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Tuesday, May 29, 2018

Social Justice Quickies (The Mailbox)

I might as well just admit that a bee got in my bonnet last week and wrap the whole thing week up with some social justice themed packing tape. (In a week without 20+ hours of my nannying gig, this would have gone up last Friday and actually been TIED to the week.)

G.S.S. asks:

Honestly, where do you draw the line on the art/artist divide?

I tried to ask a follow up about the language here, but I never heard back. So I'm not sure if G.S.S. meant some sort of universal "you" or me personally. The "honestly" makes me think it's probably the former, and this is a bit of a back-of-hand-on-forehead question, but maybe not.

Short answer: you got me. I can't even figure out my own line most days, never mind worrying about finding it for other people. I find this is an intensely personal decision for every person. And while I've seen friendships fall apart over folks who basically demanded that someone refuse to like an artist, a lot of times a fan really just needs to be willing to hear that something they like might have been made by some stripe of bigot and not be shitty about denying that.

Pretty much all artists are human and all humans are problematic in some way or another. The types of harm, the degree of harm, the length of time from harm, whether they apologized or doubled down, and how they conduct themselves currently, including very often if they're no longer alive to draw royalties. And frankly if it's a sideline thing they messed up that one time or a total "cause" for them. Plus where and when we're partaking of the media. How many other people are involved in the production. Cultural relevance, how much someone likes the media, and their engagement with the issue the artist is shitty about comes up in their calculus as well. A lot of people will consume art and entertainment (particularly cultural phenomenon media) that engages with one social issue despite the fact that the artist might be problematic about other social issues. Most artists are not intersectional, and they've had a lifetime of developing a thick skin to criticism.

It's a very different thing to buy a new copy of a John C Wright book knowing he is literally going to take that money and use it to fuel homophobia than it is to watch Jonnie Depp and an all star cast on Netflix or to borrow a friend's copy of Ender's Game because you want to understand one of the foundational touchstones of modern science fiction (but borrowing it because at the same time you want to make sure Orson Scott Card never sees another dime for his violent homophobia). Which is different from reading Roald Dahl to a kid even though he was an outspoken anti-semite. Or to listen to the Beatles knowing that John Lennon was violent towards women....but is also dead.  Or to watch Glengarry Glen Ross knowing Mamet has embraced some pretty dramatic Islamophobia.

A lot of contentious conversations about art/artist divide could probably be avoided if people basically didn't say "I like this, and thus neither it nor its creator can possibly have done anything wrong."

Mark asks:

I don't understand how we're supposed to include all these other races, but then when we do we just get criticized for portraying them wrong, and if we do get it right it's appropriation. It's like we're going to get slammed no matter what. Why don't we just write whatever we want, and anyone who complains can go write their own book.

[Note, I added a little more of this question since people seemed to think it was in good faith.]

Come on! Grow up, Mark. Quit acting like you're the poor oppressed writer because you have to put some work into characterization. If you come to the table in good faith and care about your portrayals, this is not that hard.

I'm exactly the wrong person to ask about this since I walk down the street and people never know my mom's mom's name is Rosencrantz, so I'm going to drop a couple of bits of my own insight on you and then scoot you on to get some feedback from those who aren't ostensibly white and raised as a white atheist in the US.

Mostly though, in case you were wondering, this is exactly incorrect.

  1. No ethnic group is a monolith, so there is no rule that you can follow, and no way to please everyone. (I have two friends, both from India, both who live in the US, and they have exactly opposite opinions on the subject of white people doing yoga.) No celestial being is going to descend down a shaft of light and say "You have done your due diligence, my great and precious child. Everyone who complains now is just being a choadmonkey wanker." Some will be fine so long as you don't reduce them to an offensive stereotype. Some will have an incredibly nuanced view about representation that doesn't have a problem until/unless you are profiting off some sort of cultural exploitation for which credit is not given but also a major problem if you try to place a white character into a story about people who aren't white with them as a central character or savior. A few (very few) will take umbrage if you aren't completely essentialist and never use a character that isn't basically just like you as a focalizer. You just have to listen. And then you have to make a judgement call that balances what you've heard and your artistic vision. And then get ready to hear criticism about if and where you got it wrong. But assuming the whole of an entire culture has gotten together and voted in committee on The One True Way™ they should be represented is actually pretty ridiculous. 
  2. A lot of people don't have set rules on some flow chart on their living room wall that they just consult. They're going to give it the sniff test. And in the sniff test your empathy and consideration in avoiding the mistakes of misrepresentation will go a long way.
  3. Having a character from X race is a lot different than making your story about the struggles of that race. There's a difference between including representation in YOUR stories and taking up space in other people's stories––particularly their CULTURAL stories. There's a difference between your X race character being a trope and them being a nuanced character.
  4. Do your homework. Don't be a stranger. Research. While you can't tell any story you want from any perspective, lot of this stuff is a little bit plastic and it will bend more your way if you get it right. Look at Jeffery Eugenides (seriously, you should look at him). 
  5. If you blow off the concerns of other groups, expect to be treated exactly as if you blew off the concerns of other groups.
  6. Pay more attention to this issue. Right now you're about 95% wrong about why people get upset and what their complaint is. You sound more like someone trying to describe feminism who has only ever heard about feminism from Men's Rights Activists who blame it for everything including the social effects of misogyny.
  7. Power dynamics matter. People might be annoyed if you base your comic book movie on Norse mythology and then get it wrong, but they probably won't consider your behavior low-key oppressive. Exactly the opposite will happen if you base it on African religions which were systematically wiped out and often used as justifications for violent Christian colonization. 
  8. Plan on including a sensitivity read. Just factor it into your editor budget. Pay them. Hire someone capable (from the group in question if you can). Don't blow off their input.
  9. Pick up Writing the Other. Read it. Twice.
  10. Don't act like you're the victim of censorship. No one is going to stop you from writing whatever you want. You're basically making the decision whether to give a shit about it or not. Persecution complexes are not a good look.

