To speak or not to speak?

I’ve dedicated myself to living a life that adds as much good to the world as an individual can. As a part of “doing good”, I’ve taught myself about social justice, and I’ve done what I could to help and champion other’s rights within the limitations of my situation. As many of my friends know, I’ve gotten very passionate about social justice, so much so that for the past few years I’ve been very vocal online about this issue. I’ve also challenged a number of friends on their bigotry, and some of them were unable to deal with the discomfort and left.

Recently, after a certain friend just walked away, another very dear friend of mine suggested that perhaps I’m a little too intense about social justice. The suggestion was that maybe sometimes my passion ends up unintentionally causing harm to others. My initial response to this criticism was “if someone’s being a bigot or being a bully themselves, they don’t get to complain about being bullied”. Which, while I still emotionally agree with, I also need to be fair intellectually and acknowledge that it’s a little bitchy of me to have that attitude. I am working on turning that concept around in my head, because I don’t actually want to harm others, whether they “deserve” it or not. I’d just very much like it if my friends could be mature enough to think about the consequences of their actions instead of just mouthing off and then not caring that they’re hurting people.

Now, because this particular person who gave me this criticism is very close to me and I trust them implicitly, I didn’t immediately dismiss the criticism. I was hurt, because it felt like my passions and morality were being minimised and silenced, but in trying to be a person of integrity and not one of those who blindly rejects anything that makes them uncomfortable, I sat on it for a little while. And it’s triggered quite an intense journey of self exploration in me.

I believe in the ideals of the Declaration of Universal Human Rights. I believe that if everyone in the world was given their rights equally and without discrimination (as well as being taught the related responsibilities of living in an equal and free society), so much of the suffering in this world would cease to exist.

The thing is, no one, least of all the world, changes out of comfort. Change always comes out of discomfort. This means that in order to help add to a shift in cultural thinking, in order to fight against bigotry, we have to stand against it and make people uncomfortable. The thing about standing against things is, generally, you have to actually stand up against it. This involves telling people when they’re being bigots, this involves labelling bigotry as bigotry and pointing out trolls. Fighting bigotry involves actually fighting it, whether verbally or legally or with protests, but generally with a voice. Fighting with silence only works in a protest context, saying nothing does nothing. And often keeping silent makes you an accomplice to the violence.

So should I speak out against it or should I let my friends spew hate and intolerance unchecked because they’re friends?

Hard question to answer. But while I was in the process of working through answering this question, I didn’t want to act in a way that I might later be embarrassed by, but couldn’t stand to see bigotry and not say anything to push back against it, so, I’ve had to withdraw from facebook and twitter and other social networks, and I have allowed myself to think and feel through this issue as much as I could (which is why a lot of people haven’t seen me online since my spinal surgery).

In this process, I’ve come to discover that the core of my turmoil is that I don’t want to ever be cruel to others, but for the purposes of changing my world for the better I also need to do something, anything, to push back against bigotry. There’s a number of popular quotes that outline my personal sentiment, such as:

“Silence encourages the tormentor, never the tormented” and “silence in the face of evil, is itself evil; not to speak is to speak, not to act is to act”.

If we do not act or speak against hatred and abuse, we are implicitly agreeing with it. And I refuse to agree in any way with bigotry and the harm it brings on other people.

I’ve lived my entire life under different kinds of oppression. And many of the sorts of bigotry I come across and of which I’m on the receiving end could very well kill me. So these are not small issues. And all of this constant banging into bigotry often leaves me in a state of abject hopelessness. I’m told from all angles that I don’t even have the right to be alive because I’m not like them. And when that comes from every angle, every day, all day, a person can fight it off and do the fingers (“flip the bird”) and scream at it, and exist defiantly despite the hatred, but it still wearies the soul. Particularly in the contexts where the cost of non-compliance to the status quo is violence, and you have to physically fight or run just for the right to be alive.

I’m disabled. I can’t go to rallies and protest. I’m poor so I can’t throw money at those who can protest. And I have severe PTSD which makes it impossible to be an offline advocate or get in people faces. But what I can do is fight by labelling and correcting bigots online. That method of fighting against the bigotry is how I tell the world that it’s wrong. It’s how I tell them that I do have the right to exist and to live my life as I see fit. Being online in this manner also helps me to step forward and speak for other people. As an educated writer I can identify and correct bigotry on behalf of others who are having a hard time or perhaps don’t have the right words to express themselves. They can borrow my words to help them defend themselves if they don’t have any of their own.

This one action that I can do empowers me, because I’m not only helping others and myself, I’m also resisting those assholes who think I should just kill myself already because I’m not worthy of life. So when someone tells me that I should stop being so intense about social justice, and perhaps let some “minor” bigotries pass by for “peace” because such and such a person is an otherwise nice human being, what I hear is that they think some of those voices are correct, that I don’t really belong in the world. And obviously that’s not what my friend would ever mean, but your emotions are complicated, they link to all sorts of parts of your psyche, so that’s what I hear whether it’s the real message or not. And that’s why this specific issue has impacted me so much, and why I’ve not been on facebook for almost four months.

