“Racism is Dead.”

“Racism is dead.”

This is a sentiment that is held among quite a number of people in today’s society. To them, America as a whole has moved past its racist history and is moving forward. To the latter, I agree – America is better than it was prior to the Civil Rights Movement. However, that doesn’t mean that there is no racism in America. Racism is not dead.

Racism also extends beyond believing one’s own skin color is superior over another’s. Racism embodies cultural or ethnic superiority complexes as well. Furthermore, everyone harbors racist thoughts from time to time, to a certain degree. This is referred to as an implicit bias and does not necessarily make someone a bad person for having them. However, that being said, it is how we choose to act on those implicit biases that measures the character of who we are.

For my visionary fiction, I chose to conceive a story in which these implicit biases are apparent and held accountable. I also wanted to write a story that touched on recent events so that it would be relevant to the times we live in. In doing so, I decided to focus on the consequences of Donald Trump’s ascent to the presidency. In the time before, during, and after Trump’s appointment as President of the United States, we have already seen instances in which bigotry has been exemplified and even celebrated. A few examples include the controversial “Muslim ban” and his defense of white nationalists. As a result of Trump’s actions, more and more people are becoming less afraid to show their racist views in public. In order to reflect this rise of overt racism, I chose to center the events of my story in a climate that would further escalate tensions.

The setting of my story takes place in 2024, around the time of the presidential elections. The current president, a Democrat, spent a majority of his tenure undoing the divisive actions of Trump’s presidency through reform that encouraged more immigrants to come to the United States, in an effort to attract more talent to the country and boost its affluence. However, just before the presidential elections of 2024, a string of terrorist attacks strike America at its core. News breaks out that the group responsible for the attacks has strong ties to a radical Islamic terrorist organization. As a result, a lot of Americans are outraged for the current President’s lax policy on immigration, essentially stating that he allowed these attacks to happen. When it comes time to the elections, a new contender to the presidency ends up winning the election, largely due to his platform of increasing security in America. Once the new President is elected to office, he passes an executive order that allows him to overstep certain constitutional boundaries for the sake of national security. He names it the Nationalist Act. This act spells bad news for a number of people who belong to minority groups, including the main character, Musa Al-Haqq.

Musa is a Black, Muslim teenager living in Chicago, Illinois during the events of the story. Musa becomes alarmed when the President announces that every person must wear an implant under their skin. The President claims that the artificial intelligence, or AI, housed within the chip will be able to analyze a person’s behavioral and demographic data in order to spot a potential terrorist and prevent the attack from happening, with a success rate of 95%. However, Musa isn’t surprised to hear that a large majority of the America was not opposed to the President’s declaration, given the public’s fear of what happened in the previous months regarding the terrorist attacks. Ever since the attacks, Islamophobia has increased by 400% over the past year. Musa has no choice but to submit to the President’s declaration, because if he doesn’t, then he will be thrown in jail for his dissent.

A few months pass and Musa continues to live his life as he normally would. In fact, the news outlets proclaim that the implant has successfully thwarted 11 terrorist plots before they could be carried out. The public seems to be generally pleased with the President’s plan if it meant that their security was better. However, one day out of the blue, Musa’s implant flags him as a potential terrorist. As a result he is thrown into jail and interrogated by the authorities even though Musa has done nothing wrong.

As it turns out, the AI was predisposed to harbor suspicions against certain “traits.” These included Musa’s race and religion, as he was a Black Muslim. Upon clearing Musa, the authorities free him, but it is not without consequence. The media puts his story on spotlight, as they question the veracity of the AI within the implant. A huge controversy spills over the nation as people argue whether or not it’s okay for one person to suffer if it means that the majority of the people flagged are actually terrorists. After numerous hate mails and racist diatribes directed to him, Musa commits suicide.

The story is supposed to highlight the dangers of implicit biases, especially in a technological setting such as in artificial intelligence. If these systems are not monitored closely, then false positives such as the one in Musa’s case could prove to be harmful, or even deadly. Furthermore, the story is supposed to call attention to the idea that the actions of a handful of people don’t dictate the intentions of the whole group – a concept that many people overlook in today’s society.

Challenge Yourself to Question Everything

“The decolonization of the imagination is the most dangerous and subversive form there is: for it is where all other forms of decolonization are born. Once the imagination is unshackled, liberation is limitless.” – Walida Imarisha, Octavia’s Brood.

The ability to be able to think critically and challenge what is believed to be concrete is a truly dangerous ability. It allows us to challenge authority, to spark change, and to break the ways of old. Maybe that’s why we were told to fall in line while growing up. Because change is often an unpredictable thing – but often times it’s also necessary.

