The Ones Who Walk Away

At some point in my schooling–high school or college, I can’t recall anymore–I received an assignment to read Ursula Le Guin’s “The Ones Who Walk Away from Omelas.” If you like thought-provoking short stories and don’t like spoilers, I suggest taking a moment aside to read it before proceeding further! (CW: child abuse.)

The story describes a utopian city. People there live in joyful leisure, their every need provided for, never suffering more than the slightest knocks of ill fortune. There is but one catch: to sustain this perfection, Omelas keeps an innocent child imprisoned in abject squalor, fed greasy gruel and sometimes kicked for good measure. Every citizen of Omelas knows that the prisoner is there, and that if they are ever released, Omelas’s prosperity will end. Some few members of the city decide that they can not live under such a cruel bargain, and depart for the unknown lands beyond the mountains: the titular ones who walk away.

In the class, we examined Le Guin’s story as a thought exercise about utilitarianism. Do you find Omelas’s arrangement acceptable, as a utilitarian calculation might suggest? Or would you leave the city, believing that no amount of bliss could justify brutalizing a child? Self-righteous as I was (am?), I wrote my little essay response saying of course I would walk away. I couldn’t bear participating in an injustice like that.

It was a thought experiment, a hypothetical, an abstract what-if. I didn’t apply it to my own life. I didn’t stop to think: this is Omelas. I’m living there right now.

Whatever my struggles with money or productivity or mental health, I have it pretty good. I have a house, and food, and the endless entertainments of the Internet. I live (for now?) in a representative democracy where I can freely choose my religion, my friends, my self-expression.

And every one of those privileges is built upon exploitation and injustice.

The land my house rests upon belonged to the First Nations before white settlers seized it. I own the house thanks to a system of city and suburb, mortgage and credit score, that segregates white from black and rich from poor. Beneath even that is the dollar itself, token in the grand lottery of circumstance that randomly decides some people should have more of the good things in life than others, while lying that they “earned” it. The Internet, for all that it was supposed to save us by making information available to all, thrives by turning people’s attention, dreams, and relationships into data to be mined for profit. Its algorithms will happily tell you the Holocaust never happened, and the creators of those algorithms are okay with this. Our ever-worshiped democracy deploys military force against unarmed people and has selected a xenophobic rapist for its highest office.

I’ve seen the prisoner in the cellar. And yet here I still am, enjoying the Festival of Summer.

From a very early age, when I was sharply punished for saying “bad words” I parroted from my parents, I have been a fastidious follower of rules. It was many years before I would so much as jaywalk. And yet I have also always had a churning transgressive streak. I grew up near the St. Louis Arena. For the years when it lay empty, I daydreamed of trespassing there, wandering its deserted corridors and locker rooms. In college I got to toy with this dream of urban exploration by hiking through a ruined brick factory and learning the basics of parkour. Later I became a proponent of free culture in defiance of copyright. Most recently, I have taken an interest in antifas and cop watchers who stand up to hatred and unjust power in ways that are not always polite, tidy, or legal.

It seems I’m more primed for this than I’d have realized. How, then, can I walk away?

Hardcore anarchism would counsel me to literally walk away–abandon my house, my job, my marriage, and live in free and open defiance of all systems of control. I don’t think that’s me either, though. I can’t embrace the kind of nihilistic relativism that would condone so viciously hurting the people I care most about, as a middle finger to systems they didn’t ask to be a part of any more than I did.

But there are other things I can walk away from. I think I’m done with voting as a means of social change; it’s useless when your vote will just be gerrymandered, machine-errored, and Electoral-Colleged into irrelevance. And even the best possible politicians, like beloved St. Bernard, are more than willing to bow to the incoming kleptocrat-in-chief if it might help get their pet projects accomplished. Better to clog the phone lines and block the streets to make one’s desires heard.

I’ve already observed that video games etc. conspire to dull the mind and keep us from reaching our full potential. What then if I walked away from that? I’m forming a plan to live 2017 free from social media (other than blogs like this) and video gaming. I spend hundreds of hours on those things; if I dedicated all that time to writing, design, and social action, what might I achieve? If my leisure were occupied with reading instead of matching sets of three colored gems, what might I learn?

