Content warning for the following:
- Systemic suffering under capitalism & similar structures
- Confronting interalized colonialism and patriotism
- Racism, especially the "primitive savage" trope
- Anti-semitism and the paradox of tolerance
- I say "dick and balls" one time
The idea of a "real ma pona" is one that's too popular amongst toki ponists. There are dozens of flags, suggestions of government structures, mock ups for public services, and plenty more.
If you made one of those things, don't take it personally when I say the design goal of every one of these concepts is fundamentally against a good community, and fundamentally not pona. Take it as an opportunity to learn a better perspective on the idea. (though i will admit i saw some bus passes one time and they were really cute)
This thought in particular is one I'm not gonna try and make palettable to a white audience. If you don't like how I write, because it's not "formal" enough, pay me. This is going to ramble and meander, because that's what good writing does (in my opinion).
I need to start this rant with a disclaimer: I've been reading Tyson Yunkaporta's Sand Talk. If you're familiar with it, I'm covering stuff he's said, likely not as well spoken as he did. If like the vast majority of toki ponists, you aren't familiar with his concept of "civilisation", let me explain.
When I say Civilisation, you're probably imagining a vast empire with millions of people. I specificially want you to veer that concept (if you haven't already) in a less utopian direction. Civilisations are built on unsustainable growth and inflation- we're all familiar with the stock market, the rising cost of living, the general idea that a community can be economically thriving but the people in it are suffering. You're probably one of those people suffering, if you're reading this. Hold onto that image.
Community and groups of people aren't bad. They are wonderful, beautiful things, and you can't let anyone take community away from you. Community is what keeps us all surviving under civilisation: we have mutual aid where we're sending the same $20 back and forth. We have spaces where someone can ask for help, and someone with the skills to help does so, as best they can, because it's morally right.
This sense of community is in opposition to civilisation. A civilisation is built by a small leading power, and us mob coming together and surviving when it's inconvinent to them is really damn annoying. In an ideal civilisation, we would be cogs in a machine. We aren't quite there yet, so we get public holidays and pointless discourse to keep us off the real, systemic issues. These litle things keep us from stirring the pot and causing trouble, keeps us chugging along as a civilisation expects us to. The adjective for people under a "good" civilisation is "placid", or "docile". Nothing about prosperity or "wealth" for us normal people.
What is the ma pona people are making?
The concept of a real "ma pona" is one that's been floated for years, longer than I've been in the toki pona community. If you're personally an old timer and know of some pre-2020 examples, feel free to throw them my way, I might make some cool points about it some day.
The general idea is that a physical place can embody the philosophy of toki pona. A town, or village, or community, or country. Most people use one of those words to describe what they imagine, but without fail people are designing a civilisation.
If you haven't personally encountered what I'm talking about, let me explain.
The general idea is that "well, toki pona is cool, what if a bunch of toki ponists lived together, what would that be like?". Usually plays with the idea of a community of native speakers, a toki pona taso environment, and general feel good vibes, because toki pona is the language of good. And it is! The philosophy behind the language is beautiful, and its one many people are drawn to because it fills part of a void left by civilisation, that sense of community bonding and comradery.
Once that idea comes up, it goes down a pretty predictable route: "Well, if it were a place, they'd have a flag, right? Real places have flags.". Art is fun, so a flag gets made. Maybe someone else will feel drawn to make an anthem, or a passport, or a fake drivers license, things like that. To that person, those things are needed for a [town/community/country], but those things are actually integral to a civilisation. We are so entrenched in that style of thinking that it's the default for basically everyone.
What's the deal with flags?
Tyson has said it better than me, but obviously not all flags are bad. The Aboriginal flag is a symbol of counterculture and an anti-establishement mindset white people can't stand. There's a reason white schoolkids grafitti a dick and balls, and Aboriginal kids draw our flag.
When a flag gets attached to a civilisation, that's when it starts to lift up the values of one. The Australian flag signals a tenuous rejection-but-coexistance with the British, as well as a pride in ones identity as "An Australian", someone patriotic and proud of the ideals of their country. More acurately, their civilisation.
To be proud of your civilisation is to be at best complacent, and at worst complicit in it. Patriotism isn't a good thing, but there is a healthy way to love where you live, or where you're from. A toki pona flag only uplifts the core ideals of civilisation, not the core ideas of toki pona, or the community. And civilisation goes against the toki pona philosophy, against the community, and against human nature. We didn't always need flags, you know. Do you know when your anthem was made, and is it as old as you thought? You sung it in school like it was some timeless relic, but it's one of those man-made horrors the internet warned you about.
