The Respectable Game
One last one about the atmosphere. What does it mean to be respectable? Let’s ask it another way: Whose respect do you seek—and why?
Note: this essay was originally published on Revue on April 17, 2022.
Today I’m pondering the fine art of giving a shit about things. Shall we get into it?
We had one about the atmosphere.
We had two about the atmosphere.
We had three about the atmosphere.
This will be four about the atmosphere—the final one for now.¹
In the first one, we talked about what atmosphere is—as opposed to action or attitude. Atmosphere represents a change, not in what you are doing, but in what is possible to do. Joining in an effort to change the atmosphere requires only that you align with new ideas—an effort that happens first in your own mind—and then let that new idea manifest into new attitudes and new actions.
In the second one, we talked about some new ideas: art, unacceptable, and fight. More specifically, the ideas that all people are irreplaceable works of art whose intrinsic humanity must be honored and respected; that degrading, abusing, or harming that essential humanity is unacceptable; and that finding something unacceptable carries a duty to fight it.
In the third, we discussed what it means to fight. We named the Republican Party for what it is: a popular, insidiously respectable, and heavily empowered hate group that is currently working to destroy human art wherever it can, as much as it can, as quickly as it can; we listed examples of this behavior, gave reasons why that is unacceptable, and presented two thoughts on universal weapons we can use to fight them: witness and clarity.
Now it’s time to identify our final weapon in the fight. Which means it’s time to talk about the great mass of people who play what I call “the respectable game.”
In my country, which is the United States, that means most of the only other viable political party, the Democratic Party, and most of the rest of us.
More frequently than I’d like, that’s me.
The novelist and Bokononist spiritual teacher Kurt Vonnegut once wrote a story called “All The King’s Horses,” about a man, captured in war, forced by a dictator to play chess for his freedom. The dictator had commissioned a giant board, and huge pieces the size of real people to fill that board, which could be moved by servants.
The large board made it a novelty, but the size didn’t change the game. It was still just a game of chess. A respectable game.
However, in the story, the dictator added a wrinkle: the pieces would be replaced by real soldiers who had been under the commission of the man, our hero. If a “piece” was taken, that soldier would be immediately executed.
Then the dictator added an even more shocking wrinkle: three of the most strategically vulnerable pieces would be embodied not by soldiers, but by the man’s own wife and children.
Suddenly it wasn’t a game of chess or a classic battle anymore. It was something else. Those who play such a game only do so because they have been compelled by those with power to force them to do so. It carried a different moral weight, one you would absolutely call unacceptable—not a respectable game, on any level.
Speaking of moral weight, there was a multi-layered moral in the story about the futility inherent in the very nature of war—the sort of thing at which Vonnegut was particularly adept. Read the story. It is in my opinion good, and you’ll also catch any of the details my shoddy memory missed or got wrong.
What I’d like to point out about the story is this: it demonstrates that the stakes change the game, even if the board and rules remain the same.
Not the rules.
Not the board.
It’s the stakes that define the game.
In 2008, Barack Obama ran a campaign of hope and change. That’s not my judgment on it, simply an observation of marketing—"hope and change" was literally one of the slogans. Obama positioned himself as a transformative figure after 8 years of George W. Bush, whose presidency had defined itself by its war crimes and its abuses of power supporting corruption both foreign and domestic. I’m not going to get into it all. There was a lot of corruption and crime and abuse of power and likely a stolen election—a real one, not the MAGA Donald Trump nonsense version—and they should all be in the middle of the second decades of their prison terms … but that’s a topic for another day.
Barack Obama came to change all that, we hoped. Hope and change.
Barack Obama was indeed a transformative figure in many ways. And he certainly felt transformative at the time to me, and to millions of others.
Here’s one interesting thing about him in 2008, one you probably remember: He opposed gay marriage.
