Lighting a Fire
Reflections for the Darkest Day of the Year
The last two weeks on Substack were tiring, exhausting even, as days went by and founders remained radio silent on the whole 'Nazis in Substack' issue. I am sick of Substack's devil-may-care attitude and the build-up they allowed for two weeks before addressing this issue. I am sick of people justifying fascists and condoning colonialism. I am so sick of it. It irks me to see sensible people act unreasonably. That’s just not good sense.
I love the community here, and since the turn of the decade, I have, for the first time, found a home and belonging here on Substack. The internet was an intellectual desert, in the midst of which the Substack community felt like an oasis of hope. This world is already too torn by hate, war, stark indifferences, and sectarian ideologies that humans adopt to appear contrarian. I am here to reduce polarization, to enable healthy debate, to welcome conflict as a tool for transformation. I am here for it all. But I am not here to debate hate and condone hate speech. Absolutely not. I am infuriated that there are Nazis on this platform, and when people pointed this out, the leadership basically told everyone to 'suck it up' and 'carry on'. I have some pretty extensive and vile metaphors structured as per my prosaic capabilities to present an example of the current scenario. But, since it's winter solstice, I choose not to delve into the poison of anger. Rather, I would like to close this week with the sanity of wisdom that I gathered through deeper reflections in the past.
Since a lot of you are new here, I have repurposed one of my old essays that seems strangely appropriate now more than ever. I have edited it for the sake of brevity, clarity, and relevance. This post comments on the perils of centralized power, the fallacy of free speech, and the necessity that heroes fail (some of the sentences are written in the present and present continuous tense indicating the events ongoing back then). This essay is a metaphorical action of lighting a candle into the void of ignorance in which we collectively swam in the last few weeks.
The Age of Heroes
The rhythmic, quick turn of the small clock hand on my beige wall indicates something profound about life: time is borrowed, limited, and passing quickly. We live life in the micros, in the smallest possible moments; we devise our lives second by second. Every minuscule decision impacts us and others since we live in an innately interdependent world. The caricature of our modern lives from an alien perspective must be ironic and confusing. We intend to exert our rights, demand control over our minds and bodies, ask for the right to elect our government and help it evolve its policies, yet we rarely think of the collective. We vehemently protest for our rights but often disregard the rights of others. Our sympathy for people whose experiences are unlike ours is almost non-existent. We are afraid of dissimilitude; we are scared to invite them into our spaces. Our fears are guided by a range of cultural conditioning, limited media attention, and a lack of diverse political representation. The only place we find a sense of comfort is in the projected image of someone we long to become. That’s why we turn to the mainstream Heroes—people painted as worthy role models who seem to fit the bill. Idealistic, philanthropic, humanitarian, rich, white people, who are binary in every aspect of their lives, live in the anglosphere, and whose characters are impenetrable.
In our society, if you don’t like heroes, you are an unambitious imaginary dodo. It is in everybody’s best interest that you remain extinct. The more they label your freethinking as a social anomaly, the more it confirms their infatuation with their untainted and influential Heroes. The concentration of power in one person is preferred in our civilization, and historically, such unchecked admiration has proven perilous for the collective. Everyone loves the legend of a benevolent and powerful leader with a massive empire—a savior of the underprivileged who is good, inspiring both adoration and awe. The savior monomyth has led civilization down dark, long, and winding roads of wars. It’s not our fault that we want to find a holy person to carry all our burdens and heal all our maladies; we have been taught to want that since the beginning of the first written story. There is an inherent human need to hope that someone someday will protect us from ourselves. It would be so easy if one person’s shoulders were big enough to carry all the weight of human mistakes, if only there were one miracle man/woman. But alas, there are none so mighty and great. And so there is always controversy spilling, as the balance of power topples from the counter of fame.
When 90% of the existing wealth is accumulated by the top 1% of people on the planet, it sounds ridiculous to even talk about equity. Power belongs to the rich; equal rights are illusions, and everything can be bought—most of all, influence. When one can control and move governments, mobilize public opinion, shift culture, and create a revolution of change, there is hardly any equality they share with the rest of the masses. In this broken shell of a world that we have constructed on the burned bones of victims of mass genocides and systemic colonialism, our heroes enter dressed in the flags of their privileges, lacerating and severing the common camaraderie even further. And so the world, which has already been going through so much collective darkness, prepares one more time for the fall of a hero.
