The world we live in is pretty depressing right now. Nationalism, tribalism is on the rise, social cohesion is in rapid decline, and all around us, conflicts escalate, wars increase and it seems that for every opinion uttered, two loud voices argue fiercely against, oftentimes regardless of the topic, just to spite.
Social cohesion is lost
When I was a child, there was a lot of social control. The society I grew up in exerted a huge amount of social control. One example I’ll always remember with shame was when I first bought a pair of torn jeans, paying good money for someone else tearing those pants apart in just the right places. It must’ve been either 1987 or 88. Wearing them for the first time in public, on my way home, an older woman on the trolley approached me and asked me if I couldn’t afford a whole pair of pants. That simple question is still haunting me, and it took decades before I wore torn jeans again. Social control at its worst, but social control also creates social cohesion, especially if it is used to make sure kids are safe (I had to yell at a kid the other day who jumped down on the tracks of our streetcar line as a car was approaching), etc. It feels we’ve stopped, be it telling people not to park in the wrong place, or whatever other transgressions (against laws!) people are committing. We simply look the other way and think that it’s not our problem. Thing is, our laws are our problem.
We simply need to differentiate between rules and legislation. If you believe it goes against your religion if a neighbor mowed the lawn on a Sunday, keep mum, as long as it’s legal. But if someone breaks the law and you see it, speak up. If you disagree with the law, speak up! Talk to your parliamentarian, raise your concerns, lobby for a change in your favor.
Societies drift apart
If you look at economical statistics over the past fifty years, it becomes obvious that the rich keep getting richer and the poor fall behind. The middle class is slowly disappearing, and it was the backbone of our western societies for decades. In the fifties, the average CEO would be paid about 20x what his workers were paid, in 2017 that number had risen to 361x. And that is simply insane. There is no reason for that. It’s not like the cost of living for the average CEO has risen more than that for their workers. I might argue the opposite, as tax burdens for the rich have been lowered all around the world.
There is a huge risk associated with societies drifting apart. The happiest societies are the ones with the least amount of economic inequality, while societies with a large economic inequality see effects on e.g. public health. And as we see societies drift apart, we also see tensions between generations (hashtags #okboomer #millinnials), between the “left” and the “right”, haves and have nots. Is there a breaking point? Are we heading toward a new 68-revolution? Or worse, a 1918-style revolution? Bolivia, Chile, Iraq, Lebanon are just a couple of examples where entire societies are in upheaval, and where traditional lines of conflict no longer seem to apply.
Are social media (at least partially) responsible?
I have a theory that our use of social media has sped up this process. As the algorithms turn our lives into virtual ghettos where the only people we talk to are the ones most like us, where we unfollow or block views we dislike, or worse, report them, we rarely need to second-guess our own views and convictions. So how are we to learn? How are we to evolve our own views if all we ever see or hear comes from within our own chosen echo chamber?
To believe (as I do) that this also exacerbates extremist views is not far-fetched. We tend to idolize those we follow (fiercely) and dismiss everyone else as a scam, a fraud. I see these tendencies all around me, and we forget that most people, even politicians simply want the best for their societies, even if we may disagree with their points of view. Things get personal, very quickly, and we refuse to see other arguments, other points of view. Unfortunately, I feel this is also influencing global politics and adds to the tribalism around us, as wedges are driving between entire peoples.
What can we do?
I think the most important thing is to keep an open mind, to educate ourselves. When I woke up this morning, to the news that Evo Morales resigned as president of Bolivia, I accepted that as a fact. Then I read Jeremy Corbyn’s reaction to it, basically calling it a military coup. Given Mr. Corbyn’s position, I was worried that there had indeed been a coup. Then I read a friend’s post on Facebook who said that he feared for something similar to be needed in the USA after the 2020 election, implying that Mr. Trump might not leave the White House even after a defeat. Someone else immediately and very angrily asked if he really wanted a right-wing military coup in the USA. Well, so far for disinformation and polarization.
I’ve since tried to make sense of this, and here are the facts: Evo Morales had been elected President for a fourth term recently, despite a referendum restricting presidents to TWO terms shortly after he’d won his third term. How he was able to even run for a fourth term? I don’t know. Mr. Morales was also accused of election fraud by international monitors. Public uprising ensued and it seems the military and police finally abandoned him yesterday, upon which he resigned. These are the facts we have. I don’t know nearly enough to make a statement about the military or police or who they support or not, whether they’re “right” or “left” (but ask yourself this: why did they support him for three terms?) It’s so simple to jump to conclusions. I reserve judgment until I know more. But it seems Mr. Morales love for democracy is limited. Why else stand against his own constitution and cheat to be re-elected?
What else can we do? Well, go vote! And resist the urge to protest vote. I know it’s enticing, to teach ‘them’ a lesson, but it might just backfire. Look at the US, and what Trump’s draining of the swamp has led to? Look at every nation where extremist parties have grown and come into power. Divisions increase, co-operation seizes. The American Congress, largely incapacitated, is a good example. Westminster another. But the list goes on and we see tendencies to this everywhere. Again, talk to your parliamentarians, tell them what you expect.
Here’s my wishlist:
We need to focus our public sector: less is more. Make sure infrastructure works. Invest in schools, social care, healthcare. Stop the divergence of the haves and have nots. Make sure people have jobs, meaningful things to do. Invest in security and safety so people feel safe. Work together to fight global warming, invest in commerce and global, open and free trade, but start to move away from constant growth. Find ways to improve the world, apart from simple economic growth.
