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. 

Posted in Current Events, Politics | Tagged , , , , | 2 Comments

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.

Posted in Politics, Psychology | Tagged , , , , , | 1 Comment

The View From 90 Degrees

She has the intoxicating candor of a woman deeply in love with someone who notices her as scarcely as she notices you. You see her in profile, because she never quite looks at you. And so you see the face she shows him for what it is, an imitation, her idea of perfect as he might see it, paper thin and glued to a popsicle stick. Behind this market-tested smile, she smirks, she frowns, her lip trembles, and now and then her index finger embarks on a quest for buried treasure deep within her right nostril.

And you fall for her, of course, this woman who puts up no mask for you because she does not realize one is needed for you. It’s a sort of intimacy you have, stolen, not given. Unreciprocated, since reciprocation was never asked for. It would be stalking if you were not friends.

‘Just friends,’ you tell other people, but she would never say the two of you are ‘just friends,’ for the thought is too self-evident to her to require saying. You would not tell a bottle of ketchup that it is ‘just a bottle of ketchup’ until it opened a ketchuppy mouth and told you that it thinks of an aspiring screenwriter, and could you look over this treatment of Stranger in a Strange Land it’s been working on? You would not tell it this even then, but simply replace it with a bottle of ketchup with fewer artistic aspirations.

When she does remember to talk to you, not turning, only speaking out of the side of her mouth, she describes him to you in terms of the deepest longing. You don’t really see what all the fuss is about. After all, you see him from the same side angle she does, watch him scowl and brood, stutter his sibilants, and every so often use a too-long fingernail to excavate poppy seeds from the crevices between his incisors. Honestly, what could anybody see in him?

You could tell her how you feel, but would you really want to? If she turned to face you, it would be to show you a mask. Perhaps the one she wears for him, or another one, meant to frighten you away. Either way, you’re content to remain where you are, appreciating a window into a reality that wasn’t meant for you.

There is a sound to your side, a subtle unconfident thing that seems to both invite and discourage attention. Like someone clearing their throat with nothing to say. You imagine someone standing there, waiting for you to turn around…but no, surely you would have noticed if that were the case. And the man who is loved by the woman you love is always staring in that direction. If there was someone there, he surely would have said something to her by now.

All the same, such notions make you self-conscious. You check your shoulder, feeling for the profile portrait that rests there. You make sure it hasn’t fallen off-balance, making you look like a fool or a drunkard from that angle. With it settled in place, you return your attention to the view through the eyeholes in your mask. They are narrow, and it might be easier to see if you let it drop, but you keep it raised. You never know when she might turn to face you, and you wouldn’t want her to see anything but your best. Until that day, if it ever comes, you are happy just to watch her perfect imperfection in silhouette, content with the view from 90 degrees.

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Sometimes A Peacock Just Falls In Your Lap

I quit my job on Friday and life is already getting more interesting.

Technically I only put my two-weeks notice in, but already I feel my mindset shifting. I feel able to start thinking about writing again, and to take long walks on nice spring days.Yesterday, Sunday, I was on my second two-mile walk of the day. On the way back to my apartment, I considered which wells I might draw creative inspiration from. It was a beautiful day. A pleasant breeze was blowing, a peacock was crossing the road, the sun was shining–

Hang on…a peacock?

Traffic had stopped to let the bird pass, and remained stopped as the drivers went through a mental recalibration to accept this animal into their worldview. The peacock, unburdened by biosphere cilture shock, made its way through an apartment complex, inquisitively pecking at flowers set out in plastic planters.

I ran through my plans for the afternoon, threw out the whole list and replaced it with a single item: “FOLLOW PEACOCK”.

I followed the bird at a distance of several yards. Peacocks are entitled to social distancing too, after all. Residents poked heads out from back doors and balconies, responding to the sight with noises of bewilderment and vocal equivalents of a double-take. “Is it yours?” someone asked me. I shook my head. “No. Or anyone else’s, as far as I can tell. I guess we’ve reached the ‘zoo animals running wild’ period of the apocalypse.”

