Hey there, sweet thing. Let’s talk about Sunday (okay, it’s Sunday).
Now let’s talk about Literacy. I’m going to make an assumption and say, when most of us hear literacy we think of the ability to read and write. That definition, that mode of deploying the word, is absolutely true. And for my purposes here, in this update, I’m going to think about literacy in a broad style. I’m thinking about multiple literacies.
There are people who are kinesthetic, literate in their bodies.
There are people who are financially literate, and I don’t think I need to tell you I am not among them.
There are people who, in the traditional sense, are highly literate. We think of them as good readers with deep comprehension of texts.
I personally think about literacy more often than one person should. I think about literacy as being adept in something, fluent, to deeply understand.
I dated a guy who was weirdly invested in digital literacy, even though he truthfully wasn’t that great at social media (not that that’s necessarily a marker of digital literacy but it seems weird right?). I’ve worked in and around literacy with children in high school, middle, and little baby kindergarteners. I just like for whatever reason really really am invested in the thing. The thing being Literacy.
Because it’s beautiful, right? Comprehension, understanding, fluency. And it’s teachable. You can learn to read and write. You can learn to move in your own body. You can learn to navigate the internet in a safe, comprehensive way. You can learn. You can come to understand. You could possibly even be fluent.
But learning is scary. And embarrassing. And vulnerable. And so fucking fun. Becoming literate is thrilling, because even in our own potential narrow definition of literacy there exists context and culture happening in tandem with our reading and writing. There’s interpretation, communication, fusing ideas with experience with the tangible.
And it hit me like a ton of brick—well, more like when someone splashes water on you and you didn’t want that and you knew you were standing where you were standing and doing what you were doing but now you’re really there because of that water hitting your face—it hit me like that, that in this beautiful age of information, this age of high speed access, we aren’t literate in each other.
Now before you start to think, oh Mia with her bullhonky feelsy neoliberalism let this not be some kumbaya bullshit I’m going to say, no it’s not some kumbaya bullshit just keep walking with me through this.
I’ve moved back to my home state, Texas (this is the update portion of the Sunday Update; Update! I’m in Texas). And in doing so, I’ve had the chance to get to know my kid brother as an adult. I left for the Midwest a decade ago. Ethan was 8 years old. He’s now a high school graduate, and a cis het (my computer autocorrects cis het to cashew) 18 year old private school educated gamer prog rock enthusiast white boy.
So basically he’s hilarious to talk to.
But I worry. I know what parts of the internet are apt to sink their claws into young men like him. I know what toxicity is just waiting in the wings to be consumed and regurgitated by his ilk.
So the other day, when I was sitting outside enjoying the fading sun and the Texas dusk (a special, languid like honey hot like opening a cooling oven time of day), and my little brother stepped out to join me. We sat at this metal round table, shooting the shit, as it were. I was sort of flipping through some books I’d purchased (Fanon’s The Wretched of the Earth and Finney’s Black Faces, White Spaces) and Ethan was sipping on a Topo. Then sort of apropos of nothing, he asks me, “what is rape culture?”.
And this strikes me as really important, right.
This strikes me as a rare and precious moment.
Here’s my little brother genuinely asking what a Big Ugly Reality is. And as he’s asking, both of us sort of seize up a bit, both of us perhaps in our own ways knowing this is risky territory.
Because I’m the Liberal of the family. I’m the wild one. I’ve been openly queer, openly rad fem, openly a-religious and whatever else for years now. And Ethan is not those things.
But he wants to know. And he’s not asking it combatively. He’s not asking as if it isn’t real, or mimicking the meme “change my mind”. He wants to know.
And I know. I mean, I know. I haven’t been a radical feminist since the age of twelve to not know what rape culture is.
But I realize this kid, this kid with who I share bloodlines, experiences, geography, and jaw shape, doesn’t. And what corners of the internet he might’ve seen the term used in can be necessarily ugly, oppressive, bigoted, or worse (worse, I tell you!!).
I really wanted to reach him. I wanted to speak to him specifically, intentionally, carefully. I wanted him to understand. I had all the words in my head—patriarchy, lookism, objectification, exploitation, imperialism, entitlement, purity culture, et al. I have a lifetime of experience and learning that informs this moment and, by some weird grace, my pointed little heart is like, but what if you weren’t knowledgeable? What if you didn’t know? Where would you start?
So I started there. I started at almost zero, because if I can just reach one single cis het white man–early in his career as such–and have him see these things as real, then holy fucking shit my work here might actually mean something.
So I set those words aside and we talked about rape culture. We talked about the way men are raised to feel entitled to bodies, specifically the bodies of those different from them. We talked about the way we look at certain bodies in culture. We talk about the way that enables us to view certain bodies as nonhuman, as objects to pick up, pull apart, use and discard. We talk about how entitlement feeds beliefs in superiority, in subservience.
We talked about the way we make people into nonpeople. And the long history of violence that follows dehumanization.
It was a conversation that took time and energy, examples and explanations.
What I am saying is, like that splash of water on the face, Ethan’s ask invited me to see that even those of us who share so much are not literate in the other’s experience. In fact, so much in our present moment that I see obfuscates understanding. Power wants us to see only what is disparate, wants us to believe our knowledge is the only knowledge. The only literacy that matters is the dominant culture’s prescribed literacy, right? Look no further than what we value in public education.
But learning? Learning is so humble. Learning is so vulnerable. And it’s so fucking cool. To witness someone put the pieces together, to witness a revelation in fluency, is like watching the divine move through them. There you are, unaware, unawake, sort of naked in your unknowing, asking. How beautiful.
And if we don’t know, if we aren’t fluent in the other, if we rely on our own experience to demonstrate reality to us, then holy fuck. We aren’t humble. We aren’t vulnerable. We cannot either enter or admit the not knowing that would keep us outside of community of change of blessings of new life.
And as we approach adulthood, I feel we enter into this space of Knowing that isn’t rooted in anything, necessarily, but is just Arrogance Meets Times Equates to Knowledge.
And I’m so afraid that what is precious and tender in the not knowing, we’ve become to arrogant to allow space to breathe. We’re moving too fast. We’re valuing ease. We’re unquestioning in our comforts.
But I see this kid, this young man, asking to know. And I know firsthand that if you stop and ask, if you take a look around, people in pain will tell you they’re hurt. They’ll show you where. They’ll point to it, if you give them space to breathe. To calm down. If you listen.
And I really fucking hope that we’re willing to admit we don’t know. That we’re willing to admit we’re embarrassed. That we’re willing to look stupid and ugly and sit in our own silence as those in pain, those in suffering, those under power, step into the position of Change. Because it’s here. And it’s now. It’s happening. The world is shifting, baby, I know you can feel it.
And, I think, we can be literate in each other. We can be fluent. We can come to understand, to comprehend, to see context and richness of difference. But learning to read, learning to write, learning another language, learning to balance a checkbook takes time and energy and patience and a lot of mistakes.
And I really fucking hope we’re willing to do that. Because it’s happening, now. And it’s happening, fast. And if we don’t slow down in this time of hurry and see each other, I think our arrogance will kill us. I think those in power won’t care (in fact, I know they won’t). And I hope, in our small daily ways, we can be humble enough to listen. We can be patient enough to be generous. We can be furious, fervent, and fundamentally willing to ask, “what is this thing?”.
And when we find out, what is this thing, I hope we see enough to accept that maybe the answer indicts us. Maybe the answer demands we look at ourselves. And maybe the answer will save our lives.