Notes from New Sodom

... rantings, ravings and ramblings of strange fiction writer, THE.... Sodomite Hal Duncan!!

Monday, March 21, 2011

Of Ginger Kids and Straw Men

Thought I'd link the SFWA blog thing again, since the last few days I've been responding (at my usual length) to a few comments there. So here's a wee quote, a parable of sorts, then some further thoughts:

Imagine a kindergarten teacher telling the children in her care a story every afternoon, a story of fabulous adventures by a group of kids in some wonderful Neverland. For characters in this tale there’s a little blond girl, just like one kid in the class, a pigtailed brunette just like another; across all these stories, in fact, the kindergarten teacher cunningly slips in a character based on each of the kids — except for one, the ginger kid.

In story after story, the blond, the brunette, this kid or that, takes charge in some adventure, plays the hero. In story after story, there’s not even a ginger kid present. Well, except when they’re there as a villain, all het up in unreason with that fiery redhead temper and all. This is because gingers, in this scenario, are an abject social group. This may well be how the ginger kid learns that gingers are an abject social group.

Initially, the kindergarten teacher excludes the ginger kid from hero status because she herself is prejudiced. Over time, she realises her attitude is unjust, but continues to exclude because the non-ginger kids are, she thinks, not ready for a ginger hero. Still, soon enough, she realises she’s being an apologist for prejudice at best, and so begins telling stories in which the ginger kid plays fiesty sidekick to the protagonist of the hour; that fiery redhead temper is quite useful for comic relief even. Her stories have “diversity” now — via a token ginger kid in a subsidiary role.

Finally one day, a substitute kindergarten teacher fills in; a redhead herself, she spots the kid at the back looking miserable and tells a story with a ginger kid as the actual hero. The redhead substitute starts filling in regularly, indeed, so eventually we get to the situation where the ginger kid is getting the odd story that speaks to them. Some stories are about the trials and tribulations of being a ginger kid, because the redhead substitute wants to reach out to the ginger kid and maybe give the others a sense of what it’s like. Other stories are not. Why not? Because there’s no reason a story with a ginger kid as protagonist can’t just be a fabulous adventure in some wonderful Neverland, no reason it can’t be about… the importance of honesty, say, or the folly of greed.

Either way, the ginger kid is only getting stories that speak to them from someone of the same abject group, someone equally Other. This doesn’t change the exclusion, simply compensates for it. The ginger kid is acutely aware that every story not told by the substitute is not for them. The more enjoyable those stories are, the deeper the rub. So when the redheaded substitute suggests the kindergarten teacher tell a story with a ginger kid playing hero, all she’s asking for is the reversal of that exclusion. It doesn’t mean more stories all about the trials and tribulations of being a ginger kid, just the odd story in which the ginger kid is protagonist rather than villain or sidekick.

Yes, if the kindergarten teacher then tells a story about how this ginger kid learned to overcome their fiery redhead temper, that may not go down well. Clichés are egregious at the best of times, and those that spring up as stereotypes born of abjection will downright infuriate some. It’s up to the kindergarten teacher whether she has the skills to avoid that, the gumption to try, or simply a stubborn integrity that refuses to carry on the exclusion.


Anyways, looking at that thread, it's particularly interesting (to me, at least) to see a statement that's fairly easy to boil down by paragraph to its three components -- 1) fiction is segregated; 2) this profoundly affects the abject among the readership; 3) their desire for that to be rectified is not to be confused with a demand for coerced thematics or coerced inclusion, or taken as a plea for cursory gestures of acceptance -- and to see how this is taken by some as an articulation of precisely what it's explicitly negating in that third point. One of the earliest comments is how misguided it is to try and shame people into changing the subject matter. Later on, it's guilt and checklists of character types that are my folly. Coerced thematics. Coerced inclusion.