Now: there’s ample evidence to support his later claim that even then he personally actually believed in the cause of gay marriage, but that political calculation led him to voice support the other way, in order to persuade homophobic voters to vote for him, so he could do more of the important necessary things he felt needed to be done. I’m sure he had advisors telling him that it would be absolute political suicide to support gay marriage, that polls showed that average regular Americans weren’t ready for such a thing, that they would be turned off by such divisive politicizing on hot-button controversial issues, that by trying to cram gay marriage down the throats of very fine people who felt discomfort at the idea of two people promising to love each other for the rest of their lives, he would be painted as a radical by his opponents, that he would be risking everything, everything … including whatever thin blankets of protection could be reasonably provided, whenever possible, to gay people.
And, maybe so.
Sometimes you do have to do the math, and strategize. Sometimes if you try to get too much you don’t get anything. Sometimes practicality is in order—and Barack Obama is a practical guy. So, let’s just say he did the right thing, practically speaking, when he decided to do the reasonable and respectable thing, and say he supported civil unions, but not marriage, which had to be the province of one man and one woman.
And gay people by and large supported Obama. He was certainly better than pretty much anybody they were going to get. It should be mentioned that, in 2008, you’d have been hard-pressed to find a Democratic presidential candidate who supported gay marriage. The candidates mostly would do what Obama opted to do: affirm that gay people deserved the same rights and protections as other Americans, but stop short of actually supporting actual equal rights for gay people—and as for trans people? Forget about it. The only politician to do that back then was far-left loony Dennis Kucinich, who was basically treated like a joke and a fool for doing so by the country’s most prominent liberal comedian at the time. LGBTQ people didn’t support Kucinich in the same numbers as they supported Obama, it should be noted, so perhaps Obama’s advisors were right, and he was right to heed them. Maybe most gay people just thought Obama would be a better president even though he didn’t support that specific issue. And look: it’s likely there were any number of gay people who could be found, who didn’t support gay marriage, even though by far most of them did.
But, maybe, a lot of gay people did their own strategic math, and decided they couldn’t trust the mass of people who said they personally individually believed in gay rights to actually give a shit about gay rights. After all, even the “hope and change” candidate wouldn’t do that.
Being against gay marriage was the respectable thing to do. It was reasonable. Being for gay marriage was radical. Asking for it was Pollyanna purity politics. Too much. A losing proposal. The country wasn’t ready for it. I daresay any of today’s centrist pundits time-travelling to 2008 would call it “woke.” That was the common belief.
Then again, those exact same reasons were given for not nominating a Black man named “Barack Hussain Obama” for the presidency, because those same things were thought true by very similarly minded advisors on the topic of a Black man at the top of a major party ticket. But Obama was nominated anyway, (and was painted as a radical extremist by his opponents anyway) and he won handily, twice, because it seems that a great mass of voters mostly didn’t give a shit either way about that, and quite likely never did. But never mind that for right now, because here’s another interesting thing: Barack Obama came out in favor of gay marriage in 2012. And he ran for election that year, and he won—with pretty much the same voters! And that was a mere 4 years later.
And while Democrats as a group still do very little as a practical matter to actually fight for the rights of gay people, and they certainly aren’t treating the current energized hate movement against gay people as the genocidal emergency it is, they also do much more than they used to, and more of them fight for gay rights than used to, and they do almost all run while vocally defending the right of gay people to marry, which they used not to do—and Democrats (who are still painted by their opponents as radical extremists no matter what positions they hold) still win elections, which suggests that a lot of those same voters, who were voters back in 2008, actually don’t really give a shit about that, either, and likely never did.
And these days mostly the same people who made such a wedge issue of gay marriage are making wedge issues about gender-affirming care for trans kids, and telling the truth in history classrooms, and the moral necessity for militarized police brutality, and the existential necessity of racist cruelty at our borders, and so forth. And it’s mostly the same Democratic advisors and setters-of-the-conversation who insisted that Democrats should give way on gay marriage now urging candidates to give way on those issues, and many other issues besides, in order to avoid being painted as radical extremists by their opponents (who are assuredly going to paint them as radical extremists no matter what positions they hold), and in order to be persuasive to voters who are turned off by divisive issues, and that’s how things stand, about 15 years after Barack Obama announced that he was, as a practical matter, against a basic civil right for gay people.
