It is What it is (or is it?)

I’ve been trying to figure out why I hate hearing this phrase which seems to be everywhere these days.  It’s like the ultimate cop-out, a slick way to terminate any awkward conversation and is used frequently by politicians, the police, sports people, business entrepreneurs and many pop celebrities.  I’ve heard it in bleak Scandi-noir TV dramas and once or twice even caught myself saying it.  It’s the title of several films, songs and books.  Such a pat phrase that just slips off the tongue and makes you seem cool. But why has it become popular and what does it say about our society?

To me, “it is what it is” reeks of negativity, passivity, resignation and defeat.  It’s saying, ‘this is a bad situation but there’s fuck all I can do about it”.  It’s saying let’s accept reality, let’s just lie down and die.  The phrase suggests that reality is a fixed, immutable state and that we have no control, we are merely passengers on an uncomfortable train to hell.  I don’t know about you, but that is not the way I choose to live my life.  I am not a brainwashed battery hen clucking away in a cage, pretending I am free while I’m really being processed for destruction.

OK, I agree some situations may be out of our control but there’s always something we can do to improve matters.  Just because it is difficult to change something doesn’t mean we should give up.  We should at least try.  It’s like when people shrug and say, ‘oh well there will always be wars, it’s just human nature.’ Was it human nature to profit from slavery, rape women, exterminate disabled people,  participate in blood sports and send children down the mines?  These are all horrors that we no longer tolerate in a civilised society.  They may still happen in secret but are considered crimes.  Society can and does change. People can change.

When people say ‘it is what it is’ they are implying that a situation is fixed and knowable.  This is not true.  Any situation, even something simple like ‘it’s raining today’ is a matter of perception, of experience, of interpretation.  Reality is in a constant state of flux and so are we.  It may be raining in your street but not on the other side of town.  And the rain may  stop at any moment. The sun may shine the next time you look out the window.  We are never 100% aware of all the facts.  We only have a partial view based on limited information.  For example, a loved one may be diagnosed with a terminal illness, but doctors are often wrong, the body can and does mysteriously heal itself. The sick person can adapt and learn to live successfully with illness.  Life is a multiplicity of greys, a misty landscape and not a row of black and white boxes.

Take this photograph as a visual metaphor.  It shows a rather elegant entrance to a building which could be a hotel, a school, a conference centre, a hospital, a law court, a police station…we may speculate on what lies beyond the doors but until we pass through them we do not know.  Every day in your life is like those doors.  Never make assumptions about the future. Never give up on a situation.

 

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Photograph by the author

Next time you are tempted to say ‘it is what it is’, hang fire and try to think out of the box.   Change is always possible and it sometimes happens in small steps.  Humans have evolved and survived as a dominant species because of our ability to adapt.  We can be clever and inventive.  We can be compassionate.  The day we stop doing that and become resigned to an unsatisfactory fate is the day we cease to thrive.

Desire

For the city that speeds, tail to nose
to a scalloped shore and meets with light.
For the city in frozen motion, tarnished
wings poised to embrace the night.
For the city that parties with a glittering heart
but is never satisfied and every morning seeks
enlightenment, the river unwinding
a scrambled horizon to the rising sun.
For the city that guards south from north,
brick to chink, indivisible, a fortress spawning
iron ships for capitalist wars.
The great angel grounded hope
for these iridescent folk seeking stars
and rainbow moons shining in the gutters
of wet streets between discarded kebabs and shit.
The city folk way too stupid, way too smart
to give up looking for an out, in black and white
running easy, gunning for a fight, living
for another goal and one more Saturday night.
For the city where shops are poly-chrome heaven
and bars ooze overflow. The coffee bubbles
froth and bile, the stories spike with rhyme
and folk soak in the sun at picnic tables
while dogs scamper on green swards.
Rebels serenade and lovers dance
unashamed, in the city, for the city,
for the brave.

 

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Original photograph by the author

Zombie Love

Season 8 of the cult TV show, The Walking Dead exploded across our screens recently so I’ve been pondering on why zombies remain so popular in our culture.  What does our fascination with these fictional monsters say about us as individuals and as a society?