Blame is on us for weighing people as immortals, who obviously fail such unrealistic standards to which they are held. The media and the culture are to blame too. People cannot live up to our expectations because we want a myth. However, the reality is that they are only complex and flawed humans like the rest of us. Becoming a hero is easier than staying a hero for a long time. We accept our heroes on our terms. Our acceptance is often plastered with pity which peels off quickly to reveal a deeper dissatisfaction when our heroes don't show up pretending to be who we want them to be. However, this dissatisfaction that we project on them is internal. We seek perfection from them because we are reluctant to work on our imperfections.
Power should never be handed over to a select few; it needs to be decentralized and anonymous. Power is the most dangerous form of magic, the most misused weapon. Centralized power, if not bound by policies, can be abused without the abuser being aware of their deviance. Predisposed to the gravity of unchecked power, one’s sense of self seems to expand way beyond what is necessary for a psychologically healthy life. Fame is a dangerous thing; people who misuse its heat are always left in ashes. Fame corrupts people, twisting their minds to its will. Under its colossal force, even the most unyielding mind snaps. They become a convoluted version of themselves that lacks sophistication, sensitivity, and remorse. They often seem to forget that even the Titans of Mount Olympus fell.
Potterverse and the Lost Magic
I will never forget the feeling of discovering the Harry Potter books for the first time. I had never experienced such magical storytelling before, nor have I experienced it again since. Such was the genius of J.K. Rowling. Harry Potter is not just a book but a phenomenon. She gave us the boy wizard and his magical world, where good triumphs over evil at all costs. Her rags-to-riches journey, kindness, and philanthropy made her one of the most well-deserved success stories in the world. She was my hero for the longest time. However, back then, I was very young and had very little sense of what the term 'hero' meant. Rowling was a perfect angel, until lately when she made a trans-exclusionary tweet on a post that talks about creating a more equal post-COVID-19 world. After being accused of transphobia, to make matters worse, she doubles down with an unapologetic essay to explain her fears (see below).
We could have all forgotten that our beloved author has an exclusionary mindset if she weren’t so hell-bent on proving it. In her essay, she exclusively voiced her concerns over allowing trans people to use gender-appropriate toilets, stating that, 'When you throw open the doors of bathrooms and changing rooms to any man who believes or feels he is a woman, then you open the door to any and all men who wish to come inside.' This statement indicates a disregard for people who identify outside the binary spectrum of gender. However, inferring from her solidarity-seeking essay, one can say that Rowling’s understanding of the difference between gender and sex is skewed, and her fears are confirmed by her ignorance. She clearly has not done her research before using a dangerous gender stereotype to target already marginalized and vulnerable people amid a global pandemic. What baffles me the most is the fact that, out of all the causes for which she could have used her influential platform, she chose to do this. She chose to tell her billions of followers that she is not comfortable using the same toilet as trans people. I think the world could have used a lot less controversy and hate, especially when millions of people have lost their families and loved ones to the dreadful pandemic.
If you are someone, who cannot be convinced without data that this statement by Rowling is derogatory towards marginalized trans people - I have a reference for you here. In a 2015 US survey done on trans people, nearly half (47%) of respondents were sexually assaulted at some point in their lifetime and one in ten (10%) were sexually assaulted in the past year. In communities of color, these numbers are higher: 53% of Black respondents were sexually assaulted in their lifetime. 65% of respondents who have experienced homelessness, and 61% of respondents with disabilities reported being sexually assaulted in their lifetime. More than half (54%) experienced some form of intimate partner violence, including acts involving coercive control and physical harm. If this set of data is not heartbreaking, I don’t know what is. (Source)
When we impede trans people from using their gender-appropriate bathrooms, we convey to them that we don't believe who they say they are because they are different. When we issue an identity card to confirm medical intervention or hormone intake before allowing access to gender-appropriate spaces like changing rooms, we imply that every trans person should undergo sex reassignment surgery, which is coercive and goes against the rights of individuals to make decisions about their bodies. In addition to that, it is important to realize that sex reassignment surgeries are cost-intensive and physically painful. Trans women living on the streets cannot afford such therapy; should they be excluded from using their gender-appropriate spaces, they will surely be subjected to potential violence. I cannot possibly support this anti-humanitarian sentiment only because a billionaire fantasy writer wants to project her unreasonable fear to make a transphobic predator stereotype acceptable. I have loved Harry Potter for more than a decade because it teaches about friendship, tolerance, and coexistence. But if this is what its writer stands for today, I refuse to refer to it ever again. It is callous and degrading toward people who have already struggled all their lives to feel a sense of belonging and acceptance in society. Is it so difficult to respect people’s experiences of gender and grant them their basic human rights like toilet and changing room access? Rowling has created immense pain for many trans fans who have derived their sense of identity while reading Harry Potter in isolation. She was supposed to be this messiah of the marginalized; what went wrong? Maybe she is sick of being bored with her insufferable wisdom and wealth.
