…you know how the rest of the song goes, right? Or did I just totally date myself? Imagine the grim yet oddly catching Smashing Pumpkins song “Bullet with Butterfly Wings” playing in the background while you read this, if you wish. The title came to me when I was pondering the state of the world and all I could come up with is that everything is horrifying and I don’t know what to do about it.
Like many teachers and students, I am trying to chug along until I reach the end of the semester: coffee, teach, sleep, repeat. I am trying to keep anything pressing at bay until final grades are turned in. The world, of course, does not care about my plans and goals, and so I find myself hurtling towards burn-out once more, especially as I try to figure out what’s broken in this world and what I can possibly do about it.
In my corner of the dance community, there have been a lot of recent discussions about cultural appropriation and whether we’re being activist enough and so on. I’m not going to speak to those concerns here (I’m hoping to do so in an upcoming post), but just sitting with all of that for the last few weeks has really made me feel cynical and pessimistic.
While I’ve been mentally dissecting what seems fair and appropriate in my hobby, I’ve not been thinking about the following items:
- The fact that there are still refugee children in cages here in the U.S. (which is horrifying)
- The fact that the police continue to kill Black Americans at appallingly high rates, with criminally few consequences (also horrifying)
- The rising violence against Asian Americans for the past couple of years, recently coming to a head in the Atlanta mass shooting (super horrifying)
- The ongoing pandemic, and how many institutions have just shrugged and said “ok” to people dying (abjectly horrifying, please someone tell me you got the Julia Kristeva reference)
- Other health care crises, such as how the U.S. has some of the highest maternal mortality rates of Western countries, especially among vulnerable populations like low-income and/or African-American mothers, or how insulin prices continue to rise, putting diabetics at a distinct and deadline disadvantage (utterly horrifying)
- Just…capitalism *gestures vaguely* (quite horrifying, largely because it’s so damn inescapable)
And this is just a partial list.
I am not writing this to say “gee, dance is trivial, the arts are trivial, let’s focus on the REAL problems from here on out!” Because dance and art are a part of life and culture, and hence they are imbued with many of the same power struggles and issues that we see in other realms of life.
Where does your food come from, whether you’re omnivorous or vegan or something in between? The answer is probably horrifying, if you care about the environment or workers’ rights or animal rights or any/all of the above.
Who built the device that you’re reading this blog post on, under which labor conditions? The answer is likely horrifying.
What about the clothes you’re wearing? Another horrifying answer, depending on which outfit you’re wearing today and where it came from.
When we start picking apart the threads of American society, on a tiny daily level or a larger institutional level, it’s Cthulu-esque horrors all the way down. This society is an utter shit-show of depraved abuse and exploitation (and yes I am writing these words with all the weight of a BA and MA and PhD behind them; faced with terror and trauma on a large enough scale, language fails).
When I try to account for all the awful things that go into my daily life, I can’t. My brain literally shies away from the task. And even with all my white middle-class cisgender non-disabled privilege, I know that some horrors are merely a step away from me; as a woman, I am likely to be sexually assaulted, and moreso because I’m not straight. As someone who’s Jewish, antisemitic violence lurks just around the corner. I’m doing somewhat okay in terms of the ways in which my identities add up intersectionally, but just because there are fewer monsters under my bed doesn’t mean I should sleep tight and stop giving a crap about the monsters amassing to ravage other people.
As a non-religious person, there is no guy in the sky to justify any of this. It’s also why I don’t call any of this violence “inhumane,” because if anything, it’s all too human to inflict suffering and degradation upon one another, for profit or for shits and giggles, simply because we can. While others may find solace in religion, in the thought that there’s an afterlife or reincarnation to dole out rewards or punishments, that option does not exist for me. And that makes it even worse when I see people committing and justifying atrocities, not simply because they’re following systems already in place, but because they believe their religion commands or excuses it. Just, ew. No.
So, while I am scrutinizing my place in the world and the level of activism I can handle, I’ve had to be extremely realistic with myself about all this. I benefit from systems that oppress others. I cannot take in all the ways that happens at once, because then my brain breaks. And I cannot have a broken brain while my sole means of income is using my intellect to draw a paycheck as a teacher.
Enlightened self-interest vs. activism: the former is winning, to my utmost shame. But I suspect this is also a very human way to be.
What do we do about this? Everyone has different bandwidth and different capacities for empathy, as well as different access to privilege and resources. I know this post is real fucking gloomy – but again, have you actually looked at the world recently?! – so here are a few ideas I have:
- Don’t try to make yourself responsible for fixing everything (that is some neoliberal BS right there; institutions often have more power than individuals unless we’re talking about billionaires who should be getting taxed way more than they are, ahem, got sidetracked there, so by this measure, institutions get more blame/responsibility than most individuals), but do try to help when you can. Example: if you can find a way to recycle more, do it! But also try to write to your elected officials to encourage them to step up the climate change action. Vote with your wallet when you can afford to do so, but don’t over-agonize.
- Share your experiences, values, and ideas, but don’t be prescriptive or judgmental about someone else’s topics and degrees of activism. Not everyone can afford to only eat local produce or animal products even if they wanted to, for example. But just hearing about your low-key commitment to activism might inspire someone else or vice versa.
- Pick a cause and pursue it. Again, as individuals, we only have 24 hours in the day, so we cannot fix everything, but we can pick causes that seem most pressing and/or most dear to our hearts, and fixate on those. I donate to Planned Parenthood because health is important to me (and sexual health especially so). I donate to a local food bank called No Questions Asked because I believe food security should not depend on churches or moral stipulations. And so on.
- Try not to chastise people who don’t have the same commitments or priorities as you; there are some obvious commitments we should all share (e.g. eradicating bigotry and hate crimes) but beyond that, it can be quite subjective. And I’m sick of hearing “virtue-signaling” thrown around as an insult; maybe don’t judge if you aren’t close enough to know if someone’s values and actions are lining up or not.
- Listen to the people most closely affected by the issue. This means paying attention to people who are often overlooked in mainstream society: disabled people, imprisoned people, sex workers, people who were formerly colonized, and so on. If something seems catastrophically bad for someone with a modicum of privilege, imagine how much it could impact a person without that buffer. And don’t always believe the spin or the most common narrative about these types of folks; for example, all the hue-and-cry of sex trafficking is both leading to policies that are harmful to adult sex workers who choose the career AND detracting attention from the fact that the most danger to children comes from the people closest to them, not strangers in vans.
- Find the things that are less exploitative and that foster the most human connection (or animal connection, or nature connection) and pursue those. Nothing is unproblematic under capitalism, so veer towards the less-problematic when possible. This, too, will be a subjective matter, but if we don’t have some bright spots to keep us going, I don’t know how we’ll keep going.
To return to my titular metaphor, the world as we know it is a vampire, and this ain’t the kind of movie where the plucky human protagonists band together to figure out how to kill the monsters for one and for all. For one thing, we’re inextricable from the monsters, and for another, banding together puts us at risk of spreading the coronavirus or spreading hate (look at how white supremacy groups infiltrate other groups, FFS). But going it alone also means certain death; as we’ve seen this past year, isolation is painful if not deadly for many (which, jeez, find me another more compelling argument right now for prison abolition or at the very least reform!). So we try to find a balance, fighting the monsters yet not becoming them, as everything we claim to treasure falls in shreds around our ears.
That’s all I’ve got for now. I’m trying to not linger too much in this dark of a place, which means not spending more time in front of a screen than I have to (I will try to check back in for comment moderation when I need a break from grading, but I am also woefully, ironically aware that this post violates the bizarre comment policies currently in place here so, um, I am not quite sure what to do about that)