My, How You’ve Grown

I’ve been reading this fantastic book, “The Family That Couldn’t Sleep”, about the history of prion research and fatal familial insomnia.  It’s incredible; I’ve been taking every excuse to babble about it all week.  The author’s approach is so compassionate and yet comprehensive – there are a lot of not-so-great people who nevertheless do important work in the field of prion research, and D.T. Max presents their crimes evenly alongside their discoveries, neither excusing them nor allowing their crimes to obviate their contributions.  It’s terrifying and inspiring and dense with super strange facts that will make you a Cool Guy among the “morbid history nerd” demographic.

But this isn’t a book review, because apparently my elders would prefer I chose more uplifting reading material – my grandmother came in to say, “Sigh. Life in general is so much more! As you “season” with age, you’ll see.”

Reader, I did an acrobatic pirouette off the handle.

I haven’t been subjected to that “when you’re older you’ll understand” bullshit in a good long while, because at 32, most people seem willing to sell me booze and engage with my ideas as if I were some kind of adult.  It’s true that we’re always children to our families, there’s no possibility of ever entirely discarding the trappings of that relationship, but I think it’s possible to honor a shared past without inhabiting it, to love the child we remember without erasing the adult we see.  It just requires a conscious effort to look for more than what we expect, to look at a person for their identity rather than their role.

it’s just a phase

Because that’s it, isn’t it?  We slot people into roles in our lives as appropriate – mother, father, partner, boss – and then we try to optimize our relationship according to society’s instructions for interacting with that role.  We look at our family and compare it to other families we see, and consider ours more or less successful based on how well it matches up to the cookie-cutter.  We catch our child misbehaving and crowdsource the answer, looking for how kids that age are supposed to behave.  Is this normal?  Is it a phase?

That word, phase – do people still say that shit to their kids?  “Oh, it’s just a phase, you’ll get over it. You won’t care about that in six months.  No, don’t spend too much money on that, she’s only going through a phase.” Really think about what that says for a second.  You’re saying to your child, “You have no expertise on your own feelings or desires. This thing that feels very important to you is not important, and the degree to which you lack understanding of that is the degree of your immaturity in my eyes.  It would be best to crush your enjoyment of that thing immediately and waste no more of anyone’s time liking something you might dislike in the future.”

the apex of human understanding

Note that “growing up” is always seen as synonymous with “agreeing with me.”  There is no world in which a child grows up, acquires experience and perspective, and still disagrees with you.  Your worldview is the apex of human understanding, and all life is a grim slog toward the enlightenment you’ve already achieved.  All of this is implicit when someone says, “When you get older, you’ll see.”

Trouble with that is, if you look at the world this way, you will only ever see yourself.  That’s all you’re interested in. It’s all you’re looking for, so it’s all you’ll find. You’ve told the people you love that what matters to them is only real if it also matters to you.  That what they are is only worthy if it matches what you were looking for.  Someone you love came to you and said, “Hey, this thing is super cool, and it fills me with the sublime joy of discovery and makes me want to learn more.”  And you said, “That’s not the kind of thing I figured you’d be into. Stop sharing your discoveries with me until you mature into someone who likes what I like.”

Is that the relationship you want to have with your family?

your irresponsible brother Dave

Aren’t you at all worried that you’re missing out?  Don’t you ever wonder who that person is? Not the role they’re in – not “your granddaughter” or “your partner” or “your irresponsible brother Dave,” but the actual person hidden behind the role you talk to when they pick up the phone.  Maybe actually talk to Dave, for the first time in years.  Dave’s forty-three – have you been calling him irresponsible since he was eight years old?  Does that not seem like bizarre behavior, to not update your opinion of a person for thirty years?  If you met forty-three-year-old Dave in a bar or a park, would the two of you get along? Would you even talk?

I think the sad truth is that a lot of people wouldn’t choose their family for friends if they’d been given a choice.  And it’s not because we don’t have things in common – shared space and shared time creates commonalities, and so does any attempt to shape your loved ones to resemble yourself.  One way or another, we usually have a lot in common with our families.

What we don’t have is any reason to seek out their company, a lot of the time.  The jokes about family time being as taxing as it is rewarding are pretty universal – why is that?  Why do most people not quite like being around their families?  A lot of those jokes rely upon this idea of having to perform, to live up to what the family expects of you.  Here we are again… “family” is conditional upon your ability to conceal what you are, to go through the motions, to avoid the missing stair.

someone who loves you might hurt you on purpose

Any long-term relationship is susceptible to this.  The older a relationship is, the more opportunity there is to create habits that wear into wounds.  You started joking about Dave being irresponsible when he was eight, and he laughed then, and so you kept it up.  Dave kept laughing because Dave didn’t have any power – if it bothered him, he didn’t have any safe opportunity or framework to say, “That joke actually does hurt me.  Could we stop joking about that and joke about literally anything else, please?” He’s hopefully never before been confronted with the idea that someone who loves you might hurt you on purpose.  That’s a brutal revelation, one that a child has trouble absorbing, and so he tries to ignore it. Dave keeps laughing.  If he conceals that it hurts, they won’t be hurting him on purpose.  If I don’t call it rape, I can pretend I wasn’t raped.  Faking it is less painful. It keeps hurting, but over time Dave gets inured to it. He doesn’t even hear the jokes anymore.  He doesn’t see his family much either. Not for any particular reason, they don’t do anything really bad. They’re just… not as good to him as his friends are.  And somehow that’s called “family.”

