What Kind Of War Does A Virus Wage?

The world of virology is rife with belligerent metaphors. COVID-19 is a viral invader which attacks and attempts to colonise a host. The host fights against the virus with its own defence systems in the hope of repelling the invader. Meanwhile, the societal fight against COVID-19 is likened to a war effort as the heroes of the NHS support those infected by the virus while the rest of the country contributes to the fight by staying at home and doing all we can to lower the rate of transmission. We have to win this fight after all and it’s a big one, it’s a pandemic.

These metaphors are useful. The former helps describe how viruses exist and how they infect us, while the latter reminds us of the severity of the pandemic and the scale of the response needed to meet it. However, they are both metaphors – “a figure of speech in which a word or phrase is applied to an object or action to which it is not literally applicable” – and just as a virus can’t literally be said to invade a host (although we do talk of a virus spreading) so we can’t really go to war against a virus because a virus, strictly speaking, isn’t an enemy (even though it does very much threaten our lives). Because an enemy is defined as “a person who is actively opposed or hostile to someone or something” and personhood often depends on possessing conscious agency – the ability to desire something and act in a way so as to get it. So, really, when it comes to fighting the war against COVID-19 we aren’t at war with a virus we are at war with one another.

Today we see this war play out in the political decisions those in power make which determine how well (or badly) we will be able to survive this pandemic. The lack of ventilators, the insufficient supply of medical equipment, and the state of the NHS have their origins in politics. As did the decision to bail out the banks after the 2008 crash and foist the debt onto the public via austerity, which further undermined our social fabric. This response based on a long-standing neoliberal capitalist hegemony in the UK (and beyond) which prioritises commerce and capital over community and well-being. This politico-economic regime a logical continuation of our entrenched class system that sees a few (e.g. Kings and capitalists) hoard wealth at the expense of the many (e.g. serfs and workers). And the very wealth of this hierarchical system founded upon many genuine invasions, in which an attacking force attempted to destroy populations and colonise their territories. I am talking of the spread of the British Empire and its genocidal colonisation of so much of the world. If we were to use a viral metaphor the Empire would be the virus.

Many have fought and questioned this system of oppression for centuries and, now, the pandemic is making many more of us question it too. This violent and soul-destroying system can be replaced by ways of life that are more healing, communal and just. Ones which are ultimately founded on love, not hate. For this to happen I think it worthwhile to be able to trace the origins of our political circumstances in their long, bloodied and genocidal history. The pandemic is about so much more than a virus, it is deeply political, and for our politics to change we must understand them from as many different angles as possible including anti-colonial, feminist, queer and intersectional. In the meantime we will continue to fight a war on COVID-19 but who survives it and how depends on the politics we practice and, to date, it is our politicians, not our viruses, that wage war. This can change and we must be the people to change it.

“Truth counts, Truth does count.”

So says Mr Emerson in E.M. Forster’s lovely novel, A Room with a View, about repressed middle class Edwardians who happily travelled around Europe and went skinny dipping in ponds. Like those fusty Edwardians I too was long schooled in the fine English arts of passive aggression and stiff-upper-lipness. Confrontation was something to be avoided at all costs and emotions were best left repressed. Nevertheless, after a breakdown in my early 20s I slowly learned that mental health is vital as is the ability to experience, process and communicate my emotions. A not dissimilar breakdown last year taught me that telling the truth is also vital, be it recounting my own experiences of suffering and isolation as a gay man or speaking up for the wider suffering within the LGBTQIA+ community. Just like Lucy Honeychurch, the protagonist of A Room with a View, I have learned that love and truth do count, they really do (incidentally, my privilege let me go travelling in South America, much further away than Europe, and there was definitely the odd bit of skinny dipping).

The COVID-19 pandemic requires love and truth on an unprecedented scale. A love that is being demonstrated in abundance by the UK’s key workers who are working tirelessly to save lives and a love we need to show towards ourselves, those we care for, the vulnerable, the NHS, our key workers and, actually, everyone. And the truth matters just as much because many people still don’t understand the severity of the pandemic and the need for us all to take action following the recommendations of the WHO (World Health Organisation) and medical experts. This includes staying at home, regardless of whether we have symptoms or not, an incredibly simple yet powerful thing we can do to stop the spread of the virus.  We can follow the advice of the government as well but we must remember that the government has been slow to act, so there will be times when we can act more responsibly than Boris Johnson is telling us to. It’s in our hands (but hopefully not on our hands because we’re washing them regularly).