I’m an optimist, I know, but I just can’t help it. As a father of a young child, I worry endlessly about the world I leave behind, the legacy we all leave to our kids and grandkids.
Crimea, 9/11, Hong Kong, racism, mass migration, global warming, etc.
The world is going down the drain
We live in troublesome times. The Internet’s profound impact on our lives, the individualization of society, the increasing divide between the haves and have nots. As a consequence of previous generations’ ravaging of the planet, global warming is about to wreck the world as we know it, leading to mass migration and human-induced mass extinction. On the other hand, family ties, social bonds are deteriorating rapidly, and we care less and less about those around us. It’s definitely the age of entitlement but the freedom we seek, yearn for, is in many aspects smaller than in previous decades. This might be a long post, so hang in as I try to look at the reasons why, various aspects of it, and what you and I can do to make a difference.
From individualization to entitlement, or how western societal control disappeared
Entitlement takes many forms…
It often amazes me how things have changed since I was a child. Mostly for the better, let me say that before I move on. However, when we abandoned our traditional “family values” and pretty much everything associated with it, we didn’t just rid ourselves of the “bad stuff”, such as control, that sons had to walk in their father’s shoes, that we weren’t allowed to marry whom we loved (some of us no one at all), honor killings, the honor system in the first place, etc. Unfortunately, we also rid ourselves of the positive aspects of familial/societal cohesion: people are lonelier than ever before, mental illness is galloping, grandparents no longer feel obligated to look after their grandkids while their parents work as they, too, are still finding themselves, children no longer care for ailing and/or aging parents, etc. Some of that is remedied by social and health services, but (and I could write a book about this, and I might…) at what cost?
No, I don’t think grandparents ‘have’ to look after their grandkids, but on the other hand, given increasing workloads and career expectations on parents, where’s the relief system? And while it’s a boon that we no longer have to live under the same roof with our elder generations, the lack of social cohesion in society is palpable. There are two sides to every coin, and when I look at my own society, I can see how many immigrant families have maintained that cohesion. Sadly, they also kept the negative aspects, such as honor concepts, non-acceptance of LGBTQ family members, traditional gender expectations, etc.
The extreme individualization we see in our society is visible everywhere: from traffic where everyone feels entitled to go first (regardless of what the law says), to the workplace where people tell their managers that they don’t “feel like” doing certain aspects of their jobs, despite the job description they once signed off on. We all want to be “influencers”, we expect our dream jobs to just fall in our laps regardless of qualifications, we are offended by everybody and everything, and rather than forgiving or giving people the benefit of the doubt, we cry racist, homophobe, islamophobe, etc. We react long before our neurons have had a chance to reflect on the situation to warrant if our reaction is a) warranted and b) appropriate/adequate for the situation. I sometimes wonder: do I have to let people know every single time they say something stupid? Why have we become so confrontational? We are, after all, humans and are prone to making mistakes. Unfortunately, this extreme individualization has dire consequences for our societies, few of which are positive… I’ll explore that in the rest of this post.
The Internet: from freedom of speech to mind control and indoctrination
One of the advantages of being “old” is that I remember the age before the Internet, albeit barely. When the Internet first became a thing, in the early nineties, we all saw it as this amazing thing that would help us become freer, liberated in ways never before possible. We imagined how the “unfree” around the world would be able to access information freely and how the masses would rise in China and elsewhere to demand freedom and democracy. Swell! Too bad it didn’t really work out that way. In an almost Orwellian way, the Internet has instead become a tool to control the masses. China’s great wall isn’t visible from the moon, but it certainly makes sure that the people of China only read and see what the party wants them to see. And while we, in the west, still have access to (mostly) everything, we have become so fat and complacent that we sit in our comfy reclining chairs, pizza slice in one hand, beer in the other, and happily allow us to be manipulated to believe exactly what we always wanted to believe. This bias, this preference to read/watch/hear that which we expect to hear is bad enough when the news/information is unbiased, but in a world where algorithms map our preferences to the t, we are easy targets for all kinds of misinformation and propaganda. Cambridge Analytica and their role in the 2016 US elections and Brexit are bad enough, but with recent advances in technology, so-called “deep fakes” will make your mother tell you in a facetime call that she’s really a mass murderer and by the way never gave birth to you. And since it’s your mother on the line you’ll never know the difference. Already, researchers have put the words of Hitler into the mouth of Obama. We are doomed! And we won’t even know it.
Is it hopeless? I’m not optimistic, but when we see something, hear something that is completely “out there”, it begs to check the source. Call your mom, make sure it was actually her placing the call. Visit her face to face. This is an extreme and unlikely example, but in politics, we’ll see this happen, sooner rather than later. Make sure you double-check and triple-check the source, their bias. Because, and this is crucial, there are always two sides to every story. Before you jump to conclusions, before you make up your mind, make sure you’ve heard at least two sides of it. Actively force your mind to weigh the pros and cons before you decide to cry foul.
Education, the key to a better future
We once understood the need for a good education. Today we need to know and understand things more than ever. Some people don’t want that.
The above is easier said than done. Facebook, Instagram, Twitter, our cable news, heck even our favorite department stores all show us what they believe we want to see, hear, buy. Republicans tune into Fox, Democrats into MSNBC, safe to only hear good things about their own. Never to have their values and convictions challenged. To second-guess, to question is hard work, and it requires a basic level of education many of us don’t possess and even more can’t be bothered with.
