From the outside in; from the inside out.
Also herein: In praise of Sense8's second season.
Rembrandt’s The Night Watch. The star of the Rijksmuseum, and a defining masterpiece. Layers of meaning, brilliant technique, and so massive the figures are very nearly life-sized. But this wasn’t always so—at the time of its creation, it was derided, the subjects who commissioned it dreadfully unhappy with their appearances (and it used to be larger). So, too, does our experience of Mozart not reflect that of his contemporaries.
This is the narrative and question laid out by a character in Sense8's second season. The answer, his answer, is of course: ourselves. The way we see the world, see each other, the way we consume art and fashion and media—these all change over time. But, still:
“Taste” or “perception” are answers far too broad to be satisfactory. Unseen forces must underlie such vagaries. To deride something, one must first find something to dislike. And dislike, in turn, is rooted in unmet expectation. In preconceived notions of right and wrong, of beauty and affront, of proper and improper. We carry all these things into every part of life, willingly or not. Our snap, oft-withering judgements extend beyond matters so relatively trifling as art and media: shortcuts help us think more quickly, and they help us blend into society more easily. Order in society has almost always been founded on the alignment of preconception, of boundary—of us, and of them.
“And who knows which is which and who is who? Up and down, and in the end it’s only round ‘n round. Haven’t you heard, it’s a battle of words?”
Labels are strange, powerful things. On the one hand, without labels there are colors we literally could not see. There are concepts—good and evil, poverty and justice—that we could not contemplate or discuss.
But labels also reduce. Ask any progressive about the Muslim world a decade ago and you’d probably get an earful about human rights violations, on the oppression of women. Muslims were a lesser other, a somewhere-over-there, less-enlightened group of people to be somehow respected on their own terms but looked down upon at the same time. Now they suddenly find themselves a victim other, these curious people whose victimization is their defining factor, their purpose of interest—all else largely forgotten.
And labels impose. There are many, many reasons an act as simple as publicly claiming one’s sexuality or gender is so difficult, but so many of those reasons trace their roots to the transit of labels, the wholesale exchange of one entire set of societal expectations and notions for another. The crushing weight of new demands and interaction patterns is like swapping one life for another completely, a weight that not so many people feel brave enough to carry for the rest of their lives. Trade simply and exactly one label for another, if your labels are indeed so luxuriously fungible, and it’s as if the whole universe reshapes itself entirely from the inside out, and from the outside in.
And labels quantize. Look within any of these labels and you’ll find a whole taxonomy of sublabels unknown completely to outsiders. Feminists disagree with feminists, transfolk with transfolk. You give our label a bad name, bemoans one corner of a label at another, with the way you carry yourselves, with how you represent our label. You don’t uphold what it means to count yourselves amongst us—your actions and your words are an affront. Maybe you aren’t even one of us. Biology, psychology, and society are all incredibly messy, crazy, beautiful things. Human development produces people of all sexualities and gender identities; why would anybody assume it would be so kind as to neatly produce cookie-cutter versions of each? Why do we demand absolute homogeneity within our labels? How is it that those who have experienced so much grief at the hands of otherness are so willing to then turn that same knife upon their fellow marginalized?
“I understand now that boundaries between noise and sound are conventions. All boundaries are conventions, waiting to be transcended.”
Who are we beyond labels? Sense8 ponders this: is it where we’re from? What we dream? What we’ve done? What we fear? Is it who we love? Or what we’ve lost? Isn’t it so funny that we think identity can be so easily reduced? If you are white or cis or male, do you not bristle any time people make accusations based on these labels? Are you not a complex creature of far greater nuance and worth than any of these three labels? And so then: why would you think any other label would feel any different, no matter the intent?
But how much time do any of us spend thinking about people of different origins, of different sexualities, people who are obscured behind these labels as anything but? Do you know the story of any Syrian refugee beyond their tale of woe?
Perhaps the most difficult thing to do as a human and a creator is to forge a work that is truly representative of a life beyond one’s own experiences. Popular media is full of work that—forget commercialization or exploitation—simply misunderstands or fails to grasp the reality of other cultures in the wholeness of their experiences and values, or within the universality of the human experience. They look from the outside in, and report: what strange things we have seen! And thus perhaps Sense8's most monumental accomplishment is that it is a true view from the inside out—and of not just one but of many life experiences underrepresented in the contemporary West. And that accomplishment is worthwhile not because of the need for representation, but because instead of what then follows.
Kibera may be the most infamous informal settlement in the world. It is a name associated with poverty, with crime, with disease. Access to water has been a severe problem for decades—maybe even a century. But look beyond the name, to the place itself, and what do you see? Kibera in Sense8 is a vibrant place full of people trying to do what anybody does: find happiness, build a better life for one’s children, and enjoy what pleasures there are to find. It is a place of love, and friendship, and holding close those who are dear. And yes, everyone spends a lot of time simply trying to make ends meet. “They say there is nothing as expensive as being poor,” Capheus recalls. It is a human place, full of kindness and injustice, like any other, viewed through the lens of a human. And did you know that Better Living with Kobi Kihara is not a fictional show?
Where African experiences are reduced to poverty and warlords in American representation, Asian cultures are endlessly exoticized. Family, honor, and tradition are misunderstood pillars of Asian society, taken somehow to be monocultural institutions that exclusively define every moment of Asian life. But they are no more and no less than the values that define contemporary, idealistic Western culture: freedom, individualism. They are the background structures against which innumerable unique souls try to fit their lives—sometimes they are upheld, sometimes they are defied, and sometimes they are simply overly idealistic burdens to be haunted by.
