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The River's Mouth
What you find "understandable" depends on who it is you choose to understand. On the national current, and using discernment in an age of moral cowardice.
So let’s say you’re on the subway and it’s crowded, and let’s say a guy gets onto your car and crowds in next to you. And let’s say he steps on your toes.
And you think, hey, it’s a crowded car, that’s just a mistake. It hurt, but it didn’t injure. You assume no ill will. You might not even say anything about it. It’s city living.
Say he does it again, so you clear your throat, to make sure he’s aware of you. And then again. And so you break your silence, and politely ask him to please take care.
And then he tells you that he didn’t step on your toes, and while he tells you that, he makes eye contact with you, and steps on them again—hard. And you yell at him, because you now know it is intentional. And he loudly protests that he has no intention of stepping on feet, he doesn’t even see feet, and that the place where your feet are is his area of the car anyway. He is only concerned about equality. This is a question of integrity in matters of subway floor-plan fairness, he says, and if you’re getting your little toes stepped on—which you aren’t—it’s because you’re putting yourself somewhere where you shouldn’t be, which means that you are actually the one infringing on the space of others. And, having said this, he steps on your toes.
So you shove him away.
Now let’s say I see this, and come over.
Say I scold you that violence is never appropriate, and explain that you are adding to the overall polarization and division on the subway car. Say I tell you that while you have the right to your opinion, he has the right to his, because this is a free country, and we all have to exist together on this subway car, and his position is perfectly understandable, if you’ll just listen to it. And if you won’t, then you are actually causing him to kick you.
And while I’m telling you this, from behind me, he kicks you as hard as he can.
Hearing your yelp of pain, I recommend that you stop yelling and start listening, and then I turn my attention to him; letting him know I’d like to have a deeper conversation with him, to really understand the nuances and complexities of this “subway floor-plan fairness” issue that matters so much to him.
Or let’s say this.
Say I mispronounce your name, and you correct me, and I apologize and say that I never intend to mispronounce names, and then I never mispronounce it again.
You know that I never intend to mispronounce names, but it’s not because I announced my intent. It’s because I accept the correction.
Let’s repeat that scenario and modify it.
Say I make the same announcement, “I’m so sorry! I never want to mispronounce names,” but I keep mispronouncing your name. I give my reasons—everyone else I know with that name pronounces it differently, I think it’s better that way, I just have such a bad memory—but I never, ever pronounce it right.
In that case, you know I don’t actually care about getting your name right. I might believe I do, or I might be maliciously lying, but I definitely don’t care. And you know this about me because you notice the difference between what I say I want to happen, and what actually repetitively happens.
There’s a certain quality that allows you to know this.
It’s a quality that involves not only hearing what is said, but observing what happens.
It’s a quality that understands that repeated abusive outcomes are choices that reveal true intentions.
It’s a quality that understands that people who harm others to profit from an abusive situation always craft reasons for what they are doing, reasons which conveniently elide what has actually happened, is actually happening, and any escalating progression that shows what will happen. These are reasons that the person may have even convinced themselves are true. These reasons are always understandable. By “understandable” I mean they can be understood. For example, if somebody says “the earth is flat,” I understand what they mean. It is understandable.
The quality I’m speaking of can make a distinction between that which can merely be understood and that which is reasonable, observable, measurable, and true.
It’s a quality that knows that at the heart of abuse is supremacy—which is a belief that the abuser is supreme over the abused, to such an extent that the abuser gets to name not only the terms of harm done, but to determine whether or not harm was done, and how much it hurt, and whether it matters—a supremacy that conveys to the abuser the right to define not only the identity of their victim, but to define what their victim’s experience of the abuse was.