Will you walk with me out of Omelas? How?

It’s Complicated, or is it Complex?

When you ask someone about their love life, and they say “it’s complicated”–

It’s not only that it’s difficult to explain. “It’s complicated” also has negative connotations, suggesting that things are tangled, confusing, or otherwise problematic.

I suspect we mean the same thing when we talk about the rules of a game or the plot of a media property. “Complicated” suggests the thing’s inscrutable, difficult to explain to someone who’s not already familiar.

When we want to say something similar to “complicated,” but with a more positive spin, we say that a work is “complex.” Complex suggests not so much that it’s incomprehensible or disorienting, but that it’s layered, rewarding close looks and thoughtful reading.

By way of examples, I find A Song of Ice and Fire complicated. There are countless little plot threads that spin up and wander around, to the point where it’s difficult to tell what the “main” story or characters are. Undertalefor all the simplicity of its systems and presentation, is complex; folks write deep, on point, thought-provoking essays unpacking its subtext all the time. Homestuck is complicated; even the recap posts necessary to keep its details straight from one chapter to the next are head-achingly impenetrable. A User’s Guide to the Apocalypse makes that complicated source material into something complex, dialing back the obsessive focus on crufty detail until it becomes a colorful garnish upon a rich, meaningful philosophical exploration.

If it’s not obvious, I don’t claim this is an objective distinction. Others find A Song of Ice and Fire to be comprehensible and enjoyable. I have no doubt that it’s possible to unpack real meaning from the reams of instant message conversations between humans and trolls in Homestuck, which I find superfluous and tiresome. Heck, User’s Guide wouldn’t exist if its author hadn’t connected with Homestuck itself on a profound level.

I am, however, going to tuck this into my vocabulary as a way to sum up the way I feel about something that’s, to grab for a neutral term in the same overall sphere, “not simple.” When I look at a cast of characters, or the moving parts of a game system, do the details complexify the work? Or just add complication?

We Got Undertold

Following close on the heels of Steven UniverseToby Fox’s Undertale snared the part of my brain given to fannish obsession. Not surprisingly, bloggable thoughts followed! While I don’t intend to discuss any of the game’s specific plot points, I will talk about its themes and structures in some depth. So if you’re a deep purist for experiencing media “blind,” I suggest you go play the game first!

Undertale comments on video game violence via a focus on the player’s decisions to kill or spare the characters they face in fight scenes. The game only ends in an unmitigated success for the protagonist if they refrained from killing anyone for the duration. What’s more, the ending obtained by killing everything in sight has repercussions that sour even future playthroughs, no-kill or otherwise. The more violent the protagonist, the clearer it becomes that they are the villain, not the hero, of the piece; the other characters react with believable shock, grief, and anger to the deaths the main character causes. In other words, though the NPCs are “monsters,” Undertale declares that they are people, and holds unflinchingly to that assertion.

After playing through the game once, I read through a lengthy discussion thread about it, and noted with interest the criticisms of those who didn’t share in its nearly universal praise. Setting aside dislikes of a merely aesthetic nature, some of the more thought-provoking objections included (deeply paraphrased):

  • The game is too emotionally manipulative, trying to force the player to feel a certain way
  • If its goal was to demonstrate it’s possible to make a nonviolent video game RPG, it shouldn’t have included violent options at all
  • The implication that there’s something messed up about RPGs that reward you for massive killing is an insult to those games and the people who enjoy them1
  • The ethos depicted is too black-and-white; they should have included more situations where it was justified to fight back or kill

Others in the thread pointed out how most of these complaints miss the point of the game. If it’d been made in such a way as to satisfy those critiques, it would lack most of its uniqueness and artistic worth. What interests me, though, is the common ground upon which all those criticisms rest: people are deeply averse to being confronted with the idea that their choices of entertainment, or their choices within that entertainment, might bear an ugly moral character.