For decades, school systems have been allowed to deteriorate around the world, at the same time as we know infinitely more now than when I went to school. Just last week, the Swedish school department suggested scrapping any and all history prior to 1700 to make room for contemporary history. People are up in arms. Imagine a child growing up with no basic concept of ancient Athens (cradle of democracy), Rome (basis to much of our legislative traditions, still, not to mention politics, philosophy, etc.), the dark ages, etc. With no understanding of the many wars that plagued us through the eons. How are we to understand contemporary history with not even a hint of ancient history (which goes further back and includes other cultures as well, mind you?)
There is a reason why some don’t want the broad masses to have access to education, to keep them malleable. I’ll use the Romans as an example: “bread and games” Look at a country like Singapore. People are generally content, even though the country doesn’t really know the freedom of speech or real democracy. But as long as people find employment and fun (if you’ve ever been there, you’ll know what I mean) they’re content. However, as soon as the subway stops working, the government faces riots. There are advantages for a system like Singapore’s: it’s extremely efficient and works, but at the expense of minorities. You’re fine if you’re a straight Chinese, but if you’re Malay or, worse, Indian, your choices in life are limited. And other minorities, like the LGBT community, are oppressed. All the while, the richest are getting richer and the poorest lag behind. Never before in human society has the gap between the most fortunate and those least fortunate been greater. And it’s all happened in the past forty years, give or take.
To limit access to education is a tool for the “haves”, of course. Keep the have nots docile. Those of us who want a better future for humanity need to counter that. We need to fight for the best possible education for everybody, regardless. No exception. Nobody gets to be left behind. A comprehensive, free education. We also need to teach our children the consequences of NOT having an education, and I think we need to broaden that discussion from mere career choices to include our civic duties. Education is, of course, not the only factor. Voting is another. And they’re correlated: the more we know, the more likely we are to vote! Gerrymandering, voter registration, and voter restrictions are other tools used to make sure fewer people vote, and again, education and the ability to navigate the shoals of bureaucracy greatly impact those least educated. The reasons why are glaringly obvious as they usually do not vote for those who steal from you.
There’s nothing I can do
It’s easy to feel hopeless these days…
Last Sunday I traveled from Liverpool to Manchester after a book launch. The direct train I was on, to avoid the worst of the traffic from the ongoing Tory party conference in Manchester, had no first-class seats. Suddenly I found myself in an environment I usually avoid. Minutes after boarding the train, two young men came in and sat down in front of me, loud music blaring from their phones. Their voices carried and they talked about stuff I didn’t really care about and most certainly didn’t want to listen to. I put on my earphones and zoned out, too. They quickly fell asleep, heads on the table, with no regard for the third passenger sitting with them. After a while, the conductor came to check our tickets and after having checked everyone else’s, he tried to wake those two. They didn’t respond for the longest time, and I’m unsure if by design or as a result of being drugged (they seemed fine when they boarded the train, but what do I know about drugs…) Police were called and I got to witness just how the world of the disenfranchised looks like. It was painful. And it got me thinking, a lot. What can I do to change their lives? How can I help people care about their lives? Worry about the climate when their only focus is the next fix? The next meal? Clothing their kids?
Can I blame the mom who buys the cheapest eggs, produced by hens in miserable conditions, while I soothe my conscience with organic ones? Can I blame the Appalachian miner who sports a MAGA hat, not realizing that his president’s “clean coal” is as likely to get him a job as the presidents ties ever being in fashion again? Can I blame the South Africans who decry immigration from other countries in the region because they can’t find work back home? Can I blame the illiteral Hindi farmer who kills his newborn daughter because he knows full well that he will barely be able to feed her, but never, ever have the money to marry her off?
We look at the world around us and it feels not only like an uphill, but an insurmountable task. At the same time storms become more deadly, temperatures increase and sea levels rise. It’s easy to get the impression that we are doomed! Yet giving up isn’t really an option, is it? We have to fight, for our own children and grandchildren, for our nieces and nephews, for our neighborhood children.
So, what can I do?
As long as the sun rises in the East, there is hope!
If ever there was a $64,000 dollar question, eh? I think the first thing is to not give up, not give in to the overwhelming feeling “we’re soo screwed!” Because there are plenty of things you and I can do. A change in attitude is the first thing. History teaches us that we can change our fortune. Just look at the American Revolution, the French one. While there were setbacks, in the end, democracy prevailed, and little by little, things got better. The civil rights movement, the 68-movement, and right now, the Friday school strikes are already making a difference.
But you don’t have to go on strike. There are other things you can do. Talk to your Representative, your MP, whoever represents you in your country’s parliament. There is a website listing their name, email and postal address. They might even have a phone. Their job is to represent you, even if you’ve never voted or if you voted for the other candidate(s) in the election. Talk to them, tell them about your concerns, your worries. Tell them what you expect from them. Believe me, it’s easier than you think. Do the same on your regional level, in your city. Talk about your schools, the retirement home your parents are in or let them know what isn’t working in your health care system. It is my experience that most parliamentarians (regardless of what level) welcome the contact to their constituents.
There’s so much more. Recycle. Such a simple thing. Don’t litter in nature. Eat less meat. Believe me, every little makes a difference. I recently read an article about how much microplastic ends up in our waters due to laundry cycles. The longer you wash, the worse it is. I had always flushed down the fibers stuck in my dryer in the toilet. OOPS! Not doing that again. A tiny change for me, walking the twenty extra steps to the trash can, but if we all do that? Imagine how grateful sealife will be for the difference we make. We are, after all, almost 10 billion people. Even if we all ate one less beef burger a week, replace it by something else, better, times billions… Suddenly you can see how even the smallest thing makes a difference.
But what changes to make?
