Marissa Explains It All #44 – The Power of Myth and Awaiting Concrete Resolution

In the event of some tremendous tragedy, which in America can be any number of particular instances on any given day, there is often a temptation to blame the action on a thing. Either something that exists within our culture, or grouping a vague label of people together and dehumanizing them to the point that they become a thing. And it’s not like this is a new occurrence. Anything from rebellious behavior to national tragedy have been blamed on music, drugs, movies, video games, gay people, whichever political party the blamer isn’t, etc. It’s an easy gig too; the same as blaming the government for an individual’s life not being the way they wish it was: the government doesn’t have a human voice in which to respond, because it’s not one single entity, as much as some would like us to believe.

Blaming a giant entity or vague description of something while simultaneously reducing it to a solitary object can be cathartic. The government isn’t a person at a desk with people in line to yell at it, and that’s exactly the point. The government can mean anything from the President to the local dog-catcher. Same as when a televangelist blames leftists for something, it’s roughly half the adult demographic, so it’s nearly impossible to respond. If you can reduce an idea you disagree with into a single entity that is too broad and vague to respond personally, you can also simultaneously reduce whatever blowback you get into a meaningless small percentage of that giant vague entity. Pretty neat deal, isn’t it?

X is a broad spectrum containing thousands if not millions of people, but I will speak of it as if it’s one person that is both powerless and ubiquitous in causing a tremendous problem, therefore shrinking it to the equivalent of one powerful person. Then, in response, one critic of anything I say, the voice I do hear gets reduced even smaller than that one person, while I regrow the solitary entity back into the vague, encompassing juggernaut from which I humanized it in the first place back into its dehumanized vague existence.

That is kept in mind as I analyze the current political and cultural arena through the anthropological lens of the Power of Myth as it relates to the present goings-on and rhetoric surrounding it. While it is not my purpose within this piece to take a particular side on a specific issue, it is more to analyze and comprehend the mindsets that bring us to our plentiful divides within the cultural conversation, especially in action and reactionary terms. However, we cannot begin this analysis without defining our terms.

STORY

Stories have a bit of baggage attached to the word. Like a lot of anti-scientific rhetoric, the word is often used in a demeaning way of describing something apart from reality. “That’s just a story.” “Nothing but a story.” “That’s not real, it’s only a story.” This disregards one of the most fundamental parts of our everyday lives. One of the primary functions that define us as human is our ability to make tangible something that isn’t happening in the direct present. If one is not experiencing something immediately and in the moment, we can still access it because of stories.

A story is not only a narrative that someone made up in a book or a movie, but it can be as simple as telling your friend how your day went, recalling a trivial or even important event, or, how about this… A song. Unless a song is narrating in time with a moment (that’s actually happening, not like a musical), it is a story in some form. Stories are how we communicate and relate to each other as human.

A good story needs to be reliable, because it is meant to connect us to an event, whether that’s how awful your boss is or a fitting metaphor regarding a national tragedy. Stories are desirable. Even if they’re meant to be pure escapism, that is still a desire for a story. Our need to dissociate from a place in time is a desire for a story not connected to the present, at least on its surface.

Stories also must be accessible. While the characters and events may be fictional, or at least retold, they have to be relatable enough for the listener/reader/viewer to see something they recognize, both positively and negatively. A story that one cannot grasp is not a story that person is going to retain. It’s the balance of logical, present, analytical thinking; to see what is not there in the present and connect it back to that moment. Logic and math are how we analyze the world; stories are how we relate to it, communicate about it, and understand each other.

MYTH

We like to consider Myth, or at least Mythology, as something that took place in the Greek and Roman eras of history. A comfortable distance from beliefs that a culture once held makes it easier to look at it through the lens of storytelling rather than as a religion, but that’s another argument for a different article. Myth, however, is pervasive. It’s near the top of the list of what defines us as a species, 1A from being the Storytelling Creature. Myths are stories, yes, but they are far more prevalent in our minds because of their power to transcend any medium and period of history.

-Myths are usually set somewhere else. Whether that’s a different time, location, or reality, myths aren’t from what Film and Literature Theorists would describe as the “Realism” school of thought.

-Myths are often about things beyond explanation. The supernatural, what science has or could create, or what is natural.

-Myths often involve non-human sentient creatures like monsters or gods, or events that are beyond our understanding or explanation.

-Finally, overall, Myths are about what it means to be human.

(Acknowledgement: Yes, I did use that list in a recent article about a similar topic, but they are my words)

 

MODERN-DAY STORIES, THE OTHER, AND MYTHS

Whereas once the only way to communicate and keep myths alive was through oral tradition, we are now inundated with myths. Myths are what we look to in order to explain what we cannot, and in this process, we create a different creature. Something that is almost human. Something that isn’t so inhuman that we don’t recognize or relate to it, but also separate than us. This is a concept within a story known as The Other.

The Other is someone or something separate from the perspective and narration of the story. Its separation is a technique designed to bind you with the perspective of the story being told, and in general, make the separate group the source of the problem or what must be overcome. You read the introduction of this article; don’t get ahead of me just yet.

To Other is to dehumanize; both figuratively and literally. In the figurative sense, that is why Myths often include beings like Monsters, Aliens, Zombies, or Vampires. They symbolize what a concept or a belief can become if left unchecked, and are the counter to the narrative being told, which is either to return to normalcy or subvert it. Rather than taking a race of people, a religion, a political party, or just that guy down the street who yells things at you when you walk by, the Monsters are a blank slate onto which we can project our greatest fears.