The word family whitewashes a lot of behavior that no one in their right mind would put up with from a friend or a partner.  We’re looking for the family we expect to see, the one media shows us, and when we don’t see it, we pretend to see it.  We play the role and the role becomes who we are.

our teeth are loving

That’s how a family gets to a point of taking pride in their dysfunction.  “We’re not like those lame, boring families that are nice to each other.  Other people can’t understand this thing we have, but you know our teeth are loving, this is just the only way we know to express our emotions.  You’re special for getting it.  Outsiders don’t get it.” This is how we immortalize abuse as family tradition. We convey the impression that in order to be “in the club,” in order to belong, those lower in status must submit to whatever treatment trickles down from on high.  More than submit to it – celebrate it. Being part of the family means laughing when we make a joke at your expense; can’t you take a joke, don’t you have a sense of humor?

These patterns don’t start as malice, that’s the problem.  We don’t start out trying to bulldoze the people around us.  We just don’t take it seriously when it happens, and so it keeps happening.  When we trivialize what someone’s experiencing – “it’s a phase, you’ll understand better when you’re older” – we teach them that their pain is not important.  So they stop telling us about it.

If we don’t create opportunities in our relationships for open communication that sets aside power and status disparities, we can’t ever have genuine, functional relationships with anyone.  Power, status – it’s not comfortable to use words like that with our loved ones, and we’d like to believe our families don’t work like that. But power disparity exists, and ignoring it is just a way of absolving ourselves of responsibility, believing that the word “family” is sufficient to keep the family together.  It’s not necessary to work on and improve those relationships the way one would with a friend, because “we’ll always be family.” Okay, but if family doesn’t mean “a group of people who love each other and look after each other’s welfare”… what exactly will we always be? We’ll always be connected by blood, but if that’s all that’s required, why does it matter if we spend time together?  You want family to mean something when it absolves you, but not when it requires you to do emotional work.

any part of this person you ground down

What if you made it a habit, with all the people you love – friends, partners, family, anyone you plan to keep around for a while – to check in?  Not in a “hey, how’s tricks” kind of way – you’re going to have to give them a framework to answer you, because we’re not used to being this honest with each other, and you’ve probably given them at least one reason to believe you won’t react well to anything less than a glowing review.  But there are a lot of ways to get at what you want to know, and what you want to know is if there’s any part of this person you ground down to make them fit into your family.

Try any and all of the following, as appropriate to your situation and relationship:

  • “Hey, I want you to feel like you can tell me the truth about what you’re experiencing and feeling – is there anything I can do or not do to make you feel safer in doing that?”
  • “What have you been really interested in lately that we haven’t talked about?  You’re getting into culinary taxidermy? Well that sounds terrifying to me, but we don’t have to like the same things for me to love you, so please, tell me what you like about it!”
  • “We go to church/play board games on Family Night/eat at Hooters every week, and we’ve been doing that for a long time, I just wanted to see if that’s still sparking joy for everybody.  Oh, you say you never liked eating at Hooters?  Well I definitely won’t say ‘why didn’t you mention that earlier’, because we don’t always know how we feel about things right away and conveying that uncertainty across a power disparity is very difficult, and I don’t want to punish you for answering my question honestly.  Instead, let’s try another place, and those of us who like Hooters can go tomorrow night.”
  • “Hey, I noticed when I made that joke that your laugh was a little halfhearted.  If I say something that makes you uncomfortable, please don’t feel like you have to laugh it off – please tell me instead, so I can not do that in the future, because I’d rather we both be having fun when we hang out.”
  • “Remember that thing I asked you to work on?  Keeping up with the dishes/not picking your nose in front of the dog/not yelling at me when I ask a question?  I wanted to say it’s been a lot better lately – you’ve been working on it and it shows, so thank you.”
  • “What are some things you’d like to do in life?  Let’s approach those NOT from the perspective of me showing you how to scale down your dream until it fits neatly into your standard-issue soul-dead consumer life, but rather, let’s you and I figure out how to break down the existing paradigm to make whatever you’d like to do practical.  I promise not to mention money or college in any way during this conversation, because a lot of things can change in twenty years, and my understanding of what the workforce will require from you is probably already wildly out of date, and also your value and the value of what you care about is not determined by the amount of capitalist wealth you accrue, so you should pursue what you’re passionate about and we will make it work.”

