Search

Stewart Hotston

Hope, Anger and Writing

Category

Culture

Why you should stop watching the West Wing

I have a thesis. You might not like it. Back in the day I watched the West Wing. It was phenomenal television – pertinent, often issues driven and, perhaps most importantly, cuddly. It made people like me feel like the world could make sense and we were making progress. Sure, it had it’s issues (lack of representation being a BIG one) but it was fundamentally a show without cynicism that loved people and, most importantly, believed in them and their power to do good.

The thing is it also peddled a myth which, with the election of Barack Obama, many of us swallowed wholesale. The myth of progress, of a people united by rationality and their love for others whose only real differences were not in temperament but in the policies to reach the same progressive ends. Collaboration, cooperation and compromise were the hallmarks of successful episodes where solutions to, what in the real world were frequently intractable, problems could be reached in the space of 40 minutes.

I am all for these things being the mark of mature and good humanity. The problem is hard to explain so bear with me. The issue is with the myth the West Wing sells us. It tells us people are fundamentally on the same side, that we all want the same things and that, with enough discussion we can arrive at mutually beneficial outcomes.

I’d really love for this to be true and, in many cases it is. I spend my working life negotiating among disparate businesses, often with multiple parties in play at any one time, all of whom have their own agendas. Even here, especially here, that truth is the one which brings people back to the negotiating table until deals get done (or not).

The problem is that examples like the above elide a fundamental truth – a truth so obvious it remains invisible to us – that we are talking the same language and want the same thing. It is the myth at the heart of the West Wing and it’s poisoned liberals and progressives into believing there’s only really one culture out there and all of us are kind of a part of it.

The problem with this myth – that we all want the same thing – is that when we imbibe it we stop being able to believe or understand how others might want something different to us. Not different in that they choose ramen when we choose steak but different at its very heart.

Our inability to see that, even though we’re the same biological species, we might live in entirely different worlds leaves us unable to process the political reality we’re facing today. It leads to people like Corbyn saying with a straight face ‘we won the argument but lost the election’ which is the most egregious example I can think of where someone has internalised this myth and literally cannot understand how being reasonable (in their own minds) hasn’t led to the logical outcome of the world aligning itself their way. (I’ve been married a long time and one of my main lessons? Winning the argument and losing the person is the very definition of catastrophic failure).

In other words we’ve forgotten how to accept there are different weltanschauung out there

First of all, even though I subscribe to this world view in terms of my woke/anti-racist politics, it’s simply not the only coherent world view out there. It’s where we fall down and fall down badly because it leaves us entirely unprepared to truly engage with those who see the world different to us.

It leads to us thinking people who don’t agree are wrong headed – not in that they see the world differently, but that they haven’t thought it through properly and if only they would they’d come around to our point of view. All the evidence tells us that’s not true. Sure, some people change their minds based on evidence and thank the world for them, but most of us including everyone reading this, is predisposed to agree with the news that supports what we already think. There are entire medical disciplines dedicated to exploring these biases in human cognitive architecture.

So we tend to see people who are on the other side to us as evil and their motivations as non-explainable by ‘rational’ people. The former may well be true from our perspective but the latter most definitely isn’t. The thing we forget is that with the exception of a small slice of people whose brains are properly different to the rest of us, most people believe they’re doing the right thing most of the time and won’t willingly do something they consider morally wrong without great justification.

Remember that slave owners looked to the bible for their justifications, looked to science and that those sympathetic to their beliefs still do. The news this week that the Southern Baptist elections were essentially captured not by a Christianity which is focussed on helping the poor and seeing the truth that there are no slave nor free, jew nor greek, but instead is the captive of right wing conspiracy theories worried about the attack on white wealth and supremacy. Southern Baptists were more worried about anti-racist movements than Qanon’s grip on their members. I mean, sure, the entire denomination was set up because Northern Baptists were too much in favour of people being equal and emancipation but, as an example of people believing they’re right? Here’s a doozy.

You might dismiss them as loonies or extremist but that’s a mistake made by following after the world mythologised in the West Wing where words can only mean one thing and the world can only be seen one way by reasonable people.

Mary Douglas’ works, inter alia, Purity and Danger, and her essay on Taboos remind us that we are all products of our cultural environments and our ideas of risk, taboo and purity are culturally constructed, that our identities fit into that sense of community and the reflexive feedback involved in defining our own sense of self and how it fits into the multiple communities we are a part of is both something constantly in flux but also, crucially, a process which is almost entirely invisible to us.

The myth of the West Wing is that there is no process and our preferences and fears are objectively the right ones.

Sorry, I’m risking getting all technical. (Read Mary Douglas though).

My point here is that the kind of myth promulgated by the West Wing is one which damages our ability to be political actors because it plays into an idea that there isn’t really politics anymore, there is only technocratic processes by which we can all, eventually, arrive at the same place.

We can’t.

There is a culture war and there are more than two sides but those of us on the ‘woke’ side (and yes, it’s a fucking badge of honour for me) have made a massive error in our approach to those on the other sides. We have assumed far too often that our opponents know the truth of what we want and are either extremists or imbeciles.

the truth is both more mundane and decidedly more challenging. Our opponents exist in a different weltanschauung. The world us fundamentally different from the place where they stand. yes, we might be able to say, ‘they feel threatened about having to give up privilege’ and be right. But to diagnose the difference like this is to miss the point – what drives the underlying view of the world in which holding onto that power is seen as morally right? What are the structures which are in play that support such kinds of thinking?

So much nonsense has been written about the culture war between the ‘West’ and ‘Islam’ that we should have spotted this earlier. Because dismissing these theses, nonsense to someone like me who sees the crass simplifications, caricatures and othering inherent in these arguments misses the crucial point. Those writing these kinds of polemic have actually performed a really helpful act of self diagnosis which we’ve ignored. We’ve then ignored the fact that for people for whom these kinds of texts are serious also see us as a ‘culture’ to be made war upon.

The entire framing of ‘anti-anti-racism’, of deriding BLM as ‘marxist’, as passing laws to ban Critical Race Theory, an academic discipline arising out of legal studies as somehow un-American are not symptoms of madness in their own context but logical steps for a culture which believes it is at war. Someone can say they’re ‘anti-anti-racist’ with a straight face not because they’re racist (although, you know) but because they see anti-racism as an element of a culture which is trying to extinguish them.

Our memetics are in conflict and we progressives haven’t yet recognised it. We cling to the idea that if we’re reasonable, that if we behave a certain way, then others will come around. They won’t because they see us as part of an alien culture trying to conquer them.

To be sure this is an extreme reading of the situation – but I’m trying to make a point – that coddling ourselves with re-runs of the West Wing is to engage in the childish act of insulating ourselves from the reality of the situation, which is our enemy has seen us more more clearly than we have seen them and if they are running legislative and policy rings around us it is because they have, somehow, understood this is the way to maintain their pre-eminence. Because don’t misunderstand, White Supremacy as a fundamental guiding world view remains pre-eminent in law, policy, politics and entertainment.

