That Which May Yet Save Us

“i want to be so kind it echoes backwards in time and undoes the things that hurt you. i want to be so kind it radiates from me. i want to be so kind that i make someone else find faith in humanity again. there’s not much i can do, i’m small and weak and i only know so many words. but i know i can be kind. and sometimes, i believe, that changes the world.”

Shonen (少年) is a genre of anime typically targeted at teen and preteen boys and includes extremely popular shows like Dragonball, Naruto, One Piece, and Boku No Hero Academia. Many of the most well known and popular anime in the west, are in fact shonen. The classic shonen story follows a fairly particular plot arc and has a fairly particular type of protagonist. I am of the opinion that Harry Potter and the Methods of Rationality can basically be thought of as shonen in how it’s written, if not particularly good shonen. 

This is because there are a few particular tropes that shonen has which define nearly everything about the genre, things which lie beneath the surface of the actual world but define a sort of logic that universe of shonen anime operates on. 

In order to demonstrate this, I’m going to use Black Clover as an example. Black Clover is possibly the most stereotypical fantasy shonen ever conceived of. The main character somehow manages to be more Naruto than actual Naruto is. 

In Black Clover, Asta, the main character is an orphan and is the only character born without magic in a world where literally everyone can do magic. He has a fellow orphan, Yuno who acts as his compatriot and rival to whom he compares himself and is constantly challenging himself, and despite not having any magical powers he sets himself the goal of becoming stronger and becoming the Wizard King, the most powerful mage in the kingdom he’s from. This willingness to work to overcome one’s born station is the first piece

With just yamato damashii (大和魂) we can actually reverse engineer all the pieces, but let’s keep laying things out. While Asta’s rival trains in magic, Asta trains in getting swol, in what amounts to a very stereotypical training arc. Eventually there’s a day when all the children receive spellbooks at their coming of age, which help hone their magic and are tied specifically to them. These spellbooks come in lots of flavors allowing for all sorts of flashy, varied, and interesting forms of magic. Asta has no magic and doesn’t get a book. 

Later as Asta and Yuno are walking home, Yuno is accosted by a vagabond for his spellbook, since he is a magical prodigy and received a powerful spellbook and Asta goes to his defense despite having no magic. 

This is the part that really demonstrates the second major piece. Asta does the impossible and somehow brute forces the universe into giving him a spellbook despite having no powers. But not just any spellbook, an anti-magic spellbook from which he draws an enormous sword to beat their attacker. 

If you think this is leading up to me saying that Eliezer’s Challenging the Difficult sequence is actually just restating shonen anime tropes than you’re absolutely right. Eliezer’s Challenging the Difficult sequence is actually just restating shonen anime tropes.

Let’s continue. Asta and Yuno travel to the capital city where they are both discriminated against for being lowborns from the sticks. The pair have the goal of joining the magic knights, the in-universe version of the Aurors. The magic knights come in flavored squads and each has a powerful captain, and there’s a tournament arc where the characters have to prove their skills before the captains in order to have a chance to join the knights. With his rare spellbook, cool Sasuke vibe aesthetic, and being a child prodigy, all the magic knight squads want Yuno. But despite having no magic Asta manages to get into the knights as well, with his anti-magic sword catching the eye of the captain of the black bulls, the “worst” magic knight squad. 

Asta coming up from the bottom, having no magic, ending up in the worst magic knight squad, being an orphan, living in poverty in a tiny village, all these setbacks are intended to make Asta’s use of willpower to overcome everything all the more impressive. He even goes as far as to say at one point, “My power is not giving up!” Asta is held up as a role model, and in general acts as an advertisement for seishin (精神) “look at what the power of actually trying really hard can do for you!” 

This is reinforced in the character of the black bull’s captain Yami Sukehiro. The only character in the show with a Japanese name. He uses a katana in a show otherwise depicted like medieval Europe. He’s just that badass. 

