History, literature, and pluralist society: The quest for better justice within our petty world
One of my favourite short stories is difficult to track down. As far as I can tell, you can still only find Stephan Enter’s “Resistance” in Best European Fiction 2010. On the surface, it’s a simple tale, with a narrative structure easy to anticipate. And yet, sometimes it’s the simple tales that feel timeless. Sometimes the familiarity of a story isn’t a mark against it, so much as a reminder of how little humans change.
In “Resistance”, a chess club has an ex-military instructor who teaches adequately but through a narrow approach to the game. One student excels amid this rigid way of thinking about victory. The rest are intrigued when a new instructor takes over: a gentler man, soft in his masculinity, who asks them to think more abstractly about the game. No more “Mate in 3” challenges, with the first to the answer gaining clear class status. Instead, they look at the staging of different boards and ponder together over each side’s strengths and weaknesses. Whose position is stronger? How do we know?
The student who excelled with straightforward challenges now flounders, and resents the new instructor for changing the environment in which he’d dominated. He sets about using the instructor’s non-traditional masculinity against him, and gets him removed—with the complicity of the rest of the class, including our protagonist, who loves the new instructor yet fails to put up effective resistance when the chess game becomes real. The traditional instructor returns. The student who liked things simple triumphs. And the student who went along with his classmate’s cruelty is left to contemplate the final “board” this experience has left behind.
The power of this story is that it can be read on a superficial level, and amply reward. Maybe it’s about a life-changing brush with a different way of thinking about chess. That could certainly stir up reader reflections around their own childhood passions, and achieve a satisfying overall effect.
But it can also be read as a much deeper commentary, on facets of human nature that ripple through our histories and abide in our political present.
After all, “Resistance” includes someone who was favoured by a rigid system, and who did not like the more even playing field that a different class structure provided.
And it involves that person weaponizing someone else’s difference to reassert the more rigid order that had originally favoured him.
Furthermore, it portrays others letting this happen, even though they stood to benefit under the new system, and maybe can’t even grasp why they went along with the first person’s toxicity to such an extreme.
In short, “Resistance” depicts the challenge of protecting cultures of more equitable coexistence from people who prefer a more rigid and hierarchical world—and who are often quicker to act in its defense.
Gosh, that sounds familiar, doesn’t it?
Writing from history to imagine other futures
Children of Doro launches today. I’ve talked about this work at length in relation to The Brothers Karamazov, which inspired it, along with a bit of Star Trek. I’ve reflected on the world-building, the narrative voice, and the construction of literature within my world.
Now I’m diving into my next novel manuscript, which I’d put aside in December so I could focus on sharing a range of literary works through my imprint. The aim is to build on that catalogue in the coming years, while also finishing a new book for my agent to consider taking to traditional presses.
But while working on this latest piece, which like my last is inspired by classic literature—Thucydides’ The Peloponnesian War, to be precise—I find it difficult (as do many in our fields) not to be distracted by the weight of struggle in our world.
I’m fortunate to have an outlet for some of that struggle through the work I publish at OnlySky, but there’s always more going on than can ever effectively be addressed in those articles. There’s also the mental cost of deciding what I’m ready to curate, or not, once I launch a given conversation in that very public sphere.
Or in this public sphere, for that matter.
Still, it feels important to name one facet of this struggle, even if that means wading into more difficult material than usual this week. Because the thing is, it’s not Russia’s invasion of Ukraine that weighs heaviest on me, and it’s not the related crises in our global food networks, energy grids, and financial rearrangements. It’s not climate change’s ruinous outcomes, or the crush of monopolies in our economically stratified lives, or the horrors of our global immigration system.
Mind you, all of those are serious issues.
And they weigh on me tremendously, too.
But the heaviest of all, I find, are the contrived issues. The petty issues. The issues that we find ourselves haggling over when there are so many more important things we should be turning our attention to instead. Those issues break my heart, because they feel so much like unnecessary add-ons to an already deeply hurting world.