Do I have any policy ideas? Not really but I think we need to be plainer in our language for those on the other side. We should cut through with how we see it – Anti-anti-racism is racism. Full stop. Being against CRT is to take the side of White Supremacy. Why? Because for many they don’t see it that way and it just might provoke a conversation and if they’re deeply offended or dismissive? Well they’ve told on themselves. It should be disgusting to be racist and transphobic but it isn’t in far too many places. We have to guard our spaces more carefully – not with ideological purity (because ugh) but with a clear idea of what we believe and why that is important.

For those who are bewildered in the middle we owe them clarity with compassion because for many they simply don’t understand the fuss – they too have internalised the myth of the West Wing and can’t see the conflict for what it is. Too often their confusion is fertile ground for those with clear ideas – and that, right now, is the right racist, white supremacists, not us.

I love the West Wing but it is bad for our health. Watch The Underground Railroad instead.

Coconut or P*ki – neither one thing nor another

I’ve deliberated about this post for a while. Partly because it’s about my identity as a person but also because there’s a lot I want to say which is nuanced and hard to articulate in the current landscape without inevitably coming up against gatekeepers and people who think they have the right to adjudicate the idea of belonging.

I write (a lot) about identity. I tend to focus on those places where I intersect with attitudes and opinions which would diminish me or seek to flat out ignore me. Often I’ve tried to talk about a lack of understanding which can lead to marginalisation for no other reason than a lack of language with which to engage. In my work for various literary prizes, through involvement with inclusion discussions at work and elsewhere I’ve become aware of something I think is worth talking about; the idea of majority vs. minority voices.

Much of the debate about race and identity at the moment appears centred around Whiteness. When I talk about that I mean it is about Whiteness vs, everyone else. As a necessary corrective here in the West (and wherever Whiteness is seen as some kind of innate virtue) it is also the gateway through which other identities are forged.

The problem is that in an effort to represent those other identities a lens of nationhood is used and the same kind of purity language is deployed by people on all sides as to what it means to be ‘X’.

I’m not Indian, nor White British/Irish/French, nor Ukrainian or Egyptian (the main identifiable nationalities of my grandparents) The rather provocative title above is meant to reflect how I feel so often among my peers. Among my South Asian friends I’m not really Indian – I don’t speak urdu, hindi and I don’t identify as Hindu or Muslim. I don’t have immediate family on the continent either, so my roots there are effectively non-existent.

Nor are we in contact with my father’s family for a host of reasons but it also means I have effectively nothing deeper than my parents. Yet I can’t easily look to my Britishness because I’m not White. I say Britishness as so many BIPOC do when referring to the UK because we long for the unity and togetherness the idea of the Union brings rather than the terrifying tribalism of English/Welsh/Scottish – a form of identification which seems a torn flag away from excluding us forever. White people ask me to talk about race, they ask me about Indian food (and hey, I’m a foodie so I can at least oblige) and they expect me to understand their awkwardness when it comes to talking about the colour of my skin – because it’s an ever present subject for them. On the one hand I’m not authentically brown enough for my Indian friends (and the word coconut is pretty pejorative, let’s be clear) but at school and in the street I’m just another Paki.

I write about this because I see a blindness occurring among allies which I want us to be aware of because it goes to the heart of who I am and how I engage with the world. As someone of mixed heritage I’m a liminal person. I don’t fit in with nationalistic or stereotypical ideas of identity. And people who do think of mixed heritage too often fall into the openly hostile or gatekeeping variety, demanding I align myself to one or other. ‘Why don’t you speak Urdu, man?’, or ‘I don’t think of you as coloured,’ being two of my least favourite.

Yet this is only half the story. As a friend of mine once astutely remarked – with my background there’s not a place in the world I could go where someone won’t hate me. Don’t get me wrong – I’m not all sad and depressed about this and I’m not asking for sympathy. I’m 45 – I’ve had plenty of time to get to grips with this state of affairs.

What I am concerned about is the conflating of majority non-White populations with anyone who’s not White. You see it in discussions about representation all over and about who is allowed to write what. Am I allowed to write about Indian characters because I’m a second generation immigrant who was brought up centred in White cultural norms? It’s a serious question I’ve asked myself.

People like me, people with mixed heritage OR who are second/third/Xth generation immigrants should not be mixed up with majority populations elsewhere. The fact that bestsellers in their own contexts like Cixin Liu’s books are being translated in English is fantastic. The fact I can read Nigerian SFF and watch Egyptian TV series about the paranormal are both amazing. Yet they are NOT representation in the ways allies tend to think. They are the voices of other majority populations, embodying their cultural values and their ideas about the world – and you’ll find no judgement from me in the arrival of those voices. I love it even if I think we consumers are too uncritical of those voices right now.

The problem I have is we let them stand in for proper representation, use them to substitute for doing the proper work of creating an inclusive society. It’s easy to commission the translation of an already best selling TV show or novel and we can pat ourselves on the back for bringing alternative voices to market. Except what we’re doing is again privileging majority voices. Because in each case there are more people with Chinese (c.1.4bn) and Indian (c.1.4bn) and Pakistani (c.230m) and Nigerian (c.200m) ID papers than British (c.70m) and the majority populations in each of those nations are engaged in their own battles about representation and what it means to be them with minority voices battling to be heard.

Giving voice to other majority populations is not the same as representation. It’s still a VERY GOOD thing for an open society but it is also too easy to use that to erase the need for voices from people who live among us, who live in our culture and are a part of our daily lives.

This last year I’ve become increasingly concerned that the focus on White supremacy is, while incredibly and persistently necessary, also creating a situation in which we simply lump everyone who’s not a White Supremacist into the same smoothed out bucket. It’s also making it that bit harder for criticism to be levelled against other majority populations in the business of suppressing and erasing their own minority voices.

Like I say, this is a difficult subject to write about because there are so many groups who can read what I’ve written and take offence (or even take comfort that they’re not the bad actors when they really are). The real world of representation is working with and serving those minority voices in our midst, not importing majority voices which are distinct from our own. The former is doing the labour, the latter is simply being an open society. I realise both are being challenged right now but honestly, the former is the more important because without it, and the cultural inoculation it provides, the latter will be used to power the machines of stereotype and to pedal soft power.

Back to front

There’s a lot of discussion about algorithms at the moment. Algorithms are nothing more than recipes. If people say ‘algorithm’ they normally mean the recipe for whatever they’re talking about. A mathematical algorithm for finding a solution? Think the recipe for finding the solution.

Why do I care about algorithms and whether we should really call them recipes (the analogy isn’t perfect, don’t @me, I’m quite aware)? Mainly because the discussion about algorithms in the public sphere relates almost exclusively to social media and how these processing recipes lead users to ever more extreme and unpleasant content.

I’ve been quite concerned with this book over the last few days. Reminded as I was by a lecture by the author in which they said something I had entirely missed in my general thinking about the kind of content we’re shown online. I am almost embarrassed to admit it as well – because I like to think I ruminate on economics quite a lot.

