Truth be told, I’ve needed to write this post for a long time now. But I’ve been putting it off. Mostly, I’ve been putting it off because it requires admitting something that I somehow think no one will notice if I don’t draw attention to it: that I am fat. Not only do I have to confront that, but in writing this post I have to risk a deluge of the kind of insults and attacks that have plagued me for my entire life. However, what I am about to say is important, and it bears saying despite all of that.
For as long as I can remember, I’ve been overweight. I genuinely cannot remember a time in my life when that was not the case. And, all through my childhood and early adulthood, I was shamed for it. People on the street routinely treated me with disgust and derision. I have been shouted at, insulted and sworn at by entirely random strangers simply because of the size and shape, and it’s left me incredibly over-conscious of my own body. Basically, it’s become a way of life for me to avoid situations in which my weight is an issue, or I otherwise risk drawing attention to my body. Within the last week I have declined an invitation to go abseiling, not because I get vertigo and am afraid of heights as I told the person who invited me (I do, and I am, but I would very much like to face my fears despite that) but because I didn’t want to take the risk that none of the harnesses would fit me. I routinely take the stairs to work in the morning, and every time I do I try and judge it so that I won’t run into anyone else on my way up for fear they’ll see me out of breath and smirk and shake their heads at the lazy fat woman making another futile attempt to lose weight. The people I work with are all wonderful, by the way. They’ve given me no reason to think that they would even consider judging me like that, but they don’t have to. I’ve heard it enough times that I do it for them.
I’m not sharing all of this because I want any of you to feel sorry for me. Honestly, pity is almost as bad as venom and hatred. I’m sharing it because these are my experiences: this is the world that I live in, and I’m not sure how intuitive any of it is to people who are (and have always been) thin.
If Being Fat is Such a Big Deal, Just Go On a Diet
It’d be nice if things were that easy, wouldn’t it? It’s something that’s been said numerous times before, but it bears saying again: if there was any way to shame fat people into being thin, the you can bet your ass that everyone would be skinny as a rake. So, here’s the skinny (pun entirely intended): I have spent almost all of my life on one kind of diet or another. I have tried pretty much everything that’s going, especially when I was in my late teens and early twenties, when I felt the pressure to diet most intensely. Occasionally, through pretty much outright starvation, I’d succeed in getting few pounds off here and there. But starving yourself is miserable, demoralising work, and the second I stopped doing, it the weight would always pile straight back on again.
Also? Shaming and hating yourself for anything is the absolute best way to ensure that you give up. It’s genuinely not possible to force yourself into doing anything, long term, if you are miserable in doing it. Believe me, I’ve watched people try to write novels that way, or learn guitar, or keep up with various resolutions, and they will always, always end up failing because the desire to do what their doing doesn’t come from the love and enjoyment of life–it comes from shaming and self-hatred.
But Fat People Are, Like, Really Unhealthy
As I said above, I’ve always been big. However what I didn’t mention was that when I was younger I was also incredibly active. I played football pretty much every day with my friends. We’d cycle 40 miles in a day for the sheer joy of it. On the weekends, I would walk the mile across town and swim a couple of hundred lengths of an Olympic-sized swimming pool. I did things that would be beyond impossible for me to do now.
So, why did I stop? Well, mostly because at about the time I started to reach puberty, people (almost universally men) began throwing abuse at me for daring to be a fat girl visibly out there and exercising. For a while, I tried to find away around it: I shifted from swimming and cycling to taking a half an hour run first thing in the morning when the streets were mostly empty. However, after a few times of being yelled at from the windows of passing cars at 6am, I began to think that maybe it wasn’t such a good idea for me to be out on my own so early. It is one of the most perplexing double-standards of our society that we shame people for being fat because they’re ‘unhealthy’, and then shame them all the more when they dare to do anything to improve their physical health.
At the moment, I’m nowhere near as fit as I have been. But I’m working on that (not that it’s anyone’s business but my own), and my diet is probably better than at least 90% of the rest of the population. I’m vegan, and cook pretty much everything that I eat from scratch from fresh fruit, pulses and vegetables. The only fat that goes into my diet is a couple of teaspoons worth of vegetable oil to cook things in.
Also? Let’s throw it out there at this point that the myth of Fat=Unhealthy and Thin=Healthy is seriously fucking dangerous to all of the skinny people out there who have bad diets, live sedentary lifestyles, and are edging closer and closer to a heart attack–all in more or less blissful ignorance because everything they see around them tells them that if they’re not fat then there’s no problem. Fat-shaming doesn’t just damage the lives and sanity of fat people–it screws with us all.
