Subtle Shifts

July 25, 2012 § Leave a comment

A little while ago, The Rumpus published an incredibly powerful piece by Dylan Nice called Truth In Nonfiction: A Testimonial about the impact Orwell’s essay “Shooting an Elephant” had on Nice”s perspective. Here is just a taste:

I’d been raised in a culture that believed the world would be much simpler if the elite left quit trying to make it complicated. But here was an essay written by a troop on the ground in a seventy-year old occupation, who acknowledged the systems of control were far too complicated to remain wise, let alone noble…I was a hunter and familiar with being a poor shot. I could see the elephant in the distance, feel the crowd behind me, watch myself load the shell in the chamber, my hands shaking. I understood Orwell was a man who did not want to act rashly, who considered each party involved, knew there was no real urgency in killing the elephant, but killed it anyway because the inherent inadequacy of the individual in a world of larger, wealthier, more powerful forces…What happened while I read Orwell’s essay eight years ago was small…In the span of a few thousand words over a half-century old, the world got bigger for me in a quiet way.

This is basically a road map for overcoming stereotyping. Nice starts his essay by describing his background and how he was raised to think about the world and Democrats (socialists), Al Gore (“baby killer”), and people who belittled the Bush administration and the war on terror (cowards and fools). And stereotyping can go both ways – it is beyond easy to assume that everyone who thinks differently than you is the same in some unforgivable way. Generalizations become fixed identities become the basis for discrimination, and the process needs to be consciously interrupted if anything is going to change.

I interact with veterans as part of my job, and I also volunteer as a rape crisis counselor, and going into both positions I had a lot of preconceived ideas about what kind of people I would be working with in both roles. Some of them were true – most of the veterans I see are men – and some of them weren’t – I have yet to advocate in person for someone under 25 – but even so, at the start all I had were stereotypical expectations. When did that change? When I met actual individuals and started working with them.

That’s exactly what happened for Nice: his stereotyping about the “elite left” changed when he got to know Orwell through his essay. Nice could empathize with Orwell (and use his common background in hunting) to imagine what it was like for Orwell to face a crowd of people and an impossible task of controlling an elephant, knowing the crowd’s presence would force him to act but feeling hopeless about the situation and his power to control things in a world that leaves the individual “inherent[ly] inadequate.” Damn that’s powerful. All it took was figuratively walking a bit in Orwell’s mud-sticking shoes.

So. Human interaction. Let’s get on that.

P.S. There’s also an awesome sketch of the definition of fem-i-nist by MariNaomi over at The Rumpus.

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