Talking in Circles: Who Moves Your Humanism Forward?

Talking in Circles: Who Moves Your Humanism Forward? August 31, 2020

Time-lapsed photography of the stars as we perceive them from a rotating Earth, creating rings of circles

Let’s begin with a story. I had a necessary and uncomfortable growth moment this past week. Like many of my fellow authors, I have people in my circles who hold views I regard as wilfully ignorant, narrow-minded, and regional to an extreme. It’s often not even worth engaging with them over the opinions they hold, because everything about how they’ve framed their views on current events reflects a conscious refusal to empathize with other points of view.

Thankfully, neither I, nor authors from other cultural contexts, feel the need incorporate all these problematic points of view into our fictions. A prominent Nigerian-American SF&F writer with current-U.S.-president-supporting family members, for instance, can and does continue to write empowering and progressive books without anyone claiming that her work is “inauthentic” for not including this subgroup in her stories. And I, as a Westerner, can likewise write with ease within North American parameters without having to centre this sort of ugliness in my work, either.

The real challenge for me, though, came with accepting that I am now a diaspora writer, too. In general, the term reflects the idea of being caught between two (or more) worlds: of never being able to return to the world of one’s origin as the same person, but not fitting in with the world of one’s residence, either. This also happens generationally, with the children of immigrants struggling to make sense of their inherited identities, traditions, and languages… while growing up in other cultures that are, from birth, also their own. (If you’ve seen Kim’s Convenience, a sweet little Canadian sitcom about a Korean couple that immigrates to Canada and runs a convenience store, think of the native-Canadian daughter, who is both plainly Korean and also feels painfully un-Korean around her white friends when her Korean-born cousin comes to visit.)

Funnily enough, Canadian literature is filled with diaspora writers (ask me for recs, if you’re interested!), but until this week, I was highly apprehensive about accepting that term for my own work. Then I had an encounter, on the back of my most recently published sci-fi story, which made me realize how distinctly valid my own experiences in Colombia are. I have my own history, my own traumas, my own slipstream network of local associations — and they are necessarily going to emerge in what I write.

The question is, how do I advance this work while also making solid, humanist selections with respect to the inclusion of other points of view?

The answer lies with a topic critical to humanists irrespective of our differing public lives and labours. Today, that is, I’ll be talking about circles — circles of care, circles of discourse, and circles of action — because while a humanist should aspire to build a world of greater inclusivity, it’s equally important, for us as individuals, to recognize that honouring someone else’s humanity doesn’t compel us to flatten the tiers of safety and security in our lives. We do not have to “bring someone in” to our most active circles in order to do right by them.

Rather, we need to make choices — careful choices — about who is going to move us forward best as humanists, and then shape our circles to that end.

A Little Backstory on My Local “Circles”

So here’s the neat thing I learned from local writer-friends last week: they hold certain regional views for very logical reasons, whereas I’m necessarily moving through the world in the slippery position of an outsider, which means that I have been seen by and I engage more with local “outsiders”, myself. This in turn means that I’ve gained different Colombian experiences along the way. When I then write about these experiences, I of course do so with immense self-consciousness, because I’m a white person in Colombia (shocking, I know), and because there are profound issues with representation that have been imposed on Colombia by other white persons come before me. I know I’m not going to get everything right, then, but I do have a distinct vantage point, and a strong desire to use it to tell related stories well.

As such, I at first felt like a total failure when two Colombians told me they didn’t like my most recently published story, because they didn’t see themselves within it. But when I listened to their criticisms, some of which reflected not having read the story I had written (e.g. saying that I had made Medellín inaccurately hot, when the story is explicitly set in a future where The City of Eternal Spring has become The City of Eternal Summer due to climate change, the central issue of my tale), I realized that I vehemently disagreed with some of their comments… on humanist grounds.

I disagreed, that is, with their criticism of having an Indigenous person in the story, with their criticism of imagining a future where a paisa (a person from Medellín with rural roots) talks to said Indigenous person, and with the suggestion that I should write Indigenous characters “doing bad things” to “subvert” the stereotype.

This was the moment when I arrived as a diaspora writer, because before this debrief (which I’m very thankful they took the time to have with me!), I had assumed that my experiences in all parts of Medellín — with Afro-Colombian displaced persons in poorer barrios named after parts of the coast; with Indigenous persons on the mountaintops as well as begging on the streets of affluent El Poblado; with displaced Venezuelans (from the men who robbed me at gunpoint on a mountain, through to many friends here struggling as vendors or exploited workers during pandemic); with the cadence of life in the chaos of Centro’s dingy markets (something I also touched on in a story about trans persons in Colombia); with the PTSD-ridden radicals who gather in certain districts after major corporate buildings have shuttered their doors for the day — would give me the immersive exposure-set I needed to “represent” the region well.