Now, given all of these issues, I certainly haven’t come to a decision about whether labelling bigotry and joining in with the discourse is a “bad” thing. I still feel the need to stand up for what’s right and I still stand by the concept that silence and permissiveness in the face of bigotry is telling the bigot that their attitudes are acceptable. As such, I’ve returned to twitter because what friends I have on twitter are mostly mature enough to receive criticism without throwing a tantrum. I will always firmly believe that if we do not stand against bigotry that that minority of murderers and rapists and nazis will continue to try and kill us (both literally and spiritually), with their hate. But I still need time to think about when and where it is appropriate to label bigotry and challenge people (some say that there needs to be room for community or family peace, others say any permissiveness is enabling the bigot, so that there’s a lot of discourse for me to study), but I do know one thing.

The grim truth about bigots (and in particular the loud ones online), is that a majority of them don’t care about the impact they have on others. They don’t care that their words are murdering people and honestly, no amount of perfect words or long explanations are going to open minds as closed and hateful as that.

Hatred, like distorted thinking, does not respond to reason (one could argue that hatred actually is distorted thinking but that’s whole nother topic). So, given that understanding as to the nature of bigots, why should I waste so much time and energy on such people if it’s not going to make a difference? I don’t have an answer to that question, other than maybe I should pick my battles rather than rumbling with everyone who says something shitty. And perhaps also, that the argument may not be for the bigot but for those reasonable people who would see the argument and be encouraged, or learn new things from the discussion.

This issue is big and I’ll keep on with it… but why I’m writing it down for people to read is also that in this process of self exploration, I’ve also come to another conclusion, one which is perhaps more important than all of the above…

I know in my heart and spirit that hate is true weakness, it divides people, it takes something vibrant from those people who embrace it, and it always destroys, it does not ever create. In contrast, love is powerful and unites people, it builds communities and it builds lasting structures in our societies.

I don’t talk much about my faith because most of my faith is wordless, it’s like voices on the wind, not quite heard but the feeling is understood, but, I do believe utterly that “god” is love, and my “worship” is to embody that love as best I can, and let it flow through me into the world. And in this issue of how to respond to bigotry, when I’m quiet and listening properly, my faith calls me to resolve this problem with love.

How does one resolve the problem of hate with love? As a dear friend of mine says: We create.

We create something that unites and strengthens, and particularly strengthens and unites those who have been victims of hate. And that creation for me has always been the Time Speaker Universe. This internal conflict has shown me that perhaps instead of constructing TSU for everyone, as was my original intention, I should instead construct it only for all of my fellow freaks, for all of those who are bullied and beaten and hurt by hate. The bigots can find another fandom, the Time Speaker Universe is for all of us victims of hatred and oppression, and a place where we can unite, where we can support and protect each other… at least once enough people know about it anyway.

I think if I try to keep my focus primarily on the creation of love and community, and less on arguing with ignorance and hatred, at the very least my own mental health will be better. And certainly my digital footsteps might just be somewhat less angry and bitchy.

Heroes, also, RIP Stephen Hawking

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When I was a kid a lot of adults in my life decreed that something about me meant I couldn’t do certain things. My dad wouldn’t hang out and do the same things as he did with my bother, with me, because “girls don’t do that stuff” (e.g. girls don’t play on quad bikes apparently). My nana told me my function and purpose in life had to revolve around a man and my sole purpose was to have kids. She told me repeatedly that all of my dreams were useless and I was simply wasting my time indulging in them, because “nature” would call and I would have to abandon those dreams to fulfil my “purpose” as a wife and mother (vomit). And that was just some of the shitty things my Dad’s family tried to enforce upon me. Though, school wasn’t any better. I had a teacher in form two (age twelve), who decided that my learning difficulty with spelling and grammar, and my poor handwriting meant that I was utterly stupid, that any dreams I had beyond working in low-income low-skilled jobs were useless because I was so stupid I couldn’t possibly even finish high school, let alone qualify to go to university. He even laughed at me once when I made the mistake of telling him I wanted to be an author, because stupid people can’t write books, right? He was very cruel.

In school sports I wasn’t allowed to play soccer because girls weren’t allowed to join in with the boys team (because girl’s bodies are so terribly delicate, don’t you know). The music teacher hated me, although I found out much later that in fact she didn’t hate me, she hated my step dad who was also a teacher there. She wouldn’t let me do anything I wanted to do in music. She forced me to stop piano lessons, even though I was pretty good, because she decided that you could only go past a certain level with piano if you were going to be a concert pianist, and I wasn’t ever going to be one because my hands were too small (which is a crock). So I tried other instruments, but drums were for boys only, flute and violin were only for rich people, and according to her you couldn’t have any future in music if you didn’t master music history (which I did not enjoy). She was also responsible for destroying my love of singing in public because I wasn’t naturally pitch-perfect (and apparently if you’re not perfect from your first breath you’ll never be a good singer even with training, so why bother teaching?). I still can’t sing in public because of her shitty attitude. In the end, I had to either quit music or surrender and learn to play the recorder, which I found mindbogglingly boring. I’m sure you can imagine what ten year old me decided to do given those options… and thus ended a potential career in music just because the teacher hated my step dad…

When I was older, the technical drawing teacher saw that there were no boys in his class who wanted to continue in tech drawing in the next year (which was our first certification level), so he switched the following year to Graphic Design (because he insisted that’s what girls do despite it not being a precursor for higher education). He said if there’d been one boy who wanted to become an architect then he would have kept the tech drawing class, and I said I wanted to become an architect, but because architects were only ever men (he insisted), I wasn’t worth his time teaching me.

