Thursday, February 27, 2020

comic book morality.

There is right and there is wrong in this world, right?

I got into an argument with my parents earlier today. More like I lost my cool with them.

In our modern world, it is not uncommon for many progressive, adult (or adolescent) kids finding themselves at odds with their family - across the dinner table, during a weekend visit, a phone catch-up, a group text, or worse, Thanksgiving. There's always the uncle with the red hat, the in-law with the crash joke, or the grandmother with the outdated views. In America, today it's most likely rooted in our ever-worsening political divide, exacerbated by the man in the oval office. But before our reality TV president, it was also with our first black president, and before that, the man who lied us into a war. I could totally point fingers about who was at fault each time, but that's not the point of this post. You probably know where I stand here (spoiler alert, I listen to a LOT of Pod Save America).

Growing up, I read a lot of comic books. Be it the Fantastic Four, Spider-Man, Green Lantern, or the Flash, these heroes did what was right, every time. Even if it was the harder choice. All life was sacred, and everyone got a fair shake, with the often exception of the misunderstood hero. As a young boy, this left an imprint on me. You always did the right thing, no matter the consequence. 

I also grew up in a religion whose language I literally did not understand. The righteous, colorful figures whose stories I was told in temple and song were larger than life. Be it blue man with a bow, or a monkey carrying a mountain, they vanquished villains and always saved the day. My parents even got me some comic books about them (thanks Amar Chitra Katha).

It was this combination of stories - telling right from wrong - that founded my moral fiber. There were no explicit lessons decrying about racism, misogyny, or violence. If anything, my history books - be it world, American, or Alabama - painted a darker picture about the world that came before me. I would later get my regular dose from the news of the world as it is.

My family is probably bit different from yours (but we're all the same). My wife is Chinese American, and quiet. I'm Indian American, and loud. Our daughter is American, and a riot. Lately, the current arguments we have with our parents, while occasionally about the American political climate/situation, have more often been out our parents motherlands. Whether it's Xi or Modi, we frequently find ourself in disagreement with our elders' points of view. 

Be it a breakfast argument about my wife's cousins protesting in the streets of Hong Kong, or an evening quarrel about the Indian President's troubling nationalism, the attitudes have become more heated, and voices are often raised.

In India, there is a leader who, thru legal maneuvering, wants to take an entire segment of his population - poor Muslims - and rob them of their citizenship. And he's riled up his base - and proxies - to take action. "It's not that simple," my parents say. "Besides, look at all the corruption he's cleaned up. You're not from there, you don't understand."

Later on, via group text, they forward a tasteless, nationalistic joke about a neighboring (Muslim) country. I chastise them, and they simply say their friend sent it. I try to explain that sharing these things gives them life and makes the more ok.

During our most recent heated exchange, I posed the following hypothetical to my parents. "What if when I was a teen, I would mow the lawn and take out the trash for everyone in our neighborhood, for free. Wouldn't that be great? But what if I also made racist jokes about our black neighbors? I'd then get our (white and Indian) neighbors in on the harmless fun. And when one of them (maybe their kids) escalated to some eventual worse, maybe violent action? Would it still be ok that I swept the driveway? Would I not be complicit? What about them that never told me to stop in the first place?"

I tried to explain that after September 11th in Alabama, it didn't matter that I was a model minority - I was brown. I tried to explain that in when they started pulling over people of color in Alabama and Arizona and asking for their papers, I worried about my dad, with his thick accent, forgetting his wallet at home (bc something similar happened to my father-in-law in NYC in the 70s). I tried to explain that when pictures started showing up of migrant children being separated from their parents and locked up, i couldn't help but see my young daughter's brown face. 

I once heard a saying. 2 scoops of ice cream and 2 scoops of shit, is really just 4 scoops of shit. charming i know, I grew up in Alabama. But the saying holds true. 

There are lines you don't cross. Things you don't do. 

Look, I'm not worried about my world. I live in a blue bubble. But the rhetoric, the things we let slide, the things we refuse to call out? That sets a precedent. An increasingly slippery slope. And 5, 10, 20, 30 years later, when our parents' generation has passed, my brown daughter will be a woman in this world. What will be considered normal by then if we let certain actions and rhetoric go slide? What sort of things will my half-black nephew and niece have to deal with? 

The moral arc of he universe does not bend itself, we must exert pressure, as a society, to make it bend towards justice. Otherwise other pressures will pull it back.  

Or is there a spectrum? Are we actually living in the grays of a black and white world?

My best friend, someone I've known since my adolescence, is as close as a brother to me. We have shared some of life's most terrible losses, and celebrated together some of the continued joys and adventure of life. He is a vegan, and more recently, become committed to zero waste. He is a man not without his flaws, but he is one of my favorite people in the world. 

On recent visits, we have discussed more deeply his moral motivations, and his frustrations with the world. He asked me to imagine that I found myself in a world where it was ok to kick dogs. How, in this world, no matter what I said, people kept kicking dogs. It would be frustrating and heartbreaking that no one would listen to my sane pleas to stop. They would persist. That, he reminded me, is how he feels in our world. 

The point of that story is not to shame anyone who does not follow his beliefs (as someone who is not a vegan, or even a vegetarian, it does me), but just to add relative perspective. I've just gone on and on about my moral certainty of certain things we should not stand for, and yet am reminded with every interaction with my best friend, that there is yet another scale of morality.

I love my parents. They are good people who have done a lot of great things in the world. I like to thing most of us are trying to do the same, for ourselves, our families, and our communities. But if we don't hold ourselves, and each other to a higher standard, aren't we all complicit? Don't we all have great responsibility?

At least that's what my pal Peter Parker once told me.

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