But Fat People Cost the NHS (and the Tax-Payer) Money!
Yeah, and so does everyone who smokes, or drinks too much. So do people who do extreme sports, or young men who drive their cars too fast and too aggressively and end up in accidents. Go and shame them for a while, would you? I’ve had pretty much enough of that shit. As I’ve said, there’s pretty much nothing that I can do about the shape of my body, and even if I could, that’s no one’s business but my own.
Fat, Environmentalism, and Anti-Capitalism
So now I begin to get to the point of me writing this article in the first place. You see, I’ve mostly learned to live with the trials and tribulations of being a fat woman in mainstream society. I’m slowly re-learning to love myself and my body, to take care of myself, to strive for health instead of thinness, and to brush off a lot of the shit that gets thrown at me by the media, the newspapers, and random strangers who nevertheless feel entitled to police my body for me. It sucks that all of that shit gets inflicted on fat people (and particularly on fat women), but I’m old enough and ugly enough now that I can cope with it. However, something that I can’t deal with is the tendency amongst activists to buy into the myth of fat-shaming.
I genuinely cannot count the number of images I’ve seen blithely shared around in anti-capitalist circles where ‘capitalism’ or ‘progress’ is depicted as a person who’s horrifically gluttonous and overweight. Images that repeat over and over again the message that I am part of the problem. That my body represents everything that’s wrong with the world. That I literally embody everything that we are meant to be fighting against. And don’t give me that shit about it being a shorthand, and there being no other way of conveying the concept of greed–satirists have been drawing the greedy for centuries without the need to just draw endless fat people. It’s not just unnecessary–it’s lazy. It’s lazy, and it immediately tells me that I’m are not welcome in your discussions.
Equally, I see an awful lot of articles trashing the processed/junk food industry–and rightly so, our modern methods of food production are horrific and disgusting and should be challenged in the strongest possible terms. However, I don’t even get to the end of many of these articles. I stop reading about the second or third time that they encapsulate the problem by talking about the ‘obesity epidemic’. I am not an epidemic. I am a person. I have a voice, and what’s more I have a right not to be judged as lazy, or gluttonous, or part of the problem, just because of the shape of my body.
The reason why this makes me so angry is because I expect activists to know better. Most of the time, sadly, they just don’t. Instead, I end up just as shamed and ostracised amongst other environmentalists, anarchists and anti-capitalists as I do by switching on the TV or walking down a busy street on a Friday night. None of us, activists especially, should be seeking to police the bodies of others based solely and entirely on what they look like. If we must wade into the issue of judging other people’s lifestyles at all, then we should want them to be healthy, not want them to be thin.
There are plenty of places where things are beginning to change–from campaigns such as Health at Every Size to mainstream magazines like SliNK. However, as long as activists continue to be complicit in shaming, degrading and excluding people because of their physical appearance, we still have a long, long way left to go. So long as those of us who want to change society for the better are still propagating the idea that you can judge a person’s health and lifestyle simply by looking at them, we are still a long, long way away from building any kind of better world for anyone.
So, if you’re an activist reading this article, and you want to take one thing away from it then let it be this: the next time you’re talking about consumerism, or junk food, or capitalism, or the meat industry (or anything else you happen to be writing a blog post for, or chatting with your friends about), and you feel the need to make your point by stigmatising fat people–don’t. Do me a favour and talk about good diet and well-being if you must talk about public health at all, use other metaphors to represent greed, or just plain let your arguments stand on their own two feet without shaming fat people to back up your point.
Then, maybe people like me can read your awesome thoughts and comments and agree with you, instead of being given yet more reasons to hate our bodies and be reminded of the fact that we aren’t welcome.
I know that I’ve (once again) not been as great at keeping up with this blog as I should have done. This time, however, it’s actually for a pretty good reason! Hooray!
Some of you may remember that when I was primary editor over at SteamPunk Magazine, I set up an itsy-bitsy publishing company called Vagrants Among Ruins to handle the UK printing side of things. Well, the good news is that Vagrants has now been re-vamped and re-launched as a publisher of post-civilised retrofuturist Romanticism–which basically means that we will be publishing all things post-civ, steampunk, dreampunk and activist-inspired.
We have a couple of really cool projects in the pipeline, and our very first publication, ‘Journeys in the Winterlands‘ has just been released! The end result is a collection of three short stories by myself, Dylan Fox and John Reppion, all set in the same world as the awesome ‘White is the Color of Death‘ collection by our friends over at Combustion Books.
