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  • Writer's pictureAllan Dyen-Shapiro

A 1987 Octavia Butler Story "Commenting" on Today's New York Times Feature

Identity—it's who you are—partially born into, partly chosen, and in part forced upon you. It was the subject of two different stories I encountered this morning. Butler's science fiction story in Escape Pod this week ("The Evening and The Morning and The Night") focuses on a degenerative disease she inherited that ultimately causes self-mutilation. The protagonist's parents both had it—a side effect of an anti-cancer drug that manifests in the progeny. The story revolves around choosing one's fate but also around choosing one's identity. You could wait passively for the disease to take you. You could commit suicide. Or you could work within your fate for the best result possible, but you could not escape your borne identity.

The story is an allegory for race (among other things), which is a part of one's identity that most can't escape. You can foreground or background it in your life, explore it intellectually, discuss it, process it, re-invent how to live within it, but it can't be erased.

However, other identities can be chosen or denied. I know Hispanic people who never learned Spanish and do not identify with Hispanic culture. I know people who have rejected the religion into which they were born, embraced it, embraced a different version of it, or embraced one into which they weren't born. Being a union member was central to one of my grandfather's identity. Being a scholar, a health professional, a teacher, a Teamster—all of these thrust you into contact with others with whom you have these professional callings in common, and the training you receive molds you even to a greater extent than your DNA.

With these things in my mind, I read today's NYT article on why evangelical Christians are voting for Trump in overwhelming numbers. The report pointed to his public affirmation of the value of a certain type of life (even while he never lived it): the small town in which nobody locks their doors; the church in which WASP congregants intone the same hymns their grandparents did; the sports leagues and scout troops and communal picnics leading into Fourth of July fireworks and homecoming games at the old high school and white picket fences and manicured lawns. And his promise to defend this life against threats.

When I hear that, I hear bigotry. And for some, it is entangled with hate—hate for immigrants (especially those who speak another language); hate for those of a different religion (or those Christians who are still going to hell because they are getting things wrong); hate for the neurodivergent or LGBTQ+ folks or other races.

But there are those for whom defense of small-town values resonates but hate does not. They live in God's grace by accepting that all are sinners, saved only through absolute acceptance of Jesus Christ, and prefer to be around others who have done the same. Many listen to music that validates this lifestyle (country or overtly Christian music), avoiding all other types. Some put their kids in private schools where only their professed values are taught. How do these people accept that these choices mean they will only encounter a narrow sliver of this country's diversity when they do these things and yet not become the horrible bigots who oppress all the rest of us?

Is this balance attainable? I'd say maybe. It depends. I'd argue that asserting your identity by spending at least part of your life with people like you who understand you will not automatically make you a bigot if you also embrace diversity in other parts of your life. This is easy in a big city: church on Sunday and pot-luck afterward with the church folks, but the rest of America at work, in schools, and in groups based on other aspects of your identity (science fiction fans, anime buffs, quilters, hip hop dancers, or whatever).

Not so easy in small-town, rural America, where there still exist places where nearly everyone is a middle-class WASP. For those people, it is work. The Internet can help. They can seek out diversity in perspectives from the folks with whom they interact over social media; from what they read, watch, or listen to; from causes with which they involve themselves.

But many don't do this. If you live in one of these places and view only media that acts as an echo chamber for conservative viewpoints, if you never read foreign news sources, if your social media groupings are largely centered in your type of Christianity, if you don't even have online friends substantially different than you, then it is easy to drift into insensitivity, bigotry, and active hatred of others.

The hardest part of diversity for these folks is often accepting other ways of living as equally valid to their own. If I'm going to hell for being Jewish, you aren't accepting my identity; you are merely tolerating it. Don't get me wrong—I'd prefer tolerance to intolerance. I appreciate your view that all goodness comes from God and that you can, therefore, see good in who I am and what I do and value your friendship with me.

Nevertheless, I am a challenge to who you are.

You might learn to accept someone who speaks Spanish as long as they also live in God's grace by adopting your version of Protestantism. You might even welcome African-Americans bringing a different tradition of gospel music into your church choir as long as they profess your view of God. You can come to oppose overt discrimination against and persecution of any number of peoples.

But if you're going to accept LGBTQ+ folks, your small-town WASP culture must change. If you are going to accept women's body autonomy and their choices about pregnancy or its termination, your small-town WASP culture must change. And if you are to accept that this has never been and will never be a Christian country and that those of other religions or no religion among you live as validly as you do, not only your culture but your way of practicing your religion must change.

And that's a hard one for most small-town, WASP evangelicals to swallow. So, 82% of them are polling in support of Trump, not because he is anything remotely resembling their type of Christian, but because he's said he'll defend their way of life as valid.

In Butler's story, those with the DGD disease ultimately could not live outside of a self-contained community. They needed the support to function. But they could make connection with others. One of those connections made is central to the most touching part of the tale.

The hoary pablum generally offered at the end of this sort of argument is to seek connection with these folks, and through connections, they will learn to value diversity. Anecdotal examples abound of those who've broadened their perspective through one-to-one relationships that became central to their lives. This sort of change does happen.

Not fast. In BLM activists' messages to their white supporters, time and again, they repeat how tired they are of being the ones who have to do the educating, the ones who have to have patience, the ones who have to let things go. I hear them, and I sympathize.

When that 82% hear them, they retrench. They take anti-science positions, opposing masks and vaccines, because that's part of that liberal, big-city nonsense spouted by those who went to college. They deny the climate emergency, acquiescing to the ultra-wealthy wringing the last few trillions left to be garnered by irrevocable damage to the planet and its inhabitants. They deny evolution and even modern history, forcing ludicrous untruths into science and history classes in public school curriculum, impeding the education of the generation of critical thinkers necessary to the future that bears down upon us. They cling to the myths that we have an economy that will reward all who work, that isn't merely an alternating cycle of looting and government bailouts, and vote for politicians who keep most of the population enslaved and in denial of the material conditions of their slavery.

They aren't going away. WASP evangelicals are a lot of this country and will continue to be.

There are only two ways to respond. We can become the force that Trump is warning the small towners about. Allow demographics to proceed such that a coalition of everyone but WASP evangelicals can take power and drive this country away from the suicidal course of climate emergency denial, health crisis denial, and feudalist economics. Meanwhile, do whatever you can to draw their youth away from the conservative, Christian lifestyle.

Or, reaching out can continue, with the hope that with familiarity and empathy, a modus vivendi can be worked out.

What, you expected an answer? I'm a science fiction writer—I don't have answers; I have questions to explore. You can now ponder. If I made you uncomfortable, if I made you angry, if I made you think, I did my job.

Now, go listen to that podcast. Olivia Butler is terrific.

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