So … to ask the obvious question … what happened in 2012?
Did a whole generation of entrenched bigots die or something? No. They’re still definitely around, and they have a political party that represents them. Did we elect a completely new slate of Democrats? No. Many of the politicians who support gay marriage now opposed it then—which we should probably celebrate even if we recognize the gross calculation, because movement in the right direction is still movement in the right direction.
Was each Democratic politician persuaded by a proponent of gay marriage in open debate, one by one, perhaps on a morning show, to shift their opinion? That did not happen, or if it did I did not have any sense of it.
Did somebody defeat Barack Obama singlehandedly in private debate on the topic of gay marriage, changing his mind? That seems unlikely. It seems far more likely that he acted as a savvy politician, watching what the masses already had accepted and waiting until the time was right to voice his support, and sending his VP out to do so first as a trial balloon, which you might say is his job as a politician—and to keep this essay from ballooning any further, I shall play the respectable game, and simply allow the point for now.
In 2015, gay marriage became legalized through the courts. The dire predictions of its opponents didn’t come to fruition, and their arguments, which had always been obvious nonsense, were exposed as such to anyone willing to observe observable things. Nobody married their pets. Nobody married their coffee table. Christianity hasn’t been outlawed that I’ve noticed, here in my city that has approximately one church for every three houses, by my unofficial estimate. Heterosexual marriage between two consenting adults is still allowed in every state except Utah².
Being in favor of gay marriage stopped being something unrespectable, radical people wanted. It instead became something respectable, reasonable people were in favor of. Being against it started to be seen as a position held by unreasonable people, so people who wanted to be seen as respectable and reasonable people decided they were mostly in favor of it. Corporations came along. Other people came along. Even politicians came along. Even entrenched bigots and cynical conservative operators, who had been using gay marriage as a political weapon, were compelled to find new marginalized groups to target, and new issues over which to target them.
The atmosphere changed.
What changed it?
Now I’m going to make a confession to you, because you are my friends, and that fact makes me feel safe unburdening myself. Here it is: I like being thought of as a reasonable and respectable person.
Being thought of as reasonable and respectable is pleasant. It’s nice. It comes with a lot of tiny microscopic benefits that assist me in my daily life, some of them practical, others social. If I’m thought unreasonable and unrespectable, it creates a lot of tiny microscopic difficulties in my life, some of them practical, and some of them social. I’d rather avoid this.
If you are somebody like me, who likes being thought of as reasonable and respectable, and likes keeping things cool between yourself and others, you do what I do, and play a game—a respectable game.
The respectable game involves doing and saying things that I think people will find reasonable and respectable, and which affirms their own respectability and reasonableness. I do things like try to understand what the other person is saying, and make them feel as if their thoughts and feelings are reasonable, too. And usually, if somebody I’m dealing with has a preference on a matter, and I don’t feel too strongly myself, I just let them have their way, because I don’t really give a shit. And if I do have a preference, I perform a calculation as to whether my preference is strong enough to advocate for it, or if I’d rather just make the social/professional interaction expedient and let the other person’s preference win out. And if I do advocate for my own position, I try to do so in a reasonable and respectable manner, so as to indicate to everyone involved and anyone observing that both of us are, despite our difference of opinion, reasonable and respectable people.
Even if we can’t agree, I’ll frequently seek a compromise. And even if, at the end, we both still disagree about the matter, and one of us is entirely disappointed, we both usually will make overtures to one another, to make sure it’s understood that, while we disagree, our positions are both understandable and reasonable, and affirm that we are both respectable and reasonable people even in the midst of the present disagreement, and while we might be disappointed if things don’t go our way, we’ll still be friends, and we’ll accept the outcome.