Over and over and over again, grown ups kept telling me that the things I wanted to study, or be or do with my adult life weren’t right, because I was poor or a girl or not pretty enough or not strong enough, and almost always, I was never ever smart enough. It got so bad that it felt as if everything I wanted to be and everything I loved wasn’t allowed to exist. That everyone insisted I become that ditzy blond girl, giggling in the corner, whose only focus in life is boys, make up and clothes.

But I never wanted to be that kind of person. Ever. The shallow pretty worlds had never ever attracted me. What I wanted was to change or make a difference in the world. I wanted to be a doctor. I wanted to smuggle on board the Greenpeace boats going off to Mururoa to protest the nuclear tests in the pacific. As a twelve year old kid, I wanted to go to university to do a degree in the kind of physics that you used in space, and I wanted to be a part of creating a space program in New Zealand, and be the first kiwi to orbit Earth, or help to build the first off-world colony on the moon or Mars. As I got older my dreams shifted. I wanted to get rich and go to poor countries and make houses and dig wells and give people solar panels, and university grants to get free of their poverty trap. As a teen I wanted to write books that mattered, that would never be forgotten.

I wanted to make a positive impact on the world, but most of the adults in my life at the time kept telling me I wasn’t capable of such things. They kept telling me I was too stupid, or girls can’t do that, or you’re poor so you’ll never amount to anything.

My dreams were always too big for my “station”, and many teachers and family members punished and ridiculed me for it. Except for my mum and two teachers, Bill Mannens and Barbara Handley. They told me to go for it, fuck what the other people thought, just to be who and what I am and keep trying. But everyone else in my world told me I couldn’t, told me I had to become what they wanted me to be or suffer the consequences.

One day, I saw Stephen Hawking on TV. And here was this guy talking about the kinds of physics I wanted to learn. He couldn’t use his body, but instead of surrendering to the difficulties he faced, he just kept working towards his dreams, and by just doing it he’d become the next Einstein. And I realised that if he could do it, if he, in a wheelchair, unable to use his body, and needing a machine to talk for him, could be the modern version of Einstein, then I could be anything I wanted to be, because in comparison my limitations, if you took away the chorus of shitty people, were fairly small. I was smart, I just had trouble learning like other people, and I had severe panic attacks which often looked like the blank expression of a lack of smarts to the outside world. Those weren’t insurmountable problems.

I knew I could do it, I just needed to figure out how to get around my problems and make them work for me.

Now, they were right about a few things. Being poor and assigned female at birth, and growing up in the ninteen-ninties, meant that a lot of things just weren’t accessible to me. If I’d grown up even ten years later, my learning difficulties would have been identified, and I would have been awarded a tutor to help me study. If I’d been rich, the school I went to might have had counsellors or teachers familiar with trauma, and they would have picked up on my PTSD troubles and given me access to regular trauma therapy to help manage my ridiculous panic attacks. But none of that happened because back then they didn’t know about stuff like that, and what the education system did know about learning difficulties and PTSD, was only acted upon in rich schools, not the little country area school that I went to. And those disadvantages unfortunately had consequences that rippled through my life, and are partially responsible for the poverty in which I now live.

But the point is, that I took strength from Stephen Hawking’s story and a few others, and I decided what I wanted to do, figured out how to do it and did it. I learned tricks on how to memorise the correct spellings of things. I practised for five years to change my hand writing so it was “pretty”. I kept writing stories, regardless of what else was happening in my life (and in fact the writing saved me a lot of the time).

I never dropped my dream of being an author. I still haven’t dropped my dream of living off my writing, and I’m still, despite the poverty and health and mobility issues, working towards living off my writing and making a difference in the world. All of this hope because of people like Stephen Hawking and Helen Keller taught me that if they could do it with their challenges, I certainly can do it too. People like Maya Angelou told me that despite feeling broken by my childhood trauma, I could rise again, I could have a life that was mine, and not controlled entirely by the horrible things that happened to me or my difficult body.

Heroes are important for dreams, particularly when you have a lot of disadvantages. My heroes kept me going as a kid, and keep me going now as an adult. My heroes have even given me the courage to live as much as myself as I can, despite the risks of violence or oppression that still happen today against trans and rainbow people.

My ultimate dream has always been to impact the world in a positive way, and I try to live my life like that… and while that’s all about the kind of person I wish to be in the world (and therefore is a testament to MY persistence), that hope, that strength wouldn’t have happened without me being introduced to the people like Stephen Hawking, who lived their lives as they chose without letting their limitations or the actions of others stop them. And even as our heroes pass on to the next life, we can still look up to them… and maybe one day have people looking up to us.

