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Saturday, August 4, 2012

"They"

A few nights ago I went to see "The Hunger Games" again.  I had gone to see it in Turkey, before having read the books.  A friend recommended I not read the series while I was in Palestine, where there was enough real-life trauma to think about without adding fictional horrors.  I am glad I followed her advice.

Reading the books and seeing the movie again have given me many moments of disquiet.  In those moments, moments that, quite frankly, I'd like to avoid, I consider how much of what I read and saw is simply an exaggerated portrayal of our current world. As I was thinking about this, I found an intriguing blogpost that goes into much greater detail than I will here about the many layers of the books.  The author succinctly put into words what I'd been thinking:

"Panem is the world and the Capitol is the United States, which sucks the world’s resources into itself and delivers in return military might and media programming that shows how great materialist life is in the US, a life they cannot share. Katniss probably would have been a lot less sympathetic if she were written into the story as a Palestinian refugee or Thai factory worker but I have to think this is closer to Ms. Collins’ political indictment."

I'll discuss the first sentence in a future post.  Today let me get into why the last sentence makes me shudder.  It frightens me because I am certain that it is true.  Before I saw the movie or read the books, I read an article about how some movie-goers were upset that Rue was black.  In reader comments following the article, people remarked that seeing her death in the movie didn't feel as heart-breaking as reading about it in the book since she was clearly black in the movie whereas a reader could imagine her as s/he chose.  While I know that racism exists, it still shocks me to read such blatant bigotry.  I am certain that, as the blogger above asserts, if the characters from the districts resembled not only different races, but stereotypes of certain nationalities - Mexican, Palestinian, Chinese, Kenyan - the audience's sympathy level for them would have fallen more dramatically than it did for black Rue and the blood lust risen just as dramatically.  Katniss might lose some of her fan base, as she was transferred from the "us" category to the "they" category.

It's the willful disconnection that "they" allows:  if we are not Mexican, Palestinian, Chinese, Kenyan, or any other category we think fits others and not us, we can separate ourselves from "them," mock "them," question the validity of "their" lifestyle, customs, traditions, or even their existence.  I challenged my students to cross the "they" line many times, to see(k) beyond the the obvious and beyond the (usually hateful) generalizations.  "They" are sluts and were asking for it from their behavior (talking about victims of sexual assault).  "They" are lazy and just need to get a job (talking about the poor).  "They" are ruining our country and should work harder in their own countries to have a better life (talking about immigrants).  "They" are terrorists and should be killed (talking about Muslims).  This last "they" will forever remind me of my Palestinian students who asked me, "Do you think we're terrorists?"

I have my own internal "they" battles to fight.  I think the fact that I've written about the topic several times goes to show that I need the lesson repeated over and over.  I need to practice breaking down barriers I create in my mind, trying to refrain from building new obstructions. It is too easy to judge and separate myself from "them." However, I will continue to struggle within, to challenge myself not to avoid "them," but to seek them out, so that "they" are no longer "they," but instead Miguel, Nour, Shane, Rose, individuals who no longer fall into stereotypes, but who, above all, are themselves: complex beings, inspiring and disheartening, courageous and fearful, hopeful and pessimistic, wise, and ignorant, all at once. They are me and I am them, sometimes self-contradictory, ever-learning, always in our hearts ultimately good. Even if we act differently, speak different languages, wear different clothes, or practice different customs, we are at our core the same and we are inseparable.  Our humanity, our existence as God-created beings, connects us, even when we don't want to acknowledge the connection.

The fundamental delusion of humanity is to suppose that I am here and you are out there. -Yasutani Roshi

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