Even though we disagree, we are still aligned. That’s the purpose of the respectable game.
And that’s how sometimes for example I wind up eating pizza from a place that’s not maybe my favorite.
This doesn’t distinguish me very much from other people, by the way. Most people play the respectable game, if they want to be thought reasonable by others. This is how people have learned to operate in the world, and a good thing, too. They are reasonable rules to a respectable game, and they make things a lot more pleasant and easy.
Something I’ve noticed: when people play the respectable game, the atmosphere doesn’t change. It stays the same.
It allows for disagreement, but not conflict.
When you want to have disagreement without conflict, which is hopefully most of the time, it’s a very useful and necessary tool.
I presume you’ve all played this game, and seen it played. I presume you’ve noticed, when somebody breaks the rules, and doesn’t allow that the other person is respectable, and refuses to compromise, the change that occurs in the space in which that conflict is happening. It’s almost … atmospheric, this change.
And if somebody makes a habit of breaking the rules, that person becomes thought of as either unreasonable or forceful and effective, depending on whether you’re on their side. A person who habitually breaks the rules of the respectable game carries that atmospheric change with them. But, if that person refuses to play the respectable game over even minor things like where we should all get pizza, that person starts to be thought of as a very unreasonable person.
Notice that the primary goal of the respectable game is not actually to win. The primary goal of the respectable game is to be thought of as respectable while playing it.
Another thing I’ve noticed: the unreasonable person usually gets the pizza they want, unless somebody else gets sick of their shit, and also stops playing the respectable game with them.
This is why most people play the respectable game over things like pizza, but people generally do not play the respectable game over things like “why are you harassing my child about grooming”? ³ You refuse to play the respectable game when you really care about what you want, and you find the alternative unacceptable.
So if you’re wondering how the atmosphere changes, I would observe that the respectable game doesn’t do it. In fact, the respectable game reaffirms the existing atmosphere, when both people are playing it—even if it involves disagreement.
Also: if only one person is playing the respectable game, then the respectable game moves the atmosphere in the direction of the player who is playing a different game—even if that person is still strategically pretending to play the respectable game.
Also-er: if neither people plays the respectable game, that’s when we have conflict—a fight.
Also-est: sometimes a fight is inappropriate. Sometimes not fighting is what’s inappropriate.
Fighting has its risks. Some of them involve getting physically or reputationally hurt, or misunderstood, or attacked, or threatened. Some of them can involve becoming a target yourself when you might have stayed safe otherwise.
But there’s this:
Not fighting carries its own risks.
In Vonnegut’s story, the math was simple. The man who played chess was forced to play, not only on his own behalf, but on behalf of his “chess pieces.” The stakes were his own life and those of everyone else. If he refused to play, then both his life and those of his soldiers and family would be forfeit. So, he played—not because he wanted to play, but because humoring the dictator’s cruelty was the only way to defer tragedy. I don’t fault his math, and I daresay neither do you.
As soon as that condition changed, the man no longer wanted to play. If he had, I would fault his math, and maybe you would, too.
Allow me to make some adjustments to Vonnegut’s premise. Let’s say I’m the man in the story. Let’s also say my life isn’t in danger one way or another. I’m not a commander of soldiers; I’m merely somebody who dedicated my life to mastering the respectable game of chess, and thus I know the game and revere it, and my reputation has grown with my skill, and so when a cruel dictator decides he would like to amuse himself, and draws his political prisoners and random citizens for a deadly game, he invites me to be his opponent.
Let’s say I do the math and tell myself that even though in my secret heart I deplore this practice, I should play the game. After all, I tell myself, I am a very skillful player. I will know best how to play games that minimize casualties.
So let’s say I agree to play the game. Maybe my arithmetic is correct; maybe I save a few lives for a few days. And, through my play, I gain the respect and admiration of the dictator, who gives me many benefits—some practical, others social.
Let’s say I never ask the “pieces” what they would like me to do.