The most famous example of this exists in 1950’s Sci-Fi, where space aliens were The Other and a near one-to-one for Communism. Communists… I mean aliens… are invading, and it’s up to us to stop it. Another famous example is connecting Zombies to Consumerism, and if anyone knows of a less-subtle use of that metaphor than They Live, I await your response. The point is, when The Other is not human, our sympathies do not lie with them. Our natural instinct is to want the storyteller, or hero, to survive and overcome the non-human threat to our way of life. Think of Lord of the Rings. If the Orcs weren’t ugly, grotesque, and based entirely on carnage, would it have been so easy to slaughter them by the thousands without a second thought? The body count of Orcs in those films has to be in the hundreds of millions, but they’re ugly and evil so we don’t care when they die.

So how does this relate to the present that I set up in the Intro?

THE INABILITY TO SEPARATE OUR MYTHS FROM REALITY

We like to think that we know when something is a story and aren’t affected by it. While that does not mean that we’re talking on a one-to-one level something like “video games cause mass shootings,” we’re tricking ourselves if we don’t think the stories we tell have any affect on how we live our lives, speak to other people, and formulate our behavior.

The #MeToo Movement was the most effective and visible communication of stories of sexual harassment, assault, and violence in years because the stories became so accessible that they could no longer be conveniently ignored. It would, though, be foolish to say that it was not met with its own resistance. Why is that? Why would someone be in favor of those harmful and sometimes life-threatening actions?

On the surface, at least for a majority, they aren’t. Nobody believes themselves to be the villains of their own story, because that’s not how stories work, right? Either the hero themselves tell the story, or an omnipotent but completely separate narrator follows the hero throughout the duration.

How many stories in our culture exist that follow one specific trope: Boy Gets Girl.

Or, a bit more specifically: Boy Meets Girl, Boy Likes Girl, Boy Gets Girl. That’s a three-act movie right there that anyone reading this can apply one hundred different versions of on the spot. But those are just stories, right? They don’t affect the way we behave in real life. We can distinguish the two with relative ease. Right?

Not if you look at the commonly-portrayed behavior with the beliefs that many think are associated with “how things are supposed to be.” Following someone around because you’re interested in them, even if they don’t return the interest, isn’t okay in real life, but how many stories have been told that it’s the right thing to do? That’s how you show you’re interested, right? That’s how you make yourself visible. Especially if the girl has a terrible boyfriend and you know you’re just right for her, even though you don’t really know her. That’s what boys have been told they should do, and that’s what girls have been told they should want. Normativities aplenty aside, that is the culture many of us were raised in.

Here’s another: The Hero’s Journey.

Or, a bit more specifically: The World is Great. Something Bad Happens to a Man. Man Goes on Adventure. Man Makes Things Right. And, in most cases, Man Gets Girl.

Most popularly attributed to Joseph Campbell’s “Hero of 1000 Faces,” this is not only one of the most common and famous plot/story structures, but for a very long time was believed to be the only way to make a movie. Now, in these stories, there’s a man… usually cis, straight, and let’s be honest, white… who lives in a place where things are amazing. Good family, nice town, great life. Then, something messes that up. His aunt and uncle are killed while goons look for droids. An evil scientist or millionaire disrupts tranquility in the town. Dad is killed. Girlfriend is kidnapped. Wrong is done. Sometimes to everyone, but usually to one specific white cisgender heterosexual young man.

In most of these stories, it is the One Man (TM) who must stand up to the giant evil that has caused this disruption. Sure, there are friends who help him along the way, and the girl (always a girl, of course) that may have a series of characteristics, but is ultimately The Prize. The One Man (TM) defeats every obstacle put before him, no matter how insurmountable the odds may be, until the Villain… Or to connect it to earlier, The Other… is the last thing that stands between him and Justice, Revenge, A Return to Normalcy, and of course, The Girl. Just as I’m writing that, you’re imagining everything from Star Wars to Troy. That’s because those are Myths that we have accepted as part of our understanding of our culture. They’re ingrained.

REALITY

Think of some of the following phrases, now that we’ve set all this up, and how they might relate.

-Boys will be boys.

-That’s how boys show they like you.

-Good Guy with a Gun/Bad Guy with a Gun.

-Everything happens for a reason.

I want to note specifically that last one. Why do you think it’s so pervasive in our minds that everything happens for a reason? Even with religion teaching that, and whether or not you believe in a religion is not the point, that’s the basis of all stories we’ve been told. Most stories to mass audiences that don’t have a conclusive ending, and therefore a reason to hear/see the story, are not well received. We like our stories accessible, universal, and most of all, resolved. That is how we understand the world: Everything has a reason, and therefore a conclusion that solves the story.

To once again reiterate, this is not to make anything a one-for-one. I’m not saying that seeing John Cusack stand outside a house with a boombox will make you go and do that thing. But the feelings it may have given you make you want to do something like that, don’t they? Hearing that a friend has been hurt by a partner or a total stranger, the instinct often is to go out, hunt that person down, and harm them in return, bring them to justice, or both, right? Of course! The most common stories in our culture, at least until recently, have been One Man Will Save Us All. That is how we understand the world.

