Perhaps you have seen the video below circulating on your preferred social media website:
Russell Brand has a lot of good points to make. The Earth is being poisoned, the poor are getting poorer, and the political systems of the world’s most influential countries are largely at fault. These political systems need a radical overhaul in order for real change to happen, and our current electoral systems make that kind of overhaul seemingly impossible. Brand makes his points with impassioned delivery and engaging wit, and I don’t question the genuine frustration behind his words. He does indeed come across as the fiery revolutionary everyone is making him out to be.
I’m still not, however, buying it.
I might be more inclined to buy it if it weren’t for the fact that an alternative political party, whose platform addresses precisely the issues Brand is decrying, does in fact already exist — a political party that never gets to power because nobody ever votes for them. So either Brand is actually not politically astute enough to have done his homework, or he sincerely believes that the best way to take down the current political hierarchy is to continue to not to support the party that is actually trying to do that.
At the very start of his speech, he admits to not knowing much about politics, and reveals that he agreed to edit a political magazine simply because he was “politely asked by an attractive woman”. When cornered again and again by Jeremy Paxman to elaborate on his ideas about alternative political systems, he hedges and backpedals. This leads me to believe that all of his spirited rhetoric isn’t much more than bluster to cover up his voting apathy — because yes, Mr. Brand, “indifference” and “apathy” mean exactly the same thing.
I would like to be proven wrong. I would like to see Russell Brand, and every single person who shared his video all over the Internet, stand up and take some kind of meaningful action against the political status quo in their respective countries. I would like to hope that this viral video will not, instead, simply give even more people an excuse to disengage completely, and stay inside their warm and comfortable homes on election day. I would like to hope that this viral video doesn’t in fact play into the hands of the current political hierarchy by reinforcing the mistaken impression that all political parties, including the radical outliers fighting for actual change, can be lumped together and ignored. Remember that those at the top are perfectly happy when the disillusioned fail to vote.
So let’s see it, Mr. Brand. Let’s see you put your revolution where your mouth is.
This past spring, I suffered a relatively minor medical emergency having to have emergency surgery to remove my appendix. I recovered quickly and without complication thanks to the excellent medical staff who attended to me 24 hours a day for a few days as well as my support system, including my wife who stayed with me constantly and my friends and colleagues who covered for and accommodated me while I was unable to go to work (and even brought me meals!).
This is one of the posts I had been working on before my brother died. Lately, when I sit down to write, what comes out is all about loss and addiction and death. I have things I want to say about all of those topics, and at some point I’ll share them, but for now we’ll stay out of those dark places.
I started writing the post below partly in response to this news story which has now fallen off everyone’s radar, but the topic is of course always relevant.
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“I’m not homophobic. I’m not afraid of gay poeple.”
Variations on the above are quite common to hear amongst people who’ve been accused of homophobia. The idea is that “-phobia” can only mean “fear”, so if you don’t actively feel the icy grip of terror in your heart when you look at this photo, you can’t be labelled a homophobe.
Another line of thinking goes as follows: “I don’t have any problem with gay people, and in fact I support their fight for equal rights – so obviously, I am not homophobic.”
I am going to explain why both of these assertions are flawed. Not because I want to go around shaming people into admitting that they’re bigots, but because I want to have a real discussion about what homophobia actually is so that we can hopefully move on from semantic distractions and start to talk about real solutions.
Let’s start with the phobia = fear thing. Simply put, this is inaccurate. Or at least, it’s incomplete. Sure, we use the stand-alone word “phobia” to talk about pathological fears like arachnophobia or consecotaleophobia. But “-phobia” as a suffix has other uses that don’t necessarily indicate fear. Hydrophobic molecules, for example, aren’t terrified of water. Liphophobic iPhones (say that ten times fast) aren’t horrified by fingerprint oil. In both of these cases, the meaning is clearly “aversion” rather than “fear”. (And while we’re on the subject, getting pedantic about Greek origins is pointless, because English uses countless words from countless languages without sticking strictly to their original meanings.)
But let’s pretend for a moment that there was no other word in the English language ending in “-phobia” that meant anything other than “fear”. It still wouldn’t matter. Words aren’t defined by their similarity to other words, by their past usage, or even by their dictionary entry. Words are defined by the way people use and understand them in the present time. When someone says the word “homophobia”, everybody knows what they mean. It means what it means because the people using it all know what it means. If that sounds like a self-evidently obvious statement, good. You’re right on track.