On its face, why shouldn’t people resist that? The implication that violent video gaming is something perverse sounds like the cultural warfare of Tipper Gore and Jack Thompson. From a justice- or consequence-based moral framework, choosing to “kill” a video game character is a morally neutral act: some non-sapient bits and bytes get reconfigured from one basically indistinguishable state to another.

But sometimes, the interesting part isn’t the moral calculus of the act itself. Rather, the decision raises the question, “What does this say about me?” What kind of person does this sort of thing?

Undertale employs every possible device to try to get us to ask that question of ourselves, playing to our empathy with means nothing short of brilliant. Our tendency to anthropomorphize unthinking, unfeeling entities like video game characters is a curious side effect of human compassion, but it provides a safe barometer for someone’s habits of mind (virtues, if you will) in consideration for others. The range of Undertale characters’ visible emotions, the depth of their characterization, and the complexity of their reactions to events in their world make it very easy to think of them as people rather than blocks of code.

I’m no psychologist, but knowing what I do about habit formation, aren’t all these things practice of sorts for the real world? As children, we ascribe thoughts and feelings and motivations to our cherished toys. When they’re lost or damaged, the ensuing heartache is a mix of “poor me, I have lost a thing I liked” and “poor Teddy, how he must suffer!” As our minds mature, those attitudes move outward from the the playroom microcosm to the broader circles of our family, friends, and the world. Our degree of success in that transition translates into adult life as a compassionate person or a detached and uncaring one, and everything in between.

So if we accept the phenomenon with an open heart, carefully avoiding any violence against the emotive blobs of pixels in front of us, that says something about our character. Likewise, if we pack those warm feelings away, maintaining emotional distance and the conviction that these digital entities aren’t real, so that we can freely indulge in their wholesale slaughter–that says something, too. And Undertale makes sure we know as much: it periodically breaks the fourth wall to address the player with exactly that challenge.

Don’t get me wrong: I’m not saying everyone who plays the genocidal-maniac route in Undertale is a sociopath.2 Nor am I saying that doing so, or playing a bunch of other games featuring similar mass murder, makes someone into a sociopath. Heck, I don’t even think Fox would venture one of those theses. The game richly rewards you with exclusive gameplay, writing, and music on the murder path even as it deconstructs your actions, which would be a strange design decision if utter disapproval were the point. What the game does do, however, is force us to take a hard look at our emotional skill set. Those synaptic paths that help us shut down our empathy for digital characters also enable us to do the same for real people. “It’s just a game” and “I want to see all the content,” in another context, become “I don’t care what they think” and “It’s cold, but this is best for both of us.” That’s an important skill to have, but how readily do we reach for it, when a response with more heart might still be possible and praiseworthy?

That kind of introspection can make a body squirm, and I suspect that discomfort drives some of the missing-the-point critiques aforementioned. It’s the same well of resistance that powers backlash against cultural commentary like Feminist Frequency, and that leads white people to think being called “racist” is somehow worse than racism itself. But self-examination is not an enemy. The best works of art get us to take a hard look at ourselves, to think about whether our habits of thought and action express the kind of person we want to be. Undertale reaches that level of incisive meaning, making it a rare gem among computer games.

1 From what sense I can make of the word soup in his news post, this is basically Jerry Holkins’ gripe over on Penny Arcade, if you’ve seen or heard of their comic strip about it. If you haven’t, never mind. Not going to link, because fuck those guys.

2 That would be silly of me, considering I’m playing a “No Mercy” run myself as of this writing.

All That Sex I Could’ve Had

As might be common for folks who grew up Roman Catholic, my relationship with sexuality was rather twisted, for much of my life. I was preoccupied with obedience to Church teachings, likely more than most of my peers; the Church was preoccupied with teaching me how to approach sex, likely more than most other moral topics. And that approach was little more than “Just Don’t Do It,” at least until such time as you’re married to your lifelong partner (who, for me, would have to be a woman). The virtue of chastity as the Church defined it meant no masturbation, no pornography, no physical intimacy beyond the most platonic of hugs and hand-holds. So I became a horrible sort of chastity crusader, to the point where premarital hanky-panky on others’ parts filled me with righteous rage.

