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C13P45 Witness published on 16 Comments on C13P45 Witness

Today is gonna be one of Those Blogs where I ask a lot of heavy questions. This is how I think. I generally don’t have set opinions on things for very long, because I’ll learn something new and my perspective will change. If I say something that you think is ridiculous or ill-informed, please feel free to start a dialog. In most cases I’m not saying “this is the way things are,” but rather “this seems weird to me and I wonder about that?” If you wonder too, or think you have some insight or experience that I lack, I’d love to talk about it with you. There’s always the comment section, or the contact page if a less public venue makes you more comfortable.

I have started reading Malcolm X: A Life of Reinvention, by Manning Marable. I’ve only gotten through the prologue and can already tell it’s going to be an interesting book for me. Not only because the material is interesting, but because my subconscious reactions to it are as well.

I know almost nothing about Malcolm X. The same school system that taught me the Civil War was almost entirely about States Rights (…to WHAT, history teachers of mine? The Rights TO WHAT?) also framed Malcom X in very strange terms. Essentially, I was taught that during the Civil Rights Movement, there were two major leaders. The Good One (Martin Luther King, Jr.) and The Bad One (Malcolm X).

That was it. That was the extent of my education on Malcolm X. Sarcastic slow clap for my American History Education.

As I start to read this book, I feel that…what do we call it? Brainwashing? Training? It feels like a knee-jerk reaction response. I feel like, on some level, I am not supposed to…what? Read this book? Learn? Discover there is a human being under this flat label my childhood was provided? I don’t know anything about his policies, opinions, or actions, yet I’m picking up on an under-current in my mind that says that no matter what I read, positive or negative, it has to be bad. Because this is the Bad One.

Where does that come from??? And Why? Because it is disturbing to see an undercurrent as ugly as that show up in one’s reactions.

Who benefits from casting this individual in this light? Not necessarily in a conscious, bwa-ha-ha steepled fingers malicious villain way, but in an unconscious way? What cultural ideas can continue to hold sway and dominance as long as the entirety of one historical figure can be written off as Bad?

I find these very interesting questions.

I’m not stating support for or against whatever Malcolm X’s policies were. As I said: I don’t know them. I can’t form an opinion on them yet because I have no information with which to do so.

What I am stating support for is the act of learning about someone beyond the flat label, historical or otherwise. And maintaining a level of awareness regarding any unconscious responses that such learning may prompt.

In general, I don’t think many people consciously hold beliefs counter to the principles they adhere to…but unconsciously, we’ve all got a lot of garbage in our brains and I think it’s important we bring it to the surface as much as possible and question it in the light of those professed principles.

I think sometimes we’re afraid to look at that garbage? As if the very act of having it turns us into terrible people automatically. Do we fear the label itself? Are we stuck in the same false binary of Good and Bad? “Am I ___? No, I can’t be, because I am a Good Person. Only Bad people think/do/are complicit in ______.” Yet just like Martin Luther King Jr. and Malcolm X were complex human beings that go far beyond “The Good One” and “The Bad One,” we have a lot more going on than just being Good or Bad.

I find the alternative of refusing to examine it more disturbing. Because if I can’t see it, those unconscious thoughts may influence what I do, say, and think…but I won’t even know it.

I used to be a very sexist person. I didn’t think I was. Growing up I was told that we lived in a world where girls could do anything, sexism was dead, and equality reined. I believed that. I also believed that I “wasn’t like other girls,” because I was smart, willful, and interested in things beyond material goods, all things girls couldn’t be. For years I wished I had been born a boy, because to be born a girl meant that I would have to spend my whole life overcoming my own weakness. I thought that bad things happened to women only because women put themselves in stupid situations.

At the time, I did not see anything contradictory between what I thought was true about women, and what I was told about sexism being a thing of the past.

I was in denial about it for a long, long time. I experienced a lot of blatant sexism at college, learning to be an engineer with my fellow 80% male peers. I experienced even more of it once I got a job as an engineer. I discovered that every female colleague I had (all 3% of the office) had A Story, often more than one, of things that made my experiences seem tame in comparison. Yet the entire time I rigorously insisted that there was nothing sexist about any of it. Sexism was dead. Right? So everything I was seeing…well, it must have been that the women were at fault. Or purely isolated incidences that didn’t reflect the environment as a whole. If you can’t hold the group responsible, surely it is the individual who is the problem.

