A Word with T.K. Coleman: Escapism

I decided to try something new on the blog and ask my good friend and colleague T.K. Coleman to freestyle riff on a single word.  I gave him a word and without notice he gave me what came to mind.  I love how it turned out.

The word today is escapism.  I’m intrigued by unconventional interpretations of escapism (I wrote in favor of a form of escapism and one of the best decisions I ever made) and I knew T.K. would bring something unconventional.  I suspected he might have a few thoughts in a few paragraphs.  As always, he exceeded expectations.  An active mind is ready at a moments notice to spill out goodness.  I’ll turn it over to him.



The first thought that comes to my mind is this image:


It’s a picture I stumbled across a few years ago and it continues to grip my imagination.

What’s going on in this picture?

At first, it seems pretty obvious that this woman is a courageous or adventurous soul who’s preparing to make a daring and admiral leap towards freedom. After all, she’s getting ready to jump out of a cage. How can that be an example of anything other than a movement from captivity to freedom? But take a closer look. Where in the world is she going to land? She’s in the middle of the sky. Surely she’s going to die if she just jumps out of that cage without a parachute. Her cage may feel restricting (as the truth often does), but at least it offers her a better chance of survival than just taking an irrational leap into the clouds, right? Isn’t she being just a little bit crazy here? Isn’t she just allowing her frustration with the ugly truth of her situation to seduce her into illogical fantasies and false hopes? Maybe. But there are so many possible questions we could ask:What’s holding up the cage and how long will it continue to be able to do so? Is there anything holding it at all? Is the woman really jumping into the middle of the sky or is there something or someone waiting to catch her and we’re just unable to see? Does she know something about her situation that we don’t know?

It probably seems foolish for me to engage in this kind of exercise over a surreal photograph, but I think it illustrates the ambiguities involved in our judgments regarding when people are simply making an escape versus when people are practicing escapism.

Let me explain:

We tend to think of the word “escape” as the act or process of breaking free from restriction. The Merriam-Webster dictionary, for instance, lists the following as the first three entries for the term:

to get away from a place (such as a prison) where you are being held or kept

to get away from a dangerous place or situation

to get away from something that is difficult or unpleasant

So if someone says “My friend really needs a plan of escape,” we’ll most likely be inclined to regard that person’s friend as being in an undesirable situation and thus in need of some help. While it’s possible for us to regard a plan of escape as being a bad thing, it’s also possible for us to regard it as a good thing. We wouldn’t support a mass murder’s efforts to escape prison, but we’d definitely support someone’s efforts to escape slavery.

When it comes to escapism, however, we tend to think of it as the act or process of avoiding reality. Here’s what the same dictionary says about that word:

habitual diversion of the mind to purely imaginative activity or entertainment as an escape from reality or routine

If someone says “My friend is an escapist,” we might be inclined to regard that person’s friend as being a delusional sort of individual who could benefit from a healthy dose of reality. Escapism tends to have a much more negative connotation than “escape.” If someone describes you as a person who’s trying to make an escape, there’s a chance that we’ll look at your efforts as noble. If someone describes you as an escapist, that’s almost always going to be looked at as a bad thing.

Sometimes we accuse people of practicing escapism (i.e. being delusional or irresponsible) when they’re actually just using their imagination to create an unconventional escape from an unnecessary or unjust form of confinement. This is precisely what J.R.R. Tolkien was getting at when he wrote the following:

“Fantasy is escapist, and that is its glory. If a soldier is imprisoned by the enemy, don’t we consider it his duty to escape?. . .If we value the freedom of mind and soul, if we’re partisans of liberty, then it’s our plain duty to escape, and to take as many people with us as we can!”

Neil Gaiman elaborated even further when he wrote:

“People talk about escapism as if it’s a bad thing… Once you’ve escaped, once you come back, the world is not the same as when you left it. You come back to it with skills, weapons, knowledge you didn’t have before. Then you are better equipped to deal with your current reality…Fiction can show you a different world. It can take you somewhere you’ve never been. Once you’ve visited other worlds, like those who ate fairy fruit, you can never be entirely content with the world that you grew up in. Discontent is a good thing: discontented people can modify and improve their worlds, leave them better, leave them different. And while we’re on the subject, I’d like to say a few words about escapism. I hear the term bandied about as if it’s a bad thing. As if “escapist” fiction is a cheap opiate used by the muddled and the foolish and the deluded, and the only fiction that is worthy, for adults or for children, is mimetic fiction, mirroring the worst of the world the reader finds herself in. If you were trapped in an impossible situation, in an unpleasant place, with people who meant you ill, and someone offered you a temporary escape, why wouldn’t you take it? And escapist fiction is just that: fiction that opens a door, shows the sunlight outside, gives you a place to go where you are in control, are with people you want to be with(and books are real places, make no mistake about that); and more importantly, during your escape, books can also give you knowledge about the world and your predicament, give you weapons, give you armour: real things you can take back into your prison. Skills and knowledge and tools you can use to escape for real.”