Specifically, while more sweeping and intractable forms of deprivation, corruption, and violence wreak havoc, some in Western media and governance continue to generate panic and hate around a few minority groups, including trans and other queer people, immigrants, and the unhoused. Every day, it feels like there are fresh attempts to spin conspiratorial and dehumanizing narratives around these “easy” targets, when so much other work lies in desperate need of our full attention.
And if even a few people in our immediate spheres start to parrot that rhetoric?
Then comes the added struggle of deciding if, and to what extent, we’re going to intervene on a personal level. Even if we do, and even if we’re successful, the fact that we had to take the time to do so in the first place marks just one more demoralizing distraction amid much more pressing attempts to tackle deeper issues.
Now, I’m cutting across a lot of news material here, I know, but that’s because I don’t want to play the game as it’s been shaped by volley after volley of recent whataboutist anecdote and conspiratorial thinking set into motion by right-wing Christian lobbies and cynical tech bros looking to gain centrality in government as in society.
What I want to highlight instead is what this hate-mongering panic also does, and what we often fail to recognize is happening, when we fall prey to it:
It’s expressly flattening pluralistic discourse.
It’s reducing our ability to remember what healthy democracy requires.
Do we remember what healthy democracy requires?
Pluralist democracy, and its alternatives
I live in a country where democracy is much more often practised on the streets, through cultures of protest that involve express collaboration between the media, transport systems, and intergovernmental bodies to pull off. Should more Colombians also show up at their polls as well? Probably.
But I grew up in a culture where the reverse was in full swing: where voting was often seen as the only real measure of democratic culture—to the point where it was weaponized to silence people expressing displeasure with sitting government. “Oh, you don’t like the way this politician is acting? You should’ve voted better. Shut up until the next election and vote better then.”
And we have the audacity to think this a sign of robust democracy?
Pluralism draws on the idea that what we’re creating together, as a people under any given social contract, isn’t a monolithic authority. When we vote, we’re not ceding our individualism to the process, so much as developing a snapshot of the multitudes who share a political landscape at any given time. Yes, there will be people elected to office through that snapshot—and they’ll have outsize power for a while in their elected capacities. But this outcome is just one of many that emerges from democratic processes. And the citizens that any electoral snapshot strives to capture? They’ll keep grappling with upcoming issues in their shared and complex landscape. “El pueblo” doesn’t disappear the moment its next representative government is formed.
What’s happening in Western politics today isn’t just toxic because some human beings in our countries don’t see much value in my humanity, or in the humanity of other fellow human beings. That sucks, of course, but we’re a species eight-billion strong. We will not all agree, even about something as fundamental as human rights.
What’s truly worrying is that the media discourse set in large part by an extreme and escalating set of nationalist movements—against the so-called “woke” agenda, against perceived sexual deviance, against the teaching of full history and the advancement of equity-based public policy—is anti-pluralist by design.
In other words, these movements don’t actually have to pass any specific items on their hateful agenda (though they do that, too). They can also “win” just by compelling the rest of us to accept their treatment of democracy as an absolutist exercise.
And they’ve achieved this already in some strikingly clever ways: not least of which being how they’ve normalized the hyper-politicization of topical experts.
After all, I don’t expect my fellow human beings to be well-versed, say, on the exact treatment protocols for gender affirming care. But I also used to expect fellow human beings to retain a level of confidence in the work of relevant advisory boards and expert panels—enough, at least, to be interested in seeking out their commentary whenever they have a doubt or question about related material. After all, such groups represent people expressly tasked with being more knowledgeable about related affairs, and expected to synthesize new intel as it arises. Are they going to be perfect in their judgments? Free from bias? Absolutely not. But they’re a starting point—and up to the last little while, one that I expected most people were media-literate enough to consider checking in with after reading or hearing something sensational online.
And yet, I no longer expect it to even occur to many human beings to look for the views of relevant topical bodies. Instead, our relationship to democracy has been reduced to Citizen, Politician, and Media Outlet Of Choice. We’ve been estranged from remembering the role in healthy civic life of data-driven institutions not beholden to specific electoral and news cycles, or the chicanery of political campaigns.
What role do such professional bodies now serve? Increasingly, they’re treated as wayward nemeses in the greater political contest: scapegoats to be pathologized, to win single-issue voters at cost to civic trust in broader power-sharing arrangements.
