We Are Not Good People, Jessica: Thoughts on a Few Online Wounds We Mistake for Justice

Human frailty forms a system, Jessica, and faults in the past have their endlessly spreading network of results. We are not good people, Jessica, and we shall always be involved in that great network, you and I. All we can do is constantly to notice when we begin to act badly, to check ourselves, to go back, to coax our weakness and inspire our strength, to call upon the names of virtues of which we know perhaps only the names. We are not good people, and the best we can hope for is to be gentle, to forgive each other and to forgive the past, to be forgiven ourselves and to accept this forgiveness, and to return again to the beautiful unexpected strangeness of the world.

— Iris Murdoch, The Nice and The Good

Some vocabularies for justice imprint early on, and never quite leave us. I started reading Iris Murdoch, a mid-20th-century British writer whose novels waver between grand proclamations (like the above) and the storied critique of whole systems (spiritual cults, political movements, academic communities, familial groupings, friends circles), when I was 12. The above quotation — not from one of her best works, I should note — has stuck with me ever since I first read it.

Reading about and working through moral lessons, though, are two vastly different things. For all the moral education that literature provided throughout my childhood and adolescence, I still wrestle with the basics on a routine basis, and do not always come out even close to on top. There are situations I am moving through even now, in legal limbo in Colombia in the middle of a pandemic, for which I still cannot find the right vocabulary. I have made compromises even just in recent months that wound me deeply, and while I can rationalize every step that led to them, I cannot yet rationalize the way out.

One of the greatest challenges of my early-adult life, though, was learning the lesson of “divergent truths”. When something awful happens that involves us, we often want more than anything to be understood by all other parties and witnesses to the event; to have complete control over how the narrative thereafter plays out, and how we will be represented in ensuing public record. Our truth around that event so often feels like the only truth; and so, it becomes unbearable to accept that there will always be other versions of the same story: that, once something happens, it exists in the world, out of our hands for good.

I like to think that being a writer helped the critical lesson sink in for me. After all, we writers similarly lose control over how our stories are read once published. And yet, I took to heart the literary variant of this lesson long before I truly accepted and could act upon the personal. Even now, I ache when I think of recent humiliations in which other parties surely went away thinking me the fool, and I recite mental scripts I wish I could impart to other actors in those dizzying personal failures, so that I might feel seen again. Known.

(Vindicated, of course, too.)

It does not surprise me, then, to see that other writers in my industry are also struggling with this lesson, even though it is perhaps one of the most important for us to learn, if we wish to seek out better justices. Namely:

None of us has a natural monopoly on communal truth.

None of us.

Not you, and not the fool writing this essay, either.

This lesson is key to the formation of constructive discourse, but it is also an agonizing one to establish within ourselves, let alone to sustain within our communities.

Because every component of this lesson is arduous.

Every component, when misapplied, threatens the whole discourse with a total breakdown.

The first component, “none of us”, has a long history of being weaponized not just against people who hold the center in any given community, but also against anyone whose personal truth is at odds with the currently accepted (communal) truth. These “outsiders” to any given monopoly on truth (and its social power) are often dismissed as invalid for not presenting their dissenting truth in the “right” form — as if there can ever be a form that both fits the requirements of a status quo and also dismantles it.

Sometimes, people with dissenting truths then group in sufficient numbers to re-center the communal truth (even just a touch). But this action, too, is stigmatized: Such dissenting groups are often positioned as “just as bad” as the original monopolizers. “Polite” forms of prejudice then emerge in defense of the former. These marginalized persons are no longer mere human beings seeking space for their truths in a community of truths. There are also now intrinsically superior truth-speakers, magical truth-speakers, because of all their time spent not holding the center of communal truth. They are set upon new pedestals — the kind that are just as swiftly knocked over, when those upon them “betray” their supporters by being complexly human: by perpetuating, say, some problematic truths of their own.

A dissenting voice is routinely expected to be joined to a more rigorous moral standard, if its call to de-center the current communal truth is to be supported at all. This shifts our justice-seeking discourse to something less focussed on truth-sharing, and more on the relentless search for moral inconsistency in those with different truths.

