Don't Say Cis (Author Interview)

Can you elaborate on the inspiration behind the title "Don't Say Cis" and its significance in the context of your book?

Cahoon: Interestingly, the first idea I had for this project was the title. It came to me as a reaction to radical tolerance, which from our belief, is rather dangerous. The meaning behind the title is that extreme tolerance leads to the inverse - intolerance against those who you deem evil for not being as moral as you are. Due to this, such tolerance leads to the prejudicial belief that differing thinkers are racist, xenophobic, transphobic, or dangerous before getting to know their character, which is not progressive. These strong prejudices certainly lead to the unfair treatment of certain groups, and within the parameters of our novel, the group that was targeted as radically intolerant was cisgendered individuals. ‘Don’t say’ is a reference to the lack of free speech in this world while also being reflective of society having harsh preconceived perceptions of those who say they are cisgendered. In our book, many citizens have prejudicial thoughts regarding cisgendered individuals because they were indoctrinated to believe there is danger in those who are traditional. These incorrect and unearned moral judgements culminate in the unfair discrimination against our protagonists. We also see other characters like Robin, who deliberately avoid a cisgendered title in order to seem more progressive and be accepted by this ‘tolerant’ society. 

While I align with particular progressive messages advocating for tolerance and love, I strongly believe this should not be an excuse to demonize those who hold differing beliefs, or to silence their voices.

How did your background in clinical mental health and psychology influence the development of the themes in your book, particularly those related to hedonistic nihilism and societal despair?

Cahoon: Due to my educational background and my deep appreciation for psychology, I decided to focus on themes that, while lesser known, hold significant relevance in contemporary society. Specifically, we explore nihilistic personal philosophies - a catalyst for higher rates of depression, a proclivity for totalitarianism, and, most importantly for our created society, a surge in hedonism. As atheism rapidly grows in popularity, so too does nihilism, and my concern is that this growth will be precipitated by a lack of intellectual diversity and bipartisan attitudes, which is notably the case in our novel. As such, in exploring the concerns I have about society, it was important for me to issue a warning to those who may be living hedonistic and or nihilistic lifestyles. In illustrating the reality we’re inevitably heading towards, I attempted to depict a world devoid of purpose and religion, leading to an influx of meaningless pleasures, in which the citizens never accumulate any fulfillment or sustainable happiness.

 As a current student in clinical mental health, it was important for me to take a humanitarian approach when writing about the citizens in this world. Rather than depicting the individuals as inherently evil, I sought to explore how they may have been shaped by top-down influence, a phenomenon explained thoroughly in Phillip Zimbardo’s The Lucifer Effect. His research shows how moral people can act immorally under the right circumstances. The particular circumstance in Don’t Say Cis is one that is relevant today – propaganda which demonizes those with differing philosophical conclusions.

In "Don't Say Cis," you explore a dystopian future set in 2059. How did you envision and construct this future world, especially in terms of its political and social structures?

Deyo: When it came to building this world, we wanted to make sure the themes of hedonism and nihilism were seeping through every crack. One of the ways we approached that was through our depiction of government; although we opted to not go very in depth about its structure, that was simply because we knew it wasn’t what we were trying to delve into with this book. Regardless, we have elements such as harmful broadcasts from the government, or the court of public opinion, and through absurdities such as these we see how much the government plays a “God” like role in the citizens’ lives. I think what we used a lot for our world building was taking some concerning things we see in our generation, like the worship of government, or the over sexualization of pop culture, and we cranked that to 11, giving our interpretation of the outcome. The social structure was simpler, due to the one dimensional thinking in Don’t Say Cis, we focused on creating a progressive society that teaches its children to be very careful in what they say and believe, as well as particular ideas such as hedonic nihilism.  

The book delves deeply into themes of free speech and intellectual diversity. How do you think these concepts are relevant to our current societal discourse?

Deyo: When we examine what’s going on in our society today, we see a lot of this tribalistic thinking where more people are letting major media outlets think for them rather than thinking for themselves. This leads to people becoming very boxed in and exclusive in their beliefs. This cult like behavior we worry about certainly plays itself out in today’s society with how like minded individuals attempt to exact more control on others by having them think, talk, dress and act a certain way. In our book, free speech is attacked as to control those who may be harming others with their words, and as we foresee it, this will inevitably end in the lack of intellectual diversity as society can only speak for one political party. Anything that is not radically progressive is hearsay, and we believe that people in society already feel some of this pressure to conform with their speech and thoughts, less they be unfairly judged. I think what Hunter and I enjoy so much about everyday life is the diversity its experiences have to offer, and how great it can be to be a free thinking individual, which is why this is a pressing concern we have.