(And as I’ve said before, institutions like the US CDC did themselves no favours in this regard, when it shared misleading intel early in the pandemic to protect mask reserves for front-line workers. Public research and policy institutions are not meant to be fetishized as perfect operators, but they do need to be viewed as critical components of a healthy democracy, and strengthened accordingly.)
Good policy comes from working with the data, and from allowing relevant bodies of experts to adjust to new intel over time—empiricism in action! Conversely, a “pure” democracy, in which nothing but snapshots of voter mood determine the shape of our social contracts, is always vulnerable to exploitation. It’s always going to lead some to find single-issue furies they can whip up to gain and retain power instead.
And what a cruel cultural mess this misdirection of democratic energies can yield.
When deeper injustices are sidelined
A perfect example of this brutal misdirection is also one of the most complicated facets of trans panic discourse—which is precisely why I’m going to talk about it. It’s easy to talk about the right of a human being to exist in public, and to be able to pee safely, and to have bodily autonomy, along with privacy in their medical care.
Much more difficult are sites of overlapping trauma, as we find in prison systems.
Which is why some ill-intentioned groups have a field day latching on to related anecdotes, to try to drive the discourse into reductive and absolutist extremes.
And why everyday people, most of whom haven’t the time to look into these issues themselves—but who up until now were probably fairly trusting of respective advisory boards to be doing their job—are often left confused and ultimately silenced by the outrage they’re receiving from highly invested antagonistic actors.
The issue itself then ceases to matter, while the domineering style of “debate”—that relentless flattening of pluralistic discourse—wins the day again.
It does not have to be this way.
And in a healthy democracy, it wouldn’t be.
SB132, The Transgender Respect, Agency and Dignity Act, came into Californian law in January 2021 and allowed incarcerated trans, non-binary, and intersex people to request accommodation in line with their gender identity. I will warn readers in advance that this next section deals extensively with matters of sexual assault. You can skip ahead to the next header if it’s not for you.
In theory, this bill was supposed to tackle the very real problem of trans people being forced into the cruelty of solitary confinement for extended periods as an alternative to enduring brutal treatment, up to and including assault, in gen-pop.
In practice, because the senate bill had set the bar for gender identity at self-declaration, it was immediately weaponized within trans-panic debate.
To date, 356 people housed in male carceral institutions have filed for consideration under this bill. 50 were approved, 23 were denied, and 39 withdrew their applications.
As of this year, California registers 1,729 trans, nonbinary, and intersex inmates overall. In this context, a few hundred people in the last two years acting on the new housing policy doesn’t seem exceptional.
But within the narrative constructed by those who believe in a vast trans conspiracy, and among platformed politicians and pundits who cultivate cultural panic to match, those hundreds of applications were easily leveraged as “proof” that all trans women are just opportunistic men trying to get access to women.
Absent, in this totalizing logical leap of a narrative, was another possibility—and its absence speaks volumes about the harm done by the current, toxic mode of discourse.
Let’s take the trans-panic narrative at its word for a second, and imagine that every one of those 356 people doesn’t actually consider themselves trans or non-binary.
Unless one holds that all men are at least would-be rapists (a not-uncommon view among anti-trans communities), it still wouldn’t automatically follow that the 356 were seeking a transfer expressly to assault women. Some 750,000 incarcerated people are currently serving sentences for non-violent offences in the US. Even among the incarcerated, it’s pure prejudice to imagine that everyone inside is a violent criminal, just looking for their next opportunity to terrorize others.
But why else might a male person, if not trans and not a would-be rapist, want access to a women’s prison? Here’s an easy one: because women’s prisons are generally viewed as more relaxed facilities, and might even have access to more resources.
And yet, even if we were to entertain the trans-panic claim that all those hundreds of applications (again, out of just over 1,729 trans, nonbinary, and intersex inmates across California) were made under false pretenses, the other pragmatic possibility, of male inmates simply looking to escape the hardship of life in their own prisons, isn’t really discussed in relation to this bill. Why would it be, though, when it’s both a much less exciting possibility—and also, one that would compel people to think about broader injustice in the US carceral state?