Social progress has always been a byproduct of change. Without change, we wouldn’t be living in the world we’re in right now. Martin Luther King created social progress in the Civil Rights Movement when he challenged the systemic racism that persisted in America during the mid-20th century. Mohandas Gandhi created social progress in decolonizing British rule in India when he challenged the imperialistic grip placed on his nation. For social progress to occur, it takes a period of time before change takes place. With the development of science fiction and visionary fiction, as Walidah Imarisha and Adrienne Maree Brown call it, social change is able to take place even faster than before.

Science fiction and genres like it help to expedite social progress and change because they actively question current power structures and environments. As Brown puts it, “Science fiction is the perfect “exploring ground,” as it gives us the opportunity to play with different outcomes and strategies before we have to deal with the real-world costs.” Imagination flourishes in literature and thus we are exposed to these revolutionary ideas that question the very nature of human society as it stands. It also expedites social progress by broadening the scope of activism.

Science fiction allows for the dissemination of ideas to people that might not normally be able to access those thoughts, whether it’s because of educational barriers or some other obstacle. Streeby puts it best when she writes, “At a time when many despair that climate change science is too difficult for people without advanced science degrees to understand, Butler’s critical archiving activity as well as her imaginings of forms of symbiosis beyond possessive individualism are especially illuminating.” Streeby is commenting on the fact that Octavia Butler’s work allows people to process scientific ideas without getting lost in the technical jargon that a lot of scientific papers possess.

Practice What You Preach

You speak as though religion was created to unite humanity as a collective – yet, you espouse words of division and hatred. You speak of spreading peace amongst the land – yet, you attack those who do not share the same beliefs as you. You speak against the evils of hypocrisy – yet, you struggle to admit that you conspire in the very act you condemn. To the religious zealots of the world, I implore you to cease the messages of hating or looking down upon people who do not share the same view as you. By treating others with malice, you only serve to weaken the very foundation of your religion and drive the people you aim to convert away from you.

Hate begets hate begets hate. By preaching violence unto those who do not believe in the same faith, you are only perpetuating more violence. In propagating the act of violence, you are actively working against the notion of peace that you claim your religion creates. Take the novel Lagoon by Nnedi Okorafor for example. In the novel, the protagonist, Adaora, criticizes the abusive advice given by the bishop of her husband’s church. She says, “How does him slapping me in the face bring peace, Father? Eh? How can a man slap his wife ‘in the name of Jesus’?” (Okorafor, 56). Adaora is right. How can peace be brought upon by violence? Simple. It cannot. The very act of harming another individual goes against the nature of peace itself. Similarly, violence cannot be justified through the verses of a scripture because there exist other verses that forbid such violent acts.

Justifying violence through scripture is also unacceptable because there are other verses in scripture that condemn that very behavior. In a research journal written by Henry Munson, he writes, “The same Gospel of Matthew that declares ‘His blood be on us, and on our children’ (27:25) also declares ‘Love your enemies, bless them that curse you’ (5:44). Similarly, the same Quran that states ‘slay the idolaters wherever you find them’ (9:5) also states ‘Let there be no compulsion in religion’ (2:256).” Just as there are verses that can be interpreted as justifying violence, there are verses that prohibit committing acts of violence. Munson goes on to say that “one often has to wrestle strenuously with ancient sacred texts to make them tolerant and tolerable in an age when the slaughter of the Other is no longer generally deemed an act of righteous zeal.” Munson is saying that because these scriptures were revealed long ago in a different context than today, the interpretation of these verses becomes difficult to truly understand at face value. That being said, it is imperative to interpret these texts in a modern day context – one where senseless acts of violence are not acceptable by any standard. Furthermore, maintaining an “Us versus Them” mentality only serves to drive away others from your belief.

Maintaining an “Us versus Them” mentality only serves to divide people and further drive a wedge between the followers of your faith and those who do not follow. The divide created by such a divisive mentality is seen in Lagoon when Okorafor writes about the relationship between Adaora and her husband Chris: “Neither of them had ever called the other evil or illogical … until the last year after Chris had had the scare on the airplane from Lagos to Owerri and became born again. Since then, things had unraveled,” (Okorafor, 170). Chris’s abusive behavior towards Adaora only began after he became religious to the point of extreme devotion. While there is nothing wrong with being devoted to your personal beliefs, there is something inherently wrong when those beliefs force you to ostracize and even harm those who do not share the same ideals. As a result of Chris’s abuse, Adaora strayed further and further from the religion that Chris believed in and Father Oke preached about. Nnedi Okorafor even wrote in her blog about Lagoon that what she fears the most about certain forms of Christianity is not the bizarreness of them, but rather that too often they promote the hate of indigenous traditions and spiritualties of Nigeria. Consequently, Okorafor highlights these extreme sects in a negative light within her book, essentially dispelling her readers from even considering about following such a hateful ideology. If your duty as a representative of your religion is to bring as many people into your fold, then there is a clear dissonance when your actions lead others away from your guidance.

