The Toxicity of Revenge Culture

Every time something tragic happens – particularly when it’s heightened by racial tension, like the murder of George Floyd – it seems the worst of humanity comes out of the woodwork. Alongside news of protests, police brutality and burning buildings are countless streams of people – usually white – caught on camera being aggressively racist, inciting or causing violence, and all-round being essentially despicable pieces of human garbage.

It isn’t clear whether this seems to happen more during times of public outrage because racists are fighting what they see as a threat to their way of life, or if it’s just that the rest of us pay more attention at these times, but from calling cops on non-threatening black men to assualting young girls trying to stand up for Black Lives Matter, there has been no end to the instances of hate directed at the people who are trying desperately to fight for their freedom and equality.

The good news, of course, is that in today’s society of smart phones and everywhere-cameras, it’s become increasingly difficult to act like a bigot in public without being caught. And in the instances where these outrageous performances are recorded and uploaded to the internet, they often go viral – a swift dose of karma to the perpetrators.

And karma feels good. It’s undeniably satisfying to see a racist cut down to size; it feels good to watch as someone unbearably proud of their whiteness is ripped apart on social media.

The problem is that this isn’t an answer to racism. It isn’t an answer to intolerance, or bigotry, because the people who were initially the agressors become victims of hate themselves, and even if it feels like they deserve it, many of these people’s lives are destroyed by their acts of intolerance. What happens then is that these people, who clearly believe in their own superiority, don’t learn not to be a bigot; they learn to hide it. They don’t learn to change; they learn instead that they were right all along, and that the people they hated deserve that hate.

Nearly every one of these stories I’ve seen of people abusing others from a delusional position of authority has ended with them losing their jobs, their homes, and at times even their families. Corporate sponsors cut ties, employers fire them, and they’re left with no means to live – and worse, the stain of being branded forever a racist indelible on their reputation.

Now, I’m not advocating that these people ‘deserve’ better; I don’t believe in judging others without knowing them, and an individual act of racism does not a racist make – just like being wrong once doesn’t make you wrong all the time. But what happens is that the internet allows people, from the relative safety of their online anonymity, to pass judgement nonetheless on people they’ve never met and know nothing about.

But what I do believe is that the answer to racism doesn’t lie in avenging the victims, or in destroying the establishment. By taking everything away from someone who made a racist remark or acted out against another person because of their inherently misplaced beliefs, we’re only reinforcing the notion that the ‘others’ are indeed bad people, and that they’ll be punished for speaking out. It fosters a false victim mentality, and breeds a culture that actually causes racism to fester and grow. Rather than looking to themselves to ask why this happened, these people will simply blame the oppressed for oppressing them.

No – the answer to racism lies in education. I believe strongly in the inherent goodness of humanity – the idea that people are good at heart (at least to some degree), and their upbringing and education is what shapes their personalities. As you navigate life, growing older day by day, it’s likely that you’ll end up choosing paths that fit in line with your taught beliefs naturally, which only reinforces those notions and ideas that, for many of us, remain subconscious all our lives. It’s easy to teach a four-year-old to play nice with others; it’s much harder to change the outlook of a forty-year-old.

And some people, of course, are taught so poorly in their childhood, and live a life that so strongly reinforces their negative beliefs, that they quickly become irredeemable. This happens in all walks of life, of course, but since we live in a society that has always favored white men over all others, it allows for those immutable personalities to rise to power more easily than those with more open minds, which allows them to make the rules and define the society we live in to their own liking … leaving room to grow for the systemic racism and misogyny that has rotted the heart of this country for centuries.

But these people – these truly ‘bad apples’ – are generally few and far between. Most people, I think, have the capacity to relearn their world-view in the face of new information, so long as it’s presented in a way that doesn’t uproot everything they’ve ever known. People fear change, and will cling desperately to unfamiliarity. By wreaking revenge on people who are outwardly racist, we’re only causing further damage to the idea of peaceful equality. You can’t build yourself up by tearing others down.

So what I suggest is this: next time you see a story on Facebook or Twitter about a racist being put in their place, ask yourself – am I really so different? Have I never laughed at a racist joke, or worried more about passing through a black neighborhood than a white one? Anyone can say the wrong thing at the wrong time, and whilst many of the acts making the rounds truly are deplorable, who are we to decide their fate? Getting someone fired for poor behavior when they aren’t even working is akin to vigilante justice, which is a dangerous thing to throw around.

