While I’m the wrong kind of geek to be a real fan of superheroes and comic books, I find something healthy and hope-giving in some of their central tenets: that your differences are your strength; that great deeds are best done in secret, without public acclaim; that people are more than their outward appearance. I don’t read comic books or manga or visual novels, not because I disapprove of or are too edumacated for them, I just don’t, but I frequently work or paint with Netflix in the background, and last year I watched (I use the word loosely) a series called Grimm.
So let me tell you a story.
Scene 1: Our way of life
Nick is a detective who discovers himself to be a Grimm: one of a special race charged with keeping the balance between humans and supposedly-mythological-creatures-who-just-happen-to-really-exist, but only he can see them.
My reason for writing is not about the show itself, it’s about something I noticed which I find more disturbing. In the beginning the goodies are human and we see the world through their eyes. We see the challenge and shock of the new and unknown, but within the first episode we’re introduced to a non-human goodie too. So far, so good. There’s even an Asian guy and an African-American. All PC boxes ticked to keep the lefties happy.
It had the makings of a really interesting and hope-giving fantasy story, but when you look a little deeper, and think a little longer, you see something quite the opposite.
As the plots progress we learn the history of the wesen, the non-humans. There are thousands of different species, with different histories and different characteristics. Many of them have talents far beyond what humans are capable of in terms of medicine, art, design, as well as the staple brute-force strength, speed, and fighting ability. They are a collection of sophisticated and vibrant cultures. Sounds great, right?
But, get this: each of them, each one of these strong, intelligent, cultured, talented beings hides themselves and pretends to be human. They agree and accept the show’s central idea, that the only good way is the human way. They therefore strive to be weaker, less talented or intelligent. The consensus on what makes a goodie a goodie and a baddie a baddie is simple: goodies are those who – wesen or human – support the human-centric status quo, baddies are those who don’t. The over-riding theme is keeping humanity not just safe, but as-is.
Unchanged. Static. Same as it ever was.
Unaffected by the incredible discovery of thousands of new – let alone superior – beings and cultures. Undistracted from the real business of being a middle-class human. As they always have been (at least since they colonised whichever country they happen to be currently living in). After all, that’s what’s right, isn’t it? To resist all challenges to, and defend Our Way of Life?
Scene Two: The strike
Recently there was a world-wide strike on climate change. Though in Christchurch it was interrupted by a terrorist act, throughout the rest of the world it seems to have been a peaceful, well-organised, thoughtful protest to policies and frameworks which are simply not sustainable.
There has been objection to the strike, both from policy makers, some schools, and a number of people on facebook shared this statement, summarised below. The author posits that the children striking are responsible for:
- being covert HVAC technicians and installing air-conditioning units in their own classrooms,
- taking policy decisions to digitise their schools’ curriculum,
- causing inconvenient traffic jams for real citizens who just want to drive their cars in peace,
- … all while being clearly incapable of organising a gathering of their peers.
It continues. Children are blamed for population increases; their parents and teachers for immigration policies; they are selfish, badly educated, and luxury-loving; and – interestingly – for not using critical thought or checking their facts. The author finishes with a threat that anyone following the “left” will be “left out” later on.
The words are attributed to Pauline Hanson, the leader of the far-right, nationalist, conservative Australian party One Nation, once home to the now-infamous Fraser Anning. On learning the author, the sentiment and argument do not surprise me at all, but the number of my friends who shared this sentiment on their facebook pages really did.
Scene Three: The defence
I was so far taken aback (taken so far aback? taken asofarback?) that I did a bit of thinking, and then a lot of reading, and then some more thinking on top of it all. I’m an engineering-type geek, not a psychologist, so I had to get a bit of help before going any further. If you’re interested I’d suggest asking someone with an academic subscription who can get you proper access to this summary piece which reviews all research-based evidence for the concept and occurrence of different kinds of defense mechanisms, and from which the following is quoted. It’s nowhere near a comprehensive literature review, but it’s a start.
