January 30, 2010
Let's Talk About Political Correctness!
*Note that though this post was prompted by a bad review on one of my books, it's not about the bad review. I've had many and mostly they don't bother me. Besides which, it's the job of readers to like or dislike books. It's about the "reasoning" or lack thereof behind it, including the mental binds of political correctness or its reverse.*
I confess of all my various sins - extremist positions, hot-headed eruptions, inability to understand other people's qualms... I'm sure there are more, beyond my loving-kindness and giving disposition, of course ;-) - the only thing I've never been accused of, or never credibly, was political correctness.
The reviews seem to be mostly based on race. This obsession is something I don't understand. Yeah, I realize there are all kinds of issues and abilities that are hereditary (though I'm getting a little tired of psychologists coming out with 'it's all hereditary' books. This will probably be the subject of another rant, later.) Some of them might or might not correlate to skin color. (I rather doubt they do.) They might - and often do - correlate to specific populations that have interbred for a long time. Thus nationalities and subgroups within nationalities might have a character. They might have some characteristics, as a whole. I'm fond of saying "Stereotypes exist for a reason" when I fly off in a rage or when I'm extremely late for anything.
However, human beings are not the average of their group. They are individuals and fall along a continuum. Race means very little to any given individual. Culture does. (And no, don't confuse the two, or I will be angry and you don't want that.) Racial characteristics are inherited genetically. Culture is passed on by learning. Dysfunctional cultures are perpetuated by being taught to each and every new generation. They are extremely hard to break because to do so requires that adults change their minds and let go of national/tribal pride.
Political correctness deliberately - IMHO - conflates race and culture so you can't point at cultures as dysfunctional and so that anyone criticizing a foreign culture can be called racist. This is nonsense. If I adopted a two year old from Haiti tomorrow (which I'd do in a heartbeat if there were a way to do it quickly and at a cost we could afford) he or she would likely grow up to be a science-fiction geek, with an interest in writing or music or art. Impossible not to be in this household. He or she would know everything about science fiction conventions and be familiar with people wearing Spock ears. People carrying magic wands would not even begin to worry him or her. Voodoo, otoh, would be a shock when encountered because memories - if any - would be long gone. He or she would speak English, not the peculiar French of the isle. And though he or she might have - would have! - the natural bend for math or science or literature, or whatever of his or her biological parents, this could be - and often is - molded and changed by living with an adoptive family . I know enough dyslexic writers and scientists who work really hard at their math to know natural ability is only part of the picture.
Anyway, imagine my surprise - gentle readers :-) - when I found out I was being accused of political correctness because the "villains" in the book are all British and the man behind the African "bad guys" is British.
First, let me point out that any book - any - in which all the good guys were white (and if anyone bothers reading that book to the end, the people who appear like bad guys at the beginning, or at least seriously flawed heroes, are in the end the good guys) and the ultimate bad guys were black would not be published. Well, not unless I found a white supremacist press. But BEYOND THAT, it wouldn't be RIGHT.
How wouldn't be it right, you ask. Ah. I'll tell you. It wouldn't be right because it ignores the complex and often inside- out relationship of colonizer and colonized.
I know it has become - of recent years - a fashion on the (mostly academic) left to blame every backward habit, every bad trait, every horrible behavior on the part of cultures that were once colonized (though, my dears, in the "left" [by which - my fitting with neither right nor left -- you must understand IN THIS POST I mean those who swallowed old Soviet agitprop and have yet to purge it from their system] this means something very specific that has nothing to do with having been physically colonized) on the evil western colonizers. This justification is as specious as is the definition of "colonized." Because, my friends, you don't have to go very far back in time to realize EVERY country on Earth was colonized at some point. I have yet to hear Brits blame their ills on those evil Roman occupiers. (I'm not saying it never happened. I've met some Celt supremacists. I am, after all, in Science Fiction and Fantasy.) However, the Politically Correct Left has simplified this by simply claiming that every dark skinned person was ipso-facto colonized and suffering from oppression at the hands of vile Westerners. (This ubiquitous quality of Western culture that can oppress people it barely touched, is like the "influences" causing all all womyn to be "oppressed" even those who by virtue of birth, place or temperament have stomped on male... necks their entire lives.)
(I confess this presents me with somewhat of a quandary, being olive skinned and tanning at the least provocation. Am I half-oppressed, half-oppressor? Half evil, half on the side of angels? It keeps me up at night, it does.)
Which I suppose is why no sane person would write a story set in the British Empire, (much less a fat-book trilogy). Even in a parallel, magic-operated British Empire. And if someone did, she would take great care to put it at the level of pablum, so that the very mis-educated children of our mass-education system would not have a knee jerk reaction to it. Because, like people artists love to mock, these readers don't know history, but they know what is politically incorrect.
However, sanity is another vice I've never been accused of.
I confess - having struggled to portray the relationship of colonization accurately - I expected attacks from the left. Not the right. Ah well, I always surprise myself.