Yami is also a shonen protagonist, he’s just a retired one. He already completed his hero’s arc and settled into being the captain of the black bulls, but the way that Yami acts, and how he encourages his team, really leans hard on the underlying assumptions of the universe that shonen runs on. 

At one point Yami is in a pitched battle with the villain Licht. Yami has dark magic, and Licht has light magic, making for a very visually impressive battle in the anime. But when Licht’s allies show up and nearly overpower Yami, it takes the timely intervention of the other magic knight captains to save him.

Despite this, Yami’s attitude is rather nonchalant about it all. He was bemused, but also slightly disappointed, feeling that if they hadn’t shown up, the battle would have allowed him to surpass his limitations and become more powerful. Yami also gives this as advice many times during the show. When a character complains that they are nearing the limit of their abilities, Yami just tells them “well then toughen up and surpass your limits.” 

The particular thing that makes this trope work, that makes Black Clover work, and which also, in my opinion, makes Harry Potter and the Methods of Rationality work, is that when a character in one of these shonen stories goes beyond their limits, the universe responds to them. When Asta puts in a really extraordinary effort and tries his hardest and surpasses his limits despite having no magic, the universe responds by giving him a spellbook which synergizes with his physical ability. When Harry figures out what dementors really are, it lets him summon the superpowered Man patronus, which was a secret lost to history. 

In this sense, the characters never really face repercussions for their actions. If they start to get cornered by the consequences, they can always just crank it up another notch, become even more impossibly powerful, and come out on top anyway. The universe is fair and the arc of history is towards good and benevolence, the world is meaningful, their actions have purpose and consequence, and they can, through hard work, be worthy of the highest position despite the circumstances of their birth. Anyone can surpass their limits if they work hard enough, look at this kid with no magic becoming the most powerful mage, isn’t that inspiring? 

This assumption of underlying universal benevolence is the defining feature of this sort of stereotypical shonen. 

JD Pressman and Sarah Constantin have both recently written about this:

there is also what we might call “one-place trust,” where one trusts other people in general rather than trusting a specific individual or group of individuals…one must first have *trust* in order to trust y to do z or to trust y more generally

Jones (2004) calls it “basal security,” while Herman (1992/1997) refers to “basic trust” but also to a sense of “safety in the world.” Améry (1999) describes an enduring loss of “trust in the world” that he experienced after torture and subsequent incarceration in Auschwitz

“losing trust” involves losing a habitual confidence that more usually permeates all experience, thought, and activity

we experience a fundamental assault on our right to live, on our personal sense of worth, and further, on our sense that the world (including people) basically supports human life.

Janoff-Bulman (1992, pp. 5–6)…identifies three such beliefs as central to one-place trust: “the world is benevolent;” “the world is meaningful;” and “the self is worthy.”

Sarah goes on to say that losing one’s basal security should be thought of as a bad thing, and basically equated it with trauma and abuse. JD goes on to disagree with this, going as far as saying that losing it was potentially necessary in order to actually be the sort of person who could make a real and meaningful difference in the world. 

For my own part, I probably don’t have my one place trust intact at this point. When I was younger, I did, but the world has a way of wearing us down. This makes the just try really hard model of willpower kind of weak and ineffectual seeming to me in the face of grim, bloody, meat hook reality. It’s easy to win by trying really hard when your universe runs on placebomancy, but the harder that reality ensues, the less you can go beyond the impossible

But here’s a question: what might a shonen protagonist look like who had lost their sense of base trust? Who was damaged and scarred by the world, who has failed before, who wasn’t able to give enough and suffered the consequences of it, but who kept trying and was still every bit as heroic? 

2019-06-27Tanjiro Kamado is the main character of Kimetsu no Yaiba. His family is killed by demons in the first episode of the anime, save for his sister, who is turned into a demon. 