As a devout believer, your goal is to present your religion in a way that attracts others to your cause. How can you achieve this goal if your actions contradict the teachings of your belief? How can you expect to draw people in if at the same time you push them away? You cannot. Therefore, you must abandon the hateful rhetoric and instead embrace compassionate teachings. For if you continue to burn those around you, what will be left except ashes?

Continue reading “Practice What You Preach”

Listen to All Sides of the Story

A concept that I found to be important while reading the beginning of Lagoon and watching the subsequent TED talk by the author, Nnedi Okorafor, was the notion that there are multiple viewpoints to a single story and how crucial it is to be able to understand and listen to all the different facets surrounding that story.

Nnedi Okorafor opens up her novel Lagoon with a short introduction about how the name for the city of Lagos in Nigeria came from the Portuguese word for “lagoon”. She then goes on to criticize the naming of the city, for the Portuguese “could not come up with a more creative name.” Okorafor then comments about how the colonizers were so ignorant as to not even think of asking the natives for suggestions of what to call their own land.

This short excerpt from the novel fascinated me because of the way Okorafor describes the nature of colonization in the past. She does so in a way that exemplifies the innate ignorance of history as we know it today. Simple constructs such as city names like that of Lagos were made without the consideration of the very people who had lived their whole lives there. This notion of a “white history” is important because it is what differentiates traditional science fiction texts from those rooted in Afrofuturism.

Traditional science fiction, whose authors include the likes of Isaac Asimov, George Orwell, and H.G. Wells, are rooted in a predominantly white, male context. Afrofuturism differs in the sense that it imagines a historical context that hasn’t been influenced by white colonialism – a “what-if” scenario that hypothesizes the advancement of African civilization without the consequences of outside influence.

Nnedi Okorafor makes references back to this difference between the sub-genres in her TED talk. What’s interesting is that in the TED talk, she doesn’t outright put one sub-genre over the other. She merely explains that the two are different in some regards, but that both have merits in the way they form their speculations. A commentary that I appreciated was the octopus analogy she mentioned in her talk.

The octopus analogy goes by saying that, like humans, octopi are among some of the most intelligent creatures on earth. The difference between octopus and human intelligence is that they diverged down different paths in the evolutionary line, and therefore the very foundation of that intelligence is different. I took this to mean that just because the foundation of some ideas are inherently different, it doesn’t mean that there can’t be something to take from it.

To put things into a more modern perspective, we can’t be so ignorant as to not consider viewpoints that might be different than ours. Doing so only limits our understanding as a whole and serves to diminish critical thinking in its entirety. Instead, we should strive to try and understand where the opposition or other side is coming from and try to learn from a viewpoint that is different from our own.

When Helping Hurts

While it is important to look out for others, it is also important to recognize when help can turn into hurt. Too often it is easy to accept an easy lie than to swallow a hard truth. A pivotal moment in The Space Traders by Derrick Bell calls attention to this phenomenon.

The dilemma faced in the story surrounds an event in which aliens come down to the United States and offer to exchange unforeseen bounties in return for the turnover of all Black people in America. The aliens do not give a reason for their demand, only that they will not enforce it, e.g. the choice is completely up to the leaders of the United States. Forced to consider the option of relinquishing the Black population of America for incredible treasures, the President of the United States convenes with his all-white cabinet plus an esteemed Black professor, Gleason Golightly, of the same party as his. Although Professor Gleason had agreed with many of the policies enacted by the conservative President, including those that seemed to be targeted against Black people, he remains opposed to the proposal that the American government should hand over the Black population to the aliens. In his address to the Anti-Trade Coalition, a group of black and liberal white politicians, Golightly explains his stance on the matter.

During his speech, Golightly says to the crowd, “I realize that our liberal white friends continue to reassure us. ‘This is America,’ they tell us. ‘It can’t happen here.’ … For them, liberal optimism is smothered by their life experience.” This quote resonated to me because it highlights a very important concept that stands in the way of social progressive moments – complacency. Golightly claims that the white liberals who are reassuring the Black people are not contributing to the cause which they claim to be in support of. Instead, they serve to dismiss any genuine worry and fear that stems as a result of what essentially is a representation of the systematic oppression that Black people have endured for years and years in America. Golightly continues on to say that it is easy for the white liberals to be so optimistic because they are clouded by their own positive life experiences when it comes to their interaction with Black people. In other words, they can’t fully experience what it’s like to experience life as a Black person living in America, and therefore struggle to fully empathize to their struggles.

