Grown by Tumblr, Fashioned by Destiny: A Slice of British Life
A young man's journey through a complicated life, in the age of the internet.
Things aren’t doing so hot in Britain right now–the country is weathering economic hardship under the austere grips of a conservative government as a shambled left struggles to reclaim power. To say that reckoning with Britain’s troubled past isn’t a priority, would be an understatement.
Razek is one such individual living through this turmoil. A young gay white man still running his trials through academia, he’s pacing his steps through the muddy trails of modern British life as best he could, even if stability is rather fleeting.
In his off-time, Razek’s main hobby is to play Destiny. “That’s pretty much my biggest hobby,” he says. “I occasionally write, but not so much these days–I found it very difficult to feel very creative as a side-effect of my depression which… sucks honestly. I miss being able to think properly.”
Depression is the beast that keeps lurking behind many’s heads, just as its existence is denied by those who swear no soul in old times has ever been ailed by emotional distress. Britain’s case was all-the-more interesting since it imparts upon the feeling of social progress — by relegating its monarchical charades to spectacle — but yet, it feels like a perfect fomenting ground for stigma given how conversations surrounding mental illness have been woefully repressed for decades.
“I think it’s a really mixed bag in England,” Razek says. “I feel like in some ways, we’re fairly progressive with the way that we handle mental health, but in other ways, it feels like there’s still a lot of pushback against it.”
Razek’s experience was best encapsulated by the tug of war within academia itself. One of his professors — her name Jenny — was completely understanding of his predicament and would extend as much assistance as needed for Razek to avert the pains of burnout. Another — her name Lesley — gives the impression of viewing depression as a generational phenomenon, assigning it often the label of laziness when her students crack under the weight of pressure. “I feel like that’s in a nutshell, the dynamic [of depression] in England. People think it’s just people being lazy, and other people are like, this is a real problem, and we gotta help and support people.”
More fortunate has been Razek’s experience with the healthcare system. “I’ve been really lucky with how I’ve been treated by my doctors–I haven’t felt like they disagreed with me at all,” he says. “As soon as I went to my doctor to get an opinion, they’re like “Yeah, this sounds like depression.” They officially diagnosed me, and then put me on some medication — we’ve been trying out different medications — and it’s been good? The waitlist for counseling is fairly long, so I actually instead opted to get that treatment from my college instead since the waitlist was much shorter. So we’re still trying to catch up in terms of support but where we are putting in some efforts, I wouldn’t say it’s something we’re neglecting.”
“I found it very difficult to feel very creative as a side-effect of my depression which… sucks honestly. I miss being able to think properly.”
The casual mention of waitlists warranted an inquiry about the current state of the NHS. Britain’s national healthcare arrangement has been under attack for not resembling its more privatized American counterpart enough, as it continues to be a target of austerity measures courtesy of the Tory government. “There’s not really much debate about the fact that the NHS in general is completely underfunded and understaffed, and it’s just really terrible,” Razek tells me. “It is entirely the fault of the conservative government–austerity has absolutely ruined the NHS […] The conservatives have been in power for the last what, 15–20 years nearly? And in that time, they could’ve done literally anything, but instead it’s a lot of cuts, and then there was that whole fiasco back in 2016 where it was like “Oh, we’re gonna leave the EU, and instead we’re gonna give all that money to the NHS” and that turned out to be a baldfaced lie. […] I really like our universal healthcare–that’s something that moving to America, I’m not thrilled about having to pay for.”
Future guest in the house of the yanks, it was interesting to probe Razek’s thoughts on the upcoming 2020 elections. Trump’s tenure in office made the political incompetence at the highest ranks of British government look like child’s play, so seeing where it could otherwise head as November inches ever closer is of relative importance to say the least.
“I’ve been fairly loosely following the election–I don’t really understand the way that their democratic system works. I know there’s a House, and there’s the Senate but the election process itself is kind of a mystery to me, I haven’t looked much into it,” Razek tells me, echoing a sentiment foreigners are all-too-familiar with. “I had really hoped that Bernie Sanders would win because he looked like he was just trying to help people, and he’s now in that position where he’s lost to someone who can’t even speak complete sentences, so…”
But politics isn’t all there is to a nation’s cultural makeup–when coming to America, Razek will have to contend with a major cultural shift from where he spent the bulk of his life. “That’s something I’ve thought a lot about–obviously my boyfriend is American, so if things go well — we keep being together for many many years — it’s likely I’ll move there,” he says. “It’s something I had to put some thought into […] Healthcare is one of the big things for me because I’ve seen so many stories of people being completely bankrupted by a single hospital visit. The fact that America is also the definition of late-stage capitalism […] that to me, is also…worrying. It essentially feels like corporations run the government rather than the people? And at least in England, I feel like the people have more input into what’s going on.”