Why do I have so many characters?

Seemingly, the norm for most forms of storytelling is of one main character who travels through the story learning and doing what they need to get to the end of the story (aka the Hero’s Journey). At least, that seems to be the default because those who deviate from the one main character story motif are “outliers” rather than just writing. The one person story follows just the one main viewpoint, where the main character is the sole hero, or the “good guy” and most of the time the other characters in the story only have an identity in relation to the main character, like “love interest”, “best friend”, “mentor”, without any or much independent motivations or characterisation of their own other than their “function” in relation to the hero.

So, given this abundant cultural backdrop, I was never surprised that one of the common criticisms of my writing was that I have too many main characters and too many points of view. In fact I have a friend who constantly tells me that I should build my writing career on the short stories I do for bonus content, because the multiple viewpoints are too complicated for people. The irony is that I actually write this way deliberately. I’m not just writing how I want because it’s at my whim, I have designed most aspects of TSU very deliberately, and the multiple viewpoint has been a part of the story since I was 14.

I truly believe that our fictional, cultural, and media stories mimic and inform our beliefs about ourselves and life, and if we choose to change our stories (and the method by which they’re told), we also change our culture. But people under-estimate the power of our stories to affect and mold our culture and perceptions. Writers also tend to under-estimate the impact of their fiction and the responsibility for that impact to society at large. Writers just want to tell their story, and the potential impact isn’t usually a thing they think about very much because it’s just fiction, right? I disagree.

When we’re taught by story and myth that there is always a hero, a person who’s more important than others because of destiny (or whatever), we’re laying the foundation for oppression because the “hero” is more important than the side characters. Until recently, most of our stories had the same kind of person as the “hero”: a thin or muscular white cis het male. This informs our cultural subconscious that only this type of person is important, and everyone else is a side character, a “love interest” or the “fat/black best friend” or the “old mentor”. Our very stories tell us that some people are superior to others, so it’s no wonder we have an unrelenting racism and bigotry in our western society.

By focusing on one “main” character, we’re not only adding to the narrative that some people are heroes/important and others are not, we’re also adding to the viewpoint that the individual is the most important thing in the world.

We live in a world where we expect our needs and wants to be met, without much thought for those who help supply those needs. Your place in the social strata can of course vary how many of your needs are met (and how oppressed you are), but over all our society focuses on the single individual, on single dreams, on the pursuit of individual happiness and perfection, and often of being better or more fulfilled than our neighbours. There’s also very often the underlying belief that your greatness must always come at the cost of others well-being or greatness. That the poor deserve to be poor so that the worthy rich can get richer. We are all the hero in our “hero’s journey of life”, and everyone else gets relegated to the plucky side-kick or the romantic love interest or the asshole antagonist. Our individual humanity is the only one that matters, not because it’s true but because we’ve convinced ourselves that the pursuit of individual happiness is the only way to live one’s life. And one of the reasons we believe this is because the only stories we’ve been given to describe our own journeys through life, mirror this mindset.

Our stories have told us a lie, that humans are individualist creatures. We’re not. We are literally pack/herd animals. We’re emotionally, mentally and physically wired to exist in relation to others, and because our stories (and the messages from capitalism) have been based around a single character and their needs and their wants as an individual, we’ve collectively forgotten our connections, our community-based nature. We’ve forgotten how to connect to others, how to work together, how to trust. It’s almost as if our very culture has developed PTSD, and we’re curled up in the corner with a weapon expecting every other person to be a threat, and then wondering why we’re so terribly lonely and miserable.

The healthy, empowered human is one who functions in relation to their community. For evidence of this you only have to look at the native peoples around the world and how their social structures existed before colonial invasion, and perhaps how our ancestors might have lived before invasion as well.

We’ve been so focused on the individual, on dominance and conformity, that we’ve forgotten our base, core nature of community and connectedness. You cannot be connected while looking down your nose at someone who’s different. But we don’t know what we don’t know. We can’t understand something that has no stories with which we can tell and explain a concept. I only understand what I do because I’m a member of a number of oppressed minority groups, so I have a different perspective. For those who fit in the mainstream, they have been taught by our stories to be prejudiced, to be separatist, and entirely individual-focused. And in order to change that in a meaningful and effective way, we must change how we tell our stories, and what stories we tell. People have already cottoned onto this concept (also called diverse representation), which is why we have far more movies and tv series with diverse stories and characters, but we all add to this shift towards a kinder world with our own stories.

So, with intention to help bring about a better future for our society, I choose to write my stories in a format that is as the world really is. There is no one main character because the troubles and problems that come to the characters cannot be solved by one hero, they can only be solved by many, many people coming together and fighting together to survive. In reality, as a species we are stronger together, we are wiser as well, particularly if we share our wisdom and actually listen to each other. And like the fiction world of TSU, the real world cannot be saved by one person, only by a large group of us coming together cooperatively, and saving the world together.

So, I choose to break a number of writing “rules” by deliberately having many main characters and many points of view in my stories, not because I’m trying to be a smart ass or because I’m following a whim. I’m choosing very deliberately to make sure (where possible) that my stories will help to improve the world, to help build a better world without bigotry through my choices of story and perspective.