I could make up a new word right now, for kicks, that means “acting like a complete tool about gayness and gay people”, and as long as everyone else started using and understanding it, that is what it would mean. But I don’t need to do that. Because we already have a word with that meaning. The word is “homophobia”.
Okay. We’ve established that “-phobia” doesn’t necessarily have to mean “fear”. But here’s one more thing to think about: hatred of or aversion to homosexuality… is in fact rooted in fear. Maybe not the bone-chilling Nightmare-on-Elm-Street kind of fear, but that isn’t the only kind. Maybe it’s a fear that you will be hit on by someone stronger than you. Maybe it’s a fear that your body will experience an involuntary sexual response to a person of the same sex. Or maybe it’s a fear that others will perceive you as gay, and treat you badly – which leads me into the second half of this post, and the assertion that rainbow-flag-waving, super-supportive straight allies, by default, can’t possibly be homophobic.
Straight allies reading this: Hi there! I want you to know that I greatly and genuinely appreciate you. But please indulge me for a moment and play along.
Imagine a scenario. You are at a busy restaurant with your gay friend, who is discussing the great leaps forward that gay marriage has recently taken. You are nothing but positive and supportive. Your friend gets up to use the washroom. A stranger at the table next to you turns, smiles, and says loudly, “I just want you to know I think it’s great that people like you are finally starting to have the same rights as the rest of us.”
How do you respond? You know better than I do. But that flutter of anxiety you feel in your chest when the other restaurant patrons turn to look at you? That moment where you want to make it clear, as quickly as possible, that you personally aren’t actually gay?
That is homophobia.
Wait, stay with me here. This is not about blaming. You can’t help that you feel anxiety in this situation. In fact, I’d say it’s completely understandable that you do. Why? Because you know perfectly well what kinds of attitudes many people hold about homosexuality. You’ve suddenly become acutely conscious of any smirks, looks of scorn, whispers and snickering in the crowd around you. You’re aware that you might be followed out of the restaurant. There’s a possibility you could be attacked in a back alley. You could even be murdered. Anxiety is a perfectly natural response.
And here is the reason that I know with a fair amount of certainty that most all straight allies reading the above scenario would feel that flutter of anxiety: because I, a certified queer personTM, would feel it too. For us, it’s called “internalized homophobia”, and it can take years and years to overcome.
There are so many tiny, fleeting messages that many people don’t think much about – but that add to our collective subconscious impression that being gay is a bad thing you really don’t want to be if you can help it. Fumbling for a quick denial adds to this problem. So do expressions in the media like “gay scandal” and “gay rumours”, especially when one is “plagued” by them. And so does that ever-debated little quip, “no homo”, whose defenders claim shouldn’t cause offense because it’s “just a joke”. (If you agree, there’s a great post over at Linguistic Pulse that you should read.)
What to conclude from all of this? Basically, that pretty much everybody – everybody, straight or queer – is at least a little bit homophobic, and that yes, homophobia is at least a little bit rooted in some kind of fear. So let’s please stop arguing about the word, and focus on trying to create a world where being gay isn’t such a scary thing.
“I couldn’t bear it.”
But you can. You will. You will have to.
You learn how that works, the bearing. How your mind’s first defense is numbness, allowing only sharp bursts of feeling to punch through at intervals.
Your shocked heart, to save itself, bleeds love outward in every direction. You embrace strangers and let them hold you. Crying becomes just another thing that you do, like breathing or sleeping. Then it dries up completely for days. You have no control over any of this.
You learn that the condolences people fumble for, that they find so empty and inadequate, do matter. They are like a thousand little lifesavers that you cling to to keep from sinking.
You watch your mother murmur and smile to the parade of visitors, and hear on endless repeat in your head the sound of her keening from her bedroom. You watch your father, the most impervious man you know, collapse inward on himself.
You catch yourself wanting to look around and say, “Todd, you’re dead! Isn’t that crazy?” so you can both exclaim about how fucked up that is. You think about how scornful he would be of all this moping around, how he would roll his eyes at the flowers and cards and damp tissues. You think about how he would wave off the sentimentality and extract himself from the suffocating hugs.
You stand up at his funeral to speak, wondering how long you have before your legs fold up underneath you, thinking, I am here standing up at my brother’s funeral to speak; and when you open your mouth it is not a wail or a scream or a shrill peal of laughter that comes out, but your own flat and measured voice.
You think, this was not supposed to happen to my family. Not my silly, affectionate family that loves wordplay and puns, that argues philosophy over dinner, that still kisses and hugs goodnight as grown adults. Then you feel instantly selfish, because who should this ever happen to? What kind of family deserves this?
