns.
Even worse is the “crab bucket”. I learned this word from Sir Terry Pratchett, but I don’t think he made it up. Basically, there is no need to put a lid on a bucket of live crabs because as soon as one tries to climb out, it’s bucket-mates grab on and pull it back down. People do this too. People who are in bad situations for whatever reason, people who have had to learn to accept those situations (bad job, too many kids, crappy apartment, bad relationship, wrong career, etc), people who are unhappy but unwilling (or unable without great effort) to change it. They are comfortable in their discomfort. Seeing someone else get out, “make it”, improve their lives should be a cause for celebration, but too often it simply reminds them that their own lives are less than they want and it breeds resentment. They will attempt to keep those around them in the crab-bucket for all kinds of reasons besides flat up jealousy or resentment. It could be because they like you and want you around, they want to have things in common with you, or because they don’t want to be alone, but it’s still not good for you.
Whether someone is actively toxic in the sense of abuse and chronic negativity or passively crab-bucket in the best meaning friendly way, they are still an obstacle to your happiness and you can’t be vulnerable to them, you can’t invest your time in them without expecting them to have a commensurate impact on your life.
Excising toxic and crab-bucket people from my life was not easy. It was a deeply painful process. I admit, I didn’t confront many people. I let most of them quietly drift away. Moving out of country helped that a bit. Only the ones I truly deeply cared about did I try to talk to. Sometimes it worked and we improved our relationship. Sometimes it didn’t and it blew up in my face.
Now I’m getting better at making non-toxic friends up front, so hopefully I won’t have to do that again. But I’m encountering a new toxic, crab-bucket relationship in my life that I didn’t really see before: my country.
Your country is a lot like your family. You don’t get to choose where you’re born. I’ve often thought I was lucky to be born in the US. So much privilege and wealth. Such a wonderful history of freedom and innovation. Anything was possible… the American dream.
I learned the hard way that’s not real, but I was still hoping America was going to pull through. I admire people who work tirelessly to improve it, who don’t give up. I said before that even toxic people are worthy of love and I meant it. Just because I can’t be the person who gives it to them doesn’t make them unworthy. I guess I feel the same way about America. I’m starting to feel like hanging around America is overly negative. I definitely feel like America is turning (has turned?) into one big crab bucket. People tell me all the time “every place has problems” as a way of minimizing the problems in America or somehow trying to equate them with problems in other places. People tell me all the time, “not everyone can just leave” as a way of reasoning out why they can’t.
Every place does have problems, just like every relationship has problems. You don’t stop talking to all humans because of it. You don’t give up on vulnerability or love. But you don’t stay in an abusive or toxic relationship either. Yes, in case it wasn’t clear, I’m comparing the US to an abusive or toxic friend/partner. I hear people in bad relationships say things like “no one’s perfect” and that’s what I hear when people say “every place has problems” in the wake of the Orlando shooting. Places that have problems like that are the national equivalent of abusive spouses. If you’re comparing yourself to central Africa to find something worse, it’s like saying yeah, he slaps me around sometimes, but at least he doesn’t cut me up or break any bones like Betty and Paul down the street. Neither one is ok!
And yes, it’s probably true that not everyone can leave the way I have. But more people could leave than are doing so. Countries like Germany are struggling with record low population growth and are desperate for immigrants who can contribute to their society as well as their population numbers. Places like Korea are giving away scholarships (transportation and living expenses included) to people who want to come here and commit to a multi-year study of Korean language. Furthermore, the people who are going to stay should be doing so because they want to fight for America, to work and toil and loose sleep and gain gray hairs to rebuild a place worth living in. That’s worth doing, oh gods yes.
Not every bullied LGBTQIA+ leaves the bigoted southern towns they were raised in as soon as they turn 18. Some because they don’t know how, can’t afford it, think they have no place to go. But some because they want to stay to work to improve conditions for the next generation and that’s work worth doing. I met an amazingly bright young lady while I was teaching in China. She could have easily used her intelligence and education to get a job and move to a great city, or even leave China which is the dream of so many there. Instead, she told me her dream was to go back to her tiny village where people don’t even have indoor plumbing and teach at the local elementary school to give the next generation a better chance. Wow.
There are people in my life I thought were worth fighting for. I haven’t abandoned every relationship that was damaging. But I’ve made choices and worked for the ones I wanted in spite of the risk.
I’m looking really hard at America right now, because I don’t think I can passively live in the crab-bucket anymore. Right now, I’m taking a “break”, travelling around the world, but before I go back for anything longer than a vacation, I have to decide if this is a toxic relationship I have to cut loose, or if it’s a painful relationship I want to work to fix.
2017 Add on: I’m heading back to the US this summer to dispose of my stateside material goods and visit my family again. After this, I don’t think I’ll be back for a while, certainly not until there’s adequate health care and I don’t have to worry about getting stabbed to death for standing up against Islamaphobia. My mom is retiring next year, so I’m hoping she’ll be able to come out and visit me and bring my niblings along so they get to see more of the world.
That said, I’ve met several Americans who are heading home. When I asked them why, they said they felt they needed to stand up and do something about the state of things. Even when we talked about the fact that they were unlikely to ever find as good a job as we have here, let alone as good a healthcare plan, they looked sad, but resolved. I admire these people immensely and I hope that they can make a difference.
Ghandi said we have to be the change we want to see in the world, but only you can decide what that means for you.
I can’t even begin to list all of the horrible things that have happened since I first wrote this post. Increases in white supremacist violence, more restrictive laws to increase the school to prison pipeline, the Trump administration, the Paris accord withdrawal, Syria, Russia… people are scared, some feel under threat by the government’s plans to dismantle health care and other social services, and others are under threat because of the color of their skin, the god they worship, or the person they love. Don’t give up. #Resistwithcompassion.