Then the assault happened. I was faced with either accepting I was at fault for what happened…or I was, in fact, just like “other girls.” Both were horrible, impossible concepts. The only way I could find any sense of peace was to question what it meant to be one of the “other girls.” I realized that it was not that I’d been different from other women, but that what I had believed about women had been false all along. That was a hard breaking point for me. I think I had already been on my way to picking apart the contradictions. I had started reading articles and books that were making me think. The trauma just accelerated that process in an exceptionally painful way.

So, was that it, then? Was I “Bad” before, and now have emerged a “Good” and enlightened person on sexism?

Well…I know more than I did, but I just don’t think it’s that simple. I don’t think it’s a matter of saying, “This person is Good and that person is Bad, because this person is enlightened and this person is sexist.” I am less sexist…but that doesn’t mean there isn’t still more garbage floating in that unconscious brain to be fished out and questioned.

I am more aware of issues that are in our world and no longer in denial about them. Yet I have been raised in a world of disparities, glossed over by justifications and rationalizations. I live in a sexist world, a racist world, a homophobic world, a world that stigmatizes “otherness” — but otherness FROM WHAT? Just the idea that any of the things I’ve named can be identified as “other” indicates an unconscious image of “normal.” It has been shaped by a myriad of sources too great to name. From media, to education, to upbringing, to language. There is that “normal” that says “thou art other, for thou art woman, thou art pan, thou art depressed, look at thine weight scale and see that thou taketh too much space, too much attention, too much existence, thou must disappear in service to the Normal.”

And this is coming from a white, cis-ish person in a straight-passing relationship.

If we truly were beyond sexism, racism, and so on…what would the concept of “Normal” even look like?

I am not Bad. I am not Good. I am In Progress. And I will always be, as long as their are contradictions to question.

In the meantime, I am interested to see how many of those contradictions I can unearth with this book.

I’d ask a prompting question, maybe about false binaries, or what Normal is, or historical figures, or Malcom X, or sexism, but frankly this blog has gone all over the place and I’d be interested in your thoughts about any of it, if you feel like sharing.

16 Comments

Children visit this site. Moderate your language accordingly.

“I am not bad. I am not good. I am in progress.”

Quote-worthy.

The truth is that good and evil are so, so relative. THe only bad people are the people who, realizing that their views are BS, when confronted with evidence, are the ones who refuse to change.

and even further than that – those who actively act on their prejudices to do harm to others.

Everyone else is a work in progress. And even bad people can be works in progress because even bad people can change.

Everyone has been a hero and a villain in their own lives. And it’s super important to remember that the literal only difference is a series of choices. To move towards heroism and away from villainy – to move towards our best selves and away from our worst selves – that’s te important part. And we can’t do that without full acknowledgement of the parts of ourselves we’d rather forget.

I’ve more or less internalized Malcom X and Dr. King not as “bad and good” but as “violent and non-violent,” whether or not that’s really correct. Since in school we’re taught that violence is bad and talking things out is good, I can see where that association could be made, but that’s really too simplistic and doesn’t serve us well when talking about history (particularly anything to do with wars). And there’s a ton of hypocrisy in the way we treat Malcom X and his insistence that black people take care of themselves by expressing their rights through shows of power and strength, which carries through to today in how African Americans are treated by figures in authority significantly differently than white people (especially when guns are involved).

Really, the two leaders were different sides of the same coin, and there’s good arguments to be made that King’s non-violent movement wouldn’t have gotten the traction it did in shaping government response without Malcom’s movement for him to point to and say, “You can deal with me, or you can deal with them.”

I am curious to learn more about how the philosophies and approaches of these two leaders functioned relative to each other. It does seem that on many layers, it is possible that they each made the other more effective. On some levels, either one without the other is easier for an authority to dismiss.

This is rather a difficult subject, and I am straight(ish? Maybe a 1 or 2 on Kinsey scale), white and cis-male. And worse: young and unexperienced in social matters. So if I say something ridiculous, feel free to correct me.

One of the most damaging idea’s in society is, that only people like Klansmen or other white nationalists can be racist. I mean, of course racism is thinking blacks are inferior! Except, it is more complex, more subtle and more insidious than that. Genuinely kind and friendly people can hold and say racist thoughts. Because when you live in a racist society as a unquestioning child, you will have to work hard and remain alert to shake its influence off.
Same goes for sexism, homophopia, and other such things.
But if we believe only bad people do such things, we allow ourselves to not examine our own thoughts and deeds. To leave them unchecked. And that is the damage of that idea.

