I made some significant edits to my previous post because I was self-censoring to pacify hypothetical critics. I ignored my own advice: I did want to prove that I was one of “the good ones” because I was afraid of a faceless audience condemning me as a bad leftist. The post has been edited to remove any attempts at virtue signaling. It is harsher than it was before, but far more substantive. Please reread it, and I hope you’ll find that the opinions therein actually know what they want to be this time.
We should probably talk about Blackout Tuesday, a push on social media to drive engagement toward Black authors and creators. By silencing white content producers, the algorithmic biases (of course, programmed by systemic user bias) that would have pushed white-produced content to the top of the feeds would now be eliminated, allowing posts from Black content producers to gain traction they would otherwise not be afforded. Though similar social media movements have existed on and off for years, this one had perhaps the most global impact. Progressive social media users stayed silent for a day, or perhaps a week; others misinterpreted the campaign and took up more undue space than usual. But as the lights have flickered back on, there have been new questions of etiquette regarding how social media is supposed to be used going forward.
The prevailing line of discourse is that, in this moment in history, it is disrespectful to acknowledge normality. Your trip to the beach or your brunch is a cruel boast when people are being murdered senselessly in the streets; the evidence of an insulated, comfortable life is an insult to everyone who was never granted a choice about the injustices they are subject to, and the burdens of history they inherit. But privilege is too fraught a topic to properly address in a sphere as bombastic as social media. A conversation that academics could (and should!) spend decades picking apart is currently getting its short-run dues as a vindictive debate about who has a right to be seen. Polarized to the point of inertia, the discussion appears to demand either complete selflessness or complete silence from the virtuous social media user, both of which fail to interrogate and deprogram the racist inclination, fail to acknowledge the broad spectrum of experience, and instead allow the user to perform absolution through public displays of guilt.
How does this look in action? Very slick, and very empty. White, progressive social media circles are collectively neck-deep in shareable vector art and infographics, circulated chain letter-style. They denote the sharer as having partaken in the socially approved messaging, but they are all too often unactionable (flower-festooned graphics that say “arrest the cops that killed Breonna Taylor” don’t do anything to arrest the cops that killed Breonna Taylor; similarly, Change.org is almost entirely symbolic), and require little in the way of critical thought. They are also granular, pulling the messaging in too many directions by focusing too often on the minutiae of vernacular changes and historical precedents rather than the urgency of the present, which requires supply lines, funding and proper optics to prevent more deaths. The result is a virtue signaling echo chamber, spinning its wheels in a mire of vindication. Affirming allyship is capital, but that affirmation is disconnected from productive action.
Calls for white users to reduce their social media presences to amplify Black users also aren’t enough. They allow the white social media user to sit back and listen passively while the mythologized figureheads of Black community leaders take on the majority of the work. The user plays tourist in a Black milieu in what amounts to political fetishization. They allow their silence to act as a symbolic death, opting out of their present and future as a means of absolving their past. They abjure themselves of the necessity of the movement by declaring that they have nothing to contribute. They only exist to be told what to do.
Compulsory silence is its own issue. Freelancers who work online worry that by posting their own content, therefore “centering themselves in the conversation”, they risk reprisal. But without posting altogether they lose the means to support themselves in industries that had very little security to begin with. To walk the virtuous path, a freelancer is supposed to cow themselves into silence and risk housing and food insecurity. The class implications of this are hardly discussed, only that it’s appropriate to post one’s Venmo if one is desperate. “Mutual aid” is available to the user at their lowest, but they are not supposed to rely on that same biome of mutuality, of seeing and being seen, when they are relatively stable.
Additionally, now that COVID-19 has eliminated most in-person contact, mundane proof-of-life has new value. A photo of a hand wrapped around a coffee mug or petting a cat means more than it did in the previous era, when death wasn’t as close at hand. Social media is how we speak ourselves into existence now, and to expect that to cease, in favor of silently shouldering the burden of collective trauma, is unreasonable. If you want that for the average user, you don’t actually want justice. You want revenge.
