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Coffee House Discourse


I should take a step back from politics, I thought.

I think it was three weeks into my exchange semester. 

It was early October. There was supposed to be only a semblance of warmth left, but it was a pathological year. The sun was still way up, people were still in shorts.

“It’s a climate disaster,” a pizzeria owner told me. 

He’d struck up a conversation when he noticed that I had a similar complexion to his wife, who he explained was from Thailand. I told him I lived in the province bordering Thailand, and how if European exploration hadn’t happened, I would have been speaking the same language and shared the same cultural experience his wife had.

He nodded in agreement before casually serving me the best Margherita pizza I’d ever had.

The tomato sauce was just so, so sweet, and the mozzarella – oh my god. Perhaps my experience would have been better if we didn’t just have that dreadful conversation about the climate, or colonialism for that matter. Or perhaps it was exactly because of that conversation that made me so appreciative of the experience. I wondered then if in ten years – when tomato trees are only able to produce dried-up, sour-tasting fruit because the world has gotten too hot – I would ever be able to taste a Margherita pizza as sweet as this. 

I continued chewing, my mind blank. In my hand then I saw that it had been a plastic fork that I was using to eat the sliced-up pizza. I paused, suddenly suffocated with cognitive dissonance. After all that talk about the climate, I was given a plastic fork? I sighed. I was so terribly tired.

“I should take a step back from politics.”

It turned out I had been speaking out loud. Just then, a coursemate whom I was just acquainted with, with a brioche in her hand, asked, “Why?”

I was brought back to reality. I realised I had been sipping a cup of cappuccino, a surprisingly good one in a random cafe located in the middle of nowhere, on a Thursday morning after our lecture had gotten cancelled. She would later treat me to that cup of coffee, which left me confused. Was the conversation we had so good that she felt compelled to buy me coffee? Or perhaps, more probably, the conversation was so painful that she paid for my coffee to make me stop talking. 

I imagine my other friends would do this too considering how tired they must be to listen to me yap and babble about this social issue and that economic problem. I remember one time we were out and I was fighting for my life talking about homelessness. It wasn’t even that anyone there had any prejudice against homeless people; it was a disagreement about how much the state should do to help solve homelessness. The night had been ruined and everyone was sour. I went back home and instead of reflecting, I WROTE AN ENTIRE ARTICLE ABOUT HOMELESSNESS AND GOT EVERYONE TO READ IT THE NEXT DAY.

In a way, I’m Jaden Smith when he wants to talk about the political and economic state of the world. I am insufferable, tone-deaf, tired, and so predictable.

So I said to her, “ I don’t know.”

She looked at me as if waiting for me to elaborate further, chewing on her brioche. ‘Sure you do,’ she must have thought.

Then she continued, an attempt to dissuade me I think, by telling me about how she felt that it was important that progressive men got into power to help platform progressive women because, as far as history went, big women in politics were conservatives, and they were bad, bad people. She reminded me of the predicament Italy was in with Giorgia Meloni, and what became of the world once Margaret Thatcher got into power.

Of course, sure, not all women in power are conservatives, and not all conservative women in power are bad, either. But in coffee house discourse, as most weak deliberative platforms are, more often than not nuance gets thrown out the window. And further, it is implied so. It wasn’t that she was saying progressive men necessarily had to intervene to platform women. Heck, saying that would be unprogressive (or regressive, whatever). The point was just that I should not be disillusioned. 

We paused for a second. I sipped on my cup of cappuccino as she munched on her brioche.

I thought for a second about why exactly I wanted to take a step back.

Then I asked, “Have you ever watched Loki?”

She was almost startled by the question. “Not really, no. Why do you ask?”

I felt like it was dumb to continue just then, but I did anyway.

I explained how in one of Loki’s interactions with Mobius, we discover again and again why Loki attempted to conquer worlds. He did not just do so because he was innately evil, or because he just desired chaos and wanted to inflict pain. Loki seemed to have idealised a Hobbesian outlook of human nature. He saw people as innately selfish and thus compelled a higher being, the Leviathan, to prevent this selfishness from bringing humankind’s own demise. Loki was the Leviathan. His actions, seemingly evil, were in truth benevolent, and his aim, seemingly selfish, was actually out of selflessness.