The second component, “natural monopoly”, establishes that, although monopolies on truth absolutely exist, and may even be maintained by individuals of great socioeconomic sway, every monopoly is still an emergent, not an innate construct. Monopolies are always constructs shaped by specific contexts — and those contexts are always in flux. Discourse communities wield the fact of change in a variety of ways, but never more dangerously than when members adamantly deny its existence while making full use of its processes.

Many protest claims of relativism, that is (even when our terms and trends undergo significant transformations from one year to the next), because we fear the bad-faith argument that, if no natural monopoly on communal truth exists, then there is no inherent value to centering differing perspectives. If no truth is absolute, we worry some will argue, what does it matter whose truth holds today’s arbitrary monopoly? In activist circles especially, we often defend untenably absolutist positions, extremely rigid structures of language and shared thought, because we believe this level of objectivist conviction is necessary to de-center existing communal truths.

A more effective de-centering strategy, however, lies in the third component: the “communal” in “communal truth”; the sheer fact that maintaining any such truth requires collective participation and at least tacit consent from at least a power-holding majority. Communal truth of some quantifiable nature exists at any given moment, at any given juncture, in any given organization of society — and being able to name that communal truth is critical to understanding how power is shared (or not shared) within our communities. It lies at the essence of one of our oldest philosophical imperatives:

Know thyself.

(Know ourselves.)

But this component is also maybe the most difficult part of the lesson (and certainly the source of our greatest moral agony), for what if you discover that you benefit from communally accepted truths to which you have not expressly consented; and from which you might even vehemently dissent? Or what if you realize that, within this body of communal truth that generally works better for you than for others, you are not likely to rise any further within its power structure? Do you lean harder into that communal truth, endorsing it even more stridently to try to rise within it? Or do you establish new forms of dissent, new ways of delineating yourself, to bid for further advancement in the system?

Right now that system is deeply skewed on a socioeconomic level, yielding profound disparities in life resources and outcomes, so there is absolutely a question of how best to win (or sustain) power at the heart of all our discourse. None of us is ever arguing over communal truth without a stake in corporeal reality. But what moral conduct is even possible for us, when how we talk about “seeking justice” and “upholding truth” plays such a key role in sustaining, elevating, or losing us the material conditions of better livelihoods?

And how much harder does it become for us to face this agony of a lesson, when the arena of our discourse grows into something even half as abstractly visualized as this essay? Into, say, an online-forum-sized, real-time spectacle of public record like Twitter?

In my writing industry, the world of SF&F, Twitter was recently figured as a key exacerbating factor in an immense amount of harm done by discourse around a story and its author. This is both a fair critique, inasmuch as Twitter offers a concrete staging ground for our communicative and moral failings, and also misleading, inasmuch as it sidesteps the abiding problem of how humans generally (mis)behave in systems, especially when we as individuals seek to shift or maintain powerful monopolies over communal truth.

The world of literary publishing is an especially striking place to reflect on the challenge of seeking justice within unnatural monopolies, though, because we writers perhaps fall prey more than most to the belief that words are achieving specific ends, and not the power structures that decide which words are heard at all.

And so, when underlying power structures nevertheless dictate which words get to exist, be heard, and be raised up? When the tacit hierarchies of socioeconomic heft in any given community incline us to follow certain voices over others?

Then we writers tend to struggle even more with the critical moral lesson about communal truth. We rage harder with our words. We demand that our words be given power like the power held by the speakers of other truths. We reach for broader, more declarative divisions between the superiority of our personal truths and the communal truths come before.

Too abstract? Let us inch toward concrete expression:

In the recent agony in SF&F — which is, in fact, a relitigation of an agony started in January 2020 — some have taken to claiming that the story originally taken down was the most amazing thing ever written, and that the stories of those who advocated for its removal, the stories of those who disseminated paranoid (at best) and hateful (at worst) conspiracy theories about the author, are in fact works of garbage.

Such claims are counterintuitive to the pursuit of more inclusive justices, because they set up dangerously distracting spaces for dissent secondary to the critical issue at hand. What if the story were less than “the most amazing thing every written”? What if the detractors’ stories were not themselves “garbage”? Would this — should this — have any bearing on the question of moral conduct advanced in this situation?

People are coherently irrational, though, so it should be noted that the flaw in such claims is permitted precisely because the ultimate aim of their pronouncement is something other than a more inclusive justice. Such claims instead argue for a justice predicated on the singular removal of concrete representations of a failed communal truth, and the singular replacement of those perceived heads of power with new reigning truth-speakers.