I’d like to propose two ideas for how to address the question of privilege on social media. The first is respectful gamesmanship. What I mean by this is the acknowledgement that every social media user has their own life, which is largely irrelevant to you and should be treated as such. Social media is an iceberg: what you see is not what actually exists. A person who talks about social justice constantly may participate in none; a person who posts nothing about social justice may participate quite a bit, and any and all permutations therein, but what matters here is that this should not matter to you. If you are unable to control your emotional response to something mundane as a stranger’s posts, you probably shouldn’t be using social media as a space for transformational justice. At that point you have been poisoned by the medium. You have become convinced that effective social justice work means ruminating on a thousand granular tragedies. No one person can bear the burden of all of the funerals, all of the fundraisers, all of the petitions. Content that exists for the sake of enjoyment should be freely permitted so long as it causes no direct harm (‘its tone clashes with the zeitgeist’ does not count as harm), and it should not be interpreted as inherently detracting from the momentum of social justice movements. The multiplicity of experience is to be accepted as a constant, and it doesn’t actually matter who’s with you or who isn’t, because you’re not going to be able to convert anyone who isn’t either way. In sum, stay in your own lane, and don’t waste your anger.
Secondly, the redistribution of attention needs to be tactical. Before using their platform to distribute a message of social or political import, the user needs to interrogate it thoroughly. Is it timely? Is it actionable? Is it verifiable or is it conjecture? Does it come from a trustworthy source? Does it reinforce an echo chamber? Does it reach its intended audience? Is the motivation to post it self-serving or group-serving? Media literacy is critical.
The heart of the issue is that neoliberal-flavored idpol quibbling detracts from the potentiality of change. Revolution does not exist in such microcosms, and undermining the heuristics and institutions that perpetuate harm takes more than comfortable passivity. The revolution does not care you’re one of “the good ones”. It only requires that the ops succeed. So join, or don’t, but save your breath.
I recently stumbled across an Instagram story warning its viewers of a dangerous cult’s recruitment tactics. It detailed a series of manipulative text messages, which would be sent to you by a friend. The texts are triggering and demoralizing, designed to make you lose trust in yourself quickly. At the end of this browbeating the recruiter offers you an alternative: waste away in your dead-end life, or join us. The cult’s name? DayLife Army.
I had never heard of them, and the alarmist tone of the story post made me curious, so Google led me to this article from 2016. The short version is that DayLife Army is an internet-savvy MLM that invokes the vocabulary of leftist social justice movements to promote extreme asceticism, turnabout fascism and entry-level sex magic, all under the auspices of a convenient alien overlord. However, amongst all the bizarre details, a particular line stood out: “According to [one of the group’s leaders,] Koa, the cult currently has 12 full members and 50-100 people who hover on the periphery.” A more recent exposé doesn’t give an updated member count outright, but does note that at the group’s peak, all of its IRL members could fit into two cars. DayLife Army’s Instagram account has 431 followers at the time of writing, even after receiving media attention.
Ah. So in the grand scope of things, it’s literally no one?
In a different world, DayLife Army would be nothing. Groups of people congregating online to meme in l33tspeak derivatives and talk a big game about ego death are a dime a dozen. It sounds like any given subforum on FetLife. Get enough of these people together, and eventually the most fanatical of them will feel called to pile into a car and take the psychosexual control show on the road, until inevitably it falls apart from inter-hierarchy disputes and privation. This is not particularly threatening or particularly novel. By and large, high-control groups are pretty common, in the way that LuLaRoe and Tupperware parties are common, and likewise, in the way that extremist intellectual subgroups that start online are pretty common. All of these fringe contingents promise the same things – camaraderie, validation, fulfillment, survival. They are also breeding grounds for narcissistic and abusive behavior. These are not the greatest tragedies of our times. Sometimes people get suckered. But we live in a polarized world, where things that aren’t entirely peaceable are entirely dangerous, so instead of writing these people off as a tiny faction of weirdos operating off their own faulty intuition, they are dangerous, and brainwashed, and assumed to be widespread, and they are coming for YOU!