The whole point of trans panic, after all, is to advance a slew of prejudiced ideas that reinforce strict societal binaries and hierarchies: in this case, that all incarcerated people are violent; that all men just want to rape women; and of course, that all trans women are just men lying to pursue that end.
Who wins in this story? It’s actually more advantageous than one might realize for men to portray themselves as “wolves among sheep”; it’s an idea that has long given some a feeling of entitlement to “protect” women from other men, whose brutal nature they know better because they constantly fight with it in themselves.
In short, those who benefit from the idea that women need protection from men, and are therefore best served by an authoritarian state that will enforce rigid lines with respect to gender performance and the occupation of public space, are quickly and easily found at the front-lines of outrage over legislation like SB132. For those folks, the fact that policy like this was crafted in conjunction with thoroughly researched long-term policy recommendations doesn’t matter. In fact, the less that everyday people know about this publicly accessible procedural review, the better.
Not that most are going to go looking for it, though—because, again, we seem to have lost the requisite media literacy, and because prison conditions don’t usually register in the minds of people who suddenly give a hoot about incarcerated people only when the topic can be used to score a “win” in anti-trans discourse.
The same people who will leap to the defense of a feminized person who identifies their attacker as trans, in other words, generally don’t express anywhere near the same level of concern about the vast amount of rape that already transpires in women’s prisons—from the kind perpetuated by ex-wardens like Ray J Garcia, who between 2019 and 2021 is alleged to have raped at least three women on multiple occasions in a Californian prison inmates called a “rape club”, to inmate-on-inmate rape that happens at a rate over three times that of what’s found in men’s prisons, to the atrocious prevalence of sexual assault in youth facilities especially.
All across this grim spectrum, which collectively finds 15 percent of incarcerated women reporting having been sexually assaulted during their sentences, prison staff play a huge role in the perpetuation of such violence: looking the other way or even punishing victims for speaking out—either because the abuser is a colleague, or because of sexist notions that sexual assaults “don’t count” if a woman is the perp.
But in the realm of trans panic? Again, everything is reduced to single-issue binaries. As such, widespread corruption and/or gross negligence on the part of prison officials only matters when it involves downplaying trans inmates doing harm. If the concern really was about “protecting women”, we’d see such outraged fellow citizens paying attention to and seeking reform for the shared mechanism for all forms of sexual abuse in these facilities: namely, the abysmal state of oversight in overcrowded and under-resourced carceral institutions, along with the widespread prejudice and cruelty among prison staff and higher level administration.
Reader, we do not.
Likewise, we have a culture that routinely jokes about rape in men’s prison—jokes about it! As if sexual assault was ever the kind of punitive add-on we should aspire to as a so-called civil society. Do we not realize how sordid it is to have normalized this attitude?
There are currently around 2 million people in US custody, across federal, state, and local facilities. Around 93 percent are male. In 2012, n+1 Magazine made the provocative claim that the US might be the only country in the world where men are raped more than women. It did so based on Department of Justice calculations suggesting that there had been 216,000 victims of sexual assault (not counting distinct instances) in carceral facilities in 2008. Around the same time, RAINN suggested around 213,000 female sexual assault victims a year (that number is now over 465,000; current prison stats are much more difficult to pin down).
Of course, a mitigating factor in that ten-year-old assessment is that the overall victims tally obviously included women (so, 15% of the 7%-female prisoner population). Also, there’s a whole other conversation to be had about the pseudo-consensual sexual activities that occur in abundance in prison: acts that might be considered freely entered into by some, but which still involve power-imbalance issues that create elements of coercion relevant under the law (say, between a guard and an adult prisoner who asserts that they freely consented to sexual relations).
Still, when we take into account the horrific reports of assault involving male inmates forced into long-term bondage with fellow inmates or routine abuse by prison staff, and the especially vulnerable world of incarcerated youth—all taking place in a country with the second-highest prison population in the world—that question of greater incidence still hangs in the air. The DOJ figure from 2008 was only arrived at after quite a bit of rooting around; today, as with many categories of US crime perpetrated by officers of the law and related state officials, statistics on this accord are inconsistently kept and rarely effectively amalgamated for general perusal.