It’s a quality that knows that deciding to listen to the person who did the harming instead of the person being harmed is a deliberate choice to align with supremacy. It’s a quality that knows listening to understandable reasons for abusive actions and ignoring not only the pattern of abuse and the trajectory of its escalation, but also ignoring the difference between “understandable” and “reasonable” is a choice to join an abuser’s invitation to ignore their abuse; a quality that knows that believing an abuser’s rationale is an enablement that exonerates past abuses and makes escalating future abuses inevitable.
It’s a quality that knows that you can ignore what somebody says, when you know what they say is very obviously self-serving bullshit.
This quality is called “discernment.”
In my experience it’s a rare quality, these days.
It doesn’t need to be. It’s only rare in practice. Discernment is actually all over the place if you want to use some.
Let’s use some.
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Sometimes I write about spirit, by which I mean the reality-shaping effect that collective human belief can create.
These days I’ve been talking about it in terms of a national current.
Metaphors are all imperfect but all have their uses. I like “atmosphere” because it speaks to the pervasive nature of a national spirit; the way you can’t help but breathe it. I also like the hope of it; the way one atmosphere can push out another.
I like the “current” metaphor because it speaks to direction and effort. A river runs the direction it runs, and it carries everything along with it—but you can swim against it, or portage to another river, or divert a river to another destination, if you are willing to do the work—but it does take work, and refusing the work will just carry you along.
The river metaphor also speaks to destination. Every river has a destination, is something you might know about rivers if you’ve ever observed one. That destination is known as the “mouth,” which is just the place where the river joins some other body of water and stops being a river anymore. If you go to the mouth of the river, you’ll see what that destination is. If you’ve travelled that river, you know where it goes. It’ll go to the same place as it did before.
That’s how rivers work. Thank you for coming to my TED talk.
If you choose to travel with the river’s current, you can certainly claim you don’t intend to go in the direction of the river’s mouth. I’ll understand what you mean if you say that, but I’ll also understand that this is not true, because, here’s the thing: you are. This is the case whether or not you think it is true. This is the case even if the reasons you give for thinking that you aren’t are perfectly understandable.
And if you validate the perspective of somebody taking us downriver who insists he isn’t, it would be reasonable to assume that you actually want to reach that destination, or you don’t care about the destination.
Earlier in this series on our national current, I wrote a parable about a man who deemed himself wise, who refused to employ discernment in order to see obvious things that were actually happening, who came upon a man who was fouling the river for reasons that were untethered to reality but still understandable. Having met the man and watched him foul the river, the wise man then insisted on also finding his understandable ravings reasonable.
I think that captures our situation pretty well: one person fouling the water for everybody, and another who insists on granting that person a perpetual license to keep doing it, who exhibits no curiosity at all in what is actually happening or in hearing the report of those who have been observing it all along, who calls this posture open-minded, and insists that only by doing this will we avoid being carried along by the current to the river’s mouth. This is an understandable position, but I would forgive anybody who decides to employ discernment in order to reject it.
You’d reject this position not because you don’t understand it, but because you do.
To understand an abusive or enabling rationale is to reject it, because to understand it requires discernment about what it is actually doing, and the things that it refuses to observe. To understand it is to look where it won’t look.
You can go to the mouth of the river, and then you’ll know that river’s destination. Or you can listen to the testimony of those who have been there before, or those who have studied such testimony at length, who have made themselves as knowledgeable as possible about rivers and how to recognize them.
I think we can recognize the river we’re in right now.
We’ve definitely been in it before. Have we ever left it? Have we ever tried to travel another?
The river we are in is called supremacy, and the place it leads—the place it always leads, the place it always has led, and the place it will lead again—is genocide and slavery.
You can say it doesn’t lead to genocide and slavery. That’s understandable.
However, a discerning mind will notice that it is leading there.
We really have only to observe the national current, and see where this river is carrying us.
ABC News recently decided to inform its audience that Moms for Liberty—a known hate group working to harm and exclude LGBTQ children and to demolish the public school system until the public school system agrees to help them achieve that goal—are “happy warriors” who are “fighting back,” though ABC wasn’t very specific who was attacking them, or how, or what damage had been done. But the important thing is, that’s exactly what they say about themselves, and it’s all very understandable, and ABC News decided to pass that along in their headline and logline.