George Romero invented the contemporary zombie in his 1968 horror film Night of the Living Dead.  Previously, zombies were sorcerer’s slaves in Haitian Voodoo culture.  Romero gave them a make-over, the new undead had a strict set of rules and became a metaphor for many of our fears about modern life:- technology, conformity, contagion, consumerism, Communism, nuclear war, social breakdown, killer viruses and even ISIS.  Romero’s excellent 1978 sequel, Dawn of the Dead was shot in a shopping mall.  A small group of survivors hide out on the top floor while hordes of zombies flock below.  The film’s critique of mass consumerism is made explicit:-

[Fran and Stephen are observing from the roof of the mall]
Francine Parker: What are they doing? Why do they come here?
Stephen: Some kind of instinct. Memory of what they used to do. This was an important place in their lives.

Here is a YouTube clip:-

Compared to other mythical creatures such as vampires and werewolves, zombies are not sexy or glamorous.  They are not powerful or mysterious.  No-one would ever choose to be a zombie.  I think most of our enjoyment of zombie films derives from their exploration of the theme of survival.  In all these films we see society crumble.  Violence and anarchy become the new norm.  The institutions that are supposed to protect us, such as the government, the police, can do nothing.  I believe at a unconscious level many fans of this genre derive a peculiar pleasure from seeing this happen on screen.  Many of us feel trapped in our lives, by families, by finances, by class, by ill-health, by social stigma.  We learn to live with frustration and lack of meaning.  So perhaps there is some secret satisfaction to be had from watching the stifling world of rules and routines disintegrate on screen.  Everyone becomes equal in this imaginary future.  In all post-apocalyptic films we identify with a small group of survivors who must learn to cope without the comforts of civilisation, discover their inner strengths, fighting off not only the cannibalistic zombies but other surviving humans.   Safely ensconced in our own homes this can be a cathartic experience for viewers.

The British author J. G. Ballard explored many of these issues in his novels such as High Rise and Crash.  He wrote:- “Civilised life, you know, is based on a huge number of illusions in which we all collaborate willingly. The trouble is we forget after a while that they are illusions and we are deeply shocked when reality is torn down around us.”

In Danny Boyle’s 2002 film ‘28 Days Later’ we see London reduced to a ghost town.  A group of survivors flee to the northern countryside only to find more mayhem.

 

In the sequel, 28 Weeks Later, we see family bonds destroyed in the aftermath of the zombie invasion.  Robert Carlyle plays the spineless father who abandons his wife and then betrays his children. The authorities try but ultimately fail to restore order to a broken country.  It’s a hopeless scenario and makes me wonder if our attraction to such films shows that as a society we too have given up hope for a better future.  Perhaps we feel the old building blocks such as the family, religion and the state have little to offer us any more.  At the end of the day we are alone.  Whether we sink or swim depends on our personal resilience.

The world has always been an uncertain place but since 1945 when the U.S. dropped two nuclear bombs on Japan, supposedly to end World War 2, mass destruction of the human race has become a real possibility.  Historically, warfare used to be a localised affair, armies fighting in trenches or on battle fields.  Civilian deaths were incidental and on a comparatively small scale.  Nuclear weapons have changed everything.  We now live with the constant threat of annihilation over which we have no control.  Perhaps watching zombie films allows us to play out these fears.  They are like nightmares, exorcising the terror we keep tightly zipped up in our waking minds.

Its ironic that for the first time in human history we live with the real risk of sudden death from nuclear war while at the same time we know nothing of the reality of the death experience.  Death is something that happens unseen in hospital wards, in war or famine zones viewed remotely on the TV news.  How many of us have actually seen someone die?  How many of us have touched a dead body?  Death is a taboo subject.  Our ancestors did not share this distaste.  Deceased family members were on display in front parlours where everyone would say their goodbyes.  People died in the street from epidemics and poverty, witnessed by all.  Public executions were a big day out with hot pies for sale and old ladies knitting on the front row while heads rolled.  Death was not such a sanitised affair as today.

So perhaps another reason zombies are so popular in modern culture is that they symbolise the death experience.  We see lots of gore in these films:- the dead re-animated, rotting corpses, limbs torn apart, guts unravelled, zombies chomping into brains, zombies decapitated by survivors.  Zombie movies are not for the squeamish and therein lies their attraction.  We are allowed to view death in close-up on the screen.  We are allowed to confront our secret fears knowing that it’s not real and when the film is over we will sleep warm and safe in our beds.