(The fact that many of these perceived heads of power were themselves once welcomed as re-centerers of communal truth is therefore not at all surprising. The pedestal on which these magical new heirs had been placed, with precious little room in which to exist as full and complex human beings, was fragile by design.)

Meanwhile, the underlying problem for people seeking better justices within unnatural monopolies remains. Our unwillingness to learn this agony of a moral lesson persists.

What would Twitter look like, if we learned and applied the lesson well?

Answering this question compels me to delve into specifics, which means that what exists below might sting the reader, because it could very well touch on actions to which many of us have been party — as well as activist structures that we may very well have perpetrated, with the best of intentions, on our own feeds.

Can we accept the possibility of personal culpability? Or is the vague language of “accountability” something we can only imagine being set upon specific others through concrete losses to their social positioning?

These are not rhetorical questions. These are questions that acknowledge that exercises in reason never exist at a remove from emotion — in this case, from emotions like anger, helpelessness, and shame. We might not be ready to proceed past anger, or to act in service to any form of justice that is not retributive and punitive. If that is the case, though, we can at least seek to name these truths for ourselves. Anger is pain. Where we place it, and how, determines the shape of the world we will be moving through once the anger has passed.

But if we are in a position to consider the world we will walk through after a given discourse, then we are ready to review the system as a whole (and name our complicities within it), and to seek better pathways to change. Will you join me?

The first, most obvious behaviour is by no means singular to Twitter, but the speed at which online media allows it to play out is a serious concern. This behaviour involves signalboosting something with an added framing device: an “I don’t know how I feel about this…” or similarly vague but clear doubt about the original content, which the signalbooster is inviting others to take to a more forceful (and critical) conclusion.

The “pile on” is not new. In a vicious reversal of the tragedy of the commons, it simply requires that everyone go just a bit further in their critique of the original content than the preceding signalbooster did — buoyed, in the process, by the fact that someone preceded them at all; that they themselves “didn’t start the fire”. By the end of things, a few very prominent voices might well have felt quite comfortable making the boldest, most decisive, most dismissive, and above all most damaging remarks — but the tragedy can be traced back to the earliest few who retweeted vague misgivings. Everyone along the chain is responsible for individual actions, but the phenomenon of the chain of escalating outcry must itself not be discounted as a culpable party.

The second behaviour is a common meme structure that might seem vaguely progressive on the surface, but which routinely trains us to discount the possibility of our shared humanity. It is one of those discourse structures where the content does not matter as much as the in-group signalling it supports, which is why this declarative mode thrives on sites like Twitter, where content is elevated through hearts and retweets when it represents either a patently “bad take” or… (so the implication goes) the opposite? Something “true”?

Or at least “truthy” enough for a trend cycle.

This meme involves declaring that [X] is something [Y]-people do not understand: only [Z]-people truly know it. This, the meme declares, is why [Z]s are struggling in our current system: because [Y]s are both utterly ignorant of [X] and also in complete control of the current communal truth. It is a compelling format for flash-activism because, on the surface, it plainly serves to reassure and uplift a marginalized group; and because it gives people a ready-made space to rally around a whole host of injustices set upon their communities. It is a “feel-good” activist structure, which anyone from within a given marginalization can use to assert their personal truth in a way that might well boost their authority as the broadstroke claim ripples through wider social structures.

And yet, the meme often founders immediately in the comments: people with ADHD protesting that their writing does not look like what the original poster has claimed to be the way that people with ADHD write; people from every culture with access to Vick’s, ginger ale, and chicken soup disagreeing with someone claiming these items for specific ethnoracialized home remedies; people disagreeing with broadstrokes claims that BIPOC writers struggle to publish because white people do not know what living without agency looks like, and therefore do not understand passive protagonists; and people disagreeing that only those who identify as trans or non-binary have ever engaged significantly enough with gender (and gender dysphoria) to be entitled to an opinion about gender, sex, and the societal roles that both carry.

I have referenced specific examples here not to criticize any original poster, but to better study the overall phenomenon, and to illustrate how it plays a role in situations like the one that started in January 2020 in SF&F. The trouble is not specific to that story, but rather, relates to how we negotiate a whole range of in-group/out-group struggles to shift existing unnatural monopolies. And because the problem is more far-reaching, if we do not pay attention to the implicit moral training in feel-good activist structures like the above, we are ripe for a repeat of doing immense harm in the name of better justice.

