Social justice and storytelling

Don’t get me wrong, I prefer not to have sexist or racist tropes in my stories, it’s just that from a creative standpoint, my primary objection is to tropes themselves; they should be subverted, satirized or better yet, avoided altogether. Tropes, racist, sexist, ableist, homophobic or not, are creative minefields.

For this reason, representation in-front of the camera, or in-character, is important to me creatively, not primarily for social justice reasons, but because it makes the story more real. The umpteenth visit to “The Planet of The White People” should become tiresome for anyone, left-wing or otherwise.

But I don’t see story telling as an exercise that should be undertaken by committee. What this means is that consultation has it’s limits; yes, a white writer can for example go into various Asian communities to ask questions (and should seriously consider paying consultation fees – there’s no reason why this information should just be free), but this doesn’t automatically make members of those communities part of the writing team; they may get a credit, but unless specifically hand-picked for the task from the beginning, they don’t just get editorial authority.

Creative integrity excludes like that.

From a social justice perspective though, there is an obvious if difficult workaround: representation at the writing/production level. Publishers can seek out members of a community or social group to write about that community or social group. Universities can review their admissions policies to check for institutionalized biases that arbitrarily exclude various social groups. Hollywood could be more thoughtful about which producers it supports, and be more pro-active about inclusion at that level. And people who care can campaign for these things.

I think it’s a little conspicuous though, that given how much attention has been given to representation of minorities in casting decisions, just how little the staffing of direction, production and writing positions have been similarly considered. A hundred and one hot-takes, with most focused on the limelight when their stated problems run a lot deeper, speaks of a culture pathologically attracted to celebrity.

The cogs and wheels behind the edifice may not be as glamourous, but they’re no less fundamental to increasing representation. Any cultural obsession that obscures that fact can reasonably be considered a political obstacle for anyone seeking progress.

Social justice is a consideration for some, creatively. But so is creative independence. There is a limit to what critique by third parties can contribute, and social justice doesn’t magically extend these limits. Unless you’re living in a totalitarian state, neither does any other political imperative.

From the misogynist nerds who think they own Rick and Morty, to woke-acting narcissists who think they get to provide directorial input on Doctor Who via social media, to any number of vain social media didacts who just can’t butt out, there’s no shortage of jerks online who’ll co-opt any political cause – left or right – if they think it’ll enable them to insinuate themselves into someone else’s creative process. A little bit of professional courtesy wouldn’t go astray here.

I could probably think of a thing or two about Cleverman that I’m not 100% behind, and I could probably go on to offer a critique. But there’s a huge leap between that and going on to pontificate about what Ryan Griffen needs to do with his work, as if he were obliged to listen to me in the first place. Well he’s not obliged, so I’ll not bother. Obviously white fellas are pretty apt to shoehorn their way into other people’s expression because on balance we’re raised with an implicit, unrealistic sense of our own importance. But as a general rule, ideally nobody should be doing any shoehorning.

I don’t see this being any different if the creator in question just happens to be conservative, either.

Perhaps if something was so far-right that it literally incited political violence, there’d be a Millian corn-seller argument there to stop the expression in its tracks – but that’s an extreme that goes well beyond mere critique. Similarly, if a particularly right-wing text defamed, there could be ethical and legal grounds for a demand of cease-and-desist and possibly compensation. Again though, that kind of injunction goes well beyond the realm of critique.

Litigation and indictment aren’t creative or analytic tools. (They’re not necessarily ethical all the time either).

Short of these kinds of injunctions, critics have very limited entitlements. They can critique. They can boycott. They can sulk. They can devise their own creative visions and attempt to build upon them. Ideally such creative visions can get a fair hearing, although often they don’t. The arts world can be rough, and is rarely ever fair.

But critics can’t just magically front-up via viral media and magically expect to be made a de facto part of an existing production or editorial team. And any critique undertaken with that sense of entitlement is bound to be self-indulgently bad. Any creative process that caves in to this kind of entitlement is likely to break – its reason for being being necessarily watered-down.

Maybe any given work of art, free of intrusion, will still turn out to be garbage. No political persuasion has ever been substantially represented without multiple failures occurring, and there’s still a role for critique in documenting these failure after the fact. Entitled didacticism still isn’t going to make this any better though.

Want to critique Star Wars to make the franchise better? Tough. It’s not your franchise to make better. Someone else may find your critique useful though.

Progressive or not, good critique is primarily for the public interest. It’s not a means of grasping control for one’s self. Professional boundaries matter.

So where does that demarcation leave white, male, heterosexual, left-wing creators who do have a care about social justice, but also a regard for professional boundaries? Hopefully nowhere too self-pitying. Hopefully nowhere crying and moaning that a woman has won out. Hopefully somewhere getting used to seeing other ethnicities on occasion being promoted above and beyond them.

I have a sneaking suspicion that while straight male left-wing creators may or may not have had ample experience at getting used to the success of gay male creators, the prospect of successful lesbians may still cause resentment. This is pathetic if true.

Beyond these realizations, good faith, a respectful curiosity regarding humanity, and an aversion to group-membership tropes are to my mind, if not ideal or all-encompassing, sufficient. I certainly have no intention of ticking off every box on some officious blogger’s checklist-for-wokeness, and unless somehow brainwashed, I doubt I ever will.

There will always be conflict occurring between these concerns every now and then, and I think creators need to resign themselves to that fact. When given the chance, I probably will consult with others that I trust, in private, if it’s not an imposture upon them. And I will peruse critique on an ongoing basis.

Unsolicited edicts from self-appointed editors though? Nope. Not a part of the process.

~ Bruce

I will disappoint you

I’ve been meaning to write this post for the past five or so years, it’s just that I’ve either had more pressing things to consider, or I’ve had trouble working out what I wanted to say exactly. Enough of that. I’ll get around to it now and get it out of the way and done with.

To be clear: Like an awful lot of bloggers, I’m a political person. I’m entirely ordinary in this respect; unapologetically normal. Not. Special. At. All.