Demonstrate, or have the common decency to occasionally feign, interest in your loved ones outside the sphere of your own interests.  Acknowledge progress, not just error.  Don’t measure others’ success in terms of similarity to you or your dreams.  Provide opportunities for safe communication.  Be aware of power disparities rather than trying to pretend they don’t exist, and be ready to swallow your pride if it gets in your way.  If you can’t hear good sense when it comes from the mouth of a child – or anyone you perceive as “lesser” – you aren’t worthy of any form of authority.  Don’t judge your children by how similar they are to you, or to other children, or to children from your day. That’s not useful info – why would you want your children to be similar to you?  They live in a completely different world and that will become more true every day.

Don’t look for your own reflection in the faces of those around you.  Listen to the person in front of you, right now. They’re giving you a lot of information – we all want to be seen, to be understood, and most of the time we’re broadcasting like neon lights, just wishing someone would ask us what we think or how we feel.  Each person is new, and they’re new every goddamn day. If you’re not paying attention, you’re going to miss it. If you spend all your time describing the person in front of you, rather than listening to them, they’re going to disappear.

Moral Mathematics

Learning to love getting hit in the face with a rake.

I got into a discussion lately about how to improve society on a one-to-one basis, in our daily lives, related to our perception of sexual assault accusations.  The question in its original form was this:

How do we convince people that sometimes people we look up to, befriend or even love are capable of something unforgivable, monstrous?

Without driving them away because from their perspective you are attacking their loved ones?

Without minimizing the harm that victims experience?

How, in effect, can we get people to accept and believe survivors rather than interrogating as their first response, without accusing them of being intolerant in the first place?

Is it possible to get people to confront their own casual hypocrisy and cruelty without making them feel bad?

And the problem is… no, it’s not.  Moral development is painful, because it involves looking back on your own actions and deciding whether they represent the person you want to be.  When they don’t – and they don’t, not always – it hurts.  If you truly accept that you behaved contrary to your own ideals, you will experience pain.  If it doesn’t hurt, it’s because you have not yet truly bought and owned that you were wrong.  And that’s natural!  No one wants to believe that they did something wrong, but we do make mistakes, and how we absorb that experience determines our quality.

When a person hears that their friend, or a celebrity they like, or the Goddamn President raped someone, that’s them getting smacked in the face by a rake wearing a goofy wig and a sign that says “You were WROOOOOOOONG.”  They were wrong about their perception of that person.  Wrong to like them, wrong perhaps even to love them.  Wrong to do all the things they did to help them.  That hurts, badly, and it should.

Then we get to decide what to do about that hurt.  A lot of people, again like our Goddamn President, react instinctively, defensively.  They want the hurting to stop, so they blame the person they see as the immediate source of the pain – the victim.  That’s how a missing stair is created; that’s how we get whole families, organizations, societies protecting rapists and predators because any attempt to speak up about what Brett does to girls at parties gets met with, “You’re just trying to start drama.  You’re just trying to destroy the career of a good man.  You’re hurting me, stop hurting me!”

Scene from the Dune (1984, David Lynch) wherein Kyle MacLachlan as Paul Atreides is tested by the gom jabbar

But we don’t have to react that way.  We’re not simply our instincts, whatever pseudoscience the manosphere is peddling these days.  We actually do understand that pain is survivable, that intellectual confrontation is not the same as physical threat, that new ideas don’t need to be met like armed invaders.  We know that, but it takes a lot of effort and practice to remember it in an emotional moment while our amygdala is firing.  Think of the test Paul Atreides is put through in the first chapter of Dune.  He’s subjected to horrific pain, and if he flinches or pulls away, he will die.  The Reverend Mother tells him that the separation between men and beasts is that a man can choose to endure pain for a purpose.  So when we’re confronted with painful information – “Your boss/dad/friend raped someone” – we can endure that pain rather than throwing it back at the victim.  We can make a little decision matrix for ourselves – it’s like Pascal’s wager.  Pascal’s got your back, kids.

Problem: Amy says Brett raped her, he says he didn’t, I like them both and right now that’s all we know.

  1. If Amy is lying and I treat her as if she’s telling the truth, I will have to support her in seeking justice against Brett.  This will rapidly result in her being found out – false rape accusations are vanishingly rare and the vast majority of them do not even name a specific suspectPositive outcome.
  2. If Amy is lying and I treat her as if she’s lying, she’ll likely no longer be a friend, and the fallout of that situation may have other social consequences in our group.  Mixed outcome.
  3. If Amy is telling the truth and I treat her as if she’s telling the truth, I will have to support her in seeking justice against Brett.  This will hopefully result in some form of justice.  The immediate result is that Amy will have an ally in a very nasty situation where she may have no others, and long-term, she will likely be vastly better off for having had any support at all in her trauma.  Positive outcome.
  4. If Amy is telling the truth and I treat her as if she’s lying, I will both destroy our friendship and further abuse someone who has already been brutalized, while propagating a culture that creates this exact situation every day.  I will continue supporting and defending Brett while he (statistically) goes on to rape five more women.  Negative outcome.