The first time I met a black person, I was nervous as hell. It was like instead of seeing him, I saw the history of slavery, the fear of saying something wrong, and other forms of white guilt. I feIt the same knee-jerk reaction like you did. Like I was trained to treat him as an other. I hated it, and felt shame about these feelings. I did not want to feel nervous, just because someone had another skincolour than mine. I was aware of these thoughts and fought against them, trying to treat him as any other person.
But still, when I see him and talk to him, I still feel a little nervous.
Does that make me racist? Probably, at least on the unconscious level. Does that make me a Bad Person? I think not, I am, like you said, in Progress and still learning.

One of the most important ideas you can hold about yourself, is that you can be wrong. It is like a shield you can wield against the influence of prejudice. But for people who has never learned that as a child, that idea can seem to them a threat to their ego. They always thought that to be wrong is not allowed, to be wrong is a sin. And I think that is why some people can react so extremely defensive to the mere notion that what they said might be wrong. Because they see it as an attack to their ego, to their self, and they cannot allow that to be damaged.

That is why it is important that parents impart the idea to their children that it is okay to be wrong, if when you are aware of made aware of, you try to correct it.

But there is also the other side of the coin. The manner in how we treat someone who said something sexist, racist or something like that. Who did something wrong. While I do understand it, I felt always uncomfortable when people retweeted a racist tweet (with the username still visible) and writing something like ‘Can you believe he said THIS? Shame on him!’

It is important to talk about harmful things. To bring them in the the public space, where they can be finally seen and be corrected. When people call out people like Donald Trump on twitter, or women writing on the social media about how Bill Cosby was just excusing himself and his deeds, I think it is a good thing. They are public and powerful people and the damage they cause is far-reaching. They need to be discussed.

But I have the (perhaps wrong) impression that when someone is calling just another person out, they do sometimes it with overblown anger, or self-righteous glee.
And shaming other people is seldom useful, even when you are right. The shamed person will feel attacked and while retreating or publicly excusing, he may privately harbore resentment and reinforce his harmful beliefs.
Instead of them publicly calling out, why not sending them a private message letting him know what they said, harms other people? Or retweeting the tweet with the name blacked out?

Of course, this is also my privilege speaking. While I was in my youth bullied, I never received death threats or felt my body was seen as wrong or as a commodity.
Still, I wish there was not so much anger (or a better word: agression). But I also had never a cause to felt hurt by society and powerful people and lead a safe life, so I don’t have a cause to feel anger. And sometimes anger is necessary, but I still feel uncomfortable about it.

I still believe shaming is treating a human as an other who deserves to be despised, to be mocked and ridiculed, despite how wrong he or she may be. What if we treated each other as Works in Progress? Or is that too naïve? I am not sure.

So that were my thougths. Hopefully, they were not too much over all the place. But it is difficult, and I don’t still have it all figured out. I am still in conversation about this with myself, with books, articles and other people.

Thanks for speaking so open and sharing your thoughts and feelings!

I have struggled with a lot of similar feelings. It’s something I especially keep an eye on when I am teaching. Am I giving everyone equal attention and equal opportunity to speak? When recognizing achievements, am I using similar language applied equally regardless of race or gender? Conversely, am I ensuring that when discipline is needed, it is fair and equal for everyone getting in trouble? Is anybody getting a free pass in situations where other students are not? I try to keep a very close eye on any of those more insidious, unconscious biases that can creep into behavior.

As for how we use shame, I have no clear answers for you. It’s like the saying goes: If these problems were simple and easy to solve, they already would have been solved. I do think that some people need more of a group influence to recognize their behavior was wrong. At the same time, other people will feed on that public acknowledgement and actually get worse about the bad behavior. Some may speak out of ignorance and truly not understand what they’ve done wrong and in turn feel victimized and thus often justified in any negative opinion in the future. Some might genuinely change their mind if spoken to one-on-one. Some might justifiably need to be called out, but the group behavior in response may be equally unacceptable in return, feeding an unnecessary us-vs-them mentality. Any of these are equally possible outcomes, and they’re not even all the possible outcomes. It’s possible there isn’t a right choice for all situations, but only a choice that lines up with our personal values, or best suits the situation at hand. In general, I don’t think the internet is always a great place to have reasoned and compassionate discussions…but it is a great place to find new perspectives. A mixed bag.