I may have briefly been paid to do advocacy work, but that’s a long time ago now, in a different setting, and in a pre-social media world. Nobody’s paying me to do politics now, so I’m my own boss. I’m my own editor.

There are camps, and ideas, and sentiments I’m more closely aligned with than others. But, this blog is not the property of any political organization or clique. I’ve sworn fealty to no-one, despite people having occasionally expected it of me during the past few years. The look of shock when I don’t follow through on a promise I’d never make: galling really.

Towards the start of this decade someone had the bad idea of referring to me as their “knight in shining armour”. This was in the atheist scene, and despite the lingering trope of the “white knight” male feminist, it was before “Elevatorgate” too. It made me cringe. It still does.

I really don’t think some people understand how independent political writing is supposed to work.

Sure. I’ll criticize misogynists. I’ll criticize racists. I’ll laugh at libertarians and I’ll groan at naïve liberalism. Conservativism? No thanks. But I’m not your guy, left. A comrade isn’t a piece of property.

I’m not trying to impress feminists or appear woke, so telling me I’m not cool in this respect is really going to be insufficient as far as I’m concerned. I reserve the right to criticize anything I see fit to, the only promise I make in this regard being to attempt to do so in good faith. But that’s more about what I think makes for good writing than about making friends and allies.

If you don’t like me, that’s okay. You don’t need my permission to not like me. Go right ahead and not like me.

Am I a “good ally”? I don’t know. I’m not going to incorporate any of the listicle hot takes on the issue into my writing goals, so maybe not. It depends on what you mean by “good ally”. I have any number of problems with the term, depending on the specifics or the lack thereof. So what? It’s not a crime, that much is clear.

I’m not young anymore, and part of that entails not needing the kinds of social re-assurance and reality checks younger people calibrate themselves with. Maybe you’re young. Maybe you’re unaware that you do this. That’s okay. That’s normal. You’re doing fine. But that’s not me now, and it may not be you in future, and we’d both be better off coming to terms with it as it unravels, rather than letting it unravel us.

I may check in with people from time to time because I think they have some kind of interest or propriety, but I’m certainly not going to ask you for approval if I don’t think it’s something you personally have authority over.

Ask yourself, why do you read political writing at all if you expect it to conform to a number of rote points? If those rote points are sufficient, and you already know them, how much more do you need to read? Surely you could just get the facts regarding new cases from a more neutral source and apply the rote rules yourself, if the rules are sufficient.

Political writing would be made largely redundant. Why read this blog at all? Why read this post? Why be bothered with anything I write if that’s the case? Surely I’d be irrelevant and not worth you time to begin with. What are you doing here?

“I’m trying to help you understand…” No. I’ve long since learned to recognize passive aggression.

The role of a serious political writer to my mind, even if not a professional, is to mine new veins of political truth. This carries an increased risk of error due to the unavoidable lack of precedent. But if it’s done well, it’s ultimately worth it, and the errors made in the enterprise, if not too serious, can be examined and corrected for later. If too serious, well, you can work out the sanctions.

Maybe I’ll fuck something up. Maybe I’ll double down on it. Or maybe you’ll be wrong and I’ll double down on something you’re just not understanding. If a political writer doesn’t risk doing this, they’re doing a shit job, and the only way to deal with the inevitable fallout is in hindsight, with analysis and possibly apologies, not cowardly acquiescence. At all points, being candid is key.

I don’t expect you to like this. I know that it’s not always pleasant. It’s not entirely comfortable at my end all the time either. But if you can’t accept it as a cost of political reality, then I don’t care for your lectures, thanks. I’ve come to terms with it and I don’t care if you haven’t. But you need to if you want me to take you seriously.

Feel free to apply hot take logic to anything I write, and to condemn me if you want. But don’t expect me to be a part of your audience, or to grovel for your approval. It won’t happen because short of being dragged before a court or statutory authority, I don’t need to comply.

If you project your hopes on me, if you adopt the expectations of some political clique I’m not a part of and not understand that I’m not bound by those conventions, then I’m bound to disappoint. But I’m not under any illusions that I’m here to be anyone’s saviour. I’ve got plenty of horseshit issues, just not that one. I know I’m nobody’s knight. And I’m not an angel either.

But if you can handle this, then I think we may be all good. Possibly, this is the hardest obstacle to deal with in dealing with me. Well, that and perhaps wondering if it’s all worth it after a while – but that’s pretty much par for the course with anyone writing about these things, frustrating as they are. And like I said, I’m not at all special in this respect.

~ Bruce

The spokesperson and the punters

A number of years ago I attended a book launch by a local, self-published author with a disability. While I hadn’t known them for very long, being new to local writing communities, I wanted to see what was up, and on some level show support. At this juncture, I was still denying that inner voice that was telling me that something was wrong, and instead telling myself that the odd quirks and signs of passive aggression were not worthy of consideration.

So what? Some people are weird. Artists particularly, right?

Besides, if their work was serious enough to attract an arts grant in the first place, it couldn’t have been all that bad, could it? (Stop laughing.)

Initially I had a little trouble mentally digesting what I saw. Precisely nobody in attendance acted as if anything was untoward. There wasn’t so much as an awkward shuffle in a seat. And if there’s been a word of criticism voiced anywhere by anyone I saw in attendance, it’s been behind doors or somewhere else where us normies aren’t free ranging.

What resulted from this book launch I’d later incorporate, along with other displays of cynicism from local wannabe “activist” artists, into a mental architype of the cynical, neoliberal spokesperson who co-opts progressive language purely for marketing purposes.

“Nobody notices your artifice, or at least, if they do, they don’t want to be the only one who’s calling you on your shit – that’s a one way trip to lonely-town. ”

(‘Tricks in Neoliberal Culture #001: Affirming Values Through Compliments’, 2014)

It’s possibly worth noting that while this piece was well received among a number of friends in the “scene” at the time, aside from those I’ve confided in, all guesses as to who I was talking about have been wrong. People have assumed I was writing about an activist/artist that they just happen to hate. One activist/artist wrongly assumed that I was writing about them – although in that case I’ll take it as a confession. The truth is, the architype was a gestalt of a number of local artists/spokespersons; of both sexes, all middle-to-upper-middle class, all white, and all so incredibly vain.