Is it not then any wonder that when stories are told differently, the so-common default for those stories doesn’t feel able to identify with them? A cis straight white guy has had so many stories told about him and for him, why would he want to hear anything else? Anything else must be wrong: that’s not his story, that’s not how it’s supposed to go. He’s supposed to interrupt the wedding and that will win over the girl, because that’s how the story is supposed to end. The One Man Will Save Us All is supposed to be called to action when times seem their worst, and they are, always, the Good Guy With the Gun. No one is the villain in their own story.

CONCLUSION

It may be that the story has been changed when it comes to flirting with women, or that it feels threatened by people who are no longer interested in the fantasies of taking down someone with a penis-enhancing murderstick with their own, or at least want to see some kind of limitations put on it. That’s not how the story is supposed to go, and taking that option away can feel like it will always mean that chance to be The Hero will never be obtained. I’m not saying it’s right, but how can it be any question as to its influence on discourse?

The natural instinct is to blame a terrible event on The Other, because everything in stories is almost universally cut and dry. To blame The Other is to be the hero of one’s own personal story, because stories is how the human experience is most accessible. Because it isn’t inherently logical or pragmatic, anyone can project themselves onto a hero, and heroes always fight the bad guys, The Others, The Villains. Anyone who is not that hero must therefore either be the Prize to be won, or the ones who need to be fought against. Queer people, trans people, people of color, immigrants, etc., have almost always been The Other, unless it’s to enhance the story of the hero for being so brave as to acknowledge that one of them is, in fact, human after all. They’re an accessory.

When almost all the stories have been about you and for you, seeing them be for another feels like a threat to that. You’ve been told you’re the universal default, so why can’t everyone always just see it through your eyes, because that’s the way things have always been? The guy wants another guy instead? That’s not how the story goes! The woman is the hero? No, she’s supposed to be the one the hero wants! Trans people and non-white people exist as something other than a Punchline or a dangerous Other? That’s just the radical SJW agenda. The stories have almost always been for a certain default, and ridiculed whenever they’re not. Does the phrase “Chick Flick” ring a bell?

Where some people feel threatened that their stories are being invaded because they’re not always about them, they fear what many of us have had to accept as our only representation. The Accessory or the Villain. They fear not being the hero of the story, because they know what happens to the people who aren’t the heroes, and if they aren’t the heroes, they may have to change. It’s better to immediately dismiss anything that isn’t for or about you and blame it on a vague group for whom it must be as a negative thing. If someone else is the hero, that must mean that they’re the villain, and we can’t have that.

Same as how if they don’t have the chance to be a Good Guy With a Gun because enough people are tired of getting shot, how will they ever be the hero of their own story? The most popular religion in America teaches that God made man in his own image. How can the image of God itself be wrong? Everyone else must be. Better attack the credibility of the one telling the story so that it never has to change.

Whether it’s simply talking about making it a bit harder to get guns morphing into a total gun ban in the minds of the defenders, non-cis straight white males being a protagonist turning into some kind of all-out political agenda, or adults who constantly complain about this generation of kids always being on their phones and never getting involved also turning around and attacking those very kids for getting involved when it’s something they don’t like, it’s a violation of their attachment to a Myth. A Story. And all of those have an easily-blamed villain and an easily-understood conclusion where everything is set right.

Unfortunately, as some people end up finding out, the way stories work is not always how the world works. Just because you relate and identify with the story does not mean it has all the answers. Just because that’s how it’s always gone doesn’t mean that’s how it always needs to be. Nobody wants to believe they’re the villain in anyone’s story, so if they can control all the stories, they never will be. The attachment to those Myths has never been more visible and prevalent as it is right now, and whether it’s people speaking out about harassment and assault, or daring to not want to be shot for the preservation of a perceived-threatened right, the long-thought Universality of those basic and retold Myths has finally been threatened.

And that’s far scarier to accept when you’ve always been the presumed societal default.

 

 

Advertisements

Marissa Explains it All #39 – Managing the Fire

I’ve never been good at resting.

At one point last year, I was suffering from pneumonia, and I still had the urge and instinct to get stuff done. My husband practically sat on my chest and ordered me to lay back down. That’s what it took to get me off my feet and not trying to do eight things at a time.

Maybe it’s because I had it drilled into my had that working hard, through pain, exhaustion, and frustration was the only way to be accepted, successful, and strong. A lot of it was unintentional I’m sure, but I felt growing up that anytime I needed a break or a day off that I was chastised for daring to think such things were acceptable.

Therefore, I find myself in the difficult position of desperately needing a break from the world being on fire, but every time I think I’m ready to cut things off for a while, this overwhelming sense of guilt takes over; shaming me for daring to even think of disengaging when silence can be interpreted as consent or compliance.

Speaking out does not come without its consequences, and as much fun as it can be, and as great as the reciprocation can be, it doesn’t come without its toll. For instance, being on the trans rights activism front, it’s only natural that I know other trans rights activists, and a lot of their posts often include the original source of someone saying something horrible about us. Yes, it is often followed by a refutation, but taking in yet another person who doesn’t think we’re people or valid or in charge of our identity is taken in nonetheless, and it gets fucking exhausting to have to justify your humanity to yourself, even when being shown an example of someone else already doing that part. I internalize everything, and it’s impossible for me to see the horrible thing consequence-free.

