Letters to my Nephew (in the Event of my Death): Cognitive Suicide

Hey buddy, 

That’s a pretty sick bass solo, huh? Wait… did you listen to this through laptop speakers? Unacceptable. Find some decent headphones and listen to it again.

That’s my favorite band, Propagandhi. I’m sure I’ve been forcing you to listen to them for years (unless, you know… I’m not around), and it’s possible I’ve succeeded, in which case this letter is redundant, and you can move on with your day, confident that you’re not missing anything.

If I haven’t talked at you about them, they’re a Canadian punk band with anarchist politics and blistering, insane musicianship that is impossible for mortal humans to mimic. I’ve tried. I’ve failed. 

I don’t know if it’s easy to make out the lyrics. Probably not. One of the downsides of punk is that you’ll only understand 50% of what’s being said. So, here it is: This is a song about homophobia and bigotry against LGBTQIA people.

Your parents are smart. They’ve probably put you on the right track in regard to these issues. But homophobia is a sneaky and persistent social disease and I know a lot about its causes and symptoms. I’ve perpetuated it in more instances than I want to admit, and I want to say straight up that to denigrate LGBTQIA people is a type of treason against humanity. I want you to be a person of the future. Homophobia is the domain of the bully and the thug. 

You’ve been lucky to have been raised in a diverse pocket of a segregated place: You’ve got a lot of buddies with brown skin, who practice different religions, and who are already refusing to be pinned down in terms of their gender. That’s awesome, and knowing all of these kids is going to protect you from a lot of really stupid ways of thinking about the world. But those ways of thinking are always around, and people who hold onto them are comfortable with forcing the issue. Standing against it can be scary, but I’m sure you won’t be alone when you do. 

I take a lot of my cues from music. It’s one of the ways that I’ve learned about the world, and I like to think that bands like Propagandhi helped me to figure out how to be a better person. This is a song that helps me to strengthen my resolve to do my best when I encounter bigoted people. 

With no further ado, let’s work our way through it! 

To begin, the title of the song is “Cognitive Suicide”. Cognition is our ability to perceive and make sense of the world. It’s not just our senses, but our ability to make sense of our senses, and to analyze what we perceive. It’s a faculty we have to cultivate in our lives, and that takes work for sure, but it also requires us to play. It’s a precious resource.

Not everyone treats it this way. It is possible to shut out the world, or to put blinders on, or to wave our hands in the air and insist that things that don’t fit into our conceptions of the world don’t exist. As previously referenced, this is a song about homophobia and transphobia, and the title makes the point that hostility toward and fear of queerness is in effect killing your capacity for appreciating the world in all its splendor.

So, the first lines of the first verse: “You were a flash of light against a sky of total dark / saw their shocked and gaping jaws, then it all returned to black/ there was a brief surge of panic, their eyes shut tight, you brought a storm of confusion to their bleak and simple lives”

My experience has been that many people order their lives by reference to gender, and they do this in a state of ignorance. Often, the lives they live are disappointing, and even though they might be miserable, people who threaten that identity shine a light on their lack of imagination. Their entire world depends on not thinking about how things could be different, and they want to look away. 

My own life has been more rewarding and less sad since I engaged with my own presence on the spectrum of queerness. For me, the storm of confusion has been so welcome, and I try my best to stand in the rain. 

The lyrics continue: “All their angry words can’t ease their wounded hearts, despite their claims they have no maps, no keys to any gates”

There’s a disgusting movement happening right now, in 2022, where we live, in Stony Brook, New York, in which right-wing people are crowding school board meetings because they don’t think that there should be discussions in schools about trans and queer people (along with a whole bunch of other types of history). 

Most of these histories are about people who were trying to make life more livable and the world more wonderful. 

These bigoted people don’t offer any vision of a better world, and they insist that kindness and justice shouldn’t be discussed. They insist that their ignorance should be protected, and that it is a protection that their children should inherit. Don’t be confused. You have no ethical obligation to protect ignorance. 

A few lines later: “Every time they fail they seek a victim for their spite, some dismal need to crush someone beneath their feet”.

Much of my own education in homophobia pivoted around getting beaten up. I was viciously bullied as an adolescent, and every time I got my ass kicked, the person doing the kicking called me homophobic slurs. 

It made a point: A gay person deserved violence, and it was dangerous to be effeminate. I was getting beaten up because I wasn’t masculine enough, and any masculinity I had was invalidated by the assault. And then there’s the flipside of that: A man gets to beat people up, and rescues himself from harm by assaulting someone else. If you don’t want to get beaten up, beat someone up. A logic as inescapable as it is stupid. 

An unfortunate thing about this is that it can work pretty well. It was definitely the crucible of gender identity for me, and I resolved to be as manly as possible on the other side of the experience, which for me meant being as aggressive and hostile as possible, regardless of the bad outcomes, and it must be said that a lot of the time the bad outcomes were preferable to getting beaten up. 

This leads us to the next phrase: “Petrified, frozen to imaginary times, pay no mind, I hope they pass you by, live your life, and don’t apologize to the cowards of this world, they’re a waste of time”. 

Masculinity and homophobia are inherently cowardly. It’s at once a fear of difference and a fear of being different, and we should take this seriously. Homophobia states that to be different is to put your safety in peril, and LGBTQIA people have had to fight to be allowed to exist in public. There is a bravery to this that bigots can’t conceive of. 

As for ‘imaginary times’, I want to refer back to the fools that pack the school board meetings who are referenced above. I listen to what they have to say and I am stunned by the drooling idiocy of it all. One of the most soul-crushingly dumb things I’ve heard out of them is that ‘there are more queer and trans youth because there are more people who are ‘out’. 

Aside from the obvious response to that, which is falling unconscious upon hearing such an astoundingly dumb thing, second in line is to ask how in the world it is that a person can contract queerness by observing it. It’s not a disease that made it into society from a wild game market in Southeast Asia, it’s a way that people feel and a way that people live and when the threat of violence diminishes it frees people up to live how they want and need to. When someone ‘comes out’ they are basically a superhero allowing the people around them to be themselves. 

And then, just short of the bass solo: “Everything is in-between”

It’s true. Nothing is ever just what it looks like. Things are always changing, and that’s the only certainty we really have. 

Okay. Damn. That bass solo. So sick. 

Our next lyric: “Maybe they’re afraid of unobscured and brilliant colors. Perhaps you cracked the door on their own forbidden worlds.” 

Don’t be afraid of unobscured and brilliant colors. People can be so surprising. They can accomplish so much. Things don’t need to be gray. The flash of light referenced at the beginning of the song can stick around. It can be the light that makes a rainbow, and maybe this is relevant: At peril of going too far afield, I want to mention that in the German Peasants’ War of 1525 the revolutionaries marched under a rainbow flag, to fight against tyranny and exploitation. In the decades after this defeat, their rulers punished the peasantry with a wave of religious terror against women, gender rebels and religious nonconformists, reaching a crescendo in the 1560’s. They trampled that rainbow flag. But it’s always there, to be picked up again. 

So, that bass solo? So sick, right? 

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