To my friends from those days whom I subjected to one rant or another on the topic: you have my sympathy and regret!

Surprising no one, I found these strictures difficult to obey, despite how fervently I believed in their value. Failures sent me into little spirals of shame. That was trouble enough when the “sin” was mine alone, like perusing some vault of erotica or other, but the impact on my romantic partners had to have been far worse. Whatever intimacy we engaged in beyond the previously-described chaste touches, I would revel in it in the moment, then backpedal with guilt later. I established boundaries, then broke them, then reestablished them, in a terrible cycle. (I can only claim the meager credit that I didn’t lash out at these women for “tempting” me or something, which I understand is not uncommon in some Christian circles. I assumed all the pointless blame, which is problematic enough.) I can only imagine how horrifically frustrating that must have been, from my partners’ perspectives.

To my girlfriends from those days, then: you, too, have my sympathy and regret. It was ultimately for the best that we parted ways, but I treated you badly, and for that I am sorry.

When eventually I fell away from the Church, the realization that I no longer had need to abide by those restrictions came in a slow and surreal awakening. Here I was, the door of adult sexuality open to me as it had been for years, but barely knowing what to expect should I choose to walk through. When I began dating again, I wrote a letter to my new girlfriend warning her of and apologizing in advance for my hangups in sexuality and my relative inexperience. We did all right, thankfully: we got married a little over a year ago, and continue to get along fine, in all respects!

I do wonder sometimes what my maturation would have been like, absent those dubious burnt-in lessons–if, perhaps, I’d grown up under the Liberal Catholic Church instead of the Roman one. A different set of awkward memories and little regrets, no doubt, but probably a healthier path overall. As I continue my search for abiding truths to fill the role that religion once served for me, the matter of sexual morality becomes a crucial criterion. Only those philosophies with a greater emphasis on concepts like consent, tolerance, joy, and exploration than shame and repression make the cut.

White Shame

A recent post by Chuck Dunning making the rounds on Facebook had this to say:

If I say, “White privilege is real and it means White people have some unearned social advantages just because they’re White,”

and you think I mean, “White privilege is real and it means White people should be ashamed of themselves just because they’re White,”

we’re having a misunderstanding.

That’s a fine enough bit of insight. But as I think about it, I wonder.

Shouldn’t we white folks be ashamed?

Shame has taken a beating in the public consciousness in recent years, and for good reason. At least here in the States, shame does quite a bit of harm. Due to social pressure and messaging, people feel ashamed for being gay, for weighing more than a sack of flour, and indeed, for having dark skin. These are terrible failings of our society, and we are right to say, “you shouldn’t be ashamed of that.” By the same token, it’s not simply being born with pale skin that anyone should feel ashamed of, that being something we have no say in or control over–so as far as that goes, Mr. Dunning’s implications in his post are on point.

There’s real value in shame, though, and we lose out on it (baby, bathwater, etc.) if we reject shame entirely. Shame motivates change. When we screw up, that squirming, burning discomfort urges us to do better in the future. When someone we’re close to, or identify with, or admire, screws up, the shame mixed in with our anger and disappointment prods us to consider: ought I to call this person to task, or distance myself from them? And that very calling-out, especially when seen at a community or societal level, aiming to make the offending individual feel shame in turn, is how our social norms advance.

As a white person, I should feel ashamed when police, paid for with my taxes and ostensibly defending my safety, brutalize and kill people of color.

As a white person, I should feel ashamed when politicians, representing me in our government, make public remarks indifferent to Black suffering and enact policies targeting Black people for disenfranchisement and incarceration.

As a white person, I should feel ashamed when I take advantage of my privilege to keep my social circles empty of people of color, to sit at home instead of protesting injustice, to earn and spend without furthering any causes beyond my own comfort.

