When You Die, Die Screaming

The conventional assumption about haunted houses is that these are places where the spirits of the dead remain in the place where they died. That these sightings are so few and far between is taken to mean that those dead who do not become ghosts are at peace, that they have moved on.

This is not strictly true. It is not the dead who move on, but us.

When a typical person dies, their spirit is separated from the body. No longer subject to gravity or inertia, they remain rooted to the exact point in space where they passed away. Why then, do we not report millions or billions of hauntings, the remnants of everyone who has ever died?

Because YOU are not rooted to a point in space.

Right now, unless you’re reading this on a bus or some other mode of transportation, you feel that you are stationary. Set in place, unmoving. But this is, of course, an illusion. You, and your chair and your house, your city and country and continent, rotate with the surface of the earth at hundreds of miles per hour. If this were all the motion that a stationary ghost had to contend with, then such senses as the spirit holds after death would be subjected to an endlessly whirling carousel, a blur of images moving too fast to ever come into focus on provide meaning.

But the earth is not stationary.

In addition to the rotation that gives Earth its days and nights, we must also consider the source of its year and seasons: revolution around the sun. Our planet travels through the solar system at over 18 miles per second. What the ghost must experience now changes. Instead of a spinning top of incomprehensible life, at the moment of death, they now see their world, the only thing they have known, flying away at an alarming rate, leaving only empty space and the sun to focus on. Earth will return in a year, breaking the spirit’s monotony for at most seven minutes, much of this spent in the glowing magma core and mantle. If, of course, this was all the motion to consider.

But the sun is not stationary.

The solar system makes its own revolution around the center of the galaxy, more than 10 times faster than Earth’s own revolution, and on a circuit thousands of light-years in length. As our ghost watches the earth recede, they say goodbye as well to the sun, to the other planets, to the asteroids and comets, not to return for hundreds of millions of years. There is no longer any point of reference but the stars in the sky.

But the stars are not stationary.

The stars that we see, unaided by telescopes, are residents of our Milky Way galaxy. But the galaxy is also moving, at several hundred more miles per second. Given the size of the galaxy and the distances involved, this recession would not be noted or perceived by the spirit, but it would be happening, relentlessly, all the same. In time, the stars will move away, shrinking to a point as the galaxy flees. In place of the myriad stars which may, for a time, have given the spirit some small diversion or point of focus, there will now be only the fainter points of distant galaxies, themselves moving steadily farther away as the universe resolutely expands, until, after countless millennia, billennia, trillennia, they too fade into the endless blackness of space.

This, then, is death: to be aware as Earth, the sun, the stars, the galaxies, all possible points of light and meaning and reality, fade and disappear into the cosmic dementia, leaving nothing but void for all eternity.

So what of the haunted houses? What of the ghosts, ghouls, and poltergeists? What of the restless spirits, the grim spectres, the eerie presences, the hallowed apparitions, the tormented wayward souls?

To put it short, they are the fortunate ones.

A spirit cut loose from the flesh is not subject to the physical laws of nature, but it is an entity of emotion, and is bound by forces of emotion. And there is no stronger emotional force than fear.

The ghosts we encounter here on Earth are those that died in terror. Fright is a tether, anchoring the spirit to a place, a person, or even an object with emotional resonance, something which keeps them connected to this ever-hurtling world.

They are the only ones who get to watch humanity continue on after death. They are the only ones who get to listen to music. They are the only ones who can hang on, at least for a while, to a place where meaning–where anything–still exists.

And it is why they must frighten you. Fear is the only thing that keeps them attached to the world they left behind, their fear and yours. Fear of houses where the walls shift in the dark and meet at unconventional angles. Fear of paintings whose eyes follow you as you pass. Fear of porcelain dolls with holes where their eyes should be, and which are never found where you last left them. Because once the fear is gone, and the tether unravels, there is nothing left but the abyss.

So accept the dare to spend the night in a haunted house. Whisper forbidden names in your mirror at midnight. Wander into the dark basement as your flashlight begins to flicker. Say a prayer each night to Saints Krueger and Voorhees, to bestow on you blessings of torment and nightmare. Live each day beneath the shadow of fear, and when you die, make sure you die with a scream clawing at your lips. Because in the end, fear is all you have.

The rest is darkness.

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4 Reasons To Vote In A State Where It’s “Pointless”

Just one more, and I should be done with the voting listicles.

This year in particular, I’m a blue voter, and I live in a very red state. When elections (especially presidential ones) roll around, one of the things I tend to hear is this:

“What’s the point in voting when you know which way your state’s going to vote?”

So I want to go over some of the reasons why I vote, and maybe they can be your reasons to vote too. (At the time I’m writing this, you’ve still got a couple days left to get out there.)

1. The Presidency Isn’t The Only Race

Your vote doesn’t go very far in affecting the presidential race. Besides the fact that everyone in the country can vote in this one, the nature of the electoral college can mean that your vote isn’t really counted if the voice for the opposing team in your state overwhelms yours and the people who vote with you.

But your vote goes farther when voting for members of congress, governors, and other state-wide races. And it goes farther still for races limited to just your county or city. Especially if you also nudge your less-motivated friends to get off their butts and make it to the polls too.

After George Floyd’s death and the resulting protests, Barack Obama wrote an article about how to effect change and police reform at the voter level. One of the sentences that stuck with me was this: “The elected officials who matter most in reforming police departments and the criminal justice system work at the state and local levels.

So I vote in the presidential election, but I also vote for the smaller races too, where my vote makes a larger impact.