Whatever the reality, though, the mere fact that the question could be credibly asked at all highlights an entirely shameful state of affairs—not because the “ideal” is ever for feminized persons to be “top victims”, but because even the possibility of higher levels of male rape victims expressly due to US incarceration goes straight to the heart of how broken-by-design the current prison system is.
If our so-called correctional facilities are self-contained rape cultures, there is no way to expect any prison housing policy that doesn’t address this underlying carceral trauma to be free from all adverse consequences.
Assault is horrible, as is the torture of extended solitary confinement to escape one and the same. Which is why understanding the factors that foster such staggering levels of sexual assault and related abuse across the board in prisons should be a pressing concern for anyone actually trying to build a better world.
When any given media discourse refuses that depth of analysis, though—when any culture insists on weaponizing a complexly broken system simply to score fear-mongering political “points”—it traps us in a state of reactivity to singular negative outcomes, and strips us of our ability to target the issues at their source.
The pluralist society’s political slate
In other words, in a functioning pluralist society, it is always important to weigh the complexity of intersecting injustices, just as it to remember that the “map is not the territory” when it comes to the role of elections in the much deeper work of advancing democracy within our civic lives.
And yet, so many of these latest political campaigns—the trans panic, the queer panic, the immigrant panic, the Black/CRT panic: all of it—are doing their most insidious work by replacing a fuller democratic discourse. It’s not their content that’s the worst (though their content is terrible); it’s that the sheer volume and consistency of these attacks on healthy cultures of dissent, discovery, and reform keep us too busy to grapple proactively with our most pressing social issues.
In the above case, for instance, there’s a clear core failing to be addressed: the carceral system itself—from its abusive, underpaid, under-resourced, under-regulated staff; to the pipeline of modern incarceration that shuttles far too many into excessively punitive sentencing; to the broader society that fails to offer sufficient interventions for people from precarious, traumatized, and medically unwell backgrounds until they end up in police and then carceral custody.
It does not have to be this way.
And in a better world—a world where grand conspiracy theories don’t constantly win out in our media landscapes, driving day-to-day political discourse forward through intimidation, hate, and fear—it wouldn’t be.
But that’s not the world we have.
Instead we have a world where we’re daily pulled into black-and-white, all-or-nothing power plays, in large part because some groups have figured out which marginalized peoples they can demonize for political gain—but also, because quite a few other, average people, for all manner of quotidian reason, go along with it: haplessly allowing the ill-intentioned to lead us into a more unpleasant world for most.
To be clear, then:
It is not a problem to have doubts or questions about how a policy is going to work. To wonder about edge cases and to want to know about possible contingencies.
It is, in fact, at the heart of pluralistic discourse that we feel comfortable sitting with the big, complex lay of any policy landscape, and with distributing social authority not just among those directly elected to office, but also among public research and regulatory bodies dedicated to long term analysis and monitoring of a given, complex problem far outside the emotional extremes of any given election cycle.
Right now, confidence in such public institutions is low—and that’s a serious sign of how unstable our democracies have become. When educational and medical advisory boards, sports regulatory bodies, and facility oversight committees cannot do their work without being pulled into electorally driven culture wars, what we’re witnessing is fellow citizens trained up to believe that the only useful tool in democracy is the election cycle: the policy “honks”, that is, and not also the policy wonks. He who stirs up the most intense emotional reaction to win office—or she who convinces you that no one else can make sound decisions at any structural level without her direct involvement—then gets to shape everything.
And yes, that is a form of democracy: one based on raw notions of majoritarian rule, prone not only to constant upheaval but also to deeply authoritarian outcomes.
But if we want a more humanist world?
It isn’t the form of democracy that will pull us through.
The pull of history to empower our present
The phenomenal world, according to the atomists, is to be apprehended by experience, and in no other way; but to emphasize the significance of experience is to emphasize the significance of history, which is nothing more or less than the record of human experience in relation to the external world.
Thucydides and the Science of History, Charles Norris Cochrane, 1929
As noted above, Children of Doro launches today, and I’m now at work on my next.