Loki told Mobius, in what also became the name of the titular episode: 

“I am burdened with glorious purpose.”

I’d thought very little of this. 

Until I noticed that in every crevice of my conversations, every little pause between political discussions, every ounce of concentration during a lecture, every article, every essay, every single word coming out of my peers and myself, it echoed, again and again: burdened with glorious purpose.

At a glance, Loki’s story reminds us of a very familiar colonial idea, ‘the white man’s burden’, notwithstanding that Loki’s whiteness does not refer to our common perception of it, which would be Europeans. Technically, Loki isn’t white – I mean, his complexion is but the guy is an Asgardian god. His whiteness doesn’t come from his racial heritage but his position within power structures that exist, power structures that we are all entangled in. This detail isn’t too important because ultimately, Loki’s invasion of Earth is analogous with European colonialism, at least in the most optimistic sense of colonialism – that is civilisational in aim and not exploitational.

But even then, Loki’s colonialist project is problematic because it retains this very structure. You shouldn’t through paternalistic actions, even with pure intentions, impose your beliefs and moral standards on other people whose way of life you have little understanding of. 

More importantly, in Loki’s understanding, his colonial project was only legitimate because he believed his values were superior to the people he sought to dominate. He wouldn’t have thought to impose his values on other people if he understood that there existed different conceptions of good, and that these conceptions of good could be incompatible with each other. Loki actively perceived his values as better; if he didn’t, he wouldn’t have had the audacity to so brazenly impose them.

I have come to feel strongly that, of course, unless you are a power-hungry white imperialist, you study what I study because you have a strong desire to bring about change or good into the world – or at the very least a semblance of it. Especially if you came from a fairly affluent family and enjoyed a relatively unoppressed life.

And for a while, I have been very critical of this desire. 

Loki’s desire for greatness too, must have been driven by the potentiality that through his intervention, a positive change can be brought about. It might have been purely altruistic, or it might also have been propelled by some self-centred desire towards greatness. 

In any case, I say this is hubris. Excessive ego. Unwarranted confidence.

How could Loki believe so? That he had the capacity to bring about change? And how sure was he that the people he intervened for even wanted the change he brought? How could he be absolutely sure that this change brought more good than harm?

The answer is he could not. Nor could we, and just to aspire to bring good change is not enough. Actual, good change must be brought.

If it’s not yet clear, I’m saying that each one of us, we are all Loki.

“Well, that’s something,” my friend remarked, only crumbs now left on her plate.

We paused for a second. Processing, maybe.

She looked at me. “I think you’re overthinking it.”

“You do?”

“What is so wrong about wanting to be great if it helps people in the end?”

I sipped the last drops of my coffee. “Have you watched Oppenheimer?”

“Would it matter if I did not…?”

I guess it didn’t matter. I saw Oppenheimer on the night of its release. The movie left me with a lasting impression of what I feel is one of the most important anti-war pieces of our time. 

I understand Oppenheimer (or his work) to be the embodiment of ‘greatness’, whether or not he intended it to be, or whether or not he had even desired it to be. Yet, how can we make sense of greatness when that greatness turned out to be a weapon of mass destruction? How can we justify an ambition so big as change, when we cannot be certain that our legacy to the world will be a positive one?

“Just to aspire to bring good change is not enough. Actual, good change must be brought,” I told my friend.

She looked at me, unsure what to say.

Far am I from saying we should not aspire for good. My point is merely to convey and to act as a reminder that so often our desire to bring about good retains the mindset and ideologies of a colonialist project and, more than we’d like to admit – or at least more than I’d like to admit – is more for ourselves than it is for the people we intend to save. 

Why desire greatness? Why find meaning in it? Live life as you need to, not as it could be. There is nothing to be proven. Meritocracy is a myth. You don’t deserve what you have because you worked for it. You deserve what you have because the world is chaotic, because you are merely the result of your random social and natural disposition. Further than that, it is only luck that differentiates us. Acknowledge and celebrate yourself and your achievements, but not without remembering that your happiness may be at the expense of another’s. 

Ultimately, my lasting impression of Oppenheimer was encapsulated by a remark I came across on Tiktok, which resumes my takeaway on this topic:

The best thing you can do for the world is to live, and to leave with as little mark on the world as possible.”