A modern practice in education, especially elementary education, is the ZONES of Regulation. In this model, we teach children expected versus unexpected behaviors, given the context of circumstances. For example, if we’re learning together, being in the Green Zone is what’s expected: alert, content, focused. If we’re on the playground, being in the Yellow Zone is entirely acceptable, because it’s expected: heightened alertness, perhaps a lot of action, louder voices, more movement. But in a collective classroom environment, Yellow Zone behaviors can be problematic for one’s self and other learners. And Red Zone behaviors – screaming, crying, rage, alarm – are very rarely expected behaviors, especially in school. But instead of saying it’s “bad,” which we never do, we say it’s “unexpected,” because there are circumstances in which Red Zone behaviors are not only expected but entirely appropriate: if someone falls and breaks their arm or if the house is on fire. Then, we would say that a Green Zone behavior is quite unexpected!
If we can (and we do) teach children that there is a continuum of acceptable emotions and behaviors, we ought to be able to take a little bit of our own medicine. Red Zone behaviors for kids are what I, as a sci-fi nerd, might in some cases think of as the Dark Side, and I defend it as expected and appropriate in some circumstances.
Last March, as part of the Slice of Life blog challenge, I authored a post on the Sith Code, and asked without irony, “is it unnatural or wrong to choose one’s self, one’s own wellness, one’s own safety? One’s own life?”
As you likely know if you know my work, I am an avowed enemy of oppression and an ardent champion of transgression, especially in the education space. These qualities also meaningfully and consistently inform my orientation to others, to psychology, and to society and its structures. It has long been my habit to seek out that which sets others free, and that immutable desire to liberate has become the cornerstone of my work with children. (Indeed, just this afternoon, well-timed fuel for this particular bonfire of inanity, my second graders watched a video that seemed to me overly reliant upon the idea of obedience, and it’s prompting quite a discussion about values.) Having found a growing group of fellow revolutionaries rising up against the structures that conspire or are explicitly constructed to oppress children, more and more in education appear to accept the maxim that I posited near the start of my first book on education:
“It is inhumane to view other people – not “even children,” but “especially children” – as ignorant, incapable objects that should obediently acquiesce and must be corrected when they don’t. That is a slaver’s mantra. It is a dictatorial, oppressive attitude, and I cannot abide harming children.”
It is axiomatic that children are often oppressed because they cannot by their nature defend themselves against oppression by larger, stronger people, in a system that does not recognize children as people. Children are considered – quite literally – to be objects in many cultures, given no rights and in many cases no personhood until they are what that society considers “adults.” This chattel mentality is present throughout modern American ideas about children, even if some may incorrectly think it anachronistic.
The natural lack of defense by children, of themselves, is quite precisely why I chose not to merely stand as an aegis between them and their oppressors, but to actively teach them personhood (transgressive though it is to the society within which I myself live) and to actively fight for them.
I mean precisely what I say: I fight for children, not just defend them. I will seek out the battlefield and initiate the first volley where I see injustice levied toward them. I will willingly and proactively wage social war, against the patriarchal and objectifying inhumanity that consigns people to non-personhood, where I see it. These enemies, rightly and clearly identified, stand against not only children, but against all who are othered. Knowing my enemies, and fighting them, is one of the most important incarnations of my most strongly-held ethics.
To fight for children is a crusade that has earned me anything from begrudging acceptance to honest praise by those who truly love children… but to fight for one’s self, even if for the same reasons and in the same ways, is a far stickier matter for many.
Not for me.
It is a given for most adults that we have the right to fight for our rights. Most adults, particularly Americans thanks to our historically-glorious if utterly-disregarded-of-late belief in ideals of enlightenment and liberty, believe that defending oneself against oppression, be it at the hands of the state or the hands of an individual or a group of others, is not only acceptable but a noble cornerstone of freedom. Defending oneself against violence – physical, material, sexual, emotional, relational, structural – and defending oneself against violation and injustice is in practically all circumstances a fait accompli wherever such wrongs may occur, in the eyes of those of us who uplift Thomas Paine.
However, there are those, often in the guise of “new age” zeitgeist, who are hellbent on nonviolence and kindness to the exclusion of all other attributes and courses. There are those who believe all shadow can and should be eliminated in favor of all light. There are posters, bloggers, vloggers, authors, auteurs, demagogues and dilettantes, who seem to revel in “positive thinking” and “the power of hope” and “attitude governing outcomes” as if they’ve never had to actually deal with any adversity beyond running out of vanilla creamer, but think that level of challenge equates to, say, poverty or racism or a broken vertebra.
It doesn’t. Some challenges are actually hard, and some challenges cannot be overcome through “staying positive.”
This piffle is not even exclusively the purview of the “shiny, happy people,” as it were. I saw a video recently in which conservative Arthur Brooks addressed the Kennedy School at Harvard, and suggested that his takeaway from a conversation with the Dalai Lama was that anger and contempt (polarization, as he says) should be met with warmheartedness. “You can show true strength,” Brooks said, “if the next time you hear contempt, you answer with warmheartedness.” He goes on to invoke the aphorism that your “enemies should be your friends.”