2. Battleground States Aren’t Permanent

In any presidential race, there are a lot of states that are “safely won” by one side or the other, and a handful of battleground states that are too close for the polls to call, and which make or break the race.

If you live in one of the states that’s consistently voted red or blue for as long as you remember, it can be easy to assume that’s the way your state will always be. But battleground states do change. Some battleground states from 2016 are more polarized in this race, toward either side, and states that were very polarized in that election are much less certain now. Populations change as new voters come of age, old voters pass away, and people move from state to state.

While I’m sure my state is going to turn out red, I don’t know how red it’s going to be. Any year could be the one where the vote in my state becomes close enough that candidates have to seriously take it into account for the next election. And if it’s this year, I’d like to be a part of that.

3. Even Losing Votes Have An Impact

As a general rule, politicians want to continue being politicians. And to do so, they have to keep more people voting for them than for their opponents. How close the race runs determines how much they need to work to keep the public’s favor, and which part of the voting populace they need to lean toward.

If you are running virtually (or literally) unopposed, there’s not much you need to do to stay in office, just don’t screw up in a major way. What integrity and impartiality you bring to the office is mostly a matter of personal character at this level.

With a semi-serious contender (someone who may pick up 30% of the vote), the candidate has to work a little bit, but their voter focus can rest further toward the extreme ends of their political base. They don’t have to get voters to vote for them instead of their opponent, they just have to make sure their loyal base actually gets out to vote.

The closer the race is, the more this candidate’s focus has to move toward the more moderate center. The more extreme voters may choose not to vote for a candidate they see as too moderate, but they aren’t going to vote for the person on the opposite side of the spectrum. They just won’t vote. But a more moderate or indecisive voter might be persuaded to change political sides for a compelling alternative. These votes are both a vote lost for you AND a vote gained for your opponent. In this sort of race, the individual swingable voters are twice as valuable as the individual extremists in your party.

So I vote to keep the races in my state closer, so that the officials here have to appeal more to people close to the center than nutjobs on the fringes.

4. Perception Motivates and Demotivates

One of the biggest reasons I vote when it’s “pointless” in my state is so that someday, people will stop saying that it is.

I think most people have a meter inside them that determines when a race is close enough to motivate them to vote. For some, the race has to be almost as sure as won for them to get out and vote. For others (like me), that meter fills up quicker. For some people, it’s enough to see that someone is running at all.

We don’t like to vote for people that are sure to lose. We think it makes us look foolish and naive, and a lot of us would rather not bother trying. But I think making any change requires a little bit of naivete. I think voting is an act of naivete, and a necessary one.

And thus I will naively vote for candidates who won’t win, for all the reasons above. And I hope that my small impact will help nudge some of these races close enough that a few more people will be motivated to naively vote in the next one. And that those votes will bring the next elections close enough that a few more people will vote. And so on. Maybe it’s a silly thing to believe in, but sometimes silly things are worth believing in.

Anyway, the next post’ll be about space ghosts.

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9 Tips for Early Voting (in Indianapolis, at least)

These are based on my experience at the Perry Township Government Center in Indianapolis. Marion County in particular is woefully unprepared for the amount of in-person absentee voters. I waited three hours to vote. Other people waited eight, and I can only imagine how many people were dissuaded from voting by the line. I honestly don’t know if everyone in this county who needs to vote early is going to get to vote. I don’t know if everyone will get to vote on election day, either.

Voting facilities probably (hopefully) are better in other areas of the country. If you’re in Indianapolis, or another area where the waits are imposing, here’s some tips to help deal with the situation.

1. Don’t wait for a ‘good time’ to vote.

I went on a Monday morning, hoping that most people would be at work and the lines would be short. They may have been shorter than on the weekend, but they were still long. I arrived at 10 (an hour before voting started, at 11), and voted around 1. When the doors opened at 11, I could not see the end of the line, and I’m sure the wait was still at least three hours for people getting in line then. Maybe there is a secret hour for fast in-person voting in Indy, but as far as I know, there’s no guarantee of fast voting before election day, and no guarantee of fast voting ON election day.

2. Wear layers and gloves.

It’s getting cold out, and you’re not moving enough to keep your digits warm from circulation. You could bring something warm to drink, but be cautious of anything that sends your bowels into overdrive.

3. Eat and use the bathroom before getting in line.

You know how bodies work. Don’t think I need to explain this one. I didn’t see public bathroom facilities at this location, though there may be some at others. If there are, make sure you’ve got someone who will hold your place in line. Also, don’t forget to bring your ID.

4. Check the weather forecast and prepare accordingly.

It started to sprinkle an hour in, and I about lost my mind. It let up almost immediately, though, fortunately.

5. Bring a book, podcasts, music, or friends.

It’s a long wait, especially standing up the whole time. Give yourself something to keep you occupied, or go with a group of friends. Some of you have friends, right?

6. Understand the surge.

When the doors open, the line moves very fast for a few minutes, then slows down to a much more moderate pace. This is mostly due to the line moving indoors. Hedge your expectations, and don’t get disappointed when things slow down again.

7. Know that social distancing isn’t necessarily happening.

People in the line are not standing 6 feet apart, and I don’t know where the line would fit if they were. People are wearing masks, but there’s a bunch of nose-peepers out there. Know whether you’re comfortable being in this close of proximity to strangers for several hours, or if you need to take greater precautions because you are at higher risk from COVID.

8. Bring a chair maybe?

I saw people with little foldable camping stools, and that seemed like the best idea ever. My back’s killing me now. Pass the ibuprofen.