Combine that on the personal front with being hurt badly in successive days by people in my own life for anything from being dehumanized to shamed for needing some space, and it feels like the world is closing in on me. Like it’s a new age version of Mean World Syndrome,where instead of the media convincing me that everyone is going to get murdered, the people out there who find that action against us justified get their signals boosted constantly; and it seems unavoidable.

I needed to get away from it; that, and putting myself out there to only be called a thing or deadnamed or misgendered constantly, it wears on my already tired and weakened battery. Yet, those who march against all marginalized groups and kill people with their cars to prove it don’t sleep, and silence from white people can be seen as complicity. That line becomes grey and hard to spot, and the right thing to do can be lost between trying to be there and visible and running on fumes, but feeling exhausted, defeated, ineffective, and in desperate need of recharge. I can only see how a majority of people think of me and my community so many times before I need to not see it for a while.

But again, that guilt runs deep. That sense of feeling like resting or needing a break is giving up; it keeps the candles burning late and the car running past the E. It’s an internal vicious circle of horrible, self-defeating inner Monologues.

In the midst of feeling myself hitting another low, I took another self-imposed social media ban, barely a week after spending the weekend in Seattle with my partner the same way. Taking it a step further though, I deleted Facebook and Twitter from my phone entirely, following in the footsteps of someone I dearly love, Eli Bosnick. Though not for the same reason, he’s someone else who puts himself out there boldly, and deals with the blowback as best he can. Yet, like the rest of us, remains human and can only deal with so much negativity and horrible hatred in human behavior.

Sometimes it’s just about learning that the fire doesn’t always need to be put out immediately, but left to be managed by allies who step up in your place. You know, like real allies who aren’t in it for the cookie.

Recording my own podcast tonight, I found myself breaking down at the end while discussing a somewhat traumatic recent event, and I had to ask my cohost if they could edit the show. I couldn’t even bring myself to deal with it on that level anymore. I needed escape from the world; into the arms of my husband, my partners, the innocent eyes of my kids who have no idea the kind of negativity from which I truly try to shield them… and yet, I can’t stop feeling like a failure for it. Nor can I stop feeling one when the next transphobic asshole thinks they’re being original with whatever apologetic they heard from someone else and thought it was brilliant.

I need to fight all I can, especially for those who aren’t in a position to do so, but I’m not in a good headspace at all. Things are getting to me, and even in writing this post with no intention of reading the comments, I’m stuck between keeping it to myself and fearing pointlessness. Or posting it and feeling pointlessness.

Maybe for a while, I need to let the other firefighters take a shift. I’ve been on the call for far too long. But if something is lost in the fire when I’m not there, I’ll never stop blaming myself.

So be it. I’m no good to anyone with a dead battery.

Inciting Incident Blog #20 – Santa Monica

This past week I was in Santa Monica, among other places. One of the most amazing parts of being in California was the fact that nobody stared. Nobody gave me awkward glances. Nobody even gave me any kind of a problem whatsoever.
Similar to the story in the book I wrote about Portland, Maine, it was incredibly relieving to walk down the street and not get any awkward glances.

Maybe when you get to live in California, seeing someone who is visibly queer isn’t that big of a deal, but when you have to deal with the stares and accusative glares more often than not, it feels like being in a different world.

I did a photo shoot in Santa Monica this weekend, and there were literally throngs of people on the pier. Not one of them gave me even the slightest of problems. Not one of them questioned my name when I said it was Marissa. Not one of them saw me in a dress and made a snide remark. Not one of them questioned what bathroom I should be using.

Sometimes the conservatives talk shit on California like it’s this dystopian wasteland, apart from the “real America.” Well, in the supposed “unreal America,” I was treated better by strangers than my own neighbors in Pennsylvania. For all the shit spoken on California, it must be hell to go to a place where people are accepted for who they are and don’t have to hide. It must be hell to walk down the street and not have to fear who the crazy or anti-LGBT people are. Even the LA Republicans at least leave you alone.

Why do we have to have this disparity? Why in my own country do I have to pick out certain areas that might be “safe?” Why is it that a certain segment of the country has such a problem with what other people do with their lives, and are also the same ones bitching about government taking away their “freedom?” I think when people complain about losing their freedom, they’re usually talking about losing their freedom… to be racist, homophobic, sexist, transphobic, and bully without consequence. If your biggest problem in life is that you’re no longer allowed to be a shitty person, you need to re-evaluate your priorities.

One store owner had the sweest remark of all. I made a joke in the Purple Galore store (PURPLE EVERYTHING!!!!) and said it was nice to be in a place where nobody was giving me a problem. She gave me the most innocent of looks and said, “why would anyone give you a problem?” Completely clueless as to what I’ve meant. Why can’t I live in that country? Why do I have to live in the one the right people fight hardest for is the one to hurt other people? And why is fighting against that somehow equated with weakness and snowflakes? Bullshit.

Inciting Incident Blog #16 – Prone

I probably don’t even need to add anything to that word for you to know what I mean. Especially being a person of the LGBT community, we know to what it connects.For the last four years, I’ve attended a university with a suicide epidemic. Last count, I believe, was 13 kids have commited suicide at our University since 2013, when I started attending. There are those who argue that comparatively, this is not a large number of people, given the size of our campus. I would say to those people that one person committing suicide is too many.

