If you’re a regular reader of Manaleak.com, you might already know a few little things about me – I love brewing, playing Modern and squeezing in the odd Cube now and again – but given some of the themes that have emerged in our recent articles on the site, I think it might be time for us to get better acquainted.
My name is Dave, and I’m lucky.
There are lots of reasons why I feel justified in calling myself lucky, but three of them stand out.
The ‘Lucky list’
The first is Fatherhood.
My eldest son, David, is two and a half years old. He oscillates between a state of fountaining, sunny exuberance and the kind of toddler tantrums which have popularised the expression ‘the terrible twos’.
David’s younger brother, Matthew, arrived in late March, completing the family at our notional ideal size of two parents, two children and one cat.
Being part of David’s life has been overwhelmingly rewarding, particularly because I’ve had the chance to teach him a little about how the world works, then watch his hungry, young mind hoover up all the related details and reach understanding at a frightening pace. I’m looking forward to helping Matthew in the same way.
While it’s several years away at present, there is one teaching experience that I’m looking forward to immensely, an experience that relates to the second aspect of my luckiness:
I play Magic; and one day, I’m going to have a chance to teach my boys Magic, too.
Of course, there’s no guarantee that they’ll enjoy it like I do – and I won’t force it on them.
However, in light of the fact that they will be at least 50% genetically identical to me, and based on the substantial overlap that already exists between the things that David and I get enjoyment from (Lightsabers; Pirates; Chocolate; waddling around the room with our heels pressed together, quacking and honking as we impersonate a Daddy Penguin and a David Penguin), I’m hopeful that I can pass this most consuming of my passions on to them.
With a little (continued) luck, they’ll experience the sense of wonder upon opening their first boosters and realising that this giant Dragon can go into their very own deck; the brilliant dawn of awareness as they grasp concepts like card advantage, elevating their appreciation of the game; the triumphant satisfaction of beating their old man for the first time, as their skills overtake my own.
That’s the fun part of teaching our children, I suppose. Sadly, there are other things I’ll need to teach them about, which are less innocent and positive. I’ll need to teach them about the unwarranted, unjustifiable third way in which I am lucky …and what it implies about the rest of the world.
Put simply, I am a white, straight, middle-class, western man – which means that I get to play life on the easiest difficulty setting.
I’m going to have to tell my sons, at some point, that we live in a world where some of their closest family and friends will be overlooked, dismissed, or treated with contempt because they don’t possess one (or more) of that long list of prerequisites; a world where they may also end up being sneered at, based on the sexuality which nature’s great dice roll has assigned to them.
It galls me that I’ll have to explain the propensity of human beings to seek out new and different ways to hate each other; that they’ll look at me and screw up their faces into a mask of incomprehension, wondering why I and the other people who make this world what it is have allowed such a situation to develop.
Perhaps most unsavoury of all, I’m going to have to tell them that Magic, the game I love and have ardently promoted to them all their lives, has all the same problems as the rest of our dysfunctional world.
A matter of perspective
Some of you reading this may wonder why I’ve chosen to highlight ‘the role of prejudice in Magic’ this way.
Surely it’s terrible in every respect? Why should this game we play be singled out for special mention?
I suppose the first answer is that, given my own history with the game, the idea strikes very close to home.
I’ve been playing Magic for almost 20 years and, when I came to the game, it was as a young man on the lowest social strata of that great sociology laboratory: the high school system.
Where I experienced judgement and derision – albeit in a much less serious and permanent form than the victims of real prejudice – Magic offered me an escape, access to a community where my differences from the mainstream were ignored or even prized.
How could I fail to be disheartened, when I realised that the very environment which had been my sanctuary could be so hostile and unwelcoming to others?
But there’s more, because I wasn’t simply someone oblivious to a problem, eventually experiencing an epiphany from some remote location. I was part of the problem – and waking up to that fact is spectacularly unpleasant.
I don’t really mean it, so it must be OK
It took a measured intervention from someone I greatly respect, to show me just what I was contributing to.
“Come on, Man: you’re a misogynist,” Joe told me.
Joe Jackson is a former UK National Champion of Magic: The Gathering; but long before he was an accomplished player, he was already excellent at being a good human, which is why I’ve always listened closely to what he has to say.
“No, I’m not!” I protested instinctively.
While my gut was telling me to DEFEND, DEFEND, FIGHT REARGUARD ACTION, my brain was saying something different.
This is a reasonable person, it whispered to me. He shares your convictions on the fight against racism and other forms of prejudice. Why not listen to him now?
So I did. I bit down, and I listened.
Did I actively pursue women for casual sex in a transactional way, cutting off contact once I had ‘got what I wanted’? Did I talk about this pursuit in conversation, even advocate it as an approach?
Yes, I did.
Did I routinely use gendered slurs like bitch in my everyday speech?
Yes, I did.