Asked about what may soon be a permanent part of his past, Britain’s long history of homophobia couldn’t be left untouched. “This is something that… I have some mixed feelings about discussing simply because I feel I’m in an incredibly lucky position for myself. I have a family that supports completely who I am, and I’m incredibly thankful for that,” he tells me. “But to answer the core of the question, I guess England in my personal experience still has a lot of those older generational views.”
One such view consists of stalling the progress of trans rights advocacy in the UK. Now that much ground has been ceded to the rebuke of homophobia, challenging trans people’s rights to proper recognition has become the next front of conflict on the conservative agenda. “I consistently hear people in the country using certain slurs for transgender people,” Razek says. “A few years back before everyone moved around for university, college and stuff, I had this friend whose name was Cody. He’s a trans man, and he got a lot of that because we were in secondary school, [and] we were fairly young [then].”
But Razek holds out hope that this will soon be a distant thing of the past. “I feel like it’s shifting slowly, and I think at least from what I’ve noticed in the last 15 years or so, [it has] very much eased off, and there’s [now] a lot more acceptance going around,” he says. “England is a very strange place for that kind of thing at the moment where it feels very divided, and there are a lot of strong opinions on both sides, and I don’t know if I would feel safer in England or America. I feel like they might be on the same level, but I could not speak for America because I’ve never been there, [so] I don’t know the culture in-person.”
Recalling his boyfriend’s time in Britain, Razek’s experiences seemed to relay a sliver of what might be Britain’s hospitable future, topped off with an anecdote that casually revived my faith in the human race:
When my boyfriend visited me last year, we spent a week in London together, and I was quite nervous at the beginning about showing affection — like holding hands and all that — and as it got on, I felt more comfortable and I didn’t really feel like anyone was particularly aggressive towards me, or even paid attention to me to be honest. […] There was this one time in the tube, and it was — this is one of my favorite memories from the last fifteen years of my life — me and [my boyfriend] were on the tube, we were both pretty tired, it was 10 am and we’d been up all night and we were going somewhere — I think the Covent Garden — and he was so tired, he fell asleep, and was leaning against me, his head was on my shoulder, and there was this girl on the other side of the cart, and she just kinda looked at him and smiled, and I smiled back and it felt really… good to just feel comfortable and accepted.
Whereas it’s conceivable that displays of public queer affection would’ve otherwise been met with hostility, I ventured to ask Razek where he thinks that contempt comes from–his answer was plenty satisfactory. “As much as you’re right that there’s a lot of nastiness around, I think that a lot of people have genuinely good hearts, and are genuinely good people,” he says. “A lot of that hostility towards other people, I think that comes from a sense of self-insecurity and a fragile self-image–in our culture nowadays, it’s still fairly prevalent for the men to be told that you have to be a strong man, and you can’t be emotional and all that, and I think that kind of culture while it’s sort of being washed away now by the newer and more progressive “Be open with yourself” kind of movement being popularized nowadays, I think that it’s still there. It’s also got to do with the fact that a lot of people don’t really like to have their worldviews challenged, so anything that contradicts them, they might feel the need to lash out and attack.”
“England in my personal experience still has a lot of those older generational views.”
Part of that can be chalked up to alienation, which is forcing people of all stripes and colors to come out of the woodwork and atomize their communitarian identities along ideological extremities. In seeking a healthy substitute, Razek saw fit to create a Destiny 2 clan with an accompanying Discord server where all members can hang out, organize community nights where they can participate in group activities within the game, and bond around other neighboring interests along the way.
In fostering community, Razek places mutual respect for everyone’s identities high up on the ladder. “I think it’s really important for everyone to have a place where they feel like they’re accepted and they have friends, and that’s what I tried to do with our clan–I don’t want to alienate people, I don’t want to make them uncomfortable,” he tells me. “There was this group of people that I used to be fairly close friends with […] we added them to the clan because they were alright to hang around with, but then they started talking about how they believed that trans people had mental illnesses and they thought that being transgender is a mental illness and they needed help and all that kind of thing and that really set me off. […] You can’t just say that someone’s got a mental illness without having any kind of proof to back it up–there is a lot of evidence and a lot of support for [trans people’s validity], and I couldn’t accept them being here because they were holding those opinions.”
Razek understands the importance of curbing bigotry within, and it’s why he could not stomach the presence of transphobia in his own community. “I am intolerant of intolerance. That is what I’m intolerant of. If you just let people be, and chill, you’re welcome here,” he resolvingly says. “That’s something I really like about the internet in general–there is a lot of hate and vitriol on it, but, you can go out and find any community for anything that you’re interested in, and you’ll find someone else that’s also interested. You can’t do that in real life–at least not as successfully.”