The stories tell the tale of Callista, the Flowergirl of Crossbones, who is searching the frozen wastes for her lost mentor. Along the way, she does her best to avoid the attentions of the Affected–sky-mad cannibals who are all that’s left of most of the human race–and the monstrous engine-animals that they have built.
‘Journeys‘ is available in both digital and hardcopies, and if you’d like to review it then drop me a line and we’ll get you a PDF for free.
Extinguish every light but candles,
And breathe out slowly, very slowly,
As you step into the silent water
Made pure with fire and snow.
The window hangs in its wooden frame above you–
A Mondrian painting
Shaped from three suspended blocks
Of dim, refracted streetlight.
Open each of them in turn,
And let the winter in
As you would let in something sacred.
As you would let in your lover.
See the houses lined up
In the breakers of the motorway–
Waves of sound that fold themselves
Like steam over pitched rooftops
And spend their strength into the windless dark,
And know: beyond the haze,
A sky like split goldstone
Pours out its spiny light
For a while now, I’ve been noticing a worrying trend in certain environmental activist circles here in the UK. Namely, the attempts to exclude and silence feminists, anti-racists and other ‘social justice’ campaigners (the reason for the sarcasm quotes will shortly become clear). I don’t have any interest in naming names and pointing fingers, but I will say that I have been speaking to an increasing number of people, predominantly women, who feel excluded and isolated from environmentalism, and have had their concerns dismissed as unimportant rather than engaged with.
A few days ago, environmental activist Paul Kingsnorth wrote an article for ABC that I think shows us exactly why this is happening. I have a degree of respect for Paul. He has done some fantastic things, and written articles that have completely blown my mind, however he raises certain issues in this latest piece of his that give me cause for concern.
The wider point of the article is something he and I can agree on: that the co-option of environmentalism by the mainstream political left is hugely problematic, predominantly because it makes the issue ‘safe’ and neatly glosses over the fact that our attitudes towards industrial and technological progress (and the sickening levels of consumption it has created) are at the very root of what we’re supposed to be fighting against. This is the sort of attitude that leads us to green capitalism, and does precisely nothing to address the deeply unhealthy relationship we have with the world around us, in favour of selling us more stuff and making us swallow yet more mainstream political agendas.
However, Paul goes on to make an argument which explicitly states that ‘social justice’ (by which I presume he means feminism, anti-racism, and other forms of social activism etc) is the same as, and equal to, the mainstream left agenda. And as a woman who is both a feminist, and environmentalist, and an anarchist, I can’t agree with that.
In short, lumping issues of ‘social justice’ in wholesale with the political left is just as problematic and destructive as equating the left with environmentalism—which is more or less exactly what he is arguing against. It makes the way we treat each other as human beings, how we discriminate against and oppress each other, an issue that is solely the preserve of the political mainstream, as opposed to what it actually is: another issue that has been adopted by political parties in order to preserve the status quo.
To my mind, social justice and environmental activism are two sides of the same coin: one addresses the deeply problematic relationships that we have with the world that we live in, and the other addresses the problematic relationships that we have with one another. Both are ultimately caused by the same things: greed, and the concentration of power among the few.
In fact, Paul seems to get this sort of argument a lot:
“The common response to this is to claim, as many environmentalists do, that ‘environmental justice and social justice go hand in hand’ – or even that ‘you cannot have environmental justice without social justice.’”
However, he never really seems to articulate why he doesn’t agree with that. Or, if he does, then it’s only to say that social justice is a ‘human-centric’ issue, and that environmentalism is about moving away from that, towards a more eco-centric standpoint. And this is at the root of the problem that I have with this article, the unfortunate (and I’m sure also unintended, or at least unconsidered) subtext that flows beneath it: that by engaging with issues about how we treat each other as human beings, we are actually hurting environmentalism—that we are, in part, responsible for making environmentalism about people instead of about the wild.
As a feminist, I can’t help but see this sort of thing and read: “If you are a woman involved with environmentalism, and you are concerned about the way that you, and other women, are being treated? Then you need to shut the hell up and keep it to yourself. If you don’t, you’re hurting the cause that we’re all supposed to be fighting for.”
This argument has been used pretty much since the dawn of social activism as a way of dismissing and silencing people rather than engaging with their concerns, and it troubles me immensely to see it unconsciously perpetrated by someone I respect.
The problem, of course, is that eco-centric viewpoint or not, we are all human beings, and how we engage with each other as such doesn’t just magically disappear from our interactions with one another just because people like Paul Kingsnorth say so. Groups of eco-centric activists are going to be as riddled with the same sexism, racism, homophobia, and other forms of discrimination (conscious and unconscious), as any other group. The only point that’s served by refusing to acknowledge that is that the people already on the fringes of our society are further alienated and excluded.
