Saturday, June 18, 2011

Styrofoam and Social Context, OR Captain Planet Would Not Be Having This

I went camping a week ago up in Ontario and I forgot to bring a cooler.  I wasn't bringing any food across the border, so I guess I just x-ed cooler considerations off my list of things to remember altogether.  But since there was beer in play, we needed a cooler, which was annoying because my house is like, 50% coolers and I didn't really need another one.  I remembered, though, that you can often get those styrofoam cooler things that you can't take to the beach because they ALWAYS wind up blowing into the water, and then you have to chase them and this always happens when you're at Hampton Beach or whatever and you're kind of pushing the whole "summer has arrived!" business so it's -17 degrees in the water and the second you put a foot in the water you start having cardiac events and then by the time you get over the shock, the cooler is halfway to the Cape, so you swim out and get it, drag it back, fill it with sand and sit on the beach in the glorious sun unable to appreciate a beautiful summerish day because you're trying to stave off hypothermia. 

Styrofoam's a jerk.

Anyway, the reason these things continue to exist is because the human brain can block out trauma, so in Ontario when we headed out to get supplies, I said we could just get one of those things, to which Canadian Friend Ben replied, "we could, but we don't have those up here."  I reacted to this with what I would probably class as glee, because...that's sound policy, right?  Styrofoam is basically a giant punch to the face of nature, and nature doesn't deserve that.  So in Canada, they're like "don't punch nature in the face, guys."  I like that a lot.  Ben thinks this is an overreaction, because he lives in a place where this is rightly accepted as common sense and it's not a point of contention in public discourse, whereas I live in a place where the people elected to run the country recently decided to replace the biodegradeable flat- and silverware in the Congressional cafeteria with styrofoam out of spite, because the point is definitely pissing on your political opponents, because only your political opponents have to live on the planet Earth. 

So whatever we worked it out and I got a new cooler to keep our beer cold and all was well.  This week, the same friend has gotten me hooked on watching old Captain Planet episodes on YouTube, and we've been reflecting on how great it is that someone made these.  The beauty of Captain Planet and the Planeteers is that the power to make a difference is always clearly on the Planeteers.  Captain Planet helps out when shit gets real - and as Ben pointed out, it always does - but it's the Planeteers that do most of the seeking out of polluters and combating them.  Each episode closes with a little PSA about how you can make small differences that add up to big change.  This wasn't seen as filthy pinko-Commie brainwashing, it was just...common sense.  Why wouldn't you teach kids about not littering?  Why wouldn't you tell them that if you are considerate of other people and the Earth, everyone wins?  Why wouldn't you teach that to EVERYONE?
Earth! Water! Fire! Wind! Heart!
It can be hard to quantify and explain social context to people.  Ben thought I was losing my damn mind over the non-existence of styrofoam coolers, but what that represents is a society that accepts and in fact defaults to ideas that I have to argue with people about on the regular.  I've been trying to write for a couple days about the valley I'm in as a feminist right now; I'm in one of those phases where everything just feels very oppressive, like even though I have wonderful people around me who believe in equality, there's just too much to do.  Sometimes the reality that I will probably die without the best hopes of feminism being realized being accomplished weighs very heavily on me, and that can be tough to wade through.  The idea of social context is very present in discussions about feminism, because there is so much of our society tinged with our concepts of gender and sex.  Feminists willing to talk feminism in public often find themselves on the receiving end of charges like "you're taking this too seriously" or "if you weren't so hostile, maybe people would listen to you."  I understand where this is coming from.  We're groomed to privilege "passionless," logical, academic arguments and devalue emotional presentation of arguments.  However, the reason people get upset is a disparity in perspective: for the feminist, this is a discussion of a woman's right to occupy equal space in society as a man, and for her debate opponent, it is a thought experiment that can exist in the abstract without affecting their life*.  In this stance, you often see backlash to attempts to get people to make room in discourse for equality or awareness.  I understand that too.  Changing the status quo is weird and uncomfortable feeling.  The thing is, it only feels that way for a short while.  After the adjustment period, everyone benefits. 

This is why I'm sad that there doesn't seem to be a new Captain Planet, and that our discourse is couched in terms of extreme individuality and reinforces various -ist concepts that divide and injure us all.  There's a sense that without sexism or racism or homophobia, there can't be humor, and we can't enjoy our coexistence.  Not to overwhelm you with the various media I'm watching these days, but I was watching Golden Girls this morning, and the episode was one where Sophia finds a Cuban boxer, who she is going to pay fight fees for.  He seems like a total Hispanic caricature, and the ladies sort of treat him as such.  One night, right before the fight, they find that he is missing.  They locate him in a practice space...playing violin.  It turns out that he is auditioning for Julliard, and needs the fight purse money to attend the school if he gets in.  He gently points out that the ladies assumed he was just some ignorant Hispanic, and lapses into a little monologue about how Cubans are people too - "if you cut us, do we not bleed?" - and then after a brief pause, says he thought about acting, hence the dramatics.  It's funny and makes the point without shaming; you're aware of the stereotype, you have to think about it, but you think twice about it.  That's all it takes - awareness of the dynamics we see and the fact that they intersect with a wealth of dynamics we don't see because we don't live the same life as everyone we encounter. 

We'll always be different, and that's why conversations about how you're "colorblind" or what have you are unconstructive.  It's not as easy as pretending that no one is different.  Reaching the best of social structure means creating a common space where we can explore each other and make room for one another.  That means protecting common resources - the earth, infrastructure, governments, political structures - so that we all have equal access to this space and can achieve our own best lives.  We begin with building context. 

*  This probably sounds like only men oppose feminism, but that's only true if we presume that gender disparity only hurts women, which is not the case.  For every expectation of women in society, there is an opposing pole of expectation for men, locking everyone into certain spaces.  Sexism limits everyone, but our society is influenced it, so that's what we know how to navigate.  This is why women, who may not be anti-feminist in reality, may defend sexist or oppressive concepts, because it's a known quantity. 

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