As a reminder, the book is called: The Age of Surveillance Capitalism: The Fight for a Human Future at the New Frontier of Power and is written by Shoshana Zuboff. Zuboff has written a lot about this subject but this book is (despite the cover being uninspiring) a very good piece of work.

I don’t want to talk too much about the book except I want to draw out one key idea because it should turn your world upside down a bit.

First though. We have been told all over the place by tech-bros, concerned citizens (I’m in this category), opinion piece writers and others that the algorithms which we look at blaming for the slow radicalisation of people as bland and formerly innocent as our grandmothers, our friends and our children are i) in need of fixing and ii) often beyond understandding.

We’re told that these algorithms are often the product of unconscious bias (such as when facial recognition software didn’t recognise PoC as human or when Google associated PoC with gorillas in image search software). We’re told it’s a side effect but one which makes them money and so they’re loathe to change their ways. We’re told it’s the tail wagging the dog – unfortunate but fixable.

Zuboff dismisses this idea and reminds us these companies have made their fortunes by learning about us. So far so not surprising. Yet Zuboff then reminds the economically literate among us what that learning is good for. It’s not good for knowing what we did in the past because we can’t make money from that. Nor is it good for knowing what we’re doing now – again, I can make money on what you’re interested in NOW but it’s not the prize. The real prize from this learning is to know what you’re trending towards tomorrow – because then I can make real money from knowing your future tastes and preferences.

Zuboff then reminds us about the point of advertising – not simply to let us know a product is available, but to create a felt need we didn’t know we had and then sell us the solution for that sudden new found desire.

In short, these algorithms are designed to do two things.

  1. They’re designed to predict what we’ll want to buy tomorrow
  2. They’re designed to push us into buying products we don’t know we needed today.

Algorithmic drift into showing you more extremist material such as racist content, anti-vax nonsense, anti-elite conspiracies serve the two goals above. Why? Because these drifts don’t exist in a vacuum – social media companies (and let’s be honest, we’re only really talking Google and FB in liberal societies) are selling these predictions to companies – telling them they can guarantee purchases and eyeballs on adverts. Deliberate drift to extreme material is proven to guarantee both of those things.

Furthermore, there is an argument which goes like this: SM companies could see extremist material was both attractive to many people and a direction society was moving in, in part because of their exposure via SM companies’ activities, and they had a choice:

i) do they change their business model to avoid these excesses, or

ii) do they lean into extremism knowing their activity will appreciably shift society that way and thereby increase their revenue

Zuboff, among others, suggest only the second of those two options can be true without regulation.

So in the discussion around free speech this week (and possibly next?) you’ll see lots of back and forth over whether private companies have the right yadda yadda yadda. What you won’t see (yet) is much on whether these companies deliberately created these environments exactly with the intent of fostering extreme content to increase revenues.

My proposition is this: the tail never wagged the dog. The algorithms we’ve seen were designed explicitly to monetise user data by predicting their behaviour and nudging them towards it in order to create opportunities for companies they were pitching their services to. This has always been the dog wagging its tail.

Over the next few months as regulation becomes a more central concern of liberal governments (with the possible exception of the current far right UK conservative government) one key plank of companies’ defence will be it wasn’t their fault – they were, at worst, as surprised as us by the outcomes. Do not believe them. This isn’t about free speech – that is a distraction – and a different argument. This is about whether companies with our personal lives stored on their servers should be required to treat that data not as if it’s their never ending gold mine but as if it’s something to which privacy and political standards around propaganda and manipulation should be applied.

Memetic Defences (part 2)

Or how to tell a different story to build the world you want

Important point – if you’re interested in the strategies for making the world a better place, skip down to Article one and read from there.

Part one of this pair of essays was essentially the groundwork – laying out my thinking on memetic defences (and I swear that’s the last time I’ll use that phrase). I wanted to explore some of what we think we mean when we talk about open societies vs. closed and whether open societies are really as weak to malign influences as we can sometimes assume. The short answer is that we’re not and the virulent policing done by closed societies is really just a sign of how weak they are compared to open societies. It’s the difference between consent driven policing and marshal law.

This second part is concerned with taking our thinking forward and asking (and partially answering) one big question – how do we actively defend the features of open societies we are generally fond of? Not least, the openness, the honesty and the reflection I discussed in part 1?

I would like to say it’s all story – and if you know me in meatspace you’ve probably heard me say this a few times. Except I want to step away from that because I no longer believe it’s entirely true.

There are two enemies of the open society – the internal and the external. For example, we can easily identify Russia as an external existential threat to the European/Anglo-Saxon project of open societies. They have been busy poisoning and murdering their enemies in our territories and funding misinformation, lies and political operators driven only by their own benefit. And it works because the internal enemies of the open society are those who i) wish to make themselves invulnerable to the accountability built into open societies while ii) reaping their benefits. We can and should also identify other specific external national voices as opponents (rather than enemies) of the open society and they are inter alia China and certain theocracies in the Middle East. China is not an opponent in the same sense as Russia because their opposition comes from their own view of how the world should be constituted – which is deeply nationalistic and centred on the benefits of a close society – which is, by definition, against the promotion of open societies. Could they become antagonistic rather than expansionary? Of course, but we’re little different and hence I don’t see that as the same problem right now as I do the internal enemies of open societies we have here in the UK and the USA.

Our real enemies here are internal. I’d love it to be otherwise but I can’t see anyone really being as threatening to the idea of equality, openness, honesty and reflection as those who oppose from within the remit of the societies we live within.

What is my reasoning for this? We start with a government who is aping the populist, truth independent and deeply corrupt practices of self enrichment at the cost of all else we have seen promoted by the republican administration in the US. The Goodlaw Project’s identification of the misuse of public funds during COVID has been exhaustive and thorough and has revealed with startling clarity that a certain class of already very rich white publicly educated upper class English people has simply used a national crisis as an opportunity to make out like bandits and rob their constituents without even bothering to deny their actions. Furthermore we have literally seen (with the Priti Patel and Dominic Cummings fiascos) bald statements from senior government officials that the law only applies to others and exceptions should be made for them. This isn’t just an attack on truth, openness and reflection by stymieing its operation, it is a stab to its heart by simply ignoring it as something important.

Now, the point of this post was to talk about ways forward, not to lay out the crimes of dipshits who care nothing for their constituents but only for the people they serve.

So what do we do about this?

Well, it does start with story but it doesn’t end there. Everything is about the stories we tell ourselves. The stories we tell one another. A fantastic example is from Mark Carney’s Reith lectures this year where he reiterates research done by Michael Sandel and others around the effectiveness of penalties on bad behaviour. What they showed was what penalties act for some, particularly those with resources, not as a social stigma but as a form of permission to act badly. The most famous of these studies was one where a nursery found parents were coming late to pick up their children. They instituted a fine system but found MORE parents were coming late rather than fewer. It turned out the fines let parents feel ok about coming late because it acted not as a penalty but as a fee. Poor parents were penalised, rich parents felt they were getting an additional service.

It was better when people were told off and asked not to do it, when people were encouraged when they did the right thing and, most importantly, when other parents told latecomers they were in the wrong. I have seen this first hand and it guides certain small activities I always engage in. For instance, I always says thank you to people who are serving me in a shop. I always ask how they are and I have taken every opportunity to intervene when I see them being mistreated.