The Indiana chapter of Moms for Liberty quoted Hitler recently, by the way. It was his whole trip about the way to gain the future is by owning the children. And there was a lot of criticism of those Moms for doing that, as you might imagine, but there were also people who insisted that they were being misunderstood and cast in the worst possible light, because obviously their intent was to suggest that this was what LGBTQ people were doing to children, which meant that it was those parents, who had not quoted Hitler about owning youth and were not trying to exert ownership over their children, who were the real Hitlers.
And that’s all well and good, and maybe the Moms for Liberty even believe that’s true, and I suppose you could also find this not only understandable but reasonable … as long as you’re willing to overlook the systematic harassment and harm Moms for Liberty and others like them are doing to our public school system and to queer kids and their parents, and the laws that Republican fascists are passing on the behalf of hate groups like Moms for Liberty, in order to make totalitarian states like Florida even more unwelcome to and unsafe for queer people, or the fact that insisting on children as their property pretty much perfectly describes what Moms for Liberty are doing, or the fact that what they are “fighting back” against is not indoctrination but the idea that children should be given safe space to understand for themselves who they are and the liberty to declare it without having to worry about “happy warriors” “fighting back” against each child’s belief that they belong to themselves, and are owned only by themselves, not by christian bigots who quote Hitler in their newsletter.
And we can look down to the mouth of the river, to observe that people in recent history who opposed school integration and the Civil Rights Act did so using the exact same rationales that Moms for Liberty now offer for their own positions: they said they were fighting communism, and judicial activism, and promoting states’ rights, and we can clearly discern that this is also what Republicans and other white supremacist and fascist groups who oppose the Civil Rights Act say today. They also tell us that they don’t oppose the Civil Rights Act, which is understandable, but if we use discernment we can look to the mouth of the river, and see that they’ve captured the Supreme Court and installed hyper-corrupt judges to enforce their supremacism, which definitely involves dismantling the Civil Rights Act piece by piece, and that many of their top influencers are now agitating to take the rest of it down.
So these bribe-takers in robes—who many people assured us in very understandable terms would never dismantle Roe vs. Wade—dismantled Roe vs. Wade last year, and many states have now made abortion illegal, and more are coming, and those states, which already had horrendous natal and maternal mortality rates, have seen those rate get even worse, and all of this affects people of color disproportionately. And they claim they did all this because they want to protect the lives of children and Black people, and you can certainly find that understandable, but meanwhile, at the mouth of the river, it’s observable that people are dying in childbirth at rates that in the context of an industrialized nation can only be described as deliberate and targeted.
You can also find the claim of conservative groups understandable, that they are only doing all this because they are so passionate about states’ rights, but if you look to the mouth of the river, you can clearly see that national bans are being planned: on abortion, for sure, and gay marriage and other rights protecting queer people, but also the very existence of queer people in public spaces, and birth control, and fertility care, and workers’ protections, and other load-bearing pillars of a modern society, which provide us all with stability and health, and harm only the overfed consciences of the white conservative christian fascists who have seized the controls of the national riverboat, who have decided that other people get to exist only to the degree that their personal comfort allows, as mediated through the demands of the bigotry that they call “god.” And they insist that that all this is service of removing discrimination, not increasing it, and that is very understandable, but it is only reasonable if you refuse to look to the mouth of the river, and see the many abuses that becomes inevitable when you go with the flow.
And then recently the corrupted court took a fabricated hypothetical to bestow upon christian bigots the right to refuse service to people whose morals they don’t agree with. And so christian bigots are exercising their bigotry, in Michigan and other places, and they say it’s a matter of conscience not of hatred, which is very understandable, but we can very easily look at their statements and discern the hatred there, or look down the mouth of that particular river to see where accommodating the right of bigots to push out groups they hate in the name of religious liberty all leads.