The Indianapolis Zoo was ten miles away, and it seemed unlikely that the peacock could have strutted all the way through downtown without being waylaid. Peacocks are not generally known for their stealth capabilities. It seemed more likely that it came from a local owner or breeder. I searched “Beech Grove peacock” to see if anyone had posted a report for a missing specimen. The top result was an ad for NBC’s upcoming streaming service. I narrowed my eyes at the screen as I weighed the possibility that this was all an elaborate viral marketing scheme.

I was unsure who you’re supposed to call to deal with a misplaced peacock. Animal Care had nobody working the phones, and no way of leaving a message that I could find. Besides, I guessed they were more equipped to handle stray dogs and cats than they were peafowl.

The peacock eventually disappeared up someone’s driveway and behind their house. I felt uncomfortable following the peacock any further, 1.) because the owner of the driveway had just driven up, and 2.) a sign on his fence warned “Clothing Optional Beyond This Point” and I was having a clothing-mandatory sort of week.

Someone had called the police, and it was a slow enough day for crime that three patrol cars showed up in response to the avian anomaly. The first officer on the scene told us that she called Animal Control, who informed her that they know about this peacock, and that it has just been roaming wild in the area for the last two years.

So if life’s getting you down these days, remember that somewhere in Central Indiana, there’s a free-range peacock just wandering around, making the world a little prettier.

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My Adventures In The Drug Business

Last night I joined the drug trade.

…in my dreams. I’ve been watching Better Call Saul, and I guess it’s dripping into my subconscious.

As the dream starts, I’m sitting in a movie theater, watching Movie (title, stars, and plot are not filled in, because this is just a setting). I’m sitting in the front row for some reason, probably to allow for the dramatic staging of the coming confrontation. The Drug Man steps in front of me, obscuring the screen.

I am a stupid newbie who thought he was doing one job, and then getting out. But no, says Drug Man, once you’re in the business, there’s no getting out. He tosses a packet of “drug seeds” into my lap, and tells me I owe him $10,000 for them. He expects the money right now, or else something terrible will happen to me, and possibly everyone else in the theater. The threat is clear in its severity, but not in its details.

I talk Drug Man down from theatricide, and promise I’ll get him the money by the end of the day. I hurry over to the bank and say I want to withdraw $10,000. The teller (who is sitting behind bulletproof glass, unlike any bank I’ve ever seen in real life) asks me what I’m offering her to make this very suspicious transfer go through.

At this point, I waver between a few options:

1. Maybe this is all a bluff, to see if I act suspicious. Instead, act outraged and demand to speak to the manager. My money is my own and I can do what I want!

2. It’s no big deal, I’m just buying a used car from someone. (This seems like a bad idea, like it will be correlated with car registration somewhere down the line and I’ll be found out.)

3. Become visibly embarrassed and tell her in confidence that I’m buying a customized robotic sex doll, and don’t want it to show up in my history.

I wake up before I settle on an approach. Curious, I start searching for information on this. It’s weird that the bank teller would immediately jump to blackmail (what kind of dire straits is she in, I wonder), but could the bank stop me from withdrawing that money?

It turns out, $10,000 is exactly the cutoff point at which a bank has to report withdrawals to the IRS, and would require an explanation for the withdrawal. So now I’m wondering how my dreaming mind knew this fact, while my awake mind did not.

Also, $10,000 could apparently be a feasible amount for a robot sex doll, with enough upgrades and customizing. I’m really concerned about how I knew that.

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Love Like A Virus

Oh your love
Has me in quarantine
The only thing
The situation’s warranting
I feel you in my body, in my blood and in my bones
So please shut me up and lock the door and just leave me alone

I still taste
The flavor of your hate
And there’s no cure
No simple way to vaccinate
You went away in search of someone different to infect
Though you’re dead to me, each night I find you newly resurrect

I recall
Your litany of lies
With all this time
You’d think that I’d be immunized
My friends all think I’m over it, they think I’m through the worst
I may seem asymptomatic, but I’m carrying your curse

Can’t you see
That I’m in quarantine?
So leave me be
Until there’s nothing more of me
Your cruelty’s inside me like a plague inside my head
I can’t save the world from you but I at least can slow the spread

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Shopping Among the Virus

It’s 9:30 at night, and I’m grocery shopping.

It’s my first real shopping trip since the coronavirus panic started to flare up here in the midwestern US. I’m not sure what to expect, other than a dearth of toilet paper.