I always say thank you to people who stop for me as a pedestrian at a pelican crossing because I have seen enough instances of people not stopping to mean I want those who do stop to know it’s a good thing they’ve done (even if they’re just obeying the law).

I try, in my normal life, to normalise praise and encouragement for people who do what they should do (even if doing it is mandatory). Why? Because I want them to have the story that doing the right thing is praiseworthy.

Article one: we do not praise people enough. And we certainly don’t praise people enough for doing what they should be doing anyway. I have little evidence to say it works except, for instance, this: I run a lot. I say hello to everyone I meet. And now, people I pass on my regular runs say hello to me first. It’s a change of atmosphere. It is the same with walking the dog – my wife always says hello and we have discovered some lonely people who now stop to talk to us every time. This is simple community building but it’s much deeper than that. So. Normalise praising one another and praise one another for doing the right thing. If they say ‘I’m only doing what I should,’ then amazing, social norm achieved!

Article two: give air time to those who tell stories of the world the way you want it to be. Tell those stories yourself. Retell them to others. We give too much airtime to people who upset us – be they politicians, racists, TERFs or others. STOP IT. We should be aware of them but we should NOT be giving them airtime. We should, instead, be telling the stories of the good we see in the world, of the wonderful things we’ve seen happen and how we came across them. The more we nurture these good things the more they will grow and fill the airwaves. Sometimes, sure, we have to directly oppose those who would do us harm and I’m all for that, but that’s an endgame. For as much as possible we should be telling stories of blessing and encouragement to those around us. Ok, so here’s two examples. I’m a MASSIVE fan of both the new series of She Ra and of Star Trek Discovery. I’m a fan both because they’re brilliant pieces of fiction but also because they tell stories about a world which exemplifies the kind of values I want to see normalised where I live. It’s also an important strategy for ensuring the Overton window moves in the direction we want it to. Every time we highlight something bad rather than tell the story of something good we are actually doing the work of those who hate for them because exposure normalises.

Article three: there is no ‘winning’, there is only constant recreation of the culture we want to live in. Too often I grow tired of seeing ‘nothing change’ but the truth of the matter is, if I stop talking about the world I want to see, stop talking about the way I want it to be and stop acting to make it so, then it will change and not for the better because others are every bit as invested as I am in remaking the world in a way that suits them. The problem is they’re White supremacists, Indian Nationalists, German Fascists, TERFS, whatever. And this really comes to a deeper point – we need to normalise being politically active. I don’t just mean being a member of a political party – I mean being active in your community, being active in making your voice heard – whether that’s writing to your MP, joining committees at work, creating silly things like running clubs of movie nights or whatever it might be. We have seen in the post war dividend and the rise of corporate globalisation the downside that we’ve been alienated from our political lives. We have them but it works best for certain powerful vested interested if you and I don’t actually act as political beings – because it then leaves others unopposed. These days we tend to regard being political as a thing which we add on to who we are. Instead we should normalise the fact that all humans, all stories, all activity, is political in nature and act accordingly. It might seem tiring but it’s really only tiring when we try to add it on rather than letting it be part of who we are. If you have children and want them to have the best world possible? Then you need to be political and you need to help them understand that homo sapiens is a political animal, not a happiness seeking one.

Finally – Article four: Protect the stories you want to see triumph. Too often in my life I’ve seen ‘allies’ expect me to do the work, to fight the fight and allow them the space to say they’re on my side. That’s not enough. Not for me and certainly not to build a society which is open. Allies need to see themselves as more than people who are alongside those under fire. The apostle Paul writes something along the lines of ‘if you succeed I celebrate with you but if you fall I suffer with you.’ Excuse my paraphrasing for my own benefit. The point is this: we are all potentially allies to someone in need of our support and we need to normalise acting as if it was us being attacked directly. I’ve often seen the counter attack ‘I don’t see any X people saying this is a problem’ by racists, sexists, whatever. This is because they’re probably too tired, depressed or frightened to speak up. The fact Allies are fighting for them is exactly what these scum bags are afraid of. We need to normalise stepping in. We need to normalise making it a social problem when racists and sexists et al express their horrendous opinions. We should have zero tolerance. We are the good samaritan. I sometimes think people get tired of it but I’ve found a way to bypass that issue. When I see these events occur? I have nurtured a sense of ‘this is my space you’ve come to shit all over and I won’t have it.’ Righteous anger is a good thing where it’s put in the service of other people’s dignity.

I hope these ideas are of some use to you. I hope you see there is always hope even when our own governments are trying to strategise against us. Thank you for reading this and see you all soon.

Following this I think there’ll be a final essay on how we engage with those who differ from us – not on social media because there’s absolutely not point with the way it’s structured and with the incentives it provides – but in the flesh. Additionally, there’s no getting away from the fact that social inequality breeds social division and unravels social cohesion. There’s definitely more to say on this too because no matter how good a story is, if it’s moving in the opposite direction to people’s experience it runs the danger of losing its power to change the world.

Memetic Defences (part 1)

I owe this post directly to ideas raised in Rian Hughes’ amazing novel XX. Basically you need to gird your loins, find a comfortable reading chair and dive in – because it’s worth your time in ideas alone.

Gushing praise aside. Are you a believer in memes? I don’t mean this in the sense of this kind of thing. I mean in the Dawkins sense of the phrase. Indeed, as much as I think Dawkins is a loathsome man, the idea of memes as cultural genes looking to reproduce and drive meaning through a substrate which can support them (i.e. brains) is one which is very popular among a certain section of popular thinking.

I’m not a meme true believer. I think the very idea is pretty easily rebutted unless you broaden out the idea of ‘the survival of the fittest’ to such huge landscapes it effectively becomes a meaningless self-congratulatory platitude.

However. Ideas are interesting things. Philosophically, if we can avoid the onanism which tends to accompany debates around subject such as ideas by people who get paid to think about ideas for a living then there’s some rich and insightful ideas there for us to luxuriate in.

The question for me today is pretty narrow though – can an open society develop protective measures against ideas and trends which would harm it (even potentially leading to its downfall)?

To answer this question we have to make a number of assumptions – the first of which, and easily the most important, is that ideas can exist independently of people. You might say this is obviously true – books being the most easily raised example. I would suggest that’s kind of like asking if a tree falls in a forest does it make a sound? If there are not people to define what a sound is then the answer is no – there is no sound, because no creature who does experience the waveforms we might call sound would articulate they heard anything. If a book exists and no one’s reading it, do the ideas in that book cease to exist?

Let’s assume they continue to exist.

The second assumption here is ideas compete with one another for supremacy. I think this one is even more tenuous. Is there such a thing as a stand alone idea? Gravity you might say, or being alive, or the taste of chocolate or wanting to avoid pain or looking after our children. Each of the preceding statements is easy to express but they are hardly self contained concepts. Gravity requires an entire education in maths and physics to grasp. Wanting to avoid pain – a common enough motivation (is it an idea?) is one which needs to be learned, needs to be communicated and then factored into a much larger social construct which says some people like some kinds of pain, some people are prepared to experience pain for others’ good and on and on. Basically, no idea arrives in the world all alone and ready to ‘compete’, it is always part of a larger structure of cultural ideas into which it fits, its edges exceptionally blurry. (I shall avoid quoting Wittgenstein here because this isn’t a postgraduate thesis).