That is where education comes in. Never stop learning. Read the papers, science section. Trust me, those journalists are trained to present difficult academic subjects so we, you and I, can understand. If a source is unknown, is known to be biased (your way or another way), make sure you double-check the article is credible. Google it. Find other sources to confirm. It’s not that hard and after a while, it’ll become second nature.
You can also engage those less fortunate. This is probably the most important, the single most difficult thing we will need to do. We can’t wait for politics to introduce great education for everyone. There was a reason why we once said that everyone should be able to read, write and do math. Duh! But so many still can’t. More now than decades ago, right here in the west. But what good does it do to read if you don’t do so? Our kids brains yearn for the stimuli from their phones and pads, rather than stimulate them with a good book. You can change that. Read aloud! Insist! Really, I mean it. Read for fifteen minutes every day until your child is old enough to read on their own. Then make sure they read a book for a half-hour every day. Soon they’ll be so engrossed in the story they’ll ask you to stay up just a little longer… I know, author optimism here, but I can see how children’s minds are wide open to embrace the imagination books spark. So much more than adults.
But it’s not just kids, is it? It’s our neighbors, our friends. If they give voice to uneducated views, if they speak up against science, engage them. Not aggressively, don’t be condescending, judgemental. Try to understand WHY they feel like they do. Don’t tell them “you’re wrong…” (that’ll only make them reinforce that view), but listen. Then try to offer an alternative view, how their lives can improve, what they can do themselves, without scapegoating, hating, blaming. Possibly help them take the first baby step.
Is there hope for humankind?
Do we have a choice? Can we let things go to hell? If we don’t act, things will get worse. The dark forces that divide us for short-term profit mustn’t be allowed to win. We have enough food to feed all of humankind. There is enough creativity to solve climate change challenges, to slow global warming, halt the mass extinciton of plant and animal species. But we all need to act, beginning with ourselves. Don’t be complacent, don’t give up.
When I began to write my latest books about The Golden One, I knew little about how dire things really are out there. I say that despite having a post graduate education, despite reading several newspapers every single day, despite considering myself engaged in current events around the world. But immersing myself into the animal world, to hear my hero Jason speak to animals, widened my understanding for our planet, our ecosystems. It widened my empathic senses.
A tick. A nuisance, but do you understand it’s place in Mother Nature’s pyramid?
When I saw that spider trapped in my bathtub I wasn’t just sensing disgust and fear of the animal, I was also able to understand how it must feel, the panic of being trapped, unable to escape the white hell of my tub. Rescuing it made me a better human being. Just a couple of days ago I removed a tick who’d been sucking blood from one of our cats. The poor creature began to crawl away on the bathroom floor, probably in a panic, dragging her heavy, bloodfilled body alog the smooth surface. Rather than flushing her down the toilet, like I had done countless times before, I picked her up and released her outdoors. I know that ticks, too, have a role to play in Mother’s great pyramid. Just because I don’t understand that role doesn’t mean I get to play God. Silly, you say? Stupid even, given the diseases ticks carry? Possibly, but even viruses and bacteria play important roles in culling populations, making sure that the fittest survive. Humanity has long ago stepped away from that pyramid, and we control it. But that doesn’t mean we understand it, treat it with respect. The current extinction event points to the contrary.
Is there hope? As bleak as things may look right now, I emphatically maintain that we have no choice. We must remain optimistic. I for one will struggle to the bitter end to make sure my son has a bright future, but not only he, but every living thing on this planet. We are all connected to each other and only together can we thrive.
Few topics engage the young generations as much as the threats to our own future
I never really reflected on what The Golden One would be about. As so very often, the inspiration came from within. And even though I began work on the book months before our local heroine Greta Thunberg first began her climate strike, she and the hundreds of thousands of kids who’ve followed suit, are excellent examples of how today’s teens and young adults are really engaged in the struggle to preserve our future, much as the young during the eighties fought against the threat of a nuclear war in Europe.
Our planet, our only future
The final installation of the Golden One will be out 9/19.
It’s easy to dismiss children. What do they know? It was how I was raised, how I was treated by the adult world growing up in the seventies and early eighties. My words, my views of the world weren’t worth considering. Listen to my interview on the WROTE Podcast to hear more about this like of reasoning.
I think that experience has taught me to never ever make that mistake myself. I try to take our own son’s views very seriously. This is not to say that he rules our house. But my husband and I pride ourselves in allowing him to have a say in our family planning, be it dinner, vacation plans, etc.
When you read sci-fi books or watch TV, you might think there are countless other worlds out there for us to reach. And make no mistake, there are! The problem is that we simply can’t reach them. Not now. And even if we were to invent Star Trek’s warp engines, and even if we would be able to build the amazing starships, how do you get ten plus billion people off one place and onto another? I for one wouldn’t want to make the choices of the disaster movie “2012“. Remember that? The four arks launched from the highlands of Tibet? Every ticket one billion Euros?
No, even as a sci-fi and fantasy author, all of that is either too far-fetched or simply too cynical. I am on the side of our children: we need to save the planet we have, this beautiful blue orb, spinning around our son, sol. And make no mistake, fixing our environmental issues isn’t about life on Earth, that will most likely prevail in some shape or form for billions of years to come. This is about the life currently inhabiting this planet, and it just so happens to include the one species we refer to as homo sapiens sapiens.
How does The Golden One trilogy accomplish this?
Without spoiling the ending of the final book, which is due to hit bookstores next week, The Golden One–Reckoning will provide hope. I want readers, from young teens to youthful retirees to feel empowered by the actions of Jason and his friends. It’s never too late to act. Resistance is not futile. But I also think that an important lesson is this: don’t expect someone else to do the work. We all must do our part, and we can’t wait and see. Time’s too precious.