The Meijer parking lot is fairly thinned out by this point, so at least the store shouldn’t be too crowded. On the ground by my car is a magnetic bumper sticker, which advising “Honk if you need to POOP!” If America ever really goes post-apocalyptic, we’re going to have some weird detritus littering the scene.

I soon find there will not be much selection when it comes to meat. Lunch meat is almost completely cleared out, as are the fresh beef, pork, and chicken sections. My options appear to be boneless pork shoulder ribs, a large stack of cow femurs, and an $8 sirloin. I decide to take my chances with the pork ribs, and hope that I can figure out how to prepare them.

My work friend has taught me that you can drink a two-dollar bottle of Naked juice and pretend it is a fully nourishing meal. I grab a few of these, and some Lean Cuisines for good measure. There are also plenty of bananas, still. Only green ones, but I prefer them that way anyhow.

It’s interesting to see what people are panic buying, but it is also interesting to see what nobody is panic buying. Nobody, for instance, appears to be buying Trolls-themed (or possibly flavored) Oreos. Nor is Mountain Dew in immediate danger of running out. All the flavors of regular Yoplait are gone, except for red raspberry, of which a dozen tubs remain. I wonder if anyone is doing market research right now. I also wonder if the world knows something about red raspberry that I don’t.

Sugary cereals, chips, cookies…all of these are safely stocked on the shelves. It’s as if the country has known all along which foods are necessary and which are not, but forgot until reaching the point of having to make a choice. Maybe there’s hope for us yet.

Checking out, I notice that one of the Naked juices is covered in sticky goo. Rationally, I realize this is just juice from some other bottle that got ruptured in transit. Irrationally, I am suddenly convinced the goo is somehow full of coronavirus. I consider leaving it at the checkout aisle, for someone to put back later. But with the store so understaffed, it could sit there at room temperature for hours, maybe days, and is bound to go bad. Also, I see no reason why I should make someone else touch this bottle that is definitely definitely contaminated with coronavirus. I buy the juice, but keep it in a separate bag. Killing a sea turtle tomorrow to save a grocery store employee today. This is just one example of the sorts of moral quandaries we face in these dark days.

On the way out, I pass a couple wearing breath masks and a young woman wearing latex gloves. I nod, and they nod back in return. A silent acknowledgement that we’re all in this together. And that, for the most part, we’re going to be okay. I consider my shopping purchases. I didn’t find everything I was looking for, but I found enough. Sometimes all we need is enough.

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You Think You Love Me, But You Just Don’t Know Me Very Well

The first time you met me
You told me I was the most beautiful girl in the world
And I smiled, but thought little of it
Because you didn’t know me yet
You would know better in time

I tried to warn you
I told you I was ugly
Petty and mean and nasty and selfish
Monstrous, in a word
I couldn’t understand how you could ever love someone like me

I thought you would leave me the first time I came home from work
Covered in sweat, blood, and tears
Some of them mine
But you ran your fingers through my hair
And told me I looked good in red

I thought you would hate me
When I called out God’s name during sex
But you only laughed
Even though you should have known better than to laugh
At Yauchthracii, The Untongued

I thought you would curse me
The first time I snapped at you
But you told me it was okay
You reassured me that you understood
And that they could reattach the finger if we put it on ice

I thought you would see my ugly side
When that time of the month came around
The time when skin turns to scale
And all the extra limbs come out of hiding
But you told me I was beautiful
Laying a feather-light kiss on each eyelid
All nine of them

I thought you would find my hobbies repulsive
When the metatarsals blossomed in the bone garden
Or when those thin, mousy screams
Began to emanate from the wine-bottles in the cellar
But you wanted to join in
You helped assemble my wriggling jigsaw puzzles
We jarred yellowing milk by the light of a fingernail-moon
And you kept my sewing needles sharp
Sharp enough to puncture my crafting material of choice

All this time, I’ve been waiting for you to see me for what I am
But you don’t
You don’t know me
And it’s killing me
It’s killing somebody, anyway
And I’ve come to the conclusion
That you are not a well man, to love me so
You’re sick, somewhere deep inside
And all sick men must take their medicine
I slipped it into your coffee this morning
Didn’t you wonder why it’s growing so hard to stir?
But don’t worry
Don’t fret
You just don’t know me yet

But you will.

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