I’ve heard it said that racism isn’t black people’s problem – it’s white people’s. In that context, I think it’s as important to listen to the racists as it is to listen to the oppressed. If we actually give everyone a forum to speak intelligently – rather than forcing people into acts of aggression because they feel their voices are unheard – I think there would be a much better opportunity to help those people with racial biases to actually understand themselves better, gain insight, and perhaps – just perhaps – grow and change.

I suppose what I’m really trying to say is that we shouldn’t celebrate vengence on those who would oppress others. That doesn’t make anyone a better person. Instead, we should focus on celebrating those people who are willing and able to change. Celebrate those who can learn to love, not those who have only learned to hate.

Who have you seen grow or change in the past few months? Who can you celebrate?

Talent ≠ Success

tal-ent (/’talǝnt/)
natural aptitude or skill.

Oxford English Dictionary

When I was very young, I was always told by my parents that I was exceptional, talented, and full of potential. There was no doubt that I would go on to be a great musician, or film composer, or physicist, or … something. I would defy the expectations of everyone around me, and I’m fairly certain people saw me as a somewhat precocious, and probably very pretentious, little kid.

You see, I grew up as as child in rural, backwater Switzerland, where the talent pool was small, and I was a big fish in a tiny little pond. My first exposure to the limits of my talent came when we moved to England, and I was suddenly in classes with people who were genuinely as talented, and in some cases far more talented, than I could ever hope to be. Pianists who could play Bach’s C#-minor fugue, and cellists who could play Elgar; English students who could write better than me, and math students who understood differentials better than me.

This was a blow to my young ego, which had unto that point been stroked egregiously by everyone around me. Yet I weathered it, and came to the realization that, in most endeavors, there would always be someone in the world who could do it better. That’s the nature of life.

As a side note, this became a factor in my worsening teenage depression, as I assumed that I would never amount to anything if I couldn’t be the best at anything.

And yet, I’ve continued on through decades assuming that my lack of success (and let’s be clear, in this context success means money) was due to a lack of talent – that I really am not very good at very much. I have a low-skill job at mediocre pay, I frequently live paycheck-to-paycheck, and the art I create is not spread wide across the literary or musical worlds.

The funny thing is that, to myself, I really enjoy what I create. I listen to my own songs on repeat; I re-read my own books frequently. My background wallpaper is a photo I took – one of my favorites. In my own mind – from a failed childhood or some other delusion – I am still talented.

And perhaps this isn’t necessarily wrong, per se; if talent is a natural aptitude or skill – key word being ‘natural’ – then I am at least somewhat talented. Whilst I’ve enjoyed a musical upbringing and education, I’ve never been taught anything more than high school English, and yet have written four full-length novels. In my own subjective opinion, at least some of my songs are as good as number one chart hits – within genres, at least.

Maybe it’s okay to be talented; maybe it’s okay to think I’m talented. What I might consider a lack of success doesn’t have to mean a lack of talent.

You see, it’s taken me a long time to realize that talent and success don’t go hand-in-hand. I might be talented; I might write good songs and passable novels. But talent doesn’t guarantee success (and frequently, success doesn’t guarantee talent). In fact, I would go as far as to argue they aren’t even two sides of the same coin, but literally separate coins entirely.

I wrote three fantasy novels. They’ve amassed – in the five years since publication – fewer than 30 reviews and ratings. In the grand scheme of things, no one’s read them, and I certainly haven’t recouped my editing costs through sales. The same is true for my young adult novel, although it’s spread has been somewhat wider than my fantasy.

What I’ve learned is that writing a book is hard, tedious, laborious and and thankless work. It’s the fruit of hundreds of hours of labor, sweat, tears, depressions and other terrible emotional free-falls, and to create a worthy book – one that stands toe to toe with ‘real’ (read: established) authors – is an incredibly difficult and daunting task.

But selling a book is even harder.

Selling a book – that is to say, marketing a book – is a whole different world. A completely different set of skills are required, a different world view and knowledge, different insights and connections, and is often subject to the mercy of individuals who may simply not like your work. Getting significant sales from a book you wrote is a different beast altogether, and one that I most certainly don’t have a talent for.

Yet what I’ve discovered is … that’s okay. Just like I learned as a child that I’m not ever going to be the best at anything, and to focus on the things I am somewhat good at, I’ve learned that marketing and selling is something I’m just not very good at. And that’s okay.