In summary, I view us all as threads, and together we weave a tapestry of story and experience which becomes history and, hopefully, a better world.

And that’s the perspective from which I write my books.

Normal is the greatest evil in the world

Bold title, no? Perhaps, but it’s actually true.

Think of some of the most horrific crimes done by societies on this planet in history, and look at the core issue that caused the violence. It’s usually one group of people dehumanising and annihilating another group of people who are different to them in some way.

Nazis believed that people like them were “good” and real citizens, and blamed all of the bad things in their lives on those people not like them. In World War 2, the German Nazis murdered millions of people just because they weren’t like them, because they were Jews or gay or non-German, or disabled in some way or any number of other “not us” things. Modern Nazis are everywhere these days, killing, beating, maiming and raping people because they believe themselves to be more human than the “other”.

Look at what’s happening all around the world, even here in supposed egalitarian New Zealand. People identify those who are like them and those who are not, and convince themselves that the people who aren’t like them are less human or less worthy of freedom or even existence. When another person is viewed as not as human as me, then the me can discriminate and be cruel. Poor people can have their needed help taken away from them because those in power dehumanise them and blame them for being poor. The homeless are stereotyped as being hostile and dangerous, as being at fault for their situation, so people can justify treating them inhumanly. Politicians can take away funding to feed kids in their schools because they can blame the parents for not being good parents, all the while the kids still go hungry. We have become a very cruel world, or perhaps the cruelty has always been there, we’ve only just recently become aware of it.

People are being murdered around the world because they’re “other”. There are innocent African Americans being murdered by American police in certain regions because the cops believe that just being black means someone is a threat. A kid with a plastic gun got shot by a policeman last year or the year before, because that policeman didn’t see a boy playing pretend, all he saw was a criminal with a gun. Because being white is this great NORMAL, and not being white is an excuse to kill and oppress people.

Closer to home, in New Zealand if you’re obviously Maori, people immediately assume that you’re a criminal. You get followed around shops because you’re Maori and that means you’re in the shop to steal stuff. If you’re a large Maori man with facial moko tattoos you can just stand there and smile, and still someone will accuse you of being threatening or dangerous. If you go to court for the same offence as a pakeha person, the judge will often subconsciously believe that the pakeha person is good and deserves a second chance, but if you’re Maori, they will more often than not assume that you’re a career criminal, as if the mere existence of Maori genes in your blood means that you will always be a criminal and violent, and you will get the maximum sentence or certainly a harsher one than your pakeha compatriot. Because being pakeha/white is “normal” and good, and being anything else is “bad”.

There are so many people out there who genuinely believe that Islam is a religion of hate and cruelty, without any knowledge of the actual religion. I don’t know much about Islam, other than it holds a lot of the same beliefs, religious structures, and doctrine to the other Judeo-Christian religions, but I know enough about the body count of the major religions in the world throughout history to understand that if you actually did a tally of religious violence throughout history, and used that as the benchmark of the “most violent religion”, Christianity is much much higher on that list than Islam. They’re the ones who used their religion to colonise the world, to murder millions and millions of native peoples around the world in the name of God, they’re the ones who tortured, raped, drowned, and burned to death millions of “witches”, and they’re the ones who, in the modern age, still justify killing, maiming, and allowing people to die of things like AIDS in the name of God because being anything other than heterosexual is being a “deviant”.

All of this hate, all of this rage and violence… almost all of it comes out of the defence and enforcement of this weird fluid thing called “normal”. In some ways even the gross amounts of violent greed in the world is down to this concept of normal because the super rich view themselves and humans and “good”, and the poor “masses” that they steal from aren’t human, aren’t “normal”, so they’re justified in taking everything.

Everything horrific in this world, at least the human world, so often comes down to this idea of normal and that it divides people into one group who are allowed to live without oppression, bullying or death by mob, and the other group who are “less” and deserve to be oppressed as a punishment for not being normal.

Now, there are broad scales of this idea. Lots of incarnations. World War 2 is just a very large scale, as are all of the current “ethnic cleansing” events that are going on in the world. Those things are obviously immoral to much of the “civilised” world. But what about the kid at school being beaten, threatened, and verbally abused because he prefers reading books over playing rugby? What about the drunk mobs who beat up some random guy on the street thinking he’s gay because he’s wearing a pink shirt? What about the transwoman who is assumed to be sexual predator just because she dared to choose to live as herself instead of the man that society decided she had to be? What about women who get beaten for asking questions, for being smarter than the boys? Or shot for wanting to go to school? Hell… what about the smokers who just want somewhere safe and under cover to have a smoke without the entire world lecturing them about lung cancer. Or the fat person who can’t go into a food court in a mall and eat their lunch without multiple people telling her what she should and should not be eating?