In fact, he pretty much explicitly says this:
“Sometimes, circles have to be squared, and sides have to be taken. Sometimes the desires (sorry, the ‘needs’) of humans need to come second, not first. The greens exist to make that case. But the green left rarely, if ever, does.”
So, if you’re one of the unfortunate people who isn’t privileged by our society as it stands at the moment? If you feel discriminated against and cut off, if you feel talked over, frustrated and furious because you cannot make yourself heard amongst all the white, middle-class men? Suck it up. Sometimes what human beings want has to come second. And by human beings? I mean you. I’ll still continue to reap all the benefits of being in the cultural majority, of course, but that’s just a coincidence. It has nothing to do with what we’re doing here.
In response, I want re-iterate the argument that Paul seems to be hearing so much of:
Both ‘social justice’ and environmentalism are important. They both deal with the consequences of human selfishness and greed, with the centralisation of power amongst the few and the silencing and disempowerment of everybody and everything else—from women and queers, to rivers, forests and mountains. They both arise from the knowledge that the system we are living under at the moment is broken, and we can and should be fighting for them both.
Wanting to do that does not make me the enemy, Paul, or mean that I’m trying to co-opt or water-down your message. No more than it makes me part of the political left, which you seem to believe is the only place where we should be allowed to talk about about treating human beings, as well as the environment, with respect and equality.
I’m going to make an admission: Yesterday, when I started the petition calling for BioWare to come out publicly in support of the beleaguered Jennifer Hepler, I didn’t expect them to listen. I’ve been involved in activism and the fight for social equality for a few years now, and the process has made me into a terribly cynical person.
It’s not that I thought that BioWare weren’t essentially good people—I did, and I still do—but I had nevertheless subconsciously presumed that the financial interests of a large games company would override their desire to take a stand on these issues, when push comes to shove. So when we started asking for a thousand signatures in support of Hepler, I wasn’t sure that we would get anywhere near that many.
A day later, and I’m absolutely delighted to have been proved wrong on both those counts.
Not only did we manage to get almost four hundred signatures in the eight hours that the petition was open, but I could then quite happily close it early—long before the droves of misogynists got wind of it and made moderating the comments into an increasingly depressing experience—when Ray Muzyka, one of BioWare’s co-founders, released the following statement on their forums, and through their official Twitter feed:
Jennifer is a valued, talented employee who has been with BioWare for many years and we hope will be with us for many more. It is awful that a few people have decided to make her a target for hate and threats, going so far as fabricating forum posts and attributing them to her, and singling her out for projects to which she has not contributed (i.e., Jennifer is not even a part of the Mass Effect writing team). All of us at BioWare support and will continue to support Jennifer fully, and are happy to see so many people out there are also supporting her during this difficult time.
At the same time, BioWare also announced that they would be donating $1000 in Jennifer’s name to Bullying Canada: A charity working to stop the physical and emotional bullying of young people.
This is an incredible example of what a community can do when it draws a line and says “This is not acceptable” and is a testament to BioWare as a company, regardless of what else we might think of them. It is also living proof that petition sites like Changes.org (who generated an email and sent it to BioWare every time someone put their name against the list—something which I suspect had some small influence over the speed of their response, if nothing else), and the communities that drive those sites, are most definitely capable of achieving real, measurable change.
Some of the comments we got in response to the petition were genuinely moving, and served to restore some of my faith in humanity, and the speed and unambiguity of BioWare’s response was a truly wonderful thing to see.
BioWare’s statement does not erase the magnitude of the wrong that has been done to a member of their staff, but hat a company of their side would choose to come out and condemn that kind of behaviour has to be an important step along the road to making it a thing of the past. This is not to say that the world is fixed and everything is perfect and sunshine and flowers (I would, for example, strongly recommend not reading much past the first page of responses to BioWare’s statement), but it nevertheless makes me admire immensely what places like the Border House are achieving in showing women like Hepler that they are not alone, and I feel genuinely honoured to be a teeny-tiny part of this community.
As a final side-note, I would strongly suggest that anyone who is interested in the matter take a look at Quinnae’s article discussing the relative merits and flaws of what it was Jennifer Hepler actually said in the first place, which is pretty much what should have happened all along.
I got up this morning to find an article on the Border House, about how BioWare writer Jennifer Hepler has been subject to some pretty vile abuse based on her weight, gender, and for her feelings about promoting inclusivity for women and gay characters (and players) in the gaming industry.