Success – and its definition – is highly subjective. To succeed means to achieve a goal, and in the sense that, when I started writing I had a goal to write a novel, I have succeeded. I’ve succeeded, in fact, four times over. And not only did I write four novels, I wrote four damn good novels – maybe no Harper Lee or Tolkien, but perhaps at least as engaging and well-written as Stephen King (or maybe Jay Asher). I like my books.

Whether they ever lead to a career or not isn’t necessarily what I care about; I didn’t set out to write a best-seller. If I had, I would have written a by-the-numbers thriller or romance novel, and sold it to the first publisher wanting to tack it on to the countless thousands of other books out there exactly like it. No; I’m much happier having written a complex, character-driven young adult novel, or dark, unpredictable fantasy stories, knowing that I’m personally pleased with how they turned out.

If, in some years, someone discovers these books and makes me an offer I can’t refuse, well then that’l be the icing on the cake. Until then, I’ll keep writing, because the satisfaction of finishing a story is in itself a success. The fact that there are people in the world who I know have been touched by my work is all the nicer.

Talent doesn’t equal success, but then again, success doesn’t require talent.

Best to put talent to good use.

Passing the Torch of Depression

It’s incredible, to an extent, to consider that my son is fifteen.

When I started writing The Redemption of Erâth as bedtime stories for him, he was a wide-eyed seven-year-old, in love the wonder of fantasy and the magical places stories can take you. When I first published Consolation in 2014, he was ten – old enough to understand the importance of such a feat, yet young enough to whole-heartedly believe that it could be a success.

And now, five years later, he is very much an adult. Not wholly – he hasn’t entirely mastered social interactions or handling money (something he’s unlikely to learn from me) – but enough so that to hear him speak, or read his writing, you could certainly be forgiven for thinking he’s at least ten years older than he actually is. He’s socially aware, intelligent beyond books, and able to hold a political conversation with evidence to support his stance.

But there’s something else that’s happening as he gets older, and it’s as disconcerting as it might be inevitable. He’s starting to show symptoms of depression.

I might be reading too much into it – after all, teenagers frequently fall into dark moods and monosyllabic interactions – but there are many of the hallmarks of depression in his behavior and attitude, and I don’t mean from a clinical perspective.

I mean from a personal one.

At fifteen, he’s beginning to behave exactly the way I did the year depression took me away forever. He’s moody, miserable, frequently uncommunicative, and denies that anything is wrong more or less all the time. He won’t talk to me about his feelings, about his relationships or friends, and I worry that he might be falling into the great void that I did at his age.

It’s so hard to talk to him, because it isn’t ever clear if he’s really listening, or taking my words to heart. I don’t have advice; I don’t have any good suggestions. All I have is a lifetime of experience with misery and depression, and the only thing I ever wanted for him was to not descend into that same abyss.

If I could let him know anything, it would be that most important of knowledges, the one thing I never knew or felt in my own youth: he’s not alone. I wish I could help him understand that he has a companion, he has support – he has someone who intimately understands what it feels like to hate yourself, to worry compulsively over someone you love, and to wish with all your heart that things could be somehow different; that you could return to the past of youthful abandon, or fast-forward to the future where all the heartache of youth is long-spent.

He has me.

If you’re out there; if you read this; please understand that I want you to know it’s okay to feel the way you do. It’s okay to feel sad, depressed and miserable. It’s okay to despise your life and wish it was different. It’s okay to dream about escape, to hope for love and to want to avoid talking to anyone because it’s embarrassing, painful and frustrating.

It’s totally okay to be you.

And furthermore, I’m sorry. I’m sorry I haven’t been as supportive as I could have been. I’m sorry I lie in bed while you do the dishes and clean the house. I’m sorry I’m a pathetic excuse for a parent who probably seems like a cruel taskmaster, pushing my own responsibilities on you because I can’t bear them myself.

And most of all, I’m sorry to have passed you this torch of depression. I hope dearly that I’m wrong; I hope that you can find a way to grow out of it, to find happiness and joy in life. Maybe you do, and you just hate me. Hell, I don’t even care if that’s the case.

But if you are suffering in the throes of despair, please, please understand that you can talk to me. I won’t judge; I won’t discipline. I won’t even speak, if you don’t want me to. I’ll just listen, and I promise at the end of it I won’t tell you to suck it up, or that ‘that’s life’; all I can say is I’m sorry, and I know what it’s like.

Truly – I know what it’s like.