It’s useless if it remains at shame, of course. That’s why “white guilt” has a bad connotation: it’s white folks squirming over how bad people of color have it, making public shows of sorryness without ever doing anything of concrete worth. But as a first step, an impetus? Perhaps it’s better that we acknowledge and understand our shame, rather than deny and defend against it. Only then can we put it to work erasing the prejudices and inequalities worth feeling ashamed of in the first place.

Gender of Choice

Some years back, I heard an NPR segment about students defying gender norms, including such odd approaches as insisting that one’s gender was “truck” and should thus be referred to with pronouns like “it.” I made a few faltering starts at writing a blog post about my thoughts on it, but never quite finished. The topic came back to mind with March 31st’s Transgender Visibility day and this delightful little comic by @papayakitty on Twitter.

What’s my gender?

I mean, I’m a guy, sure; biologically male, wear masculine clothing more often than gender-neutral clothing, and feminine clothing only when cosplaying, etc. But I do rather delight in “crossplay” when the (uncommon) opportunity comes up. I’ve roleplayed female characters with increasing frequency since I was maybe seven or eight years old, and while it’s been a more or less novel thing as time’s gone on, it’s never felt awkward or wrong. When the Internet came into flower and I established online identities on services like AOL, IRC, GameSpy Arcade, and later Furcadia, I frequently presented myself as a girl. People tended not to realize I was playing cross-gender unless the point was specifically mentioned out of character. (I even wrote a poem about the ugly reactions people had to the disconnect when revealed; it reads pretty clearly as an adolescent transgender lament.) I went to an all-boys high school, but I tended to disdain the connotations thereof, amending statements of my gender identity with such qualifiers as “male, low testosterone.” I still feel that having Ranma Saotome’s curse would be pretty awesome. I’ve had people ask me if I’m gay due to my love of romance themes in my entertainment. My all-time favorite movies (The Princess Bride, Magnolia, and 500 Days of Summer) might be called “chick flicks”… I could go on.

Thing is, I don’t think it makes sense to consider me “transgender” in the sense most commonly meant by that. I don’t experience gender dysphoria when looking at myself or presenting as male. I have enjoyed every privilege inherent in cis white maleness, and feel it would be disrespectful to those less privileged to insist otherwise. “Thinking it would be cool to be a woman” is a far cry from even what little I’ve glimpsed into the life experiences of my transgendered friends.

Then again. What even is gender?

Wracking my brain for anything that would qualify as essential to the genders or even the biological sexes, I don’t come up with a lot. It sort of makes sense to have some outward signifiers of “bearing male gametes,” in a world where that’s both of practical concern on a day-to-day basis, and the level of scientific understanding and interpersonal communication is weak enough that you couldn’t just have the conversation, “Can you have children with me, and do you want to?” But we don’t live in such a backward world by now, thank the Primes, and for someone like me who isn’t interested in children in the first place, it’s all rather unnecessary. Everything else we associate with the genders or sexes is contingent, mere statistical truth at best. We can say “as a species, homo sapiens features sexual dimorphism, with such-and-so genital structures and secondary sexual characteristics,” but individuals’ physical characteristics can and do diverge wildly from those baselines. And the various personality traits and aesthetic choices associated with either gender are even fuzzier, ranging from laughably arbitrary (pink used to be a masculine color and blue feminine) to equal parts harmful, offensive, and untrue (“men tend to be physically violent”).

People operate under schemes of categorization for cognitive ease, though, so it’s psychologically practical to think of someone as based on a template with variations. “He’s very much a bro,” “she’s a tomboy,” “he’s a guy but likes sewing,” or whatever. They also help with personal identity; group membership is a powerful human need, and resonance or solidarity with fellow “men” and “women” is of great use and comfort. These labels become problematic, though, when they influence our behavior in discriminatory ways, lead us to jump to unfounded conclusions, or perpetuate stereotypes that shore up unjust systems of power. And when it comes to gender, it’s difficult to use the categories without falling into any of those traps.

