I started gradually rejoining the online world in 2016, after about two years away. I’d spent the six years before that being an unbearable Pollyanna, trying to get everyone to have interactions where we could find common ground and have Meaningful Discussions and for shit’s sake stop calling each other evil. I’d exhausted myself by investing too much mental and emotional energy in lengthy, intense political and philosophical conversations. I’d been insulted and unfriended by relatives and close friends; I was hurt and depressed and very, very cynical. I was done. I stopped blogging and made my old posts private so no one could see them. I unfollowed almost everyone on Facebook. I stopped listening to NPR, reading articles online, or posting about anything I actually cared about. I isolated myself, essentially taking two years to recover.
This—what I’m writing here—is what came of that. Because I am out of patience with people who refuse to get it.
The only people I can have in my life are people who are trying. You don’t have to get it right all the time, but you have to be aware of oppression, discrimination, and injustice in the world—not actively pretending it doesn’t exist. That’s how low my bar is. We’ve had the internet for a long time now, and this information is incredibly accessible. There are no more excuses.
Those online conversations I used to have, where the only thing I wanted was a thoughtful dialogue beyond the dogma I’d grown up with, caused me intense stress for days at a time: my heart would pound, my entire body shook, and I checked and re-checked my responses obsessively to make sure I hadn’t said something offensive or incorrect. I cried often and hard. I did not enjoy these conversations, but I felt compelled to have them. I honestly believed we could have well-meaning, mind-opening debates that would teach us all something, that would lead toward a better society for everyone.
I was wrong.
I don’t mean that it’s impossible to experience that kind of interaction; just that it’s incredibly unlikely and, currently, not worth the effort. I can count on exactly six fingers the number of conservative friends and family members I had who participated in those conversations without being complete propaganda-spewing, name-calling assholes. The number of friends and family members who denounced and/or unfriended me is double that, and those are only the ones who did it publicly so I knew about it.
But I know now what my problem was. In those years I was caught up in the wake of leaving my childhood religion, and I had a lot of conflicting feelings and thoughts. I was trying to balance beliefs that didn’t mesh, and I wasn’t ready yet to see the people in my life for what they were (largely misogynistic, racist, and immune to reality-based appeals because their lives are organized around religion). Belief gets packed onto you pretty solidly when you grow up religious, or at least it did to me, and it took several years for me to peel away all the layers that never really belonged to me. Some things never made sense to me growing up, and now I knew why. Other things I had deeply, wholeheartedly believed, and it was fairly painful to find myself not believing them anymore. But I needed that time and distance to be able to find my own core beliefs. And what they boil down to, essentially, is this:
People are the worst, and most of them can fuck off.
I used to believe in God, which meant I thought people were basically good, and that was really confusing because most people actually believe and do and say shitty things on a regular basis. Virtually all of the human race is set up to hurt and oppress as many people as possible. How does that work? How can the people “following God” be the ones trying so hard to hurt others? How can so many churches, the organizations supposed to be doing the most good in the world, constantly be responsible for so much of the very worst in it? What it came down to, ultimately, was this: If the white male God of my childhood existed, he had fucked shit up in the biggest way. When I realized I don’t believe in god—well, the world makes a lot more sense now.
I don’t believe anyone is just good or just bad. Most people are treated terribly for much of their lives, and the people treating them terribly were also treated terribly themselves. I don’t think having an awful life excuses being awful to other people. I think most people are leaning toward their worse natures unless they’re actively, constantly fighting them. Which most people aren’t.
I think the vast majority of human beings are not particularly good or bad. There are really bad people, but they are a minority, and the same goes for truly good people on the other end of the spectrum. Most people are in the middle: nice on the surface, but petty, judgmental, and unfriendly toward anything different, even when it comes in the form of human beings. They prioritize their convenience over other people’s basic needs, and care about a tragedy only when it affects someone close enough to them. History, it seems to me, is a constant battle between the status quo—the passivity of the majority, often manipulated by the actively bad minority—and progress—the actively good minority, fighting uphill for equality, sustainability, and peace.
We can see it most clearly in movies. The film industry will probably never stop making movies about disaster—war, earthquake, zombie attack, alien invasion—because we love seeing tragedy wrap up nicely the way it just doesn’t in real life. We love seeing “humanity,” heroism, the goodness of people working together to save us all, and these movies reassure us that we are that goodness, that that is humanity, that this is why humans are Good.
But “if exceptional violence illuminates our human capacity for empathy, then structural violence shows the darkness of indifference” (Molly Knefel). It’s easy to get upset about a bombing, a shooting, a single bloody incident that has a start and end date. It’s not easy to decide to start seeing the violence inherent in your society’s framework, to realize that you have benefited from injustice to others, to accept the personal inconvenience that comes when unequal social structures are disrupted. And since it’s not easy, we just don’t do it. Instead we watch tragedy porn, change our profile pictures to “je suis Charlie,” and compare Syrian lives to Skittles.
So, to sum up: The arc of the moral universe is long, and it does bend toward justice—no thanks to most people. Most people are pretty shitty.