But back to that book launch.

So, what would you expect from a book written by someone with a given disability, spruiked as the work of someone who was a spokesperson for others with that same disability? What would you expect if the point was made in the lead-up that said spokesperson had lead discussion in focus groups?

You’d expect discussion of the interests of that group of people, right?

Well, the book it turned out, was a memoir, and the perspectives of others with the disability in question – a disability known for its capacity to manifest different symptoms and difficulties from person to person – were completely absent. Moreover, the memoir made it clear that the author was actually living the good life; no economic hardship; good quality of life; excellent prognosis.

What policy exactly would one feel inclined to support after hearing this “advocacy”? Your guess is a good as mine. And probably as good as the guesses of all those folks in the focus groups who’s views weren’t represented in the final product.

Notably, the launch was presided over by a chap from the state government, who praised the author for the high quality of their advocacy work (without providing a single example of said work). You have take a bit of time out to consider what the guy’s interest was in all of this.

Serious advocacy for people with a given disability, by rights, should make people responsible for relevant government services at least a little anxious. Yet the content of the book, and all discussion at the launch, was completely absent of any discussion of government involvement, other than in its role in complimenting the author.

I’m not saying the bureaucrat should have been harangued or abused. There is, for example, no need for activists to call him names or leave a turd in his letterbox. But serious activism is going to raise questions that on some level people like him are going to feel uncomfortable with being raised, if only because it invites consideration of existing efforts.

If all advocacy consisted of such fluff as was on display at the launch – if it were all just solipsistic memoirs from people who are doing fine, actually – government would certainly have a much easier time.

“Hey, we’re cutting back disability services. Could you distract people by talking about what you name your socks again? Thanks! We love your advocacy work! Love, The Government.”

So no, there’s no salacious tale here. Just an anecdote about banal self-regard dressed up as disability activism, and the role and interests of state power in promoting it instead of discussion of actual, material problems.

This is a problem. Tell anyone who’s material issues are being distracted from on account of this kind of thing that it isn’t, and I hope they give you a serve.

Asking around those in more pro-active roles, revealed that it was a given that author was a flake. “Flake” was literally the word used. There was a repeated inference of “why bring it up? It’s so obvious. It’s no secret!”, as if author/spokesperson was a well-known running joke.

This was obviously true. It wasn’t a secret. And it’s not like I expect people to obsess over it either (if I did, I probably would have addressed it more directly, sooner, and then banged on about it ad infinitum).

I can’t fault people for laughing, and then getting on with their lives either.

Only, if you raised this issue with the rank and file members of a number of local writers groups, there’d be gasps, and silence, and people shocked at your audacity, and a whole heap of gossiping about you behind your back. How very well dare you?

Depending on which group you wind up in – some are better than others – you may very well be required to ignore the evidence of your eyes.

“Nothing is wrong! Why, there was even a man from the government saying it was all wonderful! Has a man from the government ever called you wonderful? No! *Sniff*”

There’s no master list of which writing groups to avoid, and arguably there shouldn’t be. But you have to feel, especially for the younger ones, those with a chest full of energy and a head full of good intentions, who go into these things not realizing the nature of the culture they’re immersing themselves into, only for them to find out the hard way.

Meanwhile, the self-regarding, disingenuous sorts remain an almost protected species.

~ Bruce

Draft manifesto: The No Drama Lit. Group

800px-Stipula_fountain_penPreamble

Two annoyances we may share: Grandiosity in writing groups, and grandiose manifestos. If you’re like me, then you find these things devastatingly de-motivational. You can’t write well with this confected flamboyance echoing around in your braincase.

Histrionic name-dropping, narcissistic limelight stealing, affected wokeness, he-manly pigeon-chesting and over-confident didacticism: who needs that kind of stuff, right?

Now the Internet: It has no shortage of manifestos that are self-important beyond all perspective. You probably don’t want to risk reading just another “Transcendental Black Metal: A Vision of Apocalyptic Humanism”. The publication of yet another Internet manifesto clearly flirts with a well established tradition of bumbledom, banality and pretense.

The following could all just be an attempt at putting out fire with gasoline. Still, I’ll persevere and hope you find this a worthwhile take on treating what ails any number of literary communities: Drama.

The text portion of this post is published under a Creative Commons 4.0 – Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike license. Feel free to adapt for your own non-commercial purposes with reference to this post. (You don’t need to ask first, although I’d be interested if anyone other than myself tried to see this manifesto implemented).

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The No Drama Manifesto

Purpose

The No Drama literary group is purposed towards the love of reading and writing, and to its candid sharing with similarly disposed human beings. To that end, it seeks to provide its members with a community that allows them to be open without that vulnerability being taken advantage of; a community where quiet confidences and new ideas can be grown and built upon without interruption by undue drama.

Ethos

Environment

1. We’re here for the words. For whatever reason, even if at times the relationship has its ups and downs, we each have a love of the written word. Whether it’s a fetish for fonts, a nose for prose, or a want to reproduce that feeling we had the first time reading an certain author, the writing and the reading are what it’s all about. All other objectives are down-prioritized to varying extents, depending on their capacity to disrupt or serve the functioning of the group.

The No Drama group seeks to facilitate those moments when a piece of writing really clicks, even if those words and the people writing them are ultimately forgotten by history. Posterity into the future should play second fiddle to poetry and prose in the here and now.

2. No Drama. This would be the ideal, at least. Ego-driven entropy may be the driving force behind some forms of art, but it can be utter chaos for a lot of people, and it’s not like there’s a relative shortage of outlets for the ego-driven entropist anyway.