This isn’t a self-help blog and I can’t tell you what to do but I can tell you that I am doing my best to honour truth and love. I’m having difficult conversations with people I care about (conversations we might call ‘conflict’ but are actually about trying to do what’s best for everyone) and encouraging people to speak up for themselves. And, I confess, there are times when I have shied away from these conversations because I fear someone’s reaction more than I do the consequences of inaction. I will do my best to change this behaviour because it could save lives. I am trying to look after myself so I’m in a better place to look after others. I am trying not to catastrophise (too much) but I am also trying not to deny the rapid ways in which ‘normality’ has irrevocably changed. I am trying to love myself, I am trying to tell myself the truth, and I am taking it one day at a time. Over to you Mr Emerson and Dr. Rita Issa:

“…we fight for more than Love or Pleasure: there is Truth. Truth counts, Truth does count.”

Queer Medicine

“Queer people don’t grow up as ourselves, we grow up playing a version of ourselves that sacrifices authenticity to minimise humiliation & prejudice. The massive task of our adult lives is to unpick which parts of ourselves are truly us & which parts we’ve created to protect us.”

This tweet from Alexander Leon recently went viral and is testimony to the many, many struggles queer people face in claiming their identities in the face of prejudice, ignorance and violence. He went on to say:

“It’s massive and existential and difficult. But I’m convinced that being confronted with the need for profound self-discovery so explicitly (and often early in life!) is a gift in disguise. We come out the other end wiser & truer to ourselves. Some cis/het people never get there.”

And that last sentence, “Some cis/het people never get there”, really stands out for me as many cis/het people never get the chance to profoundly explore their identities beyond the aggressive and shaming narratives of patriarchal heternormativity telling them the sort of lives they should be living, the sort of salaries they should be earning, houses they should be buying, gender roles they should be conforming to etc. Whereas, for the queers who make it through the many dark nights of their souls and experience this “profound self-discovery” the results really can be liberating as the bonds that bind us snap and we gain one of the greatest gifts, freedom. We may well still be alone, trying to make it in a world that isn’t ready for us, but our souls are a little less bound and much more free.

I call this queer medicine. It might be bitter to taste (and that’s not even the half of it) but the results are healing. And the irony is that as the heteronorm excludes, kills and ridicules us, queer medicine is an elixir anyone can take, whatever their sexualities and genders. Because we are all capable of profoundly discovering ourselves and that wisdom and truth on the other side of unconditioning is available to us all. Queer medicine does not discriminate, it’s for the taking for everyone, bottoms up.

 

The Trouble With Sex Education’s Eric, Part 2

Content note/trigger warning: sexual assault and rape.

There’s a scene in the final episode of Sex Education season 1 (spoilers) which sees Eric, a fabulous, black, gay and queer guy, in detention with Adam, who has been homophobically bullying Eric throughout the series. The bullying continues and Adam shoots mushed up bits of paper through a straw at Eric’s face. They then fight over a music stand and Adam violently shoves Eric. Eric shoves back. The shoving continues until Adam overpowers Eric and pushes him to the ground. Eric, in self-defence, spits in Adam’s face. Adam does it back, asking: “How do you like it?” Eric says, “I don’t” to which Adam replies, “Yeah, didn’t think so.” There’s a pause as the two look one another in the eye and Eric raises his head a fraction (a tiny fraction) and then Adam kisses him before going down on him. You can watch the scene here (but you probably don’t want to) and you can reread a blog post I wrote on this last year. My biggest concern is that we’re being led to believe that violence between men isn’t problematic and that the ending of a storyline of physical and psychological abuse with barely-consented-to sex is somehow a happy ending. As the series creator, Laurie Nunn, said, they were “telling a love story through bullying.”

I want to make it categorically clear that it is impossible to tell a love story through bullying. Bullying and any form of abuse is the opposite of love and if it results in sex the likelihood is that the sex involved is actually rape or sexual assault. Naturally, I was all for not bothering with series 2 given I’d felt so let down but after a number of friends started singing its praises I decided to watch some of the episodes. Regarding the Eric and Adam plotline, Adam has been shipped off to military school and Eric begins a relationship with the epic and loving Rahim who is kind, compassionate, loving and all the things someone might want in a partner. But. Adam returns and surprise, surprise, Eric starts to fall for him again. Otis, Eric’s best friend, has a go at Eric for wanting to return to Adam: “…this is about you being so self-hating that you’d let yourself fall for someone who literally treats you like shit.” But Eric fights back, defending Adam and saying that he’s changed. We do witness a little of this change as Adam struggles with a lack of friends and his bisexuality but as for how he treated Eric, while he claims to now realise that he treated him very badly he doesn’t ever say sorry. Come the final episode and Adam interrupts the school play and makes a grant gesture to Eric, asking to hold his hand. Eric consents. It’s not long before he dumps Rahim and Eric’s family are delighted because apparently being with an emotionally sensitive man who didn’t attack and abuse him was a bad thing but getting with one’s aggressor is to be celebrated.