Chad (no, I'm not kidding) asks:

Why are so many writers such libt*rds? (Note: Chad actually included the slur. I'm the one who censored it. Chad also went on to lament all how every writer he once loved has become a "SJW" today and all his favorite authors have "sold out," but I'm not going to subject you to the entire two page screed. Suffice to say that Chad thought Stephen King had basically done a Robert the Bruce at Falkirk with a tweet about economic inequality.)

My reply:

Really maybe you should just stick to Tom Clancy novels or something if this is going to be so hard on you.

I assume your question is why authors and creative writers tend to join other artists and creatives in generally being skewed statistically to the political left. But I have to be completely honest, when you use a word like the one in your question, my initial reaction is that probably MOST OF EARTH is to the political left of you and you've made the mistake of assuming you have a reasonable and rational moderate political opinion because you've managed to surround yourself with more of the same here in the United States. Naturally most artists will be liberal as far as you're concerned. So will most grocery store workers, fishmongers, or cheese makers.

Still, this is easier to answer than you might expect.

The existence of Breitbart or The Wall Street Journal kind of proves there's no liberal criteria for being a writer in the sense of "wordsmiths of some skill," so let's limit what we're talking about to the more creatively bent––writers who tend toward fiction and writers who count themselves as artists.

Here are the factors you are looking at:

1) Artists tend to be contrarian. They question many/most of the fundamental assumptions upon which their society is based. Modern anglophone artists are often at the vanguard of questioning social hierarchies, inequality, capitalism, monogamy, religion, gender binaries and norms, ethnocentricity, and we vs. they narratives. Many cut against the grain, wear funky clothes, live in warehouses or communes, and find work arounds to get most of their wants and needs met that are untraditional. The same thing that makes them an artist is why they experience the same moment as other people but walk away with something totally different.

2) Artists tend to reject many social norms. They learn early and often that polite society doesn't want them and so they return the favor. They often don't quite fit in with any group. They may get on with most groups (for a time), but there's often a one foot in/one foot out feel.

3) Artists tend to deeply appreciate other points of view, others' stories, and narratives and perspectives of people outside of their immediate "clan." They don't just tolerate them as long as there's no personal risk, but actively seek them out.

4) Artists tend to have massive wellsprings of empathy that they can't shut off. They see their fellow humans as deep and complicated beings and there is no class of humans they can easily dehumanize. They reject, and sometimes even struggle against "othering" narratives about different cultures. As such, at every time and place in history, artists tend to be right at the forefront of demanding social change of their culture's most contentious issues of inequality.

5) Artists tend to be comfortable with moral ambiguity, uncertainty, and paradox. Rather than thinking about people, events, or ideas as "good" or "bad" they see a complexity in which there are both. And mutually exclusive beliefs tend to trouble them less.

5) Artists tend to explore nuance. The complexity of issues is often even the subject of their art. Rejection of simple, social narratives is at the heart of much art.

Now this isn't a definitive checklist of either "side." (Trust me when I tell you that plenty of leftists are perfectly capable of shutting off their empathy when it comes to the "wrong" kinds of people, being moral absolutists when they think they're right, reductive thinking, or expunging nuance from a narrative that they want to be true.) There are plenty of authors churning out what is essentially libertarian and even conservative propaganda for any generalization to be on shaky ground right away. And being conservative doesn't preclude being a writer or having some of these characteristics, but they TEND to peel off that more rigid thought that is, by definition, conservative.

1 comment:

  1. It might be helpful to Mark to see that there is a huge difference between writing a story with characters from other groups and writing other groups' stories.

    SF about a Glasgow Roma woman who is human side of a first contact? Probably cool. Story about issues faced by Roma coming to Glasgow? Probably best leaving to someone jn that group. Black detective? With some references to racism in police? Awesome. Story about fighting racism to become black detective? Maybe not.


    But in either case - write characters, not stereotypes.

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