Children of Doro is of course filled with trauma, as was its source text, The Brothers Karamazov. (And it also deals significantly with the challenges of volatile governance structures, and the quest for a more restorative and rehabilitative justice.) But Thucydides’ The Peloponnesian War covers… well, let’s call it two and half phases in a protracted regional war between oligarchical Sparta, the so-called democratic republic of Athens, and every settlement trapped between them.
As such, it relays an entirely different set of societal wounds.
They’re uncannily familiar wounds, though, which is why this book about a war some 2,400 years ago will sting when read today. Back then, too, politicking determined so much of what constituted a struggle “worthy” of the expense of people’s time, energy, and lives. Power-seeking and fear-mongering statesmen often drove themselves into a sense of inevitability around regional conflict, escalating what did not have to be anywhere near as ruinous a multigenerational war if only…
And thus, so much was lost, for want of a far less weaponized state discourse.
Yes, Thucydides wrote his history from a military background, but he was also enamoured by the possibilities of democratic deliberation. In this, he held up Pericles as an exemplary leader: a man who could cool the irrational heat from political bodies when necessary, and unite doubting ones when essential. The plague took Pericles from the chessboard of this war not long after his signature opening moves, and you can see in Thucydides’ writing a conviction that with this politician’s death also ended a whole era of statecraft—for better (where management of the actual war might have been concerned) and for worse (where hope for peace yet persisted).
2,400 years later, I think we still often yearn, like Thucydides, for some voice of reason that will quickly settle such restless crowds: people who are always in such a hurry to push their societies toward conflict, ever-eager to embrace absolutism and force everyone around them to do the same. Where is the respected leader of our age who will instead tell us that, if war is upon us, it’s to be met maturely—but also, that if war need not be upon us, we would do well not to rush to its destructive ends?
I know that when strategic hatefulness surges in media cycles, reducing complex issues to simplistic trigger points with clear political agendas, I certainly ache for someone to come along and settle the madding crowd.
But therein lies my mistake, too—the one that binds me not just to Thucydides’ grand work from yesteryear, but also to Enter’s story, from much more recently. The one that reminds me that there will always be people like the student unhappy with a more pluralistic society—and always people willing to go to ugly lows to see a more rigid order restored in its stead. One cannot and will not ever satisfy them all.
In “Resistance”, that child gets his old instructor back by weaponizing difference.
And in the real world, we lose our pluralism whenever we let others weaponize difference, too. Whenever we accept the narrative that complex social issues have singular solutions to be settled not by careful, humanist review of ever-growing data sets, but by top-down intervention from people with explicit power-seeking ends.
Whenever we cede the very terms on which democratic discourse will proceed, we participate in undermining the foundations of a more just world.
Be well, be kind, and seek justice where you can.
P.S. Tuesday, on BookTube, I chatted more about classic literature, history, and philosophy in contemporary SFF. Lots of good recs within—but I think I definitely saved the best for last! I also discuss in this episode some of the ways in which Western publishing manifests anxiety about deeper connections, and thus limits our ability to celebrate discursive continuity in so much of our lit.
Again, as of today, Children of Doro will be available on Kindle and in paperback. (And I look forward to finally ordering a copy of the book for myself now, too!) If all goes well, you should see a reading from me on my BookTube this weekend.
Thank you so much for supporting the work, if you do—by reading and reviewing it (honestly, on Goodreads and Amazon), or promoting it to someone you think might enjoy it, or asking your library or local bookstore to bring in a copy, or sponsoring me through my Patreon or Ko-Fi.
We are none of us in this alone, and I’m grateful for all the material and emotional aid I’ve received from so many of you to date. May you always feel so supported in turn.
"prison conditions don’t usually register in the minds of people who suddenly give a hoot about incarcerated people only when the topic can be used to score a “win” in anti-trans discourse."
Nail on head. Not just for this issue but many, many others. I talk to people about stuff like Prisoners' Justice Day and they look at me like I have three heads, as if caring about the incarcerated makes me, I dunno, foolish or a bleeding heart. A lot of people have forgot to hate the sin and not the sinner.