Every time you correct someone for not being normal, that’s a kind of violence. Telling a fat person that she should be eating a salad instead of hot chips doesn’t seem like a sort of violence, it’s certainly not on the same scale as mass murder, but it’s still violence. Just as refusing to respect someone’s preferred name and gender doesn’t seem like violence, but it is. Those “corrections” are telling to each person who are receiving them that they’re not allowed to even exist, that they don’t deserve basic human respect, because they’re not “normal”. If a fat girl can’t eat in public without someone “correcting” her, that message says that she’s not allowed to exist in that public space. If a smoker can’t just sit and have their break far from people who might be harmed by the smoke without being harassed, they get the message that they’re not allowed to exist anywhere but their own homes, that they’re not allowed lives with work and kids and partners and go to the mall or the movies or whatever, because they’re not a person until they’re non-smoker, or until they’re no longer fat, or no longer brown skinned, or until they wear a short skirt with cleavage, or until they walk everywhere with a smile glued on their face. When you “correct” someone in a public space for not complying to your beliefs about what people should do and be, you’re telling that person that they’re not allowed to exist in a public space unless they fit what you think of as “normal”. You’re erasing their very right to exist in public spaces. Now does it sound like violence? I think so.

I live in a small coastal town in NZ. It’s a pretty nice town with lots of different sorts of people, but if you’re weirder than the locals they generally respond in a similar shitty way. I was sitting outside a bakery one day a while back, and a kid wearing a full goth outfit, a Mohawk, and heaps of piercings was walking down the street towards me. He looked amazing… beautiful even. I sat and just admired the fierceness of his manner and all the details of his costume. And as I watched, the locals on the street coming the other way were all so afraid of him. They gave him a wide berth, some even crossing the road to avoid walking past him. Here was this beautiful example of diversity, and they were all afraid of him. I remember that day thinking that it was such a tragedy. This kid was just a kid, just an ordinary young person living his life as he chose and dressing as he chose to express himself externally, and because these locals perceived his lack of normality as a threat he was othered, he was avoided and treated like a pariah. That fear, that assumption that diversity is always a threat, is a sort of violence. You’re telling someone that unless they’re normal, they can’t possibly be a good person.

Our culture enforces the norm with different kinds of violence. And this idea permeates every aspect of our lives. It’s so prolific that a lot of people bully and correct other people, but do not even recognise that they’re being violent towards those other people.

I genuinely believe that we will never ever stop the violence in our world until we stop this enforcement of the norm. People are people, whether they’re like you or not. Individually, some people are good, some people are mean, some people are loving, some people are cold and grouchy. But belonging to one group, say gender or sex or culture or race or religion, does NOT define whether an individual is good or not. And if we pretend that it does, we’re being culturally violent towards those people.

I once had a person tell me that I must be inherently a bad person because I did not follow their particular religious sect. They believed entirely that without their specific faith, humans had to be evil. What’s ironic is that they were a part of Christian sect that prayed for God to kill LGBT people, and celebrated when other groups of people out in the world killed an entire race. Now does that sound like goodness to you? Because it certainly doesn’t sound good to me, but do we assume that all Christians are evil bastards like this particular sect? No, we do not because they’re a part of the “mainstream”, the normal, and so any deviation from goodness is considered an issue of an individual being evil. But the moment an individual in a “minority group” does something horrible, the entire group is held accountable for it. The only evil in the world is individuals, not entire races, religions, cultures, sexualities, genders… ONLY individuals. But everyone is so focused on policing the norm and making everyone the same, that they convince themselves that their bigotry is true to make themselves feel better about the world.

But you know what? If you collected together all of the people who in one way or many ways did not fit this invisible “norm”, who had been bullied as a kid or treated badly because they belonged to a “minority group”, what proportion of the population do you think those people would belong to? Perhaps, let me put it another way, how many people do you know in your life who haven’t been bulled at school or at work, who haven’t been treated badly because of something that they are? I don’t know about you, but I know no one who has never been bullied in one way or another. And I guess, that could just be the fact that I don’t fit into this “norm” in very many ways so I tend to befriend fellow freaks and weirdos, but I would still guess and probably be right to assume that actually, the majority of people don’t fit into the norm in some way. Which makes it not a “minority” problem but actually a “majority” problem. For example, take 50% of the world of women, they are oppressed in patriarchal societies, then add gay men they too are oppressed in patriarchal heterosexual societies, add straight men who aren’t white, and now I ask what proportion of the total population would all of those groups be? Certainly NOT a minority. The problem is that the proper group that is completely “normal” are the actual minority, and they subconsciously (or consciously) enforce the idea that they’re the majority, that they’re the norm by making everyone oppress each other for the singular bits of them that do not fit the norm.

So why do we continue? Why do we continue to bully others who don’t fit in? Why do we think we have the right to beat up or maim or kill a person simply because they belong to a particular group who aren’t “normal”? I’ve always wanted to meet someone who has violently beaten someone for being gay, and actually ask them why? Why was that violence the reasonable response to someone being gay? Why does being gay in some areas of the world mean that straight people are justified in hunting them down and beating, maiming or killing them? I’ve never understood this. Why in Chechnya, did an uncle feel justified in throwing his nephew off a building and killing him? Why do people do this? What is the purpose? Why is this the correct response? I’ve never gotten a satisfactory answer from any bully I’ve managed to talk to, they usually just shrug and say something mindless like “they’re gay”, with no other justification. But why? Why must we as a culture use bullying and systemic oppression to suppress diversity? Why is diversity such a threat to society? And why can’t we each see that hardly anyone actually fits in the norm perfectly? Everyone is bullied, everyone is told that they’re horrible or bad or whatever, for not fitting that perception of normal. So why do we perpetuate it? Why do we not remember being that scared child facing down a bunch of bullies, remembering how horrible that was, and then as an adult refusing to bully others like that?