Several months after I started writing this post, I finished reading Lindy West’s book Shrill, which in the very last few paragraphs surprised me by describing exactly what I’m doing here (although I hadn’t realized that that’s what it was).
I think the most important thing I do in my professional life today is delivering public, impermeable “no“s and sticking to them . . . It’s a way of kicking down the boundaries that society has set for women—be compliant, be a caregiver, be quiet—and erecting my own. I will do this; I will not do that. You believe in my subjugation; I don’t have to be nice to you. I am busy; my time is not a public commodity. You are boring; go away.
That is world-building.
My little victories—trolls, rape jokes, fat people’s humanity—are world-building. Fighting for diverse voices is world-building. Proclaiming the inherent value of fat people is world-building. Believing rape victims is world-building. Refusing to cave to abortion stigma is world-building. Voting is world-building. So is kindness, compassion, listening, making space, saying yes, saying no.
We’re all building our world, right now, in real time. Let’s build it better.
That’s what I’m doing: I’m building my world. I get to choose what my life looks like, and who I spend my time with. So we’re back to the essential core of my belief system: fucking off, and a list of people who can do it.
- If you think your religion should have any power outside your own home or church building, you can and should fuck off.
While I respect your right to believe what you want, I truly don’t care what you think God says—I feel the same way about him that you do about Zeus and Odin. Your imaginary boss is not allowed to control my life, period, full stop. You don’t get to have your religion encoded in our government. And if you’re American, that is an insane thing for me to have to tell you, because it is literally the reason this country was founded.
- If you are a man who tells rape jokes or a person who defends male comedians’ “right” to tell rape jokes, you can fuck off, because the “right” to mock other people’s trauma is indefensible.
Here’s the solution to the comedy/trauma question: If it happened to you, you can joke about it with other people who want to joke about it. If it didn’t, you can shut the fuck up.
- Similarly, if you are a man and think you can explain why something is actually not sexist, you can fuck off.
- If you are a white person and think you can explain why something is actually not racist, especially to a person of color, you need to fuck off, like, fifty years ago.
And stop thinking you need to give a pass to old people when they’re racist. Their age doesn’t justify their beliefs, in fact it makes them worse, because they’ve managed to live through every civil rights movement and learn nothing. Even back in “their time,” there were people who got it.
- If you think women
are responsible for preventing men raping or being turned on by them
are slutty if they have sex with lots of people
are only paid less because they have less experience
should be paid less because men are the providers
should stay home and take care of their children
are more emotional than men
need to shave and wear makeup
should take their husbands’ names
like pink things and dresses and crafts and shoes and chocolate and wine and ruffles and frills
any or all of the above plus probably a lot of others I’m skipping because this list is too annoying as it is—
you’re going to need to fuck off immediately and with haste, because I am done having to explain women’s full humanity to people.
- If you think judging fat people is okay because being fat is “not healthy,” you need to fuck off right away.
In the first place, you have no possible way of knowing whether someone is healthy, and no right to comment on it even if you did. But mostly, in our society that could not possibly care less about whether we’re healthy, your “concern” is just not believable. Our culture shames fat people because our culture is disgusted by fat people—that’s all. Stop trying to defend your “right” to shame people.
- If you think people on welfare are moochers, yeah, you can fuck off.
Look—if you want to live in a fantasy world where you’re so powerful and in control that no force in the universe besides your own laziness can keep you down, go ahead, and don’t bother sending a postcard to explain why you’re not rich—I’m pretty sure the mail doesn’t deliver from the Land of Capitalist Delusion. While you do that, those of us here in the real world will deal with the reality that life is not fair, everyone does not have the same opportunities, and hey! even if they did and just failed or fucked it up, they still have the right to live.
- If you think owning mass murder weapons is an unquestionable human right, please fuck off.
I don’t really care if you own a gun; that’s not the same question. I don’t like guns or shooting or hunting, and you’ll excuse me if I might not feel comfortable coming to your house. But if you’re going to tell me there shouldn’t be very stringent restrictions on how you purchase or store or use it, and what kinds you can buy—no. Your fears and desire for safety are not more valid than mine, but mine are backed up by the evidence. Yours aren’t.
Gloria Steinem often points out that women get more radical with age, and men get more conservative. I feel lucky to have gotten here as early as I did. All the superficial rules most people live by, all the prejudices and restrictions, are gone. I don’t believe in the concepts of sin or heaven and hell or life being a test, and I certainly don’t believe the progress of civilization is secretly the devil ushering in the apocalypse.
I do believe in making the world a better place for everyone who lives in it. I think we’re in the adolescence of a truly civilized society (assuming we don’t extinct ourselves by making our own habitat unlivable before we have the chance to get there). I believe in living intentionally and sustainably, in making your own decisions, in doing what you want to do with your life. I don’t know why most people want to prevent others from doing that, but I do know that I don’t care what those people want.
The best you can do in life is know how much you don’t know, care, and try to do better. If you don’t want to do that, as far as I’m concerned, you can fuck off. That’s really all there is to it.