It is worth noting that the terminology of “cult” was chosen by DayLife Army’s founding members, and they’ve set up a reasonable facsimile of the classic formula: charismatic leaders with spooky divine providence, ceremonial tithes, and the prolonged isolation of members from their social networks to render them dependent on the group. Other internet personalities have used the same formula. DayLife Army has an analogue in Unicult, another online spiritual group, whose YouTube videos have the look and feel of an Urban Outfitters guerrilla ad campaign. Again, a self-appointed leader under divine, alien influence will teach you how to exist on another plane – as long as you purchase the privilege. This is the thing about the internet that has been lauded and decried for decades. Everyone has a soapbox. Influence is amplified in an outsized manner, and credibility has a tendency to get assumed based on charisma alone. Anyone who wants to be a cult leader is a cult leader. Anything proclaimed to be a cult, then, is assumed to be as dangerous as other cults historically have been, drawing inevitable Jonestown comparisons from people who write listicles who could also, reasonably, be ignored. Meanwhile, because I used to live near them, I know that Unicult is a group of perhaps 5-10 young roommates in a big house in a leafy neighborhood of Seattle. Their garden is cute and they make whacky YouTube videos. They are, from an outsider perspective, no one of import.
The propensity to make a cult of anything forceful and authoritative on the internet has seen its terminus in what major liberal news networks have termed Trumpism, which I don’t believe I need to define. But Trump’s brand of evangelical fascism isn’t new or unique, as anyone who has followed US politics for the last 20 years can tell you. Right-wing evangelicals have always had the makings of cult leaders, but in previous eras their spheres of influence were somewhat more constrained. Now, because of the internet, Trump-as-cult is everywhere, splintering into doomsday funhouse iterations via QAnon, accelerationism, the Boogaloo and others. “Trumpism” is a cult inasmuch as it has been made into one by the media. On a nuclear level, Trump supporters are an ill-informed mass of people who all made a conscious decision to believe in one garbage man, as is, unfortunately, their right. The liberal internet, in this case, did the rest, by creating a pathology of it. They were never inherently infohazards. Trump and his policies are objectively villainous. But they deserve your contempt, not your fear.
In terming something a cult, you validate its most dangerous tendencies. You have willed it into being in a manner that grants it undue presence and influence. The best way to deplatform a cult is to belittle it and ignore it. It defeats its fundamental mission. A cult leader without an audience, these days, is just a vlogger. Trump, without constant validation, is just a crybaby.
Online, any attention is good attention. So look closely at where your attention goes, whether it is alarmist, whether it is undeserved, and know when to pull the plug.
The Verge published a story today about how notoriously disreputable, economy-tanking investment bank Goldman Sachs has released its own font, Goldman Sans, that comes with an unusual stipulation: it cannot be used for any texts that disparage Goldman Sachs. By downloading the font, you agree to these terms. And one more thing: Goldman Sachs reserves the right to terminate its use, and because it owns the license to the font, it can do so for whatever reason it pleases.
Fonts are a loaded medium, and not just for their psychological significance. A font is political. I’m reminded of the Nazi use of Fraktur, a traditional blackletter font, to reassert German identity through typography. It was preferred font of the party although its use in publishing had declined steadily through 19th century. In fact, when it was found that use of Fraktur would impede communications in occupied territories that favored contemporary fonts, Fraktur was declared “Jewish” and removed from use.
Anything written in Goldman Sans is going to be a statement of values, and I can’t see any benefit in slaving oneself to a corporation in such a way. Unless you’re working in Goldman Sachs’ marketing department, there is literally no reason to use this font. No one up the chain will notice you; you won’t get a piece of the bailout for your good behavior; on the opposite end of the spectrum, even widespread trolling efforts won’t phase a company that can litigate you into oblivion with little effort. The corporatization of everyday life already sees us subsuming our identities into the machinations of productivity and capital, and there is no point in subsuming mundane aesthetics as well. Use another font. I can promise no one will notice.
In the wake of the Seattle Police Department partially abandoning the East Precinct after days of clashing with protesters, occupiers sequestered the area immediately surrounding the building and have rechristened it the Capitol Hill Autonomous Zone, or CHAZ. Over the past week the CHAZ has produced murals, movie nights, community gardens and food banks. There has been no violence in the CHAZ since it was established (EDIT: the end of June saw multiple shootings and a kidnapping within the space, perpetrated by the Proud Boys).