This notion of ‘helping to hurt’ is significant because of the social implications it has in modern day society. You have people on social media reassuring other people who are disadvantaged in some form or another not to worry about the injustices that are occurring to them on the daily. What this serves to do is to create a false sense of hope for the disadvantaged people who may actually be adversely effected and to create an aura of complacency amongst the outsiders looking in. If outsiders are convinced that the issues occurring in society do not warrant reason for genuine worry and fear, then they are less likely to become involved in the matter and will instead ignore what could be a serious injustice.

While it is important to be able to empathize with a group of people who are in need of help, it is also crucial to understand what actions will hurt and which will help. Instead of appeasing the concerns of those who are deprived by society, we must seek to understand their concern and to aid them in overcoming it.

As Martin Luther King Jr. put it, “He who passively accepts evil is as much involved in it as he who helps to perpetrate it. He who accepts evil without protesting against it is really cooperating with it.”

What Does it Mean to be Equal?

A scene that I thought was profound occured in Chapter 13 of The Left Hand of Darkness. The event took place shortly after the main protagonist, Ai, was arrested by guards and taken to Kundershaden Prison. En route to the prison, Ai was forced to take refuge inside a dark, decrepit van with twenty-five other prisoners.

The tone was set as the journey began when one of the prisoners died from hemorrhaging due to previous injuries inflicted upon by the guards, presumably. More importantly, it was noted that once the prisoner was decided to no longer be of saving, the rest of the prisoners disregarded his suffering as “there was nothing to be done.” The only person who offered some semblance of care was Ai, who took the grieving man’s head onto his knees so that he may die more peacefully. Upon reading this passage, I immediately thought of how careless the other prisoners were to not even try to ail the man in any way. Going forward, I thought that this apathetic behavior was all that would be shown from these prisoners. Therefore I was shocked when I found out that they could be cooperative and kind to one another a few paragraphs later.

When the van got too cold, the prisoners would huddle together for warmth – even going as far as to note who was more susceptible to the cold and to put them in the middle. When the meager jug of water was passed around inside the van, “no one ever tried to get much more than his share,” which exemplified how they were unselfish on some accords. However, in that same paragraph, it is said that when one prisoner kept missing his opportunity to get a share of the water, nobody bothered to see that he got a portion. It occurred to me that the prisoners only showed kindness if it didn’t get in the way of their own needs and ambitions, so to say.

This concept is underlined even more when Ai says, “It is a terrible thing, this kindness that human beings do not lose. Terrible, because when we are finally naked in the dark and cold, it is all we have.” An interpretation of this quote could be seen as humans only act out of kindness when they have nothing else to lose for it. That if caring for a sickly person meant that you had to exert more energy than you needed to, then it wasn’t worth helping them; but if you had something to gain from cooperation, like warmth or water, then it was the time to act kind.

After reading this scenario, it made me think back to more recent times when people who were privileged grew frustrated when affirmative action was given to people who were relatively disparaged to themselves. They thought that affirmative action meant unfair treatment, when in fact the playing ground was never the same to begin with. So, if giving aid to those who are disadvantaged is an act of inequality, then what does it truly mean to be equal?

Science Fiction or Real Life?

One of the most interesting ideas of the first chapter in Battle of the Sexes in Science Fiction was the prospect that science fiction can predict the future. In the reading, Hugo Gernsback, one of the great sci-fi magazine publishers, describes science fiction (or commonly known at the time as scientification) as enabling scientific change, whereas most people believed that scientific advancements allowed for science fiction texts to be made at all. What especially stood out to me was the fact that inscribed above each editorial of his magazines was the phrase, “Extravagant Fiction Today – Cold Fact Tomorrow”.

To me this is a very powerful saying because it displays the very power that science fiction has in influencing reality. A common theme in many of the science fiction works we’ve read in class so far is the concept that science fiction’s purpose is to get us thinking critically, to spark new innovations in society and technology. Furthermore, science fiction is incredible because of its ability to inspire creativity and imagination in others.

Some real-life technologies that were first conceived in science fiction. http://images.mentalfloss.com/sites/default/files/styles/insert_main_wide_image/public/sci-fi-transport-technology.jpg

A quote in the reading from Jack Williamson, a science fiction writer in the 20th century, states that after he started reading classical science fiction novels from older writers like Verne and Wells, he “began dreaming up and writing on [his] own.” Following that quote, another science fiction writer, Frederik Pohl, described the genre as an
“irremediable virus.” Both sentiments play into the idea that science fiction is an infectious source of energy for creativity and imagination.