As a fat, female gamer (not to mention one who gets a lot of flack for playing games on ‘Easy’ so I can just enjoy the stories), I can honestly say that I haven’t dared to look at any of the comments that were made about her. In short, I’m not sure I could cope with how angry, impotent and upset it would make me feel. I genuinely cannot imagine what it must be like to have torrents of that kind of abuse targeted directly at you. And so instead I started thinking about what I could do to show her that she is not alone, and that she doesn’t have to feel as though the whole world thinks that she should kill herself just for being who she is, and for standing up for what she believes in.
I didn’t know much about Hepler before I got up this morning and saw Alex’s article, but from what I’ve read since, it look as though she’s had a hand some of the things about the Dragon Age games that genuinely gives me back a little bit of my faith in humanity.
Although I’ve written before about how BioWare can make mistakes, I still pretty much consider them to be ‘one of the good guys’. So, I figured I would start a petition calling on them to release a public statement supporting Jennifer, and condemning the putrid, disgusting sexism and homophobia that’s been directed at her by some of their so-called ‘fans’.
I’d ask you all to consider signing it, and passing it on through places Facebook, Tumblr and Twitter. If enough of their consumer base starts shouting about it, hopefully BioWare will start thinking seriously about taking a public stand against this kind of prejudice and discrimination.
You will find poetry in stillness.
You will not find it in worry, or in strife,
Or when you spend your days in aching
For something you are losing,
Or something you’re afraid you have already lost.
You will find poetry in stillness.
It will come to you while you are bathing,
And the suspended shower head will drip-drip-drip
Cold water on your naked ankles,
While the ripples walk in waves of liquid light
Upon the wall.
You will find poetry in stillness.
It will find you when you have grown
Too tired of fear:
When you can no longer run
And you are doubled over,
You will find poetry in stillness.
When the nights are endless dark
And you do not have it left inside yourself
To hide from it.
In that moment, you shall see it.
Then, and only then,
You will find poetry in stillness.
I used to write poetry all the time. These days, even the idea of trying is enough to scare me into a den of duvets in the corner. I’m still not quite sure how it happened, but for the past six years or so I’ve been finding that writing poetry is getting harder and harder.
Last year, in desperation, I started to learn guitar in the hope that writing songs would be easier that writing poems, but all it’s done is make the problem more obvious to me as I try and go about my life.
So, now I’m doing what I probably should have done when I first noticed that something wasn’t quite right: I’m starting to peel back the layers thought and feeling and fear, and I’m writing a single page every single day of whatever nonsense is inside my head.
While this has been happening, I’ve been drinking in the fantastic poetry of Tom Hirons over at Coyopa. Back in September, Tom posted a meditation called On Wooing a Poem.
When the poem arrives at your door, begin to dance immediately. Don’t hesitate; don’t offer a cup of tea; don’t ask how the journey was. That’s for prose. Take the poem in your arms and dance to the music that only you can hear.
This is the amazing thing:
The poem knows the steps.
The first time I read it, the piece made me feel very sorry for myself. I could just about remember what it was like to feel that, but it felt so far away now that I could only feel despair. But, as often the way with things that hit on something true in the world, those words stuck with me.
I spent much of the autumn and winter thinking about poetry a lot. Eventually, in December, a odd tiny frond of inspiration wormed its way up out of the frozen ground, and when it did, I found the wet dark at the back of my brain shouting> “DANCE! Just DANCE!”
It was a difficult birth, and has created an imperfect and misshapen child, but (like most children) it is there to keep me awake with its screaming–reminding me that if we need to write, then the first thing we need to do is stop.
Earlier this week I was contacted by the good people of Parliament and Wake, who have written an article about why steampunk matters. They asked me if I would like to share my thoughts on the matter, and so here I am.
I want to start by giving a little bit of background information for those of you that I haven’t met before.
From about this time in 2008 until earlier this year, I was the primary editor for SteamPunk Magazine. During my tenure there, I also helped to organise the Great Steampunk Debate, the idea of which was to discuss the political-versus-apolitical tension in the steampunk community. To give everyone a chance to talk to one another, and to learn.
I’ll be talking more about the GSD later on, but for now it is suffice to say that I come down firmly on the side that believes that steampunk should have a political agenda. In fact, I don’t think that it can avoid it.
Having said that, in the last year I have found myself getting increasingly frustrated with the resistance to this issue from a large part of the steampunk community. I grew deeply, deeply weary of having the same discussions over and over again. I got tired with the fact that I no longer felt as though I was making a difference, and that was a large part of the reason why I decided to stand down from my position as editor, and hand the reins back to Magpie Killjoy.
