Reprise: mate, you’re stepping on my foot / the words the world gives

(Or: honesty and the dark side of the Force. Either way.)

I just want to say that every post of late brings with it a new collection of followers. I’m touched that my words mean enough that people want to keep on reading them.

So. People step on my toes, right?

Of course, having bruised toes never means I don’t have the ability to step on other people’s toes. Hell, being a member of the same oppressed group still doesn’t mean I’m not going to step on toes.

Just like everybody else, I have stepped on a lot of toes.

I’ve been reading back through some of my old writing … not too far, no later than 2005 or so. Anything I wrote before that (and I’ve been writing since 2000) is less like curiosity and more like masochistic levels of embarrassment. I’m not sad that it took me so long to get up the nerve to show my writing for an audience. Every writer is going to have a growing trail of old shame – in fact, they should, or otherwise they’re not growing and developing as a creative and as a person. Next year I hope I look back at what I write this year and twitch, just a little … most likely at my abuse of fancy punctuation. (I also hope that I’ve gained the ability to be content with the fact that I’m doing as good a job as I can right this moment.)

Those two million words, however? They’re dreadful. Abysmal. Not just for their lack in grammar or plot development or characterisation, not just for the laboured exposition and the need to explain every-fucking-thing over and over and over again, but for all the things that the writer I was didn’t know. They’re riddled with so much misogyny, so few female characters, so much disdain for female characters who don’t act in narrowly-proscribed-by-the-men ways, so much gender/binary-essentialism, so much defensiveness of cis male homosexuality, so much obsession with thinness, and a strange kind of ableism where the main character’s need to prove himself functional to just about every other character in the book is treated as appropriate and unsurprising and normal. (Yes, it’s common. Yes, it’s my own internalised ableism. It doesn’t make it less horrific.) I read about a main character who said hateful things about a woman who dared … own her own sexuality, I guess, although I can’t actually understand what his problem was or why I wrote in such a way that his attitude was presented as evident and natural. I read about a sympathetic main character who sat down in shock when a friend said (stammeringly, awkwardly, whispering) that he fucked another guy… and said main character then spent the following four hundred thousand words comparing that person to one other queer guy he knew growing up.

(It’s not an irony that I’d go on to endure that same attitude from people in my former workplace. It’s a tragedy.)

The horrible thing about being a writer is the fact that I can so easily step inside the head of the person I used to be and see what they thought about the world through the lens of my characters and (more importantly) my narrative. It’s not that the characters believe these things I said above – it’s that they’re all backed up by the narrative. The narrative proves these ideas correct.

It’s all there in the words, as plain as day.

I said in a post last year that I was writing what I knew about the world and how that resulted in such hateful portrayals about the kinds of people I didn’t even know I’d become … and people I knew shit about, and people that weren’t real to me as much as they were some kind of Other that didn’t touch my experience. The only thing I might have done right was the inclusion of POC characters, but it came with such a glorification of whiteness (why I can’t stand to read about elves any more) that I honestly can’t blame POC readers for grabbing my book, hunting me down and beating me over the head with it. Including minorities doesn’t mean anything if the narrative still glorifies the majority as right and beautiful and special.

I feel nauseous just writing that last clause. I don’t want to say that I wrote white elves and men and gay men (but only if they’re cis men) and women-who-meet-very-specific-man-approved-modes-of-behaviour as special. It’s repulsive. It’s repulsive because it happens all the time, but nobody (the mainstream, the people whose voices are heard) says the word ‘special’ out loud where we can hear it and cringe and realise that this is the case.

(Rather, the minorities are accused of wanting ‘special’ treatment, while majorities take their special treatment and call it ‘normal’ … but only if nobody else has it.)

The only good thing I can take away from all this is that I am not now the person I was. I can look back and cringe at the person that was revealed in my narrative. Not everyone has the opportunity to do that – not everyone is afforded the opportunity to change. I’m lucky. I’m able to work on becoming a decent person.

(The price for that, though, is steep. It means toes that don’t really heal and all the difficulty of being myself in the world.)

See, I get mad and upset and triggered and incoherent when people step on my toes. I can’t explain, but I shouldn’t have to. I am not obligated to educate others no more than any other minority is obligated to explain or engage in activism or do anything at all. I’m tired of the notion I’m obliged to do anything – that’s pretty much the heart of my last post, that I am somehow obliged to interact, with people who hurt me, in the way they prefer. They think if I do that, they’ll understand me. I know that unless a person is willing to look, I can’t make them see my toes regardless of how many times I tie myself in knots.