Tanjiro sets out on what basically ends up being a shonen storyline, including a training arc with a wise old teacher, but he’s not the hot-headed impulsive bruiser that Asta is. Tanjiro is a kind-hearted and softly spoken boy. The emotional burden of finding his family slaughtered sits heavily upon his shoulders, as does the responsibility for saving his sister, who he literally carries around on his shoulders in a box since exposure to sunlight would be fatal to her. 

But despite everything, Tanjiro’s defining feature continues to be how kind he is. He frequently laments on how sad the deaths of the demons he’s had to kill are, and his compassion is his strength. His goal isn’t so childish as wanting to be the strongest, he wants to stop people from being eaten by demons, and he knows that in the grand scheme of things, he can’t even fully stop that. 

In the first episode, a demon slayer who finds Tanjiro remarks that if he had just been a bit faster, he might have been able to save Tanjiro’s family, and clearly feels bad about not making it in time. This is used as a refrain in episode eleven when Tanjiro arrives not quite in time to save someone’s life from a demon. 

The world of Kimetsu no Yaiba is not benevolent. Violent, senseless, and bloody deaths are frequent. Despite that, Tanjiro keeps trying to help people and keeps trying to save his sister. 

And this is something that I can deeply resonate with. The world is beautiful, and it is also cruel and violent and bloody and senseless. We can’t save everyone, but keep trying anyway, in the hope of doing at least some good. Some people are beyond help, and yet we should be kind to them anyway. There are lots of good reasons to give up and collapse in on ourselves, but there are also lots of reasons to keep trying in spite of it all. Don’t give in to hopelessness and despair, even after suffering an immense tragedy. Keep trying to do good, to make the tragedy have meant something. 

I think this message is possibly one of the most important ones to take to heart. It’s 2019 and the world is on the brink of several different forms of destruction. Bad things will happen. People will die. And we will not be able to stop it. There is only so much we as individuals can do. The world is big, and we are small, we are dwarfed by the tasks we have ahead and in many cases will not succeed. People will die because we were not strong enough. Because we were not able to do enough. Because the world was heartless and cruel, and when someone should have stepped in, when someone should have done something, there was no one there to do anything. 

But we must try anyway. We must try despite knowing it’s impossible. And above all, we must be kind. We must be kind to each other, to ourselves, and to our world. Our kindness should be a source of strength. 

Everything is so polarized and there’s so much hate everywhere. It frequently feels like we’ve given up on trying to be kind, and I constantly see so much anger and hate from people who I would probably agree with if their positions weren’t always expressed in the form of disdain and vitriol.

Even if I have to be enemies with someone, I don’t want to let feelings of hatred and vindication and self-righteousness rule me. I would rather stop being enemies with someone then punitively destroy them, and I really get the impression that a lot of people would gleefully abuse a surrendering party under the guise of moral superiority.  Yes, sometimes people are beyond help and we must bring steel against an enemy that threatens the lives of those we love, but we must do this without giving into malice.

There’s so much hate in the world today. There’s so much resentment and fear and anger. We don’t need to put out more of that, we don’t need to add to the problem. Our actions should be motivated by a love of humanity, not be a hatred of our enemies and a sadistic desire to harm them. 

At the point we’re at, no amount of drawing battle lines and gleefully canceling our enemies will make things better. If we want things to be better it has to start with us. We have to be better, just because our enemies aren’t doesn’t mean we should stoop to their level. What the world needs isn’t more people taking sides, what the world needs is more people being kind to everyone, regardless of their side. Whatever else we do, however else we do it, we must be kind. And maybe, just maybe, if we’re lucky and we play our cards just right, that will be enough to save the world. 

The Internet Hate Machine

I’ve been trying to make myself write again. I used to love writing, I used to love sharing things I created and watching the numbers tick up on my page views. I still love those things, but lately, whenever I try to sit down and write, I’m gripped by this new fear that wasn’t there previously, which makes it very difficult to put anything out there.

