-By Dave Freer
On another list I belong to a comment on political correctness and racism brought out the guardians of that sacred fire, who shut it down. It got me thinking about the issue, because it impacts writers heavily, more so now that the internet means the reach of those calling for a crusade or a pogrom can reach very far.
I thought about it a great deal as result, but I felt some trepidation about posting this at all, as I expect the PC-police (who are as arbitrary as they are all-powerful in our field) will have fits. As they can’t merely demand I’m silenced here, will unleash their pet pogroms like ‘racefail’ etc to see they can manage to sink us under hate-mail. But this fool has a record of tackling hell with a club made of snow-flakes. So: Let’s start with the basics. I have the genetic markers to prove I could be one of the anointed darlings of PC. As much claim as many of the leading lights in that camp anyway. Stuff that for a game o’soldiers. I prefer to fight my own way up. With a snow club.
I am a firm believer in the idea that all humans should be equal before the law, and should have the best opportunities we can provide. No human who has the brains and ability should ever be denied the opportunity for education – as much as they can hold, if possible. I believe that no group of humans is innately superior to any other group. I believe -and I think I have the evidence on my side – that you cannot determine a human’s character or their intelligence by their gender, skin color or sexual-orientation. I believe every human is an individual and that they deserve a fair go, and not to be prejudged. I see no sense, let alone merit, in gratuitous insults (deserved ones are an entirely different matter). I believe that sauce for the goose is sauce for the gander, and ‘do unto others as you would have them do unto you’ is good advice, totally aside from any religion. A large part of what I write explores our shared humanity, and, sometimes through ‘alien’ eyes just what it means to be human. Those of you who have read my books will have seen this: not preached, but reflected there. I don’t always get it right, but sure as hell give it my best. I’ve tried to walk the walk in my life too. We all screw up, and me quite royally at times, but at worst you can say I did it while giving my best attempt to change diapers, or walk a mile in the shoes of others. It’s been very useful, I have covered a lot of distance, and acquired a lot of shoes. Imelda Marcos has nothing on me.
On the other hand: I write satire. Its intent is to poke fun at various human mores. To expose these as what they often are: intrinsically ridiculous. Mores – the customs and moral standards of the day, change. Today’s morality will not be 100 years time’s morality, or have been 100 years ago’s morality.
A hundred years ago mores dictated you should respect your elders and that homosexuals were sub-human. Now homosexuals are far more broadly accepted, but the concept of respect for elders has been eroded (to vanishing entirely as shown recently in London). Just what these mores will be in a hundred years is something I write about, but cannot know. All I can say for sure is the people of then will look at ours in puzzlement and some disdain. Mores and traditions are something that we as a species need to constantly question and re-examine. We have countless examples where the failure to do so – where attempts to set these as immutable fixtures in cultures has resulted in the death of those cultures. And yes, cultures, mores, traditions are ‘individuals’ (I don’t disapprove of depriving women of education because that is an aspect of Afghan culture, and I hate Afghans and therefore their culture is wrong. No. I believe women and every other human should not be denied access to education, and I don’t care if you are culturally a Lapp or a Ping-ping) – I can and will make judgement calls on those. At times one culture has made another comply with what they feel are their superior mores. One need look no further than India and the issue of suttee, or the question of genital mutilation being a cultural practice in Somalia. In both cases I’m with ‘screw the culture, women are human beings and entitled to equal treatment.’ I know: It’s not PC to say that in my opinion some cultures, traditions and mores deserve pillory. Hey, I’m willing to take it as well as dish it out.
Which brings us to PC or ‘political correctness.’
The biggest problem in any debate is finding any common ground on the basic defining terms of the debate. For example neither this idea of what the term it means nor the Zuky one usually quoted by the PC-police and their friends are what most people think the term means. There are grains of truth mixed with both of course, but they fail to really deal with the substantive issues and problems of PC, or what could be done to make it work as intended. And um, it’s certainly not a seventies problem (outside of China, where yes, it meant in line with the political power of the day and was, by the powers that be, considered a good thing.) Having once (briefly) associated with doctrinaire Stalinists who thought I should be disciplined for questioning dialectic materialism, I can tell you that if there was ever an antithesis to what sf is about, or what anyone should avoid, anything that got that stamp of approval is a clue).
So here are two definitions:
“deliberately inoffensive: marked by language or conduct that deliberately avoids giving offence, for example on the basis of ethnic origin or sexual orientation”
Microsoft® Encarta® Premium Suite 2004. © 1993-2003 Microsoft Corporation. All rights reserved.
“Political correctness (adjectivally, politically correct; both forms commonly abbreviated to PC) is a term which denotes language, ideas, policies, and behaviour seen as seeking to minimize social and institutional offense in occupational, gender, racial, cultural, sexual orientation, certain other religions, beliefs or ideologies, disability, and age-related contexts, and, as purported by the term, doing so to an excessive extent.”
Which sound, in concept, like ‘give people a fair go’. Which, after all, is what I’m trying to do.
What neither of these definitions set out is that PC is prescriptive, imposed from above, decided on by a self-selected group (usually those who shout loudest, and have a stake in establishing ‘victim’ status, and yes, by those in power). The PC-police – especially to writers, are the self-elected judges, juries and executioners. They can destroy your career, your livelihood at a whim, there is no appeal, or due process in the first place, and their hate campaigns will indiscriminately attack you, your friends and your family. You have no redress. You’d be far more fairly treated as a woman accused of adultery in Pakistan, let alone by any better justice system.