9. Reward yourself after.

You’re spending a decent chunk of your day in mild discomfort to do something that maybe feels like it’s not worth it or like it has no direct impact on your life. It’s boring and annoying, like most of the other responsibilities that come with being an adult. Treat yourself to something nice, and have that to look forward to.

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Attercop, Attercop

bookshelf cobweb

You are a single line of cobweb
Across the corner of my bookshelf
Marking dominion for the spiders
Apparent counterpoint to old stealth
You say, “We didn’t make a home here
Although we could have and we still may
Don’t grow attached to what you thought yours
For we’ll reclaim what’s due us someday.”

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This Poem is Dedicated to [Insert name here]

My poems aren’t about anybody

But of all the people they aren’t about

They’re mostly not about you.

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The Prisoner is a 60s Show About Living in the Internet Age (By Accident)

The Prisoner is a British surrealist spy drama from 1968. It’s also a surprisingly accurate picture of what it feels like to live in America in the twenty-first century.

Patrick McGoohan (star and co-creator) portrays a former secret agent (name not given) from a British intelligence agency (agency not given) who abruptly resigned (for reasons not given) and is promptly abducted and transported to a mysterious and quaint place called The Village (location not given, until the ending, at least). Here, his captors will employ all manner of increasingly bizarre and surreal mind games and psychological warfare to try to make him explain why he resigned.

It’s the sort of thing you’d expect to be shot as a tense psychological thriller, or played up with melodrama. For the most part, The Prisoner eschews these approaches, and opts instead for a fairly lighthearted tone. And this is where the show starts to evoke familiar sensations to someone living in the age of internet.

“I Am Not A Number!”

Stripped of his name, in the confines of the Village, the Prisoner is known only as “Number 6”, treated as just another source of data to be mined. You can see in his interrogators a sort of spiritual forerunner to the internet algorithms that analyze us and turn us into patterns of clicks, search results, ad views, and purchase histories. Like many of us, he balks at being treated thus, telling his captors, “I will not be pushed, filed, stamped, indexed, briefed, debriefed, or numbered. My life is my own.” Also like many of us, he cannot really escape the machinations that have ensnared him.

“Be Seeing You.”

Every inch of the Village is under surveillance at all times. There are cameras in the lamps, the radios, the statues, everything. And they’re not all that secret, either. The cameras are obvious enough to serve as a reminder that they are always watching, but obscured enough to let you ignore them if you don’t feel like thinking about them.

It’s like the constant surveillance that we’re all under by our search engines, our shopping sites, and our social media apps. We know that they’re gathering and storing and selling and using the information we enter on these sites, and they know that we know, but there’s a tacit agreement that they’ll try not to be too obvious about abusing the information, and we won’t fight them too hard on obtaining it.

Number 6 takes the constant observation with a wry sense of humor, informing his watchers that he won’t fall for their latest trick, or saluting the cameras with the Village’s signature farewell: the all-too-appropriate “Be seeing you.” It reminds me of the mostly-joking way friends and I will add disclaimers and messages for the supposed NSA or FBI agents reading through our chat logs.

“By Hook Or By Crook…”

What the show gets right is the sort of attitude that arises in this particular sort of surveillance state: one of banal paranoia. Number 6 doesn’t trust anything or anybody, because nothing and nobody is to be trusted. Every potential friend is a plant, every conversation a gambit, every opportunity for escape just another ploy in the increasingly complicated plans of his interrogators.

Watching the show in the digital era, it’s hard not to see this as a reflection of the modern-day explosion of conspiracy theories. Like Number 6, we’ve all been exposed to misinformation and deception on a daily basis for years now through the internet, and been exposed to scandals and ulterior motives of people in power. It’s only natural that we’ve learned to disbelieve anything but the preposterous.

Despite his distrust, Number 6 doesn’t entirely disconnect from life in the Village. He still gets pulled into conversations and situations that he knows are traps, because…well, what else are you going to do? He’s living in captivity, but he’s still living. He takes part, simultaneously allowing himself to hope while never fully letting his guard down.

It’s like the way many of us interact with the internet. We know that our browsing habits are used to tailor advertising to us, that our social media sites are politically polarizing us, that most of the things we retweet and share are not 100% accurate. But we keep doing these things because it’s easier to accept the loss of privacy than the loss of convenience. None of us is a digital island anymore.

“The New Number 2.”

Identity is fluid in the Village. Number 6 is one of the few constants in the show. All the other residents seem to change freely from episode to episode, and numbers are freely reused and reassigned with no apparent underlying meaning.

His chief inquisitor is always “Number 2”, but Number 2 is rarely the same person twice. His or her identity changes every week, the change acknowledged in the dialogue played over the opening credit sequence. This change is seldom reacted to or noted by the residents of the Village. It’s simply accepted as part of the weirdness of this microcosm.

In the context of the era the show came out, this contributes to a surreal, dreamlike quality. Watching it in 2020, I see unwitting parallels to identity in the digital age, where one person can log in to and log out of a hundred different identities in a day, where the entity you are chatting with can change from a chatbot to a human being between messages, where individuals can create the illusion of crowds, where anonymity is assumed and identity theft is just the cost of doing business.

“We Want Information…Information…Information!”

Identity theft happens in the Village too, though it can be even more complicated than its contemporary counterparts. In one episode, they bring in a doppelganger for Number 6, while also brainwashing him (even to the point of changing him from right to left-handed) into believing that he is the doppelganger, trying to trick a confession out of the Number 6 he is impersonating. It’s confusing as hell, and unclear as to how this is actually supposed to work as an interrogation technique.