Now, let’s say the time came when there is a general uprising, and in the chaos I am afforded the opportunity to actually fight the dictator, and show him with true consequence what I think of the way he has degraded the respectable game I revere. Let’s say that, in that moment, I refuse to join the struggle—because to actually fight one’s opponent violates the rules of chess, and I cannot imagine anything more dangerous or destabilizing than abandoning the respectable game I love.
I expect there would come the day when nobody could tell the difference between my intentions and purposes and those of the dictator, even though—on the field of the game—I have opposed him every time.
I expect there would come the day when people correctly assume that my true purpose has nothing to do with what I said I personally believed, and that the question of whether I sincerely oppose the dictator’s practice is immaterial to what I am actually doing.
And, I expect there would come the day when I discovered my skills had taught the dictator how best to extract the maximum carnage from a skillful player trying to minimize it. If I were a writer with a flair for dramatic irony, I might have this realization come as my chess master finally recognized his own family among the pieces on both sides.
It would be a terrible lesson.
It’s a lesson coming for us all, I fear.
In a game of chess, the purpose is to play chess, and to win, for both people. Both people are engaged in the same game. They are aligned with playing the game. It’s respectable and mutually beneficial.
In Vonnegut’s game of chess, one person is engaged in a struggle for his own life and the lives of those he loves, and the other person is engaged in a cruel and murderous amusement. The two players aren’t playing the same game, and there is a recognition of that fact. The opposing player is positioning himself between his opponent and his opponent’s target—which is the correct place to position yourself, if you are playing such a game as part of a strategic calculation.
In my modification, both people are once again playing the same game, perfectly aligned. I have not placed myself between my opponent and his target. Our game is respectable, and also cruel and murderous.
The stakes define the game. Not the board. Not the rules.
And some stakes make a respectable game very wrong to play.
The respectable game doesn’t notice stakes, it concerns itself only with staying reasonable. When one player is engaged in a cruel and murderous amusement, the respectable game demands that the cruelty and murderousness be treated as a reasonable position.
What I’ve noticed these days is, no matter how obvious the cruelty, no matter how murderous the amusement, there are a lot of people who still insist on playing the respectable game, who insist on having it credited back to them as virtue, almost as if being seen as virtuous is their goal.
I don’t think a bunch of “respectable game” practitioners persuaded all those “not ready for gay marriage” Obama voters in the years between his two elections to be ready for gay marriage by reaffirming the respectability and reasonableness of the “not ready” positions while reasonably and respectably informing them that they themselves held the other opinion.
To be honest, even today, I don’t see many practitioners of the respectable game trying to persuade homophobes. Why would they? They’re seeking out and finding the homophobes willing to play the respectable game with them. They only oppose each other on the board, but both are aligned in playing the same game as a first priority, no matter the stakes.
No, respectable game practitioners aren’t trying to persuade bigots. They tend to try to persuade unrespectable people, like gay rights activists, to play the respectable game—because the point of the respectable game is not about what you are trying to accomplish, but how you are perceived by an opponent with whom you’ve actually aligned yourself. Somebody whose first priority is to play the respectable game tends to platform the bigots they claim to disagree with; they don’t tend to platform the activists with whom they claim to agree. Have you ever noticed that?
Do you see?
It’s breaking the rules of the respectable game that changes atmosphere.
I mention this, because we were wondering how the atmosphere changes.
Let’s get back to gay marriage. Between 2008 and 2012, the atmosphere changed. The question was: who changed it?
Let’s look at the players.
There were the entrenched bigots, who actually do hate gay people, and actively mean them harm, exclusion, persecution, and death—most of whom tell themselves all sorts of things to disguise their hatred even to themselves, and who, armed with their self-exonerating rationales, responded to the conservative message with gusto and in numbers, and still do. It surely wasn’t them that changed the atmosphere in favor of gay marriage.
There were the conservative political operators who were vilifying gay people in order to gain the undying loyalty of the entrenched bigots, and to turn gay marriage into a political cudgel they could beat their opponents with, and a sharp boundary that they could enforce around what was politically possible. I don’t think they changed the atmosphere in favor of gay marriage.