(In time. Let me be clear that I’m not at all tooting my horn as a finished writer on these themes. SO many things I look to improve upon in the next published piece!)

But this week, I was also listening to, and learning from, another type of medellinense: the middle-class paisa — a group of people I’ve often heard speak ill of the Indigenous, and sometimes talk about how displaced Venezuelans are dangerous because they don’t have local roots, and sometimes creepily fetishize Afro-Colombian men (at least, the older women in my rumba classes did this last). And these perspectives toward perceived “outsiders” make complete sense when one considers local histories of economic instability and violence, which together created a regionalism so extreme that many never really left their barrios. Many of my clients these past 2.5 years would even tell me, with no small envy after I described visiting various parts of the city for work or edification, that they’d never been to [X] themselves, even after 30 or 40 years here.

For many medellinenses, then, any gains that they’ve made for themselves and their families are precarious, while the asks on their consciences when they walk the streets every day are tremendous. Their circle of action is familial, fiercely so, in large part because it’s not easy to extend that circle to others here without being consumed by how much suffering there is on whole. As such, I cannot at all judge people who overcame so much for still working to overcome certain regionalist prejudices. I haven’t walked those miles in their shoes — and never will, no matter how long I live here.

But I also don’t need to replicate those prejudices in my own work. I can continue to learn how to write Colombia “better”, while also dreaming up more humanist futures for us all.

Finding Your Circle of Discourse

A dear reader and growing Colombian-friend-from-afar, for instance, sent me an absolutely wonderful humanist speech this week, which in turn reminded me that Colombia contains multitudes. Alejandro Gaviria, the president of la Universidad de los Andes, gave the following moving, overtly humanist remarks as his commencement speech for the class of 2020. In so doing, he reminded me that I’m hardly reinventing the wheel, as I navigate one country of multitudes via my background from another country of multitudes: I just need to define the circles of discourse and action that will serve me best as I seek to refine my practices as a writer, thinker, humanist, and… human.

(It’s in Spanish, but I’m going to translate a few sections below. Square brackets indicate where I’ve had to make changes for words with odd direct translations.)

“Humanism, in my opinion, is an optimistic state, implying [] the reclamation of idealism, of never giving up the possibility of doing differently.” (5:15-24)

“Humanism needs to insist as well on compassion, understood as solidarity with those with whom we share a common destiny: death, illness, and [the urgency of the present moment].” (5:45-54)

“Humanism insists in part on the idea that there are many ways of understanding the world. Many ways of seeking the [purpose/essence] of things. Maybe [someone else] doesn’t seem to take it seriously, but all are respectable. Humanism allows me no doubt [about foregrounding] humans and their ideas. Remember, I hope for many years, that the Universidad de los Andes is not only an educational institution, not only that, but also an idea that is filled with ideas: The idea of transforming lives — because transformed lives, in their own way, transform society. The idea of pluralism: [] entirely an idea of perception, with respect to distinct ways of understanding the world and social change. The idea of excellence, of going beyond what seems [possible]. The idea of contributing to society: knowledge [begetting more] knowledge, of course; but also, the transformational knowledge. What question[s] can I advance and interrogate and change?” (6:52-7:55)

Circles of Care, Discourse, and Action

Part of the problem with representation, of course, is that local voices don’t get heard much on international platforms. The folks I was talking to, for instance, absolutely hope to be published more prominently, and to have their own stories and lived experiences understood on their own terms. (Even more pressingly, I get the feeling that they really want to see better representations of the Colombian present in international literature; future-oriented SF isn’t ever going to feel right until there’s a strong sense of what the savviest Colombia of today looks like, too. Fair enough!)

I’ve often said, too, that in order to write well in another context, one must also seek the elevation of its own storytellers — so, absolutely, I’m going to promote the heck out of these and other local writers, and do what I can to broaden my platform to bring them into those bigger conversations. I want them sharing their own perspectives, and being heard. I want a bounty of Colombian writers at the international table. (And I want them there in conversation with one another, paisa and indigena and desplazado, rolo and caleño, costeño and pastuso!)

But I also need to think about my personal growth now, too — in writing, as in all other aspects of my life as a humanist. As ever, I need to decide how best to create circles of care, discourse, and action that do more good than harm.

And, yes, I know that there’s no real endpoint to this struggle. I know that the people I place in each circle will inevitably vary over time.

It’s still important, though, that we take the time to remind ourselves that we are allowed to have these circles, as humanists. We are allowed to consider the plight of fellow human beings as the most critical matter in our purview, while still making clear choices with respect to who is given the means to directly shape our growth.