But that’s kind of the point of the show. The psychological warfare is as much about confusing and breaking down Number 6’s faith in reality as it is about obtaining the information. The plans of the Village are not brilliant schemes so much as they are desperate experiments. The show itself is a sort of desperate experiment, a first wave of television shows pushing the bounds of what can and can’t be done in the medium. Not every experiment works, but it’s always interesting to see them try.

I streamed the show on Amazon Prime, and couldn’t ignore the irony of this fact. As the finale closed, and the service suggested “other movies and TV shows you might like”, I imagined a Number 2, watching my internet habits and compiling information on me, devising new ways to test and manipulate me for their own ends. Like Number 6, I found myself wanting to declare, “I am not a number…I am a free man!”

But also like Number 6, I don’t know if that statement is true anymore.

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The Last of Us Part II: A Compulsion of Violence

I don’t know how I feel about The Last of Us.

I don’t mean that my feelings are ambiguous or undefined…I mean I don’t know what words to use to describe the feelings.

(Major spoilers for The Last of Us and The Last of Us Part II abound below, obvs.)

When we say we ‘like’ or ‘love’ a story, we’re generally talking about one that has evoked positive feelings that we were glad to experience. Hope, joy, compassion, humor, triumph, romance, beauty, justice. We might still say we like or love creative works with sad moments or sad endings because of the good feelings along the way, or the connection we felt with the characters that was worth the negative feelings we felt.

On the flipside, stories we ‘dislike’ or ‘hate’ usually bring out negative emotions that we wish we had not experienced. Disgust, boredom, anger, disappointment, annoyance.

We even have the concept of ‘guilty pleasures’, creative works that give us positive emotions, but which we feel some negative emotions for having (embarrassment, shame, moral ambiguity).

But what about stories that fill you with negative emotions…but which you are glad you experienced? How do I describe how I feel about Grave of the Fireflies, a Studio Ghibli drama about two children struggling, and ultimately failing, to survive in an area of Japan ravaged by firebombing in World War II? The film is moving, haunting, compelling, and I’m glad I have seen it and been affected by it…but it doesn’t feel right to say I like the movie. It hurts to watch, and it is meant to.

The Last of Us and The Last of Us Part II are both games that hurt, but they hurt in different ways. (Okay, for real this time, the spoilers start here:)

The first game is mostly Joel’s story. Having lost his daughter at the beginning of the outbreak, in the years that followed, he has learned to prioritize survival over everything else, and avoids forming any strong personal ties. Over the course of the game, he softens and eventually cares for Ellie as a second daughter, risking his survival (and the survival of humanity) to save her from a death that she herself welcomes for the good it might do for the world.

The Last of Us Part II is mostly Ellie’s story, and its arc is like a reversal of the first game. Ellie loses Joel, and over the course of the game, loses every personal bond she has in her increasingly single-minded quest for revenge.

Within the first few hours of the game, Joel is captured by a group of survivors led by a woman named Abby, in revenge for something Joel has done over the course of his shadowed past. She bludgeons Joel to death in front of Ellie and Joel’s brother Tommy, but lets them both live. This sets up the narrative for the first half of the game: track the killers down and kill them all in turn. Tommy sets off first, to do it on his own, and Ellie and her new love interest Dina set off after him. Another friend of theirs, Jesse, follows in turn, and eventually joins them further down the narrative.

“An eye for an eye leaves the whole world blind” is not a new story. Most serious stories about revenge don’t end with the message “Revenge is cool and we should all do more of it.” In most of those stories, though, the cost of revenge only tends to surface after the audience has been allowed to enjoy (even if secretly) the fruits of that revenge. It comes as a revelation at the end, chiding the protagonist (and the watcher) for giving into baser urges.

The Last of Us Part II never provides an instance of revenge that is truly satisfying. The people you’re chasing down aren’t caricatures of evil, gloating about kicking kittens. They’re just people. People of violence, yes, but also people with friends, families, and complex motivations. A sense of discomfort at the earlier kills grows and gives way to outright horror, as you later stab one of the group’s members in the neck, realizing after the fact that she was pregnant (as Dina is, in your own group), and beat another to death with a lead pipe for information on the others.

There are reprieves from the horror. Flashbacks take you back to memories of better days with Joel, including some where he teaches Ellie to play guitar. She still finds guitars from time to time in the world as you explore, and these moments serve as a physical reminder of Joel’s influence, and his absence.

After Ellie has dispatched nearly the entire group that killed Joel, Abby confronts her in her base of operations, killing Jesse and leveling a gun at Ellie’s head. And here…

…the story shifts. You jump back three days and are now playing as Abby, the antagonist you’ve been hunting for the first half of the game. And you’ll play as her for most of the second half of the game. She has her own equipment and skill trees, even her own collectibles. And her own flashbacks, where you learn her motivation for killing Joel…the events at the end of the first game.

Abby had been part of the Fireflies that Joel massacred in The Last of Us’ final conflict, an her father was one of the surgeons preparing to operate on Ellie. If you felt Ellie’s bloody revenge path to avenge her adopted father figure was justified, is Abby’s revenge of her own father any less justified? Ellie’s revenge cuts through hundreds of people on her journey across the country to avenge one man. Abby’s revenge killed one man, a man who had killed her father, her friends and allies, and doomed humanity, all to save a girl who didn’t want to be saved. The only reason you’re on Ellie’s side (if you’re still on her side at this point) is because you met her first. Ellie and Joel aren’t heroes of these stories…they’re just the people you know.