Now sure, keeping the histrionics at bay may itself generate a degree of drama, but consider the refrigerator. Despite it’s name, the refrigerator heats its environment, and yet we still don’t consider refrigerators futile. We use them because there is a useable space kept relatively cool.

Similarly, the No Drama lit group seeks to create a usable space relatively devoid of egocentrism, purposed to the creation and appreciation of literature. That this may cause a small net increase of drama in the wider universe does not invalidate the venture.

Those affirming this manifesto do not accept that writers and bookish sorts are either necessarily or in large part egocentric. Rather, where there is an overabundance of ego, it is largely due to the initial attraction to egoists, and subsequent repellence of more ordinary folks.

3. Comradery. With allowances made for individual meekness, genuflection is discouraged. The least published member will never be expected to simply defer to the most published, and the most published member will be expected not to expect deference. Self-importance should be checked at the door.

4. Respect the work. It’s one thing to throw deference out the window, and another to disrespect hours, or even a lifetime’s worth of work undertaken in good faith. A bachelor of arts and a cursory reading of fad diet materials isn’t sufficient grounding from which to lecture a biologist on their writings on daily protein requirements. An overconfidence in one’s own rationality and a prejudicial dismissal of the literature is no basis from which to critically engage with well-read feminists on feminist texts. This isn’t simply the absence of deference; this is the presence of arrogance. The message is this: Don’t genuflect to individuals, but do respect real efforts made in good faith.

5. Friendly, but with boundaries. Ask yourself; have you ever been in a public space along with any number of strangers, looked around and then felt any kind of general affection for humanity? If so, would you have there and then, on the basis of that affection, agreed to let those strangers just walk into your home, or use your bed, or watch you shower? “Yes” and “no” respectively? Being well disposed towards others does not require you to surrender your privacy or your private life.

Personal boundaries and personal preferences aren’t something you ever have to apologize for, and the context of a reading or writing group is no exception. You don’t have to date other members. You don’t have to invite them to your birthday. You don’t have to become their friend on social media. That’s your own business, not the group’s.

6. Critique is crucial. Some writing groups ban criticism. This is sometimes done in a potentially misguided attempt to stave off abuse, which is itself a serious but ultimately separate matter. Elsewhere it’s done so as not to alienate those with poor confidence, even when it isn’t at all clear that criticism is scaring people off in the first place. Not everyone has a full creative sense of self at all times, and friendly criticism provides information a writer can use to re-orient themselves. Group members should aspire to accept criticism in good faith, and to provide quality critique themselves. Good critique is usable critique, and the process of justifying your writing decisions, even if only to a friendly audience, will help make you a better writer.

7. Editorial should be independent. What information a critic gives can be used by a writer as they see fit. Being open to criticism does not obligate a writer to simply obey their critic. Unless you have a contract wherein you’re actually someone’s editor or publisher, you don’t have a modicum of authority over what they write. Furthermore, should the group create its own publication, content should be keep editorially independent from committee, with the editor aiming to facilitate the free expression of group members in accordance with civil, democratic principles.

8. Professionalism. While not every member will be a professional writer or critic, some basic professional standards should still apply. Intellectual property rights, whatever the licensing details, should be respected. Plagiarism should be subject to a policy of zero tolerance. Membership in professional organizations, where possible, should be encouraged.

Training provided by the group needn’t be vocational, nor necessarily certified – people can learn simply for the sake of learning – but it should be provided by competent trainers with at least some meaningful background in the content being taught. Having a layperson turn up to a WordPress tutorial with the understanding that they can brush up on their CSS, only to find that the trainer doesn’t even know what CSS is, and has only six months experience with WordPress using it to sell herbal supplements, is not the kind of outcome the group should allow.

Exclusions

9. Welcoming, but not self-annihilating so. The word “inclusivity” has to some extent been fetishized beyond the point of its intended meaning, into an absurd and impossible categorical imperative.

If for example, you want your group to be inclusive of victims of domestic violence, then to some extent you’ve going to have to exclude domestic abusers. The logic at base is this: It’s an unavoidable truth that humans have conflicts of interests, and to be inclusive of any group of humans you may at some point have to exclude others. The point is not that you should be universally inclusive, but rather that you don’t exclude people arbitrarily.

Within reason, know what you want or need to exclude, why, and be open about it.

10. Not here to make you famous. Maybe you’ll make it big, but it won’t be because the group tried to make it happen. A love of writing is not the same thing as a love of celebrity, and a writing group that prides itself on its part in raising a member’s stature is a group that potentially does so at the expense of emphasizing the writing.

11. Not here to help make you an activist, per se. This isn’t to disparage activism, but rather to be clear about objectives. A lot of writers try their hands at activism. Writing obviously can be a means to an activist end, and there’s nothing wrong with that. But for reasons that should regarded as axiomatic, writing is in and of itself what a writing group is primarily about; it’s in the name.

Further, it’s cynical, if not pathological, to treat activism as a means to service one’s own status as a writer. Even though activism is not the group’s purpose, the group should not want to see worthy causes selfishly co-opted. Whether writing or activism is an individual member’s greater passion, all members should find hypocrisy in regards to either repugnant. Further, this brand of hypocrisy counts as drama.

12. Not here to help you push product. No multi-level marketing will be allowed.

13. Not here to help you harass. This should be a no-brainer, but abuse should not be tolerated at all and should be stamped out fast. If for example a victim of domestic violence joins your group, their abuser should not be able to follow them by joining. Leniency should not be afforded to abusers on the basis of their perceived righteousness – self-righteousness typically having a capacity to motivate and rationalize some of the worst behaviour humans are capable of. The No Drama group is not a “hunting ground” – members who use it as a means to follow others home, or sexually harass, should be kicked out in short order.

Governance

14. Committee work is a duty. The idea of committee work and in particular the politics surrounding it may fill people with varying proportions of awe and dread. But in many cases it’s necessary – depending on context, membership in umbrella groups, paperwork for grants applications and so on may require incorporation, which in turn will require a constitution, and a committee and so on.