Every morning you wake up and remember again. It is not so much that your heart is broken, but that it breaks, and rebreaks, and rebreaks.
You make yourself leave the house to shop and socialize, to surround yourself with the mundane normality of life, because the distraction is a relief. Your ability to do the necessary conversation and facial expressions surprises you. You feel guilty. You feel guilty for putting on a mask and engaging with the living. You feel guilty for the occasional moments of genuine levity. You feel guilty when the mask slips and you pierce people’s happy, clueless bubbles with your private pain. A dilemma comes with every commonplace social pleasantry: How are you? How’s it going? What are you in town for? You have to lie, or you have to pierce. Again and again. You retreat.
And when the cards and phone calls and visits trail off, you pick up your stone and carry on with the hard work of grieving.
This is how it goes. This fear that you have felt inside yourself maybe from the day you were born, this unspeakable thing that you have pushed away over and over, it happens. It becomes your reality.
And you live through it.
Last weekend I attended a series of writing workshops led by international bestselling author Gail Anderson-Dargatz. If you have never been in a roomful of aspiring writers, it will be impossible to transmit to you precisely the mixture of fragile-yet-overconfident egotism, timid dignity, and embarrassed self-promotion that characterizes such events. Writers both crave attention and despise pointed scrutiny. We want to be adored from a safe distance on our own terms, kind of like cats. I’m totally projecting here.
One of the more interesting topics that came up was about readers’ expectations of realism in fiction. I’ve always been a bit baffled by the criticism that a certain book or movie is sub-par because it isn’t “realistic”. What do people want, a blow-by-blow documentary of Mr. Ordinary’s daily routine at the styrofoam peanut factory? Here. I’m gonna go watch me some Jurassic Park 3D.
But no, I hear you protest, that’s not what they mean. People simply expect things to make sense within the context of the story. The plot should have its own internal logic and consistency. Sure, fine, that’s all well and good, but it’s not realistic. Reality doesn’t work in neat little packages like that. Reality is random, inconsistent and often nonsensical.
Hell, half the time I can’t even ascribe any sense or purpose to the things I myself am doing. Why did I just spend ten minutes reading a conversation on Facebook between three people I barely know and then twenty further minutes Googling bilateral gynandromorphy in chickens? I have no freaking idea. I bet if you’re honest with yourself, you’ll realize you do equally pointless things every day too.
Somehow, over the centuries, our collective imagination decided that the messy ambiguities of real life need to be rearranged into sensible three-act plot lines that move steadily and predictably towards a logical climax. This structure isn’t just commonplace, it is literally everywhere in our culture, in every type of narrative that we consume: books, theatre, film, television, video games, magazines, blogs, documentaries, biographies, religious sermons, operas, dance productions, sports events, pop music, celebrity interviews, trashy talk shows, advertisements. It isn’t the only story structure, but it is by far the most prevalent.
It has become so automatic that we even expect it out of actual reality. We expect stories in the news about accidents, crimes and natural disasters to make sense. We expect to learn the set-up of how these things happen, a reasonable explanation about why they happen, and then a tidy conclusion in the aftermath. The media does its best to deliver.
We also expect to find narrative structure in our own lives: purpose, direction, a Hollywood ending. We need to believe that our existence is fundamentally meaningful. We turn to religion, histories, aphorisms, or allegories to make sense – literally to create meaning – out of our lives. The alternative would be to embrace the terrifying thought that what happens to us is mostly totally random.
So in order to be successful, a writer has to hit just the right note on the reality scale. Readers want stories that reflect reality – but not real reality, only the kind of “reality” that humanity has decided is the most palatable.
I didn’t mean for this to turn out so gloomy. Does it sound like I think life is meaningless? I don’t. I think “meaning” is a human concept that doesn’t exist outside of our own definition of it. I think life is its own meaning. Personally, I find purpose in my life by viewing it as an opportunity to learn and experience as much as I can, and hopefully do some good along the way.
There is a certain attitude among my fellow Christians that really bothers me. I know it bothers other Christians, too, and it really bothers non-believers. The attitude is based on the myth that Christians in the United States are persecuted for their beliefs.
This is a deeply ingrained myth. Before addressing the benefits of being a Christian in America, I'd like to address the myth itself.
I’m sick, I’m lethargic, I have writer’s block, and this is all you’re getting from me today. (Click to embiggen.)