(I also know that when it comes to communicating with difficult people, story has proven a far more effective vehicle for changing minds.)

The problem, though, is that … well, so many people are just ignorant.

When the world is comprised of a majority of ugly, disempowering, hurtful, damaging, erroneous messages that lurk implicitly and explicitly in our narratives about who people are, when the right kinds of narratives don’t make it easily or readily to the mainstream consciousness, when we are surrounded by toxic words and thoughts in our childhood and may or may not have the privilege of being exposed to challenging viewpoints, how are we supposed to know any different?

I say privilege because … well, I was raised in a working-class, emotionally abusive household riddled with outmoded or dysfunctional ideas about child-raising, psychology, love, humanity, kindness. I call my childhood the 1990s Australian equivalent of Little House on the Prairie as a joke because it’s not that much of an exaggeration. I knew nothing of sexuality or sexual orientation until I hit university. I didn’t have access to TV most of the time; I watched what my family watched. (Three words: A Current Affair.) I read the books my parents gave me, and as I grew older I discovered books on my own, but they were books not dissimilar to the kinds of books I was exposed to as a child. There was no feminism, no healthy debate, no interest in politics – and I didn’t have ready, easy, unshared access to the internet until I was in my early twenties. It was not an environment conductive to fostering thought – rather, it was the sort of environment where the bare minimum standards for being a decent human being were considered ‘open-minded’ (and my family did and do pride themselves on their open-mindedness to the extent that anyone who says they’re ‘open-minded’ makes me wary). I was taught misogyny, ableism, homophobia, transphobia and racism; a great deal of the hurtful/questionable comments made in my Crooked Words stories come from family members. Any thought that was different from the proscribed ideal was dismissed as ‘elitist’ and therefore irrelevant to every-day life.

(I had no healthy adult role-models for the first twenty-six years of my life. For me the quest of figuring out how to be an adult is something like trying to sculpt an object without knowing what it even looks or feels like. I feel like I’m blundering around in the void most of the time. How do you become something when you don’t really know what it is?)

Now, I could say that I have become/am becoming a different person who knows better, therefore anyone can, right? (That’s my particular arrogance – this assumption that I am nothing special and anyone can do what I’ve done. It’s a dangerous assumption that means I’m less fair and patient and kind than I could be.) I look at my sister and my cousins, however, people who were raised in the same environment and don’t know better, and I realise a horrible truth: I’m lucky. I’m lucky because many things happened to me that meant I could walk on a road to becoming a kinder and more empathetic person, but so many people don’t have that opportunity to thoroughly question even some of the things they’ve been taught about the world. They don’t know they have to.

Knowing that one has to question so many different kinds of messages in the world, most of which we are taught to take for granted as right and true – that’s a pretty tough ask. (Doesn’t mean we shouldn’t ask it – we should. But it is a tough ask.) How many times have I heard feminists use ‘lame’ as a pejorative? Queer people use ‘bitching’? I’ve read articles by reviewers where they examine every instance of misogyny in a work and still refer to a disliked character (or author!) as a whore or a bitch and never see the disjunct. How many words and stories and ideas do we all use, unthinking and unaware? Isn’t it the quest of a lifetime – a good quest, a vital quest, the kind of quest that makes a person the adult we should all try to become – to unlearn everything we take for granted, to deconstruct all the cruel and nasty ideas we know about the kinds of people that have worth in society, to find the stories (as hard as they can be to find) that have as many of the right, empowering messages as possible, or to at least talk about why the things we think we know cause pain? To grow beyond what we think we know?

I didn’t know I was crushing toes, back then. All I knew was what I was taught and what I’d seen.

There’s a part of me that wants to get angry every time someone steps on my toes. There’s a part of me that wants to hate the people that cause me pain. I’ve got reason, right?

There’s also a part of me that thinks, simply, I was that person. Hell, I still am that person, just on a journey to become gradually less and less with each new experience, with each thing I read and discover, with every word that opens my mind to some unexamined cruelty. I can’t be the only one with this kind of history, this old shame.  I can’t be the only person raised in the kind of environment that’s not conductive to avoiding toes – in fact, I know that’s not the case at all. I know because I’ve lost count of how many times I’ve explained, to incredibly well-meaning people, that ‘transgendered’ is not a word. I know a great deal of harm wrought upon others is not from acts of evil, but acts of indifference or ignorance. I know that my own parents love me and meant well … but good intentions didn’t give me the adult role models on which to build a healthy life.