But again, let’s assume that at some level ideas can compete, or at least overwhelm others and push them out, for instance the idea that there’s an Aether or that the British Empire existed to ‘civilise’ its inhabitants.

Why? Because when I look at censorship, particularly in places like China you could, if you were so minded, called their strategy one of memetic defence – an active strategy of promoting memes which agree with the CCP’s view of the world and actively suppressing those which don’t. Some of this is done via explicit censorship but the rest is done via the fruits of the first. The more successful you are building a wall around which ideas are acceptable and which aren’t the more the culture engaged in those ‘acceptable’ ideas will, of its own accord, defend that space. That defence will be internal, rooting out bad actors within but also outward looking by attacking those who express contrary ideas or who, gasp, attack the memetic defence itself. You could read the brigading of media companies who create content critical of China as exactly this strategy in execution. They successfully have those outside their memetic space change their behaviour, both increasing the influence of their cadre of successful ideas but also pushing back on ideas which might challenge their view of the world. It is political warfare, plain and simple and a fantastic example of ‘soft power’.

I’m not saying anything here about the exceptionally complex relationship of different political and cultural ideologies colliding – I’m make no judgements in this piece, just stating an idea using specific examples which from my (obviously politically charged position) seem like clearly demonstrating what I’m trying to say.

The question is, do liberal societies have similar defence mechanisms?

And, of course, the answer is yes. However, they might not be ones we’re all to impressed by when we start to understand what they are and how they function. So the secondary question is, are there mechanisms which we think we can deploy/develop to protect that we cherish in liberal/open societies?

The most obvious answers to the initial question is yes. History and the story of our cultural legacies act as a huge break/inertial dampener on new ideas, especially ones which don’t necessarily fit with our ideas of where we come from and what makes our culture distinct. These are also expressed in education, through the press, content generation in the media and via Government policy.

The key difference for an open society is how its openness operates. I would probably use a scale/grid where open societies value two things – honesty and reflection. The first (as we see in the current British government which lies first and denies second) is critical to continued openness because it allows the cultivation of an intellectual space where all voices matter because it’s what they have to say which is important, not who’s saying it and how closely they cleave to the way the powerful dream of the world being.

The second is also critical because open societies are characterised by their ability to integrate new ways of thinking and allow failure of policy to be addressed and learned from. High honesty and high habits of reflection are the watermarks of truly open societies.

Now. Openness and reflexiveness are two human traits which it is horribly easy to suppress. Honesty can see the messenger shot or can be actively discouraged because it shows others in bad ways. Effectively, these two habits/ideas are ones which require constant reinforcement in the sinews of the culture in which they’re being cultivated and as such, even the act of doing nothing, of staying silent around them, can lead to their weakening as desired virtues. Indeed, they’re also hard and can often be found to threaten vested interests, so political pressures can also lead to them being suppressed.

Finally, honesty and reflection do not provide easy fixes or people onto whom we can shift the blame (because they deny us the right to delude ourselves for a start) and so we see a third pressure to suppress them.

This isn’t to say they’re doomed to being crushed, it’s to say that those of us who encounter these ideas and like open societies have to always be armed to defend these traits.

I would posit that in the last twenty years we have seen a concerted attempt in Western Open societies to shift what people call the Overton Window towards a less open, less critical more deferential culture. It’s been painted as one of individualism but it’s really just a way of deconstructing social cohesion rather than proper libertarianism (even if libertarianism has grown as a result). If the Overton Window is the box which at any particular moment defines acceptable ideas, the growth of anti-intellectualism and the resurgence of fascist strands of thinking within that window are deeply worrying not just existentially but for the kinds of open society I grew up in and have been promoting throughout my life.

In some ways all I’m saying is we now have a society in which brexit and Trump’s brand of narcissistic white supremacism are not simply acceptable regardless of the clear and factual damage they do even to their adherents but are considered fundamentally centrist enough for millions of people to vote for them.

We have defence mechanisms but they appear to have failed. I’m going to stop here in this post but will come back for a second post shortly in which i discuss why they’ve failed and what we *might* be able to do about it if we’re interested in actively defending the idea of open societies, firstly internally and secondly externally.

Can people who aren’t racist still be racist?

tl:dr yes.

Sorry, I keep wanting to write a post on a fascinating idea about longevity that I’ve even gone and interviewed people about, but it isn’t quite ready in my head yet. Instead I wanted to talk a little about two ways racism (and other kinds of prejudice) can manifest themselves.

Racism can hit us two ways but those two ways can combine in some unexpected ways to provide odd outcomes. Those outcomes are always negative for people like me on the receiving end.

The first of these is where people are simply individually racist. This is your home grown racist (and probably fascist) bully boy who wants us all to go ‘home’ and to stop polluting his high street or parks with people who aren’t like him (aka brown). Although on the rise after years of being the kind of person who would get shouted down and be rightly afraid of being called out for what they are, they’re still relatively rare.

The second of these is systemic racism. Think the police, or publishing or the health system in the UK (or the US). Think education, access to benefits and social mobility. Systemic racism comes in two varieties.

The first of these is where the system is explicitly designed to hinder minorities from accessing common goods – such as segregation, Jim Crow or banning the Burka.

The second of these is where the system is designed FOR the majority on the assumption everyone thinks like them. Think facial recognition which doesn’t recognise BIPOC because it was never tested on them because all the coders were white. Think mobile phones which were designed by men and hence are designed to fit into the average man’s hand and not the average woman’s hand.

The first of these is always designed by racists for racists to protect their power and to oppress. Not a lot to say there except burn it and them to the ground.

The second of these is more insidious and much harder to tackle. It also gives cover to proper racists as they can hide behind the law – which explicitly, if inadvertently, favours them. It also gives cover to people who are prejudiced and don’t know how to think about people different to them. Systemic injustice and inequality allows the comfortable and powerful to legally punish those less fortunate or weaker than themselves and to feel morally justified for doing so. The mother who’d feel justified in using the legal system to get her kids into the school of her choice and deliberately exclude others but complains bitterly about asylum seekers trying to legally seek a better life is one stereotype I’ve met too many times for me not to feel sick just remembering those conversations.

It’s the intersection of people who aren’t particularly prejudiced with the second kind of systemic racism where we get negative outcomes that most involved struggle to justify.

Racist systems make those within them choose racist options even if they’re not explicitly racist themselves. Thhey provide incentives for police to stop and search young black men (or rich black people) disproportionately more than rich whites or young white men (can you imagine a rich white person being subjected to stop and search?). It’s why there’s so few books by PBIPOC getting published (and even then they tend to be about the ‘issues’).

It’s why BIPOC die younger, get poorer access to services and education. It’s why BIPOC have died in larger numbers of COVID while the government has tried to hide that fact.