We see that already in book one, Blooming, when we first meet Jason. The unique point of view of these young heroes clashes with that of the adult world, where order is paramount. They seem to act rashly, according to the adults. I’d say their actions are timely, expedited by the threats to their home town. Their success is theirs alone, but even the adult world profits, as unaware as they seem to be of it. I think the message is clear and without spelling it out here, I think readers of all ages will understand.
Failure is not an option!
You know, I’m not sure that humanity is really threatened by global warming. I know this may seem preposterous a claim, but just like the four arks in 2012, I think that there will always be people rich enough to be able to afford themselves a sanctuary where they might be able to survive the hottest weather or the fallout from a nuclear winter. There’s e.g. a reason why so many ultra-rich have invested in property in the remote southern island of New Zealand.
Yet for someone who doesn’t own billions, that is a cynical way of thinking. Already we see the effects all around the globe. Water is scarce in places such as Cape Town or Chennai. Rising sea levels risk making megalopoli all around the world uninhabitable, from rich Miami to poor Dhaka. Imagine hundreds of millions of people having to flee for their lives.
May my own country’s history serve a reminder
Refugees at the border in Melilla. European border fence in Africa.
Now picture Europe 2015 as a measly million refugees fled Syria. Four years later, populists across Europe and the US are still riding the waves those refugees gave rise to, from Trump to Brexit, Hungary and Italy, to name a few. If one million people caused such a stir, how will this planet handle refugees numbering hundreds of millions, a billion people even? It’s not hard to foresee closed, very hard borders everywhere, people storming against barb wired fences and “beautiful” tall walls, and from there, things will quickly deteriorate, and knowing my own species, the use of nuclear weapons cannot be entirely dismissed.
Once upon a time, Sweden was a poor country. In the mid-nineteenth century, people were starving. Dying. And they left. Over a million Swedes sought their luck in the west, in the promised land, at a time when there were no walls, long before “maga” became a hashtag and a rallying cry for a desplorable despot. That was a sizeable portion of a quickly growing population. If a quarter of the population (1900) left their country, imagine if a quarter of the population in threatened countries suddenly began to move in Asia, Africa, and South America. It doesn’t paint a pretty picture.
This is where my books come in, not because it stops that wave of people from moving. Not because it will stop half our animal and plant species from going extinct. No, that is not what the book is about. The story is to provide hope, and a sense of “can do!” Because unlike the world of books, there will be no golden butterflies, no shapeshifters and no space ships to save us. We have to do this ourselves, and my money is on the young generations who have not yet become complacent by the creature comforts of adult life.
I’m very proud that this story will be out next Thursday, and I hope it finds many hopeful readers. Pre-orders for Reckoning are available for the ebook now on Amazon and elsewhere, and ebook, paperback, and the audiobook will all be available September 19. If you’re new to this trilogy, please check out books one, Blooming, and two, Deceit before you embark on the final leg of this epic journey.
As a writer, I am aware of the raw power of my tool. As a linguist, I am also aware of how many of the world’s languages have evolved from common ancestors, how they are related and how the meaning of the same word can differ from one sister language to another. Language is extremely complex, and the more you learn, the more you know, the easier it becomes to get lost in language, to make mistakes and realizing just how little you actually know.
Just last week I was made aware, in a most humiliating way, that an expression used in the blurbs of one of my books had offended a group of people. I was given a proper dress-down, in public, which led me to withdraw that particular book from the table where I was selling it along with my other work. Seems that both the sensitivity readers (which we’d used, despite the accuser’s assumption of the contrary), the publisher, editor, and this author had completely missed it. I won’t go into details here, but oddly, when discussing this with fellow authors and members of the affected group/minority, everyone was puzzled and wondered how else to express oneself today, to be politically correct and not offending anyone.
Languages evolve, all the time. There are many examples in history and from literature where the most highly acclaimed books include wording that is no longer considered okay. We no longer use “nigger” or “negro” to describe blacks or Africans, which is a good thing. African American is the term used if you’re in the US but is of little help to describe black people from other parts of the world. But when Astrid Lindgren wrote her Pippi books back in the 1960s, it was perfectly okay to write that Pippi’s father was “negerkung” (negro king.) In recent editions, the term has been replaced. This is probably the most famous example in terms of language evolving, but there are literally thousands of expressions that have changed, be it for people with disabilities (or function variations as may be more modern), people from within the LGBTQ community, etc.
Lost in translation: politics, philosophy, religion & culture make things complex
As a member of the LGBTQ community, I am a member of a minority, and I’ve always been acutely aware of how I’m labeled by society. Often times words also carry a political notion, a belief held by the speaker. After Chernobyl, people who were fighting against the use of this particular way to generate power were, in German anyway, always speaking of atomic power, and the slogan “Atomkraft, Nein Danke!” became a household term. The proponents of nuclear power did not use atomic power. They call it nuclear power. Neither terms were “offensive” to anyone. They simply indicated a political belief. There are many similar examples of words and expressions who carry a philosophical belief within the word: capitalism vs. free enterprise, sexual orientation vs sexual preference, etc.
Words carry political beliefs
Then there are differences across cultures, which make many of the words which are used across languages dangerous pitfalls. Even within a given language family, a word that carries a connotation in one country may not be viewed the same way elsewhere. The word black is one such example, where it may be deemed acceptable in some flavors of English, but might get you stares if you use it in the U.S.
