My friend (and assistant editor at Orson Scott Card’s Intergalactic Medicine Show) Scott M. Roberts, posted this rather stunning piece of commentary to Facebook this morning. I’ve quoted him in blocks below, and added my own commentary. I’ve said some of these things in this space before. But I thought Scott’s wording was so spot-on and eloquent, I wanted to repeat them here — and add my own thoughts to his.
The more I hear the term “cultural sensitivity” lauded in the context of artistic expression, the more I’m reminded of the thousands of wailing mothers who annually strive to ban Huckleberry Finn from schools for using the n-word.
Speaking as a parent, I find myself constantly in a tug-o-war: how much of the world do I expose my daughter to, and how much of the world do I keep hidden? On the one hand I have a protective instinct (rooted culturally in my Utah LDS background) that is quite strong, and there have been many times when I’ve seen my daughter watch something on television or listen to something on the radio, and I’ve cringed. Do I really want my daughter to be seeing or listening to some of this stuff? She’s only 9 years old.
Just the same, what good does it do to shield her from reality? The world is not sanitized. She’s going to get an eyeful (or an earful) of life sooner or later. Hence my wife’s frequent assertion that it’s better to have our daughter exposed to some of these things while she is still in our orbit of influence, and we can provide context and, hopefully, guidance. An assertion with which I am almost always forced to agree. Not because I like it, but because it seems to be the truth.
Which isn’t to say that there’s no need for racial/cultural sensitivity. But there is a definite need within the speculative fiction community to take their sensitivity with a grain of salt. Or pepper. Or cumin, ginger, or really, any spice. (I prefer cayenne.) The current vocality sometimes seems to strive for worlds populated with impossibly fair-minded secular protagonists — inoffensive, liberated, sensitive protagonists whose obedience to modern cultural mores is strident and undeviating. Inevitably, the antagonists of worlds populated with such men, women, and children are stereotyped fat cat institutions — repressive governments, corrupt corporations, blind-minded religions.
I suspect part of the issue (as outlined above) is that many writers and editors believe that the purpose of “scientifiction” (to use Uncle Hugo’s old word) is to portray people — and the world around us — not as how we truly are, but as how we ought to be. According to a given editor’s or writer’s own assumptions, preferences, tastes, ideals, et cetera. Thus if the real world is too racist, we will create a future world that is un-racist. Or at least, where our un-racist protagonist(s) struggle against racist evil-doers. If the real world is sexist, we will again create a future world populated with un-sexist “good” people and sexist “bad” people. And so on, and so forth. All the deadly sins (ist and ism) will be clearly signposted and our heroes will know them well, and demonstrate proper fidelity to the un-sinful, un-ist, un-ism virtues of tolerance and sensitivity.
Let me hasten to add that I think modern cultural mores are absolutely wonderful. Liberty, equality, brotherhood, huzzah! I’m even wearing a red cap as I write this.
But I do not have that red cap pulled down over my eyes.
Cultural sensitivity, as praised by the modern vocality in the speculative fiction genre, is no substitute for truth. I have more respect for stories that stay true to the world they inhabit than I do for stories that stay true to the ideals of the author. In other words:
Give me Conan. Keep your John Galt.
Like Scott, I’ll be the first one to heartily support a society in which egalitarianism is championed. I am an equal opportunity guy who thinks a world where everyone can rise to the level of his or her ambitions, work ethic, and aptitudes is a worthy thing to strive for. Is this not the keystone principle of the United States? To free the human being from his or her “designated slot” in the old hierarchy? So that men and women may create and strive and work and invent as they please, building for themselves whatever kinds of lives they see fit?
But I agree with Scott: imposing blinders — for the false hope that somehow ignoring reality will make reality better match our desires — isn’t what science fiction is for. Or at least, this isn’t what science fiction is for when science fiction is firing on all cylinders. As my friend and mentor Mike Resnick has often told me, science fiction is not even necessarily about science, but about the human condition. And the human condition is a flawed thing, replete with bumps and bruises. Many of which may not be to our taste. Many of which may even make us recoil in shock or horror. To accurately portray this fallen state while also giving the reader bona fide heroes and heroines who accomplish laudable things despite themselves, is one of the great tricks of any good story. After all, Han Solo did shoot first. And he really was a scoundrel. A scoundrel who went on to help defeat the oppressive Empire because while the New Republicans had no love for smugglers, they did have common cause with Solo against a suffocating, conformist, crushing orthodoxy. Thus Solo is in many ways one of the more compelling and enjoyable heroes in the Star Wars saga precisely because he isn’t clean, pure, or righteous. He’s just a guy trying to make his way in the world. And he also happens to have a seedling of honor in his heart, which sprouts into a sapling by the time the third (sixth) movie has elapsed.
