Do writers of color avoid discussing existential problems?

If you want to read a much better-reasoned and more articulate discussion of the issues I'm talking about, I recommend Oscar Wilde's mind-blowing essay, "The Soul of Man Under Socialism."
If you want to read a much better-reasoned and more articulate discussion of the issues I’m talking about, I recommend Oscar Wilde’s mind-blowing essay, “The Soul of Man Under Socialism.”

My portion of the internet has been abuzz with Hiromi Goto‘s and N.K. Jemisin’s Guest of Honor speeches at Wiscon. Both are very political speeches.Both deal with what it means to be a writer of color in a predominantly white milieu, and both positioned the current moment as a time when people of color are injecting ourselves and our stories into the literary discourse.

Both speeches are very powerful and are well worth reading.

They’re also not speeches that I’d ever give.

I’ve written before about how I get frustrated with the activist worldview. I don’t disagree that there are issues with the world or that change is necessary. But everywhere I look, the paramount concern amongst most of the intelligent and sensitive writers that I know, and particularly amongst queer writers, female writers, and writers of color, seems to be social justice. It’s not that they don’t care about other things–moral philosophy, aesthetics, and all the other big questions that the world has to offer–but when they give interviews or post on Facebook or write blog posts or deliver speeches or issue a tweet, social justice will usually be the predominant theme.*

It feels like we, as writers, have abandoned the task of advancing a positive vision for how people should live. We seem to have little sense of what constitutes the good life, or how a person should go about figuring out what the good life involves. Instead, we focus on the opposite. We focus on describing, in exacting detail, all the things that we know to be bad: the racism, homophobia, colonialism, sexism, ableism, and economic inequality that blight the world.

Alright, I know that social problems influence existential problems (and vice versa), and that politics and culture have tremendous bearing on the question of how a person should live their life, but I also don’t think that social problems are existential problems. I do think that the two things are different.

Social problems are situated outside the individual. They’re about the relationship between the individual and their society.

Existential problems, on the other hand, are situated within the individual. They’re about the individual’s relationship to him or her ambitions and emotions and desires and history.

Right now, when writers of color are called upon to comment about the world, we often say something like, “Look at the child of color. Look at how disadvantaged he is. Look at all the things that stand in the way of him becoming what he wants to be. Wouldn’t his life be much better if he didn’t have those disadvantages?”

And yeah, his life would be better in many ways. But we never seem to talk about the ways in which it wouldn’t be better: the ways in which he’d still be a solitary human being who must struggle with the fact of his own inevitable death. A world in which he’d need to wake up every morning and go out and do stuff, even though there’s no rational reason for him to do something instead of nothing.

Oppression doesn’t remove existential problems: it exacerbates them. It’s even harder to find meaning in a world where the system is stacked against you. It’s harder to find meaning in a world where your aims and goals and thoughts and history are not privileged.

But we elide that problem. Instead, we say things like:

Arm yourselves. Go to panels at Wiscon and claim the knowledge and language that will be your weapons. Go to sources of additional knowledge for fresh ammunition — histories and analyses of the genre by people who see beyond the status quo, our genre elders, new sources of knowledge like “revisionist” scholarship instead of the bullshit we all learned in school. Find support groups of like-minded souls; these are your comrades-in-arms, and you will need their strength. Don’t try to do this alone. When you’re injured, seek help; I’ve got a great list of CBT therapists, for any of you in the New York area. Exercise to stay strong, if you can; defend what health you have, if you can’t. And from here on, wherever you see bigotry in the genre? Attack it. Don’t wait for it to come directly at you; attack it even if it’s hitting another group. If you won’t ride or die for anyone else, how can you expect them to ride or die for you? Understand that there are people in this genre who hate you, and who do not want you here, and who will hurt you if they can. Do not tolerate their intolerance. Don’t be “fair and balanced.” Tell them they’re unwelcome. Make them uncomfortable. Shout them down. Kick them out. Fucking fight.

And maybe one day, when the fighting’s done, then we can heal. On that day, all of us will dream freely, at last.

— N.K.Jemisin

Which, I want to reiterate, is a wonderful and stirring sentiment that should be  said and needed to be said.

But I worry that we’ve marginalized ourselves by getting into a place where we’re only expected to talk about stuff like that, and we’re not expected to think about or attempt to answer other questions, things like: What constitutes a beautiful sentence? What makes a story worth reading? Is it worthwhile to pursue material gain? Is there any honor in acceding to your family’s wishes when their desires contradict your personal preferences? To what degree (and in what manner) can a person change their nature? What is love? Does love endure? Is love worth pursuing? Is there a value in status-consciousness? Why should a person read fiction? Why am I standing here, delivering this speech, instead of doing something else? Why am I doing something, rather than nothing?


*I’m being persnickety, of course. This speech was delivered at WisCon, which is a very political sci-fi convention. I’m sure that both guests of honor talk about and think about other things all the time. Also, my whole argument falls apart if you don’t accept either of the core premises (Firstly, that writers of color tend to be more concerned with social problems than existential problems; and, secondly, that there is a difference between social and existential problems.)