It’s also why the majority line up to say ‘but it’s not me!’ because they can legitimately feel it’s not them. The problem is they operate in a system which creates a language and frames their decisions in ways which can only be seen as racist. It’s how good people make prejudiced decisions – like crossing the road when they see a BIPOC or telling an assertive powerful woman she’s talking too much or being domineering.

If you’re in the majority and you recognise you’re in this kind of system (and this means everyone because we’re all in them unfortunately) how can you be an ally?

  1. you can speak up and not let me do all the work of protesting
  2. you can protect me from punishment when I speak up (trust me, you might get a strange look or disgruntled humphs from arseholes but I’m going to be actively punished)
  3. You can assume that when someone like me talks about this we don’t need you to say ‘I’ve never experienced this/I only buy books by authors I like regardless of colour and sex/If they didn’t do anything wrong they’d be fine/if the police stopped them there was probably a problem.’ etc. etc. etc. Basically anything which casts doubt on their experience or puts your experience of the world ahead of theirs in judging what’s going on
  4. Do NOT play devil’s advocate. There’s a reason the devil is the devil in Christianity and it’s because he’s a massive tool. Don’t be that tool.
  5. You can find ways to change the system
  6. You can accept without comment that I don’t have to be perfect and nor does anyone else who’s protesting their situation. Literally no one is holding you to that standard
  7. Finally, but far from exhaustively, accept that you are going to be presented with decisions which are framed in a way which makes them racist and you don’t have to go along with it.

Oh, and as a throw away. I might not want to be like you. Ever. And that’s ok. However, I still, probably, want to be your friend, to get along and eat dinner together and laugh with you.

We have to stop seeing the fact that people want to lead different lives as an attack on our way of seeing the world. We have to stop seeing it as a threat and treat it for what it is – glorious.

OMG Your fandom is toxic!

CW: Strong Language.

This is my surprised face:

I know. Not that surprised. It is definitely a face though.

You might wonder what the hell I’m going on about. If you are – thank your lucky stars/elixir of life/+5 Boots of Luck you don’t and don’t go digging. Walk away from this post now.

If you do know what I’m going on about then…well I’m seeing a lot of people wondering why PoC stick around when SFF fandom is so…full of people who would like to gatekeep us into what they believe is our place.

So here’s my journey back to being an SFF nerd and why in some ways I don’t give a flying fuck what old racists, homophobes, sexists and newly minted transphobes have to say and why, in others, I want to find them and remind them, forcefully, of just how irrelevant people like me make them.

I read a lot of trashy fantasy when I was growing up and some slightly more thoughtful SF. I had a wall of the stuff and loved nothing more than reading (especially when i should have been revising. Fortunately I have a memory that won’t quit so it didn’t destroy my chances). I played a lot of D&D so had shelves of Weis and Hickman, Forgotten Realms, Drizzt Do’urden. I discovered Guy Gavriel Kay, Heinlein, EE Doc Smith, Asimov and others courtesy of my father’s book shelves.

Then I stopped reading – mainly because I had people around me who frowned upon my reading material and I totally internalised their moral panic.

I read pretty much nothing except non-fiction until I was in my early 20s and rediscovered fiction. By that time I had completed my PhD in theoretical physics and, honestly, SFF bored the hell out of me. I couldn’t get past the crap (ranging from mcguffin through to ‘you really don’t understand this at all, do you) science in most SF. I’ve grown. I don’t care about your science now – I’m interested in other things.

No. After 7 years of reading philosophy, mathematics, theology and economics I discovered I wanted nothing more than to read contemporary literary fiction. Fury by Salman Rushdie, The South American Trilogy by Louis De Berniere and my all time favourite book – the Master and Margerita.

Why? Not because they’re inherently better but because they did this thing: they explored ideas and talked about subjects I had no other outlet with which to explore what was burning in my heart. I remember reading the Restraint of Beasts by Magnus Mills and House of Leaves by Mark Z Danielewski and realising fiction could do something great and profound. It could change who I was.

I was also discovering who I was as a person (I’m a venerable 45 now so being in my 20s was literally 20 years ago). I realised after talking to a Black friend that I’d spent most of my first 20 years of life trying to be white. Which obviously hadn’t worked for me. I realised I didn’t have to be ashamed of being brown – except brown people spent quite a lot of time telling me I wasn’t brown enough.

I realised I’m what you might call Liminal. At the time I was under the impression that my multiple heritages included Indian, English, Irish, French, Italian, Polish and Jewish. The largest components being Jewish and Indian. It’s since, in the last year, turned out I have no Jewish ancestry, nor Italian, but instead have Ukrainian Roma and Egyptian to swap those out with. Yes, it’s a long story involving the Shoah and prejudice and hidden histories which only came to light as that generation died. But I digress.

I didn’t return to SFF for a couple of reasons. The writing largely bored me – at least the stuff I was coming across. Compared to Hilary Mantel or Haruki Murakami or Jose Saramago or Anthony Burgess they were but pale imitations of what fiction can achieve. But. And it’s a big but. There’s a second reason lurking underneath this difficulty in finding a connection with a subject matter that, if left alone, I get terribly excited about.

I never saw myself on the page. Fantasy seemed to be almost addicted to the prince fighting for their kingdom or a chosen one, someone with special blood doing what no one else could (why always with this bullshit?). Not only could I not understand why anyone would write romantic peans to the divine right of kings when that kind of thinking is demonstrably bad for our personal agency and for civic society but as someone with more heritages than tv channels growing up, I really couldn’t see myself in their shoes. I am NEVER going to be the chosen one. And socially? It seemed (because I had no one to educate me) that it was socially retrograde beyond just lamenting our loss of kings with absolute power. Now, looking back, I know there was more out there, but those exceptions only prove the rule for me. Fandom and fantasy writers alike were (and still are in many respects) backward looking socially. There are obviously great exceptions to this now but I’m not wasting my time listing my caveats – especially when I have entire posts about those great writers elsewhere on this site.

So what brought me back to reading SFF? Because I literally stumbled upon writers who conveyed something different. Adam Roberts, Jeff Vandermeer, Hilary Mantel (again. Check out Beyond Black or Fludd if you want to see a master at work), Peter Watts, Hannu Rajaniemi, Lavie Tidhe, Octavia Butler, Vikram Chandra, Ann Leckie and Kelly Link.

What was eye opening? They talked about experiences I had, they were concerned with struggles I knew. And the ideas! Oh the ideas.

I still didn’t engage with fandom. Honestly I didn’t really know it existed.

Then I started getting my own work published and, as part of that, started attending cons. Nineworlds was my first and I was wonderfully buddied there by long time friend David Thomas Moore. It was a wonderful experience as my first con. I’m fortunate in that I’m not particularly shy and spend most of my working life negotiating/networking, so I don’t generally feel nervous about being in places where I don’t know people. Add to that an upbringing where i moved something like 7 times before university meant I’ve lots of experience of being on the outside looking in.