The internet is to credit for why so many perspectives that had once been lying dormant, are now audible and impossible to ignore. “Without the internet, I don’t think I would have the opinions that I do, because as a young person, I was definitely on the path to being — for lack of a better term — a neckbeard and a not-so-good person,” Razek tells me. “I attribute a lot of that maybe not so much to the internet in general, but specifically Tumblr [around] 2013. […] I learned very quickly about tolerating other people and all that, and I’m very glad that I did.”
It isn’t for naught that so much of meme culture’s roots can be traced back to Tumblr–in its heyday, it very much assumed the role of a trend-setter in the internet culture space. Razek credits it for having instilled in him a deep understanding of trans people’s experiences and why they deserved to be treated on equal terms with their cis counterparts. “I had two lives on Tumblr,” he tells me as he lets out a chuckle. “The first life was from 2012 to 2014, and then the rest of it lasted until 2016. [In the] first [one] I just had a general blog where you follow people from fandoms that you like, and I think I had the right amount of exposure to a lot of openness and progressiveness where I learned a lot about transgender people, how to respect them and their pronouns, and understand what transgender people like to be called and be treated. It’s like, treat them like a normal person! That seems obvious in retrospect but as a younger person, I was like “But I don’t understand!” but now they’re just people, they’re just them!”
“I am intolerant of intolerance. That is what I’m intolerant of.”
As Tumblr eventually devolved into utter sectarian chaos, Razek was conscious about not emulating that zealousness of social justice advocacy, that it started becoming its own impediment. “I didn’t go as to hold really strong opinions. Like I know a lot of people who say things like “all cis people are scum” and I don’t like those kind of blanket statements on any group of people, so that’s where I found that really good balance,” he tells me. “I feel very open and tolerating of everyone, but I’m not like, extremely aggressive about it. I’m just chill, you know?”
How the name “Razek” came about was through his roleplaying escapades. “I had a roleplay blog for three years, and Razek was the name of my character that I roleplayed, and then I stopped and Razek just became me in the end.”
Much like how writers of fanfiction honed their skills on the pages of AO3, Razek developed his own sense of literary creativity through roleplay, but it’s also where insecurities about the quality of his writing started to creep into his own psyche. “I think I’m still not that great of a writer, but I think I developed a lot of that over that period of time, and gained a lot of self-awareness as well, but it’s also where the heart of my depression started,” he says. “I was feeling trapped in the ways that I was writing, so many people were jumping in and out, it was kind of confusing for 16/17 year old me, and then my education compounded with that because that was kind of a difficult time in my education as well.”
An interesting character in Razek’s ongoing journey of self-actualization is ‘CreeperMO’, otherwise known as just MO. “I met MO in 2016 — not on Tumblr directly — through a friend, they were dating at the time, and that’s where it kickstarted. So if they hadn’t been on Tumblr, I wouldn’t have followed an artist, and I wouldn’t even have cared about Destiny because that artist drew a lot of Destiny stuff and I was like “This looks interesting” so that’s kind of lead me here I guess.”
The haphazardness with which the internet seems to take us different directions is its defining characteristic–it turns out Razek’s knowledge of his boyfriend could have been just as fleeting. “I met my boyfriend through ‘Space Station 13’–it’s this extremely old game from 2003 [that’s a] 2D top-down role-playing [experience] on a multiplayer server,” he says. “I only played that game because I was in a Twitch stream, and they weren’t playing the game — nuh-uh — it was full of thousands of people and in the chat I saw for half-a-second someone say “You should play Space Station 13” and then I was gone. I was like “What’s that?” and I googled it, then started playing it, and I met [my boyfriend]. If I hadn’t been looking at the chat at that exact moment, I would not have met [him]. It is kinda wild.”
Such retrouvailles seem almost too opportune as if they were destined to be. I asked Razek whether that shook his doubt in free will as a concept–he delivered a firm answer, but confessed to the uncertainty of it all. “My reasoning for not believing in free will or not sure if I believe in free will, it comes down to the concept of tossing a coin–in a controlled environment, where you know every single factor, [between] its weight, how strong the gravity is, the wind speed and the resistance of the coin, you can accurately predict 100% of the time which way the coin is going to flip,” he says. “Because you know the starting conditions, you know the ending conditions–so in theory, if the universe started in a way such as the big bang, then it has maybe only one path it can take? But then there’s also the argument for quantum particles which come in and out of existence at random–so that could be free will. Just quantum events happening at random, disrupting the state of the universe. [It] tends towards an order of sorts–water flows downstream, stars orbit around in a galaxy, galaxies form super galaxy clusters…there’s an order to it, so you can kind of see that maybe there’s not as much free will as we think? But who knows, who truly knows. I don’t know. Only a fool thinks that they know everything.”