If I hate people for stepping on my toes, I’m reduced to hating myself every time I slip, every time I fail, every time I am ignorant. I’m reduced to pretending that I am not ignorant, in fact, in a desperate attempt to avoid hating myself. I won’t be open about the things I am yet to question, the mistakes I am yet to make, the people I am yet to hurt. I have to pretend that I never wrote those stories, so I can take on the furious, indignant outrage without scalding myself at the same time. If I do that, if I succumb to that hatred, I am creating a world where I will be the sort of person who frustrates me the most – the person that denies the toes under their feet even exist. I am creating a world where I can’t listen and learn, where I engage in the arrogance of believing myself better than all the writers and parents and educators that came before me, because I know better. No. I don’t always know better. How can I learn, about anything, if I sit there secure in the knowledge that I am not one of those horrible people who hurt others?

There isn’t one of us who wasn’t once one of those horrible people. There isn’t one of us who won’t be one in the future.

There’s a difference between deliberate acts of cruelty and stepping on unseen toes; it’s why I’ve come to some measure of acceptance for my parents (who meant well but landed on toes in their ignorance) that I don’t have for my sister (who would step on my foot in the hope of smashing toes). There are homophobes who are ignorant and there are homophobes who actively campaign against my basic human rights. I say this not to diminish the former; people cause harm through their ignorance. Back when I was femme-presenting, many people would tell me that I couldn’t be queer. I’ve been told that I can’t be queer without fucking a cis man to make sure. This is all homophobia, real homophobia – I’ve lost count of how many times I’ve heard this sort of thing dismissed as not real because it’s not hate – but it’s not hate. It’s ignorance. It doesn’t cause less harm than hate – it still crushes feet just the same – but it’s not a crime worthy of my burning hatred.

If I begin to hate people for every act of ignorance, I need to throw myself on the pyre or labour under the delusion that I am innocent. I need to shut down all admissions of my own failures. I need to deny that I am wrong, that I ever will be wrong. I need to close myself off to learning. I will become the person I began to hate.

My psychologist tells me that real adulthood comes with the letting go of the idea that one is innocent.

I am not spotless. How I was raised and what I learned about the world is not my fault. It is my responsibility, though, to do as much as I can to not tread on people’s feet – to learn. This isn’t easy. It seems to me, in fact, that all the important things about becoming the kind of person worth being are bloody hard tasks to accomplish, the journey of a lifetime. It is easy to hate. It is easy to deny. It is easy to look at the world as we know it and decide that it suits us just fine as it is. Can I blame someone for making that choice, knowing how hard mine is? Can I judge them for that? A little, perhaps, because their choice causes pain to others … but if that choice is made in ignorance, that takes me back to the arrogant belief that I am better, that I have not and never made that same choice. I have made that choice. I’ll probably make it again. I am no different to the people that hurt me.

Hatred isn’t screaming at people for standing on my fucking foot. It’s not however I react because I’m in pain. I’m not proposing silence or repression or a beaming smile. I’m not proposing to stand there and let people hurt me.

I’m just thinking that frustration and hate and bitterness and judgement, for all the pain I’ve endured, don’t lead me anywhere but to becoming the monster I think I despise, a lying soul riddled by fear and self-hatred, the homophobe who denies they’re a homophobe … or a kind of living suicide, where I say nothing, write nothing, do nothing out of the fear that I might slip and become the person I loathe. I could do that – I am doing it, in all honesty. I can say nothing and cause nobody pain … and not do the thing I can do to make toes more obvious to the world. Am I protecting more people by saying nothing in a world where there are not enough stories about the kinds of people who go unheard and where my words could matter, or am I just desperately trying to protect my illusion of perfect innocence, the identity of someone undeserving of hate?

It is ugly beyond words to choose silence out of a yearning to be seen as innocent.

So. I’m a person of this terrible, fucked-up world. I’m going to step on toes as I blunder about in the attempt of telling stories so people learn about and avoid other toes. But I’ll do my best to learn and watch my feet, and the only way I can do that with any kind of sincerity is to let go of the need to hate the people who crush mine, regardless of whether or not they shift their feet or just walk ignorantly on.

I’m going to be open and honest about all the broken toes I’ve left in my wake and the broken toes that lie ahead of me. After all, I’m no different from all the people who have landed on mine.

I’ve just got two million words, and counting, as proof.