The CHAZ is facing misinformation issues on multiple ends. On the right, we have have Fox News photoshopping fires and looters into the space to frame it as a lawless antifa thunderdome. On the left, there is a contingent of locals insisting that the CHAZ has become a space for gentrifiers and affluent white day-drinkers. Neither can be fully correct.
The CHAZ is an anarchist space and by its nature does not have a creed. It doesn’t have etiquette. It barely has common courtesy. It only has a values system inasmuch as the people within it do. These individuals have mostly complimentary views, but they will never be condensed by councils or ratifying committees into something we would understand as formal consensus. As such, anything framed as bylaws or lists of demands from the CHAZ should be viewed with abject suspicion. Over the past week I have heard at many points, “this information came from inside the CHAZ,” implying then that it must have a certain truth to it, but there’s no legitimacy in that statement. Any viewpoint can come out of the CHAZ – that’s the nature of the place. Everything and nothing is true in the CHAZ.
We are too used to spaces that are established for the enforcement of particular sets of rules. In the park you play; in the library you read. In the city you work, and keep your head down, and engage in the obligate forms of leisure such that you don’t get in trouble. The CHAZ is the opposite, a space entirely without credo. As such, confused by the concept, people have been trying to find the lay of power when there doesn’t appear to be one. This is where the rumors of CHAZ ‘warlords’ come from – social media finds a SoundCloud rapper or a member of the John Brown Gun Club and goes ‘look, he’s armed – he’s the leader!’ The idea that the most dangerous people will become the most significant people in a space has some credence, but in the CHAZ anyone who declares themself a warlord is warlord. Autonomous zone: do what thou wilt shall be the whole of the law.
In this way, the CHAZ is not the utopia it was expected to be. It is not a test site for decolonization. It is not an apocalypse in a bubble. It simply is whatever is inside it. It has no inherency. It just is.
New, perforated railings have been installed on the Golden Gate Bridge, and when the wind passes through them they wail. According to the engineers, the haunting polyphonic tone was addressed during the review process and was considered an inevitable aspect of the design, although I don’t think they expected it to be quite so deafening, and audible from miles away.
An unintended architectural consequence brings me a strange sort of glee. I now feel about the bridge the same way I feel about the high-rise in London that melts cars, and this malfunctioning emergency alert siren in Chicago. I am firmly believe that place is a sixth sense, and that settings-as-concept have a profound influence on perception and memory. An unexpected effect elevates a place into liminality, demanding our attention in startling and fortuitous ways. Places like this are unplanned Rube Goldberg machines of the elements. There is a spontaneous and terrifying joy about that: that we can’t out-engineer nature, that humans will always build beautiful and flawed things, that anything can be music.
Personally, I hope they never revise it. The next time I make it to San Francisco I’d love to visit the wave organ and hear its new accompaniment.
Over the past few weeks I have watched as a bizarre hostage situation of sorts has played out on social media. An acclaimed professional in my field (inasmuch as an “acclaimed professional” in the arts is simply the person most visible and most conforming to the young-girl archetype) has been posing a series of utterly inane questions to the creatives who follow her: what inspires you? How do you like to create? What kind of equipment has improved your process? Invariably a gaggle of older, white, monied, gadget-flush men respond in earnest. I cannot possibly bring myself to care about their answers, because they are categorically irrelevant to me, and I suspect the industry professional can’t either. These answerers are, however, the people who dole out the most money to people like us when we are able to create work. The line of questioning, then, appears to be less about obtaining useful information than it is about interrogation procedure.
Establish rapport. Through rapport establish control. A source that goes silent is lost for good. Keep them on your side.
Now that we live in quarantine, the role of the industry professional is exclusively confined to networking, because the industry itself cannot take place. We are expected to cling to relevance, to repost old work with optimistically musing captions, to engage in meaningless, where’s-the-beef dialogue in the hopes of securing future work whenever our uncertain timeline allows. “You’re stuck here with me, and the me you are stuck here with is a facsimile designed for your interest,” this display says. It is unfiltered old-world nostalgia: the assumption that industry will continue uninterrupted when going outside no longer kills people. The assumption that one can continue to enjoy the same safety, financial security and validation that being in the public eye afforded before, even though the public eye is radically redefining itself. The assumption that keeping the smiling veil of capitalist inanities up is the key to successfully weathering a global catastrophe. The reality of our situation is stagnation; stagnation is uncomfortably close to death. The charade of old-world productivity is a USO cigarette girl doting on our pleasure as the world burns. Sound of Nero fiddling in the distance.