Could you discuss the process of co-writing this book? How did you combine your individual perspectives and knowledge into a cohesive narrative?

Deyo: Working on this book collaboratively was an amazing experience. Hunter was so easy to work with, and something that made this whole experience so interesting was how different we approached this story. Our backgrounds when it comes to literature are completely different, he is more grounded in psychology and deep philosophical works, while I have just a very basic understanding of those concepts, I was able to bring a more narrative perspective to the writing. With Hunter already having a majority of the concepts down I felt almost like the illustrator teaming with an author on a comic. He would play out the concepts he wanted discussed and he would suggest many ideas on symbolism to incorporate, and with that I would fill in the spaces with landscapes, characters and much more imagery. Not to say we didn’t dip into each other’s lanes, because we most definitely did, but we never managed to step on any toes. Seeing the different ways we saw a scene going, or our interpretation of it, could leave us laughing because of our major differences. Despite this there never seemed to be any conflict with our styles and there just seemed such balance in our voice. There were many memorable nights spent on zoom discussing the myriad of symbolic possibilities of a bedroom, and that’s how it should be.

You touch upon the concept of false virtues in your book. Could you explain what you mean by this and how it plays out in the story?

Cahoon: Certainly, I’ll explain the two ways in which it can be interpreted. I must reference Immanual Kant when he says, “never wish to see a just cause defended with unjust means.” So, the first way false virtues can be taken in this context is with a starting point of true virtue. This virtue in our book is tolerance. Tolerance becomes a net negative when society must use unjust means to reach this end, as seen with unfair trials and executions in the story. Of course, when examining consequentialist philosophies, this can be reasonably disputed. However, as I look at this world through a deontological lens, I believe that when society out monsters the monster, or eliminates those who think differently due to their potential threat, it is a bad thing. Needless to say, when discussing virtues there will be a subjective element to it. The second way which one can take the idea of false virtues is with a starting point of a ‘virtue’ which is entirely bad. This is where we can begin discussing the hedonism in our book; for instance, in chapter 4 Jay believes that she is doing the right thing by promoting bodily pleasures and hedonistic impulse to Dante. She is not morally egregious, but we do believe that encouraging hedonism is immoral, so in our estimation it is a false virtue since she herself believes it is virtuous. In the majority of cases in our novel, people adhere to such virtues because they are taught it is morally good. This is similar to how our inhabitants view violence against intolerance as virtuous when, according to deontology, violence is always wrong. Therefore, in the pursuit of being morally good, at times the citizens mistakenly follow a philosophy which is immoral.

Mental health is a central theme in "Don't Say Cis." How do you approach the portrayal of mental health issues in a dystopian setting without trivializing the real-world implications?

Cahoon: I believe if you are going to delve into the psychology of those in a dystopian setting, it is important to not trivialize issues contemporary readers face. Mainly for our novel, it was crucial we respected issues relating to depression as despair is widespread in our world. The best way to still show such common problems is by showing the system that all the individuals must face. Readers will see ideas like reeducation programs, which are the final blow to the hope of living a life of purpose away from hedonistic pulls. The research shows that excessive indulgence and nihilism lead to higher rates of despair, therefore I had to be deliberate in showing these themes before discussing mental health issues. It is important to note that many characters are distinct in this world, and although they share this baseline obstacle, the issues they face are completely unique to them. This can be seen with Jay, who has a surplus of external pressure due to her social system; Dr. Erikson, who is heavily based off of Raskolnikov from Crime and Punishment, and as such, his despair comes from his rationalistic and nihilistic worldviews; and Jordan, who has PTSD regarding his sons experience in this world. There are many more examples, but it is clear there is not a one size fits all reality to depression in the real world, and it was important to maintain the diversity of experiences in our novel, while also using societal and governmental influence to explain why this has become more commonplace. Finally, I will say without spoilers that we have a character who does commit suicide. Given my desire to be as grounded in psychology as possible, I read Night Falls Fast, a book by Clinical Psychologist Kay Redfield Jamison. I did so as to be as accurate in my portrayal of the act as possible within the context of the story.

The book critiques the trend of pursuing low-quality pleasures. How do you define these pleasures, and why do you believe they are harmful to society?