There were the liberal political operators, who, as a practical calculation, accepted the cynical premise of the political operators: that gay marriage was a radical and unrespectable proposition, and out of bounds as a topic. While these operators made whatever slight incremental accommodations and overtures toward gay people necessary to capture most of the gay vote, those accommodations came only within the boundaries of a narrative set by the conservatives, who were their first priority of accommodation. This group would do what they could, but if an action positioned these operators or their candidates between conservatives and their targets, it would no longer be something that existed in the realm of what they could do. I don’t think it was the liberal political operators who changed the atmosphere.
There were gay rights activists (and, to a lesser degree, their allies), who were even then continuing a decades-long battle for visibility and acceptance and justice and equality, and I think the credit they deserve for changing the atmosphere should be obvious. They were everyday people who stood up and demanded their right and/or the rights of others, to be who they are without discrimination or fear, and expected to receive what they demanded, and worked without results for years in hope of that expectation, and who are still fighting today. They are fighting. This means they are willing to be seen as unrespectable and unreasonable—and they have been seen like that, for years and decades.
Is that everyone accounted for?
Not even close. We’re missing the biggest group.
There’s still most people, and most people don’t give a shit. That’s no credit to them, but it’s the reality. And maybe you think it’s not even too much of a ding against them, either. Let me play the respectable game for a moment, and allow the point. People are busy. Giving a shit is difficult. So, they just didn’t give a shit, either way, and still don’t. They do give a shit about being seen as reasonable, though, because of all the tiny practical and social rewards that that brings.
But … mass pliability is a door that swings both ways, and people who actually give a shit know this.
Were the mass of people “ready” for a Black president? Answer: They didn’t really give a shit. When a Black president came along with a compelling enough personality and narrative during a time of economic havoc, they went for him. Would they have turned away if Obama had come out in favor of gay marriage in 2008? We’ll never know. Maybe so. I think not. Were they “ready” for gay marriage? They didn’t really give a shit, is my opinion, any more than they did in 2012, when a pro-gay-marriage Obama won handily again. I think they were perfectly open to playing the respectable game to support someone supporting either bigotry or equality.
When somebody gave the mass of people who don’t give a shit a convenient bigoted narrative against gay marriage, for as long as that narrative seemed reasonable, a whole bunch of them accepted it, and that became their belief about gay marriage, and those people tended to vote Republican, but as to whether they wouldn’t have responded the exact same way to any one of dozens of other issues … I find the premise difficult to swallow. They wanted a reason to vote for Republicans, and that was a reason. And these days a whole bunch of them will say they are in favor of gay marriage, but they still go on voting for Republicans—which, let’s never forget, is a hate group that we can all see persecuting gay people—because the clearly observable truth is that, when it comes to gay marriage, they don’t give a shit. However, they want to be seen as reasonable, so now they’re in favor of gay marriage when it comes to their words (“I have no problem with gay marriage” is a common I-don’t-give-a-shit way to put it), and as for their deeds, they’ve moved on to accepting the latest rationale for doing what they always intended to do.⁴
And, for those in the mass that didn’t give a shit but didn’t quite accept the Republican message because the clear bigotry put them off, the Democrats had a perfectly reasonable alternative, with just enough pro-gay rhetoric to seem reasonable, but not so much that it seemed unreasonable, and so that was the position they held, well within the boundaries conservative operators had set as the limits of what was reasonable. But when push came to shove, this tepid anti-gay-marriage stance didn’t really affect their choice, and once they saw that pro-gay-marriage was the reasonable position, they just adopted that reasonable position, because the truth is, they didn’t really give a shit either way.