So how to prevent too much drama in committee work? A lot of it comes down to how the group views itself and the purpose of its committee. Respect for the office of committee member, and for the executive decisions of committee are a must, but this needs to be counterbalanced. Committee needs to deserve this respect. Committee needs to not overreach, and a culture of reverence must be avoided. Committee members need to be viewed by normal members as being peers performing a few extra duties.

A good committee serves its members and isn’t be there for prestige or advancement.

14. Democratic. After the initial start up period, committee should be elected annually and held accountable by the membership. The membership must not be willfully kept ignorant of the state of the group’s operations. Committee must take reasonable steps to ensure the membership is kept apprised of policy formulation in a timely fashion. The group’s constitution should be published online, made available to members on request via email, and ideally a copy should be brought to all meetings by a nominated committee member.

15. Try before you buy. Prospective members should have to attend a small number of ordinary meetings before they can join as full members, and should only be able to attend a small number of meetings more before they have to become full members. This way both the group and the prospective member can get to know one another before any monies potentially change hands, and a degree of freedom to part ways exists prior to any party feeling overly obligated.

16. Minimalist. Committee, in addition to not editorializing in any of the group’s publications, does not have authority over the content of literature discussed within the group. While individual committee members can participate as ordinary participants, no act of committee should select a book for a reading group. No act of committee can tell a member what to write about.

Creative decisions on collective activities (e.g. themes for writing competitions) must come from the ordinary membership, with committee deferring to, recording and acting upon these decisions. Committee can only reject such decisions on legal grounds, or when they transgress the No Drama ethos, with any disagreements to be raised for discussion at annual elections.

Committee must restrict itself to the practical functions of running a lit. group, plus the duties inferred by the No Drama ethos.

Contact

If you want to keep me up to date on any attempt to implement the above, or you wish to discuss further efforts towards a final draft, or you’re interested in helping establish a No Drama group in Adelaide, feel free to send me an email at:

contact
Photo Source:
CC BY-SA 3.0 Antonio Litterio, 2011.

Easing into it

So, a small handful of people may have noticed that I’ve posted a few posts in relatively short succession, at least by my former standards. I’m hoping to maintain this pace more or less indefinitely.

After the next few weeks, after renewing my ASA membership and paying some bills, I’m hoping to commission a graphic for the page header, and maybe crop that down into a profile pic for the Facebook page (and for individual posts on Facebook). I already have an artist in mind, so I’m not looking for suggestions at this point (thanks all the same).

I do have to generate a new blogroll. Some of the larger blogs from back during my more active blogging years have gone and shut-down, and I’ve grown a bit distant from some of the authors. My connection to the rest of the Oz blogosphere, the atheosphere, and the left-end of online content has changed a good deal, and the blogroll will no doubt reflect this. I’m probably feeling this a bit more keenly than I should, maybe because tomorrow will be the 12th anniversary of the commencement of my blogging.

Things haven’t been fully tied-in with Twitter and Facebook yet – I still haven’t automated the posting of links to new posts with either. And I really do have to wake up and pay attention to the latest norms of social media publishing/aggregating/promoting.

A selection of older posts from past blogs will need to be imported, a short “About This Blog” page and a longer “Circling The Abyss” post will be nutted out in due course, and maybe I’ll forge something resembling a comments policy. Blog comments threads aren’t what they used to be, so I’m still debating with myself about this. Possibly a short comment in the sidebar would be adequate – something along the lines of AV’s reserving the right to be capricious, back on Five Public Opinions all those years ago.

Themes! So what will I be writing about anyway?

I haven’t delved into humanism as deeply as I’d have liked before, so there will certainly be more of that. My own humanism stems more from Dewey, than from Kurtz, which would potentially put me at odds with a number of Secular Humanists, if not cause at least a difference in emphasis. I’m entirely secular, but the focus Secular Humanism has had upon issues involving religion seems to me to have had the effect of subtly shifting Secular Humanism into a position of reaction; Secular Humanists are pretty clear about what they’re against where religion is concerned, but get them to articulate what they’re for, and how this may conflict with other secular viewpoints, and things sometimes get vague. There’s a lot to be written about here, I just have to work out what, exactly, and in what order.

I’m writing a book, presently, to shop around to publishers at a later date. It’s fiction. A lot of issues I wouldn’t mind writing about pop up in the work behind the scenes – especially regarding the subject matter. More on that another time though.

I haven’t regularly responded to goings on in the news for some time now. Even on my previous blog, where I posted a tad more frequently, analysis of the news wasn’t really a focus like it was before. I suspect this contributed to the decline of my traffic, which isn’t in and of itself a reason to alter my content, but still, a few more interlocutors attracted to discussion couldn’t hurt (provided they aren’t numpties). I should, if I can manage it, up my participation in this area.

I’ll probably cap off some of the more autobiographical threads I had running though Rousing Departures, albeit in as little an autobiographical manner as possible – abstract where feasible, generalize where it makes content relatable and relevant, and so on. I suspended my reservations about autobiographical writing a number of years ago, and while it served a purpose, long-term, with only a few exceptions, it’s just not my thing.

Maybe, just maybe in the midst of all this, I’ll throw in a little Linux or tech post here and there when Halt and Catch Fire, and Mr Robot are on air. That may be fun.

And hopefully, if I can really get off my arse, I’ll write a few reviews of gigs, albums, books and the like. I need to get into the swing of a regular system first, though.

Until then…

~ Bruce

10 Things To Consider When Reading That Progressive Listicle

As much as I’d like it to be otherwise, the reality is that listicles are going to be around for some time yet, and would-be progressives are going to use them in trying to get their message across. Rather than just condemn them outright, I’ll swallow my pride and raise some issues concerning the way they’re read, for the benefit of fans/addicts of the format – i.e. in listicle form.

1. Rote content isn’t geared for maximal moral comprehension because it can’t be. Listicles of the morally persuasive kind don’t have the space for complex moral calculus, counter-factual analysis, meta-ethics, interpreting statistical outliers or handling large arrays of case studies. Either a listicle is confining itself to simple issues people may have overlooked, or giving a limited glimpse at something more convoluted – it’ll never be the last word on serious ethical inquiry.

