Lately, the dark and prophetic portrayal of women’s rights as depicted in Margret Atwood’s 1985 masterpiece The Handmaid’s Tale has become frighteningly close to the reality. It is in this novel that Atwood offers one of the most powerfully simple truisms in literature today; acknowledging the hard-work ahead for women with the spirit of a Latin-speaking, intellectual punk-rocker, she offers us the phrase nolite te bastardes carborundorum. Don’t let the bastards grind you down. I visualize this elegant protest scrawled out over Mitt Romney’s “binders full of women”, above my classroom door frame, on the walls of prison cells throughout the middle east where women are locked away for “moral crimes” like running away from home and sex outside of marriage, on a wedding card I give to a child bride in South Sudan, whispered to a girl in Tanzania who is forced into sex-work and then gang-raped and beaten by police officers who later prosecute her for her offense.
Empathy. Cooperation. They’re essential to our survival as a species and in a world of instantaneous and effortlessly accessible connectivity, I’m not sure that we have a real excuse for allowing this dark narrative to continue. And it’s not just women- it’s all minority groups, all over the world. We quiet our guilt with deceiving euphemisms, political semantics, institutional figureheads who have degrees from important colleges and assure us that the world is doing just fine without our help. Maybe it’s like the Apostle Paul said; “I see and approve the better things of life, but the evil things I do.”
Last month I came across a fantastic article in the New Yorker by Alexander Stille after a lesbian friend of mine had texted me with the celebratory message “Pope is down with gay priests” by 7:00 that morning, shortly after Pope Francis’ returned from Brazil. Upon being asked about the issue of homosexual priests at his return, the Pope answered, “If they accept the Lord and have good will, who am I to judge them? … They shouldn’t be marginalized.… They’re our brothers.” The article, however, explores the rift between intention and progress within the papacy. Despite Pope Francis’ undeniably kind-hearted disposition, it’s impossible to deny the fact that his “radical” reputation may be unwarranted. Stille had this to say on the matter;
What was remarkable, and rather brilliant, about the Pope’s statements was that they appeared to change everything without actually changing anything. Pope Francis did not, in fact, announce a change in the Vatican’s position on homosexuality or the celibate priesthood. The Catholic Church has held for some time that it does not condemn homosexuals, only acts of homosexuality.
Why are we so resistant to returning to a sustainable and cooperative style of living that worked for thousands of years before the invention of kings? Before the myth of scarcity and competition? Why, instead, do we waste the sweet brevity of our lives tricking ourselves into believing that we will somehow hoard and bully our way “to the top”? And why don’t we feel “successful” until we’ve taken more than we need- at the expense of the very lives we are hardwired to cooperate with, accept, and love? In nature even, it’s recently been discovered that species throughout the animal kingdom utilize egalitarian democratic methods of consensus to orchestrate decisions that affect the group, as opposed to the long-held idea that species, through competition and the subjugation of weaker beings, exist in submission to the toughest, strongest, smartest alpha members of the group.
I am reminded of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s approach to love. For Dr. King, “love” was not a remote, intellectually understood, abstract concept. It is a powerful force of nature that is free to move and create only when we overcome our socialized-desire to “defeat any individual.” We’re taught to think in binaries and imagine others as “competitors,” and “enemies”. But this isn’t the whole story, is it? I’m about to say something that might make you mad. The people I mentioned earlier- the ones who force young girls into prostitution and marriage- the ones who deny rights to humans all over the world- the ones who say “Fags and enablers burn in Hell- lemonade won’t cool your tongues” to the five-year old girl selling lemonade to raise money for the non-profit organization Planting Peace (which embarks on several humanitarian missions yearly including tree planting and rain forest conservation, building orphanages, de-worming, and, most recently, a resource center for LGBTQ anti-bullying initiatives) -these people cannot be reduced to “the oppressors.” By accepting this, we have already accepted that we are at war and they have won.
In order to affect real change, we must adopt a new mindset. Perhaps ultimately, we don’t seek freedom from oppressors (after all, in the words of Friedrich Nietzsche, “Be careful when you fight the monsters, lest you become one.”) but the desire to free those who’ve been weighed down by a great myth. Perhaps ultimately, we seek to offer our oppressors redemption- the chance to become fully human.