Saturday, February 24, 2018
"What will happen to us?"
"You will have the chance to live under the Galance Ideal. If you do, what happens to you will soon be in your hands."
"And if we don't?"
"You made the death lunge against us, and you missed," was all she said.
~ A Davoranjan Ranger to Silence Terlais
The term political correctness has, quite unhelpfully, become politically loaded over the years. Actually it has always been politically loaded, but the specific meaning has transformed over time, and is especially problematic today. Most commonly nowadays, it is only used by conservatives who want to delegitimize the left as a bastion of authoritarianism and censorship, and want to take society back to a time when bigotry was popular and accepted. The reason that it's so unhelpful that this term has degenerated into partisan use is that "political correctness" is a real phenomenon with real influences on the norms and customs of a society—including on how I approach political and ethical issues in The Curious Tale. That's what I'll be discussing this week.
Sorting Out the Terminology
First, however, I have to make clear what I'm actually talking about when I speak of "political correctness."
As a sociological phenomenon, political correctness is the exercise, voluntarily or through peer pressure or implicit legal force, of tactful restraint from any conduct, but especially language, that truthfully expresses the views of some individuals and communities but is deemed ethically unacceptable by society at large, usually (but not always) on grounds of being socially oppressive or derogatory to marginalized or persecuted classes of people.
That kind of political correctness is, I think, an honest and noble restraint, if nothing else because its absence leads to injustice, but also frequently because it promotes positive character development through thoughtfulness and the cultivation of self-discipline. We rarely hear the term political correctness in a positive context, but this is an exception.
However, this is not the definition of political correctness I'll be talking about today.
Nor am I talking about the popular right-wing version, which is an opportunistic caricature of the left at best, and psychotically delusional at worst.
Rather, the concept of political correctness I'll be discussing today is the one that the right wing routinely believes itself to be speaking of but rarely lives up to: excessive restraint compelled through social or legal pressure, with the effect of censoring valid language, customs, and ideas.
And specifically, I'll be speaking about the progressive instance of this. There are also moderate and conservative instances: The moderate form excessively pressures people against taking principled stands, against making waves and causing trouble, and against confrontation, while the conservative form excessively pressures people against criticizing conservative issues like Jesus, guns, racial incompatibility, sexual inequality, and so forth. Both the moderate and conservative forms do indeed exert significant effects on our social discourse, despite the fact that they are not generally talked about.
But it is the progressive instance that interests me, because that's the one that is relevant to my work. As a progressive myself and an infamously candid person I have no compunctions disregarding the moderate and conservative pressures in my self-expression, for I think the moderate position is foolish and disempowering, and I think conservative sacred cows like Christianity deserve a great deal of criticism. In contrast I do have to be considerate of, and interact with, the progressive pressure, and I even happen to give some credence to it from time to time, and therefore I have to make continual judgments about what amount of restraint is appropriate political correctness, and what is excessive and censors valid expression. These judgments, and the pressure itself, influence my thinking as a writer.
Exaggeration and Radicalism in Science Fiction & Fantasy
In science fiction and fantasy, storytellers have the luxury of exaggeration and radicalism—that is, of promoting ideas that would land us in a lot of trouble otherwise. Silence may be able to get away with killing a fool and coming across as ethically warranted, but if I recommended you do the same we could both end up in a lot of trouble. This extra trove of leeway available in fiction applies not only on hot-button issues like same-sex marriage, euthanasia, drugs, and the environment, but on issues that aren't as politicized too, like child emancipation, adherence to tradition, predatory personality types, and the relationship between order and liberty. The original Star Trek is emblematic of this. Some of its episodes had a truly radical message (at the time) that would never have won popular acceptance at face value, and usually wouldn't even have made it past the strict network censors of the day. Never mind the obvious stuff like messages of racial integration and harmony. Look deeper and you'll find the same thing in far greater abundance. For example, in the episode City on the Edge of Forever, Kirk deliberately allows an innocent bystander to be killed in an automobile crash. We nearly all agree with him and respect him for having the courage to make that hard decision. Yet, if that exact same situation played out in real life, without the benefit of fictionality or narrative insight, someone in Kirk's position could easily be sued, and could almost as easily face criminal charges. And, generally speaking, the public would be unsympathetic to him. Words like negligence, cowardice, and selfishness come to mind. Or consider pedophilia: It is one of a great many sexual kinks, intrinsically no less valid than any other, but it has the fatal flaw of being recognized (in the modern world at least) as inherently nonconsensual, traumatizing, and thus blatantly unethical. If my fat kink, or your BDSM kink, had the result of injuring children, we too would have to live lives of fear, repression, and self-loathing. The nuances of such a tragedy can be explored in fiction, whereas try having that conversation at the literal level and you will be instantly attacked as an apologist for "monsters" and tuned out from being taken seriously by anyone but intellectual friends who recognize that you're only interested in contemplating the topic and are not actually in league with Satan. Society has its own fatal flaw: Anything deemed sufficiently unacceptable by the people moves outside rational consideration and becomes a blind dogma. That's why politics as a whole is so puerile: The major factions don't think about what they hate. They just hate.