However, for the most part I made some great friends there and then even more at my first FCon. People like the incomparable Rehema Njambi, Mike Brooks, Tade Thompson, Anna Stephens, Peter McLean, Adrian and Annie Tchaikovsky and Anna Smith Spark just to mention those I remember from my early days at these things. (Also Frog Croakley and Penny Reeves who were tequila buddies when we all should have known better). I found people like me and it was glorious.

Now I’ve come into fandom late. I’m a fairly intimidating looking middle aged straight man and one whose accustomed to wielding actual power in my every day life. So I’m not easily phased by micro-aggressions. I’m also not generally ready to put up with bullshit and I will and have intervened where I see it.

Honestly, most of the people I’ve come across – be they super stars of kindness and creativity like Alasdair Stuart or fiery and righteous people like Farah Mendelsohn – are people I want to be like, people I want to impress because they impress me. They’re people who I want to be around. And I *think* most of fandom is like that on a day to day basis.

However. It’s also got a decent share of utter arseholes. People who think they are empowered as gatekeepers (and might actually be) when they have no right to that power. It’s got people who think mixed race characters have no place in fiction, that women can’t write, that we should be celebrating ‘old school’ fiction where ‘men were men’. It’s got people who’ll brigade new authors they don’t like (I won’t go over my own ample -ve experiences of being an author; I’ve documented them elsewhere) because they’re women or BIPOC or whatever other ugly and spurious degree of separation they believe makes them invalid.

But worse than that, and backed up by proper research, is the fact that toxic fandom has publishing on its side. You may think that’s not true and I love you my dear summer child. The stats are clear – publishing is a white industry. The books published are, largely, by white people. And the deafening silence from the vast majority of publishers on these issues is damning.

I work for an investment bank and we’ve made more noise and taken more actual substantive actions to change our composition and structure. We, the bastions of capitalism. It may be self-serving but then if it’s self-serving for us…how much more so for an industry like publishing which on the face of it wants to be seen as progressive far more than finance.

If you have a toxic publishing industry then you will have a toxic fandom because both are predicated on structures which permit and bake into the very nature of the system these kinds of outcomes.

And you know what? I’m nervous about writing this boldly about publishing. I’m trying to sell my books and I love SFF. There is a fear in my gut that speaking clearly about the issues here, in calling them out, I damage my agent’s ability to sell my work, that I alienate readers and editors, salespeople and marketers. I want to write about slavery, about rebellion, about ordinary people doing remarkable things, about being liminal, about being Black, Indian, outside, about power and about the long tail of colonialism. I want to write about hope, about how we can make a difference. You and I. Together.

This kind of self-censorship is one I can sidestep because I have a job that pays the wages. I work as hard on my writing as anything else I do but I won’t starve if I never sell another book. I come from a position of being someone who doesn’t need this to live (despite desperately wanting to get my stories out there).

But the fear is there.

We can complain about toxic fans, about vile gatekeepers and horrendously absorbed old guard. Yet they occupy a space the system has made and the rest of us can get angry about it but while the system remains 97% white (and middle/upper class at that) then there’s very little that will change deep in the bones. As I said in my article on diversity in publishing, 3 British PoC authors in the UK’s most prestigious SF award is all the evidence you need of institutional racism.

I’m hoping the results of that work are being discussed behind closed doors because they’re not being discussed by the industry where someone like me can see them…

So am I surprised that powerful people in fandom and the industry are facilitators of toxicity? No. Is it my fandom? Not in a million years.

if you want, I’ll be over here geeking out about She Ra, The Memory Police, The Light Brigade, Cage of Souls and Fast Color. Come join me and let’s have some fun.

A way to engage and fight

I see a lot of stuff on twitter and facebook. My instagram’s a little cleaner as I curate it more. However, there’s a lot of rage inducing stuff and I was thinking about how I might be able to resist some of the horrible racist and transphobic bullshit I’m seeing out there without providing it a platform and the fresh air of publicity.

I was also shocked to see how the National Trust was, just this week, gamed by a group of white racists into making an otherwise unremarked and stupid action into a well publicised generator of outrage allowing them to harm both the National Trust as an organisation and those who objected to their actions.

So, below is my entirely fallible guide to resistance without being co-opted by people who’d rather you didn’t exist.

  1. Remember, where the argument is one of existential importance you don’t have to agree to disagree and you don’t have to try to find common ground. There is no common ground with those who would rather you didn’t exist.
  2. If you have the emotional energy then educate but if you don’t. WALK AWAY rather than engage.
  3. Call on your allies to engage on your behalf. There’s no shame and ever bit of amazingness in having those who love and support you come to stand between you and those who don’t. In old fashioned terms it’s called Intercession and it’s a powerful concept. It literally means to stand between. In fact…

Allies. Please, intercede. I rarely need saving from my enemies, especially on the internet, but I often need them to see I’m not alone. (I also need to see that as well – it’s saves my mental health). I need you to step up and say ‘no’ to those who are hateful, full of bad faith or just delighting in ‘whataboutisms’. Sometimes I need you to step up and do the emotional labour for me and other times I need you to be the one who’s patient with the well intentioned ignoramus who might be an ally if someone will spend the time. I often don’t have the time or the patience but if you can do it for me I and they will be forever grateful

  1. Don’t give oxygen to the enemy. This is different to 1. People will often say something to provoke a reaction, to provoke allies into leaping in, outraged. Don’t. Ignore them, mute them, block them. (Report them first). Every time we give an arsehole oxygen a rainbow turns to shit. The world doesn’t need to hear more about their views in order to understand they’re wrong and, frankly, the more we spread them about, the more people get used to them. Please avoid normalising their bullshit. My thoughts here are that we can tell one another to go look at something if we think it needs verifying or action actually needs to be taken, but most of the time there’s no justification for sharing it. It encourages stupid algorithms to increase the exposure that kind of content gets and lets them see us upset and outraged. Screw them and the racist/hatred filled horse they rode in on.
  2. Don’t fight alone. Again, different to 3. This is hard but super important. Remember to take care of yourself. Sometimes this means walking away but many times it means finding your support network, letting them know what’s going on, getting the emotional pain/rage/discord out of your soul and then re-engaging.
  3. Find good news. Share it. Tell stories of love, hope, victory and triumph. Of course share our sadness and rage, but we’re not them. We want a world which sees people love one another for exactly who they are, which doesn’t seek to control their expression of who they are or tell them they’re worth less. So where we see that happening? Let’s celebrate what is good.
  4. Finally and the most challenging (at least for me). Accept we’re all going to be doofus’s from time to time. Accept that we’re going to get it wrong and take it on the chin. Apologise, learn and move on. We’re all of us flawed beings and we all need one another’s acceptance and that acceptance is most needed when we get it wrong. Otherwise we end up fracturing into ever smaller and more vulnerable tribes at war with one another as much as with those who’d rather we didn’t exist. For me it’s about being gentle without losing the ability to call another out (or being called out myself). It’s about asking for stuff to stop without it being personally damaging or full of hatred.

That’s it. Peace out and love you all. Down with the nazis, Black Lives Matter, Trans women are women and trans men are men.

