In a Perfect World

I often fantasize about Utopia. What would a perfect world be like? What would people be like? What would I be like? Recently, that last question spawned an interesting thought that I’d like to share. If the world were perfect, many of my opinions would be radically different. There are several things that I only oppose because they are dysfunctional right here and now, not because I think they are inherently bad. Conversely, there are many things that I dislike conceptually, but feel are necessary right here and now. Let’s look over some examples! In Utopia, I would say that:

PROSTITUTION – OK!

In a perfect world, I would be okay with prostitution. The concept would still rub me the wrong way personally, but I wouldn’t judge anyone else for engaging in it, on either end. If you’re good in bed, I suppose it’s fine to make money off of it. If you never manage to get laid, I guess paying someone for sexual services is an option.

However, in this flawed world, prostitution is a ruthless, devastating industry. It ranges from the exploitation of consenting but vulnerable people, to slavery. Exceptions exist, as always, but they are exactly that: exceptions. And thus, I am against prostitution, in this flawed world.

AFFIRMATIVE ACTION – BAD!

In a perfect world, I would be against affirmative action. People should be employed on the basis of their competence, not their gender or ethnicity. The job market should be completely meritocratic.

However, in this flawed world, some groups are disadvantaged from the start. I’m talking about people of color, women, LGBTQ+ people, even in countries where they have won their battle for equal rights. They are still incumbered by a society that wasn’t designed with them in mind. Competence should always be what matters most to an employer, sure! But with inequality still woven into the fabric of society, the competence of non-privileged people is often overlooked, dismissed, even suppressed. And thus, I support affirmative action, in this flawed world.

CULTURAL APPROPRIATION – OK!

In a perfect world, I would see nothing wrong with a white kid wearing a Native American headdress for Halloween. Heck, I’m sure I would look great in one myself. Who cares if I understand the significance it holds within its culture of origin – it’s not as if I claim to represent actual Native Americans, right?

However, in this flawed world, so many ethnic groups have suffered a history of persecution. So many cultures have been either wiped out or forcefully assimilated into the society of their invaders. If you want to dress up in an exotic costume, please make sure it’s not associated with a historically or currently oppressed group of people! They were robbed of their right to wear those clothes, to practice their traditions. I think it’s disrespectful to cherry pick elements from the way of life that they were denied.

TURNING A WHITE CHARACTER INTO A PERSON OF COLOR – BAD!

In a perfect world, I would be upset whenever the entertainment industry gave a male or white fictional character a sex or ethnicity change. Black Hermione, the Thirteenth Doctor, female Ghostbusters, etc are disrespectful alterations to beloved pop culture icons, I would say.

However, in this flawed world, Western pop culture is dominated by white, male heroes. Again, there are exceptions aplenty – I know my fellow sci-fi fans are screaming “RIPLEY” at their screens while reading this – but for every such example, there are a hundred stories about a white guy with a female love interest and a Hispanic sidekick. That ratio needs to change, because everyone should feel equally included in something as wonderful as pop culture. To change the ethnicity or gender of a famous character is to support that much-needed development.

CIS-CASTING – OK!

In a perfect world, I wouldn’t have minded that cisgender Jared Leto played a trans woman in Dallas Buyers Club. Actors are supposed to pretend to be someone they’re not. Was anyone upset that Heath Ledger wasn’t an anarchistic clown in real life? Or that the real Zoe Saldana is neither blue nor green? Hardly. And if we keep imposing rules on what actors can and cannot do, we will smother acting as a profession and an art form.

However, in this flawed world, more transgender people need to be seen, and when we cast cis actors in their roles, we deny them that opportunity. There are many trans actors out there who would not only enjoy the limelight, but use their fame as a means to raise awareness of the struggles and joys of their community. That is something we need. Thus, I am against casting cisgender actors in transgender roles – and I hold similar opinions regarding other marginalized groups.

INSENSITIVE JOKES – OK!