The only rational choice is to treat Amy as if she’s telling the truth – it creates the highest probability for a positive outcome.  So a rational person would choose to believe Amy.  But when we’re hurting, we’re not rational – pain fires at the base of our brains, bypassing the prefrontal cortex entirely.  It takes practice and perspective to survive that moment calmly, to endure the pain long enough to decide how to respond instead of simply reacting.  Moral growth is a gom jabbar– it has to hurt if it’s to work, because the goal is to learn to think while hurting.  This is how we learn to be human.

Isopods for Peace

Far as I can tell, image of a giant isopod at Shedd Aquarium by nate_newton of the Captivereefs.com forum, Oct. 2011. I tarted it up in Photoshop a bit.

This is the story of how I started an isopod peacenik cult. Kinda-sorta on purpose.

Deeeep.io (four ‘e’s) is a browser game created by Federico Mouse. It’s one of those EVO-type deals where you start as a very basic creature and evolve into more complex lifeforms as you level up. In this case, it’s a vast, procedurally-generated ocean. Oh, and it’s multiplayer.

That alone would have ruined it for me eventually had I not stumbled upon the way of the isopod. I tend to play online games alone, because, well, you’ve seen the internet. I’m so introverted it’s probably some kind of disease. I’ve been playing World of Warcraft for about twelve years, and mostly I play that by myself too — run old raids for transmog gear, play the auction house for my sub fee, pet battle, farm achievements. I’m one of those that is happy just making my own game in the corner out of whatever I’m given. So when someone says, “Hey, would you like to plunge into an unregulated ocean full of internet randos and fight it out for a few blips of plankton?” I go “yeah no honestly that sounds like a terrible idea.”

All kinds of frothy chaos

It’s fun, though. The graphics are rudimentary in a charming way. I’m a blobfish, and I need high pressure to survive — stay in the Deeeeps, it tells me! Okay then. A few bellyfuls of yellow algae from the bottom of the sea and I have become a crab. That’s not how I remember evolution working when I learned it in school, but hey, what do I know, I’m an English major. Crab eats algae too, excellent. And nobody’s scooping up all this yellow algae on the seafloor — there’s all kinds of frothy chaos happening above me, but none of the big fish can eat algae, so they leave me alone.

I start to realize that Deeeep has a surprising amount of, well… depth. The dev has gone to the trouble to gently enforce non-griefing play. The top tier of predatory fish can’t even harm Tier 1 fish. Bigger fish eat meat, so they mostly battle one another, leaving the abundant algae for newer players to level up on. Of course, it’s the internet, so my confident expectation is that the first other person I encounter will make it his life’s work to fuck me sideways, and there’s a lot of that. I die a ton at first, but it’s all right. The more evolved I was when I died, the higher up on the food chain I can start, so I’m corpse-running my way to the top.

The fish-bitches bring it

I become a seal, and then a bird, and then suddenly get too fat to fly and plunge back into the sea as a shark. Eat fish, become the shark! It says that right at the top of the screen! I’m the boss now; bring it, fish-bitches.

The fish-bitches bring it. Teaming up is a very solid strategy, and alliances shift rapidly under the sea — I get mobbed by a school of piranhas, a ray, and a couple octopodes that I could swallow whole if I could just get them to hold still. I turn into a sinking shower of meat. My body will feed generations of scavengers.

This happens a few times. I get to experience most of the top-tier creatures. Crocodiles lurk at the bottom of the waterfall on the right side of the map, waiting for fish to get swept by the current into their jaws. Manta rays can take smaller fish under their wings and fight as a unified group. I see a hippo once, far away, and head the opposite fucking direction, because I know about hippos. The hell with hippos.

Me, a hippo, ruining a perfectly good beaver.

There’s a leaderboard in the upper right-hand corner of the screen. The top contender has over a million points, the 10th a couple hundred thousand. And here I am munching on algae for 50 points a bite. Clearly mass murder is the only efficient way to climb… but I, as I’ve said before, carry the Imp of the Perverse on my back. I am incapable of doing anything in a straightforward way if a ridiculously convoluted alternative is available. And I get bored with the thrashing battles quickly. We’re all blocky little sprites with simple textures, and though each animal has unique talents and abilities, the bulk of any fight is bashing your face into another face until one face breaks. Climbing the leaderboard makes you a target, and bored fish form squads to hunt you down for your delicious meats. The voice of WOPR rings in my head: “The only winning move is not to play.”

The only winning move is not to play

Maybe it’s the perfect combination of sativa and Adderall jangling through my system this morning. Maybe it’s the constant fluctuations of the leaderboard. Maybe it’s the way that the mechanics reinforce behaving like the fish you’ve chosen. I find that when I am an anglerfish, and I act like an anglerfish, I succeed. I love this. It makes me happy to roleplay as a fish, to avoid larger fish, to eat plankton and hide in deeeep-sea volcanos.

No, you know what it is? It’s the isopod’s adorable little face.