You might also remember the time when the Swedish chairman of BP was criticized for using the term “little people” in a White House press conference. While a perfectly acceptable term in Swedish, translated ad verbatim to English it becomes offensive. What he meant was “ordinary, regular people like you and I.”
How we view history changes
To make matters even more complex, we are, as a people, really bad at looking at history through the lens of the time. I’ve just returned from Washington, DC, where I also visited the National Archives Museum where the original Declaration of Independence and the American Constitution are on display. When you read these documents and you read things like “We the people…” or “We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.” yet are aware that this did not apply to everybody. “People” and “all men” did not include Native Americans, Africans or Asians. Because if you believe in slavery it makes no sense to assume that Africans were entitled to “life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness” because clearly, they were not. Men, back then, obviously also did not apply to women.
Did not apply to blacks, women, Asians or Natives.
However, today, we look at these words and we can feel pride in the accomplishment of the founding fathers, even if we’re Korean, Sudanese or German, and decisions rendered by the Supreme Court of the U.S. has updated the interpretation of the meaning of these words over time. It just so happens that the probably biggest struggle within said court these days is in the interpretation of the constitution: as a document in time, or to read it literally, or if you prefer, a liberal or a conservative interpretation.
Labeling a group of people, labeling “me”
Language evolves, all the time. Would it not, we’d all still be speaking a proto-human language we don’t even remember. Latin would not have evolved into Italian, French, Spanish, etc., and Germanic into German, Scandinavian and English. So that’s a good thing. We also introduce new words, we share them across languages and cultures and make new words our own.
It’s a good thing that we no longer use words like “nigger”, “cripple” or “faggot”, as the negative connotations are painful reminders to members of said communities of a painful past. And language continues to evolve: it’s better to say transgender than transsexual, as the trans experience isn’t primarily about people’s sexuality but more about their gender, we talk about marriage equality rather than “gay marriage” because a marriage is a marriage, it has no sexual/romantic orientation.
For most people, all of this is way above their heads, and they’re not really affected by the terminology used within a certain community, and how groups try to improve on language to make it more inclusive and less offensive, divisive. For older generations, much of this may pass them by. However, when words and expressions are used that are hurtful, the consequences can be dire, and we can observe this in our everyday lives. Ten years ago, gender fluidity and trans people were not discussed in mainstream society. The language was very CIS, except for the affected people. Therefore, for most people, meeting members of the trans community can be an interesting and frightful experience, as it not only challenges the language they speak but also some of the very fundamental core foundations of their education and the two sexes: male and female. Migration challenges other long-held beliefs.
Political correctness and the backlash of the Trumpian era
For some, things have clearly gone too far and they push back. Migration is used as a term to lump together people who come to our countries for very different reasons. No longer is a distinction made between refugees and economic immigrants, it’s all equally bad. And in our strive to create a label that fits just us, we make it a perfect pitfall to be offended, for how is a stranger to know if you want to be addressed as Mr., Mrs., Ms. or Miss. Or something else entirely? How are we to know if you are bisexual or pansexual? Oftentimes, terms are used interchangeably and what means something to one person, has different connotations to someone else.
This may be controversial but sometimes I feel we have gone too far. We are too easily offended. And some people have begun to push back. To mislabel something doesn’t necessarily make a person a “bigot” or “racist” or whatever. They may simply not be familiar with the latest developments in the language. Trust me, it’s easy to get things wrong. When I first moved to the US in the eighties we used a “bathroom” to go potty, these days it’s “restroom” (although given American toilets, they’re anything but restful with their lack of privacy, but that’s another story.) In India, people still go to the toilet, in English.
The drive for political correctness sometimes feels like a provocation. And we are quick to accuse, prosecute and judge people for using the wrong words. The judgment can be harsh, particularly in this social media day and age where the action often precedes contemplation and thought. And I feel that some people have begun to push back. And as I’ve mentioned above, language is becoming political, but not always. But when someone talks about “gay marriage”, I for one assume they’re not supportive of the concept of marriage equality. But an I be certain?
The benefit of the doubt
Here’s the thing. Our societies have become very black and white in our political discourse, and we seem to have a hard time to accept dissenting views and opinions. There is less and less discourse in society about where we should head, how to overcome the challenges of our time. Instead, driven by 140 characters, we simplify and shorten. It’s not necessarily beneficial to being respectful to one another. Trying to do the right thing can be frightening and intimidating and a friend of mine recently said that the fear of saying the wrong thing has led him to avoid public discussions/settings. That’s a shame.
What about we give each other the benefit of the doubt? What if we were to assume that most people are NOT trying to offend us, denigrate us, insult us. So when they use a term we find offensive, don’t lash out, forgive and educate. Tell them how you’d like to be addressed, politely. Chances are, they’ll be grateful, i.e. if you do it with a smile and non-judgemental way. I often feel that we usually use the opposite approach: we’re offended, we judge and keep a grudge and the message gets lost, simply because the wrong word was used. I think we could all be helped if we calmed things down a bit, in the interest of communication and understanding.
I know that my own language is far from perfect, regardless of which one I use. I’m also aware that being multilingual increases my potential for making mistakes. I beg your forgiveness and oversight for any words used mistakenly.
Remember: you may not have the power to choose the words used to describe you, but you have the power to choose how to respond.
What is your take? Do you think we should tackle this dilemma? What is the best way to help people use the least offensive and most inclusive language? Feel free to use the comment section.
