“Self-censorship is insulting to the self. Timidity is a hopeless way forward.”
― Ai Weiwei
In the wake of publishing my recent piece on the sociocultural dysfunctions of the United States, a few people have criticized me. More specifically, a few Internet-folks have suggested that my emphasis on the need for change in our present global situation is problematic for various reasons.
One segment of people seems to want to suggest that all I’ve done is complain and blame and idealize without offering realistic solutions. Others seem to be saying that I must be some kind of deeply troubled individual with a “victim mentality” who resorts to demonizing his own culture instead of countenancing his personal issues. Still others seem to claim that caring about re-imagining/changing our sociocultural structures is incompatible with accepting the world as it is and finding contentment.
These three claims seem separate but also interrelated to me, and I’d like to address all of them here. With regard to the first, my perspective is that the first step in improving anything is to identify the aspects of the thing that may be problematic or dysfunctional. Once one has done that, one can begin to consider possible refinements or reforms that will render the system more effective. (It should be noted that although human concepts like “improvement” and “effectiveness” are arbitrary and always relative to an individual’s value system, there are innumerable social outcomes [e.g. violence, enslavement, poverty, starvation, homelessness, environmental destructiveness, physical/psychological disease/abuse, oppression, etc.] that most of us agree are undesirable. In the case of sociocultural systems, I would personally define “effective” as: human/animal-friendly, compassionate, open, equal, and sustainable.)
So, even if I had ended the essay having offered no solutions and having done nothing but criticize (which I didn’t do), it would still be a valuable piece, I’d argue. I feel that it is perennially necessary for individuals to speak out against the unjust, limiting, hurtful, or oppressive aspects of their societies. Throughout history, many individuals have refrained from criticizing the status quo for fear of being condemned, marginalized, imprisoned, ex-communicated, or executed. Moreover, it’s often the case that the most deeply troubled and fractured among us are the least likely to speak out against the situation in which they find themselves. For fear of the aforementioned punishments and of being reduced to convenient, dismissive labels like “person with a victim mentality” or “traitor” or “heretic,” innumerable people have eschewed any sort of resistance to the man-made structures that have dehumanized or enslaved them. In remaining silent they have implicitly consented to the problematic structures and power hierarchies in which they operate, perpetuating them through obedience. Countless people implicitly consent to the sociocultural machinery that surrounds them.
Perceiving this, I have often felt a deep, irrepressible compulsion to put words to the dysfunctions I perceive in my own culture and society—to disrupt the status quo in hopes of establishing a kinder, more open one. I reject the idea that I must, therefore, be an exceptionally “troubled” individual with a “victim mentality.” Like anyone else, I have my unique personal issues and psychological baggage, but generally I think of myself as a contented person. I conceive of words like “contentment” and “happiness” to refer to an approach—a playful, non-resistant manner, a chucklesome recognition that “this too shall pass” and that ostensibly “bad” fortune might ultimately produce something ostensibly “good” (and vice versa)—that one adopts in the face of the inevitable ebb and flow of events and internal states. I tend to view the enormous violence and injustice of our human enterprise with disgust, but I also perceive that the darker aspects of this world we’ve created are a reflection of mankind’s more brutish potentialities (arguably elicited/exacerbated by the organization of our societies/social groups)—potentialities I strongly suspect we are not presently able to cease actualizing (especially given our systems of social organization). I have no illusions of utopian destinations for my own internal state or for our global situation. I see change as the only constant in this bizarre existence, and generally I just try to “go with the flow” and experience as much as possible.
So I would argue that it isn’t the case that I am an abnormally disturbed individual who just wants to blame everyone else for his issues. Acceptance and contentment are compatible with activism, I think. I’ve struggled with my particular demons and have gotten pretty good at living in my own mind. Shit’s generally fairly chill in my headspace, and I find a significant amount of meaning in my day-to-day life. But I fail to see how finding contentment and meaning in life should result in an eschewal of criticism of one’s culture/society (as some readers seem to have implied by presuming that only a deeply troubled individual would decry so many dysfunctions in his culture/society). Just because the possibility of living a “good life” isn’t precluded by one’s society doesn’t mean the system can’t be improved. As I said, I have no illusions of utopian destinations for society, and I don’t think large change happens quickly. However, I do think that every society and culture is inevitably constantly changing (just like the rest of existence), and that unless citizens take it upon themselves to be outspoken and to push for the sorts of changes that matter to them, the interests of a powerful, wealthy minority end up creating the future. I think of idealism/optimism as a means of establishing a vision of the kind of society we’d like to live in—not as an attainable goal, but as a kind of lantern to guide the small, short-term changes that are feasible and valuable. Noam Chomsky has expressed a similar sentiment:
“Optimism is a strategy for making a better future. Because unless you believe that the future can be better, you are unlikely to step up and take responsibility for making it so.”
Beyond all of the above arguments and justifications for criticizing/re-imagining one’s society, it should be noted that I can’t help but express myself. Not only do I feel it is the appropriate thing to do, but I literally feel a rumbling, inextinguishable need to communicate and externalize my inner world. It seems somehow engraved on the ineffable core of my being that I must express my deepest feelings and seek other people who love and understand me on a fundamental level. It’s as Henry David Thoreau once said:
“If a plant cannot live according to its nature, it dies; and so a man.”
If I quelled my organic urges to express my deep-down self, I would, in a sense, die. My inner world would shrink and shrivel. The Chinese artist and activist Ai Wei Wei expresses a similar idea in the quote with which I opened this piece: “Self-censorship is insulting to the self. Timidity is a hopeless way forward.”
I refuse to censor myself. I will be the silly, irreverent, ridiculous ape-thing that I am. And when I see people being restricted or dehumanized or oppressed by the sociocultural structures of my country, I will oppose those structures. I will feel that a denial of anyone’s freedom is a threat to everyone’s freedom. I will criticize any and all repressive, limiting norms and institutions and try to imagine how they could better support and nourish people and animals (and preserve the planet). I will speak my piece, softly but clearly, in my little corner of the Internet and the universe. I will do this not because I’m a coward who needs to blame someone else for his problems or because I’m a chronic complainer with no real solutions, but because dissent and dreams burst from me like trees from the dirt. I am irrevocably, unabashedly a subversive and a dreamer.
And I won’t get everything “right,” but that’s not the point. I will be true to my deepest feelings, and I will help people by showing them that there are others who feel similarly and have dealt with the same issues. That’s not a boast, either. It’s simply what art does—makes public the private world and in so doing reveals connection and sameness that would otherwise have been unrealized. I see this blog and everything I do as art and as an extension of the same basic feeling—a feeling that transparency and openness and love and uninhibited discussion are the only ways forward for all of us. I will live by that feeling and stand up for that feeling and do whatever that feeling compels me to do, regardless of those who write me off as an “alarmist” or a “crybaby” or whatever. I really don’t give a shit. There are things I need to create in this world, and I won’t stop until the reaper rings.
“Never forget that justice is what love looks like in public.”
― Cornel West
 Originally, I had written of the “darker side of human nature” here, but I edited the phrase due to Jessica Clark’s nice point (see the comments) that it may be problematic to assert a universal inherent “human nature” that is extricable from the organization of one’s society/social groups. I added a couple parenthetical notes to clarify this latter point. I re-wrote the phrase to “mankind’s more brutish potentialities” because it seemed to capture more adequately what I had originally meant to express. Please read Jessica’s comment for more insight into why the global situation we’ve created is not conducive to cooperation.