The title of this post is not a dirty joke in binary, it’s just the best a very tired man can do. It has recently become apparent to me that 101 essays such as ours, while helpful and no doubt useful to many people, are not quite sufficient.
Here the 101 analogy is useful. It refers to the traditional class-numbering system at American universities, where, for example, Literature 101 teaches you the basics you’ll need to take Lit 205, Lit 314, and eventually “What do you mean there are no jobs for a literature major?”
Thing is, it’s still college-level work. Lit 101 assumes that you know what a narrative point of view means, just like Bio 101 assumes you know what cells are. Unfortunately, in the past generation, many American universities have had to add pre-101 classes, such as Writing 075 (“This is a comma.”) or Biology 080 (“Evolution was not made up by liberals to trick you.”) or Math 045 (“It’s fucking long division, people.”).
In this same spirit, I feel like I should write a few words on the intellectual prerequisites for Social Justice 101.
We are, alas, a solipsistic species. Each of us is permanently trapped in our own head, in our own experience, our own opinions. Sometimes it seems like a majority of the cognitive biases that keep us stupid all boil down to “Everything is basically like I already think it is, and if it isn’t, it should be.” This is not a sin or a failure, it’s just the lousy OS our brains came pre-loaded with, and we all have to deal with it.
This, then, is the prerequisite I’m talking about, the thing that’s very hard to learn and that school didn’t teach you: Other people’s experiences of the world are not less real than your own.
No, seriously. I know they seem less real; they’re different from your own experience, which means they contradict 100% of the data you’ve got to work with. But (and this is, no joking intended, the tricky part) the world is not all about you.
That is a legitimately difficult idea to absorb. For each of us, all of the experience we have of the world has been all about us. In my personal experience, everything that’s ever happened in human history is measured by its impact on me personally. The importance of the First World War is whether I can use it in a screenplay, and to a lesser extent how it shaped the 20th-century history that led to my watching Jayce and the Wheeled Warriors when I was eight. When someone tells me how they developed a severe drug addiction in college, I have to mentally check the urge to tell the story about that one party that got totally out of control. This isn’t because I’m an asshole, it’s because I’m human. My being an asshole is an unrelated issue.
Some of you right now are taking a deep breath to loudly insist that you don’t do that, in which case congratulations, you have somehow acquired more empathy than any human being in history. Or, more likely, you’ve never really noticed how much you do, in fact, do that. Everyone does. We can’t help it. So if you say you never dismiss other people’s experiences or find a way to make them all about you, that tells me that you’re probably doing it a lot more than someone who is aware of the tendency and tries to correct for it.
Most Social Justice 101 writing assumes that you’ve absorbed this idea and are making the necessary corrections to your natural egocentrism. That’s an unfair assumption, I often think. Just because that insight came easily to some people doesn’t mean that others don’t struggle with it. Some folks make that mental leap as children, others have to wait longer. Some folks never do, they just go on believing that other people’s experiences should match up to their own existing notions.
It is particularly hard for straight white cis guys, in this culture, to get past that. We are constantly implicitly reassured that looking like us is normal, standard, what everyone is supposed to do. We’re at the center of almost every fictional narrative (It’s not Hermione Granger and the Deathly Hallows, is it?) and it’s generally much, much easier for us to never fully grasp that other people’s experiences are real. That’s not a moral failing or a weakness of character on our parts, it’s just how the rules of the game are set up right now.
So yeah, I’m asking you to make the leap that Stan made at the end of “With Apologies to Jesse Jackson”:
Stan: [comes to a certain realization] Wait a minute. That’s it! I don’t get it.
Stan: Don’t you see, Kyle?? I don’t get it! [smiles, then walks up to Token] Token, I get it now. I don’t get it. I’ve been trying to say that I understand how you feel, but, I’ll never understand. I’ll never really get how it feels for a black person to have somebody use the N word. I don’t get it.
Token: Now you get it, Stan. [smiles]
Stan: [smiles] Yeah. I totally don’t get it.
Yes, this is setting the bar on the floor. To get Social Justice 101, you have to be at least as progressive and enlightened as a fucking South Park episode. Of course, you also have to be able to generalize the principle being expressed in that bit, and understand that one must take other people’s word about their experiences in contexts other than American race relations. Which may be setting the bar a bit higher, and means we can look forward to a long wank about the N-word in comments.
As a final note, not to go all Carly Simon on you, but if you’re offended because you think that this post is about you personally, let me assure you: it wasn’t, but by definition it is now.