In sci-fi and fantasy we can speak very favorably about undemocratic societies, like monarchies. We can glorify those power structures, and validate them both explicitly an implicitly by speaking highly of them in the narrative and by showing their societies to be prosperous and happy. And concepts like cultural, racial, and speciary supremacy are so common that they almost go without notice. Look at My Little Pony, where the land has been ruled for over a thousand years by an unelected white demigod who is universally beloved by her physically smaller and weaker subjects. In real life, the profession of such sentiments would be derided as racism in the classic tradition, toxic enough to force opprobrium upon these ideas' supporters. It's the sort of shit bad enough to force CEOs of major companies to resign if they get found out supporting it.
With the right rhetoric and signaling, a sci-fi or fantasy character pre-identified as ethically "good" can do all sorts of dubious things and get away with it. They can give truth serums and make people talk against their will. They can use blackmail and extortion with impunity. They can kill and be praised for it. Sometimes they can even commit mass killings and be praised. They can violate convention, ignore the popular will, usurp power, change the law, violate the law—heroes do all this as a matter of routine. They can break up families, overthrow sacred and beloved traditions, steal and plunder—and audiences are right on board. Hell, in video games it's not uncommon to play a character who breaks into people's homes, smashes their property, and steals their money, or a character who kills innocent people and animals and loots their corpses without remorse. And there's little pushback for people who let their inhibitions down and express open admiration for villains like Sephiroth who, in the real world, could easily be compared with Hitler. In fiction, mass murder is a legitimate trope. In the real world, you can go to jail simply for spitting on somebody.
All of this can be (and is) classified as "politically incorrect." And, very gradually, political correctness is catching up, and storytelling norms and conventions are changing. These days a story is much more likely to garner criticism, and sometimes even a popular backlash, for being politically incorrect. I recently rewatched the movie Stargate, and it has that classic trope of a few privileged white males showing up to a society of primitive brown-skinned folk, playing God, being rewarded for it, and winning the (actually white) brown female's heart. That would all be a lot more controversial today. It could still get produced—which may not be true in ten years—but there would be a strong and vocal contingent of opinion calling out clueless, out of touch, and oppressive. Older content is grandfathered in and conveniently ignored, of course, to the extent the material is still culturally relevant and beloved—just look at Star Trek's treatment of females in the original series, for instance—and the stuff that isn't culturally relevant anymore deals with itself by becoming forgotten. Or go back and watch I Love Lucy. It's not sci-fi or fantasy, but you get my point: It's full of bigotry and classism. It's a great show, one of the greatest shows ever made, and it's still, at least in 2018, socially acceptable to enjoy stuff that wouldn't be appropriate today. But the new stuff isn't treated anywhere so leniently. Today's stuff has to reflect the realities of this era just as yesteryear's stuff was a product of times gone by. And the effect is that contemporary characters and situations are being written to be more an more politically correct.
Whether or not it's justifiable for this to be happening, it immediately has the effect of narrowing the spectrum of character personalities, behaviors, and language, as well as crimping the range of story events and developments, overall reducing imaginativeness and increasing ties to contemporary Western culture. It reduces exaggeration, reduces radicalism. It undercuts the free rein of art. It is, fundamentally, a threat to expression, even when it is valid, and certainly when it is not. That tension of a sometimes-necessary, easily-corrupted force is what compels my personal mindfulness on the matter. I can neither dismiss political correctness outright, nor can I embrace it unquestioningly. Its nature imposes consideration and reflection upon me, and also creates conflicts and arouses fears.
Good Ideas in the Hands of Bad People
Here's an interesting rule of thumb, and maybe it says something about me that you won't like: Every time Silence Terlais kills somebody, I think she's doing the right thing (with one exception that she herself also regrets), and I wish the real world were such that someone in her position here could take that correct action with all due impunity. TL;DR, I think killing is sometimes okay.
My characters do a whole lot of shit that, when push comes to shove, I agree with. My views on civil liberties include the conviction that most people need and want to be led, to submit to authority, and this flies in the face of progressive views about universal empowerment. My views on the concepts of privilege and intersectionality include, along with my general endorsement of their conceptual validity and their usefulness as tools in the pursuit of social justice, a subsection on my frustration that these concepts are nevertheless routinely misused by many of their greatest proponents, to censor, stifle, and divide people. "Big whoop, that's obvious," you might be thinking now, but to some of the most prominent voices in the progressive movement, if I'm going to make that allegation I might as well get dressed up in swastikas and declare my allegiance to the Führer, because that's how they'll perceive me. And that's ridiculous. That's ridiculous. They're far closer to tyranny and fanaticism than I am, but they use the antithetical language of freedom and equality.