2. Gospel is for kids. Specifically, I’m referring to the “pre-conventional” to early “conventional” stages of Lawrence Kohlberg’s Stages of Moral Development.  Rote rules are more or less great for avoiding punishment… if you’re in kindy or a cult.

Kohlberg’s stages are contentious – more so than you’d want to go into in a listicle, so I won’t – but one of Kohlberg’s points that isn’t that controversial is that literal obedience to commandments, in thought, is not indicative of fully-developed moral reasoning. You may have not have a choice in the matter, but if the limiting factor in getting beyond gospel is the way you think about right and wrong, then developing the way you read a given progressive listicle may be more important than the content of that listicle.

“BUT [THOUGHT LEADER] SAID! *Inserts link to unoriginal electronic pamphlet*” – Derpy McInternet demonstrating poor moral reasoning.

3. Discussion is important, and not everyone is as good (or bad, or mediocre) as you. At no level of ability is it going to help ethical discussion for a person to consider themselves the pinnacle of correctness. Even at the top end of ability, doing so models poor mental strategy, and it’s not as if the very best will ever be right about everything ever published on lists of right and wrong anyway.

4. “But Hitler!” It’s not hard for everyone in a group to be right about the Nazis. A lot of propositions concerning the Nazis are pretty easy. I’m not going out on a limb by saying that “don’t kill all the Jews” is pretty fucking good advice.  But if you think you need to share a listicle to trot off things that obvious, for your friends and family on Facebook, then you may have bigger problems to deal with.

Are your friends and family on Facebook really that bad, or do you just like stating the obvious?

5. Progress doesn’t magically equate with the future, or with youth. I’ve been seeing a few millennials taking it for granted that prior to the last few years, with Trump and all, things had been getting more progressive year after year. This is not to condemn millennials, it’s just that left-wing Gen-Xers have been bemoaning the shift to the right for decades now. Homelessness and poverty, among other terrible regressions, have been increasing across the board in English speaking countries, and in spite of increases in economic productivity. For years now, politicians have been treading on egg-shells around proto and neo-fascist elements, yet if you put the same fascist wankers in proximity to a 1980s Australian Prime Minister, there’d be fireworks. Some thing have become more progressive, others not.

“We are the future!”

Everyone fucking is up until the point they die. Please spare us this bullshit.

6. Progress is a work in progress. How arrogant do you have to be to think that a few abbreviated principles on a clickbait article positions you as the end-point of a discourse? Unless it’s something obvious like “don’t kill all the Muslims”, the odds are that people will have more to say on the matter, and that there are people other than you working on it; possibly even people who don’t learn their politics from clickbait listicles (they exist!) People socially adjacent to you will likely be at different levels of understanding at least on a few topics. Some, as smart as they are, will be years behind you, while others may very well see your sharing of “10 Wokey-Woke Things To Make You Uberwoke” as representative of where they were years ago.

This works at all scales – entire countries on average lag, and advance, accelerate and regress, changing in terms of progress on any given issue, relative to other nations (e.g. Australia used to be a world leader in environmentalism, and now we’re shit at it). And the discussions between and within are similarly stressed. Unless you are the most progressive person that can ever live, at some stage something’s likely to come at you from a place of relatively greater enlightenment, and it could come at you from any angle. A listicle won’t prepare you for these circumstances. Progress is messier than that.

7. This also means there’s a backstory. How much do you know of the internecine disputes that lead to a contentious position being articulated, and why those internecine disputes happened in the first place? Did you even know, for example, that sections of the left have been criticizing “identity politics” for decade upon decade, or did you just assume that “identity politics” was something only grumpy, white, male, racist retirees up in Queensland complained about? Are the different groups invoking the words “identity politics” even talking about the same thing as each other? What happens when two or more lefties from the same disadvantaged social group come along with differing analyses? Are you going to just “shut up and listen”? What then? How do you decide when there’s contradiction? How do you tell which one’s right on a given point (or less wrong)?

Here’s something to ponder; how do you effect progressive change without making decisions? Even if you’re entirely obedient, you’ll still have to decide who to obey. Is your beloved listicle apt to help you with this kind of quandary?

8. The medium alters the message, especially when the medium is the market. Sometimes it’s not profitable to tell the whole truth. Sometimes that’s because things like long form are more informative, but disengaging, and at other times it’s because the whole truth is wildly unpopular with exactly the demographic who needs to hear it. How much less confronting is it to tell white people to just not think about race, than it is to point out that they’re probably to varying extents the beneficiaries of structural racism? There’s a profit motive in not pissing off your audience, and not infrequently media outlets will moderate the truth not as an educational strategy, but as a marketing one. Further, if a social group, even a disadvantaged one, has enough money in aggregate, there’ll be some marketing asshole contriving ways of influencing them to spend it on baubles and bullshit, and some of those marketing assholes will be apt to sell those baubles and bullshit as liberatory.

If your listicle is published from an outlet with a profit motive, you may want to pay closer notice to the lexicon they use and the language they erase. (E.g. Keep an eye on that dematerializing “i” in GLBTi, while it fades away out of marketability).

9. Class matters, as uncomfortable as that may feel. It’s very easy for presumptive progressives from the upper middle class to say “I support a progressive tax structure and increased spending on services, infrastructure, health, education and welfare”, even when there’s actually a chance of it happening. It’s so easy, that even conservatives argue for it on occasion; just tick that box. Actually staring the consequences of class in the face is not so easy, for anyone. That shit’s ugly.

It’s oft complained about; the spectacle of condescendingly telling a homeless or working poor white man that they have privilege. I don’t buy into the idea that it’s wrong, per se, for a middle class person to have a discussion with a poor person about privilege, where the middle class person may have the bulk of the theoretical content to impart. Rather, when it does goes wrong, I suspect the problem is that you have people who are usually middle class or better off, trying to curtail discussion of uncomfortable topics; functionally, valid concepts like white privilege and male privilege are being (mis)used as a bulwark against discussion of class – a diversion to protect middle class egos. Does your listicle do this?