If we stopped enforcing the norm and accepted diversity as a perfectly natural part of being human, what wonders do you think, could we create by redirecting all of that energy into better things? How much better would the world be if we actually allowed everyone to be treated equally as human beings regardless of concepts like “normal” or “freak”?

Bigot isn’t an insult it’s a challenge

(Originally posted 1 Feb 2017 on the old blog)

My core belief with regards to social justice is that everyone should be treated equally, so when I see a comment or a post online that is bigoted or contributes to the suffering and/or oppression of others, I immediately feel the moral imperative to call out people on their bigotry. I do try to curb that instinct for self preservation or if I can see that the person just won’t understand, but the need to point out the bigotry is always there.

Other than the very common explosion that happens when you point out people’s prejudices and they’re not ready to contemplate your words, the next most common reaction for me is someone getting angry and accusing me of insulting them.

I’ve never really understood this reaction.

To me, an insult is a label describing a trait of a person that is probably permanent. Essentially an insult is a judgement of someone’s moral essence or it’s a way of making someone else less human than you are. In general, it’s usually describing something that can’t be changed or something that someone thinks isn’t changeable. Like, being called a “chauvinistic pig”, is usually a label given to cis het men who think that women exist to meet their needs and for no other purpose.

An insult is what you call someone when you know they’ll stay an asshole, so there’s no point in having a discussion with them. It’s an insult because you’re calling them something as their identity, and not just identifying bad behaviour, i.e. you’re assigning them an identity based on their behaviour or beliefs.

But when I’m calling someone out, my intention isn’t to assign someone an identity of “bigot”, my intention is to call out their behaviour, to name their behaviour and inform them of the consequences of their behaviour so that they think about their actions. So, if I take the time to construct an intelligent reply that points out to another person why what they’ve said/written is offensive, and perhaps give them other ways of responding to said situation that is less harmful, what I’m actually saying is that I believe that the person is a reasonable individual who just simply doesn’t understand all of the implications of what they’re saying. I’m also saying, that I believe once they understand, that they would care enough about other people that they would want to be a kinder person, that given additional knowledge they would choose to change how they deal with said subject to minimise the harm that they previously spread with their prejudice.

So, if I take the time to actually call you out, particularly if it’s a long post/reply, I’m not actually insulting you, I’m challenging you to understand the situation a little better, because I believe that you’re a good person who would want the opportunity to learn how not to be an asshole to other people if only you understood the situation a little better.

Being called out isn’t a comfortable process, it’s embarrassing, challenging and can hurt one’s feelings, it can feel like you’re being attacked. But, at least for me, the purpose in calling someone out on their bigotry is to challenge them to be more aware of the consequences of their actions.

I’m calling someone out as a challenge to be a kinder human being. So when you reply with things like “don’t insult me” or “political correctness gone wrong” or “grow a thicker skin”, all that I end up hearing is in fact that you don’t care. That I’ve just wasted my time and my belief in your kindness towards others. In the end you’re actually the one who is insulting you, not me, because you’re revealing that you just don’t care enough about other people.

Does Freedom of Speech mean I can say what I want?

(Originally posted: 10 Dec 2016 on the old blog)

Being a regular facebooker, I’ve seen all sorts of arguments, and responses to arguments. One that bothers me a great deal is this idea of people thinking that they can say what they want without social repercussions because of Freedom of Speech.

Now, whenever someone says this, I think of the various movie memes when a character says “I do not think you know what that word means”.

In general terms, Freedom of Speech is the right of every person in that particular country to say what they wish (within legal reasonableness), without fear of death, attack or some other sanctions from the government.

Freedom of Speech and Expression is covered in Article 19 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, and under this Article 19 is a suggestion of limitations to the Freedom of Speech: Justifications for such include the harm principle, proposed by John Stuart Mill in On Liberty, which suggests that: “the only purpose for which power can be rightfully exercised over any member of a civilized community, against his will, is to prevent harm to others.” (Wiki)

Now, different governments apply the legal definitions and consequences of Freedom of Speech, slightly differently (and I’m not knowledgeable enough in international law to go into specifics). But they all come down to the idea that freedom is where one can say what one wishes (within reason) without fear of punishment from the government. No where that I’ve seen does this Right extend to one person being allowed to speak their mind, while blocking the right of other people who disagree with them to verbalise their disagreement.