It’s happening right now, in a way we never thought possible…
I read the strangest article (in Swedish) in one of my regular newspapers, about pop stars, models and social media influencers that don’t exist. Think about that for a moment. There are artificially created people on Instagram and elsewhere, with photorealistic imagery that do not exist. Yet they have millions and millions of followers, some of them even publish songs. And at the same time, we have politicians all over the globe who lie more frequently than they tell the truth and accuse everybody who doesn’t agree with them to lie and label any news outlet who disagrees with them as fake news. And no, Donald Trump isn’t the only one. “Fake news” has become a thing for far too many politicians in every corner of the world. He simply “perfected” the act. Fake news is no longer about news which is incorrect, fake news is news you don’t like. What a fundamental shift in connotation, in just three years.
Fake people, fake lives, lies, and truth interchangeable, how are we as ordinary human beings going to survive this? How will we, as humanity, be able to overcome the threats to the very core of our society if we keep blurring the lines between reality and fiction, imagination and deception?
Not a new idea, or concept
I’m not the first person to think about this. And smarter people than I have been trying to show us possible outcomes for decades. Picture the Terminator and the threat of what AI could do to humanity. Or worse, The Matrix. These movies were all pre-Internet, and pre-virtual/augmented reality. I saw another flick called Player One a few months ago, which is a movie that actually does take place knowing where we are today, and it painted a bleak picture, too, albeit with a happy ending.
I’ve also read articles littered with examples of so-called “deep fakes”, of YouTube or news cast-style videos that were completely fake, with “real” people saying things they’ve never said. With our current level of technology, you can interchange Mother Teresa and Adolf Hitler, although that doesn’t really achieve much for anybody. However, what if say you could have a candidate for the 2020 Presidential campaign say something untoward? And what about someone who’s actually said something untoward being able to completely deny it? Even though the latter happens already.
It’s on the radio, it’s got to be true!
Many years ago, I was actively engaged in public access radio, which is a great way for ordinary people to express their opinions on FM-radio. More than once I encountered people who would complain about things said there, particularly if it was from someone who was from a rival political party or ethnic groups. Oddly, when I reminded them that it was our remit to transmit our own opinions, not state facts, I would often hear “but it’s on the radio!” as if the mere fact that they heard in through an FM-receiver somehow made whatever statement be the truth. I am afraid that we all suffer from that mentality, a little, and it’s enhanced when we hear it on TV, or from one of our elected officials, even though, these days, we can’t really trust anything we hear. We all have to double-check the facts.
Add to this the fact that more and more of us live our lives on social media, that people mourn the deception of so-called “friends” online, people they’ve never even met. How can anyone trust a complete stranger whose words you read on your computer screen, without the infliction of the tone of voice? Need I remind you of how quickly we descend into trolling when we think we’re alone and anonymous? It’s so easy to hurt people online, and it’s so simple to create misunderstandings when you don’t really know the person on the other end, do not understand what personality they have. Suddenly, the most innocent joke turns into the vilest of offenses and we “block” that someone, never to speak to them again. Virtually anything can create an online shitstorm. All among people who don’t know each other, not really.
Forget to like a friend’s post and you’ve begun your journey to forget them…
Then you have the algorithms of the various social media engines who ruthlessly serve you what is in their best interest, not what is in yours. Forget to like your friends umpteenth cat meme and they will slowly but surely wither away from your stream (and–sadly–your consciousness) replaced by advertisements for things you incidentally said to Alexa, Cordana or whatever other assistants you’re using or searches made or click-bait you couldn’t resist. We are manipulated online and it’s getting almost impossible to resist the allure of the almighty algorithm. Don’t believe me? Go have a look at what your interests are on Facebook, based on the site’s ad-settings on your profile. It’s not only a good idea to detox those hundreds (!) of “interests” every now and then, but some also provide a clue as to how the algorithms work and more than a handful of headshakes as to how stupid they actually are. No AI out there, yet!
Combine all of the above and you have a toxic cocktail. And as an author and creator of fiction, I wonder. Will I still be needed in the future? Will anyone still read my stories? My books? I do not know. If we start to live the fiction and use our personal lives to escape the harsh reality of this world, will fiction be there to bring us back to reality, after a long hard day in Escapia? Or will we become completely superfluous, no longer necessary since our own chosen realities surpass anything fiction could ever hope to offer? A world where every human is the main character in their own story, and we all walk through the streets with our 3D goggles on, eating at Klingon restaurants, being served by people we don’t look at, servers who think they’re serving us to the Minotaur of their own reality. Meanwhile, the puppet masters sit in their mansions enjoying the spectacle we’re making of ourselves.
Where will we be in a few years?
I don’t have the answer to any of my questions, but I worry. I wonder if humanity is equipped for the future we’re setting ourselves up for, or will we, given climate change and the potential for human conflict inherently part of it, be the end of ourselves long before we reach the full potential of that future?
What do you think? Feel free to comment and discuss.
Gender equality is critical, not just to elevate women, but to free men as well
I always feel conflicted on this day. It’s such an important opportunity to talk about all the work we still have ahead of us, in terms of gender equality, women’s rights etc. all around the world. Just this morning I heard a story on the news about how a new right-wing party wants to tear up the current abortion legislation in Spain, turn back the dial some forty years. So sad, and so very sad that many women support these policies. No one should ever be allowed to make any kind of decision about your own body than the person themself. Alas, women’s bodies still seem to be the property of someone or something else.