No. I refuse.
My heart cannot be whole if I warm it up to make it cozy for my enemies. And yes, I have enemies. You have enemies. And there is absolutely nothing wrong with that. I don’t understand the thinking that there is no shadow and all men are my brothers, all humans my family. No they’re not. I didn’t invite that, and I certainly don’t want it. There are people who I loathe, for their cruelty and for the damage they do to others. There are people I know I cannot have in my life, because for whatever reason, I know they are toxic to my health. Who drinks poison on the basis that “all liquids are essentially water?” Who jumps into every river, because “we’re all originally children who float in the womb?” That’s delusional insanity from an amplified psychosis, and I don’t want that foolishness clouding my authentic perceptions of the world. I have enemies, and so do you.
Those who destroy me, are my enemies.
Those who destroy the people I love, are my enemies.
Those who destroy children, are my enemies.
And I will fight them. I will fight them. And you can fight, too. That is my TL;DR tag. Here, I’ll make one of those bloggy text boxes for emphasis, in case you were scrolling past my prolix penchant:
You have the innate and immutable right to fight your enemies, and those who say you can’t or shouldn’t are lying to you.
You have a sovereign, unimpeachable, sovereign, inborn right to the whole and full range of your humanity. You can have love and hate. You can have brightness and darkness. You can use passivity and will. You can not act and you can act. You can turn the other cheek and you can ball up your fist and smash back with all of your rage. You can be silent and you can speak. You can whisper and you can bellow with your primal power, and you do have primal power. It’s yours.
As Helen Caldicott said, “sometimes it is appropriate to scream at them.”
I am not saying that you may need help or healing before you have access to and feel the power to have those things; but the right to all of it is inborn. I have found that the only people in my life who help me have those things, not just want them in an abstract way, are people who recognize that wounds can compromise one’s access and ability in these regards. Reconnecting to the broken-off parts of our abilities, or cultivating the growth of those things in us that were denied nurturing, can be an arduous process. I have many things that I am working on “for me, in me,” all the time, but I am at least cognitively aware that I have the right to work on myself, and to develop the full range of my capacities. I am not required to polarize myself, for any reason, in any circumstance, no matter the forces that have tried to oppress me into corners and extrude me through their ideological matrices to take the shapes that they’d prefer.
I can be a Jedi and I can be a Sith, and I don’t have to choose either light or dark. I’m not playing that game. I am not a pawn. I am a person.
As Obi-Wan said to Anakin in the very context of requiring polarization, “Only a Sith deals in absolutes.” I will never be absolutely Light, and I will never be absolutely Dark. I am, as we all are, gray, and choosing to acknowledge and accept that isn’t “giving in to hate” or “going down a dark road.” There are dark roads that need light, but there are also terrible lasers that need to be blown up.
As Star Wars fans will note, the line that prompted Obi-Wan’s admonishment was Anakin’s declaration that if Obi-Wan “is not with” Anakin, then he “is against” him. One might take this to mean that the Jedi don’t believe in enemies, and that that’s a preferable way of being, but that isn’t so. Even the great Mace Windu was willing to strike down Emperor Palpatine for what he believed was the right ethic. Enemies do exist, whether people choose to see them or not, and if any group should have learned that the hard way, it was the decimated Jedi Order.
There is evil in the world, things that are polarized, and to those who think they’re okay, they’re polarized light, and to the victims of those things, it’s polarized dark.
The blithely saccharine is absurd in 2018. Euphemisms and niceties and the turning of cheeks and the quiet acceptance of horror is madness in the context of that horror. I had originally detailed here a list of the polarized, destructive things I see around me, but rather than an impossible-to-fully-account list, suffice it to say I don’t think you, dear reader, need to think very hard to conceive of the destructive things going on around us.
Am I to turn my cheek to this? Think positive will myself to be better? Do good in the face of such bad and “believe” that good will always win? Pretend it’ll all be okay?
No. I refuse.
Sometimes you fight. Sometimes you start the fight. Sometimes you smash them.
The idea that there is no shadow in the light is blithering and moronic, and shows not only a fundamentally lacking understanding of the physics behind the inaccurate analogy, it also shows a pollyannaishness that can comes from the privilege of isolation from reality, ignorance borne of some kind of privilege or of seething indoctrination that warped perceptions or cognitive reasoning, or an incredible amount of mood altering substance of one form or another.
For the rest of us who live in reality, things aren’t all light. There is darkness in the world, and in me, and it’s my right to have it, and to use it. Pretending that all is well does no one any good, and I don’t have any desire to “make myself” happy. Happiness is vastly overrated. Civility, as Hitchens said, is vastly overrated, in the context of waging war against oppression and abject violence. This principle seems only counterintuitive to those who’ve done little true fighting, so it seems in my experience. I choose instead of seeking “contentment” to fight for what I need, for what I want, for those I love. Advancement of my cause, is my cause, flying my own banner ever-higher, and while this is not to say that I seek to oppress others – I despise oppression – but it is not oppressive to demand, advocate for, fight for, and (damn it all) break in to the vaults and seize by force what is rightly mine.