There are many things that Sex Education gets right but I don’t think this storyline is one of them. It glamourises and romanticises abuse and violence between men encouraging us to champion the dysfunctional and previously violent relationship between Eric and Adam. The sexual assault of series 1 gets zilch reference precisely because we’re not supposed to see it as sexual assault (likewise in real life) and men attacking men and finding romance through bullying is supposed to be sexy and the stuff of happy endings. The issue is infantilised and treated as a will-they-won’t-they sort of tease rather than a nuanced story exploring shame, self-loathing, violence and sexual violence between men within and without the LGBTQ+ community.

Freedom And The Divine Right Of Kings

“We live in capitalism. It’s power seems inescapable. So did the divine right of Kings.”

So said Ursula Le Guin in her acceptance speech at the National Book Awards back in 2014. And, as ever, she was right. Capitalism, as the prioritising of money over everything else, and the toxic cultures it creates has resulted in the deaths of millions of people, pushed countless people into poverty, sent countries to war, corrupted democracies, eradicated species and destroyed so much of the earth. Hand in hand with authoritarianism, racism, patriarchy, heteronormativity, imperialism, aristocracy and a whole host of other unjust power structures the grip of capitalism is agonising. But beyond despair Le Guin believed in the possibility of change.

“Any human power can be resisted and changed by human beings.”

However, as the UK endures another Conservative majority government so change is harder to imagine but, for those of us that can, we must do our best to try. We must imagine a time beyond systemic racism, beyond rape culture, beyond the devastation of public services, and beyond capitalism. We must imagine a time where the leading values aren’t selfishness, greed, prejudice and violence but compassion, empathy, kindness and resilience, the exact values we’ll need as we build the worlds we want. And if you need any tips on how to exercise and expand your imagination, Le Guin has more advice to offer:

“Truth is a matter of the imagination. The soundest fact may fail or prevail in the style of its telling.”

Taken from her novel The Left Hand of Darkness, this quote reminds us that however sure we are of our truths – that all people are equal, that everyone has a right to free healthcare, that no one should face violence – we still have to communicate them well. Whilst the facts are vital and telling them is crucial so too is transforming those facts into stories which will engage people’s imaginations and emotions, allowing them to see and feel the change we care so passionately about. Stories are the bedrock of empathy, which facilitates our ability to care about others.

And the more of us that care the more of us there will be to take action and challenge the racism, sexism, transphobia, ableism and other forms of discrimination that are on the rise. The more of us there will be to question our privileges and redistribute them so as to increase equality. The more of us there will be to actively resist the oppressive and dangerous policies of this bigoted government. Change and resistance are possible, we must never forget. Indeed, for many who lived during the reign of King Charles I of England and Scotland it might have seemed impossible to imagine a time when this divinely appointed despot wouldn’t have so much power over their lives. And today, it might seem impossible to imagine a time when Borish Johnson, who rules with all the arrogance of someone who has been divinely appointed, doesn’t have so much power over our lives. But, following two civil wars, Charles I was found guilty of high treason as “tyrant, traitor, murderer and public enemy” and beheaded on 30th January 1649. And I don’t think it will be long before Johnson is metaphorically beheaded (probably by his own party) as he fails to deliver on the lies he promised. In the meantime, we must keep imagining, keep hoping and keep doing the work that needs to be done so we, like Le Guin, can be the recipients of that most beautiful of rewards: freedom.

Will Elsa Ever Be Gay?