Yeah, this post isn’t going to be friendly to the apologetics crowd.

The suicide rate, as well as rates for depression, anxiety, and self-destructive behavior has shown to be higher among those of the LGBT community. This, unfortunately, gives people like Milo and Pastor Carl all the evidence they need to throw at us, to tell us how wrong we are. It’s obviously happening because we know we’re wrong with God, so that’s why we end up so depressed, right?

Fuck you, Carl. Both of you.

I went on a rant about this on the episode of God Awful Movies (#73) on which I was a guest, but it needs to be said; more often, louder, and directly at those who use this as fodder to bully LGBT kids at universities.

Maybe those kids get depressed because people like you advocate for their bullying. Maybe those kids get depressed because you’re in their face, constantly using your so-called loving God to threaten them with lakes of fire and hatred. Maybe those kids are constantly looking over their shoulder because you elected a narcisstic fuckwit who has emboldened those with hatred in their hearts, and has given those people the idea that consequence-free hate speech is and should be a thing.

I go to a school that has trans-inclusive healthcare, an LGBT Center, and an entire system that allowed me to change my name simply by identifying as transgender, but do not think for a solitary second that I’ve taken that for granted. I know I’m one of the lucky ones. I’ve read my email inbox. I know how many people can’t even be themselves in their own home, let alone at school, or anywhere else. Somehow, even with bullying being demonized and preached against, when it comes to us, it’s given a free-pass… or at least it’s treated less seriously.

Back when I was a kid, and people wrongfully assumed that I was gay, I was tortured. TORTURED. on a daily basis. Rarely did anyone even stop to lend a hand, let alone step in to help or do something about it. The school wrote me off as a misanthropic fuck-up, and those who perpetrated my daily hazing only got more emboldened as they saw no consequence whatsoever for their behavior.

16 years later, I watch as even on a “liberal Ivy League safe-space loving LGBT-supporting campus,” for the most part I just deal with the long, awkward stares and the jokes under their breath of which they think I’m unaware. Don’t get me wrong, I have a great circle of friends there and I wouldn’t trade them for anything, but even if I know 25 people, that’s less than one percent of the student body. That may go up with an article being published in the Daily Pennsylvanian about my book, but the bottom line is that even some of the most open-minded people don’t get what transgender is, don’t care to, and/or leave that out of their “love trumps hate” platform.

That’s what people like Milo love to exploit: Set people against each other and pick on what is perceived as the most vulnerable among us.

And when people stand up to him, he cancels his appearance and blames protestors, because he’d rather pretend to be a victim than face someone he can’t destroy with his words. He runs a segment called “How to Spot a Tranny” but if people protest him, it hurts his feelings. He puts targets on the back of vulnerable young kids, and our President wants to remove Federal funding for people who don’t want this hate speech on their campus.

This is what it’s come to. Our President hires people who deliver hate speech, supports people who spout it and put vulnerable kids in danger, and then complain when others stand up for them.

Because bullies love nothing more than someone different and weak going home and crying. Or worse, committing suicide.

As Pastor Carl said, “those kids killed themselves because they were ashamed.” When you can use the statistics of a suicide rate on campus to justify pointing out the queer kids so that you can threaten them, bully them into suicide, or break their heart, that is the behavior that’s being endorsed by the President of the United States. Quick though, better allow us to be discriminated against because of “sincerely-held religious beliefs.” Wouldn’t want our existence to interfere with someone’s bigotry.

Can I discriminate against someone being a dick? At my old retail job, can I refuse to serve someone because I don’t like their attitude? That’s against my religion for the sake of this argument. Treating people that serve you as if they’re below you, that’s against my sincerely-held religious belief that you should go fuck yourself, so are we allowed to refuse service based on our religious belief? Or are you only allowed to discriminate against queers? And is it only allowed to be under one religion? You know, the persecuted one that now has almost blanket representation in our country… again.

So I’m sorry if I’ve been yelling about this too much, but at the same time, I need to keep doing so before this becomes normalized again, because I refuse to go back to immediate post-9/11 conservative times where anyone who wasn’t a mindless straight Christian patriot was demonized and called un-American. I thought we were over that bullshit.

But if I’ve learned anything, it’s that anytime we truly believe we’ve found the bottom as to how low these people will stoop, they find the trap door button and prove us wrong yet again. Congratulations, fuckwits, you did it once more!

Inciting Incident Blog #7 – Research on Political and Religious Divisiveness

The election cycle of 2016 was a unique one among all its predecessors. A non-politician ran for President, breaking every rule in the book of political correctness and polite society, and still ended up winning despite the minority of the votes by a few million. Supporters of Donald Drumpf were particularly vicious in their “Make American Great Again!” slogan, while detractors were equally as emotionally opposed to the views brought forth by the Republican candidate, now President-elect. It’s no secret that America has been cast as polarized and tense; the country fought a Civil War over it 150 years ago, so what is it about this particular election cycle and rhetoric that increased our vigor and vitriol? Why are people so divided by controversial topics, religion, and politics? And, if we have those answers, what can we do about trying to bridge those gaps that were set ablaze with differing opinions and perspectives? This paper will demonstrate both the identities of the cause and solutions for what can be done to help the very issue of political divisiveness.