My rights are mine. I am myself, and my self is mine. I have a sovereign, innate right to my agency. I have an unimpeachable, inborn right to my identity. My voice is my birthright. My freedom from violence is something I would kill for, and the kind of mindset that cannot comprehend fighting to the end to live is an especially loathsome form of privilege to which I was never party.
Those of us who have been the object and victim of violence, especially as children, ought not be suppressed and mollified by florid sweetness. Our rage is righteous, and we can use it for profound good… and doing good for one’s self is good. I originally caveated this sentiment with the idea that that good for self ought not cause harm to others, but in the case of our enemies – those who seek to gain by oppression and destroy us – harm is a necessity. The material harm of those who seek to amass at our expense and exclusion, for example, is a justifiable harm. These are philosophical points, of course, but isn’t that the cornerstone of all of this?
Enough with philosophies of pacifying our anger at being wronged.
Enough with ideologies of accepting harm and violence.
Enough with suppressing ourselves for the gain of others.
The dojo of my growing and increasingly-free heart has no room in it for hanging mobiles made of sprites and gumdrops. I’m practicing the swordcraft of righteous self-centeredness, and cutting them down is not just okay, it’s good. While I aspire to be an ethical, moral, prosocial, pro-child, humanist self who believes in the unimpeachable individual and would, in the ideal, have all others except my enemies (oppressors, fascists, patriarchs, oligarchs, rapists, abusers, etc.) have those same rights, there is absolutely nothing misprioritized about putting allegiance to self at the center. I gave away far too much of myself to far too many people for far too long, and had far too little power over it all. That hurt. It hurt me as a child, when things were taken from me, when I was the object of violence, the subject of neglect, the sufferer of significant and formative pains. It hurts me still as an adult.
And it is understanding those wounds that empowers me to wage my war for myself against others who other.
“Dammit, Bones, you’re a doctor. You know that pain and guilt can’t be taken away with a wave of a magic wand. They’re the things we carry with us, the things that make us who we are. If we lose them, we lose ourselves. I don’t want my pain taken away! I need my pain!” – James T. Kirk in Star Trek V
I do not advocate causing others harm nor do I seek to do so. This piece should be taken as it is intended: a ferocious defense of ferocity, and an unrepentant support of going on the offensive against those who harm you. Your agency need not be exclusively pacifistic or “warmhearted” as Brooks suggests, and be it a transgressive and unexpected “NO!” when you actively deny your consent or the destruction of a relational dynamic that is poisonous to you or a physical response to someone who violates your person, you have a right to your Dark Side. It is an intrinsic and innate part of the human condition, and I have absolutely had it with “be nice, be happy” people who think our anger is wrong.
It’s not. Sometimes it’s appropriate to scream at them, just like Caldicott said.
So Brooks and the Dalai Lama and the New Agers and the turn-the-other cheek cheeks can keep their “it’s all light” and “there is no shadow” and “darkness begets darkness” nonsense to themselves. I’m better able to be me by being an authentic, fiery sagittarian. I am a warrior in defense of children, including my inner child, and I will if necessary start and win wars to protect him.
In Amistad, John Adams (portrayed by Anthony Hopkins), states the following, rebuffing the words of John C. Calhoun advocating that slavery is natural, moral, and inevitable:
“Now, gentlemen, I must say I differ … offering that the natural state of mankind is instead — and I know this is a controversial idea — is freedom. Is freedom. And the proof is the length to which a man, woman, or child will go to regain it, once taken. He will break loose his chains. He will decimate his enemies. He will try and try and try against all odds, against all prejudices, to get home.”
He will decimate his enemies. He will try and try and try, against all odds. This is, in stark contrast to the slaver’s mantra that depersonalizes others, a warrior’s mantra that steadfastly and strongly refuses to be depersonalized. We have a right to fight for our freedom, for our truest selves, and in doing so, we can use our agency for what ostensibly is “genuine good.” In being ferociously allegiant to myself, I have found that I am more ethical, more honest, more able to love, more able to find joy, more able to laugh, more able to do what I consider to be “good” in the world… but none of that is required of me.
I think I’m a good person in many ways, and I aspire to be the best I can, consistent with my ethics, and it is true that I abhor most violence in most circumstances. I said at the outset that I am an avowed enemy of oppression and an ardent champion of transgression, and that I seek out that which sets others free. Freedom is of utmost important to me, and I want others to have it, too. Societal and especially political structures are very difficult sometimes, and I do not pretend to have all the answers to every question, but I have found this one central tenet to be true, and worthwhile to write about here, in response to the recent spate of idiotic social media “think positive” memes that have floated across my screen lately: That darkness is not necessarily bad, and lightness is not necessarily good.
Polarization is unhealthy, in my experience, and I claim my right to the whole, full, rich continuum of feelings, thoughts, and powers that help me be who I really am, and to do what I really want to do.
And I’ll fight with that full range. I’ll fight, and I’ll win.