Elsa’s journey to lesbianism has been a long one. It began in the subtext of the first movie (I mean, the metaphor speaks pretty loudly and Let It Go did become an LGBTQ+ anthem) and became a rallying call in the hashtag #GiveElsaAGirlfriend dating back to 2016. Over the years those at Disney regularly alluded to Elsa’s possible homosexuality without ever  committing to it in what is a classic case of queer baiting as the fans did the imaginative labour (and spent their rainbow dollars) while Disney never had to come out for LGBT+ equality and representation. Then an unknown female figure was spotted in the sequel’s trailer and we’d finally been given a glimpse of Elsa’s future girlfriend! Alas not, as it’s now been made clear Elsa isn’t going to fall in love with a woman (or a person of any gender for that matter).

“Like the first movie,” said Kiristen Anderson-Lopez, the film’s songwriter, “Elsa is not just defined by a romantic interest. There are so many movies that define a woman by her romantic interest. That’s not a story that we wanted to tell at this point in time. What we really wanted to tell was if you have these powers, how do you grow and change and find your place in the world and find answers that haven’t been found before?” And Anderson-Lopez is right, there are so many movies that define a woman by her romantic interest. But there are zero Disney movies that allow a protagonist to be defined by their romantic interest in someone of the same gender.

Furthermore, being defined by a same-gender romance doesn’t mean a character has to be reduced to a stereotype or trope. In fact, given how Elsa’s society treated her for having ice powers it wouldn’t be surprising if they shunned and shamed her for being gay, thus traumatising her and forcing her on a lone quest for healing and self-empowerment. Being Elsa and being fab she would find resilience in the face of hostility and liberation in the face of ignorance and if along the way she found love then, my God, she would deserve it and the audience would celebrate it. To clarify, the problem with reducing LGBTQ+ characters to their romantic interest has nothing to do with LGBTQ+ people or characters but everything to do with the ignorance, prejudice and lack of creativity of the heterosexuals who contribute to oppressive cultures of heteronormativy and benefit from its privileges and violent policing of binaries. Tokenism and stereotyping are perpetrated by oppressors, not the oppressed. In the wrong hands Elsa would be reduced to a trope but in the right ones she would be shown for the multi-faceted and brilliant gay character she could be in the face of a world of hostile bigotry and callous indifference. But something tells me that the courage and bravery so prevalent in the hearts of all queer people who have to fight simply to exist is not to be found in the offices of the billion-dollar company that is Disney. I guess I should just let it go.

Imagination Is The Best (Now, Go Read A Novel)

Imagination is defined as “the faculty or action of forming new ideas, or images or concepts of external objects not present to the senses”. Or, as Ursula Le Guin put, “imagination acknowledges reality, starts from it, and returns to it to enrich it” (Making Up Stories, 2013). An idea, a hypothesis, a lyric, a harmony, a story, a poem, a thesis, a recipe, it’s as if imagination is vital to almost everything we do. Which is why, as I mentioned earlier, the new Cats movie and the current state of politics are symptomatic of a dearth of imagination. Yet, the New Stories of our times, while brilliantly critical of business-as-usual, can still end up sounding a bit old-fashioned, a little unimaginative if you will. So, I think most of us could do with stretching our imaginations a little (or a lot) and we can start with reading a novel.

Because novels come in all shapes and sizes, and many, many genres, and all these genres have a thing or two to teach us. Say, you’re one of those Silicone Valley tech-guru types offering a vision of an all-singing, all-dancing, wizz-bang future, then you’re flying in the space of science-fiction, looking to an imagined future to help inform the present. Or maybe you like harking back to the glory days of yore when England was England or even further back to a time before the Romans invaded and wiped out our pagan heritage, then you’re riding through the realm of fantasy, looking back through history and giving it your own spin. Or maybe you don’t truck with fiction and prefer to focus on the “facts”. Then let me refer you to realism, as equally fictitious as the other genres, but working just as hard to engage the imagination of the reader with concepts a little more familiar than space ships and trolls. Other popular genres for modern storytellers include dystopia – the world’s going to sh*t; uptopia – the world will be great again if we do it this way; whodunnit – who’s to blame for all this; and romance – how to fall back in love with yourself in ten easy steps. I’d say a book like Homo Sapiens by Yuval Noah Harari, shelved in non-fiction, manages to engage all these genres yet despite professing to have a written A Brief History of Humankind he barely mentions a single novel, no poetry either.

Ideas need the imagination because it’s the faculty that allows us to engage with them. As Ursula Le Guin put it, “Truth is a matter of the imagination. The soundest fact may fail or prevail in the style of its telling.” So if you want to get stylish in your telling you’re going to have to do better than a bullet point list and would do well by exercising that imagination of yours. And if you want an imaginative workout, you could start by reading a novel.

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