The piece that Parliament and Wake have written is a commentary on the purpose that they believe steampunk serves, the direction in which it is heading, and the problems that it is having along the way. In that respect, they talk an awful lot of sense and I agree with much of what they say.
However, I also find a lot of the rest of the article to be at best naïve, and at worst frustrating.
The way I read it, much of the article’s focus seems to be on the idea that steampunk should to be used to create a better (or several better) worlds for ourselves. That, by creating these better worlds, we are increasing the extent to which people can imagine a better future for themselves, and work towards bringing that about.
But they go further than that. They say:
“Writers are products of their times, so it’s no surprise that the twentieth century gave birth to as many science fiction dystopias as utopias; unfortunately, one can only go so far by listing all the worlds we don’t want to create.”
And that is where I part company with them. Because, as a woman and an activist, I cannot read utopian fiction. Steampunk or otherwise.
I cannot do it, because the whole concept of it alienates me. It is not part of my lived experience, and when something is not part of my lived experience I cannot engage with it, no matter how much I might want to.
My lived experience is that lie is hard. It is a war that I sometimes feel as though I’m waging against the rest of the world.
That is not to say that my life is a constant parade of endless human misery. There are some wonderful, beautiful, perfect things around me, and I try and fill my world up with them to the point of overflowing. But there is also the constant, daily barrage of hatred and anger in which I am told, over and over and over again, that my body is wrong, that I should submit to be judged entirely on my physical appearance, and that I should be scared of walking the streets alone at night.
Ninety percent of everything that I might want to read (or watch, or listen to) alienates me before I have even had the chance to think about enjoying it, because I am reminded time and time again that it is not there for me, and that I do not get to be a person in these worlds that are created.
And, you know what? It pisses me off. It pisses me off that I can’t adopt V For Vendetta as my battle-cry for change in the way that Anonymous has done, because it involves a gratuitous, traumatising scene in which a woman is tortured and brutalised ‘for her own good’.
It pisses me off that I can’t take part in the Occupy movement without facing the same kinds of discrimination that I face every single day that I get out of bed and try to go about my life.
That is why, when I create fictional worlds for myself, I gravitate towards the kinds of dystopias that Parliament and Wake are distancing themselves from.
There is a terrible secret at the heart of the creative process: Fictional worlds are not really fictional at all. Anything and everything that we could possibly use to fill them with is drawn from our own world and our own experiences, because there is no other way that we know how to create. That is why anything that is fictional (steampunk or otherwise) cannot be apolitical. We can never, ever detach ourselves from the world that we spend our lives living in enough to consider something completely alien to it.
With that in mind, the existence of so much dystopian fiction does not confirm that ‘if every vision we have of the future is dismal we’re guaranteed to live in such a future’. Instead, it tells us an awful lot about what we think about the world that we are living in right now, and where we are frightened that it might lead. It tells us stories of individuals who fight against that future, and strive to live in a world of peace and equality.
Imagining worlds in which that sort of struggle exists isn’t just important because it reflects the fight that so many of us are having in the world today, it is important because it raises awareness of the fact that those struggles exist at all.
That’s what’s at the root of why I cannot subscribe to the same view that Parliament and Wake are calling for. Perhaps they are close enough to the surface to be able to imagine a world in which that struggle has been won, but I am not. I spend too much of my life arguing every time someone thinks its funny to make rape jokes, talks about ‘obesity epidemic’ of fat, lazy people who need to get off their asses and stop exposing everybody else to how physically repulsive they are, or tells me that they think the police are right to kettle hoards of peaceful protesters and lash out at them with pepper spray.
I cannot conceive of a utopia in which I do not have to do that every day, and because of that I find far more comfort in stories where the world may be a dark and dismal place, but the battle is not yet lost.
To me, good stories (and good fictional worlds, for that matter) don’t preach, they question. They invite us to look at the world that we live in from a different angle, to resist the temptation to turn everything into absolutes of light and dark, or good and evil. They are no obliged to paint pictures of a better world, only to challenge the one that we live in right now. Or the one that we might live to see in the future.
Steampunk is not the whole of that pattern, but it is a part of it. And, in order for it to be part of the solution instead of the problem, those who wish to use steampunk as a vehicle for positive change are going to have to work together, even where they are fighting different battles. This is something that we are going to have to do, if any of us are ever going to stand a chance of achieving that equal, better world.