Look at that face. LOOK AT IT

She’s so serious and determined! I love her curled feet. I love her tiny industrious frown. The isopod is a Tier 3 creature. She needs to be in deeeep water to survive, and she can eat anything — algae, red bubbles of volcano-gas, any meat that drops out of the melee. Oh, and she can curl up into a ball, making her invulnerable. She can’t DO anything while curled up, and she’s got so little health and damage that she’s not a viable combatant against anything, but she charms me. I start to spend a lot of time playing as the isopod.

Oh, I almost forgot to tell you — there is a chat function in this game. Another nail in its goddamn coffin as far as I’m concerned, but whatever, today I’m high enough to ignore the dick jokes that float by on the current. It’s everything you’d expect — friendships made and shattered, battlefield betrayals, factions that coalesce and then begin infighting for dominance. And the more you talk, the more you betray your position, so a mouthy fish with a high score quickly gets gangbanged into chum. Again my Imp whispers, “The only winning move is not to play.”

So I play the isopod. I eat the algae at the bottom of the sea. The isopod gets a little speed boost when she’s near a seabed, so whenever I’m menaced, I skim along and lose most pursuit by ducking deeper into the caves. I can hide in sea volcanoes, and when I’m balled up and hidden, I’m completely untouchable. Something about this slow grind soothes me. What can I say — they gave me a number to increment and points to collect. It’s in my gamer blood, I have to make the number go up.

For hours I play the isopod, and I think. It’s meditative. I have time to contemplate the words on my screen, the changing social structures that appear when people have these low-key ways to interact. All the usual characteristics of internet communication are there. People swear, people spam. Spammers are eaten. Funny, charming people attract friends and climb the leaderboard, but people have lives, so eventually everyone dies, or goes offline and disappears. Through it all, I stay an isopod. I lurk at the bottom of the sea. I eat the algae. I play my little role and am content.

Assholes are not known for their patience

Sometimes someone hassles me. A lamprey bobs up and bumps into my shell, then lingers, repeatedly bashing his head into me. It hurts, kind of. But if I ask him to leave me alone, it’ll just make him bother me more. If you speak, you make yourself a target. If you make a request, they will do the opposite. I know how to deal with trolls; I can wait him out. Assholes are not known for their patience. So I ball up and sit there while he chews on me ineffectually.

“cmon” he says. Oh, yeah, that’s a winning strategy. I wasn’t sold on being devoured by a toothy phallus before, but now that you’ve whined at me I’m a complete convert, take me now! Saying that won’t make him leave, though.

The only winning move is not to play, says the Imp in my head. But then the isopod speaks up. She says:

“Isopods for peace.”

Then she sits, a little stone at the bottom of the sea, and the nonplussed lamprey gives up and goes looking for easier prey.

Huh. That worked? All right then. I go on eating algae. And the next time someone comes for my succulent morsels, I say it again: “Isopods for peace.”

“Cool man” says the squid, and scoots off.

It keeps working. It’s a fairly unassailable message, I suppose — short enough to have no inroads for mockery, universal in appeal, and offered as a proclamation rather than a protest or a plea. And with so much more interesting, darting prey about, no one bothers me for long. I fall into a kind of trance. Eat the algae. Roam the cave. Bump against a larger fish. Murmur “Isopods for peace.” Turmoil and brawl goes on above, and gradually, over the course of many hours, I climb the leaderboard. Other fish climb by chunks, thousands of meat-points per chomp, but inevitably they die. They leave. I go on. I eat the algae. I roam the seabed. Isopods for peace.

The Isopod Nation

I start to hear echoes. Other players pick up the line, at first as a joke. An isopod faction forms. A few related names climb the boards: “Isopodking” is up there for a bit, and “ISOPODS 4 LYFE”. They assemble into a pile of curled blocks at the bottom of the sea and proclaim the isopod way. Naturally, they attract attention. A few die — an isopod can be killed, but it takes the right enemy fish, and a clever isopod knows how to avoid risky situations. Whenever I encounter a predator, I greet it with, “Isopods for peace,” and from far away I hear the Isopod Nation cheer.

The Isopod Nation often forms in this natural cave at the far left end of the map. Isopods roll downhill, you see. Here I visit the Isopod Nation and find them guarded by a small squid and an oarfish.

They want me to join them, but I know I must not. I must go on. I must eat the algae. I must spread the word of peace. Then, too, I know what will happen to the isopod faction. It’s starting to happen even now. Enemies gather round their chitin pyramid, so they enlist larger fish to protect isopods on their way to the group. And then the violence begins again, a war by proxy with the isopods helpless to do anything but watch. They disagree inside their pyramid, and the nation splinters from within. They join the fray, and then they die. Far away, I murmur, “Isopods for peace.”

Sometimes I die. I slip up now and then. I learn which fish can hurt me fastest, which can poison me through my protective shell, which can swallow me and carry me somewhere I don’t want to go. I start over again, sometimes on the same server, sometimes on another. Blobfish, crab, isopod. Hide the evolution prompt. Isopod is the endgame. Each time I climb the leaderboard, it happens again —word spreads, predators come. I wait, I whisper: “Isopods for peace.” And gradually, I don’t have to anymore. A squid bumps into me, then backs up. “sry bro.” He twirls in the water and swims away. A gulper eel approaches and I tense up — gulper eels can swallow me even in curled form, and it hurts. The only way to really escape them is to hide in a volcano. But this one doesn’t attack — he spins in the water, which is how fish greet each other, since any speech echoes across the whole ocean.