There’s so much I want to say, but I feel myself letting a silencing effect take hold. I tried to make writing and publishing my stories again my new equinox goal, but even that has thus far not gotten me anywhere. I think in the place I’m at right now, the best thing for me, the healthiest thing, would be to talk about that fear directly.


Katie Herzog is a staff writer at The Stranger, a newspaper in Seattle well known for frequently writing in a campy gay aesthete voice and presenting itself as Seattle’s “real” newspaper, contrasting the very self-serious and old fashioned Seattle Times.

Katie Herzog is most known at this point, for writing a controversial piece last year called The Detransitioners. Which is…well I will let my readers make their own judgments about it, but I personally feel it’s a good piece and is unfairly maligned.

Katie put out a response a month after the piece was published defending herself as a journalist against accusations of transphobia. This, of course, did nothing to stop her detractors from going as far as making stickers calling her out and putting them up around town.

And that’s what scares me. That intense, hateful, sneering, condescending force that is moral discourse according to twitter outrage and leftbook callouts. The desire to judge and then force consequences onto those judged, advocating for the utter social destruction of the unworthy. The toxic, identity-based, cancel culture.

Katie Herzog herself wrote about this back in January. When the internet decides it doesn’t like someone, or that someone has done something immoral, it sees itself as judge, jury, and social executioner. The mob claims the right to try and utterly destroy someone’s life and future in their pursuit of justice.

As a result of a close encounter with one of these internet mobs, the last year of my life has been an exhausting, harrowing, traumatizing, and winnowing experience. I wasn’t even the direct target of the mob’s ire at any point, I just happened to be trying to support someone I cared about who had been unpersoned and I wasn’t sufficiently charismatic and diplomatic to avoid the landmines which trying to do that entailed, thus I ended up stepping on them and also being labeled a toxic, manipulative, abusive, problematic person.

I’m not going to talk about the specifics of that situation. Come find me in person if you really want to talk about it, but it’s been talked about to death at this point and I’d rather just get on with my life.

But what I want to talk about here, is the fear the comes from being the target of one of these mobs, what it actually does to a person. Having someone willing to pick through hundreds of old Facebook posts for problematic things they can snip out of context and use as ammunition in the process of agitating for your ostracization, going from being able to speak freely, and just apologize if you made a mistake, to suddenly every error from high school going forward becoming potential evidence that you suffer some fundamental defect in personhood that makes you dangerous and untrustworthy. The sudden appearance of people willing to narrativize you as “problematic/toxic/abusive/dangerous” in a way that those traits become your core features, and the rest of your humanity is discarded so you can be treated like a monster to be defeated, (in return for social capital for the monster slayers of course).

“But Shiloh, actually bad people are actually bad, and we shouldn’t let them exist in our society of good people who would never do such things, that would just let them prey on good people.”

Ahem going for the eugenics angle I see. Okay, but people who do bad things are still peopl–

“And the only reason you’d be defending abusers is if you’re secretly abusive too.”

And then we come to the second part of it, which is the transmissibility of sin. Something fascinating I watched happen was a sort of six degrees of separation from sin game played, where not only was the abusive person I was defending unpersoned, but for defending them I was, and then people who defended me also became potential targets. This transmissibility factor, which was sometimes described as a ‘memetic contagion’ was often ascribed to the people being targeted, which said we had some sort of memetic virus with which we were manipulating people’s morals and ideals to our benefit, and that anyone who spent a good deal of time with us, or who saw our perspective, was potentially infected with these bad memes as well. Disagreeing with the mob about who to unperson meant you also should be unpersoned.

I well don’t want to unperson anyone. I don’t want to describe anyone as

“a limp vessel through which some dread spider is thrusting its pedipalps”


The easy way out of the moral situation when you find yourself near to someone who did something actually bad is to just stop actually viewing them in the same category of personhood, thus protecting the category itself, and you, from wrongdoing. But doing this has potentially really dangerous consequences.