Cahoon: I use this term with Don’t Say Cis as Epicurus defined it. Epicurus was a hedonist, and he made a distinction between high and low pleasures. Specifically, high pleasures are pleasures of the mind, such as learning, while low pleasures are bodily pleasures, think of the hedonism in our novel; drug use, gluttony, oversexualization, etc. It is clear that these are harmful when they are used in excess, where people sell themselves to their own desires. This may be as a result of missing ultimate purpose, but wherever it arises from, it is a widely known contemporary issue. The primary reason low pleasures are harmful is because there is no sustainability in them, individuals get a dopamine response then must immediately seek out the next well from which they’ll receive this hit. This is why we often reference being a slave to yourself in our story. Whether you study the Bible, Socrates, Nietzsche, Victor Frankl, Henry David Thoreau, or this very novel, the message remains that discipline is more valuable to an individual than indulgence. Hedonism and these quick pleasure seeking activities are easy, but you can have either an easy life, or a strong character, not both.   

What other works had an influence on “Don’t Say Cis”?

Cahoon: It’s always fun to discuss the influences of Don’t Say Cis. The narrative was predominantly influenced by Dante’s Inferno. This is seen below the surface in our writing, so I encourage readers to find all the symbolism referencing this work. Of course, this is a story with a lot of psychology infused in it, and the psychologist who I study the most is Carl Jung. Some of Jungs ideas can be inferred when reading particular elements, such as shadow imagery. Other psychologists like Jonathan Haidt and Phillip Zimbardo also influenced a lot of my decisions from their works The Righteous Mind and The Lucifer Effect respectively. I must mention Viktor Frankl, an existential psychologist who wrote Man’s Search for Meaning. He was crucial in my understanding of how suffering is an inseparable part of life and one must cultivate a purpose to bear it, along with his teachings that those without a deeper meaning distract themselves with pleasure. I also have an extensive history with philosophy, and as such there are many philosophers who indirectly aided in the making of our world. Namely, Plato, as seen from the very first chapter; Fredrich Nietzsche, who is my personal favorite and taught me a surplus about nihilism, religion, and the ‘abyss’; Fyodor Dostoyevsky, who helped shape many of the characters such as Dr. Erikson; and finally, Immanual Kant, with his book Groundwork of the Metaphysics of Morals, which gave me an ethical baseline from which to work. Lastly, I would like to discuss my stylistic influences, mainly Franz Kafka. Some readers may know that The Trial was the initial spark for Don’t Say Cis, but his works inspired me beyond just that, I fell in love with Kafkaesque story telling. That is to say, I love writing absurd, surreal, fast paced narratives which hide a wealth of knowledge and meaning. H.G. Wells is also a notable influence creatively and stylistically. You may notice our biggest influences were not dystopian works nor dystopian authors, this is simply because the themes in this novel were drastically different than typically observed in the genre.

Finally, what message do you hope readers will take away from "Don't Say Cis" regarding the future of society and the importance of preserving intellectual diversity and free speech?

Deyo: When our readers see what happens to the family in the story, we want them to feel that concern and that loss of hope that is experienced through our characters. We also want them to see the dangers of letting ourselves enjoy the cages we’re placed in. For our protagonists, they are doomed as soon as they set foot in this dystopia, but that doesn’t mean we’re necessarily doomed right here right now. Ideally, if someone reads our book, in a perfect world, what they’d walk away saying is that ‘there is serious dangers here that I can see seeping through in my life today, but that doesn’t mean I can’t do something and actively fight against that in hopes of creating a better world.’ What you’ve learned and believe is incredibly important and you should be able to express that freely, and so there’s danger in forced tolerance. Theres also danger in trying to fill the void left by a lack of purpose with hedonistic acts. Hopefully the reader will consider the bigger picture and be able to question what is truly virtuous and how to fight against a monster too big to defeat. To do this, with or without religion, it is important to recognize the meaning of your life, and if you are struggling to do so, Hunter has put an article link in the book as a great resource. Overall, we believe there is a trend of living life meaninglessly, and preserving free speech is our way of always having a means to critique such philosophy.

Most importantly, I want the readers to walk away entertained. Even if there are disagreements in the foundation of philosophy, that’s more than okay. I hope then that the reader is able to entertain the thought and not force themselves to adopt it, but by all else we explore in the novel I hope they enjoy the experience. When it comes down to it, if we envisioned a utopia that was opposite to this dystopia, we would see some truly freeing experiences, where we can talk amongst each other and disagree without any further quarrels. Where we could all express our learnings about this crazy life more openly.