Reading Atwood and Learning the Wrong Lesson or: What Theocracy?

The last “heavy” post for a while, promise.

Back when I was in my early teens, I read Margaret Atwood’s A Handmaid’s Tale. It was on the shelf with all the other 1980s postapocalyptic fiction, and I didn’t think too much about it. It looked mildly interesting, had a Bosch-like cover, and the librarian didn’t bat an eye. I read it, and picked up the wrong lesson. I was probably supposed to swear off “fundamentalist” or “evangelical” Christianity, and be terrified of “freedom from.” 20+ years later I am greatly concerned about “freedom from,” but not in the way the book would seem to recommend. I worry about people who want to be free from anything that might cause them distress, offense, or a brief moment of concern.

All animals try to avoid discomfort, whether it be finding shelter from a cold, wet rain, or eating whenever possible to avoid hunger, or not walking on a sisal mat because it scratches their paws (Athena T. Cat and Gigancat). I wash new, dark-colored trousers multiple times so they do not make me uncomfortable (contact dermatitis), but I can tolerate scratchy wool that drives other people up a tree. Mom Red likes flavors that I try to avoid (bitter). It makes sense to avoid things that make us physically uncomfortable, unless there is a specific need or point to the experience. If I put a dish with a dollop of tuna in it on the sisal mat, ATC will step on the rough surface. If the choice is being wet or starving, wet it is. That’s just how the world works.

Where Atwood’s book collides with what I learned from it and what most people are (according to a few too many literature teachers and opinion writers) supposed to gain from it is the idea of cultural discomfort. Atwood proposed a world where a form of Christian “fundamentalism” takes over the former USA and fertile women are enslaved to provide offspring for infertile couples of a certain rank, using Bible texts as justification. There’s a lot more to the story than that, but one of the lessons that I recall the author hammering over and over was the danger of “freedom from.” Everything oppressive and restricting in Gilead (the former USA) was done to free the residents from sin, corruption, responsibility, what have you, protecting people from temptation and the evils across the borders. Freedom from was far, far more dangerous than freedom to, and led to the evils depicted in Handmaid’s Tale. Or so I picked up these many years ago.

And so I decided to always beware of people offering freedom from. Except. Except not quite like most modern feminist (Fourth Wave? Not certain quite how they fit into the old pattern) writers and activists seem to think. I do not worry in the least about the USA being replaced by a Christian theocracy, in part because you can’t get even the official Fundamentalists, those who have read and follow the ideas presented in the essays collected as The Fundamentals, to agree on how the country should be run. I know four people who I consider ultra socially conservative, and they have five opinions on almost everything. Getting cats to march in orderly rows past a fish market and through a dog show would be easier than setting up a Christian theocracy in the US. I’ve studied the actual theocracies in history and that exist today. Nope, not seeing it.

What I do see are a phalanx of activists, mostly on college campi and in certain parts of the entertainment industry and the media, who demand freedom from anything that might challenge their world view or make them feel uncomfortable. They are related to the gals I encountered in college who wore shorts or leggings with text on the rear and then yelled at young men for daring to read.  Saying that competence is more important than ethnic background is offensive. Insisting that people read or listen to alternate points of view is offensive. Adhering to the idea of innocent-until-proven-guilty is offensive. All men are scary. Any man who turns down a sexual advance is guilty of sexual assault. And there should be “safe spaces,” sheltered areas set aside where no one might offend, upset, challenge, or contradict the injured individual’s beliefs and world view. To do otherwise is the same as the same as physical assault.

That kind of freedom from is just as dangerous as the vision Margaret Atwood presented, in my opinion. Because among other things, the sensitive souls never learn how to discern between accident, unintentional offense, and actual predators. When faced with real danger and truly hostile acts, they have no idea what they are seeing, or they misread it so badly that they end up truly scarred rather than just “uncomfortable.”

Forbidding the discussion of ideas will not make those ideas go away. If I had never heard of predators, I would still have been attacked 25 years ago by said predator and his buddies. Pretending that the road will always be firm and dry is great . . . until there’s ice or standing water on the pavement. And how can you argue against bad ideas if you never learn what makes those ideas “tick” or why they are bad ideas in the first place. You know, things like involuntary Communism, totalitarian governments, real theocracies (in my opinion), eliminating 90% of the population in order to save the planet, prosecuting people for what they are accused of thinking while committing a crime (or not committing anything, which seems to be a crime in and of itself in some areas) . . .

Should there be limits on certain behaviors? Yes, because your rights stop at the end of my nose. Are there behaviors and speech I would be quite happy not to encounter? You bet your bippy there are. Would I like to ignore man’s inhumanity to man when I teach certain topics? Yes. Is that fair to my students, who need to know that bad things happened and learn, as best historians can tell, why? Nope. And I do not want laws or rules that regulate behavior down to the look or invitation. Down that path lies a soft-totalitarian approach to life, where any disagreement is evil and must be eliminated, along with the person who disagrees.

I value freedom to. Yes, there are things I’d just as soon disappeared from the face of the planet. But the current version some people espouse, the sheltered, isolated world of “freedom from” makes my hair stand on end, just as Margaret Atwood’s book taught me.

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