And back in 2008, the reasonable rationales—one pro-gay, the other anti-gay, but both opposed to gay people having marriage rights—went around the airwaves, and both got discussed very reasonably by reasonable people who agreed or disagreed very reasonably about them, and, as a result of all that respectable reasonableness, the mass of people who just didn’t give a shit felt very comfortable holding either opinion, about which they didn’t much give a shit either way, and which, because they didn’t give a shit, they never noticed amounted to agreeing with the premise that gay people didn’t actually deserve to be treated as equal people under the law, because giving gay people true equality under the law was never presented as one of the reasonable positions.
Our question was: how did the atmosphere change?
Our answer is: the mass of people who don’t give a shit. Ultimately, the atmosphere only changed when they changed; when they looked around, and saw that enough people were on the side of gay activists that being on the side of gay people was now the respectable thing.
Why? Because they wanted to be respectable, and beyond that they don’t give a shit. It certainly didn’t change their voting habits.
I don’t want to take any credit away from the brave people who did all the work and encountered all the danger and paid an extraordinary price to get us here. The atmosphere changed only because those people expected it, and demanded it, and fought for it, and paid the price of the fight—a steep price, which among other things, meant being thought of as unreasonable and unrespectable. So it’s perhaps giving the mass of people too much credit to say that they changed the atmosphere, but they were how the atmosphere changed.
And it was only then that the corporations took it up. And it was only once that happened that most liberal politicians took it on. That’s what we have for leadership, these days, on this and many other issues. Perhaps that’s a topic for another day.
They’ll all change back, the masses of people and the corporations, and the mass of liberal politicians, if the atmosphere changes back. Of course they will—because they don’t give a shit. They are devoted not to principles of equality, but to the board and the rules. The stakes are a detail.
It’s probably important, then—if you care about gay people, or equality, or justice, or anything, really—to not help the atmosphere change back to the earlier, rougher, time.
How would we keep the atmosphere from getting worse?
How do we make the atmosphere get better?
By giving a shit.
By refusing to make it our first priority to be seen as reasonable and respectable, without any concern as to what we are being reasonable about, or whose respect we are seeking—and whose respect we therefore aren’t seeking.
By refusing to do political math from an unthreatened position. By refusing to accept a malicious premise out of political calculation—sacrificing others without even recognizing that it is people’s lives you are sacrificing, or thinking how they would feel to be sacrificed, or ever asking—even though you yourself are not a politician who might—arguably—need to make such a calculation.
When I make those calculations, I must recognize that—no matter what I tell myself I personally believe, and no matter how much I actually sincerely believe it—I am choosing to become practically indistinguishable from the mass of people who don’t give a shit.
I’m not changing the atmosphere toward the thing I say I personally believe.
I have chosen to become the method by the atmosphere remains as it is.
I have chosen to become the method by which malicious people change the atmosphere into something worse.
It doesn’t actually matter what I say I believe, then. What matters is that I am a person who is making sure the thing I say I oppose remains respectable, by making it seem reasonable. And then politicians, whose job is to get re-elected, notice what is reasonable, and pitch their support in that direction, using arithmetic that may or may not be faulty.
And many threatened and targeted people—though knowing their right to justice and equality is pressing, and the causes needed to establish those rights are clear—might decide they can’t trust the mass of people to give a shit, and do their own strategic math, and as a matter of political necessity throw their own support to a weaker vessel who will protect them insofar as it is possible within the current atmosphere. And how can I fault them? I would never want to denigrate the arithmetic of those who know far more than I do about the stakes they face.
We’ve been pondering gay marriage, you and I. We could be talking about trans rights. We could be talking about bodily autonomy. We could be talking about voting rights. We could be talking about climate catastrophe and climate justice. We could be talking about militarized white supremacist police brutality. We could be talking about gun violence.
We could be talking about many, many, many things, all illustrating the exact same point.
In the last installment, we talked about two universal tools—things we all can do: witness to the observable truth of the injustice we see, and use moral clarity to see the ways that injustice exists in your society, beginning with yourself—which allows you to witness ever more precisely, with greater and greater levels of moral complexity.
Now, one other universal tool, the greatest one: giving a shit.