I am clearly not a fan of networking or its function. I am blunt to a fault; I am unwilling to compromise my ideological purity by lying; it is too obvious when I want things. My work can speak for itself. If I need things I can ask for them outright, because I’m not a sociopath. I am fully in favor of letting the veil come down. The freelance assignments I have taken on in quarantine have grated; I grow incensed that someone expects me to serve them and not myself during this time. The theatre of capitalist performance has finally given me a respite, and you expect me to pull myself out of the wings and act out normalcy for you? Why am I to pretend that your interest in me is significant? Because it enforces extant power structures, which are the only things that make you feel valuable? What do I get out of it? Money? I can get money by means that don’t turn me into a sham. I don’t want to take on work that doesn’t acknowledge the reality of myself and the current situation. Any work produced in that state will be fundamentally valueless. It can’t exist in a vacuum, with my soul sucked out, safely outside the glass. The assumption that I will be desperate as to play along is a loaded one. It assumes reductiveness along gender and class lines: who gives money and who receives it, who employs and who is employed, who is secure and who is insecure, who is willing to compromise their integrity in exchange for security.
If my choices are irrelevance or self-obliteration, I’m taking irrelevance.
I cycled through a number of possible introductions to this essay, but all of them can be summed up by the following: oof, my friends are not doing well.
Scrolling through Facebook has been nightmarish for a few months. In February I witnessed my first doxxing related to COVID-19. Multiple people have publicly and meticulously calculated the probability that they will die. Someone else sabotaged their employment in a fit of fear, bankrupting themselves almost immediately. Others are breaking quarantine to date, disregarding the lives that hang in the balance so they can maybe feel something.
In short, a lot of people want to die, and some are deliberately acting in order to accomplish that. The hopelessness of being fundamentally unprepared, underserved and underpaid is so great that nihilist accelerationism simply seems easier.
In coping with the current pandemic, I think cues can be taken from the response to the atomic bomb through the 1940s. I shared this post when it went around Facebook at the beginning of the quarantine in March:
“How are we to live in an atomic age [or a coronavirus epidemic]?’ I am tempted to reply: ‘Why, as you would have lived in the sixteenth century when the plague visited London almost every year, or as you would have lived in a Viking age when raiders from Scandinavia might land and cut your throat any night; or indeed, as you are already living in an age of cancer, an age of syphilis, an age of paralysis, an age of air raids, an age of railway accidents, an age of motor accidents.’
“In other words, do not let us begin by exaggerating the novelty of our situation. Believe me, dear sir or madam, you and all whom you love were already sentenced to death before the atomic bomb was invented: and quite a high percentage of us were going to die in unpleasant ways. We had, indeed, one very great advantage over our ancestors—anaesthetics; but we have that still. It is perfectly ridiculous to go about whimpering and drawing long faces because the scientists have added one more chance of painful and premature death to a world which already bristled with such chances and in which death itself was not a chance at all, but a certainty.
“This is the first point to be made: and the first action to be taken is to pull ourselves together. If we are all going to be destroyed by an atomic bomb, let that bomb when it comes find us doing sensible and human things—praying, working, teaching, reading, listening to music, bathing the children, playing tennis, chatting to our friends over a pint and a game of darts—not huddled together like frightened sheep and thinking about bombs. They may break our bodies (a microbe can do that) but they need not dominate our minds.”
C.S. Lewis, “On Living in an Atomic Age” (1948) in Present Concerns. (via Daniel Coutz)
And while the last paragraph is not entirely solid advice for a city under lockdown, the point it makes is still valid – don’t let the virus take you in spirit before it takes you in body. You can poison yourself on an idea, but it doesn’t do you any good to succumb to it ahead of schedule.