10. It’s a heuristic approach. You’d possibly be helped realizing when you’re using a heuristic. A heuristic is a process, or rule, that while not able to be proven universally true, produces true results in enough cases to be usable. Anti-virus software uses heuristics – they attempt to locate viruses using a set of rules, rather than computationally intensive proofs, and when all is well and good, these rules will identify viruses correctly. Occasionally the virus checker won’t find a virus that is present, or it will wrongly identify desirable software as a virus, but as a rule, it’s still better to have a virus checker than not*.

The odds are, in dealing with things as complicated as social phenomena, and with the limited nature of listicles, the progressive rules you’ve adopted from listicles are heuristic in nature. Like the rules of anti-virus software, occasionally even well crafted listicle rules will turn out to be wrong. Like anti-virus software, progressive heuristics can date and be circumvented by malicious parties. Like anti-virus software, progressive heuristics can even occasionally be co-opted to become a part of the problem (again, the market is good at this).

These drawbacks make heuristics neither inherently good nor bad – it just means you have to be vigilant and know there are limits, and beyond those limits you need other, usually more demanding methods. Methods to spot tricky regressive ideas, and to fix the heuristics that fail to find them well enough.

If you’re busy, and you don’t have to time or resources to deploy such methods, then like a lot of other people, you’re in a pickle. You can either trust your heuristics or trust someone else who has the time to check them for you. The bind in this is that you’ll have to trust someone, or something, at some point, and it can be hard to know who or what to trust, such that’ll you’ll be bound to be disappointed at some point. Get used to it.

And it would probably help if you’ve learned your politics from listicles, to not pretend to be an infallible moral authority, above and beyond your fellow progressives. There’s a listicle heuristic for you.

~ Bruce

* This sentence is a heuristic as well; “it’s still better to have a virus checker than not” will likely be untrue in some cases, and possibly increasingly so as virus checkers fail to keep up with newer security threats.

I Am The Woodsman

This piece was submitted to the Adelaide Plains Chapter and Verse – Fairy Tales Twisted Sideways competition in June of 2013, subsequently appearing in the compilation booklet of the same name a couple of years ago. As you can probably guess, the theme was Fairy Tales with somewhat of a perverted twist. Re-reading it now, there are a number of things I’d change, however, it’s posted here in the form it was submitted in two and a half years ago. I will at this point disclose an “Easter egg” in the text; the North American spelling of “fulfill” with the extra “l” is a reference to the “Gemini Killer” from The Exorcist III, who could be identified by his misspelling of words through the addition of an extra “l”, such as the extra “L” in “IT’S A WONDERFULL LIFE” spelled out in the blood of the murdered Father Dyer.

I Am The Woodsman

I’m The Woodsman. People know me for what I do by day; chopping down trees; moving logs; running the wood mill and selling timber. By night, what I do is secret.

The scene wouldn’t be discovered until the following week; gristle, black bones and crackle; black walls; charred collagen and the smell of bacon fat. The three little pigs had been roasted alive in the third brother’s house of bricks.

The doors were locked and the locks broken from the outside. Double glazed windows didn’t offer a better chance of escape. The fireplace was how it started; the porcine brothers thought their predator was coming down the chimney, so they started a fire to keep him out.

An accelerant was the first visitor down from the roof – probably olive oil. The high intensity burns of an oil fire could be seen splashed around, which would’ve spread to the rug and the lounge room furniture. Yeah, The Wolf used a lot of oil.

Bundles of hickory twigs would have followed, which in turn would be piled upon with split branches and trunk. This would have had the dual effect of adding flavour, all while asphyxiating the brothers. They’d have huffed and they’d have puffed until their little lights blew out.

I stood in the wreck of the aftermath on the night following full moon, observing bite marks on bone, and The Wolf’s leavings. He’d kill again. He always enjoyed a kill, but never more than on the night of a full moon.

I’m not a psychiatrist, so I can’t tell you what that means. I’m just The Woodsman.

Wolf tracks in the mud led back to the west – towards the woodlands; back towards my home.

***

People often ask what it’s like to be The Woodsman in The Land of Fairy Tales. I tell them that it’s all down to freedom. People don’t know where to expect me, so if I’m out somewhere doing my own thing, they just tell themselves I’m probably after some special timber or something.

For all they know, I could be doing a spot of fishing, or secreting myself away for an affair. It’s never suspicious when The Woodsman wanders around.

The good folk of The Land of Fairy Tales are trusting and honest, if a little unwise. I can leave a pile of timber for a customer back at the mill with a note, and I know they won’t cheat me. I’m pretty regular with orders, even if I’m not always at the mill to meet folks, but they give me that leeway.

Of course, all this trust can come with a price, and in The Land of Fairy Tales, that price is monsters.

***

Little Red Riding Hood was, if you listen to the villagers, as about as innocent as you could get in The Land of Fairy Tales. I’m not entirely sure that was true. In as far as it mattered she was innocent, as were most of the folk around here. This is to say, people were innocent enough to deserve avoiding a nasty fate. In as far as their innocence may otherwise be tarnished it was and still is nobody else’s business.

At any rate, Little Red Riding Hood was the regular recipient of all manner of advice on account of her alleged naïveté…

‘Don’t stay out after dark!’

‘Don’t show too much skin around men!’

‘Don’t talk to strangers!’

They’d tell her these things, strangely, as if it’d be her own fault if something went wrong, which to my mind, was entirely back-to-front. I mention Red, because she entered the tale at precisely the wrong point – while I was tracking Big Bad.

***

It was good to get back to the woods by morning, but I didn’t have much of an opportunity for a nap. At least I had my orders ready at the mill, and if anyone saw me here, they’d not suspect I’d have been doing anything out of the ordinary.