The timing was also notorious because all the commentary came from a billionaire white woman amid a pandemic blizzard, pride month, and the ongoing BLM movement. With her gender-critical opinions, she has managed to sabotage the pace of work needed to address many of the issues this specific period stands for. The internet was flooded with criticism and opposition to her commentary. However, we often forget that the rich and influential often live untouched in their ivory towers while wreaking havoc in the lives of so many. This raises the question of the importance we give to one person’s success story rather than collectively celebrating all the major and minor milestones we achieve together. This is practically all that is wrong with hero-worshipping culture. The fandom is heartbroken because we gave Joanne the authority to impact billions of people without truly knowing if she had enough virtue to do so. The last straw on the camel’s back was when I found out that the pen name (Robert Galbraith) she uses to write her crime series is shared with a much-criticized homophobic gay conversion therapist who performed several CIA-approved tasks, infringing on human rights. Check here.
From being the most beloved children’s author who donated enough to charities and paid enough taxes to lose her billionaire status, to being a person who tweets links to a store that sells pins with slogans like “Fuck your Pronouns,” the fact that Rowling fell from grace is undebatable. Major media houses, including The Atlantic, Forbes, Time, Vogue, Vox, Harper’s Bazaar, and The Independent, to name a few, have pointed out the dangers of her concerning opinions. We should do our best to understand that gender is a social construct, and everybody experiences it differently. Gender is a spectrum rather than a monochromatic palette, where people experience who they are and how they interact with their world with their realized identity. It has nothing to do with the sex that you are born with. Gender dysphoria is a real and everyday reality for many people. J.K. Rowling is problematic because she wants the world to be binary, divided between good magic and bad magic, without paying enough cost for using both. She views herself as a hero fighting for the cause of cis women, a sheer force of greatness in a delusional universe where people are safely labeled and put into categories. However, her enchanted fortress is corroding; the charms are ineffective when confronted with the truth. This is not her fantasy world; this is our shared world, where we create our realities with our shared values and coexist in harmony. Her rules are not applicable here. We don’t need heroes; we need collectively evolved people who can practice empathy and tolerance. Twitter is trending with hashtags #RIPJKRowling. That is where my hero died, and when she did, I mourned, said goodbye, and moved on.
Through all of this, our major lesson is that the arrogance of fame and success will almost always destroy even the most carefully constructed narratives. Power exerts a force so great that the universe intervenes quite often to correct its course. The death of heroes is not only inevitable but also necessary because if power reigns too long in the hands of a certain few, it will successfully bring a thousands-of-year-old civilization to its knees. That is how quickly power corrupts conscience. The toxic drunkenness of power can diminish the ability to decipher the right from the wrong. The consistency of goodness will possibly dwindle if any amount of money can be paid to buy virtue. You don't have any obligation to concede to morality when you are a legend, a myth carefully manufactured by the opportunist press.
Heroes must experience an ideological death because that way they retain their status of omnipotence. This approach allows them to keep their mythical aura and narrative intact without tarnishing their legacy. They need to pass the torch down to the younger generation, who will carry the mountains on their shoulders a little further before handing it over again to the next generation. This is the only tradition that can restore the noble tribe of heroes currently progressing towards obscurity. Heroes must undergo a respectable death to make space for new ones to be born. If you, like me, have lost your hero - this is your time. Rise and become the hero that you deserve.