The coping mechanisms that have been common in my cohort are really responses to witnessing death on a previously unimaginable scale. My generation has 9/11 as the only comparable event, and 9/11 is more mythos, a nexus of distant ideas – the nebulous War on Terror, the meaningless slander of free speech politics – as opposed to the bloody, pulpy stuff of dying en masse from acute illness. The bomb, and with it the threat of total annihilation, is the closest event in modern history that parallels our current experience.
Writer Gil Elliot conceptualized the victims of mass deaths as a nation unto themselves, purporting the following in his Twentieth Century Book of the Dead in 1972:
“We know as much about the nation of the dead as we might have known about any living nation fifty years ago when the techniques of social measurement were still at an early stage. The population is around one hundred million. A proper census has not yet been possible but the latest estimate based on samples of the population suggests a figure of a hundred and ten million. That’s about the size of it. A large modern nation. Its’s very much a twentieth-century nation, as cosmopolitan in its origins as the United States. The people have always been mixed, but the real growth began in 1914. Between then and the early 1920s the population reached twenty million, and steady growth over the next twenty years brought it to almost forty million by the outbreak of the Second World War. In the early 1940s the population more than doubled, with annual increases reaching peaks of 10/12 million. Since 1945 the growth-rate has declined below any previous levels since the late 1920s. The has been accompanied by a gigantic increase in the capacity for expansion.”
As Elliot notes, while the deaths leveled off after the the bombing of Japan and the ensuing deterrence of mutually assured destruction, the ability to create death rates of such a size has utterly skyrocketed. America is no longer the only country sitting on a nuclear armament that could end the world. So here we are, 100 seconds to midnight on the doomsday clock, stewing in the potentiality of death.
The pandemic puts us in a similar position. The great fear of COVID-19 is that so many millions of deaths are preventable, but they occur anyway for lack of testing, lack of hospital beds, lack of ventilators, lack of investment by the elite to alleviate infrastructural strains, lack of security amongst the working class, and truly, the financial instability of the majority of the population that is required for capitalism to work. In this way, COVID-19 is a manmade tragedy just as much the bomb. The virus itself is a natural fluke, inasmuch as the atom’s ability to split is. The violent neglect and negligence perpetrated by those perched on top of the societal heap is not.
The cat can’t be put back in the bag now. Like the bomb, the fabric of our world has fundamentally changed now that the virus is in play as a global threat. We will live with that threat for the rest of our lives. The question is whether we do it with dignity, or succumb to the death impulse as if we never had a chance at life to begin with.
Today I had a horrible thought: this is going to be easy.
When I say this, I mean the hand-wavey, by-the-minute fear of life in the pandemic era. By this I mean the social distancing, the quarantines, the stockpiling, the press conferences, the graphs, the videos of people dying in Italian hospitals, the Facebook posts by your once-levelheaded friends going full Infowars and wondering what the National Guard is really for, the feeling of wishing you had gold to bury and a backyard to bury it in. The pandemic itself will cost catastrophically in money, resources, and human life. The coping, however, will be easy.
I recently learned that there are two versions of the word chutzpah. The first, the Americanized Yiddish chutzpah with the stress on the first syllable, is the one we know to mean pluckiness, bravery with a touch of foolishness. The mental image is always dirt-smeared, smack-talking children in 1930s Brooklyn. The second version, chutzpah with the stress on the second syllable, found its slang usage in modern Hebrew and means brazenness to the point of shamefulness; a complete overstepping of social boundaries, causing you and everyone around you to lose face. It would seem to me that this thought is obvious second-syllable chutzpah; it takes some nerve to declare that you’ll be fine in a society that is absolutely falling apart at the seams after one week of half-mustered emergency response. You say this and your friends who haven’t put on pants in five days and have dramatically bleached their hair while crying in the bathroom hate you immediately. What makes you so special, asshole?
There’s a sequence in Twin Peaks season one in which hapless deputy Andy Brennan reads the phrase j’ai une ame solitaire – I have a lonely soul – in local agoraphobe Harold Smith’s suicide note and begins to cry uncontrollably in the diner (something he does often, which gets used for comedic effect that is self-aware in its cruelty). Andy possesses one of the few unblemished hearts of the series, and is often a stand-in for the innocent, confused viewer. Andy had a purely empathic reaction, which makes him more human than most of the other characters that interacted with the phrase over the course of the show.