I will ask a more precise question regarding the dichotomy of Good and Bad: is there such a thing as good or bad?
I’ll tell you right now, I don’t know the answer. I’ve just been asking myself the question for a long time.
Psychologists and pop culture will tell us that there truly are malevolent people out there, with no empathy, who will do harm consciously and without remorse – the ever scary Psychopath. However, when you dig deeper, you often find reasons for these actions. Even an almost universally considered evil figure like Hitler is much more complex than a simple bad guy. The guy truly believed he was doing good, I think. Misguided, yes. Dangerous, definitely. Evil? His actions were, but was he? Look at the fictional character of Ozymandias. The road to hell is, indeed, paved with good intentions.
Just food for thought. I could write pages and pages here of my reflections on the subject… Maybe some other time, but I’ll submit this:
I think the closest a person can get to being “Good” is to ask these difficult questions and strive to become better, to keep challenging oneself and one’s thoughts and beliefs in order to become “enlightened”. To try to define as precisely as possible what is our moral compass, what is good, what is bad, why we as humans do bad things and how to correct that. Look past the apparent and try to see the essence of things. Not rely on a dogma to TELL us what is, but to use these dogmas as a starting point for reflection, so we can FIND for ourselves what our reality is.
By that definition, you definitely seem to be a good person. 🙂

I think about the nature of good and evil a lot too. Someone once asked me if I thought people could be evil, and in the moment I said, “I’m not sure individuals can be, but I do think groups are capable of evil.” But that didn’t feel quite right either. It did highlight the difference in scope that groups can accomplish vs and individual. Hitler, to use your example, wouldn’t have been able to do much on his own. As the head of a nation, it was a very different story. Is evil defined by its breadth and depth of impact, perhaps?

I’m not sure what qualities I would define as a person who is good…personal responsibility? Awareness and acceptance of the self and others? You mentioned the media concept of the psychopath, but there are many people who fit the clinical definition of a psychopath that lead productive, positive, helpful lives. How much of that scary image is actually stigmatization of mental health?

So many of my questions often lead me back to asking Who Benefits? Because anytime those defining good and bad receive a benefit that nobody else does from doing so, I become very suspicious of how “good” that really can be.

Augh, it’s all so murky. Give us a few decades and we’ll look back and laugh at how strange our definitions were when we were younger.

“Good and Bad” are not the same thing as “Good and Evil.” What’s good for the early bird is bad for the worm. My belief about evil is that it comes from the human ego. When one considers oneself to be “above” other beings and thus superior and more deserving of having whatever one desires, regardless of who or what has it now. When one has no compunctions about destroying any of those “lesser beings” in passing just in order to obtain one’s desires, that is an act of evil.

There are times when I wonder if one of the reasons for the popularity of Star Trek (before this current remake-movie series) is: Does their world represent humanity having abandoned our present-day Dominator system and changed over to some form of Partnership Culture?

I’d never heard Star Trek framed that way, but it’s a very interesting point. Almost…moving from a system of predator/prey to one of more symbiotic relationships. Although there are other arguments made, even within the show, that this also requires a degree of assimilation and conversion. What is lost in order for those partnerships to exist?

I think you are going to see a lot of the same themes in these responses… Repetition is not necessarily a bad thing. It means that we can in some way come to an agreement of minds on these interesting questions you have posed. I had to read through the post a couple of times to be able to draft a response.

From what I remember about MLK and Malcolm X is that they are two sides of the same coin. They both wanted civil liberty, justice, equality, and fair representation for people of color. It’s just that MLK was publically a pacifist, whereas Malcolm X was more willing to be violent to reach the ends he was looking for. It is what colored the two men so differently in our history books.

Now I know you might roll your eyes… yet I have experienced that people tend to operate… in… Shades of grey… *cough*and it is history that tends to look back on those leaders and color them more extreme than they actually were. Whether it was more perfectly (in MLK’s case) or more perilously (in Malcolm X’s case) than how they actually acted when they were alive. These then color our biases about the historical figures in question.