Reading She Ra

I start with my heart. She Ra on Netflix is the content I need right now. It is 5 seasons full of love, mercy, kindness, hope and it’s all out there – as incredibly brave as it can possibly be in the face of a culture which is cynical, grimdark, weak in its insistence on strength and venerating histories that never were.

The following contains MASSIVE SPOILERS, so if you haven’t seen it to the end (and I mean what are you doing?), stop right now and do that.

I am very nervous about writing this post for reasons which will become clear. However, after chatting about it with my friend Alasdair Stewart, I thought I’d take the plunge.

The reading I want to offer? That She Ra is one of the most radically Christian shows currently on TV. Now you’ve spat out your tea/coffee/gin let me explain. (There’ll be no referencing of bible verses here btw and as you’ll see later, this isn’t about trying to say the show is Evangelical or anything like that.)

The show emphasises that love conquers all but it’s so much deeper than that.

Take the bad guy – obsessed with himself to the extent he’s remade the universe in his image, so none can speak except with his voice. His rampant egoism is the very centre of what it means for people to be evil in Christianity. To make the individual the centre of all things oh, and by the way, his message? A classic death cult of which, in the end, he’s the only member. For me at least, the show tackles the central issue we all end up talking about at some point – the problem of evil and what it actually is. It offers up many examples and shows there’s only one which can’t be redeemed – and that’s Horde Prime’s self-obsession – their ego-centric certainty that they are the only really real creature in the universe and that they therefore have the right to treat others as less than real. In gamer’s parlance; evil is when you think you’re the only PC in the world and everyone else is an NPC put their for your benefit.

Or take the treatment of Catra and Scorpia by the Princesses. At every step mercy triumphs over judgement. Given the opportunity, it’s the very human side of She Ra, Adora, who advocates for them, who tries to reach them. And when they are reached, everyone knows their transition is fragile, that changing direction (repentance) is not a once only deal but something that gets worked out. The other princesses call it out, ask if it’s real and recognise how strange it is to forgive and, as part of forgiveness, to make room for those who’ve been forgiven to work their forgiveness out.

And as for Hordak’s awakening, his conversion…oh my word.

Take the explorations of difference and we see the central theme of ‘there is no male nor female, slave nor free.’ All are equal, all are accepted, all are welcome. It’s not always a welcome sentiment – in one episode Mermista questions how easy it seems for their enemies to get a break, to get accepted after they’ve ‘converted’. The idea of redemption is ridiculed and challenged but it is never let go and never surrendered as the destination the show wants to go.

It’s radically communitarian in a way which, frankly, had me crying with joy. The people love each other despite their preferences, their likes and dislikes. They struggle to grow but remain themselves throughout it all and in all their mistakes, sorry is never a bad word. Instead, sorry is the word which guides them to restitution and reconciliation. Every time.

There’s some fascinating stuff here about the kind of god She Ra represents with her disciples, the princesses of power, but it’s beyond the scope of this short blurting out of some random thoughts I had in my head. But it’s worth mentioning the themes – transfiguration, self sacrifice, the path walked which is only understood at the end but is walked anyway. It’s never made clear who her parents were either – a clear nod to the virgin birth.

When Adora destroys the sword and ‘loses’ She Ra there’s a resurrection which occurs and the new She Ra, the one who most resembles a god is subtly different to the one from the early seasons. The bombast is gone – replaced by a quiet humility, a thoughtful passion focused on others and this is true for both She Ra and Adora – which ever incarnation that character is represented by. And Adora/She Ra learns a crucial lesson in her apotheosis – that it is in relationship that we become ourselves. That the human alone is incomplete. (I don’t mean romantically here, I mean simply by being in meaningful relationships with people who love us).

The last thing I want to talk about is the show’s view on redemption – namely that all can be redeemed, recovered, if they’re given the opportunity. Catra and Adora come from the same place. They have the same world at their back, the same baggage and eventually they both find their way to love and forgiveness – of each other and themselves. Hope never dies. Nor is it seen as powerless, waiting for violence or power to save it. Hope is shown clearly as it’s own power, driving to achieve the very things it is hoping for. Faith, hope and love and in the end love remains because the need for the other two has gone. I’ve always maintained that for the Christian God to be who They claim to be they would centre dignity – because it’s a concern for the dignity of the Other which drives redemption, love, fellowship and mercy. This show cares for the dignity of its characters from the first scene to the last.

There’s also stuff here about how the show doesn’t shy away from the consequences of our actions, both on ourselves and on others – but again, it’s beyond this piece. The paths we set ourselves on which, in the end, can drag us down to places we would never have chosen but, bit by bit, accept for ourselves. Most clearly this is shown by Shadow Weaver’s arc. Shadow Weaver’s history (more so than Catra really) is one where she explored morally grey areas with good intentions but the choices she made left her wrecked and ruined, ostracised and excluded. The road to ruin started long before she ended up on the wrong side but once she was on it, it seemed like the only destination she could reach. Her redemption is replete with an exploration of the damage our choices do to us, how they shape us and can, in the end, break us so thoroughly that our redemption looks like nothing anyone else can recognise. Her arc could be seen as cliched (especially in the denouement) but I’d say that misses the touching beauty of how her character realises who she is, who she truly is, and acts within her own boundaries to do something for others as an attempt to make it right.

Many people will probably have a knee jerk to what I’ve written above – be it because they’re fundamentalist christians whose only real care is that love in the show isn’t as they define it (wrongly if they were to read their bible more carefully) or because people of difference colours are free to love one another, or because women are at the heart of the show with their own agency.

Others may well puke because for them the only Christianity they’ve ever known is the one I’ve just described above – a Trump/Johnson voting monstrosity of a corrupted faith which, as far as I can see the thing itself, actually pretty much exists for the poor, the weak, the downtrodden and wants only to lift them up.

Yet, for me, regardless of intent, this show’s focus on love, on kindness and mercy. On the idea that Love is POWERFUL in its own right and doesn’t need others to save it, that mercy triumphs over justice. These are the most amazing messages and they’re ones I want to hear right now. They’re ones I want my children to know are true. I want them to see how you can face evil, cynicism, misery and cruelty and yet love, and yet hope and yet be merciful. There are so many voices crying out an eye for an eye. I am not one of them and this show feels like it was made for me. BLM and peace out.

Blog at WordPress.com.

Up ↑

Knights of IOT

Design | Integrate | Connect

ScienceSwitch

Your Source For The Coolest Science Stories

SwordNoob

Adventures in HEMA, LARP, Archery and other activities

ebookwyrm's Blog

Smile! You’re at the best WordPress.com site ever

Damyanti Biswas

For lovers of reading, writing, travel, humanity

countingducks

reflections on a passing life

Self-Centric Design

The art of designing your life

Adrian Faulkner

Hope, Anger and Writing

Fantasy-Faction

Hope, Anger and Writing

Alternative Realities

Why have virtual reality when you can have alternative reality?

1001Up

1001 video games and beyond

Fringeworks - Blogs

Hope, Anger and Writing

Shadows of the Apt

Hope, Anger and Writing