Political divisiveness and polarization are not new to discourse, even within our own country. In fact, it’s very likely that those traits were developed selectively through evolution. As evolution can be the survival and reproduction of the fittest physically, those with certain mental mindsets and intuitions could just as well be a selective trait in the modern day human society. Homo sapien is a social creature, and part of being social is forming a community. These communities range in size from small groups of nomadic bands to cities in the millions. Therefore, it stands to reason that the intuitive feeling of finding something in common with a fellow human being, while also being unified by characteristics that are different from the other goes back to the very beginning of modern human civilization.

Dr. Jonathan Haidt describes these feelings as intuitionism in his book The Righteous Mind: How Good People Are Divided by Politics and Religion.He describes how our feelings are triggered, “We make our first judgments rapidly, and we are dreadful at seeking out evidence that might disconfirm those initial judgments. Yet friends can do for us what we cannot for ourselves: they can challenge us, giving us reasons and arguments that sometime trigger new intuitions, thereby making it possible for us to change our minds. (Haidt 2012, p. 55)” Social experiments have been conducted show that when placed in an environment, humans are innately tribal, in that they both form communities and work together based on common goals, and also get intuitively defensive and aggressive toward other groups simultaneously.

“It now appears that warfare has been a constant feature of human life since long before agriculture and private property,” Haidt explains. “For millions of years, therefore, our ancestors faced the adaptive challenge of forming and maintaining coalitions that could fend off challenges and attacks from rival groups. We are the descendants of successful tribalists, not their more individualistic cousins. (Haidt 2012, p. 163)” The reason for this is that those who were loners were much more likely to get killed by a rival tribe or a natural predator, but those who formed those coalitions and groups could withstand the attack. Our ancestors forged common bonds with each other to survive, and socialization and cooperation between groups of people became selective in an evolutionary sense. It also created tension with others who weren’t part of that group, and the groups of humans could organize against those differences in an effort to unify themselves based on commonalities.

Religion is very much the same way; it harkens back to our need to be a part of something greater than ourselves. Haidt uses the example of attending a college football game to demonstrate these effects, showing how they are unified for a common cause. They aren’t there just for the game, but they gather in similar areas beforehand, socializing and bonding. They dress in similar colors and then march to the stadium, where they collectively know what to sing, what to yell, and who to hate. “Why do the students sing, chant, dance, sway, chop, and stomp so enthusiastically during the game? Showing support for their football team may help to motivate the players, but is that the function of these behaviors? Are they done in order to achieve victory?” While that may be the conscious idea, it runs much deeper than that, and that’s where the intuitionism comes into play. “A college football game is a superb analogy for religion. From a naïve perspective, focusing only on what is most visible… college football is an extravagant, costly, wasteful institution that impairs people’s ability to think rationally… But from a sociologically informed perspective, it is a religious rite that does just what it is supposed to do: it pulls people up from Durkheim’s lower level (the profane) to his higher level (the sacred). It flips the hive switch and makes people feel, for a few hours, that they are ‘simply a part of a whole.’ (Haidt 2012, p. 287-88)

Being a part of a bigger whole, something greater than yourself, is a fundamental core of almost, if not all, religions. Since there are different religions across the board, it’s similar to Haidt’s metaphor of college football, where different tribes do battle against each other with a single, unified goal: winning the war (game). Tensions are difficult to work through in this scenario because that’s not the goal, and it’s intuitive to see the Other as the enemy. Whereas a single person might be rational in discussing alliances with someone from a different team, being part of those thousands of people taps into a completely emotional force, which is much more difficult to rationalize. Therefore, it would make sense that our views of religion are very similar.

Moral Psychology has done a great deal of research in this area so answers can be found at times of seemingly-extreme polarization, and 2016 is no exception. Sam Harris also researches this question of religious divisiveness in his book The Moral Landscape. “The question of whether religion (or anything else) might have given groups of human beings an evolutionary advantage (so-called ‘group selection’) has been widely debated. And even if tribes have occasionally been the vehicles of natural selection, and religion proved adaptive, it would remain an open question whether religion increases human fitness today… There are a wide variety of genetically entrenched human traits (e.g., out-group aggression, infidelity, superstition, etc.) that, while probably adaptive at some point in our past, may have been less than optimal even in the Pleistoscene. In a world that is growing ever more crowded and complex, many of these biologically selected traits may yet imperil us. (Harris 2010, p. 148)”

Bringing about these traits being adaptive then puts people in the position of wondering what they can do about it. After all, if it’s all emotional and not rational, doesn’t that mean that it’s natural, and therefore nothing can be done about it? Of course not. As demonstrated by Harris, it doesn’t matter if it was a selective advantage; it isn’t now, and by being aware of that, we can move past the instinct to fight anyone who might be different. It’s hard to argue that unifying against an Other without having a rational or logical reason to do so is good for society. Commenting on this social evolution, albeit while explaining a different principal, Noam Chomsky dissects this idea and questions not if it’s harmful, but how harmful it could be. “Still more remote are the fundamental questions that motivated the classical theory of mind – the creative aspect of language use, the distinction between action appropriate to situations and action caused by situations, between being ‘compelled’ to act in certain ways or ‘incited and inclined to do so.’ (Chomsky 2002, p. 61-91)” What stands to reason here is that the sociological effects of these instincts may have caused early humans to selectively develop that trait, but being at a time and age where those distinctions can be made is essential to figuring out how they can be solved.

