Sympathy for the devil

At a poetry workshop last year, we were set an assignment to write an ode to someone or something we thought about negatively. On that occasion, I wrote about my school bullies and I never finished the poem because although I saw the value of the exercise, my heart wasn’t in it. This weekend I set about resurrecting this assignment in relation to the current political situation and once again, I couldn’t bring the thoughts into any kind of resounding whole. I’ve spoken before about literature being a vehicle for empathy and, it seems, mine has a limit.

When I wrote about my experiences in school, I could understand that those girls were afraid of anyone different, afraid of anything that toppled their tenuous grip on popularity. They were just as trapped in the complex, vicious social hierarchy of an all girls’ school, however cushioned they were by prettiness and popularity. The poem I drafted that day, though, rang hollow. Usually when I write, something rises up from within the poem that is more than just words and in this case, there was just an empty shell.

This weekend, I tried to understand how anyone could support the racist, inhumane treatment of refugees. I checked some of my privilege - I imagined if, perhaps, I hadn’t had the good fortune to be brought up in a family where kindness and support were not only valued but enacted every day. I also considered whether if I’d had more – more money, more power – I’d feel like I had more to lose from an inclusive society.  In both cases, I could understand the rationale but - like that poem about my school bullies - there was no heart to the argument. This IS no heart to an argument like that.

I saw a lot of parallels between the school bullies and the racist arguments. The first, most obvious one is the name calling; it seems Social Justice Warrior (SJW) has been replaced by snowflake. For the record, if someone calls me a Social Justice Warrior, I feel like a combination of Captain America and General Leia so please do go ahead with that. Snowflakes are pretty, so again, be my guest. What the prevalence of such empty insults reveals is that these bullies are terrified of being called names because they haven’t got the backbone to withstand them. I’ve had a lifetime of ginger jokes – when I started primary school I was a chubby kid with ginger hair, national health glasses and a patch over one eye, so feel free to come at me with name-calling if you must, but I learned to cope with that when I was five or six and I just don’t care. If anyone thinks that might hurt me, all they’re doing is revealing their greatest fear.

Years ago, when I was learning to cope with bullies, my Gran, who had a bellyful of bad treatment in her life, told me to just ignore them – and if that didn’t work, then kick them in the shins. I used to talk to her about how I hated being singled out and she would say, “Oh Zoe, wouldn’t life be boring if we were all the same.” I think about that a lot as banning refugees is reframed as protecting us from terrorists, and racism, classism and sexism all rise to the fore. My Gran was right and I don’t want a boring life, I want to meet people from all walks of life and from all over the world. I don’t see the hypocrisy in wanting an inclusive world and being intolerant of bullies because, as I discovered over the weekend, there’s no heart there, nothing to connect with.

I abandoned my poem and instead wrote a defiant piece and worked on another poem where I’m attempting to make the title do a lot of heavy lifting. In one way or another, they both came from the work examining bullies and the power of words, so I’m still getting great value from that assignment. Maybe one day I’ll go back and try again but until then, actor David Harbour said everything I might have to say at the SAG Awards last night. I stand with Stranger Things’ Chief Hopper on the matter of bullies. If my Gran were still around today, she would stand to her full height of five-foot-nothing and do exactly the same.

And don’t think I don’t know that it was a privilege to have such a principled, bad-ass Gran.