When certain gestures and customs become de rigueur among one's ideological brethren, even the omission of these practices is a form of signaling. If I don't include, in my stories, my implicit or explicit allegiance to them, I become open to criticism. And because I care about the underlying issues, that becomes a serious political calculation for me.
Consider the feminist movement. You know that sexual equality is my top issue in the whole realm of human society. So when prominent voices come out and pervert feminism, for instance, by censuring male speech and disavowing all forms of knowledge other than firsthand experience, I can't just come out and declare my opposition to those ignorant ideas wherever I find them, because I have to weigh the value of winning that battle against the damage it would do to society's wider perception of feminism and thus to the entire movement for sexual equality. On one hand, corruption and ethical erosion inside the progressive movement is extremely dangerous, because if we are not standing for what's right, nobody is. On the other hand, feminism is under daily attack by men's rights activists, edgelords, the conservative movement, and many segments of popular entertainment, and if we do not defend and defend successfully against these attacks, female rights will contract, and everyone will be diminished for it. And most audiences are not particularly discriminating; they don't do "nuance." For anything divisive to them, they're looking for what side I'm on. So when I'm writing fiction, and sexism comes up in the setting, the issue of political correctness is actually a deeply complicated one for me.
And that's just one topic. This same dilemma plays out on countless others. At the end of the Prelude, Galavar, together with Sourros, carries out a great connation of the people of Davoranj. This entails a full exposure of Galavar's mind to each of the Davoranjans', and vice versa, with each of their minds exposed to him, whereupon, beyond the restraints of ego and emotion, the worldviews factor together: the better-reasoned ideas replicate themselves and the more poorly-reasoned ones are supplanted. Known in Gala as a mass mindwashing, and eventually known among the Resistance as the Extirpy—a word on par with "Holocaust"—this miraculous act of divinity changes the minds of millions of Davoranjans, and kills many others who aren't physically capable of enduring the process. In the real world, there's no question about it: Something like that would be universally condemned. It would be regarded as so horrifying, repulsive, and evil that it would become a new standard for calibrating the measure of evil. The thing is, I don't personally see it that way. My personal view of it is a mix between how Galavar and Silence see it. Galavar is in favor of it, full stop, and Silence's major objection to it isn't that it's evil but that it will homogenize the Davoranjan people and increase Gala's reliance on Sourros. (I should also note that, going into the mindwashing, neither of them are aware that there'll be a death toll, and the question of how their expectations clash with what ends up actually happening deserves its own conversation.) I think there's real merit to Galavar's use of the mass mindwashing. But the mass mindwashing is non-consensual, or at least it is initiated non-consensually. (We'll leave for another day the rather more advanced ethical conversation of whether and how consent can be granted after the fact.) And I'm fully aware that, if I came out and say, "Here's this non-consensual thing that was done to millions of people, and I think it was more or less a good idea," I'd be signaling my opposition to something that I actually fervently support: consent. Consent is not settled custom, even today. Consent is still a novel idea in many quarters, and many minds. To stand against it in fiction reinforces its detractors. And, so the question of how I present the mass mindwashing in the narrative is a very difficult one.
There's also the fact that, even when an ethical stance is not explicitly in danger, political correctness can reduce imagination. It's becoming less and less acceptable to write certain events and behaviors in fiction without contextualizing them with an "acceptable" moral color tone. Gala is imperialistic, for instance, and the work of Silence and her Handsel Band is susceptible to being dismissed as imperialist propaganda, brutally racist, etc., etc. I'm not particularly concerned about that kind of accusation, because it comes from people who need other people's ideas to validate their own, and I don't have much patience for or interest in that, but what does concern me is the common reader who may be peripherally exposed to that kind of thinking and will begin to see my work in that light. The general set of contemporary progressive sensibilities informs readers who may not be all that political themselves, and I have to be mindful of that when I think about adapting my work to its audience. How do I navigate these sensibilities? How do I present the material in a way that serves my artistic goals and satisfies my own ethical, political, and aesthetic needs? It's tricky.
Where Does It All Lead?
These hardships require a lot of energy and time. They add to the difficulty level of writing. At my worst, I am unable to prevent them from worsening my work, and either dilute my art or send the wrong signals politically. At my best, I succeed in sharing my art in a relatively pure form without triggering my audience the wrong way or undermining principles I cherish. These hardships are not an especially pleasant part of the writing process for me, and, were the magic wand mine to wave, I would dispense with them. But they are interesting to think about. I hope you've enjoyed reading about them.
That's all for this week. Join me next week when I talk about Sarah Kerrigan.
Until then, may your politics not blind you to the world of ideas.
O day and night, but this is wondrous strange!