Once it’s established that religious and political divisiveness is inherently natural, intuitive, and emotional, that brings us to practical solutions. It must, however, start not only with acknowledgement of human evolution being a scientific fact, but that it doesn’t stop. Having a past trait does not necessarily mean it will be the one that’s passed on, and if the conscious choice is made to work through this intuitiveness, then that will be the trait that transcends generations as it did for our ancestors. “We cannot step away from evolution,” Bill Nye argues in Undeniable. “Our genomes are always collecting mutations, and we are always making mate selections. Are humans preferentially mating with other humans who are tall” Blonde or not blonde? Sweet, or bitches and jerks? With all of our glamor magazines and self-help books, are we solely producing offspring who are smarter and better-looking? … I can’t help wondering if that is part of the selection effect. (Nye 2014. P. 262)”

The first step toward fixing a problem is admitting there is one, and with the great intelligence of humankind, polarization within countries and communities is a large one. Therefore, by pointing it out and acknowledging it, humans can work toward making the world less polarized by stepping back from themselves and reconsidering what their instinct tells them to do and how they emotionally react. Nye’s explanation of continuous evolution shows that it can be done, and if humans learn to react with empathy rather than defensiveness, that will become an innate trait in future humanity. Asking why one person reacted that way to something one said, rather than attacking them because they said something that’s of a different perspective, leads to learning, empathy for others, and one less fight in the world. If that can be done on an individual level, it will become a selective trait. The awareness of its existence provides the opportunity to change it, and gives people the advice to step back when they feel emotionally charged over something divisive. Once that step is taken back, empathy for another human may allow them to go beyond their first instinct and find out something about the other person, and in turn themselves, the same way enthnographic anthropologists have been doing for years. Or, as Noam Chomsky put it in his interview with me, “Become seriously engaged in things that matter (sic), ranging from research and education to organizing and activism… Which is not new. That’s how it has always been, and thanks to those who decided to care and act, over time it has often become a better world. Same in the future. (Chomsky 2016)”

Dr. Chomsky is correct in asserting that it isn’t new, as can be evidenced by writings from hundreds of years ago. In regard to religion in society, Immanuel Kant had many of the same sentiments toward religion and the application of reason. “More modern, though far less prevalent, is the contrasted optimistic belief, which indeed has gained a following solely among philosophers, and, of late, especially among those interested in education – the belief that the world steadily (though almost imperceptibly) forges in the other direction, to wit, from bad to better; at least that the predisposition to such a movement is discoverable in human nature. If this belief, however, is meant to apply to moral goodness and badness (not simply to the process of civilization), it has certainly not been deduced from experience; the history of all times cries too loudly against it. The belief, we may presume, is a well-intended assumption of the moralists, from Seneca to Rousseau, designed to encourage the sedulous cultivation of that seed of goodness which perhaps lies in us – if indeed, we can count on any such natural basis of goodness in man. We may not that since we take for granted that man is by nature sound of body (as of birth he usually is), no reason appears why, by nature, his soul should not be deemed similarly healthy and free from evil. Is not nature herself, then, inclined to lend her aid to developing in this moral predisposition in goodness? (Kant 1794, p. 370)” This writing from Kant predates Darwin’s voyage, and yet bears that all-important truth upon which we can build: we can count on the fact that humans can be inherently good, and there’s no reason why they shouldn’t be.

If human beings can discern that being divided by politics and/or religion is inherently bad for the future of the species, they can start working toward ways to work past those intuitive biases. Acknowledging our own and reaching out to others not only develops empathy, but makes one naturally more relativist in their mindset. In the age of nuclear weapons and instant military action, preventing mass destruction will rely upon the majority of the human race coming to the decision that everyone is equally human, and in the words of Bill Pullman in Independence Day, “we cannot be consumed by our petty differences anymore. (Independence Day, 1996)” Let’s not let it come to the end of the world before making that realization.

In summary, humans being divided by religion and politics is a product of intuitionism being a selective trait in the social being they are. With this knowledge and the ability to step back and rationalize, rhetoric and the quality of life between peoples of all different kinds can be immensely improved. Philosophers and scientists of many varying fields have come to similar conclusions about the problem, the symptoms, and at least somewhat sure of a solution. It will take a long time, it won’t be easy for many people, but working past that which was once selective is what brought the world our modern civilizations as they are. If humans can survive those, they can survive learning to recognize when they’ve acted and reacted emotionally, and compel themselves to consider alternate perspectives with empathy and relativism. Perhaps this knowledge can bring about one solitary evolutionary trait: the future human society having the social bonding power with all humans, regardless of origin, race, or any other characteristic. Humanity has the ability to accomplish this, but the question will be if they also have the willpower to do so.

Works Cited

Chomsky, Noam. Personal Interview. September 30th, 2016. Email.

Chomsky, Noam. On Nature and Language, ed. Adrianna Belletti and Luiigi Rizzi. Cambridge University Press, 2002. Compilation.

Emmerich, Roland. Independence Day. 20th Century Fox. 1996. Film.

Haidt, Jonathan. The Righteous Mind: Why Good People Are Divided by Politics and Religion. Vintage Books. 2012. Book.

Harris, Sam. The Moral Landscape: How Science Can Determine Human Values. Free Press. 2010. Book.

Kant, Immanuel. Basic Writings of Kant. Edited and with an introduction by Allen W. Wood. Modern Library. 2001. Book.