Did I make ‘jokes’, or extreme statements for ‘humorous effect’ that referenced rape and sexual violence?
Yes, I did.
Did I do these things in the Magic-playing environment, where other members of our community might see or hear me?
Yes, I certainly did.
In a very short space of time, perhaps three or four minutes, my friend identified a series of behaviours I displayed which painted me as a man who held women in contempt.
He did it in a calm, casual way which all-but-eliminated the possibility of angry escalation, forcing me to deal with his observations rather than allowing me to retreat behind a wall of indignation. And then, in his unique way, he moved the conversation on and allowed those ideas time to sink into my consciousness.
Over the next few days, that crucial exchange rattled around my head.
I know, objectively, that I believe women and men have equal value, I told myself. When I use those insults, or I make an ‘off-colour’ rape reference, I don’t actually mean anything by them. I’m not actually a bad person.
And then I thought about the way I would savage someone who said nigger or paki aloud, then defended themselves with ‘just joking’ or ‘ironic’ excuses.
I took some deep breaths and closed my eyes; and I wished the earth would burst open, there and then, to swallow me up.
Our reasons – and why they aren’t enough
There is a recognised theory in behavioural psychology, which describes how we attribute motivations to ourselves and others.
When we see another person do something unpleasant, particularly if we don’t know them, our tendency is to blame their character for the action.
‘That guy is a nasty piece of work,’ we might think. Or, “She’s a horrible person.”
On the other hand, when we catch ourselves in an outburst of temper, or making a selfish decision… we are apt to blame circumstance.
“I’ve had a hard day,” we might excuse ourselves. “I’m tired and not feeling like myself.”
Most human beings can find it in themselves to condemn antisocial behaviours from others; likewise, most can find mitigating reasons for their own transgressions when called to reflect.
I had plenty of ‘reasons’ for my poisonous attitudes and behaviours.
- I’m a big character – I just like to make jokes, issue bombastic statements, join in the banter.
- I’m not the only person – loads of people act this way.
- I’ve been hurt by women I’ve known – who can blame me for keeping them at arm’s length?
All of these things were strictly true, but none of them were ‘enough’ to mitigate or justify what I was doing. The truth is that, in the light of my dawning awareness, they sounded just as hollow as any excuse that I might hear from someone else behaving antisocially – someone whom I would be inclined, like most humans, to simply dismiss as a bad person.
I realised that no-one owed me the opportunity to explain away my behaviours.
In fact, no-one even owed me the time it had taken to show me that I was saturated with resentment and prejudice… but nonetheless, someone had freely taken the time to do so.
Which brings me back to the subject of luck.
Lucky for a fourth time
I got luckiest the day I was offered the chance to change.
What’s more, my partner got lucky, because she had the opportunity to meet and fall in love with someone who was ridding themselves of a great, dark lake of negativity – and making space for something better in their life.
Most of all, my boys got lucky, because they won’t be imbued by their father with the sneering, incremental denigration of women which is commonplace in our culture.
Ultimately, the things we say and hear influence what we and others think. If we exist in a culture swimming with expressions that do others down, a great deal of us are liable to develop ideas which reflect those expressions, whether consciously or unconsciously, in big ways or small.
This is how racism, or homophobia, or sexism spreads; not through the tiny rallies held by extremists, but by the pervasive adoption of background ideas into our communities.
But if we know this, we can count ourselves lucky – because knowledge and awareness allow us to take action.
This could be someone’s lucky day
My sons are going to learn from their Mother and I that prejudice should not go unchallenged.
For my own part, I’m going to share another idea with them: that defeating prejudice in the long term isn’t achieved by attacking people, but by convincing them.
One of the many things I’ve learned in business training over the years, usually in workshops about ‘leadership’ or ‘negotiation’, is that it is possible to be assertive without being aggressive. In fact, while deploying such an approach is not a panacea which will resolve all potential conflict, it biases our conversations away from angry flare-ups and toward constructive discussion.
I consider this very important in the context of tackling the various ‘isms’ which plague us, because I have never observed a person changing their mind about a fundamental idea as a result of being shouted at, or hectored. They may occasionally back down, or go quiet – but in my experience, they leave such exchanges with resentment for the person who attacked them rather than a new and positive outlook.
If they learn nothing else, my boys will learn that succeed or fail, it is worthwhile to try and persuade someone away from prejudice; that it is possible to stay calm and reasonable, even while discussing ideas which turn one’s stomach; that refusing to give an inch on the most important principles is also compatible with ongoing dialogue, not just blazing, short-lived rows.
A long time ago, I will tell them, someone who owed me nothing took the time to show me why I was wrong – and how I was hurting other people and myself at the same time.
Someday, if someone else you know has ideas as wrong as mine were; if you think you might be able to reach them, to make them see that the ideas are bad, but that doesn’t mean that they have to be a bad person; and if the time is right… maybe you could be the person to change their mind.
If so, it might just be their lucky day.