As both Tolkein and Gaiman point out, sometimes the best way to escape imprisonment is to risk looking like an escapist by taking your mind far away from the reality of your problems and focusing your attention on something that stimulates inspiration and creative thought.

Sometimes a legitimate escape towards true freedom can appear to be a delusional indulgence in mere escapism. And sometimes those who choose to remain where they are in the name of “facing reality” are the true escapists because they never face the realities made possible by radical leaps in their thinking. I think of the slaves who stayed back on the plantation laughing at the “silliness” of the ones who sought to get away and I think of Harriet Tubman’s words when she said “I freed thousands of slaves, and could have freed thousands more, if they had known they were slaves.”

Now go back to the picture. There seems to be this ambiguity there when I really consider things. Maybe the woman is moving towards greater freedom. Maybe she’s moving towards lesser freedom. I simply don’t know. That sense of “I don’t know” —that’s what I think about when I hear the word “escapism.” I can be sure of what the word means, but can I be sure that I’m always correctly applying it to others when they ignore the realities I prefer them to focus on? I don’t know. I sometimes suspect that freedom may have a closer relationship with fantasy than what I’m currently prepared to believe.

Beyond Good & Evil

Since our move to South Carolina I’ve had a renewed interest in American history and, in particular, the history of the South and the institution of slavery. I’m a Yankee invader, so my notions of the South were pretty simplistic. I saw monuments and read snippets that were incongruent with the narrative I grew up with regarding the Civil War, slavery, and the South in general. It became clear how uncomfortably complex the whole mess was.

A friend recommended Roll, Jordan, Roll by Eugene Genovese. What an excellent book! The author filters some things through a lens of Marxian class theory, which is not really my thing, but the book is jam-packed with counter-intuitive insight and uses tons primary sources in a very enlightening way, not just a bombardment of long quotations or endless footnotes which historians sometimes do. The book is a great reminder of how much more complex the world is than we try to make it in retrospect. American slavery was not a simple story of good people and evil people. It was not a simple case of economic exploitation. It was an elaborate and highly nuanced institution with unlikely defenders and enemies. It was an evil institution, but the people within it were not necessarily evil or good.

I’ve written elsewhere about the fact that institutions can be good or evil even if the people within those institutions are not. I think it’s important to remember this. It doesn’t let us off the hook with sweeping declarations of good and evil. It forces us to look at the world as it is, and understand that people respond to incentives, and that good people can support bad institutions because of false beliefs. It doesn’t mean they aren’t accountable for their beliefs, but they mightn’t be knowingly engaging in evil.

Genovese’s book revealed that some slave owners abhorred the institution. Why didn’t they simply free their slaves? Sometimes state law prohibited or made very difficult the freeing of slaves. Some owners believed that, once freed, the slaves would risk re-enslavement by others, a much crueler life in the free but still racist North, or great hardship in a world for which they were not equipped. Whether this was true, there was some reason for slave owners to have such fears. Some freed slaves did suffer these fates. One doesn’t have to hate slavery any less or agree with the logic of these conflicted slave owners to allow the possibility that they needn’t have been pure evil. One former slave owner wrote how wrong he had been to assume that the slaves needed him and that he needed the slaves. He described how poorly most plantations were doing financially, and how the end of slavery actually improved them economically. He talked about how well the former slaves got on away from the plantation. Both of these outcomes surprised him. His worldview was so entrenched that he failed to see how the institution was harming not only the slaves but his own economic well-being.

The more difficult fact is how many slaves claimed to not want freedom, and how many chose not to take it when given the chance. One could make the material case that some slaves might have had better lives on a plantation than the other options available at the time, and that is certainly worth considering, but it strikes me that there’s something deeper at play here. There is a belief in one’s own helplessness and a fear of the unknown common to all people who have long been oppressed. When the Soviet Union fell there were stories of people who did not know what to do and longed for the security of the previous tyranny. Abused spouses sometimes exhibit similar behavior. Fear of the unknown dangers of freedom does not make the captives bad people in any of these cases. It reveals the complex nature of such institutions and reminds us that long-run oppression of such magnitude requires far more than physical force: it requires some level of belief on the part of oppressors, oppressed, and third parties that the institution is either moral, necessary, or at least inevitable.

We do ourselves a disservice if we boil everything down to good vs. evil and explain every tyranny as the result of raw physical power. People are complicated creatures who seek the most gain at the least expense and who accept or contrive all manner of beliefs to justify their choices. Or maybe the beliefs come first and determine the choices. Either way, in the long run ideas shape the institutions we live under. History and our own times are better understood when we treat people like rational actors whose choices are shaped by their beliefs rather than evil egomaniacs or saintly altruists.

There is a lot to learn from the experience of American slavery. It was a unique institution, but not so unique that it doesn’t have modern lessons and parallels. Many people failed to see beyond slavery. What evils do we fail to see beyond or imagine the world without? Robert Higgs provides some provocative food for thought here.