“Hi,” says the gulper eel.

I hide in a volcano while trying to sway a gulper eel to the side of peace.

I think about it. He wants to make friends. I could have protection. I could spread the word of peace farther, faster. I could scavenge from anything he killed — and that’s where the isopod breaks in with her quiet voice. She answers the gulper eel:

“Isopods for peace.”

The isopod goes on. She eats the algae. The gulper eel follows for awhile, circles me in the water, amuses himself chasing the little fish that are too large for me to eat. Eventually he takes off. The isopod is alone again. But that’s all right. She’s seen what happens when factions form. That way lies violence. She knows that if she speaks, her message will be diluted. If she befriends another fish, she makes herself vulnerable. The path of peace is lonely.

But the message carries. I roam servers to make sure I encounter new people. It always works. I don’t argue, I don’t beg. I don’t ask anyone to leave me alone or call for backup. I don’t spam — I only call out my catchphrase when someone tries to eat me. I try to defend other isopods too, when I see them — I curl up next to them and whisper, “Isopods for peace.” We lean against one another and contemplate the ocean for a moment. Then we go on, and eat the algae. Predators learn that they can reliably find food by following my voice to the asshole who screwed with an isopod. It becomes known: the isopods are for peace.

Have I tamed the internet?

I’m trying to understand what’s happening even as I’m doing it. Have I tamed the internet? How is this possible? Nine-year-old Fortnite babies don’t give a fuck about peace. And yet they stand down when they see me. They twirl in the current and dance.

“whoa srry man, didnt see it was you”

“Heyyyy”

“gogo isopod”

“WTF is that ispod wth a million points”

I think there are a couple of things going on here, and there’s some kind of lesson in this for the real world, but I’m not sure what it is. So let’s pick it apart. Why is this strategy working? Why am I not a target? Why, instead, is the word of peace spreading, isopods everywhere left to graze on the seabed, separate from the food chain?

Several days in, I am no longer afraid to swim away from the seabed. No one will harm me. Isopods are for peace.

Part of it is the message — like I said, it’s brief and unassailable. It’s not a question or a request, and it never changes no matter what response I receive. Assaulting a balled-up isopod is ineffective, but it’s also unrewarding. Since having a lot of points doesn’t make me worth any more points to the one who kills me, almost any other activity is a better use of time than waiting for me to uncurl. Which is the other part of this — invulnerability. Is this what true pacifism requires? Complete imperviousness to harm, a seamless carapace? I could mount an argument in that direction, certainly, with historical sources a fathom long, but somehow I can’t bring myself to believe it. Perhaps it’s sentiment. Perhaps it’s idealism. But I can’t believe — not quite — that the only possibility of peace lies in complete isolation.

It is at this point that I should confess I got a little obsessed with this project. It went on for days, plays of three, four, seven hours at a time. (Yes, I have a lot of time on my hands.) One morning I logged on to a new server, recognizing none of the names, and was greeted by “ey man its Isopods for Peace, whats up”. That wasn’t my name, as you can see in these screenshots, but that’s the power the meme has acquired by this point. I am identified entirely with what I say, even though it’s my name, Gentle, that stays in the corner of a person’s screen for hours on end. I am nothing. There is only the isopod, and the isopod is for peace.

So the cult remains even when I am not online, which allows me to begin iterating on the form. I change up the message from time to time, now. “Peace is the way. Follow the path of peace. There is enough food for all to live in peace.” I don’t strive to stay at the top of the leaderboard; being #1 means nothing to me. I usually bounce between ranks three to six as fish rise and fall around me. The function of my presence on the leaderboard is only to amplify what I say. Not mechanically —crabs’ voices are as loud as sharks’ and whales’ voices — but psychologically. An isopod, in and of herself, means nothing. An isopod that says “Isopods for peace” when you hit her and is surprisingly clever at not getting killed? You might remember that, for a minute or two. But without spamming the message, that’s all the longevity it has — the next isopod you see erases the memory of this one, and they all look like food, and none of the rest of ’em moralize at you while you’re chewing.

A serene, idealistic statement

When I’m on the leaderboard, all fish can see is my name, unless they find me somewhere in the sea. They have no idea which creature I currently am. When they come for me, they come in force, expecting a shark or a giant squid. They approach ready to fight and find a tiny creature that offers nothing in its defense but a serene, idealistic statement — and yet, this tiny creature is passing up bloody-toothed predators one after another. My success proves that my message is valid in terms that everyone recognizes. That moment, when their bloodlust is stymied by my inexplicable behavior — in that moment, their minds are open. They’re confused, and they’re ready to hear an explanation. The isopod tells them, “Isopods for peace.”

“How u get to 1mil with isopod?”