And so we find Kala in modern India marrying for what everyone takes to be love, but we find from her perspective that her lived experience may as well be an arranged marriage: the heart is hardly so effable, and the realities of a relationship hardly so simply defined. But we don’t find any judgement therein—arranged marriages are simply a part of the culture, the way many people choose to live their lives, the way Kala’s mother and all her aunties shaped their families. Nor do we find anything but wonder at this modern world from those selfsame women about Kala’s love marriage. And when worlds abrade, it is over something as universal as fathers-in-law bickering over national politics at a dinner table full of anxious family members desperate to change the topic.
And so we find Sun in modern Seoul bound by gender expectations not because society has so oppressed her, but because of her love, because it was her beloved mother’s own final wish—to protect her brother no matter what. Korea is a poignant place in which to explore women in society—it is, in some ways, the most progressive of the big East Asian cultures, and yet it is also a place haunted by a past of some of the most inhumane treatment of women in known history. Yes, one could justifiably reduce Sun’s problems to “cultural oppression,” but this isn’t true to Sun’s own experience, so why should it be true of our assessment of her life? What service do we perform, and for whom, by making such claims?
And when Sun’s teacher proclaims, with a deep bow, his life’s greatest honor to have been her teacher, and she bows yet more deeply, we see not an antique, opaque Asian tradition—we feel Sun’s immense gratitude and respect because after all we have seen of her life we feel it as our own. This is the beauty of the insider’s experience, of looking at unfamiliar lives from the inside out, rather than from the outside in.
“Our lives are not our own. We are bound to others, past and present; and by each crime, and every kindness, we birth our future.”
Which isn’t to say that the show’s characters are always so enlightened. Our eight protagonists may have found transcendental family and love through their shared tele-empathic connection, and their myriad dealings with the oppression of labels and expectations may have equipped them with greater empathy and understanding than most, but nobody is immune from their own blind spots.
As with life, nearly all the conflict in the show stems not from evil machinations but from the unwitting conflict of ideologies and intentions. There are no enduring bad guys or good guys—just people trying to live true to themselves and their values, trying to fight for those they love and against the injustices they perceive. As with life, conflict comes often not from malice but from unreconciled perspectives, and from the fear that walks one step behind.
“Why waste my time trying to understand a psychopath?” Will asks the amoral, ambitious scientist Whispers, who had observed how little effort had been invested in appreciating his perspective and his goals. And as the show expands in scope and its primary allegory is slowly made complete, I suspect we will indeed begin to understand that Whispers is more complex than he seems from our protagonists’ perspectives. But Will’s misunderstanding and his unwillingness to engage is also illustrative of another truth: that we can all only be judged by what we do, not what we say or what we believe. For all the above rhetoric about appreciating the realities of individual lives from the inside out, this is the overriding truth—we should all be judged by the content of our character, but what evidence of anybody’s character do we have beyond their deeds and their actions?
“I’m just trying to understand—”
“You are not trying to understand!”
Lito’s retort upon being confronted by an sensationalist reporter on the red carpet about his newly public sexuality is perhaps the most succinct manifestation of Sense8’s core thesis.
On the one hand: are you willing to look beyond labels, to put aside your own preconceived values and judgements and to appreciate the lives of others from the inside out? To shed any conception of superiority and to seek no more than understanding? We all like to pretend that we do this, that we’re past such simplistic notions, and yet picture a welfare recipient in your head right now and who do you see? Picture the life of a refugee and what comes to mind? What do they look like? How much of their lives do you see? Are they whole human beings, or are they avatars of your ideology?
And on the other: if one were to view your life from the outside in, as intimately as could be but removed from yourself, from your thoughts, who would such an observer think you are? Would they see love in your heart, or would they see hate? What if they couldn’t hear what you said, couldn’t read what you wrote: could see only your actions, your effect upon others? Does that person look anything like who you imagine yourself to be, who you tell others you are? When confronted with a conflicting ideology, do you seek understanding or do you express hatred? Do you love others for who they are, or do you express love only to serve yourself? Does your love translate into compassion, or into derision, into division?
I have written endlessly and repeatedly about empathy in the tens of thousands of words I have published these past six months. I have formulated and reformulated the point, and yet I still feel like I am screaming endlessly into the cold, dark night. Here it is, one more time: all of the above. Here it is, one more time: I have no room in my heart for hate—even for those who have allowed themselves to be overtaken by fear and by hatred. The world is too incomprehensibly vast, human existence is too beautifully varied, and life is too damned short to shackle ourselves to something so microscopic, so selfish as hate.
“I used to wonder if there was something I could do to try to change the world, before I understood: such thoughts were unskilled. Trying to change the world only leads to suffering. All we can change is ourselves.”
Capheus talks extensively about love. He talks about having grown up and seen love used by the world around him only as a wall. And he expresses his hope that one day, he will look around and find love being used as a bridge. It is up to us, to each of us, to choose. Is love a wall? Or is it a bridge?
America used be a name that evoked a bridge. In our imagination, America was the ultimate bridge. As a child, this was what I was led to believe, what I was taught that we stood for. But today I look around and I find that America has become a wall.