The phrase “I have a lonely soul” hits me like a pair of boots dropped to the floor. A dead thump, no poetry, no sentimentality. It’s not emotional, it’s just a fact. I was one of those kids that didn’t learn how to be human until they were practically an adult. Loneliness was never really a problem, it was just something I did, and I did it for days on end, wrapped up in my books and my toys and my inscrutable silent games. I was content with this until I realized that people were inevitable and all of them would think I was defective, and at that point I grew indignant and learned to mask my asocial tendencies. So, “stay inside?” I’m good with staying inside. I have many things to do inside. Outside causes ideological noise, making apparent the chasm between who I am and how I am perceived; inside is pure. My lifestyle has barely changed in the time of quarantine, to be honest.
I started Richard Rhodes’ The Making of the Atomic Bomb about a week before the COVID-19 panic set in. Convenient to be partway through a book the size of a kettlebell when it is declared you can no longer go outside. One passage has been sticking with me in particular (although I failed to bookmark it, so forgive my paraphrasing): in the 1920s of 1930s, a home journal published an innocently misguided anthropological inquiry that asked “what is a physicist, this new profession we’ve been hearing so much about?” The answer was a faithful retread of the prevailing psychological theories of the era: physicists tended to have been children from well-off European homes, with distant or absent parents; they were known to be quiet and spent a lot of time in solitude. They were not, to be frank, very functional. Trapped in their heads, detached from the flesh, detached from the earth. Oh look, I thought. My archetype.
Honestly, the thing I worry about most is being too good at being isolated. I worry that it makes me, like my upbringing and my temperament and my oddball behavior, inhuman. I am watching my peers wring their hands, shave their heads, and practically move in with people they barely know, and this is week one. I am leaning into the wind with brutish indifference. I take in the news like a prisoner eating gruel; I don’t love it, but it’s not like I get a choice. Meanwhile, all of my friends are losing their damn minds. They are reeling from the understanding that everything they knew to be normal is fundamentally changed. In this time of desperation, they are doing new and interesting things to connect with each other. I am not, because I haven’t needed it, because for me everything seems fundamentally the same as it was before. I have a looming feeling that it will be impossible to date once we’re allowed to roam freely again; I’ll have missed out on some fundamental evolution in human communication while I was busy learning how to read qin scores or painstakingly crafting the magical system for a novel I’ll never write. I’ll be some relic, the lone tyrannosaurus bellowing at a world it does not understand. But I’ll have made it, and with negligible psychic damage.
There are tangible concerns that I could have if I felt the need to participate in the panic just to feel alive, but it’s not worth it to have them yet. The supply chain breaking down could be a thing, but we don’t know that so there is no way to prepare. Food shortages could be a thing, but we don’t know that either. Money is a thing I should probably worry about, but what money signifies or what it is actually worth will fluctuate wildly in the coming months, so the only reasonable thing to do is secure as much of it as possible and wait to see if you can actually use it. Now might be a useful time to get into zen.
So, in sum, I’m going to survive this. That’s a brave and worthy thing to say right now, so repeat it back if you need it. I may not survive this as a human would. I may experience divergent evolution from the comfort of my bedroom. But survival is not something that gave me a choice, it’s simply something I do, and I’m going to do it.
When I was a teenager, I was abused by a much older man. I have a net total of zero feelings about this.
I was a young freelancer beginning to set up shop; he was a wealthy creative, elegantly wealthy even though I never figured out where the money came from, and the first person to hire me. It’s a horrible Fifty Shades setup, I realize now; trash fantasy. What started out as a professional relationship became a personal one over the course of a year. I was well aware that a man in his forties taking that much interest in a teenager was a problem. I was well aware that I should not have been at his house, drinking his alcohol, playing confessional games with him and his wife. I should not have let him sneak me into swanky bars. But amid all this, I was not being groomed. I was not dissociating. I was having my fun, learning how to take risks.
Again, if you think those sound like the words of a horribly gaslighted person, I can promise you that they are not.
