“So it goes” is the mantra Billy Pilgrim continues to live by amid his many misfortunes throughout the novel Slaughterhouse Five. “Trying to behave decently without any expectation of rewards or punishments” in a ridiculous world is a common theme in author Kurt Vonnegut’s work. Like protagonist Billy Pilgrim, Vonnegut had a slew of hardships throughout his life including, but not limited to, being a prisoner of war during WWII and having his mother take her own life by overdosing on sleeping pills. However, he channeled his life experiences into his writings and transformed them into 200 pages of wisdom culminating in the promotion of humanism. While even Vonnegut himself concedes he cannot give a clear definition of humanism, it involves two fundamental rules: to not let the world drive you mad and to act as a decent human being.
Even though Vonnegut may have been writing under the context of impending nuclear doom following WWII, his lifelong commitment to the ideals of humanism can help us guide our lives in this particularly apocalyptic time.
As an American, it feels like I am living through an unprecedented time of stark cultural divide over every topic imaginable. Dating back to the rise of conservatism most notably seen in the election of Ronald Reagan in the 1980s, the United States culturally and politically has perpetually been pushed further and further to the right. So right-wing in fact that politicians like Bernie Sanders deem themselves as far-left socialists because they lobby for goals like universal healthcare and debt-free tuition— issues that in many other countries are important partisan focuses on both sides of the aisle.
Under these circumstances, there is contention in every avenue of society possible. I will grudgingly admit I take part in these contention as I actively try to only support businesses who are politically similar to me. More broadly for instance when Goya Foods, known for selling Latinx dried goods, announced their support for President Trump, leftists found themselves boycotting the brand, citing that the statement of support is immorally ungrounded as President Trump has repeatedly spewed racist remarks towards the Latinx community. President Trump then went on to pose with Goya products instigating a national discourse.
Meanwhile conservatives like Senator Ted Cruz praised the brand, arguing that the boycotting of the brand by the left is an attack on Hispanic culture and a silencing of free speech. High ideals aside: this was a fight about a can of beans. A can of beans was able to spark a heated debate about the principles of an entire country and its consumption became a political statement. Regardless of where you stood, you would face backlash.
If Vonnegut were alive today, he would be quietly chuckling about the uproar over a can of beans that most definitely could be a plausible plot line based on the absurdist satires he has published. Yet underlying within Vonnegut’s characters, like Billy Pilgrim, there is the notion that despite how ridiculous a circumstance they might find themselves in, they believe they are doing all that they can to make the world a better place. Similarly, attitudes towards Goya Foods are based on the idea that you are trying to show upstanding moral character for what you believe will bring about a better world, even with something as minuscule as a can of beans.
The intensification of culture clashes is a tug of war between various ideologues on how to make the world a better place according to their own beliefs. While no ideologues on any part of the political spectrum can conclusively claim that their way of life, or in more modern rendition - attitudes towards a can of beans - is what will directly contribute to solving the flaws in our world, this speaks to how; during this tumultuous time, we attempt to showcase our morality and ethics in every avenue of life.
Will the massive bridge between ideologues in the United States ever come closer together? I don’t know. For the meantime, regardless of where one is on the political spectrum, we can all benefit from taking a step back from contentiousness and try to be as decent a human as possible.
Edited by Ellie Muir, Essays Editor