When you start to take a step back, you start to see that Ellie has become the villain of this game. She’s given the scenes and actions that are traditionally given to the antagonist, while Abby gets the scenes and choices that you usually see given to protagonists: Abby is the one with a loyal dog companion. Ellie is the one who kills the dog. Abby risks her life to protect people she’s come to care about. Ellie prioritizes her revenge over going to help one of her oldest friends. Abby lets the innocent people live, rather than tie up loose ends. Ellie threatens a child to provoke Abby to fight her. Abby tries to break the cycle of violence. Ellie tries to keep it turning.

Many video games offer you moral choices that you can make, to determine what path you want a story to take. The Last of Us Part II does not. In many parts of the story, violence is compulsory. Sometimes it makes you enter the button presses to enact violence in a quick time event. Other times, a cutscene will have your character initiate a conflict that you, the player, do not want to follow through on. Some may see this as a failing of game design, but I think it is an effective way of putting you inside the mind of Ellie.

I don’t believe Ellie likes the violence. She is good at it, she takes to it, and she seeks it out, but it doesn’t bring her satisfaction, relief, or closure. Each new death traumatizes her, and heightens her need to continue rather than abating it. She isn’t forced to do anything, but she is compelled out of a sense that this is what she is supposed to be doing. Similarly, the game doesn’t really force you to be complicit in the violence…you could just eject the disc and stop playing the game. But she doesn’t stop, and I’m guessing most players don’t stop either. Both continue out of a sense that stopping would be to leave things unresolved.

This game elicited feelings and behaviors from me that I’ve never really encountered in a video game. At one point as Abby, I was saving a young boy from the crazed cult he had been brought up in. And even though the cultists would kill both of us on sight (and I’d fought several groups of them before), I felt bad attacking them in front of the kid. And due to how the companion AI works, he wouldn’t attack them if I didn’t attack them first. So I ended up alternately sneaking and sprinting through the whole area without killing anybody. The game never told me to, and never rewarded me for doing so, but I did so anyway. In a game full of compulsory violence, I felt compelled for a brief stretch to be pacifistic. And any time Ellie and Abby were in direct combat, I found myself dying over and over from not wanting to actually kill the other character, hoping that holding back could somehow bring the fight to an end.

Ultimately, that choice is up to Ellie. At the conclusion of a brutal fist/knife fight, in which she loses two of the fingers on her left hand, Ellie is choking Abby out, drowning her in the ocean surf, and then…

She breaks.

Ellie lets Abby go, and Abby takes off in a boat with Lev, the boy she’d rescued earlier in the story. Maybe the two of them, child and protector, remind Ellie of herself and Joel. Ellie remains behind, and starts to finally deal with her grief over Joel’s death.

She returns home, and you think about how much she has lost in pursuing revenge. Jesse died. Her relationship with Tommy has soured. Dina has left her, taking with her the child they had started to raise together. And as she picks up a guitar, to play once more the first song Joel had taught her, the chords fall flat, a consequence of the fingers lost in the final confrontation. Even this last tangible connection to Joel has been lost.

It’s a hard game to play, emotionally. And it’s one which many fans dislike for a number of different reasons. Some are angry that Joel was killed off early in the game. Some dislike the diverse representation in the game. Some are disturbed by how far Ellie’s violence goes, and others are pissed off that it doesn’t go further.

I didn’t dislike the game. But as discussed above, it doesn’t feel right to say I liked the game, either. I was moved by it, riveted by it, affected by it. Several times I had to stop and just feel the weight of the story and let it wash over me. I was hurt by the game, but it’s a hurt that I sought out, and a hurt that I will likely seek out again.

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The Problem With ‘All Lives Matter’

Consider this statement:

“I believe everyone has the right to freedom of expression.”

Chances are, you agree with the statement, as it stands now. In the U.S., this freedom is codified in the bill of rights, in freedom of speech, freedom of the press, and freedom of assembly. Internationally, the right is part of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights as accepted by the United Nations. The concept of free expression has been traced back to ancient Greece and Rome. Standing alone, the statement is not a new or particularly controversial one.

Now let’s put the phrase in a new context:

“What is your opinion on child pornography?”
“I believe everyone has the right to freedom of expression.”

It doesn’t taste the same any more, does it? The words are exactly the same, but the meaning has changed.

Meaning Is More Than What’s Written

Language has two levels of meaning: text and subtext. ‘Text’ is the actual words used and their literal meaning. ‘Subtext’ is meaning that is not actually spoken, but is implied. To understand the subtext, you have to look at the context.

(To help keep these straight: the ‘sub’ in subtext is the same root as the ‘sub’ in submarine. It means under, so subtext is meaning that is under the text. The ‘con’ in context means with or together, so context is everything that you have to look at together with the text to understand the full meaning.)

In the example above, the text is the same: “I believe everyone has the right to freedom of expression.”

The context is new. Now instead of standing as a lone statement, the text is a response to the question: “What is your opinion on child pornography?”

Because of that context, in addition to the literal textual meaning: “Everyone has the right to freedom of expression,” it now carries the implied subtextual meaning: “…and I believe child pornography is a valid form of expression that should be protected under that freedom.”

The context has changed the meaning of this sentence from one you almost certainly agree with to one you almost certainly don’t.

I Thought This Post Was About Race Stuff…?