With that humbling note on the vastness of the heavens and our poor understanding of it all, it was only fit to talk about Razek’s current hobby, which is playing the looter-shooter Destiny. The franchise came to exist after long-time Microsoft collaborator Bungie — and creator of the cult classic Halo — departed to forge their own destiny, embarking on a multi-year journey to feed into the ever-bottoming well of content for an MMO whose praises for evolving the economic models of the gaming industry could not be sung high enough. But beneath the skins and the emotes, there’s a compelling core that keeps drawing Razek back in.
“I think, at the absolute core, it’s because Destiny as a game feels really good when it’s in a good place. Last year, Forsaken all throughout, that was fantastic–it felt so good. You were progressing, there were huge sweeping story moments, but there were also these interesting quests, raids, and you were doing all these new things,” he tells me. “There’s a lot of detail put into the way that your character controls, your abilities and how they synergize, the guns feel amazing, and some of the [exotic gear is] really interesting.”
But what sets Destiny apart from everything else according to Razek, is the sheer artistic wherewithal that goes into creating its every crevice, a lush presence of complex and interesting lore, married with impeccable gameplay craftsmanship by the pioneers of multiplayer — and especially co-op — first-person shooters. “It is probably one of the most beautiful games I’ve ever played,” he says. “The Dreaming City looks fantastic, the Hive areas are so decrepit and everywhere just feels like it’s been paid attention to. […] My boyfriend for my birthday last year bought me the first volume of the Grimoire, which is a collection of stories from Destiny’s lore, and it’s really interesting and really good. I like learning about all this history that’s gone on since the Golden Age–there’s some really good writing behind Destiny, and it’s a shame that doesn’t always make itself known because [of occasional] dodgy dialogue.”
One of Destiny’s ongoing moral disputes is whether humanity was justified in wielding the power of the Traveler — an extraterrestrial entity that has allowed them to fast track the pace of technological progress — treading on the verge of extinction more-than-once as they keep fending off threats from outside of the solar system. When that was taken away in the ‘Red War’ storyline, everyone became mere shells of their old, technologically-primitive selves–the parallels between that and how the coronavirus grinded the pace of modern life to a halt by forcing us to helplessly stay inside are readily apparent.
“That is an interesting angle that I hadn’t really actually considered before,” Razek told me. “I think you might be right, where we’re all these powerful gods, but then the Red War [happens], [it] takes away the power, then we’re just normal people, everything goes crazy, and people don’t know how to plan or how to deal. There’s definitely some parallels there, where if normality is slightly disrupted, everything goes all kinds of [insane].”
Pivoting from “Destiny” the game to the concept, I wondered what Razek thinks the future holds for him. “Sometimes when I get in some bad spaces, I think about how I don’t know if I can take another thirty or fourty years of existing, and then other times I am terrified of the thought of not existing at all. I don’t like the idea of dying–that’s not a good thing, and when it is my time, I’m not gonna go out peacefully, I’m gonna go out kicking and screaming,” he soberingly confessed. “My current plan is [to] get into web development, have the skills to build a career where I can work very flexibly, and move in with [my boyfriend] at some point. […] I just want to be happy, and I can be there because when I’m with [my boyfriend] I am happy. It’s just that sometimes my own brain works against me, and it’s difficult to see what I think.”
Before concluding the interview, I asked Razek what are some comfort foods that keep his mental state at bay in these trying times. “Recently I found myself going to Bon Appetit because there’s something really nice about the personalities and the casualness [of it all], and I’m also learning about cooking while I’m doing it, which is nice. There’s something really wholesome and kind about that, that I need sometimes,” he says. “I [also] find an immense amount of comfort in music, and I think everyone has their own music that makes them feel better. Mine is specifically Florence + The Machine–there is something about her and her music, that just feels so emotionally and spiritually profound and I’m not a spiritual person, I’m not a religious person, but her music just makes me feel a lot of those strong emotions and listening to her singing sometimes it’s [as if] she’s singing directly at me.”
Baked in the oven of the internet, seasoned with an affinity for fandom, what came out the other end is an individual whose motto of empathy for the other has been hard to shake. Razek’s life, if unique in its own right, is symptomatic of a greater change happening in British society–even those once hoarding of their own privilege, are now awakening to the need for broader mutual solidarity. Such looks the palette of future generations, and it’s great cause to believe in a more inclusive and equitable society moving forward.