When I finally caught up with Big Bad, we were both within hearing range of Red, who was walking along the path in the woods to her Grandma’s that her parents had told her not to take.  Big Bad could have, if he was so inclined, attacked Red right there and then, but knowing the kind of predator he was, I knew he had something else planned. He’d be setting something up, the way he set up the three pigs – all in one fell swoop, and with the victim harbouring a false sense of security.

Big Bad had another victim in mind, either Red’s parents, or Grandma. It didn’t take long to find out which he’d chosen.

Assuming the posture he always did when talking to young women (polite, yet with strong don’t-let-your-parents-know undertones), Big Bad approached Red the way a cad would approach a lady a few years older.

It was all questions; ‘what are you doing today?’, ‘what have you got in that basket?’, ‘are you in a hurry?’ and the like. This was to give Big Bad control of, and to lengthen the conversation, which would increase the chances that a useful piece of information would slip from Red’s lips. The village denizens of The Land of Fairy Tales, unless they were utterly silent, were always able to oblige in this respect, which is odd, considering how many warnings they issued, and how moralizing they could be.

I simply sat in a thicket, listening to the conversation, as Big Bad exploited the way Red enjoyed being paid attention by a man in a manner her parents wouldn’t approve of.

Before long, it because obvious what angle Big Bad was going to take – Grandma. Big Bad and Red parted, and naturally, Big Bad was off towards Grandma’s via a shorter route. Only, I knew the woods better.

***

I’d seen it before – moonlight killers who went in for seconds while the moon was still bright at night. Big Bad would be planning to capture Grandma and Red somehow, and hold them over ‘till night time. Only, I had plans of my own.

Big Bad had to be fast to get to Grandma’s with enough time, and I had to be almost as fast to give me enough time to be waiting for him around the bend. It turned out that Big Bad was either too slow, or too careless to avoid taking the flat of my axe to the head.

Red’s encounter with The Wolf would just be one of those flirty chats with older men that thankfully went nowhere.

I bound Big Bad in rope, and made off with him to my second, secret mill, deep in the woods.

***

‘Oh what big eyes you have, Mr. Wolf!’ I told him as he awoke a couple of evenings later.

That was of course, because his peepers were bulging with effort as he groggily struggled with the ropes that tied him to my bench.

‘Who the fuck are you?!’ he yelled in near disbelief at his plight. Perhaps he thought he was having a nightmare.

At this point, he couldn’t feel or see his body, because I’d given him a herbal concoction to numb the senses, and he was wearing a tarp like a giant bib. He didn’t know he’d been there for days.

‘What a big sweary mouth you have, Mr. Wolf!’

‘All the better to fucking eat you with!’ he threatened in vain.

If I hadn’t drugged him, and whatnot, after the days he’d been laying there, he’d be ravenous by now. All I’d given him was some water to keep his throat moist.

Still, even without hunger, Big Bad had a fetish for the gastronomical.

‘Would you like some sausages, Mr. Wolf? They’re healthy free range meat, with rosemary, wrapped in fresh skin; lamb and rosemary, incidentally. And I do have mint sauce.’

This confused him. He should have been thinking of escape, but he was first and foremost, a predator, not prey.

He was obviously interested, but of course, there had to be a catch, didn’t there?

‘What’s wrong with the sausages?’ he asked.

‘Nothing.’

I dropped the sausages into a hot pan along with some of the finest butter you’ll find in The Land of Fairy Tales. I let them simmer and spit and caramelize, so that my mill filled with the smell of cooked meat.

Even in the state he was in, Big Bad couldn’t help but salivate.

I plopped two sausages onto a plate, alongside some mashed potato I’d also prepared, adding just the right amount of mint sauce, before tucking in. I only got half way through a sausage before Big Bad had had enough.

‘Alright, alright! I’m not hungry, but you’ve got my attention. Feed me some of those sausages, but forget the mint sauce and the mash.’

I fed him four sausages, before he greedily asked if he could finish off the sausage I hadn’t started on. I feigned mild shock at his gluttony, but acquiesced eventually, before dipping my remaining half-sausage in mash and finishing it off.

‘I know that lamb, and you’ve cooked it well, whoever you are. I’ve never been one for rosemary, but this time it was a treat. But let me know, where did you get the sausage skins?’

It’s at moments like these I wish it was possible to slow time down. You want to savour these things, but if you leave things too long, the penny will drop.

Theatrically, I pulled the tarp back from Big Bad’s body, like I was transmuting a surgical cape into that of a matador.

Big Bad looked at me pleadingly, unable to force himself to look down. I smiled in the affirmative, as he saw the truth in my eyes, while I saw the fear in his.

The intestines I used for the sausage were his own. I have to confess, I felt more than a small amount of pride at this revelation, and certainly more than was polite.

My laughter assaulted Big Red’s brain as it echoed off the walls of the mill, and perhaps he wished he was still caught in a nightmare. But he wasn’t – it was all quite as real as anything else in The Land of Fairy Tales.

I put on my chainmail gauntlet, grasped his snout and twisted it sideways. I told him he could have been an ordinary wolf, and stuck to wild prey and the occasional lamb. I told him he could have stayed away from the ordinary villagers who deserved better than monsters like him, or I.

And then I grabbed the dense hardwood haft of a large axe that’d lost its blade and I smashed Big Bad’s head in. Again and again and again I bashed – blood spattering all over me, my eyes bulging, biceps pumped with a pulsing flow, and a raging heartbeat banging in my ears.

***

Folks in The Land of Fairy Tales think that as a woodsman, the things that fulfill me the most are the sounds, sights and smells of the forest – the birds chirping, the gentle patter of light rain on leaves, the colours, and the fresh air. The reality though, is that these mundane things almost leave me numb.

It’s when my heart races and my blood pulses from beating a villain to death, or when I laugh at the fear of another monster, that I really feel truly alive. This is what I live for. This is what it means to be me.

This is what goes on inside my mind, or what I hunger for, when you see me pass through the woods with axe in hand.

I am The Woodsman.

~ Bruce