Let us think constructively, then, about the above examples.

How might we advocate for a multiplicity of truths without requiring such rigid (and often self-defeating) lines in the sand of human experience?

Surprisingly easily, actually.

But it involves starting with what might currently feel like a huge leap to many of us: the assumption that maybe someone outside a distinct demographic can relate even in some small way to our experiences.

Why is this a huge leap? Again, because of our fear of bad-faith counterargument — which absolutely has a coherent basis in reality, from the number of people quick to dismiss others’ truths to talk about (i.e. re-center) their own. If we allow that people from other subject-positions might resonate with parts of our personal experiences, what will “stop” them from claiming that our subject-position is already “covered” in theirs, and therefore does not merit any greater role in future communal truths? How will we argue for the necessity of our subject-position’s rise in socioeconomic stability if we concede for even a second that our personal truths are not exceptional to an inaccessible extreme?

Our defensiveness about the possibility of someone trammelling over our experiences by telling us they know just what we mean has nevertheless crowded us into activist structures, like the one used in the above examples, that create even more damaging distractions from the core moral argument. Why “more” damaging? Because the above structure trains us to think about our issues with an exclusivity that belies critical opportunities for coalition-building. Yes, there will always be the “I know all about racism because I taught English in South Korea for a few years as a white person” school of bad-faith commentary. But do we let the existence of such actors deny us the ability to form alliances entirely?

For instance, you do not need to have ADHD to have (or have had) issues with executive functioning; and indeed, anyone who has gone through puberty probably recalls a whole era of maddening disconnects between what they knew they should be doing at a given moment and their ability to do it — to say nothing of the shame and frustration of being called “lazy” for the same. A post seeking to affirm people with ADHD in a judgmental world can just easily build from a common denominator, as try to claim that executive function issues are only really understandable to people with the formal condition.

Similiarly, if most every family has home remedies drawn from local drug- and convenience-store essentials, this offers a strong foundation for exploring the injustice of ethnoracialized disparities: White folks, imagine if your family’s remedies — which might very well be the same as other families’ remedies! — were automatically stigmatized as indications of ethnoracial primitivism! Awful. Understandably unjust. And actionable. But a post that openly presumes that it knows what white middle- and lower-class families do and do not use in the way of home remedies? A post that diverts from asserting one realm of personal truth to make inaccurate assumptions about another? This only sets up the whole, key argument to devolve into irrelevant tangents.

Likewise, a post claiming that white writers do not write passive protagonists, because they do not know lives without agency, and that this is why white-dominated industries do not publish enough BIPOC writers, is serving a short-term need for in-group reassurance. It might not, however, be the best vehicle for more meaningful change. This is because presuming the inner lives of white people, in order to claim space for supposedly starkly opposing BIPOC truths, easily derails the conversation into arguments over the accuracy of original claims.

It is not necessary, either. Many white people have also experienced a profound lack of agency (for other reasons). Many white people get away with publishing passive protagonists — and many do not. Conversely, many BIPOC writers have incredibly high-agency characters and storylines, because there is no one signature way that all BIPOC writers use to tell their stories. Therefore, while such a claim on Twitter might feel affirming at first — and might even inspire some wonderful writing during its trend cycle! — it only leaves in its wake a series of reductive divisions between whole, intricate bodies of human experience.

And so we come to the example that most clearly manifested with respect to a story in SF&F in January 2020: the claim that only trans and non-binary people were qualified to talk about this story, because only they could really understand the danger and potential damage of badly gendered fictions reaching a wide audience. If only the “cis” had left this suddenly magically cohesive community of trans and non-binary people to discuss the work amongst themselves, some claimed, everything would have been fine.

While paranoia about the story and its author were at their peak, snap-divisions were also being made about the One True Way that a “real” trans person or a “real” woman would talk about gender. (As if fiction outside of trans experience has ever attained consensus on what being [X] gender or having [Y] sex ultimately feels like or entails?) Among some, the argument ludicrously went that the story could “only” have been written by a person with [Z] gender, sex, or political intention, because it was not written in the One True Way that someone from another subject-position would employ. Conversely, people hostile to trans experience were gleefully claiming that this story singlehandedly illustrated the incoherence of all trans identity: that the messiness of one story’s approach to gender was a confession that one trans woman was making on behalf of “all” trans women.