“Black lives matter” and “All lives matter” are phrases that have both text and subtext. The text for each phrase is the simple literal statement each embodies: that black lives matter and that all lives matter. Going solely from the text, neither statement contradicts the other (The phrase “Black lives matter” doesn’t mean other lives don’t matter, and the phrase “All lives matter” includes ‘black lives’ in the subset of ‘all lives’), and only the most overt racists (or sexists, homophobes, classists, objectivists, narcissists) would claim the opposites to these statements: “Black lives don’t matter” or “Some lives don’t matter”.

But meaning is more than just text. If we want to understand the strong emotional reactions people have to these statements, we also have to look at the subtext to each of these phrases. To find the subtext, we have to look at the context. Specifically, we have to ask, “What are these statements in response to?”

What Does #BlackLivesMatter Mean?

The hashtag #BlackLivesMatter (and by extension, non-Twitter use of the phrase and the associated movement) originated in response to the death of Trayvon Martin, a 17-year old black boy, and the acquittal of his killer, George Zimmerman, who shot the unarmed teenager and claimed the act to be in self-defense. It grew in response to the deaths of Eric Garner and Michael Brown in 2014 at the hands of police, and has shown up in response to other deaths of black adults and children by law enforcement, including Tamir Rice, Philando Castile, Breonna Taylor, and most recently George Floyd. Many of these cases have been characterized by misapplication or unreasonable escalation of force, and in most of the cases, the officers involved have been acquitted of criminal charges.

By looking at the context of what #BlackLivesMatter is a response to, we can see both the text and subtext to find the full meaning of the statement.

Text: Black lives matter…
Subtext: …but current police behavior and culture is leading to a disproportionate amount of black deaths relative to their presence in the American population, and the officers involved face relatively small consequences for their actions. As a nation, we need to acknowledge that these problems are real, and reform the systems that are contributing to them.

What Does #AllLivesMatter Mean?

By contrast, “All Lives Matter” arose in response to the Black Lives Matter movement. This can be seen in the history of the term (which spikes concurrently with spikes in the usage of “Black Lives Matter”), the way the term is used (either in direct or indirect response to people using the phrase “Black Lives Matter”), and the phrase’s construction (it’s just the phrase “Black Lives Matter” with one of the words replaced, like a Weird Al parody).

Given this context, we look at both the text and subtext to find the full meaning of this phrase as well:

Text: All lives matter…
Subtext: …so stop going on about how “black lives matter”.

The first group believes the problem is an issue of corrupt or broken systems in place perpetuating unequal (and dangerous) treatment of different people. The second group believes the problem is the first group saying there is a problem. By speaking out against “Black lives matter”, the person saying “all lives matter” is denying the systemic problem exists (“Police kill just as many white people as black people”) or denying the problem is actually a problem (“If they don’t want to get shot, they should stop committing crimes”).

Now, not everyone who says “All lives matter” intends to promote the subtext that the phrase carries. Many repeat and share it because they agree with the literal textual meaning of the phrase, and think that’s all there is to it. Nevertheless, it does still carry the original subtext with it. People in the Black Lives Matter camp hear a denial that their concerns are valid. People who oppose the movement (including white supremacists, white nationalists, and other people who are openly racist) hear support and solidarity. And people who don’t really want to think about difficult topics hear an excuse to not wrestle with the issue.

What About #BlueLivesMatter?

“Blue (meaning police) lives matter” is also a direct response to “Black lives matter”. But where “All lives matter” is mostly just trying to ignore the subtext of “Black lives matter”, the subtext of #BlueLivesMatter actively opposes it.

Text: Blue lives matter…
Subtext: …so the excessive force you’re complaining about is necessary for the police to protect themselves or feel safe.

While #AllLivesMatter is countering #BlackLivesMatter, there isn’t necessarily an exclusionary message in the subtext. It’s not saying that any one group of people is more important or deserving of protection than another. However, the subtext of #BlueLivesMatter does promote an exclusionary message that “Police lives are more important than the lives of the people being killed by police, and their protection should come first.”

Where Do I Go From Here?

Before using any trending phrase or hashtag, look beyond the text and its basic, literal meaning. Find the subtext of the statement. How is the phrase being used? What is the phrase said in response to, or in defense of, or in opposition to? Do you agree with both the textual and the subtextual meaning?

When I look at the phrase “Black lives matter”, I agree with both the text and the subtext. I may not agree with you on how specifically to deal with the problem of systemic racism and police violence, but I agree that these are problems that need to be dealt with.

When I look at “All lives matter” and “Blue lives matter”, I agree with the literal textual meanings, but not the associated subtexts. (Note: I do have a lot of respect for police officers who risk their lives and wellbeing to protect people and uphold the law, but #BlueLivesMatter isn’t a good way to express that support. It shows support, but it’s also trying to pick a fight.)

And if someone calls you out for saying something that means more than you thought it did, try to listen. They may be more familiar with the implied meaning than you are

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I probably got some stuff in this post wrong. This post explains why I’m trying anyway.

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Being Wrong Is (Sometimes) Okay

So there’s That One Guy.

There’s probably a slang term for That One Guy, but not knowing it, I’ll give a general description:

That One Guy is (typically) most or all of the following: white, male, straight, cis, college-educated, safely above the poverty line. He’s also VERY into all the progressive movements. He drives a float in the pride parade, has a Black Lives Matter sleeve tattoo on each arm, and sends hand-written postcards to Anita Sarkeesian to tell her to keep fighting the good fight.

His zealousness may even start to be embarrassing for the actual members of the social groups he’s trying to champion. He may engage in white knighting. Maybe he speaks too authoritatively about prejudice or discrimination that he has no first-hand experience with. Maybe he’s just ‘woke’ to a cringey degree. That One Guy becomes a weeaboo for the underprivileged.