My mother feeding me. 1967. Photo: private
It’s not about vaginas v penises, not really…
Gender equality isn’t really about our sexual organs or biology. Yes, undoubtedly, biology plays a role and has played a role in the past. Today though, it’s more about values. We have men with vaginas and women with penises (and people who do not fit on the binary scale), so we can forego the “biological” part, because unless you know the person in front of you is trans, you’ll treat them according to how you perceive them, not what they may or may not have between their legs, what hormonal levels they exhibit in a blood test or even how they perceive themselves…
The real difference is in how we value that which is considered “male” and that which is considered “female”. Sadly, female attributes are considered less valuable, less desirable, than male traits. As a gay man, someone who’s often been described with female attributes in order to be ridiculed, derided and diminished, I know a little bit about it. My community has made the most of this, taking these so-called undesirable traits, elevating and celebrating them. #Drag When we call each other “bitch!” it’s a compliment, not a slur. We’re fierce, strong!
Unfortunately, for society, this skewed value attribution is detrimental. Boys are still (sadly) raised to oppress whatever traits that might be considered female: show emotions, cry, care etc. Instead, they’re pushed to compete, struggle, fight and overcome adversity, to “be a man”. Mind you, these traits are not “bad” per se, but unless they are balanced by empathy and caring, they become dangerous. A man who fights and competes to advance is potentially dangerous if he doesn’t feel empathy for those around him or care for those he competes with. A woman, similarly, is a walking target for abuse if she doesn’t compete or fight for her place if all she does is feel empathy and make excuses.
Ying and Yang. Only together can male and female attributes form a complete human being, regardless of how we identify.
Male and female traits, in a way, are like Ying and Yang. Only together do they make us whole as human beings.
Equality isn’t women’s struggle. It’s a human struggle
I often look to my own parents to see how gender inequality can destroy lives and affect people across time and even generations. My mother was raised in a conservative Catholic home (they all were back in the 1940s.) When she got married, she’d advanced to a purchaser for a local clothing store and had a (potentially) rewarding professional career ahead of her. She had an amazing sense of fashion and was always dressed meticulously. My dad, a carpenter, wanted to move away and she gave it all up, for him (of course.) When they got married, my mother knew nothing (sic!) about sex. Nothing. Imagine the shock.
She raised me and my brother to be different than what my dad had been raised to be. Not that my father is a bad person. Quite the contrary. But just as my mom was a victim of societal expectations (and she played her role well), so was (is) my dad. He worked very hard, built a very successful business, providing for us, and became a person of great influence in town. We often jokingly refer to him as the “King of Samedan” because of that. Part of that image was also to be successful in sexual matters, and affairs with several women were the result, in part because my mom couldn’t due to her upbringing.
I don’t know when my mother first found out about those affairs. I recently learned they began in 1981, but the first ‘clash’ didn’t come until 1985/86 when I was in the US. I missed it all. I couldn’t miss how their relationship had changed when I came back though. But my mother wouldn’t leave him. Threaten? Yes. But a good woman doesn’t leave her man. It’s how she’d been raised and she was unable to break out of the expectations of what it meant to be a good wife, a good mother.
Grandfather and grandson feeding the birds together. Those two… Photo: private
When my mom died, five years ago, my dad was devastated, even though he’d continued to stay in touch with at least one of the women he’d had affairs with through those years. I know because both my brother and I got an offer to inseminate her Lesbian daughter just a couple of years before mom passed away… We both politely (not really) declined. My dad could not cope with being alone after her death, he’d burn the water on the stove… It didn’t take many months before he considered at least four (!) different women and we all joked about what he’d labeled “Beuteschema”, i.e. target audience, to translate it a little bit less offensive than the German term.
Fast forward and my dad is dating the “other woman” and they spend a lot of time together. He’s grown a lot as a person in the past few years and is a lot more open about his emotions, and he’s an amazing and loving grandfather. But there are still lies, there are still cover-ups, and there are still other women that I’m not supposed to know about. His male ego still needs to be stroked. He needs to feel that power rush of being valued by women. Mind you, it takes two to tango, and cheating isn’t a male thing, but I believe that men cheat for different reasons: for them it’s the fear or loneliness, of asserting their power, having something pretty by their side, being looked after, cared for, while women do it to be seen, valued, affirmed. Two sides of the same coin. Ying & Yang all over.
To break the cycle
Unfortunately, this behavior, the effects of the inequality my parents suffer from, also affects their children. Having been my mother’s confidant for decades, I am the living memory of my mother’s pain and the betrayals against her. Every time I see my father’s new woman, I remember all the countless times my mom cried and lamented at being cheated on. It makes family gatherings very difficult and had it not been for my son and his right to spend time with his grandfather, I have a hunch I would avoid the pain if possible. Alas…
Here’s to a better, brighter future, regardless of gender.
So how do you break the cycle? I’ll be honest, I see little hope for me to ever feel differently about what happened between my mom and dad. And I doubt my feelings toward the other woman will ever change. What I can do is try and make sure that I raise our son to be different, to help him be a true human, someone who competes and fights, someone who is truly whole and who doesn’t judge others based on their biology or gender attributes, but based on their heart and mind. It’s an uphill battle because society doesn’t change at the pace we’d like it to (quite the contrary.)
Countless times have we had to point out that “no, that’s not a girl/boy thing” when he came home to tell us about something at school.
I try very hard to break the cycle. I’m a faggot, I’m in touch with every feminine side there is, and I celebrate those traits, every day, just as I relish my masculine characteristics. I can wield a hammer as well as I can stir a pot with a spoon. Let’s all work toward this common goal. Not just today, as we wear purple to honor our sisters, but every day of the year. For all of humanity, women, men and nonbinary people alike.
I wish you all a most auspicious International Women’s Day 2019.