The idea of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, is to make everyone as absolutely equal as possible. So that one person doesn’t have more rights to being human than someone else. So, Freedom of Speech is about everyone being allowed to speak without sanctions from their government, and that right protects not just one opinion but all opinions (within legal reasonableness). What that really means is that whether you and I disagree about an issue, we both have the right to express our opinions without the government chucking either of us in jail. Which means, if I disagree with you, the law protects not only your right to speak, but mine also. So, when we all argue on the internet, and paratroopers don’t break into our houses and to arrest us, what we’re actually doing is practising Freedom of Speech.

And while I can certainly understand why anyone would wish that there were laws against people expressing opinions that we don’t like, in order to protect our own rights to free speech, we also have to protect the rights of those we disagree with for it to truly be a Universal Human Right.

In The Friends of Voltaire, Evelyn Beatrice Hall wrote: “I disapprove of what you say, but I will defend to the death your right to say it.” 

So, next time you get annoyed when someone disagrees with you, try and remember that they’re not breaching YOUR Freedom of Speech, but actually practising their own.

Beginnings of Social Justice

The Declaration of Universal Human Rights is a thing a lot of people talk about but don’t always understand the meaning of it, or the why it’s so important.

Us in the modern world, or should I say, the modern western world have no real understanding of the horrors done by the German Nazis (except perhaps veterans of the war, and the families of victims who hold the stories). Yes, we have some comparable incidences of hate crimes, terrorist attacks, war crimes and torture, so we have an idea of those events, but nothing compares the horror, terror, and scale of what happened in World War Two – not at least in the Western world, or perhaps, not yet.

There’s a museum in Auckland, it’s THE museum in the city and it’s also a war memorial. My first trip to the museum as a kid introduced me to a special exhibit illustrating the horrors of the Nazi invasions and massacres. There were pictures of bodies, so many bodies. Many of them were underfed or obviously tortured. Some of them were children just like me. The scale of what the Nazis did was so terrible that the word “horror” doesn’t do it justice. I remember standing there in the middle of this exhibit, listening to the narrator telling the stories, I stared at the pictures of the bodies and those hollow faces of prisoners illustrating in one despair filled expression the torture they were living when that photo was taken. Then, I saw a picture of a girl who had a similar face to mine. And I read about her story. Anne Frank. Her name was the same as my middle name, and she was a writer like me. Worse, she was younger than me when she was taken by the Nazis and didn’t survive the concentration camps. She was so human, so innocent so much like me it just chilled me to the core. Facing all of that horror, and the deep identification with this girl who died, I promptly burst into tears.

Remembering that pain still brings me to tears, because in that moment I realised that I wanted to fight against injustice, to help stop what happened to that innocent girl from hate happening to any other little girl. That was the moment I decided to dedicate my life to being a better person and hopefully helping to make the world a kinder place in which to live.

The synchronistic thing about my own reaction to Nazi-ism, is that post-World War Two, much of the Western World had a similar reaction, and they chose to create the Declaration of Universal Human Rights in an effort to keep what happened from happening again. The sad thing is, that despite the Declaration including the right to education, not only general education but an education on the war and why the Declaration is necessary, much of the Western World has taken such history lessons out of school, or watered it down to the point where no one actually understands what it means. And then we have countries (and parts of countries) who know nothing about the danger and moral wrongs contained in active bigotry, particularly the kind done by governments and representatives of governments.

The basic intention of the Declaration of Universal Human Rights, is to set down the concept that all humans, regardless of their diversity from the “norm”, are born with certain rights. And those rights cannot be taken from them. That religion, sexuality, race, gender identity, sex, culture, socio-economic status, health or disability, etc., is not grounds for stripping someone of their rights as a human. That ALL humans are born free and equal, and should be treated as such.

Nazis did what they did because they deemed some humans to be less human than they were, they believed they had the right to strip certain people of their personhood, so they could be justified in rounding up entire sections of their civilian population, including children, and torturing and murdering them. If Germany had had the concept of Universal Human Rights, and had previously agreed and enforced laws into their justice system to prohibit such hate crimes, much of World War Two might not have happened, and millions of people wouldn’t have been murdered in such a horrific manner that it took much of the world going to war to eventually stop.

With the current political climate of our world, and the increasing levels of hate crimes and public expressions of bigotry, we’re slip-sliding down hill to another Holocaust, one that given our significantly more powerful weapons of war, could very well end up in another World War that ends up destroying the human species, if not much of the other lifeforms who have the unfortunate luck of sharing this planet with us.

And all of this is happening because not enough people in places of power (and one might argue not enough people in general), are educated in the field of Human Rights and ethics.

While I’m not an expert, nor trained in any way in this field, I am an amateur who is very dedicated to justice and equality. So I thought, I would start doing some research, and write a series on my blog describing in relatively simple terms what these Rights are, what they mean, and if I can translate the legalese, perhaps describe in civilian terms what the Articles mean legally in general. Maybe if more people understood what it means, they might make more of an effort to discover and correct their own bigotries… for the good of our world… or at least to allow it to be a little kinder.

There’s so much hate in this world right now, and to quote Yoda: “fear is the path to the dark side. Fear leads to anger. Anger leads to hate. Hate leads to suffering.” We need to make a conscious effort to counter the fear that ignorance creates, to counter the anger and to dissolve the hate.

For all future generations.