It’s probably the most important thing you can do to effect change.
Honestly, simply, give a shit.
Entrenched bigots give a shit. It’s why they’re gaining, and the mass of people who don’t give a shit are noticing that gain, and they’re changing in that direction, too—because it is possible, because they can.
One thing the country “wasn’t ready for” was an openly white supremacist authoritarian candidate—until one ran and won, captured the undying enthusiasm and loyalty of the mass of entrenched bigots who very much give a shit about creating a Christofascist dictatorship.
And he also found that enough of the mass of people who don’t give a shit were willing to accept factory-tested reasons for their support that had nothing to do with bigotry or authoritarianism—millions and millions of people who don’t hate, but are willing to accept any number of rationales for supporting a hate group. And those reasons were laundered by a massive amount of energy and media attention, and by people—many of whom claim to oppose Trump—willing to play the respectable game, willing to illustrate how supporting Trump can be a reasonable position, pointing out all the reasons people have for voting for him that have nothing to do with white supremacy—which is perfectly true, and also perfectly immaterial.
So: give a shit.
When you give a shit, you’ll do the standard things we all need to do, the “lowest bar” stuff like voting against fascists and petitioning your representatives to oppose fascists, and giving what energies and resources you can to political action within the existing system—things so obviously necessary they barely warrant mentioning.
If you give a shit, you’ll stop making issues about you and how you are perceived, by opponents or allies. You won’t make your first priority being seen as reasonable by people who want unacceptable things, or thought of as respectable by people who don’t give a shit either way. You won’t make your support of marginalized people contingent on how you’re thought of by those people, or whether or not you’re adequately celebrated for your support.
If you give a shit, you won’t decline into the lazy posture of cynicism. You won’t take the easy path of deciding that, while you see all the problems, fighting for the solutions against such an organized opponent is a terrible amount of work, and not giving a shit allows you to not do that work.
If you give a shit, you won’t fall for the trap of thinking you yourself are a politician. You won’t hand your political power to spiritual proxies who are in favor of things you claim to be against, and against things you claim to support. You won’t set your support based on what you think other people will support, in other words. You’ll never have to say, “Personally I support [fill in issue], but I can’t support it because [fill in category of other people] won’t ever go for it,” because you’ll support what you support, and what you say and what you do will be aligned.
If you give a shit, you’ll know when to play the respectable game and when not. You’ll know when to perform strategic calculations, because you’ll remember that there is a bigger goal at hand.
Give a shit. Don’t be one of the people who don’t give a shit. Even worse, don’t be one of the people who claims to give a shit but moves with the crowd anyway. There are plenty of those—they’re everywhere. They’re boring. They’re not helping.
Change the atmosphere. Don’t be the way atmosphere gets changed.
Take on the uncertain risk of fighting.
Avoid the certain risk of not fighting.
Pay the cost of your energy and your spirit, the inconvenient price of being thought unreasonable, which is the first and least cost of caring.
Always notice the stakes before you agree to the rules of the reasonable game, and notice when the pieces are a who, not a what.
Embrace the political power of giving a shit.
And change the atmosphere.
¹ After this I’m taking a shortish (I think 4-6 week) break to do some travel-type stuff and polish up a manuscript for my patient agent. Uninterrupted semi-weekly LOST entries during this time, probably, if I can.
² I’m kidding, it’s actually Indiana.
³ Thought experiment: Try to imagine somebody reacting to such a scenario not by interviewing the gay parent, but by finding a child who likes being accosted by strangers, and using an interview with such a child as pretext to scold a gay parent for their “us vs. them” attitudes.
⁴ We know people’s first intentions not by what they say, but what they do—and so do they. A lot of these folks are Christians, and if so you might remind them that they also know this truth: a fellow they worship once said a tree is recognized by its fruit.
A.R. Moxon is the author of The Revisionaries, which is available in most of the usual places, and some of the unusual places. He’s got the funky rhymes but he’s not the funky devil.