I never wanted to be That One Guy. Still don’t, really. I’ve got all the right privilege markers, and all the right stances on social issues to become one, it’s just a matter of engagement and scale.

And there are some good reasons to try not to be. If he speaks out too often and too loudly for these diverse causes, he may be drowning out the voices of the people who have real skin in the game. Jumping too readily to the defense of people who were fully prepared to defend themselves may be patronizing or condescending. And sometimes this sort of activism is more about a performative sort of ethicality than about bringing forth change.

But while all these concerns are part of the reason I don’t speak out on these issues very often, I think the biggest part of the reason is that I don’t like getting things wrong in public. Because it’s embarrassing.

In school, I wouldn’t really raise my hand to answer questions unless I was confident I already knew the answer. And I hated essay questions, because they were so subjective, and it was hard to know if you were getting it ‘right’ or not. And now, with social concerns everywhere I look, I hesitate to write anything with a strong opinion because I might get it wrong, and then someone might call me out, and that would be EMBARRASSING.

And then…it would be fine.

Outside of the more extreme cases of internet shaming, getting embarrassed on the internet is one of the most survivable problems you can have. You blush in private, then close your computer and avoid dealing with the emotions until you have to. It’s not a REAL problem.

One of the things I realized today is that being able to make decisions based on whether or not I will get embarrassed on the internet is itself a sign of privilege, in the same way that being able to ignore politics is a sign of privilege. (God…every single time I write that word, it comes out ‘privelege’. Every single time.)

I want to do better at this, even if it means making some mistakes along the way (maybe even in this post, who knows). So here’s some advice that is ostensibly for you readers, but is really for me:

  1. Risk getting things wrong. Think things through before posting to reduce the chances of getting things horribly wrong, but don’t default to inaction every time. Sometimes learning from a mistake is better than not making the mistake at all.
  2. Accept correction with humility. Before getting defensive with someone who corrects you, allow for the possibility that they are right and you are wrong, especially if there are good reasons that they know better than you on this topic.
  3. Don’t get burned by embarrassment. When someone calls you out, don’t think, “Fine, I’ll just never try again.” Course correct, take the new information into account, and go out and make new mistakes. Never stop learning.

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If you want more of me blathering about current events, the currentest is Being Right Is Not Enough. If you’re here for some of my dumb poems…um. Sorry. It’s been a while. Maybe check out Balloons Are Always Blue? I liked that one. 

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Being Right Is Not Enough

Let’s talk about tactics.

Just to be clear, this post is going to deal with communication about social issues SPECIFICALLY on social media platforms, such as Facebook and Twitter. Different elements of communication are more effective in some situations than others, and what follows won’t be applicable in all arenas.

(Note: this post is directed to a more liberal audience, and will presuppose some stances and opinions on current events. You’re welcome to keep reading if you don’t hold these opinions, but there may not be much here for you.)

There has been a lot of discussion on my Facebook feed about the death of George Floyd at the hands of Derek Chauvin, and about the protests that have spawned in its wake. One of the things I see frequently recurring is a sense of bewilderment that this is an issue that people can still make arguments about. I want to try to unpack some of the mental processing that’s going on, and outline some ways that we can communicate more effectively.

1. Protest Tactics Do Not Necessarily Work On Facebook

Social change efforts essentially boil down to two methods: changing people’s behavior (without necessarily changing their minds), and changing people’s minds (so that changes in behavior will follow).

And the thing is, you need both.

Many issues are too important to just wait patiently for society to change its mind about. Society changes its mind slowly, and sometimes won’t change at all without visible external pressure to do so.

At the same time, if you only change the behavior, and don’t work to change minds, these same problems will crop up again further down the road. And it may come back with a sense of stubbornness, because the people whose minds weren’t changed resent having their hand forced earlier on.

Now, protests, strikes, and marches are most effective at the first one, pressuring a change in behavior. They are vocal, they are visible, they are intimidating, and they inconvenience people who might not otherwise pay attention to the issue.

The problem with bringing the same tactics to Facebook and Twitter is that social media don’t function the same way. A tweet doesn’t inconvenience a reader who disagrees with it. A Facebook post isn’t intimidating to anybody. You’re only visible on social media until someone blocks or unfollows you, and it lacks the vocalness of a large group chanting as one. A post and a comment arguing with that post speak at the same volume.

These sorts of methods, when implemented in social media, are not very effective at changing behavior. Unfortunately, they’re also not very effective at changing minds. In some cases, they can even make those minds more resistant to changing, because…

2. It’s Easier To Argue Than To Reflect

It’s really hard to change people’s minds. It’s even hard to change your own mind, even when you really want to. Opening your mind to the possibility that your beliefs and assumptions are incorrect causes a lot of psychological stress through cognitive dissonance.

You have to be willing to deal with that cognitive dissonance for a long time as you take in new information that conflicts with your held worldview, and have the humility to admit that you may have been wrong. Many people, if given an opportunity, will take the much easier option of finding a way to discount the new information, doing away with the need to integrate it.

Your job, as the presenter of new information, is to make that information as difficult to disregard as possible. Here are some reasons your message might be falling on deaf ears:

3. Broad Generalizations Are Easy To Discount

Consider the claim “All cats are orange.” It’s a pretty easy claim to disprove. As an absolute statement, all you need is to find one non-orange cat to render the original statement invalid. But if you live in a town where there are only orange cats, it can be easy to feel, or even believe that maybe there ARE only orange cats in the world.