Declarative claims of this nature, which came readily to the surface of SF&F’s Twitter discourse in January 2020 (and which have re-emerged now, as people again wrongly speculate about the author’s legal identity, level of previous exposure to publishing, and time spent in active public performance as a woman), are of a piece with the “truthiness” of in- and out-group claims contained in the above meme structure.

Both behaviours, that is, are part of a longstanding use on Twitter of snap-divisions between different demographics to make decisive bids for which dissenting truths should hold the next unnatural monopoly over communal truth. What perhaps made the SF&F example extraordinary, though, was that all this declarative and divisive commentary emerged in relation to a story about gender and sex, when… every single human being has experiences with both. These topics are not the sole provenance of trans and non-binary persons, and casting struggles with gender performance and expectation as anything less than universal is part of what keeps trans and non-binary experience relegated to something “outside” the universally complex equation of being human.

“We are not good people, Jessica” — but we are coherent ones. We know that the content of our personal truths is not enough to guarantee us socioeconomic stability in any given moment’s communal truth. We know that hierarchies of power not only shape any given unnatural monopoly, but also the pathways available to us in changing that monopoly. We therefore seek less often than we should a more truly equitable communal truth, and settle for whatever rhetoric, whatever discursive style, whatever declarative framework, will most easily allow us to establish our dissenting truths as worthy successors to existing ones.

And in the process we do so, so much harm to one another — if not also to ourselves. We conflate the quality of each others’ work and essential human worth with a person’s moral rectitude in any given social scenario. We require absolutely untenable levels of moral superiority especially from those who have ever succeeded, even a fraction, at re-centering the communal truth to allow some measure of inclusion for their dissenting own. And we lean into whispers of doubt about someone else’s moral character — because it is “safer” for our own truths, in the coming fray, if we do not end up appearing to have sided with someone that the community as a whole has deemed morally unfit.

This is not a “Twitter” phenomenon, any more than it is solely a “leftist” or “progressivist” phenomenon. Twitter just provides one of the clearest records of its recent manifestations, and allows more people to be involved in the heat of these events at accelerated rates.

At its heart, this is a human phenomenon: a feature, not a bug, of being a group-species where a solid two-thirds of us consistently emerge in behavioural studies as deferent to even the spectre of a guiding authority.

It is also a phenomenon exacerbated by steep socioeconomic disparities in our climate-change-ridden world. We are rarely as radical as we think we are — and certainly less often (as writers) than the use of progressive language in our stories leads us to believe. We seek stability for ourselves and our loved ones, and this familiar human drive inclines us to do whatever will best help us maintain stability at all cost… even if this means leveraging whole discourses around justice and truth to sustain our moral authority above all others.

We are not good people.

We are… people. Singular and short-term, ever-and-always susceptible to error, with subject-positions wholly our own yet also resonant in ever so many wondrous ways with various subject-positions all around us.

And when we lean into discourse styles that allow us to foreground these facts — that allow us to embrace the agonizing lesson that “none of us has a natural monopoly on communal truth” — who knows? Maybe we can build communal truths that no longer function like monopolies at all, but which take acts of even extreme internal dissent and diversification as essential to their ongoing viability. Maybe we can find those urgently needed ways to power-share, so that all of us have safety, security, and opportunity in this, our hurting world.

Probably not, of course — because our current, feel-good ways of building and sustaining power within vastly unequal systems are alluring for a reason. (And if we already have some share of power within the current system, whyever would we consent to change?) Venues like Twitter thrive because even highly sentient humans are easily addicted to the rush of public righteousness, and the games of social positioning it sustains. So, when Twitter declines, another venue for this sport will surely take its place, and another, and another.

But — such future platforms are problems for another era.

Twitter, related social-media discourse, and the far-reaching human behaviours that underpin our reactions to all of it: This is the problem of our collective “now”.

So.

How will you coax weakness in yourself, when you begin to see yourself act badly?

How will you inspire strength?

And what beautiful unexpected strangenesses of the world will you work to see returned, at the end of today’s messiest and most catastrophic frays?

As much as the resonance points in all our disparate truths allow for it:

I look forward to meeting you in the better commons that awaits us there.

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