Speaking of white conservative christian fascists: the other day, Tommy Tuberville, a peeled rutabaga who has in his life somehow managed to become both a college football coach and a U.S. Senator, defended white nationalism, by saying that it’s only a matter of opinion that an ideology that is defined only by its racism is racist.
I would observe this says a lot about who Tommy Tuberville seems to believe gets to have an opinion that matters to Tommy Tuberville.
Later, Tuberville explained that he could not possibly be racist for saying this, because as a football coach he’s “dealt with more minorities than anybody in the building,” and it’s all very understandable, until you look down the mouth of the river and see where it flows, when it is the racists who get to decide what racism is and isn’t, and whether or not it hurts, and how those who hear it get to think about it, or when you consider who exactly it is that expounds the racist notion that “dealing with” minorities inoculates you from racism; all very understandable until you remember that there were almost certainly minorities in the building when Tuberville said it, which again suggests something about who Tuberville thinks counts and who doesn’t.
I suppose you can say that I’m deliberately casting Tuberville’s words in the worst possible light, and that I should give him the benefit of the doubt if I want to be thought a reasonable person, because it’s completely understandable to assume that what he actually meant was “dealt with more minorities than any white person in the building.”
To that I can only say: I see the river he’s in, and I see where it’s going. I see the mouth. We’re getting very close to it now. And I might ask you, hypothetical interlocutor: why exactly is it that everyone else has to keep adding or subtracting words to make understandable the pronouncements of people who insist that their intentions are different from the repeated effects of their actions? Why are you so willing to do this work on their behalf, to prevent their words from being interpreted in a bad light that just so happens to align with the actual effects of their actual actions? What gives people whose ideology observably results in harm and menace and death such an irrevocable right to always have their understandable bullshit spun into the gold flax of reasonableness, and why have you chosen to be their Rumpelstiltskin?
People who have scorned equity in women’s sports are very concerned about equality in women’s sports, I’m told.
People who treat every free school lunch as a moral calamity and any attempt to prevent school shootings as tyranny are very concerned about the safety of children I’m told.
People who want laws passed enforcing christian prayer and the pledge of allegiance in public school classrooms are vigorously opposed to indoctrination, I’m told.
People who have corrupted the Supreme Court to push their supremacy are opposed to judicial activism, I’m told.
People who defend every coverup of every youth group leader and college sports trainer are very opposed to grooming, I’m told.
People who believe in life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness and freedom and equality for all also believe that a carceral state that uses a militarized police force, targets racial minorities, and uses prisoners as slave labor is what makes us safe and that anyone who attempts to reform it hates America, I’m told.
And our War to Expand Slavery was actually about states’ rights I’m told.
And Hitler was just making the trains run on time and restoring the glory of the fatherland, I’m told. (Sorry for bringing up Hitler. Oh wait, I didn’t bring him up—Moms for Liberty did.)
It’s all very understandable—by which I mean, it can be understood.
My observation is: people decide who and what it is they want to understand.
Some people want to understand the experience of people who have been harmed by supremacist abuse—bigotry, violence, harassment, structural injustice—and so they listen to those people.
Other people want to understand the rationale of those who are doing the harming, not to understand why they would do such a thing, but to find that rationale understandable.
And that lets them just go with the flow. Going with the current is the easiest thing, and who doesn’t like ease? Going against the current, that’s work.
If you use discernment, you can observe it.
If you don’t, you won’t.
And the national current will carry you uncomplaining to the river’s yawning mouth.
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A.R. Moxon is the author of The Revisionaries, which is available in most of the usual places, and some of the unusual places, and is co-writer of Sugar Maple, a musical fiction podcast from Osiris Media which goes in your ears. Every time he sees you falling he gets down on his knees and prays; he’s waiting for that final moment you say the words that he can’t say.