And so, when I read things like:
“A Steampunk comic book rich in ample bosoms and simple sentences may not rise to the level of literature, but if it popularizes the ideas presented in books by “better” authors, then it still must be counted a success.”
I am deeply and profoundly disheartened at the fact that this kind cooperation does not seem to be happening.
What are the ‘ideas’ in books by ‘better’ authors that are being talked about here? Because they certainly aren’t books about how women do not deserve to be objectified. Maybe those comics help bring about Parliament and Wake’s (and my own) need to see a world that is not overrun with rampant consumerism, but they certainly do not help my need to see a world in which women treated as human beings, rather than objects of sexual gratification.
They go on to say:
“If an escapist wishes to shout down Steampunk as apolitical but is willing to participate in a fantasy space in which European explorers interact on equal terms with women and indigenous peoples and in which pirates are ethically justified in robbing from exploitative industrialists – well, he can continue to believe that he isn’t endorsing a political movement, but for all the reasons we’ve discussed above, he’s still helping.”
However, as Dylan points out in his response to them, this ‘entirely misses the point that those women, those indigenous peoples, those pirates and those exploitative industrialists are there solely for the escapist’s benefit.’
He goes on to talk about how the best thing any of us can do if we want to make a difference is to educate ourselves, and to help to educate others about the inequalities that still exist across the world today. That is absolutely a part of the role that I believe fantasy and imagination has in our world, and I’m pretty sure that Parliament and Wake believe that too.
The problem, then, comes when when people attempt to create that sort of change without fully understanding the depth of the problem they are facing. It comes when feminists are only interested in achieving social equality for women, and don’t stop to think about how the same systems of oppression affect people of colour, or the transgendered. It comes when anti-capitalist protesters like the ones in Occupy Wall Street don’t understand the ways in which the ways in which the system they are fighting oppresses minority groups, and don’t think to give enough attention to combating that, as well.
Ultimately, that is where things fell apart when we tried to spark this kind of discussion in the Great Steampunk Debate. I was horribly naïve in my understanding of the way these different systems of oppression hurt people. People whose life experience is entirely different to my own. As a result, instead of creating a space where everybody could discuss these issues on an equal footing, I was a part of something where a huge number of people, that are used to having their opinions heard, shouted at the very tops of their voices, and those from minority groups were completely drowned out in the swell.
And I can already see the same thing happening in what Parliament and Wake are trying to achieve, even if I know that they are doing it with the very best of intentions.
If I want to say anything at all to them about why steampunk still matters, then it is this:
Steampunk matters because it provides an opportunity to foster change that is not unique, but that has the power to effect incredibly change through the way it dreams of worlds other than our own.
I think that we agree on that.
But if you want steampunk to matter because it does more than offer us a space to reflect on the role of technology in our lives or the extent to which we mindlessly consume, if you want it to be a place in which we can dream of a world where we are all truly equal, then we shall have to listen to all of the the groups that are harmed by the way that we are living now. We shall have to work to participate positively in safe spaces that are created by and for minority groups. We will need to fight to ensure that those groups are not alienated or drowned out on our websites, in our forums and our social network groups.
More than that, we will have to learn to support one another. To listen to and understand people whose lived experience is different from ours. We will have to work together: To create narratives and worlds that do not just support the rights and political agendas that we ourselves desire, but that foster an environment in which we can all strive towards equality.
And, when that is happening… Perhaps then I will be able to join you in your dreams of a utopia of airships, and exploration.
I took the photograph above a couple of years ago, while visiting a favourite haunt of mine: the ruined Baron Hill mansion just outside of Beaumaris on Anglesey.
Last year, I found out that a large construction company intends to turn this wild, beautiful place into a set of private, executive apartments. And so, in February, I went back to wander amongst the ruins for what may well turn out to be the last time.
Baron Hill has fascinated me ever since I first discovered it. Hell, when I commissioned the artwork for Vagrants Among Ruins, I even asked the artist to work from photos that I’d taken of the place.
There seems to be a huge movement around at the moment—in steampunk, yes, but also in the rest of our society—to fight to save such buildings from the point of destruction, to restore them, and to put them to fresh use. I have absolutely no problem with that. In fact, I have a lot of respect for the people that put in so much hard work to try and save these beautiful old places that we are blessed with. However, I also think that ruins have an important place in this world—not just as physical spaces in our communities, but also within the landscapes of our psychology, our minds, and our souls.