By exploring my own “circles” today, then, I do hope I can encourage you to reflect on your own — even if you have other terms for them. (The more the merrier, right?)

So, to start us off:

The circle of care is an obvious outer-ring issue for humanists, because we should be pursuing those public policies that best liberate, inform, and empower fellow human beings. We’ll always have more concentrated communities, too, wherein we ensure that specific family and friends have all their needs met (see: circle of action) — but systemically and ideologically, we need to be framing general thought and action with a mind to life on the global scale: looking past nation-state borders, that is, and other forms of chauvinism with all its attendant prejudices.

This is the circle, then, where I place the people in my life who hold odious views and engage in reprehensible actions. They’re very difficult to have genuine conversations with, because they’re not willing to entertain other points of view, or are otherwise extremely hostile to being “wrong” — to the point that they refuse to engage with dissenting points of view, or to own up to mistakes they’ve made that have hurt others. Discourse is about “winning” more than “learning” to these folks, so they’re not worth the energy of direct engagement. Nevertheless, the improvement of their life outcomes still belongs in any conversation we have about advancing humanist policies.

Next, we have the circle of discourse; and this is the tricky one, because many argue that the circle of discourse should include, well, everyone, or else, uh… “cancel culture“? But the real question is… what does your circle of discourse need to look like, as an ever-improving humanist? Do you, personally, need to include everyone in your circle of direct critical engagement and debate?

Of course not. But it’s a delicate matter, trying to shape this circle in such a way as to ensure that you’re not wasting your energy simply, say, defending your right to exist — while also not throwing yourself into so narrow an information silo that you find yourself out of touch with the rest of the world’s most critical debates. Rather than be prescriptive about whom you “should” include or not, then, I’m going to propose a series of questions you can use to assess your communities. Based on your answers, is your circle of discourse “healthy”, “toxic”, or “insular”? And if the latter two, is there anything you can do to change it?

  1. Y/N – I have people with whom I can disagree safely and comfortably over most any topic.
  2. Y/N – In the event that I cannot disagree safely and comfortably over a specific topic with a given person in my circle of discourse, they respect my articulated desire not to discuss the matter further.
  3. Y/N – I have a clear sense of which of my “opinions” are not up for debate, and I am surrounded only by people who respect my articulated desire not to debate them.
  4. Y/N – I have a clear sense of which “opinions” are not up for debate for others in my circle of discourse, and I can respect their articulated desire not to debate them, too.
  5. Y/N – When presented with a news item that perfectly reinforces pre-existing convictions, I study it carefully and seek out alternative perspectives before disseminating it to others in my circle of discourse.
  6. Y/N – When others in my circle of discourse believe that my concern over an issue is unfounded, they do not dismiss my emotions when advancing their own points of view.
  7. Y/N – When someone in my circle of discourse articulates their own distress about a given issue, even and especially when I believe that their distress is unfounded, I am able to acknowledge their emotional response on its own terms, and dissent centrally with respect to the facts at hand.

(I’m sure there are more good questions one could ask, as a kind of diagnostic test for the state of your circle of discourse. Maybe in the comments, you can suggest more?)

Lastly, there’s the circle of action. This includes, for most of us, family and friends, alongside colleagues and other community members that we help with our presence, as well as with donations, counsel, networking, and a general sharing of life’s bounty.

But it also includes the people who most empower us. It includes the allies we choose, the people we trust to nudge us when we go astray, and the people that we would follow to the ends of the Earth ourselves.

And so, no, the innermost part of the circle of action does not include all family, friends, colleagues, and community members. The centre of this circle is highly selective for a reason.

Why? Because we need checks-and-balances in our lives: of course we do. We need people who inspire strength and coax weakness.

However, there are many who delight in serving as observers of weakness, and many others who don’t have a clear enough sense of our objectives to help us refine our journey towards them. And sure, many in both camps are well-intentioned — or, even if they aren’t, they’re still human: still a part of the same grand adventure we share.

The question, ultimately, is:

Who is going to make of me a better humanist, at this moment in my life?

To which, of course, there is no perfect answer. Sometimes we need to be reminded that other legitimate points of view exist. Sometimes we need to be challenged to broaden our circle of discourse, even when it feels uncomfortable. Sometimes we even need to be rapped on the knuckles, for thinking that our strongest convictions are the only plausible “peak” in the far-reaching moral landscape.

Sometimes, though, we also need to be reminded that it is permissible to put the circle of discourse to one side for a while.

Because every human being belongs in our circle of care. Every human being needs to be incorporated into our vision of a world shaped by truly humanistic policies.

But it’s also all right, as individuals, to want to dwell awhile in the affirmation of those most expressly interested in improving their efforts — and our own — to that better end.

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