The primitive savage trope
If you're in the same spaces I am, you already know what the trope is, because people recognize it and call it out early and often. If you aren't, or you like to listen to Aboriginal voices on Aboriginal issues instead of yet another whitefella talking for us, let me explain.
White people feel threatened by geninune Aboriginal expression. It's scary and puts their systematic opression into question. Their society claims to be "the best solution" to complex problems, yet we've had better ones for millenia.
One thing that people can do to feel at ease with this confronting reality, is to change what being Aboriginal means. This happens everywhere in a similar way, but I'm focusing in on aspects I have personal experience with, as an Aboriginal man.
You likely have a perception of Aboriginal culture rooted in this comforting reality, if you're aware of us at all. When I say "Aboriginal Australians", you picture dark skinned, mostly naked people with body paint, boomerangs, and maybe a cool didge or two. Maybe they're dancing and talking in some "exotic" language, waving around some feathers or lighting a fire or something.
It makes you introspect hard when I put it that way, but on some level that's the mental image we all get. We all participate in civilisation, we all take on unchecked baggage from its ideals, even the most furvently anti-racist of us.
I shouldn't need to say this, but I'm just as Aboriginal as they are. I'm a fair skinned disabled man, who goes weeks without leaving the house and is thousands of kilometers away from my mob. My spiritual practice is more informed by international views than Aboriginal ones. I don't even own a didge any more. (ever try taking one on a plane? shits expensive!)
So, clearly, Aboriginal people existed outside of civilisation until whitefellas showed up. Same applies across the world with most First Nations people, honestly. But because of that false impression of our history and culture, there's this implicit assumption that to reject civilization is to emulate a white view of our culture.
We didn't have cars or a stock market, so logically we weren't as "advanced" as you white people, right? This limited view of "intelligence" is totally fine and holds up to a non-bigoted view of the world, yeah? Of course not, but whether intentionally or not, "primitive" ways of living like ours inform many people's perception of a ma pona. If it's not embracing civilisation, it's in opposition to it, and your baggage says you can only reject it in a certain way. One only informed by a white interpretation of Indigenous culture.
Thus, the primitive savage trope is born.
toki pona's "primitive savage"
I think you already get what I'm going to say here. Art of various ma pona (or, mas pona if you will) either falls into the category of a white, civilisation-informed view of a community, or something desperately trying to reject that and just landing on "primitive savage, but they speak a cool language I already know".
While rejecting the concept of civilisation is good, gods above if you're just going to be racist about it, at least be creative. What you're doing is bigoted and hateful, whether on purpose or not, but at this point it's mostly just boring.
If you don't participate in the online community, or exclusively hang out in the more radical, cool parts of it, you might not know how pervasive this trope is in the community. But it's really, really common. I've been hearing whispers of projects that make me think it's trending towards an upswing in popularity, which is a shameful regression in our community discourse.
We, as toki ponists, have the same issue that many groups like ours have. We attract a lot of inclusive, good people, and then there's those guys that you don't want to acknowledge, the hateful ones that get banned from most places and infest the ones that let them stay. Ignoring them doesn't make them go away. Norse polytheism has a Nazi problem. Pretending it doesn't only helps the Nazis. A "live and let live, just stay over there where we aren't looking" is textbook for the paradox of tolerance. You need to act swiftly, viciously, and comprehensively when bigots enter your community, and you never stop, lest they overtake your community and how it's seen.
*cough, symbols of my religion are on the ADL for this very reason*
The toki pona community has a racism problem. One of the more insidious kinds of racism, where everyone involved thinks they aren't racist at all, and anyone that critiques them is a snowflake. We need to be harsh in the face of racism, even if it "hurts the feelings", of white people who didn't realize their toki pona art is racist. "I didn't mean it, I'm not a racist" doesn't absolve you for perpetuating racism. "I'm sorry, I didn't know I was being racist. I've done some reading about it and am changing my ways, here's $20" doesn't either, but it's steps in the right direction.
I don't think anyone in our current society can create a "ma pona" that is as pona as it claims to be. The closest we can get are the authentic communities that we create ourselves. Exploring toki pona in fiction isn't a lost cause, but a depiction of toki pona society needs to first be a depiction of human society, warts and all.
We are all complicit in racism, what now?
We learn! Our civilisation doesn't want us to learn about those who lived on this land first, because it makes the civilisation look bad. So we learn in spite of it, and constantly grow our undestanding of the way things used to be. We find the little seeds of racist influence, and we viciously excise them from our selves. This is part of how a community un-learns racism. And we as the toki pona community have a lot of unlearning to do.