The politics of elimination

Stories People Tell front cover

A systematic striving to eliminate as a solution to problems is a self-defeating, reckless if not unhinged way of behaving.

According to certain newspapers including CNN, the New York Post and the Washington Post, the use of seven words are to be banned from the budget of the CDC (Centers for Disease Control and Prevention) by the Trump administration. The words are vulnerable, entitlement, diversity, transgender, foetus, evidence-based and science-based. The news is so outrageous  and outlandish, it is hard not to suspect it is a fabrication or to shoot back with the suggestion, “Let’s do away with the word trump.” Elimination is an enticing solution when dealing with a man and an administration that further enriches the rich and privileged while wreaking havoc, misery and destruction on everybody else.

But first reactions are not always the best. Talking about doing away with the man would mean aligning our logic on that of Trump. Elimination is the hallmark of his ‘policies’. Eliminate North Korea, ban Muslims, deny climate change, do away with abortion and birth control, ban transgender people from the army, remove funding for social services, repeal net neutrality laws, fix voting laws to exclude those who don’t vote for you, dismantle federal government, disqualify the press, and undermine the notion of truth and, with it, justice.

In the sense of the word used here, the Oxford Dictionary of English says of elimination, the complete removal or destruction of something or the removal of someone or something from consideration or further participation. What the dictionary does not mention is that a systematic striving to eliminate as a solution to problems is a self-defeating, reckless if not unhinged way of behaving. George Orwell’s 1984 was a story about a state that sought to eliminate opposition. Totalitarian states are held up as perpetrators of government by elimination. What is so striking about the Trump administration is that it should systematically apply elimination politics in the heart of a society supposedly based on liberalism and diversity.

To be able to eliminate, or at least try to, Trump and people like him have to undo the links that bind people together so to minimise the backlash from solidarity and natural human concern for others. Isolating segments of society and pitting one group against others as well as fostering rampant individualism are part and parcel of a strategy to eliminate.

The close ties between elimination and the breaking down of social bonds point to an alternative strategy to counter elimination. Rather than responding with further elimination, the only viable way to combat elimination politics is to strengthen grassroots links between people and to nurture a form of solidarity that embraces diversity.

In my forthcoming novel, Stories People Tell, it is by just such a drive to strengthen the bonds between Londoners and to celebrate diversity that Annie Wight and the women’s movement she epitomises seeks to respond to Mayor Nelson Kard who aims to drive the gay community out of the capital and have Annie silenced. 

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Stories to make sense of the world

 Above, the author reads Stories to make sense of the world.

We make sense of the world by continually spinning stories about it. Stories? They are not the kind you would necessarily tell someone. Unvoiced, they are very often little more than fragments but are generally in tune with a larger personal narrative. That overarching narrative may be composed of distinct parts which don’t need to be coherent with each other. It is as if we need to fit events into a coherent narrative, at least ‘locally’, if we don’t want to blow a mental fuse. We are comforted and strengthened by them. These everyday fragments can be so tiny and the making of them so natural, we are often unaware we are drafting them. This narrative sense-making may become abruptly apparent when our stories are at odds with those of others and conflict ensues. Here’s an example.

An old woman sits alone at the dining-room table, the breakfast things arranged neatly in front of her.  “Enjoy your meal,” her long-time companion says as he enters. Glancing at the table, he realizes she has already finished. “Too late,” he adds. Hasty words which don’t quite express what he wants to say. If he had had time to reflect, he would probably have explained his well-wishes arrived too late. “You didn’t make much effort to join me!” she replies testily. He storms off, angry.

When she speaks, her words do not follow from what went before. This sort of discontinuity is a sure sign something is amiss. Just as is an outburst of emotions that doesn’t fit the context.  This rupture, seen from the outside, appears incomprehensible. It reveals that she has quite a different story in mind. It sounds like it has to do with being neglected and the resulting hurt feelings that have been a long time in the making. While he, who was trying to be considerate, is left with a feeling of being misunderstood, unjustly cast in a role he is not currently playing. Of course, there is no guarantee that either of them will become aware that they are spinning stories about each other or that the ill-will between them might have its roots in that. The emotions sparked by the dissonance are generally so strong there is little room for distance or introspection and the opportunity for deeper learning is lost.

We often weave stories not just to make sense of what is happening in the present but also to predict the outcomes and act accordingly. In any given circumstance, there are many possibilities and the one that actually happens may not be what we imagined or what we wanted. Our misjudgement is often due to the influence of a personal narrative that is at odds with reality. Here’s an example.

A young student walks to the building site where he is doing a holiday job. Each day he passes a pretty girl his age waiting for a bus. She is alone at the stop. He has no idea who she is and knows nothing about her. She never looks his way and they do not exchange a single word. Despite this lack of communication, he frequently imagines going to the cinema with her, so much so, it seems a viable possibility. On his last day in the job, he plucks up the courage to talk to her. He is shy and ill at ease but he plants himself in front of her and clumsily invites her out. To his immense surprise, she clutches her bag to her chest and turns away aghast, refusing to reply.

Individuals’ overarching narratives may be little more than a direction, an orientation that colours every story. In the first example above, the woman is so convinced she is being neglected, no amount of solicitous behaviour could change her mind. In the second, the boy’s desire to befriend the girl and his belief in his self-worth, albeit shaky, left no place for the possibility she might be terrified at being accosted by a boy in filthy overalls in such a deserted spot. Rather like being stuck in a rut in the road, we find it hard to shift from an overriding narrative even when events dictate otherwise. In most cases, the result can be troubling but innocuous and might even offer a chance to close the gap between story and reality. Sometimes, however, it can be catastrophic. When the stories people tell themselves are persistently at odds with the world despite repeated warning signals, a line has been crossed and the storytelling has become pathological.

One of the underlying themes of my new novel, Stories People Tell, is the way people fabricate stories about the world around them and how those stories often miss the mark.