Opinion: Waiting for the barbarians, or why fairytales get censored in Lithuania (II)
In the fairy tale book Amber Heart by Neringa Dangvydė addresses “the twilight zone":same-sex marriage, shifting identities, social exclusion taking place in front of our eyes (or carried out by us ourselves). Those things are still awkward to speak of; they are difficult to find the right words for, as well as a fitting place in the discourse.
“Enemies of the society” armed with words
In the Western tradition, oppositions are considered to be a common method of thinking, a handy means of organising the chaos and diversity of one’s surroundings. They are employed to sort and evaluate; they help to define the limits of “I,” “we,” and “the other.” In front of the other – of the enemy – one braces and composes oneself. The need for an enemy, as Umberto Eco points out, is written into humans’ psyche. It has such potential that in the absence of an external enemy, people tend to create one, making enemies of those closest to us. That, in fact, is what has happened to the Amber Heart.
Both the official paperwork and the critical publications have termed the book a triple threat: to the “traditional family,” “to the “children” (its target audience), and to the “state.” The text and its author (and the whole LGBTQ community as well) in this way have been announced to be outside society, or at its margins, a threatening community that appears to disrupt the order of the society and thus has to be disciplined.
Why do those keywords (“tradition,” “children,” “state”) make people prick their ears and switch to state of war and fear? Does the book and its author (and the whole LGBTQ community too) indeed pose a threat? Do they seek to disrupt and destroy?
Danger to the traditional family
The first perceived threat Amber Heart is the threat to the traditional family. Both “tradition” and “family” seem to be values in themselves. What is traditional is unquestionably good, something “of ourselves”, something that has been known and tested.
Yet, how unquestionable are those habits already known and old? No habit or custom is unchangeable; all of them are formed anew by each generation. In Lithuania, we are aware of an unwritten tradition to avoid the gypsy people as neighbours, since they supposedly dirty, clumsy, and thieving. What is the value of this “tradition”? Ought it to be upheld? Clearly the word “tradition” is often used to cover something of entirely different nature, namely: concepts of norm, normality, and normativity. Not something created by our customs and habits, but something prescribed to us by some higher order.
One of Dangvydė’s fairy tales (“A Magic Violin”) describes a gypsy boy suffering from such “traditional” yet hardly admirable preconceptions. Other tales describe similar problems, in the face of which, the stories offer to erase social exclusion instead of further maintaining it. Similarly, the so-called non-traditional families consisting of two men or two women do not compete with the so-called traditional ones and never exist at their expense. Same-sex couples exist on equal terms with the harmonious and happy couples of different-sex. Which simply goes to illustrate the main thesis of the texts: in the society, the harmony in the family, the basis of which consists of people loving each other, is of utmost importance.
Still, what is this “traditional family” that is threatened by diversity? It is neither self-evident nor eternal. A hoard of problems would arise were we to try to agree on family itself, since one will see it an accumulation of physical and psychological violence, another, as a single mother or father, yet another, as three children, a spouse and a dog, and yet another, as spouse alone. There are all sorts of families, and in that, families in Dangvydė’s book are perfectly traditional.
In one of them, an elderly couple wishes for a child yet cannot conceive, in another, a husband and a wife cannot cope with the mental disability of their child and become estranged, in yet another, a young man of royal descent overcomes the social gap and settles down with a tailor. Families are not good or bad in themselves. As any other relationship between people, they encounter difficulties. Life is unpredictable, while the fairy tales offer us happy endings in all those difficult cases.
The only way in which these fairy tales do indeed swerve from “tradition” is that in them, families are based solely upon love between people. The primary reason for starting a family is neither finances nor procreation; people are not driven by the desire to have offspring or to establish connections – instead, they seek relationships that help to overcome various forms of exclusion, misunderstanding, and fear. It is fairly evident that the only thing those tales advocate, if anything at all, is love, quite contrary to what Kristina Gailienė (Lithuanian University of Educational Sciences) argues in a piece titled “When fairytales created for children endanger the state.” Various forms of family do not compete; instead, they complement each other as equal forms of living. The book offers no juxtaposition of different forms of family, since family itself is regarded as the ultimate, unquestionable value.
Danger to the children
The second way in which Amber Heart purportedly threatens our society order is that it purportedly poses a danger to children. Ways of describing this danger are many, yet all of the arguments have one underlying argument: the children, having read the tales or listened to them, will identify with the homosexual characters and as a result “will change their sexual orientation.”
This simplistic logic stems from the principles of advertising and mass consumption. If something is announced, then someone, somewhere, will surely start to require it. Sexual orientation, however, is not a commodity; it is hardly the same as yet another deodorant or coffee blend. Attraction to this person or that, to people of this sex or that, either is or is not there. Sexual orientation and identity are not bought, acquired, or changed simply because there are various forms of it. Speaking of different sexualities and of diversity on the whole is not a threat or exclusion. It is the way to free ourselves from stereotypes that actually threaten to divide us.
The so-called protection from harmful information works exactly as the “three wise monkeys,” reasoning that if something is not spoken of, it does not exist. Perception of one’s identity (sexual and gender identity included) is formed long before coming of age, contrary to what is maintained by experts from the Lithuanian University of Educational Sciences. It forms in childhood, as soon as the child starts to recognize himself or herself in the mirror, identify with his or her father or mother, refer to himself or herself as “I.” Therefore, refusal to even discuss sexuality, sexual and gender identities and their relations, with children rather reminds of tales about children being brought by storks (or, as in some Lithuanian versions, found in a cabbage patch, or a pint even).