This isn’t a paen to gritty or shocking stories. This is a plea for the speculative fiction community to stop obsessing over race, sexuality, gender, and political affiliation and which author (and which characters) are on the right side of the dividing line between moral bankruptcy and sainthood. The obsession with correct political belief and expression in art is stultifying the genre as it is necessarily exclusive. We are losing our voice in artificial, forced homogeny posing as tolerance. Propaganda-disguised-as-story drives readers away as agenda takes the place of wonder, excitement, character. and conflict.
I cannot laud the above paragraph enough. It is something I’ve beaten my pots and pans about since I began publishing a few years ago. There is a reason science fiction is on the wane, with pop readers. Science fiction is supposedly the “dangerous” genre, but I’ve found this to be a largely toothless claim, based on past glory. Science fiction in the 21st century doesn’t want to be dangerous. Science fiction wants to be safe – at any speed. Heroes and heroines must not be scoundrels. As I noted above, all the sins are clearly signposted. Worse yet, let any author or editor fall foul of the signposted sins – ist and ism — and it’s a cause for significant outrage. How dare someone let a scoundrel into our beloved genre!? Someone fetch the smelling salts! Vapors! Gnashing of teeth!
I maintain that cultural sensitivity should be replaced by cultural awareness. Awareness implies research, consideration, thought, and judiciousness. Sensitivity looks at the n-word and immediately wails, regardless of context; awareness takes into account the modern reader’s reaction to the word, then balances it against the reality depicted in the story, and determines whether the usage is valid or not. Sensitivity denies equal access to language. It segregates and censors based on the background of the writer rather than the content of the story. No society can embrace cultural sensitivity and retain full capacity for freedom of speech.
Yes, in triplicate. The quest for tolerance has lead us down a very odd road where the proper enacting of tolerance is to be, well, intolerant. To not tolerate the “intolerable” according to trendy or arbitrary or otherwise assigned values of correctness: correct thought, correct speech, correct action. Not only must the stories themselves hew to this rigid correctness calculus, authors themselves must hew to this rigid correctness calculus. There is no room in 21st century science fiction for real people. Because sooner or later the ist and the ism are exposed — both real and, as often as not, imagined — and the evil-doer is punished and/or cast out.
Thus the genre slowly homogenizes and inoculates itself against reality. And the stories (and the personalities) become more polarized, polemicized, and monotonous. A robust genre which actively fostered a more robust ideological spectrum might be more able to pick up on and defend against this disease. But the denizens of the “ghetto” can’t seem to get enough of it. They want more conformity and less diversity in politics, opinions, and ideas. Because true diversity means inviting in and even protecting the scoundrels — Han Solo has no place in a properly, piously “sensitive” science fiction. Han Solo shoots first. And he is a greedy capitalist to boot.
Cultural awareness denies speech to no one. It justifies (or condemns) artwork through context.
And context is king — something I’ve found myself trying to inexpertly explain a lot these days. If we judge generations past according to our ever-evolving modern standards, those generations will forever be found wanting. Yet it cannot be denied that we in our sanctified time of sensitive propriety owe most of what we have to those rough-necked ruffians of yesteryear who somehow muddled through their ists and their isms to bring us to where we are today. And to provide us with some of our most timeless, everlasting stories. Stories that speak to the eternal truths of the universe, and show us honor and dignity and humility and adventure and sacrifice, despite the flawed nature of the world(s) and character(s) portrayed.
Sensitivity serves ideology; awareness serves the story. Sensitivity defaults; awareness decides.
Quite so. I would add that “sensitivity” as currently practiced in the genre is an entirely reactionary thing, predicated on avoiding and assuaging offense — be it real or imagined. A genre that makes its choices according to who it wishes to avoid offending can no longer claim to be a dangerous genre. Dangerous genres shoot first, and ask questions later. Science fiction too often doesn’t even want to ask the question, nor pull the trigger. Science fiction wants to punish the trigger-puller and throw the laser blaster into the molten pit — because guns are bad.