Friendly Fire

There’s a site I visit occasionally which is home to some pretty brash writers. Most of them do a good line in mad ranting, and they’re usually pretty entertaining. A while back, one of them mentioned getting an email from a guy who was like, “Hey man, I really like the site and I enjoy reading your stuff, but I just wanted to let you know that when I’m reading something and you casually drop the word ‘faggot’ in there to deride a guy you’re talking about, it’s like you’ve just reached into my room and punched me in the gut.” That, to me, sums up a lot of the arguments around your desire to express yourself, and other people’s desire not to have their shit fucked with by the people they want to interact with. Not, “How the fuck dare you homophobic piece of shit”, not even, “You shouldn’t use that word”, just, “Hey dude, that thing you’re doing really upsets me, and that sucks, because I really dig everything else you’ve got going on”.

I really enjoy being able to express myself freely. I think everybody does. But the “free speech / anti-censorship” responses to these issues frequently neglect the competing priority, even for someone who prizes free expression: I don’t want to be punching people in the gut. I feel like a lot gets lost when we frame these decisions as being entirely about “rights”. The concept itself can certainly useful as some sort of ethical or political bedrock, and maybe I just need to read more philosophy, but I don’t frame most of my decisions around my interactions with other people as being about conflicts between our rights. This might be some simplistic hippy insanity, but I find compassion a far more useful guiding principle. I’m not really interested in whether you “should have to” give that homeless guy money, whether he’s entitled to it expect it from you or whether you deserve it more. He’s almost certainly having a really horrible time, and you can almost certainly make it slightly better. We can talk about how the government is failing both of you later, but for now, please, give him a couple of dollars?

Our society is still pretty rough to a lot of the people in it. Most of us have a pile of shit that makes our lives more difficult than we’d like; purposeful, hateful shit built up by vile motherfuckers, and insidious, unfair shit that surrounds us and permeates our lives in ways we can’t control. Why contribute to that? Why would I want to casually add to the pile of homophobic garbage that guy has to wade through every day of his life? Why would any of us knowingly cast our lot in with people we despise who perpetuate that shit with hateful intent? Because we “don’t mean it like that”? Some of the things we desperately want to be innocuous turn out to be friendly fire. “It’s just a word” is not an objective statement of fact. It’s “just a word” to you. To the person on the receiving end, the girl within earshot at the pub, the dude suddenly getting punched in the gut, it’s another fucking thing on the pile. It wears people down.

Before running the freedom of expression argument, this needs to be factored in. Your expression has costs associated with it which are not borne by you. You are asking other people to bear them. I’m a woman after Lenny Bruce’s heart – I’d love to live in a world where nobody could make a kid cry with the strategic deployment of a single word. We don’t live in that world, and even if I think the remedy is to desensitise other people through exposure, some girl sitting behind me at the pub? She didn’t ask for my help with that. She may not agree that the Lenny Bruce method is a good one. She may just want to be out with her friends having a good time instead of being yanked out of her comfort zone by my big mouth at the next table. And you know what? I don’t want to be responsible for fucking with her night. So these days, before I crack my appalling off-colour jokes (and I do, regularly and with glee), I try to be really careful about who’s in earshot. I screw it up sometimes, but overall, it’s not that hard. It doesn’t cost me that much. I don’t think it costs a great deal to apologise when you get it wrong, either.

If you run the freedom of expression line after someone has said, “Hey, that thing you’re doing upsets me”, that’s a conscious decision you’re responsible for. “Freedom of expression is important to me” becomes an incomplete statement. The more accurate one is “My freedom of expression is more important to me than your well-being or comfort in my presence”. If that’s a statement you’re genuinely comfortable making, and that’s how you want to move through the world, that’s your business. That decision has consequences, though, and they will not be borne entirely by other people. Your expectation that other people will control their reactions to accommodate your desire to express yourself is no more or less reasonable than their expectation that you control your expression to accommodate their reactions. I would like to make some room for you, and I would like you to make some room for me, because that’s how we can move through the world with the least friction. If you’re really determined to demand uncensored expression, then surely, everybody else is entitled to have an uncensored reaction*. You get to stand up and take it all on the chin. It’s your free speech party.


*Given the events unfolding in the world this week, I feel the need to make this caveat: I do not condone physical violence in response to speech of any kind, no matter how hurtful or demeaning.

Chipping away at the monolith.

I know a few people who do phenomenal things. One works in legal aid with minority groups; another spends half his time doing primary health care work in South Africa; another lived in the West Bank for nine months supporting Palestinian families who were made homeless by settlers, and organising non-violent resistance; and others work for the unions, animal rights / lib organisations, and so on. I dipped my toe into these waters in a not-very-meaningful way in Kenya, and hope to really take the leap once I’m qualified to do something useful. Making full time commitments to these things comes at a price, of course, and watching people do it, I suspect the only way it can be sustainable is through a very specific attitude. You cannot hurl yourself against the monolith.

I really think this applies to anything, any profession or lifestyle or activism that asserts an influence on your daily life. It wears you down, confronting the same issue on a huge scale every day. A friend of mine talks about this regarding climate change – it’s so huge, so overpowering, that it paralyses us. I’ve seen other people I know hit the same point in other areas, chipping away at a small section for years, then looking up at the thing for a moment and feeling totally overpowered, as though everything they’d done in the intervening years was meaningless because the monolith remained standing. You cannot, must not, look at your own work in that context.

Whatever keeps you up at night, it is crucial not to frame your own part in it as succeeding or failing based on your impact on the rest of the world. The best thing I did in Kenya had basically nothing to do with the program I was working in. I spent fifteen dollars on a year’s supply of Ventolin for the eldest son of one of the HIV+ women I was working with, which got his mother out of the position of choosing between a month’s rent and a trip to the hospital every time he had an attack. That was it. Nothing I did as a volunteer even approaches that for impact. The best thing I do now is organise with some friends to pay his high school tuition each year. I cannot “fix” Kenya or ameliorate the conditions which lead to the devastating impact of HIV in south eastern Africa, and it would be laughable, naive, and patronising of me to try. I can help put a sixteen year old through school. The education system itself and the crippling income inequality that would have denied him access to it are unchanged.  It is a small thing in a country of forty million. He is one person, part of one family who may one day depend on him completely, and it really, really matters that he goes to school.

Do not hurl yourself against the monolith. The wonders of the internet mean all politically aware people are at risk of the spiritual equivalent of the death of a thousand cuts. Do not devote hours of your day to reading soul-destroying articles on things you’re already well-informed about, unless you have reason to believe that they’ll contain new information which you can use to direct your actions in some meaningful way. Seriously. Don’t do it. Make careful decisions about what you really need to know. Find something at a scale where you can have a really meaningful impact, and chip away at it. Volunteer somewhere locally. Put the effort into finding a really good, preferably less well-known charity – two I’ve been really impressed with are the Fistula foundation and Interplast, both of whom do life-changing things for individual people. Edgar’s Mission  does life-changing things for individual animals.

By all means give to Amnesty and Oxfam as well, be vegan, post articles to Facebook, whatever you think is important in the grand scheme. I just think it can be really useful to balance that with something that feels like your contribution has a clear, well-defined impact on a smaller scale. Remember that all of these issues are fundamentally about hardships faced by individual people (or animals), and that you may be able to do far more for one or two of them than you will ever do for the masses. Knowing you’ve managed to help them personally may give you the energy to do more for other people. It can sustain you as well as them, and that’s important. You’ll be no use to anybody if you give up in despair because you can’t take down the monolith.