If these issues are avoided at home and at school, children will gobble up random facts from who knows what sources. Today it is hardly possible to “protect” someone from certain information, as the internet and pop culture present us with most diverse forms of sexuality.
Silence and refusal to acknowledge the existing reality results not only in the insecurity of the child who finds himself or herself feeling that which is not “normal” or “traditional.” It also results in fear, fear of speaking and of living. Meanwhile Amber Heart could work very well in the context of such books as “Where Did I Come From?” as a handy and accessible means for discussion (positive, critical, any), not only of same-sex couples, but of other situations of social insecurity. Discussing the world with children is a must in contemporary education. It is a way to avoid dangers as well as to protect the children, by pretending certain things do not exist, but in speaking up, in allowing children to raise questions and understand.
Danger to the state
Third, Amber Heart also threatens cultural and national values and the very foundations of the state. Such “danger to the state” is a commonplace in any scandal or public discussion when the “targeted”, or “injured” group is enlarged to encompass the whole nation, state, defenders of freedom and independence.
In this way, the speaker assumes the privilege of general opinion instead of his or her personal one. The opponent, meanwhile, is identified with the enemy or betrayer, and is silenced as such. When the uncomfortable words are thus stifled and erased, instead of being let in as equals, enemies are created, as marginalized groups without their own voice.
Being visible is first of all being allowed to exist in the speech, to have a right to speak in one’s own voice and name. Dangvydė herself in her public speeches proposes to cease drawing lines and to widen the scope of available ways of thought. In speaking of the LGBTQ community, she insists it is not some obscure and invisible group; it is part of the state. The state is diverse, multi-leveled and multi-layered; when the state is free, then freedom (of speech, thought, and living) is entitled to each and every one living in it.
Speech and language betrays insecurity. Therefore this is where we should stop hiding behind oppositions, word play, or pejorative terms, and start facing our fears, giving name to that which may seem strange or uncomfortable.
Here, thus: in the world, and in Lithuania, homosexual people exist, not homosexualists, for homosexuality (same as heterosexuality) is not ideology, profession, movement, or disorder, all of which is indicated by -ism. People who believe that the masculine and the feminine are not inherently prescribed exist, but they are not genderists. Tales exist, where a child is born out of a glass jar (Dangvydė’s tale “A Girl in White Gloves”), and they are in no way more fantastical than tales of storks.
Although this kind of rhetoric does help to hide behind the lines drawn, it is neither fearful nor bad in and of itself. Fearful is what it reveals, precisely: state, and society, still conceived in terms of struggle – if not between classes, then between sexes, ethnic groups, various sexual orientations, different worldviews. Should one of those groups speak up, the group is automatically treated as if it tried to domineer and supplant the existing order. As if peaceful coexistence were impossible. As if anyone considered “other” desired to threaten my place and my very existence.
Is it comfortable, living in a world into which fear and threat are inscribed as default states of being? Amber Heart proposes another model of family, society and of state: that of overcoming animosity and suspicions, in favor of coexistence and cooperation. These tales do not threaten the family or the state; rather, they defend those ideals. They claim that, in spite of all differences, harmony and world-order may still be achieved. Which is precisely what children’s literature strives to do.
And now, what’s going to happen to us without barbarians?
The stories of Amber Heart are eloquent in several ways. It encourages us to name and (hopefully) overcome irrational fears. It also attests how one thinks of things one does not like, and what tends to be done about that.
Our society still uses old tactics based on pretense. Things work according to some prescribed order, instead of recognizing the existing reality (diversity of relations and people). Any deviation from the prescription is viewed as a problem to be “solved” by institutional decisions, not as motivation to rethink the model. Yet, attempting to erase what exists despite one’s wishes is close-minded.
Attempts to find the guilty party and assign punishments, instead of participating in discussions, are the markers of a totalitarian state. Trying to fit people into a mold and eliminate the ones who cannot conform is a principle employed by regimes operating on political violence, not of ones based on freedom and trust. Education, in such a context, is regarded accordingly as “protecting” through control, allowing for neither inquiry nor discussion.
Be that as it may, this scandal gives hope, too. When censorship mechanisms are truly at work, the state rarely faces scandals or public discussions. At the moment, we are witnessing something more than a common shuffle – namely, the restructure of power. Emergence of new ways of speech reveals new voices, previously silent, taking their place beside the “traditional” ones. This situation can be termed both as a “fall” (of old structures) and a “creation” (of new order). It is an ambiguous condition, with various oppositions and demarcations signifying anxiety. Yet its very existence, the existence of doubt, anxiety, and free speech, speaks for itself. It speaks of freedom.
“How can one survive in a world based solely on the existence of barbarians, which signify danger from the outside?” Constantin P. Cavafy asks. Rants about Amber Heart show that it is adults who need Dangvydės’ tales the most. They need to start learning to overcome fear, close-mindedness, and distrust. To accept the unexpected truth, that “there are no barbarians anymore.” That we may be a community with nothing in common, but that in this alone, all of us are united.