Nye, Bill. Undeniable: Evolution and the Science of Creation. St. Martin’s Griffin. 2014.

Inciting Incident Blog #6 – Black Friday PTSD

I spent a good portion of my life trying to get through this time of year as quickly as possible. Along the way, I’ve gained a bit of perspective on what it’s like beyond dealing with the madness of Black Friday from the salesperson point of view. Perhaps this can be of use to anyone who still enjoys shopping at a place, and also as to why a number of us are so tense and apathetic when everyone just thinks we’re Scrooges.

One of the biggest complaints I hear from people who shop at stores is the cashiers/salespeople being pushy or bothering them or asking them questions repeatedly. There are two different scenarios in which I’ve been forced to be that person, and allow me to explain it from both of those. YMMV. First, we have to keep asking you questions because if we don’t, we’ll be considered poor customer service reps and likely get complaints that “no one was there to help me.” Second, if we’re commission-based, I know you don’t give a shit, but sales-based jobs are super competitive. Imagine doing all the work to make a certain amount of money only for someone to sneak in at the cashier station and get credit for it. I know you’re saying, “who cares, it all evens out, right?” but a good sale can be the difference of paying all the bills or not when you rely on it.

Also, the cashiers have to ask you about their stupid card and magazine subscriptions and upsales and small additional items because if we don’t, we might get Secret Shopped and nailed for not bothering every single person for the six additional things we’re supposed to ask. Oh, and then, if we don’t push enough of all of those six things, we don’t have high enough “numbers” and may lose our jobs, especially this time of year. We also might lose our jobs anyway, because a lot of seasonal jobs don’t tell you you’re seasonal because if you think you might have a shot, you’ll sell more shit. Do you see any of that in your paycheck? No. But the RM gets a bonus, so it’s totes okay.

I worked commission for a while, and some people think that makes our motivations higher to sell you stuff you don’t need. It’s the exact opposite. Not only is it incentive to do your job well, but if you return something because you don’t like it or it doesn’t fit, it comes OUT of our paychecks. That’s why you might see some people glaring at you for returning something because you found it cheaper somewhere else. It’s two dollars to you, and it’s twenty to us, perhaps more. If you’ve never had an anxiety attack every time you see someone walking in the store with a bag already in tow, you’ve likely never taken return hits.

Finally, the whole system is based on making the lowest level people push all the bullshit and take all the heat from the angry customers who are impatient and want to buy their shit and go home because people several levels up get a bonus if you meet your goals. And by meet your goals, I mean do 5-percent better than last year’s number. And if you don’t, if you only match last year’s numbers, you get reamed out and have your jobs threatened. These things aren’t determined against profit or doing your job well, it has to be an increase over last year every year. You have to sell a certain number of their stupid cards every week or day. You have to get several magazine subscriptions every day. Most of the time, they don’t see a dime for them either. The only incentive is: Sell this shit you don’t believe in to people who don’t want it or you lose your job.

Then, there are people who look at you and say “click-and-order” not “brick-and-mortar” or talk about shopping in their pajamas. If you’re at a big company like Target or Walmart, you don’t really give a shit. But if you’re a specialist or someone who works on commission, selling things that take knowledge and skill, and someone instead brags about being “smart” and ordering it online, you may as well be saying “I could’ve helped you eat this week, but I didn’t.” Don’t get me wrong, I don’t blame you at all. I grocery shop at 2AM because I’d rather do anything than be in a store with people. But when I worked in a suit store, sometimes people would come in with thousand-dollar plus sales they clicked and ordered, then expect you to spend an hour tailoring them up, for which you got paid jack shit. So yeah, if you’ve ever done that and gotten glares and people grumbling and short with you, that may be why.

Oh yeah, and the music. I know so many of you love that Christmas music, but since our entire economy is based on Christmas shopping now, somehow it’s offensive if you don’t have Christmas music on 24/7. JBL forbid someone walk in a store and not hear “Jingle Bells” on November 1st every single place they go for two straight months. It’s nice when it accompanies your personal shopping trip I’m sure, but we have to hear likely a very short playlist on repeat for two straight months. Some people say just ignore it, but I was never someone who could. I haven’t worked in the last retail job I’ve had in over a year and I still get shit stuck in my head from that awful playlist. I made fun of it on “Jaded Hope” every single year.

I’m not telling you how to shop. I’m not even saying don’t go out on Black Friday. I don’t care, that’s not the point of this essay. But if you’re going to, don’t get mad at cashiers for having to ask you questions, because their jobs depend on it. Don’t get upset if you have a return and you get a look, because you might be taking money away from someone. Or, if you’re going to do it online, don’t say it to someone who works on commission. Or ask “are you open?” because we are and we hate the extended hours, guaranteed. Or be surprised when we’re open on a holiday, and say something like “I can’t believe they’re making you work today.” You’re not helping by being someone who comes in on that day. A lot of the people helping you are likely fighting to keep their jobs so that their bosses can get bonuses off their work, so give them a second before you yell at them about saying “Happy Holidays!” instead of whatever your holiday is specifically. We don’t care, we already hate you, we’ve been there for over ten hours, and we’ve heard that Taylor Swift song you’re saying 12 times today alone.

The best incentive I’ve ever had to graduate college was working retail. I’ll wear a Michigan jersey before I go back to that perpetual slow death of the soul.