Labels like “agender,” “demigirl” etc., as mentioned in the abovelinked comic, then serve a dual purpose: they defy standard assumptions about gender while still providing the psychic value of a group identity to belong to. They seem pretty darn cool to me! Of the ones I’ve poked at, “demiboy” (or “demiguy,” which doesn’t have as nice a sound to it) feels most in tune with my own experiences. If I were to embrace that label, what would it suggest? A greater freedom of choice in fashion and affect, I suppose… I have often envied women their lovely options in clothing.

And/or I could develop a female tulpa to the point where I could switch her into the dominant consciousness… hah!

Three Levels of “I’m Sorry”

Kali-ra and Tani-ro:

I had a bit of insight come to mind during a recent conversation about Mike Krahulik’s recent tone-deaf comments about transgendered people (do read the comments; they flesh out the story beyond what the author included). There are three kinds or levels of “I’m sorry,” and one’s opinion of public-figure gaffes like this one has much to do with what level of apology we consider sufficient.

“I’m sorry you feel that way.” This level expresses sympathy or polite condolence, not contrition. It acknowledges that the other person is hurt or upset, but doesn’t say the speaker caused that hurt. Depending on how and when it’s delivered, it could be a genuine display of empathy: the “I’m sorry, baby” you might say when a loved one suffers a mishap you had nothing to do with. Or it could ring insincere, implying that the person chose to feel offended and it’s no responsibility of the speaker’s. In any case, this is a “sorry” but not an apology. Generally speaking, only people deeply preferential to the speaker over the aggrieved party (“He said he’s sorry, what more do you want?”) consider this sufficient in cases like Krahulik’s.

“I’m sorry I hurt you.” This is a true apology. The speaker accepts that his action caused harm. It frequently comes with a denial of intention like “I didn’t mean to offend.” It comes from genuine emotion: shock, confusion, shame, regret, that one’s actions caused suffering. There may be hope that behavior will change, in the sense that the speaker may be more careful in the future. This is the level I see Krahulik at in this instance, and it’s commendable that the Penny Arcade guys now tend to get this far instead of just the first level. In most situations it’d be enough, even. But in matters where the apologizing party is an influential public figure, or has a track record of similar missteps, or the topic bears on sensitive issues with impact on human safety–all of which are the case here–the hurt party may wish to see a deeper “sorry.”

“I’m sorry. I was wrong. I know better now.” This is the level of sorry that I and similar critics hold out for, whether in hope or anger: apology that admits moral fault and is transformative. At the second level, the speaker’s admission of guilt extends to such foibles as carelessness or lack of tact, the harm done as much accident as error. But here, the person recognizes that their ignorance, mistaken ideas, or unjust choices have led them astray from the truth. Now that they’ve come to understand that truth, it’s hard even to imagine making the same mistake again. The whole basis on which they did the hurtful act has gone away. In Krahulik’s case, this might look something like “I now know the difference between sex and gender, and understand that ‘woman’ refers to the latter rather than the former. I see why it’s so important to people that I get this right, and will approach the topic with more respect from now on.” It’s a lot to ask! But given the power of Krahulik’s platform, the PA track record, and the harsh reality of violence against transgendered people, this is the only level of apology that would repair my opinion of the situation or the people involved. I suspect I’m not the only one.

Note that reparations like Krahulik’s $20,000 donation to the Trevor Project don’t elevate the level of the apology in the sense I describe here. It can happen, or not, at any given level, as a separate axis. A sincere first-level sorry might include a kind gesture to cheer the person up; an insincere first-level sorry could come with a bribe to try to silence the aggrieved party. Second-level sorries’ reparations, like Krahulik’s, act as mitigation or repayment for harm done. The third level includes that restitution aspect, but additionally demonstrates the apologizer’s new understanding and willingness to change. In any case, it doesn’t change the basic kind of apology.

Hopefully that makes things clearer to folks who are puzzled or frustrated by critics’ feelings that apologies to date have been insufficient. I myself wasn’t able to quite pin down why I felt that way until I thought it through like this. Hopefully it’ll help me better articulate these things in further conversation about this and future incidents!