The games got devious in the second year. Physical. At its culmination I let him hit me. He asked and I agreed to it. I cried from the sting of it, but kept a straight face, and made no sound as the slap rang against the slanted attic walls of the house I shared. I’m sure my roommates heard it. He tried again and again. I was a statue. This didn’t feel wrong. I had consented. It just felt uncomfortable, like an unwanted conversation. When he left my house there was a sense of finality, like something in our relationship had been fundamentally broken. A few days later I sent him a triumphant photo of the bruise.
After this incident I hardly heard from him, and the few updates I got indicated that he had become quite the alcoholic. He returned only once to announce that he was divorcing his wife and moving abroad, and to make an intimation of more gamesmanship that was never followed through. I tried to contact him after the move. Even tried to invite him out when I was traveling in the area for work on multiple occasions. He never responded. His social media was last updated in 2015. The networking website where we coordinated our work turns up no results. My twisted friend, the ghost.
Through all this, it wasn’t that I found ways of rationalizing this behavior, of burying his red flags even when they were on fire and I was literally being beaten. It was that I had a very strict heuristic for our interactions. I knew this was a game that I had agreed to, and that I would never lose on principle. I assumed that this was known, and only afterward realized that he was operating on a different principle: that he assumed he would get to break me as part of the rules of engagement. My inability to do this meant the relationship had no value for him, so he left. I didn’t realize how much he must have hated not just being beaten, but the victor asking him out for coffee as if to gloat, completely oblivious.
So yes, I was a bit of an idiot for not realizing that this man was actively trying to abuse me. But I was always seeing the state of affairs head-on. I just had my own way of interpreting it and managed to speedrun the entire possibility of being hurt by just…assuming I was fine. The realization felt like invincibility.
I have pulled the term ‘weaponized autism’ into my vocabulary from the cesspool that is 4chan, making sure to wash my hands on the way out. Loosely, it describes an impressive ability to finesse conflicts with a combination of obsession, awkwardness and complete detachment from what other people consider to be real concerns. In particular, one of the most potent weapons I’ve noticed in myself and my autistic friends is something I like to term “the deep quiet of the soul” (sorry; can you tell I write high fantasy fiction?). There is certain untouchable core of the personality, which results in us being distinctly difficult to influence. The motivations of other people don’t penetrate us in ways that could change us, because they seem innately foreign, incompatible with our inner selves. We can act in relation to them, but we can’t be fundamentally altered by them. It’s an innate self-possession.
I first noticed this quality as a child and saw it as an annoyance. As the stereotypical “weird kid” I would try very hard to change my behavior for social approval, but it felt like none of the changes ever sank in. I would do this surface-level play-acting, pantomiming the customs people told me were important, but they never seemed to take hold inside of me as an actual value system, the way they functioned for everyone else. I experienced anxieties about the cracks in my mask being visible, and feared that everyone could tell I was a sham. The flesh was somewhat compliant – I wanted to learn how to behave, because I wanted the rewards that came from behaving – but the spirit was immovable despite my best efforts. I only realized I could spare myself the agony and just give up trying in the last couple of years.
If this scenario seems recognizable to those familiar with applied behavioral analysis, specifically the way it gets foisted onto autistic children as a semblance of therapy, you’re onto something. I was trying to classically condition myself into being neurotypical. This same regimen is often employed in professional settings as a means of normalizing the behavior of young autistic people. The theory is that by providing positive reinforcement for behaviors that mimic allistic ones, the incidences of “problem” behaviors such as stimming, nonverbal communication or sensory breakdowns are reduced. Unfortunately, this doesn’t create a functional child, this creates a child who has been cowed into never trusting their own instincts. Many autistic behaviors are self-regulating ones, things that make us feel safe or calm in a world that reads to us as arbitrary or unstructured. If we remove these access points to our inner refuges and replace them with only the threat of failure ostracism, the ability to actually negotiate conflict becomes ineffective, and generates greater anxiety. We are highly effective people when we rely on our instincts. Conformity kills that ability.
So the next time someone aggresses you in a way that seems questionable, just assume that the most feral, disconnected-from-society instinct you have is probably the correct one.