I read somewhere once that inside of us, we all carry the wounds of our past. I think that’s what you meant by the garbage of our subconscious. It’s how we are raised, and the damage that life deals to us all that eventually colors our behaviors and daily active decisions. It’s those decisions that determine the kinds of people we are. From my own experience, I am way more wary of people I don’t know, to the point of even being rude at times. It takes a long time in a friendship before I even let people touch me. It can make me seem colder and meaner than I actually am, and I know I have to work on that. The key is careful self-evaluation (which is NOT supposed to be tearing yourself a new butthole because of a mistake.)

Labeling people as “bad” or “good” is a bit of a misnomer. I think at the most extreme we usually fall into “aware” and “unaware” of our past actions, and the effect they had on people. The more we can evaluate them, they more we can learn and correct ourselves for the future, and clear up misconceptions.

“Normal” is, as I am told, merely a setting on a washing machine/dryer… and I like to hope that as a species we can evolve more into Roddenberry’s view of the future. It can be a place where we are genuinely curious and delight in anything that is different and celebrate those differences as we learn them. I know Star Trek too has its flaws, but like all of humanity it too is “In progress”.

I do wish there was more wonder in the discovery of the other, rather than seeing it as a threat. I also hope that is something that we can move towards more.

I think much of that reaction comes from a narrow view of what Normal is. Especially when it is based on “Normal for ME.” As long as a person assumes that everyone must experience things similar to themselves (as almost a baseline) anyone that asserts difference from that can feel almost life-threatening. “Is everything I know a lie? Wrong? How do I live in this unknown world with unknown rules? How do I make up for my failure in the past??”

It’s funny, because I have had this experience, but looking back I could not tell you exactly why I felt my own discovery was so frightening. It makes no logical sense and I have no memory of my mind’s rationalization of the fear. I’d been used to being able to put myself in someone elses’ shoes and come up with a “logical” reason for their behavior. Yet, when I came across an experience so different from mind that I could not do that, I felt like my entire understanding of the world was coming apart. I wish I could remember it better. It might help me understand when this behavior comes up in other people.

Yet if the scope of “Normal” can be broadened, this threat goes away. At least, that was my experience. I had to create a new Normal. “It is NORMAL for everyone to have their own unique normal. Therefore I can have an entirely different experience from someone else, and nobody is wrong, or sick, or unnatural, or strange, or threatening…we’re all just independent entities. And that in many ways is a marvelous, wondrous thing.”

I’ll keep my reply short, mostly because almost anything I can say has been said better up above, and partly because I just got back from work (2nd shift, oi) and I can get rambly when that’s the case.

On MLK Jr. and Malcolm X, another way to look at them is through the lens of their fictional counterparts – Charles Xavier and Eric Lehnsherr (Magneto). They, and the Mutant issues that they dealt with at the time of their creation, was intended as an allegory for the Civil Rights movement. Magneto is willing to take the extreme acts that he needs to to promote mutant-kind, yes, but also to protect them. He and Charles act out of the same intentions, but with different methods, and that fuels their disagreement. It’s why they’re such close friends despite being bitter rivals.

As for clearing out the garbage and such… Well… I feel like in most people, and fiction writers especially, there tends to be a lean towards wishing the world could be more black and white. It isn’t, of course. There’s grey scale everywhere, but that can make it hard for those who want to be more idealistic, or altruistic – whatever the best adjective for that sort of thing is – to view the world as it really is. The only way to make a difference, to shift that grey scale to the lighter, “better” end of the spectrum, though, is to face the world as it is, accept the flaws, and then step up to taking an attempt at fixing whatever is broken, in whatever ways are possible. That, in and of itself, might be a naive point of view on my part, but I can still hope.

I don’t think it’s naive. I think perhaps we just don’t have the life-span required to fully witness the outcome. Researching history and observing the cycles is simultaneously inspiring and discouraging on human progress. Inspiring, because there has been ever continuing willingness to advance and improve. Yet discouraging, because the same issues come up over and over again. It’s like a spiral of slight improvement, slight correction of past injustice, yet always driven by present injustice and present tragedy. So it’s hard to say if the human race really is or is not becoming a better version of itself…but I too would like to think so.

I’d add my thoughts… but most of the insight I could offer has already been covered.

I can’t remember where this was from, but I ran across a quote a good long while ago: ‘Wisdom is realising how little you actually know.’ I’ve found it apt for this sort of thing since.

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