Reality is bizarre right now, and we need to stay unnerved.
As I was drafting questions for an interview for another story, a serious story in which I would engage experts to help me understand and explain some of the crises and responses of our current moment, I kept coming back to this one, fundamental question: what the fuck is happening right now?
That a human – and humankind – can get used to anything is well known in art and in life. Raskolnikov knew it in Crime and Punishment and so did The Stranger’s Meursault. Following his liberation from the Türkheim death camp in 1945, Viktor Frankl confirmed it. Incarcerated people know it and refugees know it and people who are grieving know it, too. Even the eye knows, independent of consciousness: you must adjust to the light. Every hegemony, every regime, every social structure we take for granted became fundamental through a process of adjustment. But for all the talk that militaristic police violence and staggering economic inequality and rampant propaganda and callous indifference from elected officials has been “normalized,” – that we are, as a society, used to it – it remains unnatural and there is a jarring dissonance between what is happening in the world around us and what we know to be not only just, but rational. For all the talk of normalization, we still find ourselves asking, “what the fuck?”
This dissonance between what makes sense and what is actually happening can be disorienting, and if we fail to acknowledge it, it can even be psychologically damaging. While we must accept the truth of our reality – that we are living in a time of mismanaged crises and that many of our leaders, from university administrators to heads of state, have abdicated their responsibility to keep us safe – that doesn’t mean that we aren’t repulsed by reality, that it does not offend us spiritually, psychologically, and physically. Though we may understand that greed and thirst for power motivates the dictator, the despot, the crony capitalist, that doesn’t mean that their behaviour in practice doesn’t defy understanding. And yet so much of the reporting on the issues of the day, in part because of the limitations that journalism places on commentary and in part because so much of legacy media reflects the views of the ruling classes who own it, is inadequate when it comes to acknowledging the absurdity of what we are being forced to accept (and we are being forced to accept it – we can fight it, but doing so means accepting the truth of the reality that we are fighting against. Accepting something as true is not the same as resigning oneself to it). And so for the sake of our mental health, we should look at what’s happening around us not as events on a continuum which make a certain sort of perverse sense in the context that they are occurring in, but as what they are: aberrations in logic and reason. We should continue to ask, “what the fuck?”
Provincial governments across Canada, including Saskatchewan, have lifted moratoriums on evictions that were put into place at the beginning of the pandemic. This means that people who were unable to pay their rent throughout the crisis, and received no rent relief, are now faced with paying up to six months of back rent (which they don’t have, or they wouldn’t have needed to defer their rent in the first place) or being evicted. This is absurd. If the government recognized in March that people could not pay rent because they lost employment due to the crisis, and with the unemployment rate remaining at 11 per cent, 3 per cent higher than it was in March when the moratorium was put in place, it is beyond comprehension that those same people will now have the means to pay their rent. The moratorium was to ensure people were not evicted amidst a deadly pandemic. But we are still amidst a deadly pandemic. The provincial government knows and understands this. Recognizes that perhaps thousands of people will find themselves unhoused because of this crisis, and that that will surely lead to overcrowded housing conditions and the unchecked spread of a lethal virus and they…don’t care. That’s messed up. It’s a callous disregard for the gravity of the situation, but it’s also completely baffling. People like to say that the cruelty is the point, and that’s often (not always) true. But it’s still unfathomably bizarre. The government is acting in contradiction to the available facts. The financial situation of most people has not changed, and has likely worsened, since this moratorium was initiated. There is still a pandemic. COVID is not gone. It’s fucking eerie.
Or take this:
Structural and institutional racism have been called a public health crisis. Their effects are evident in the lived experiences of racialized people and they are also quantifiable. We have data about racial healthcare discrepancies and the disproportionate use of force meted out against Black and Indigenous people by police, about the disproportionate number of Indigenous people locked up and the disproportionate number of Indigenous children seized by social services. We have historical records of racism, and even apologies from various Canadian governments for racist actions. And yet we still have heads of government and representatives of Canadian institutions ignoring, denying, or downplaying the reality of racism in this country. And while we may know that not seeing or acknowledging institutional racism is part of how white supremacy (and the ruling class the myth of white supremacy was invented to uphold) is perpetuated, it’s still weird. It’s weird and unnerving to present people with lived experiences, objective data, and extensive scholarship about structural racism and have them look you in the face and say that structural racism doesn’t exist within their institution, or that it’s not as bad as you’re making it out to be. It’s infuriating and it’s frustrating and it’s fucked up. It offends our understanding of what is true and what is just.
Or consider the bizarre acrobatics involved in stripping word of their meanings for political aims:
Whatever your feelings about police, defund is a simple word. It means “prevent from continuing to receive funds.” If you want to be a pedant about it, you can break it down into its Latin root, “fund”, a transitive verb meaning to pay out money, and its prefix, de, which indicates privation, removal, negation. But I’m not a pedant so I would never do that. But a funny thing happens to this simple word when you attach it to “the police.” Suddenly, by some strange liberal alchemy, defund starts to mean anything but defund. After the lynching of George Floyd in Minneapolis in May, calls to defund and abolish the police – while not new – rose across North America and the world. And as they did so, something very strange started to happen. The word defund was somehow voided of its meaning. Publications asked (either earnestly or frantically) what does defund MEAN? Earlier this summer, when a petition circulated calling on the city of Regina to defund the Regina Police Service – which uses more than 20 per cent of the municipal budget – police chief Evan Bray bizarrely said that defund meant, in part, that people wanted more accountability. And while we know the reason that people hedge so much around the meaning of “defund the police” – it is, after all, a demand to end the existing neoliberal order which places the defense of property and institutions ahead of the lives of working class people, especially Black and Indigenous working class people – it’s a surreal moment, for abolitionists and non-abolitionists alike, to see a word with such a clear and straightforward meaning seemingly vanish from the dictionary, treated as something ambiguous. It’s disorienting to see so much ink spilled trying to define a word with a readily available definition. While language is a living thing, seeing words gutted of their meanings in an effort to render a clear political demand open to interpretation can leave us feeling – rightfully – unmoored. We are speaking the same language, and being willfully misunderstood.
I’m always cautious about using the term “uncanny” because fuck, but the reality we live in right now, in which the political response to everything, from the climate crisis to COVID to the global rise of authoritarianism, is jarringly at odds with the response that is actually needed, is truly unheimlich. We are living in the warped reflection of a funhouse mirror. And so I encourage you to continue to organize against the injustices that face us, to accept reality, but not resign yourself to it, and to keep asking yourself, “what the actual fuck?” Because in addition to being terrifying, dangerous, unequitable, and unjust, things are also really, really weird.