During the height of the protests against police brutality in the summer of 2020, everyone around me was working hard to figure out how they could support the movement for Black lives. We all wanted to throw our individual oomf behind the collective push for a drastically overdue reimagining of the justice system. It was a messy time; emotional, exhausting, and often unorganized. Little groups formed to accomplish this task or support that effort.
My group was a bunch of people at various stages along our personal liberation journeys, united by a shared goal, and trying not to fuck things up as we did our part. In keeping with the spirit of why we came together, we were determined to support each other's development, check ourselves (and each other). It was fraught with complication because we were also learning as we went how to participate in cultural revolution amidst a pandemic.
It was also challenging because some of us were more practiced at giving, receiving, and acting on feedback. One particular group discussion stands out vividly in my mind. Everyone in the group chat that day grew-up in America and most of us are racialized as white. One white person got upset when another white person used a slang term with roots in AAVE (African-American Vernacular English). This was exactly the personal work we all wanted to do, and it was an important topic, so we had a side-bar to discuss it.
The originally upset person (who I will call Steadfast Rule Person) shared a list of AAVE words and phrases they thought white people should never use under any circumstances. But many things on their list, while having originated in various intersectional sub-cultures, had long since been assimilated into the mainstream lexicon. So several folks thought there was more nuance to consider in identifying where the natural evolution of popular language morphed into cultural appropriation.
As we talked through it, folks shared information and anecdotes from their personal experience and posted links to topical articles and informative YouTube presentations. All the while Steadfast Rule Person continued to repeat their original stance without actually engaging the things anyone else had to say. Finally, one person got fed up, chewed-out Steadfast Rule Person for not participating in the discussion, and left the chat. In response, Steadfast Rule Person made a pronouncement that nobody was listening to them and also left the chat. Which left the rest of us feeling like we were in essentially the same place where we started the discussion.
A lot of people said a lot of things in that group chat discussion, but in the end we had gotten absolutely nowhere as a group. Much like the diplomatic efforts in the weeks leading up to the current war in Ukraine. Many diplomats and world leaders said a lot of things, including representatives from Russia. And in the end, Russia invaded Ukraine anyway. All that talk got us absolutely nowhere.
And now because of the rules of international decorum, no other country can directly intervene militarily or we will officially have World War 3 on our hands. I won't pretend to know all the historical context for this current conflict, although I have heard a great deal about it this week in the news and on social media. I do know what I have seen and experienced in my lifetime. And over the last several weeks I watched Vladimir Putin lie to the entire world while strategically surrounding Ukraine with troops. I saw this invasion coming a mile away, just like everyone else.
And that infuriates me.
Not just because I empathize with the Ukrainians who are suffering through horrific tragedy as their homes are invaded and their cities destroyed. But because I also see everybody else continuing to play by a certain set of rules while the one guy (Putin) is clearly and overtly breaking all those rules. The same guy who is always breaking all the rules. The same guy who has been breaking or re-writing any rule he feels like at any time he wants for all of my adult life. And yet, here we are. Despite strongly worded condemnations and economic sanctions, we are on the doorstep of another world war. Possibly a nuclear world war. All that effort seems to have gotten us exactly nowhere.
Although I am disheartened, I am not altogether surprised. The macrocosm of geo-politics reflects the microcosm of humans living our lives and relating to each other. Social media is a terrific example. Much of the content I see on every platform seems to be an expression of that exact phenomenon: people saying an awful lot without actually saying anything at all. Comments and likes and shares to boost ratings, drive engagement, and gain followers. And for what? What is anyone actually saying in all these comments? Where is all this engagement getting us?
Take for example a post I saw on LinkedIn this week. The poster shared a tip for successfully navigating some aspect of the hiring process. They ended their post with something I see more frequently than not: a question. Not a question I think they really wanted to crowd-source an answer to, but a question they already knew the answer to and had already answered in their original post.
By the time this post hit my feed, there were many comments. People chiming in with appreciation for or discouragement of the tip offered in the original post. People answering the post question by weaving together mostly jargon and buzzwords. Almost nobody gave any real, actual advice. Only one person answered the question by describing actual actions an actual person could actually take in their actual workplace to actually get from circumstance A to circumstance B.
Much talk and discussion. No forward movement.
I have been wondering recently if humankind has actually made any progress over our centuries of existence. Some people answer that question with an emphatic yes. They say we live longer lives because we have better medicine. They say more people can read and write than any other time in history. They say we have vast collections of scientific knowledge. But not everyone has access to medical care and education. And many of our current scientific understandings are steeped in the un-checked bias of the (mostly white and male) researchers, which has profound impacts on the application of that immense scientific knowledge.
I experienced the very same feeling of skeptical unease reading all the coverage of Caitlyn Jenner's coming out after she appeared on the cover of Vanity Fair magazine. It was celebrated at the time as a huge win for trans people everywhere; lauded as mainstream recognition and representation at last. And it was. But it didn't feel like society had made a big step forward in that moment. Although it was terrific to see mainstream media celebrating someone's transition, it seemed like a celebration of humans being allowed to be either a man or a woman. Either masculine or feminine. To represent either one end of the gender continuum or the other.
Caitlyn went through extremely expensive surgery to "feminize" her face. Her public coming out was styled by a famous stylist, photographed by a famous photographer, and appeared on the cover of a famous women's fashion magazine. To me, all that fanfare missed the whole point of celebrating a person for being exactly who they are. It felt instead like an affirmation of the gender binary. It was now okay to transition, as long as when you emerge from your chrysalis the new butterfly you are fits into a category society will recognize and which will not make anyone too uncomfortable.
Humans have made a great many discoveries and crafted many terrific inventions. We have made a lot of progress, but have we arrived anywhere different than where we started? It seems to me like we are really just using newer and more impressive toys to play-out the same games we've always played. I got an email this week from Senator Jeff Merkley about the war in Ukraine. What particularly struck me was that he described Putin's invasion as unprecedented. History is full of any number of examples of one nation or one despot invading and forcibly taking some other country's territory. That is definitely not new, even if the equipment or tactics are arranged differently.
I think about the strides society has made toward racial justice and gender equality. We have certainly come a long way from black folks in chains at public auctions. And nowadays women can vote, own property, and have bank accounts. Those indicators of progress are what gives me hope. Knowing that we will probably be having this same conversation decades from now about slightly different expressions of the same damn issues fills me with exhaustion.
Maybe I'm just finally coming into a full understanding of what Charles Dickens meant when he wrote "It was the best of times. It was the worst of times" at the beginning of A Tale of Two Cities. Maybe I can take some solace in the fact that it's always been this way. Humanity has made it through all our past turmoil and we're still here, making art and stirring up trouble. Killing each other and loving each other.
That doesn't make me feel any better about the state of the world, but it does remind me that our greatest weakness is also our greatest strength. We make everything up as we go and we can (and do) adapt to anything. Just because it's always been this way doesn't mean that's what we have to keep on doing. I just hope we can make the big giant pivot we need to make fast enough for it to matter.
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Jaydra is a human in-process, working to make the world a better place. Sharing thoughts, feelings, and observations about the human experience.