There has to be something more to activism than this same old intellectual framing

Because I am a well-educated dark and queer person who is in the humanities, I was automatically enrolled in the activist internet, even though I really don’t do anything to participate in it. And I am okay with that. I enjoy reading peoples’ blog posts about how eating quinoa means that you’re killing Bolivian peasants or how the Human Rights Campaign is transphobic. It makes me feel very hip. Nor am I really in disagreement with the things that I read. I believe in structural racism and that we all have privilege and all that stuff.

But there’s also something a bit wearying about it. All the posts seem to hit the same point: America is an -ist society that is operated for the benefit of a wealthy, white upper class. So much time and intellectual energy is spent following this assertion and tying it into every little thing: poor people are being forced out of San Francisco by a rich white upper-class; or the rich white upper class is using its weird food habits to demonize the eating choices of the poor; or the rich white upper class is policing everyone’s body image.

(And many of the posts also have this weirdly unattractive tinge of apologia to them, too, because many activists were also born into the rich white upper class.)

And…sometimes I just want more than that. I don’t even know precisely what I’m saying. But someday I want to click on a link and feel more than outrage. I want to feel the world open up and be revealed. I’m not saying that I want solutions to these problems (I’m actually very uninterested in solutions). What I want is a new way of thinking about the problems. There’s nothing wrong with the old way. It’s just gotten boring to me. And I’m sure it’s gotten boring for other people too. It’s like in advertising. An ad campaign might be great, but, after awhile, everyone’s seen it. You need to introduce a new ad campaign just to keep people interested.

Why it’s sometimes a good idea to use a negative tone against people who agree with your political opinions

meanThe other day (or was it today?) my twitter peep T.S. Christian was writing about how she doesn’t understand the tone argument (i.e. the argument frequently made about activist postings–that the tone is too controversial or strident): after all, the tone doesn’t invalidate the content.

And I was thinking, you know, this is a common feeling in the activist community. And there’s a really good reason for that. It’s because a person’s perception of tone is often driven by an unconscious racism on the part of the hearer. There’s really nothing a black woman can say that’s not going to sound aggressive to a white man. So if activists put too much stock in the tonal perceptions of people they disagree with, they’d go crazy, because some people are just never going to “hear” them right, no matter what tone they use.

So let’s take that as a given.

However, I think most activists will agree that–regardless of how their tone is perceived–they do vary their tone in a purposeful way. Sometimes you make an observation in a highly derogatory way and sometimes you say it in a conciliatory, understanding way. I’d say that neither of these is inherently superior to the other, since both are rhetorical tactics. Political speech–even more than most speech–has to walk a delicate line between emotion and reason.

Because, ostensibly, politics–and particularly public policy–is mostly about reason. In a liberal democracy, we start from basically the same principles–we all hate suffering and oppression–and then try to argue, in an evidence-based way, for policies that will reduce suffering and oppression. And once there is enough agreement, then a policy will come closer to fruition.

However, in practice, everything is about emotion. Because change is not about agreement, it’s about action. And the point of political discussion is not to get people to agree with you; it’s to get them to act.

In this world, there’s plenty of agreement without action. For instance, I believe in all the right things, but I literally never do anything about them. I don’t even use my tiny amount of social capital to advance the causes that I believe in, because that might mean upsetting some people. It’s just not worth it to me. My agreement is worthless.

However, if I was angrier about the state of the world, then I might be more inclined to act.

I recently had tea with a friend of mine who spent most of our two hour discussion talking about how powerless and angry he felt over the state of the world. And it was clear, to me, that he simply felt the distress of the suffering much more keenly than I do.

I think that, to a large degree, the purpose of much political speech is not to make some Republican into a person like me; it’s to make people like me into people like him.

I think you can see this most clearly in some classic activist texts. For instance, Martin Luther King’s Why We Can’t Wait is an intensely angry jeremaiad against moderate whites for the way that they keep telling black people to wait for their time and not rock the boat and not engage in radical action.

What is the purpose of that?

To me, it feels like its purpose is to strike people in their sense of complacency. It’s to tell people that you cannot reap the rewards of agreement any longer; unless you act, you are the enemy. It drives some people away, but that’s okay. Their agreement wasn’t worth much. However, it drives some people closer…and those are the ones who really matter.

I think that this is why the wars within various liberal movements are so powerful and so vicious (I’m thinking, for instance, of the ever-simmering war between progressive white women and radical women of color; or the war between affluent gay males and the rest of the queer community). It’s because that’s where movements are won or lost. If the gay marriage movement has taught us anything, it is that the opinions of the majority do not matter, precisely because most people in the majority will alter their opinions as soon as they perceive a shift in the general climate. The issue in any progressive cause is not with going from having 10% of the population in agreement with you to having 50% in agreement with you–it’s in going from having 100,000 people who are willing to act to 500,000 people who are willing to act.