How this series first came to me was under the form of an old-style exploration story. Bwana does Africa. Whatever you want to call it. I enjoyed those greatly at the age of eight or so and thought they needed a fantasy redo modernized for the current age.
So I looked at the facts of colonization. Spent years immersing myself in them.
First of all let's dispose of the left's favorite lie that colonization has something to do with skin color. Colonization - like slavery, dearies - is something humans do. Humans who are stronger and or more numerous than their neighbors will take over their neighbors and colonize them/enslave them/despoil them. If you want to know if you are a colonialist in disguise, check your DNA and whether you're breathing. Are you a homo sapiens? And are you breathing? Then you're a colonialist and slaver in potentia. (It could be argued this has given human beings an edge, since less-efficient/knowledgeable cultures get absorbed by higher functioning stronger ones and their children are brought up in that culture. I won't make that argument. I haven't studied the matter enough to have an opinion.)
When Europe started exploring the world, they were slightly - slightly - ahead of their neighbors in technology. Gun powder admittedly gave them an edge in confrontation. However - in my opinion - what gave them the greater edge is that they had left tribalism behind. When reading about the confrontation of Zulus and Europeans - say - which I did, ad nauseam (literally) I came to the conclusion part of the issue is that the Zulus were thinking of Europeans in terms of an invading tribe. Tribes are limited in number and often knit by familial/clan ties. If you kill a first party of colonizers, the tribe will suffer severe losses and withdraw. Therefore the first strategy of Zulus (and Native Americans, and any other society still mired in tribalism) was to exterminate the first colonizing party and to do it in a way that would have put fear in the hearts of any of their fellow tribesmen... if they'd come from a tribal culture. This miscalculation cost them dearly because the Europeans had gone well beyond this strategy and viewed the massacres as proof that they were facing less-than-human savages and also because Europeans, of course, were not divided by tribes. They united the power of the nation-state and utterly crushed the tribal cultures.
So you could say sociological advances conquered the world... Which meant I had to go way back, to the time when Europe was divided in little nations that were only slightly better than tribes, and implicate the founder of what many would call modern monarchy. Yep. Charlemagne. I made Charlemagne have his emissary steal the eye of the goddess (You knew that would come up, right? I never claimed to have class) and use it to seal all the magical power in Europe (which until that time had been divided in very small amounts among everyone) and bind it to his family line. This made it so - of course - that the power passed through the lines of kings (and their bastards) and encouraged the unity of nations behind the most powerful magician kings.
Would this have resulted in the nations we have today? Probably not. But the limits of narrative world building dictates that the time and the geography be recognizable. So, fast forward to the Victorian era. Because kings sleep around, there are lots of people in Europe with enough magical power to join together and start magical "factories." Textile mills, intercontinental flying carpets, all run by the power of magic.
Queen Victoria is alarmed by this and sends people to find the other eye of the goddess so that they can bind power to HER line this time (and her line of course will behave better, etc.)
Opposing her are the Hyena Men - a band of powerful African magicians who are trying to find the ruby to bind the power to Africa and themselves. So far, note that all the characters in play are tainted. They all want the same thing. Power. There is another European faction trying to steal the ruby for its purposes, which are supposedly (snort) altruistic.
I don't want to give any spoilers, but the Amazon review reveals that the ultimate villain behind the African "villains" is white. So, we'll go with this. First, there is a reason for that particular villain to be the villain. Anyone who has read it can probably raise his or her hand and tell me what it is. It's called "unity of narrative." But beyond that...
Africa - or as a famous science fiction writer who loves the continent once called it "poor f*cked up Africa"(and yes, he got crucified for it) - cannot blame all its problems on colonialism. Even those it can are worsened by the problems it has refused to deal with. These problems have nothing to do with race. They are human problems that linger in Africa (and other places, but particularly Africa), where they might have been perpetuated or worsened by geography and other conditions. (I wouldn't know.) And the chief of them is still and always tribalism.
HOWEVER the west can look in the mirror for SOME of the problems of Africa. And by the west we mean you, intellectuals and politically correct mavens, Lords of "social justice" and other illogical and philologically incorrect terms. (It's a matter for another post, but all justice is - must be - personal.) Granted, many of these ills were caused by your now dead intellectual ancestors, but you should stop perpetuating them already.
A dear friend of mine, whose name I won't mention in this article because if I'm going to get flamed I'll do it on my own, once explained to me the problem of leftist theories "anti-colonialism", "native liberation" and "multiculturalism" in Africa is that it keys in wonderfully with the despoiled and deposed tribal "nobility." They used to be the Lords. Many of them still remember it - it wasn't so long ago grandparents passed stories to grandchildren - and still hate the Europeans who came in and took the power from their fists. Granted, the Europeans took their place at the top of the pyramid. But also granted - and this is one of the benefits (yes, you heard it, benefits) of colonization - their rule was less brutal and - at least for most Western countries - the newfangled thing about human equality and advancement through merit percolated, to some extent, to these societies. The problem is totalitarian socialism/communism takes these children of the nobility and teaches them to rule over the masses "for the proles own good." It teaches them that they are victims and have the right not only to throw out westerners (their problem, if strong enough to do it) but also to oppress their fellow tribesmen/countrymen in the name of social justice and equality. And please, put the hatchet down. Zimbabwe is a good example of this, but Africa is full of less severe ones. It's the old elites, back under another name. (Yes, graduates of the Patrice Lumumba University in Moscow, [Peoples' Friendship University of Russia in Moscow, formerly Patrice Lumumba Peoples Friendship University of Russia in Moscow] I'm looking at you. You should know better. You're not children or mentally deficient.)