First, it makes it really easy to do horrifically fucked up things to people while claiming they deserve it because they’re bad. With very few exceptions, every genocide, hate crime, and purge of undesirables that has occurred historically has been motivated by the idea that the people being targeted are actually bad and thus whatever you do to them, whatever you inflict upon them, is justified on the grounds of justice and utilitarianism. You’re protecting people from them.

Secondly, and perhaps more importantly, it destroys our concept of universalism and promotes a sort of self-reinforcing no-true-Scotsman-esque standard of humanity that makes it very hard to acknowledge and address wrongdoings of members of the tribe until they’ve become completely egregious and outrageous, at which point the tribe is exonerated and the offending party is ostracized on the grounds that the exiled member is clearly not actually a person but a limp vessel through which some dread spider is thrusting its pedipalps. By creating standards like these, it becomes impossible to have any sort of spectrum of accountability between “exile the spider” and “lovingly accept the human.”

It’s much harder to acknowledge someone’s sin, and still see them as a person. Newsflash, humanity is far from perfect. There’s lots of sin everywhere. People are being murdered and tortured and raped and killed right now, as you read these very lines, and people are the ones doing the murdering and torturing and raping and killing. There is not a separate genus of dread spiders wearing human skins committing all the atrocities, there are just people. There is no categorical protection which you can invoke to protect yourself from the possibility of ever becoming them and by trying to create that categorical protection you shield yourself from the possibility of noticing that what you’re doing might itself be wrong.

Anyway, that’s my long rant against unpersoning and exile as solutions in general. I think it’s telling that I still feel the need to defend my past actions to some degree like that and to be honest I’m fairly sure some people will still just see me as one of the spiders regardless. Too much spider empathy, clearly an arachnid.

I shouldn’t have to justify my desire to not unperson people, but here we are.

That’s the fear though, the fear is why I feel the need to justify myself, even though I know that no one really cares what I have to say on the matter. I certainly don’t think this post is going to convince anyone to stop doing unpersoning if they’ve gotten in the habit of doing it. But it’s still important for me to say that I have actual reasons for what I do, for how I act morally and I stand by those reasons. Because I’m afraid if I don’t, and potentially even though I do have those reasons, I will be lumped in with the monsters for not falling in line against them.

Being unpersoned, being treated like some dangerous thing to be disposed of like radioactive waste, is a horrifying thing to experience, and just being near to the blast when it happened was enough to leave mental scars in the form of this new fear. The fear of the mob coming and putting stickers up around town saying I’m abusive, and calling my workplace and trying to get me fired, and losing many of the people close to me.

Up until things finally began stabilizing into a new equilibrium within the last few months, I had basically been experiencing constant if low-grade trauma, locked into a state of fear and threat. During that time, I’ve been hurt deeply and have hurt others as I flailed around in pain. I’ve been desperate, and needy, and clingy, and ended up developing a lot of bad habits and coping mechanisms to deal with the long-running trauma and pain I was experiencing, which I am still in the process of stripping back out.

Enough things happened that if someone wanted to, they could make a case that I too am some sort of dread spider thrusting its pedipalps. Dangerous, untrustworthy. Someone better off removed before I did something really egregious.

And sure, I’m not the person I want to be, and I’m probably not the person I depict myself as. I haven’t been as good, as kind, as mindful, as empathic, or as respectful as I aspire to be. But still, I aspire. To do good, to be good, to spread good in the world. Despite everything, I still think the world is beautiful, and I want it to survive, and improve, and endure. I want humanity to survive and thrive and win the cosmic inheritance hanging nightly above our heads. I want us to spread to every corner of the sky and outnumber the stars. I don’t want to hurt anyone, I don’t want to compete with anyone, I want us all to make it.

I don’t want the fear to win, I don’t want to let it clip my wings. The desire to help build a better world feels like a part of me, the desire grows out of emotion, not out of calculation. When people are in pain, it hurts, and I want them to not be in pain.

All I can do is keep trying my hardest, and so that’s what I intend to do, come what may of it.