In a perfect world, I would enjoy insensitive jokes. I would laugh when my friends told me about the similarity between a blonde and an armchair. I would cheerfully make light of genocide and sexual assault. I might even use the n-word as a punchline. It’s all in good fun, I’d say. Don’t take it seriously.

However, in this flawed world, I’m torn. On the one hand, comedy is meant to offend on some level. It’s in its nature. On the other hand, when a disadvantaged group serves as the punchline, could the joke be doing more harm than good? Could it, regardless of the intent, be perpetuating injustice? There’s a lot to say on this topic and it’s one I will come back to. For now, though, I am wary of insensitive jokes, in this flawed world.

GENDER-NEUTRAL LANGUAGE – MEH.

In a perfect world, I would find the movement for gender-neutral language unnecessary. Who needs the word “humankind”, when everyone knows that “mankind” includes women too? Why expend mental effort on such an inconsequential change?

However, in this flawed world, the synonymity of “man” and “human” is symptomatic of a very serious issue: the male norm. Quick, look at the two infamous internet icons above. Which one is male? The one with fewer details, naturally. Which one is female? The one with added cosmetic elements, of course. (Even their names, Derp and Derpina, adhere to this principle; the female gender is denoted by a suffix, -ina, added to the simple male root, derp.) Manhood is the default assumption, the generic template. Womanhood is a variation that needs to be specified. That’s why we should start saying “humankind” instead of “mankind”. It’s a small step towards eradicating the toxic subconscious idea that the standard human is a man.

CONCLUSION

Being a progressive isn’t fun. I often wish I could tell gay jokes without a care in the world, casually wear a Hawaiian lei, and not feel compelled to expunge man-words from my vocabulary. But I don’t believe I live in a world where those things are unproblematic. I live in a world with a history. A world with problems. And I want to be part of the solution. Because I do love this flawed world.


2 comments

  1. Ambivalent! – I can’t quite make up my mind: is this an ingenious, well-considered discussion with a valid central idea… or, a sly construction that enables one to have it both ways..? To be in the right, no matter in what direction the wrong lies?
    Basically agree with you, of course; in fact, in some of the cases you pose I’d say the problem simply disappears in the perfect world (what a truism!), and the action would be neither OK nor bad, but non-essential or incomprehensible. Gay or ethnic or gender jokes, for instance. Perfect world gay joke response: “….Eeh… What…? Don’t get that, man”. And we wouldn’t have to watch our language when it comes to “man”-words and the like, since obviously they wouldn’t exist, or would truly include what they seem to include. (The existence of the word “womankind” in the flawed world really makes the universality of “mankind” somewhat spurious, no?)
    Then, in some cases I don’t agree. I don’t believe that prostitution could ever be the neutral, unproblematic pursuit that you describe. Sex is deeply personal; it is also volatile and potentially cataclysmic; to act out this private and primitive, all-pervading biological instinct as an everyday chore, in order to put food on the table and a roof over your head; to adapt your performance to suit your customers tastes; well, I think few would manage this balancing act without some mental impairment. Besides, why would prostitution have to exist – everyone would get laid in the nicest manner possible. In the perfect world.

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    • Good comment!
      Many of your concerns likely stem from a major flaw in the premise: if the world truly were perfect, most of the things I bring up would be non-issues. Like you said, keeping our language gender-neutral would go without saying in a perfect world, because a perfect world would have zero sexism. And no, prostitution wouldn’t be needed in a world where everyone gets lucky. It’s a shortcoming of the text, one that we’ll just have to try not to think about!

      I should also make clear that I hope no one uses my text as a way to ”have it both ways”. I certainly don’t. The text is not so much about keeping one’s opinions ambiguous, as it is about the importance of knowing WHY we think things. WHY am I against cultural appropriation? Because it’s disrespectful to those cultures who have suffered. Not because it’s inherently disrespectful to adopt a superficial element of a foreign culture. The purpose of this thought experiment is to stress the importance of making such distinctions within the realm of one’s own ethics 🙂

      And lastly, about prostitution, I suppose we just have to agree to disagree. Or rather, agree to kinda disagree, since we DO agree that the concept is off-putting, at least.

      Like

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