I’m not going to reproduce the whole thing here, but I found it really interesting, especially when read in tandem with another by the same author which looked at two ways of making decisions: as the intuitive scientist or as the intuitive lawyer. The scientist looks for accurate and reproducible conclusions and the lawyer looks for justification for a pre-formed belief. Their methods, motivations, and – no surprises here – conclusions can differ wildly.
Having spent just one day reading and thinking, I certainly can’t claim to have anything beyond interest. I’m also aware that by looking for answers and explanations to my aback-taken-ness, it’s possible I’m acting more like an intuitive lawyer than the scientist I’m aiming for, but I had two thoughts.
Thought Number 1: Wherever you stand, the issue of climate change is a threat to that-which-must-be-defended, Our Way Of Life:
- If you do believe that climate change is real, if you’re a school kid participating in the strikes, you believe that your future way of life is under threat. And that’s scary.
- If you don’t believe that it’s real, or perhaps object to the strikes, or follow the way of the far-right and Pauline Hanson, the threat is two-fold:
- Your way of life is threatened because any real measures to address climate change will affect you,
- You – as an adult member of a first-world society – are being told, and told by children that your Way Of Life must not only cease, but has screwed up the world. You are not just being threatened, you’re being threatened by kids. Uneducated, selfish, non-fact-checking kids.
Thought Number 2: Threatened people everywhere defend themselves through both conscious and unconscious thought processes. Unconscious processes are necessarily self-deceptive as their protective ability disappears as soon as they are acknowledged.
And now that we have both sides feel under threat, what to do now?
The finale: All together now …
“Climate change” has two really scary parts. There’s the first bit, the climate bit, but that’s just science. And humans, when they want to be, can be quite good with sciency stuff. (Yes, weak, but I’m ducking that particular discussion for now.) No, the threatening bit, the bit which challenges and confronts us and triggers our defense responses thereby becoming the difficult bit, is the second. The change. That huge, vile monster bent on destroying Our Way Of Life.
A long time ago, before teaching and lecturing was a day job, I gave a talk. The feedback later said that the most memorable thing about it was that I was barefoot. The content was good, the delivery was good, but shoes would have been good too. After getting over my initial oh-but-that’s-ridiculous, I realised something important. If our message is important, it’s also important that it’s heard and not diluted by its delivery. We need to find ways around the defence mechanisms before any real hearing of it is possible. What does this mean?
To the kids who went on the strike, continue to be consistent in your passion. Try and walk or bike to school instead of asking parents to drive you. Find our where your food comes from and encourage your family to shop and eat well. Continue your research on the source and environmental cost of the other objects you use. Make sure that nothing about your own lifestyle could distract from the message, because it’s an important one and it deserves to heard clearly.
But there are other characters in our story, and they could use some rewriting. We need to redefine the real-life incarnations of our goodies and baddies, to redefine what it is our heroes protect, and to realise which script we’ve been reading from. To be honest about the consequences our choices have caused, whether we knew it at the time or not. Ignorance =/= innocence, and scores less in Scrabble too. Oedipus gained infamy mostly because of his unwittingly incestuous relationship with his mother. What’s less popularised is the other half of the twist – that it was he himself who (also unwittingly) killed his own father. I think we need our own Oedipus moment, though the realisation, not the incest. And then clearer, truer vision, not blinding ourselves in our anguish. Grimm’s opening text reads:
“There once was a man who lived a life so strange, it had to be true. Only he could see what no one else can—the darkness inside, the real monster within, and he’s the one who must stop them. This is his calling. This is his duty. This is the life of a Grimm.”
I think the writers of Grimm were onto something after all. There are threats and undercurrents of which we’ve been unaware. Until now. Now we’re starting to see them. But the writers have mixed up the heroes and the villains: status quo is the new enemy because the only thing which will save us is change.