Now, if you share this sentiment with someone who lives in a town where there are only gray cats, they’re not going to know what you’re talking about. They might grant the possibility of one or two orange cats, maaaybe, but they’ll need a lot of reliable evidence before they allow that perhaps there were more orange cats than they originally realized.

The same thing happens with perceptions about the police. When a white person living in a middle-class or better neighborhood hears about an act of police brutality, they put this new information alongside their personal experience of interactions with the police. With the exception of the occasional speeding ticket, this experience is going to be A.) very limited, and B.) generally positive, or at least neutral. It’s also going to be supplemented by hundreds of hours of television featuring larger-than-life law enforcement protagonists.

So when this new information is presented to them with the claim “All police are corrupt/racist/brutalist”, they have just enough contradictory evidence to dismiss the broad generalization, which gives them an excuse to ignore this claim, along with anything else that comes after it. OR they’ll use this evidence to argue with you, which means you’re now using your limited reserves of patience and emotional energy to defend something which was mostly rhetoric.

4. It’s Easier To Attack The Person Than The Argument

Ad hominem fallacy (Latin for “against the person”) is an argument where you attack someone’s personal characteristics, rather than the points they’re trying to make.

“I believe the earth is spherical and revolves around the sun.”
“Yeah, but you also think the third Godfather movie is the best one, so what do you know?”

It’s not actually a response to your points, but it can get a cheap laugh, and it derails the conversation.

A version of this kind of thinking often happens internally in the minds of people you’re trying to convince of something. It’s a voice that says “I don’t have to listen to this person because…”

  • They called me a racist.
  • They’re just one of those Democrat socialists.
  • They’re always blowing things out of proportion.
  • They’re one of those “social justice warriors” I heard about on the TV.
  • They’re just talking down to me.

You can’t eliminate all of these reasons why someone may choose to ignore you, but you can avoid giving them easy targets. If you’re trying to actually change someone’s mind or present information to people through social media, avoid name-calling and antagonizing. This raises their defenses and makes them more resistant to listen to you. Don’t make big claims without sources to back them up. This just opens the door for the other side to make unsubstantiated claims as well. And be careful of using the same stock phrases too often, for the following reason:

5. Slogans And Buzzwords Lose Their Power With Overuse

When someone starts an argument with a reference to “Make America Great Again”, do you really hear anything after that? I’m guessing that’s the point at which you tune out, because MAGA has become a signal that tells your brain, “This person is allied with this political figure, and has these political beliefs that come with it.” You categorize the speaker as someone you do not agree with and do not have to listen to.

Here’s the thing: you have your own catchphrases that do the same thing to them. They’ll be different for every listener, but examples might include “check your privilege”, “eat the rich”, and even “Black Lives Matter”. This isn’t to say that these phrases have no value. “Check your privilege” can be useful when talking to people who acknowledge that they are privileged but are still learning its extent. And “Black Lives Matter” is useful for the times when showing support is more important than changing minds. But if you are actively trying to convince people to hear new ideas, be aware that these phrases may be functioning as a mute button to the people you’re trying to reach.

Don’t rely on the same few key phrases over and over. Keep finding new ways to communicate ideas and information, and increase the likelihood that you will be heard.

6. The Person You Argue With May Not Be The One Who’s Listening

I’ve been on Facebook a lot the last few days, and I’ve been reading lots of posts, comments, discussions, arguments, and knock-down-drag-out fights about this issue. I’ve participated in very few.

And in that time, I’ve had my assumptions challenged and my worldview broadened. If you’re feeling discouraged right now, and you want to make the broad generalization (see point 4) that “You can’t change anybody’s mind,” let me submit myself as the conflicting evidence: my mind has been changed. Not in a come-to-Jesus complete overturning of my beliefs, but in a more gradual process of reading, learning new information, researching, meditating, questioning my assumptions, recalibrating, refining, and realigning. And a lot of it happened through watching friends talk about the issue with someone else, without really knowing I was watching.

For me personally, what’s been most effective at making me change my opinions has been people who presented arguments with well-documented and supported sources, showing patience with people who, in all honesty, did not earn the patience with their own responses. Angry memes and name-calling were among the least effective, and almost made me give up on engaging with the issue.

So if you’re arguing with someone who rejects the basic principles of reasoned debate and respectful communication, remember there are other people watching. Someone like me could be having their opinions honed by watching you remain patient or lose your cool.

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In closing, lets run through some ways to maintain effective communication on this issue on social media. These are not necessarily about respect or what the other person deserves: right now I’m looking at this just from a standpoint of giving you the best chance of being heard and listened to:

  • Fact-check before you post: If you’re making fact claims, make sure they’re accurate. If you’re sharing anecdotes, make sure they come from a real person.
  • Provide your sources: Link to the original source where you got information, so others can see it in context. Don’t have a source? Head back to the fact-checking step.
  • Consider your audience: Who are you writing for? Protestors? Conservative relatives? Friends on the fence? Tailor your communication to best accomplish your goals with those you’re talking to.
  • Conserve your energy: If someone just wants to pick a fight with you, it’s okay to disengage and say you’re not going to argue with them. Don’t let them goad you into going around in circles.
  • You will never get the last word in: Having the last word in an online debate is not about debating well, just perseverance. If you get that far, your rational arguments will have run out, and you’re basically fighting with rocks and sticks. Having the last word in these circumstances is not a victory.

I hope some of what’s posted here will help you bring about change in the coming months and years. Just being on the right side of the issue isn’t enough. You also have to know how to be heard.

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