Anyone that’s ever tried a bit of urban exploration, or found some half-ruined building (in the woods, or at the edge of town) and felt the urge to explore it, can tell you that there is a kind of magic in these buildings. They are the places where we tell our child-like stories of ghosts and horrors when our parents don’t know where we are. And they are the places that we can revisit as adults and daydream about the people that used to live there. What they might have been like. They are places that belong to the realms of the unfettered imagination. And they are places that belong to no one, and so by contrast belong to everyone—or at least anyone that has the desire and bravery to get to them.
They are not the safe, sterilised places that many of our castles and old houses have become: Where all the sharp edges have been filed off, and your imagination is limited to the path laid out for it in velvet ropes.
Ruins are not solely the province of only those who can pay to get inside.
They are dangerous, untamed places where a false step can have real consequences on your continued health. They are places of true wildness. Places where things like death and decay are facts that we cannot avoid… and I happen to believe that it is only our society’s detachment from these things that has so many of us so knotted up with a thick, black fear about them in the first place.
In short, ruins represent everything that our society in the Western world tries to protect us from, and so they are one of the few places in our worlds where we can experience true freedom of ourselves, our bodies, and our minds.
I’m not saying that we should let every single piece of our history fall to pieces around us. I am saying that I think that ruins have a place in our world as well. That we should value them. That we should dedicate ourselves to exploring them with open hearts and open heads. And that we should be careful of being so determined to save them for ourselves, that we are prepared to put them into the hands of people that want to take them away from us.
If you didn’t get the chance to watch the urgent questions in the House of Commons yesterday (I am aware that watching the Parliament Channel for fun makes me odd) then you should, because the ‘debate’ there was entirely indicative of the petty moral one-upmanship and underhanded tactics being used by the Conservative government in the face of tomorrow’s strike by five of the UKs teaching unions.
I’m not going to pull my punches: I find Education Secretary Michael Gove to be an utterly miserable little man. The main force of his argument over the strikes appears to be that teachers are not just letting the public down by voting for industrial action, but that they are actually also letting themselves down, and bringing the profession itself into disrepute by daring to leave negotiations early. But it’s even worse than that, because he goes on to threaten that a strike would cause the public to begin to ‘demand’ stronger union regulation.
I run into this argument time and time again in ‘discussions’ about sexism and other forms of discrimination: Unless the victim is a perfect paragon of patience and understanding, never gets angry, and never loses their temper, then they are harming their cause by re-enforcing negative stereotypes. This sort of talk is useful to those who are trying to derail a debate, because it entirely removes a person’s agency to fight for themselves, and means that you don’t have to bother engaging with their argument at all. It doesn’t matter how right you are any more: Because you haven’t conformed to their idea of what a victim should look like, your point is void. It’s a particularly malicious and odious technique, and one that Michael Gove seemingly isn’t above using.
Between Wisconsin and Canada Post, we are increasingly seeing the erosion of the power and collective bargaining rights of unions across the Western world. What’s more, the UK is also starting to see some of the tactics employed by the Tea Party on the other side of the Atlantic, who manage to continually undermine anyone that speaks out against them by calling them a socialist or a liberal–both of which they have ensured are now dirty words.
In fact, in the case of tomorrow’s teachers’ strikes, so intense is Michael Gove’s offensive on public opinion, that he is actually proposing to use the general public themselves to break the strike.
Currently, United Kingdom Employment Law protects teachers and other unionised workers from having to inform their employers of their intention to strike. According to the Conservatives and their Liberal Democrat allies (most of whom I hope a busy hanging their heads in shame), this further compounds the injury to hard-working families who certainly don’t have the same luxurious pension scheme afforded to workers in the public sector. They would much rather see these teachers forced to declare their intention to strike, so that the government and the general public can properly prepare for it. Following this to its logical conclusion, this would give the government the opportunity to minimise the impact of a strike, and thus would destroy the unions’ ability to bargain for their members’ rights by depriving society of the one thing of value that they possess: their labour.
Of course, all of this is a result of the collapse of the world’s economy: a disaster which (in the West) front-line workers and the poorest communities are being asked to bear the brunt of. All the time while Members of Parliament, Bank CEOS and even celebrities continue to exercise their wealth and position to maintain privacy rights and personal fortunes that the country’s general public (not least the teachers who will be going out on strike tomorrow) are not afforded.
But then, of course the government is going to be more scared of public opinion than it is of any industrial action, because should there actually be any degree of public support for these strikes, then maybe they really have begun to lose control.
ETA: And now you should go and read the post on this issue written by the eminent Dylan Fox, over on his blog. It’s not only excellent, but takes a slightly different look at things.
Also, this article has been reposted by the kind folks over at Infoshop over here: http://news.infoshop.org/article.php?story=20110629135735982