The creative nature of many science fiction novels are often what keeps readers invested in the genre. For example, in the science fiction series Red Rising by Pierce Brown, there is a weapon called the razor which can transform from a two-meter long whip into a one-meter long rigid blade that can cut through anything with the flick of a bioelectric impulse. To many people, the inner mechanisms of how such a technology could work is beyond the scope of comprehension, but when introduced to us in a science fiction setting, we are forced to contemplate about how it might. This brings me to my final point: the allure of science fiction also allows for a more widespread audience to become exposed to more technical or scientific concepts that normally would be too hard to digest alone.

A crucial aspect of science fiction is its ability to condense a plethora of information into a form that is more easily digested to the ordinary person. Hugo Gernsback describes science fiction as “instructive” and great for “supplying knowledge that we might not otherwise obtain … in a very palatable form.” This depiction of science fiction as a form of enlightenment to concepts and terminologies unbeknownst to us is important because it ultimately broadens the appeal for the subject matter inside a given work of science fiction. An example of this phenomenon includes the film Interstellar in which there is a considerable amount of scientific understanding embedded into the plot, but not too much to where the reader can still understand the main plot, which is that humanity needs to find another planet to live on because climate change on Earth has made life unsustainable. The sci-fi film therefore allows a lay watcher to comprehend the issues of why climate change is an issue in an entertaining fashion.

A poster for the film “Interstellar” directed by Christopher Nolan. https://therealsasha.files.wordpress.com/2015/03/interstellar-main-one-sheet.jpg

The ability of science fiction to create such an influence in real life makes the genre so much more interesting and powerful.

The Omelas within Us

Ursula Le Guin’s short story, The Ones Who Walk Away from Omelas, offers an insightful look into the theory of Utilitarianism – the theory which dictates that the actions of an individual are “right” if they benefit the majority of people, and not necessarily everyone. In the story, we are introduced to the city of Omelas, a utopia seemingly perfect for everyone who lives in it. However, as the setting becomes more established, we are introduced to a critical aspect of the story – the boy in the closet.

Our introduction to the boy in the closet marks the point at which the theory of Utilitarianism is brought into discussion. The premise of the story is that the people of Omelas will continue to live in their seemingly unadulterated paradise so long as nobody interacts with the boy in a positive manner. As a result, no person willfully assists the boy in any such way, for fear of repercussion. Those who can’t bear to stand the atrocity either grieve in silence or simply walk away from Omelas.

I find this aspect of the story to be an incredibly powerful reflection of how human nature behaves. Naturally, as readers, we are forced to wonder ourselves: would we step in to save the boy in the closet and risk ruining everybody’s world as we know it; or would we choose to turn a blind eye and settle for appeasement? Although a select number of people will choose the former option, I believe that most people will side with the latter option “for the greater good”. It is this notion of doing things for the greater good that Utilitarianism is rooted in. Much like the age-old ethical trolley problem, the difficulty in facing such a situation is that no matter the choice made, there is a loser. What I find even more interesting is how this scenario is analogous to the risk averse behavior prevalent in humans, and other organisms for that matter.

The Trolley Problem. http://nymag.com/selectall/2016/08/trolley-problem-meme-tumblr-philosophy.html

To be risk averse means to opt for preferences that ensure a known outcome over a gamble with higher or equal expected value. In the case of the city of Omelas, the people choose to go for the “safer” option of neglecting the boy in the closet in exchange for absolute pleasure. They do not gamble the likelihood that the whole story of ruin on their city should the boy be helped is fake. For all we know, nothing would come of the city if the boy were to be saved, but that remains a theory because no person would even dare risk to commit such an act for fear of destruction. We as humans are so afraid to venture into the unknown, that we risk missing opportunities because we don’t want to step out of our comfort zone, of what is known to be true. This same message is found in Le Guin’s short essay, Why are Americans Afraid of Dragons? In that essay, the analogy is drawn to the notion that many Americans are afraid of trying out fantastical works for fear of straying from their belief of what is normal and what is known.

This fear of the unknown ultimately paralyzes people from expanding their horizons. However, I believe that in order to fully experience life, one has to be willing to take risks. Some risks may be as trivial as getting rejected by the one you sought for, or as drastic as possible destroying the world that you and those around you know it to be. Sometimes, the risk is worth the reward. The way I see it, the people of the city of Omelas represents your contentedness within your life in the moment, and the boy in the closet represents what it is you truly desire. So I implore you, take a leap of faith and save the boy in the closet inside of you.

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