The Gutter and the Stars

Last Saturday I watched two events unfold online showing two very different sides of humanity. In one, a rocket successfully blasted off from the Kennedy Space Center in Florida. It marked the first time a crewed mission had left Earth using a US-built spacecraft since 2011. I found it awe-inspiring to watch and spent a long time afterwards thinking about what it represented. Belief, imagination and dedication. Unity between thousands people working in pursuit of a common goal. Courage, not least by the two astronauts sitting in an explosive tube called ‘Demo-2’ as it hurtled into space. I couldn’t feel anything other than pride and love at our ability, as humans, to achieve such a feat.

In another event, also in the US, everyday people exercising their right to protest were fired on with tear gas and rubber bullets, beaten to the ground, arrested. Three unlucky souls — a man in Omaha, one in St. Louis and another in Oakland — were killed. Fires were set. Property was destroyed. Violence was compounded by more violence. Rolling coverage showed hatred and fear and powerlessness and aggression without respite.

On the one hand the gutter, on the other the stars.

I find it difficult to accept that we are capable of putting human beings into space, yet many of us are still incapable of giving human beings space to coexist. I don’t want to talk about fringe groups or politicians or fundamentalists here; I want to focus on us. The good old everyday kind of folk. The ones who watch the news and shake their heads and change their Facebook profile photo to a black box. The ones who don’t believe themselves to be party to any deeper, more systemic societal problem because, well, they don’t think one exists.

The problem with systemic (or institutional) discrimination is that — by its very definition — it takes much more subtle forms than, say, a white man leaning on a black man’s neck until he dies. It is everywhere, permeating everything, but if we aren’t the ones being discriminated against then we don’t see it.

Thankfully, there is one institution we can turn to in order to observe it: that of language. In conversation, our tendencies toward systemic discrimination occasionally bubble to the fore. It’s in the jokes we make about persons less physically or mentally able than we are. It’s in the deliberately edgy use of racial, homophobic or misogynist slurs in conversations behind closed doors (common among groups of heterosexual males). It’s in the preference for a word like ‘migrant’ over ‘refugee’. It’s in passing remarks about body types, clothing, appearances. It’s in memes and posts published on social media. It’s in xenophobic rants disguised in the form of moral outrage.

I have experienced all of these examples from people I know — family, friends, acquaintances — in the past few weeks alone. I have been guilty of many myself at one time or another. Why? Because it’s easy to do it. It’s a cheap laugh, a way to draw attention, a chance to be contrarian. It’s something we barely think about (if at all). We don’t consider it part of a wider issue, and we certainly don’t connect it with more obvious examples of social persecution on show in the world. Best of all, if somebody takes offence, we can brush it off with ‘it was just a joke’. But in trivialising the remark we made, we trivialise the person(s) against whom we directed it. It works to reinforce the foundations of hatred and negativity, weaves this mistrust of the Other (whether genuine or played for laughs) into the fabric of who we are.

After the rocket launch I watched an episode of Deadwood and I realised something: though they lived nearly 150 years before us in extremely different, much more primitive physical conditions, those frontier settlers held the exact same spiritual-intellectual perspectives as we do today. Theirs was a world governed by fear, gain, mistrust and hatred of the Other. So, it turns out, is ours. Despite our technological advances, our improvements in living standards, our progress in providing different groups with fundamental human rights, our exploration of world cultures and peoples, and our access to information, we have the same primitive mindsets as we did when life was much more insular. We’re still mean, suspicious, defensive and judgemental.

I would say that makes it about time for us to grow up. What we need is a revolution of the mind.

This starts and ends with ourselves as individuals. No matter how much we may want to change another person’s beliefs to fit our own, we cannot; what we can do, however, is make our views as well-informed, well-rounded and socially sensitive as possible. In many cases, this means stepping outside our echo chamber and grappling with some uncomfortable realities (such as accepting the existence of systemic discrimination). Of course, the experience may serve purely to cement our original convictions, in which case we can reasonably feel we are on the right path. Alternatively, we may find the beliefs that were once so important to us have lost their lustre or become unpalatable. We may even learn the skill so few people possess: admitting we were wrong.

In a related vein, no matter how much we may wish to help others, we can ultimately only help ourselves. This is not help in a material sense — wealth, possessions, climbing the social ladder, etc. Nor is it about the passive consumption of news and entertainment online. It is about actively nourishing the mind, engaging our imaginations, trying to recognise and understand and evolve every part of our being. That means talking to others on a level that goes beyond the superficial, reading as widely as possible, retaining knowledge rather than relying on the Internet to fill in the blanks, turning away from the vainglorious side of social media and the endless negative cycle of the mass media (the more we’re told the situation is bleak, the less inclined we are to push against it). It also means thinking twice before making a destructive remark or joke, or using certain words. I wouldn’t call this self-censorship. More like self-contemplation.

If we can help ourselves, we may have a chance at collectively lifting ourselves from the gutter.

I don’t meant this to sound like a liberal agenda or manifesto; the current battles fought between partisan political and moral philosophies are a symptom of the problem, not the problem itself. This is about the highest, most enlightened form we can achieve as modern humans — a primordial compulsion that has driven us from the swamps to the trees to the cities to the Moon. This is our ultimate purpose, yet by and large we still gaze in any direction other than the one to which we should be aspiring.

In her 1974 novel The Dispossessed, Ursula LeGuinn wrote, “You cannot buy the Revolution. You cannot make the Revolution. You can only be the Revolution. It is in your spirit, or it is nowhere”. To bring about our Revolution — one in which life is characterised by love over fear, familiarity instead of Other, common ground rather than entrenchment — we absolutely have to start being better. For inspiration, we can always look up to the stars.

Grant Price is the author of By the Feet of Men (Cosmic Egg, 2019) and Reality Testing (Black Rose, 2022). He lives in Berlin.

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