“Peace is the path to greatness,” the isopod says.

A new Isopod Nation has risen. They are young and fiery; they call for and receive a kill squad of Humboldt squid to protect them. I pause on my path through their cavern and greet them. They beg me to stay.  A whale named spicy memez approaches and turns his meaty flank invitingly toward me.

I cannot stay here. Soon there will be blood in the water.

“kill me man. I wanna start over and be an isopod”

This happens a lot as time goes on — high ranked fish offer me their meat as tribute. This is powerful, a religious rebirth they’re requesting. They present themselves to the Isopod Holy Woman as a sacrifice, hoping to be swallowed by her and emerge as her child, washed clean to roam the seabed. Other isopods take the offer — the Isopod Nation grows by means of this peculiar parthenogenesis. But I refuse. I go on. I eat the algae. Isopods do not kill. And when the Isopod Nation fractures and falls, my voice is still heard in the wilderness:

“Isopods for peace.”

Isopods are friends, not food.

What I Learned About Activism from the Isopod Holy Woman

Some of the reason this project has gotten so massively out of control is the Adderall, and some of it is my own particular neuroses and obsessions. But some of it is that abraded feeling I have on my soul these days, that feeling you get after reading the news for too long and then remembering that you still have bills to pay, that while the world shits itself bloody, your own private hell is still here to comfort you with its demands. I feel powerless too often. That’s what they want us to feel, I know, so I fight it, but… I have to be honest with you, I still feel it. I feel trapped in one of those sound-swallowing rooms, my voice dead as soon as it exits my lips. Every word I say can be twisted, misinterpreted, taken out of context, argued with, and the more words I say, the more opportunities I provide to anyone spoiling for a fight. I feel I must speak to defend people who can’t, use my own privilege to amplify their voices, but I also feel so small, and so tired, and so helpless. I have no mouth, and I must scream.

The opposite of war isn’t peace, it’s creation.

– Jonathan Larson

When I said “isopods for peace” the first time, I didn’t say it with any hope that it would help. I said it because it seemed like the kind of thing an isopod would say, and I was finding solace in her quiet confidence, finding strength in her weakness. When the spark caught and spread, I fed it because it gave me that rare kind of comfort, that feeling of strangers cooperating spontaneously. This world seems like a sluggish entropic farce to me sometimes, and those acts of real, collaborative creation push back against it, perhaps in the smallest way. So the idea was peace, simply that, and I’m as clueless as an isopod about how to achieve it. Peace isn’t super sexy, TBH — I wasn’t expecting it to catch on.

​Make your message simple, seamless, and search-engine optimized.

I hate that this is part of it. I really do. I hate that my day job wants me to learn SEO and social media manipulation, because I don’t want to do those things. I don’t use Twitter. I only talk to my grandmother on Facebook. I’m not being fucking dramatic when I say it causes me existential pain that in order to be useful a message also has to be easily palatable and bite-sized, and that in order to be heard I have to manipulate people into listening to me. But here we are. This is what we have to work with.

So make it short. Make it unassailable. Don’t use words that pin you down to a specific interpretation: “ALL isopods for peace” is the start of an argument, as it informs other isopods what they must be. But don’t supplicate either. “Don’t hurt isopods” is a request, and a certain kind of person will start hunting down isopods just to piss you off. Assume in your language that your point of view — in this case, “peace is good, let’s have some more of that plz” — is universal already, that your listener is already in agreement. People want to agree or disagree, to pick a side; it is in our social nature to align ourselves with a group if one is available that we can endorse. If you treat your audience as if they agree with you before you begin, disagreement requires a break from the polite social contract, a step against the current as it were. This is how salespeople make it hard for you to say no — they trap you in a situation where doing what they want is the path of least social resistance. We can use this fucking insufferable behavior to promote a worthwhile message.

Movements fracture as they grow. Human entanglements diminish the clarity and power of your voice.

I hate this too, in a way. Emotional involvement is kinda my thing. It’s what I do, it’s how I perceive and interpret the world. But obviously I’m fine with fighting a losing battle. I made a firm, conscious choice in my 20s that taking care of the people I loved was more important to me than taking steps to improve my own status and skills in other areas. I’m still paying for that choice in many ways, and I still don’t regret it.

That said… when you make connections, you make yourself vulnerable. When a movement grows large, disagreements boil out of control with more voices, more sides, more subtle gradations to consider. Schisms appear. Terminology becomes both vitally important and fatally insufficient. New words become necessary but are greeted with contempt and hostility. Founders find themselves obsolete in a movement they no longer recognize. This happens every damn time the number of adherents to anything goes from n to n+1, and I don’t think there’s a way to stop it. “A person is smart,” as Agent K once said. “People are dumb, panicky, dangerous animals and you know it.”