Just more of the same old same old to many, I'm sure -- the automatic defenses of the non-abject kicking in with Straw Men at any challenge to privilege. But it strikes me that the non-abject quite often throw up such obfuscations specifically because they're imputing a particular spurious import to... a certain identity politics rhetoric they're not equipped to parse. If you're not conceptually equipped to parse a rhetoric, it is only an inchoate pile of bone-dry terms being dumped on you; chaff in your eyes, you can only impute spurious import, build these Straw Men from the itching tangle, and end up sabotaging the very discourse that would conceptually equip you, as the whole thing goes up in flames.

That third point becomes the most important, in a way. A statement like, "There’s no requirement on an author... an author’s thematics is their choice," is about as straight-to-the-point of as a fucking bullet in the forehead, but still the spurious import is imputed, proving that point. Demands for coerced thematics or for coerced inclusion are held up as Straw Men by readers who cannot comprehend a few basic sentences saying the desire for integration is not that and all because... those Straw Men are standing in the way, blocking the segregationist's view of the real agenda and the real situation it's born of.

Or at least they're set there to do that. Thing is, those Straw Men are built to deal with the identity politics rhetoric of prejudice and privilege, to invert calls for affirmative action -- more stories about X, more stories including X -- into calls for reverse discrimination. This simply does not work when one is speaking only of an end to segregation.

Part of my hope in advocating the segregation model* is that it might bypass that identity politics rhetoric then, identifying the problem and solution (which are, I think, segregation and integration, plain and simple) in a description as graspable as it is brutally blunt, graspable because it is brutally blunt. Not being sent to the back of the bus, motherfucker. It's not hard to get your head round.

Even where spurious import is imputed (as it is on that SFWA blog thread and undoubtedly will be elsewhere) the model offers simple responses to this and to the various common "But why?" and "But how?" and "But what?" protestations, responses that are themselves graspable and brutally blunt.

"But why is this even an issue?"

To identify the problem as segregation is to articulate it as a problem demonstrable in the cold hard facts of Hollywood's past and present treatment of the abject, in examples of films segregated by supply channel ("Falling for Grace",) films absent abject protagonists (see the Imdb list of 50 Top-Rated Sci-Fi movies,) films whitewashed in adaptations ("The Last Airbender",) and so on. Historical practice in SF can be pointed to, vis-a-vis Campbell's rejection of Delany's Nova, and current practice can be pointed to in the Romance genre. Flat denial based on arguments of "over-sensitivity" to proportions and flavours of representations is simply unsustainable.

"But how can I do all you ask?"

To identify the situation as segregation is to replace the rhetoric of prejudice and privilege, from which the non-abject will always infer personalised moral vilification for not doing things they deem impossible, with a model of systemic abjection that's graspable in its concrete symbols (buses and water fountains) and thereby so much harder to reject as "blaming and shaming." Where such inferences are offered as excuses for inaction (i.e. in a refusal to even try lest one suffer castigation,) the model automatically negates this risk, positing wholly aesthetic failure where the writer has not adequately counteracted the systemic abjection.**

"But what am I supposed to do?"

Answer: This is your choice.

This may just be the existentialist in me talking, but I think this is crucial. Protestations of this variety are something to be supremely wary of with segregationists. What presents itself as a cry for guidance is, in effect, an abrogation of ethical judgement. It is a surrender of ground that may come from a sincere feeling of helplessness, but it also gestures at that ground, asking, "What are we to build here?" As a request for moral wisdom, it is an invitation to the integrationist to assist in the building of Straw Men, to propose an agenda of affirmative action(s) that will almost certainly be inverted to an agenda of reverse discrimination. Why? The whole point of the Straw Men is to cast integration as moral coercion, an imposition of strictures.

This is where the Straw Men crumble though, if we articulate the situation as segregation and continue to do so, even in the face of such pleas.

To identify the agenda as integration is to identify it as ipso facto not an imposition of strictures but a removal of such. No action is required but the cessation of segregation, the end of the existing quotas. Yes, quotas. Articulating it as segregation turns that "quotas" argument on its head. The Rule of Three is a quota of two. Tokenism is a quota of one. And segregation in its purest form is a quota of zero -- zero members of an abject group allowed to sit at the front of the bus. Integration is the absence of these.