Of course, the Western Powers get out of it satellite states, puppet states and colonies by any other name. (No? Ever wonder how many Cubans ended up in the former Portuguese colonies in Africa? As enforcers and shock troops?) This is the second wave of Western colonialism. The first might have had the mitigating factors (there was a lot to mitigate for. Trust me. If you don't believe me look up King Leopold and Belgium. Not saying - again - this is race based. It's what human beings do. It's good to know the range of our species and struggle to suppress it in ourselves. It's not good to attach it to skin color or even long-dead ancestors) of bringing some civilizational ideas/concepts to Africa: reading, writing, states that transcend tribalism, better agricultural techniques and other improvements that varied with place and people. The second wave, however, brought ideology. Largely oppressive ideology (why didn't the Western representative governments, you ask, bring in people to the West to learn about capitalism and democracy? Well, they did. I mean, they did bring in people to our great universities. Did they learn about capitalism, democracy, equality and that engine of human prosperity known as a free marketplace? Oh, COME ON, do you have to ask me? Remember, Universities. Right. "Social justice" and "Western oppression" it was. [Possibly more soft pedaled than in Patrice Lumumba's in Moscow. POSSIBLY.]) It is human too - so much the worse - to embrace ideologies which make one's tribe, people, color, interestingly victimized, helpless and above all "noble."
Armed with this, I created my world. And armed with this - though the Victorian age is a little early for this - I tried to reflect this second wave of colonialism by having the African independence - the almost African supremacy - movement being manipulated behind the scenes by a white potentate looking for... power and manipulating the native sense of injury and victimhood to obtain it.
And I expected to be crucified for it. I expected to be crucified because I show: natives imbued with a sense of tribalism, narrow minded about even other tribes; African racism, (because again, graduates of Patrice Lumumba, the idea that Africans can't be racist is b*llshit. Do you have a pulse? Are you homo-sapiens? Right), self-serving Africans (one of whom is more than a little nutty), and - on the outside - a (heaven help me) "liberated" Masai woman (though I have so many begs in her history it's not even funny.) I expected to be crucified because the Westerners are shown in the end to be in no more error than the Africans. The end of this novel could be classified as "all are punished." I expected to be crucified because in the end the chosen heroes to continue the adventure are both white. If I expected any screams of outrage from the more traditional people, it was about the interracial marriage.
Alas, my expectations were destined to be disappointed. It's not that my opinions pretty much offend EVERYONE, it is that I am forever destined to be surprised by whom they offend and why. Perhaps I SHOULD cave in to political correctness and treat things in a textbook way so no one will get confused. Except then I will get bored and stop writing anyway. Except that I get bored reading much of what's published - for or against - under the pall of this PC doctrine.
This is not to say that readers might not with good reason hate Heart of Light. It's not my favorite book in that series, mostly because I started it ten years before I finished it and because I can see all the places the story was cut and glued together. (When I started it, I couldn't carry a plot in a bucket.) If I had to do it over I'd cut out a good bit of background and history and hide it behind a romance I'd make far more fast-paced. Unfortunately I don't know if it would make it any better. Of the books in that series my favorite is Soul of Fire.
It's just to say that the idea of the book being "Politically Correct" - and of my being attacked for this supposed sin - is so strange (except, maybe, for the liberated Masai girl. But a traditional one would be boring) that it left me confused and annoyed at people using this sort of short-hand to judge books and it prompted me to think again over all of these issues. Thereby causing this article to be written. Which will doubtlessly be called politically correct. And annoy everyone again.
Or perhaps this time I'll be very lucky and I'll be accused of being politically incorrect and the right (left - whatever - you know who you are. Yes, Patrice Lumumba graduates, I am once more looking at you) side will come after me. Go on. At least I won't be bored.
Let's talk about Political Correctness. And then let's dispose of the concept and the mental gags it places on thought, and the knee jerk reactions one way or another, and start using our brains to think about history and culture -- beyond race and logically. Look at everything you read, and even if the message seems obvious, question it. Don't use facile short cuts to come to conclusions. Don't flinch from something because it touches race or culture. Really look at it. Come on, you can do it - at least if you're homo sapiens. And have a pulse.
UPDATE: Thank you Glenn Reynolds, and Welcome Instapundit readers!
posted by Sarah on 01.30.10 at 02:33 PM
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