The Isopod Holy Woman solves this problem by eliminating intimacy — this is V’s way in V for Vendetta, and Batman’s as well, to subsume their person entirely in their persona, be swallowed by their message. But if you’re not an isopod or Bruce Wayne, how to walk that line? Is it possible to live a human life while not undercutting your own beliefs? It’s easy to find articles about Gandhi’s sex life and Mother Teresa’s financials. We see the divide between the popular image of a person, the person-as-idea — “Mother Teresa is a saint bringing solace to the poor” — and the reality of that person in the world — “Mother Teresa focuses more on conversion and missionary work than the charitable activity she’s famous for”. But here’s where this issue breaks down, because there is worth in promoting and actively supporting a worthwhile idea even if you’re not always in flawless adherence with it yourself. People cannot avoid identifying you with what you say and vice versa, but you are not always the person you aspire to be. None of us are. And therefore…

You can’t be too fussy about being misinterpreted or pirated. If you can’t respond on-message, just don’t engage.​

Creators are discovering this about the internet: the barriers between artist and audience are lower than ever, and the audience has no compunction about taking part. As an inveterate word-thief and Photoshop dork, I kind of love this secondary layer of art creation, the realm of fanfic, fanart, remixes, mashups, photomanips. Art as fuel for more art is the kind of perpetual motion machine I can get behind. That said… it always sucks when your art-baby runs off and makes an art-grandbaby for you with the guy who sleeps behind the bus station, so to speak. It sucks when you see your own words being used in a context that you don’t like, or misunderstood as supporting something you don’t support. (I read a great piece about this by Aevee Bee the other day which contributed to some of this pondering — check it out) That’s gonna happen, though, and your time is not well spent hunting down every propagator of heresy against your gospel and putting them to the sword. It makes you look like an insecure asshole, and nobody wants to listen to an insecure asshole. Also, they’re like ants — you can only nail one at a time and you’ll never get them all.

Twitter is basically that on a vast scale, cycling a million times a second, a machine manufacturing endless agitprop out of a slurry of ideas mulched down to bite size. It’s the chaos of whales and sharks above me, unfocused hostility and bonhomie bouncing off one another and becoming completely indistinguishable. The ephemeral nature of this makes it even more important that you don’t engage. When attacked, you stay on message, and your output remains internally consistent and clear. If they take your words to use against you, they will only spread your gospel on your behalf. Those who attack you will be many, but the more they are, the less organized they will be. Their output is muddy, hypocritical, without unified intent. It will be washed away by the sea, and you will eat their bones.

God damn it, you’ve gotta be kind.​

– Kurt Vonnegut

“hi Gentle” says the giant squid hovering above the seabed. He’s scooping up the volcano bubbles that float out of the vent near me, but he doesn’t attack.

“im only cool w/isopods,” he says. “anything else is x.x Isopods are friends”

This is not the kind of sentiment the Isopod Holy Woman can get behind. “Isopods for peace,” she answers. The words are the same, but now I mean something different by them: not only a plea for protection of one deep-sea species, but a rejection of the role of violence in this little world. It’s so small, this place, compared to the world outside my screen where my tiny chitinous whispers don’t echo to every ear in the ocean. Still… I can’t help but believe that a breakout of peace in any population, no matter how small, is meaningful. It’s a middle finger to entropy; it’s a wild, defiant cheer for freedom without force, self-regulated civilization. The Isopod Holy Woman proves, every second that she’s alive and on the leaderboard, that peace can win a race with warriors.

Kindness means something, goddamn it. It’s the only real power we have, because it’s the only one that hasn’t been dispensed like an antibiotic until all the assholes are immune. I worry that kindness is only possible from a position of invulnerability, but the Isopod Holy Woman reminds me that she could curl up in a ball and hide in a volcano for seven hours, and I would never die or fall off the leaderboard.

The AFK timer will kill you after 20 minutes without moving, but it’s not difficult to avoid.

But doing that wouldn’t spread the word of anything. I would be safe, but silent. The Isopod Holy Woman reminds me that for her message to triumph, she must be seen in the world, she must touch those around her, she must make herself vulnerable to their words and their whims. Sometimes this means that she’s swallowed, shut down for a while. That’s okay, so long as she always comes back. So long as the message lives, she can’t truly die.

I log on again in the morning. I don’t really have anything left to do here. I’ve proven my point. The message carries and grows without me. Whatever server I’m on, I see isopods at the bottom of the sea, scooping up algae and dancing their tiny pirouettes around one another. Some of them have the patience and discretion to climb the leaderboard. The sharks and squid pass them by without even stopping now. When an isopod drifts through a fight, the combatants close their jaws and greet her, become friends in an instant when she passes. Fish I don’t know greet me by name. “Isopods for peace” has become an odd little meme, a paper parasol against a hurricane of violence that somehow, for a moment, holds.

Maybe it’s meaningless. But I don’t think so. I think that the miracle of standing against a sea of troubles — not taking arms against it, Hamlet, just standing — is enough. I think a glimpse of living, thriving kindness in the world glows, and makes more possible. Maybe I’m just passing out parasols here, but I’ll keep it up, because people keep taking them. And maybe I’ll start scrawling it on walls next to the swastikas and the swear words:

“Isopods for peace.”