To sample from that comment thread again:

“It’s a state of segregation in which black, queer and members of other abject groups are not deemed to belong as main characters.”

So, we have a limitation on traits of main characters. And integration would be where black, queer and members of other abject groups do belong as main characters. So main characters could have those traits under integration, where segregation says they can’t. So we’re expanding the range of available traits for main characters.

“They may be allowed in as an exception if it “serves the plot” (c.f. your reviewer’s expectation of a reason for the character’s gayness.)”

So, we have a limitation on how traits are used if they are allowed in as exceptions. So integration would be where no such limitation is imposed. So traits don’t have to “serve the plot.” So plot doesn’t have to be defined by traits. So we’re expanding the range of plots available whenever traits are allowed in.

“They may be allowed in as Gay Best Friends or Magic Negros in service of the straight, white protagonist.”

So, we have a limitation of characters with certain traits to insulting clichés. So integration would be where no such limitation is imposed. So we’re expanding the range of character types available for characters with particular traits.

“There’s no requirement on an author to engage with the issues of race or sexuality or whatever as subjects; an author’s thematics is their choice.”

So, authors still get to write about anything they damn well please. In terms of subject matter, thematics, I explicitly reject any notion that I want a greater focus on X, Y or Z.

Again, not being sent to the back of the bus. It's hard to not get your head around, if you know what I mean.


* By "model" I mean that I see this as a wholly accurate and literal description of the situation, not a comparison or analogy to the "actual" segregation of the US -- the buses and water fountains -- as if the situation has never existed elsewhere and elsewhen. Such a conceit is profoundly myopic in its US-centric view of historical abjection(s), and expediently so for those who would add a rose tint to their plain glass spectacles with a conceit that by taking down the signs over the water fountains we have solved the problem, abolished segregation. No, that was only one legally enforced form of segregation, and it is complacent to pretend that segregation perpetuated by non-legal mechanisms is somehow not segregation. The buses and water fountains of my description are figurative, for sure, but the model itself is not metaphoric. The positioning of characters is segregated. The supply channels of narrative are segregated. This is a state of segregation as actual as a bus in 1960s Alabama or a Jewish ghetto in the 1800s.

** Specific aesthetic failures of writers: basic segregation, where abject characters are excluded from the back of the bus; tokenism, where one (and only one) abject character has been allowed to sit at the front of the bus and is notably behind non-abject characters; subordinate stereotypes, where token abject characters are allowed into a non-abject neighbourhood only to work as servants; cipherism, where abject characters are automatically relegated to a ghetto of stereotypical plot & thematics -- i.e. the story has been constructed around their abjection but constitutes an act of abjection. (This does not include systemic failures or reader failures such as the Rule of Three, where segregation by supply channel is enacted or called for on a product containing more than two abject characters of token status.)



Anonymous N. K. Jemisin said...

Very belated, Hal -- just surfacing from Deadline Hell and so only now catching up with this.

I think you're right in that it's time to change up the rhetoric of privilege, since the Straw Men are so quickly and readily deployed to attack that rhetoric. Always sensible to change tactics when the current ones hit a plateau. But I don't think the privilege rhetoric can be discarded altogether. I do believe that rhetoric is an advancement over the rhetoric of segregation, because as you point out -- the latter is brutally simplistic, and the situation is not. There's nuance here, in particularly that of intersection, and there's value in the examination of power. And don't forget -- back in the Sixties when segregation was law and expectation in much of the colonized world, Straw Men and other tactics existed to attack that, too. Which is one reason why, in King's Letter from a Birmingham Jail, we see the familiar outlines of privilege rhetoric, because some of what he had to fight was not just segregation, but the drag and damage inflicted by so-called allies, and those with colonized/collaborator mindsets.

That said, I agree with you -- when dealing with someone who's not equipped to handle the more advanced (hmm. complex/nuanced?) language, the simpler/brutal language is more useful. And I will be adopting it more often myself.

12:36 am  

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