What is the ethical response to a dysfunctional society? What is the virtuous response? What is the practical response?
If you’re paying the least bit of attention you know something is badly wrong: a dragging economy, growing income and wealth inequality, crumbling infrastructure, climate change, resource depletion, endless war, domestic spying, a record prison population, and a Congress that refuses to govern. You don’t need a master’s degree in divination to see that where ever this is headed, it isn’t any place good.
Seeing what’s wrong is easy. Figuring out what to do about it is not. Prophetic witness? Political action? Subverting the system? Rebellion? Withdrawal?
Earlier this month I reviewed Apocalyptic Witchcraft by Peter Grey, a book that falls firmly into the rebellion category. In the review, I said:
If there was any doubt of Grey’s disdain for contemporary society, it was ended when he said “It is time that witchcraft paid the Devil his due.”
I went on to say:
I swim in the same currents as Peter Grey and I’m inspired by Apocalyptic Witchcraft. Ultimately, though, I’m unwilling to go as far as he suggests.
While at my core I realize that’s the right decision for me, it still bothers me. It feels like selling out, like clinging to privilege, like collaborating with the enemy.
I have to confess that I miss the more forcefully “conscious pariah” school of queer theory that I cut my teeth on in the 1990s.
That school argues that one should not say, “Relax, we are not a threat to society.” Rather, say “Hell yes, we are a threat to society, and we should be, because society is wrong.” One should not say, “We are just like you, quiet and monogamous and sweet and safe.” Instead say, “Our very existence is a challenge to a world which deserves to be challenged.”
From that point of view, having bourgeois monogamous married gay couples on sentimental sitcoms is the opposite of what one should be fighting for. That is tame, in every sense of the word.
To borrow a phrase from my Evangelical childhood, that post convicts me. It’s hard to rebel against something you always wanted.
I think I sometimes paint a too-negative picture of my childhood. My home life was stable, safe, and generally supportive. I hated the isolation and the farm work, but I loved the woods. While school could be stressful – bullying is not a new phenomenon – I was a very good student. But I knew I was different, and I didn’t see “different” as a good thing. Those differences were largely centered on where I lived and where I went to church, but there was more, even though I wouldn’t recognize it till much later. The taunts of “queer!” were more accurate than either the bullies or I recognized, just not in the context they were intended.
I didn’t want to be queer in any sense of the term. I wanted those differences to go away. I wanted to live like my friends lived… or at least like I thought they lived. I wanted what I saw on TV. The dream of building an upper middle class lifestyle was my strongest motivation in my teens and early twenties.
For all I rant against our dysfunctional mainstream society, I’m part of it, and I benefit from it. Calls to dismantle it seem a little disingenuous… not to mention impractical, considering how large and entrenched it is. At the same time, what I wrote in my last post is just as true: you can dress up like anything you want, but you can only be who you are. I can’t unsee what I’ve seen and the facts are what they are. Jonathan Korman is right: this society deserves to be challenged.
A long time ago I was having an informal conversation with my boss. He was talking about being “edgy” in a business sense, and at one point he said “you like to be around the edge but you don’t like to get too close to it.” I thought about it, then agreed. Getting right up on the edge is scary – you might fall off. Or someone might push you. I like to stay a safe distance back.
(To my friends and relatives who think I’ve already gone over the edge: no insult intended, but if you think that you probably don’t know where the edge is. Some days I’m not sure I do either.)
We need people at the edge: visionaries and radicals who challenge unhelpful and unethical social norms and power structures. Some of them imagine a better society that can be, while others break the spell of glamoury and show this society in all its ugliness. If I can’t be one of them, at least I can amplify their signal and spread their ideas to those who need to hear them.
In a Facebook response to Jonathan Korman’s post, Niki Whiting said:
Yes. I am queer. To the casual observer my life looks looks pretty damn heteronormative-breeder-mainstream. Scratch just the tiniest bit below the surface and… oh hell no.
There is value in being a queer presence in a mainstream society. There is value in being a magical presence in a mundane society. There is value in being a Nature-worshipping presence in a Nature-exploiting society. Even if all we can be is a silent presence, we make the world a better place than if we weren’t here.
Every time we make a choice for acceptance instead of exclusion, we make the world a little better. Every time we make a choice for people instead of things, we make the world a little better. Every time we make a choice for sustainability instead of extravagance, we make the world a little better.
We can challenge the power structures all we like, but in the end we have to make a living one way or another. Some of us can live off the grid, but for most of us, a more practical option is Gordon White’s concept of a salvage mission to fund a rescue mission. By successfully working a professional job, I have the resources to write and teach and travel.
By helping to build strong tribes, I prepare for the day when that professional job may no longer exist.
Is that enough? Nothing any of us can do on our own is “enough.” So we do what we can, and we cheer those who can do more, and we support those who can do less. And in doing so, we make things a little better than they’d be otherwise.
I’m not a queer radical any more than I’m a celebrity-worshipping materialist. But given a choice – and I do have a choice – I’m playing for the queer radical team.