Their rules are intrinsically imposed – because if it was by broad consent or popular, you would not have to police it or even suggest it – which is why the Zuky interpretation comes in as wholly inaccurate. No-one had to tell everyone to wear yellow ribbons, or jump on anyone who didn’t. Nor were the controlling powers (ruling politicians, and in our field, publishers and editors) decreeing this. They followed a popular sentiment for their own ends, not enforced the sentiment. Of course, reading a little more of Zuky’s posts heesh probably didn’t share the sentiment, and thus felt that anyone else being able to express them shouldn’t be allowed. Yes, tolerance at its best. Which is another defining feature of the way this operates: It is one way traffic. Those selected for deliberate non-offense are free to abuse those declared ‘bad’, as is anyone else. It sets up a clear hierarchy of who has most ‘right to redress’ (AKA privilege) as a victim. It has no sunset on those privileges. If your great great grandmother was a designated ‘victim’, and you – with just 1/16 of her blood now live in a mansion and enjoy special privileges as result, which set you far above Joe Average, your grandchildren will still have that 1/64 of DNA outvoting the rest and insuring that they can stand in front of line. And to those who have set the orthodoxy, even the questioning of individual points, let alone the concept of top-down prescription, is not PC and must be disciplined away. Very Stalinist, and a little historical research should show why that is a bad idea.
In writing, PC goes far beyond a mere choice of non-offensive terms, but has come include what may be written about, what roles characters may have, and even what characters must be present, or who may write about a certain subject. To step, even accidentally, outside these lines, leads to vicious, intolerant, brutal attack and silencing of any counter-argument.
That is not say that an effort not cause offense is a bad thing, or that we should not wish do so. However, merely imposing PC orthodoxy fails at this at so many levels. It’s like applying a nice clean plaster to the outside of a deep septic wound, and saying ‘it is cured now, because I can’t see it’. To put it another way you cannot foster tolerance with total intolerance, and curing the problem is a lot harder than just saying “‘Oriental’ is a bad word, and if you use it you are racist” etc. Look, if you have an irrational hatred of… Tomatoes, for example, and use the term as insult, a decree from above that from henceforth the red fruit will be called ‘zimbot’… will soon have you calling me a Zimbot-head with equal–if not more–hatred. So: for example an author who shows the shared humanity (which is hard work, and skilled writing) of a character of Asian origin, but describes him as an ‘Oriental’, is doing a great deal more to foster tolerance than an author who has the ‘correct name’ and a standard PC stereotype of a character, which the reader neither believes nor accepts and either glosses over or doesn’t bother to read. Of course if an author does the former, and then has the character explain that he’s -ese, not ‘Oriental’, and ties it something in the reader’s own experience, he’s golden.
I think one of key failures of PC is that it is intrinsically intolerant and anti-egalitarian. For instance hurtful terms or ideas or characters or roles can never be ascribed to certain groups. However, if you are a American Christian white heterosexual middle-aged male, no insult, evil intent, perverted nastiness, or wicked plan to destroy all ‘designated good guys’ is ever too vile. Well, fair enough. There are cases when this will be true. However, isn’t it fairly plainly race and sexism fail if in every the book, they’re ALWAYS the bad guys? On the rare instances it’s the evil enchantress… well, gee, it was the bad man (fitting the above description) who somehow hurt her and made her like this. Try slotting in say ‘Zambian Wiccan black gay female’ into that role, just once, and stand by for a sh!t-storm of outrage.
Human goodness or intelligence or morality are not determined by skin color, gender or orientation or the country you live in. Yet PC orthodoxy declares it can be. So long as you use these markers to show the ‘right’ outlook, you can be as racially or sexually discriminatory as you please. Just as long as you only use the designated roles and scapegoats.
Take this example. In your piece of fiction set somewhere in South Africa, someone has hit a young woman who is now unconscious. In a room are all the people who were in the building when it happened. There is an elderly black woman, a elderly black man, a late middle-aged Asian guy and middle-aged white guy. Who did it? The PC version has no mystery to it. There is a clear ranking to it, with the first getting a double or treble free pass, the other two losing points for sex, but still innocent and as pure as driven snow. The un-PC version, which considers the characters as people — known ones for the purpose of this example –is that this is a meeting (not implausible, they’re all ‘friends’) between Winnie Mandela (the divorced wife of Nelson Mandela, convicted of participating in kidnapping, torture and murder), Robert Mugabe (under whose leadership genocide – at least 20 000 people in the Matabeleland massacres, not counting those killed in the last lot – intimidation, torture, theft, corruption etc have ruined a happy and potentially prosperous country), Kim Il Jung (do I need to explain?), and an idealist relation of mine, who is a pacifist, a Quaker, a leader of various anti-firearm groups and who has never as much as smacked a puppy. Oh, he’s white, middle-aged, Christian, heterosexual and IMO as nutty as a fruitcake. So who hit the housemaid? Still the PC suspect? Possibly. But on the basis of actual track record, the 3 free PC pass, would be plausible too.
Now I know and understand many of the rationalizations for this, including redress for past wrongs (which often means discrimination against people who never did those wrongs, which seems counter-productive to me), but it remains permissible discrimination on the basis of things that can decided on that villain’s skin color and sex and religion. They should get a fair go too, once in a while, maybe? That’s what ‘fair’ means. EVEN IF YOU DON’T LIKE THEM, fair is… well, fair. Of course, in writing terms, the real victim is not the housemaid, but plausibility. And with that goes the suspension of disbelief and if not the reader themselves, and any chance to work on what is really important and intended by that PC measure. A book which the reader either regards as propaganda (therefore the inverse of the truth) or simply glosses over and ignores the predictable parts, well, that fails completely, doesn’t it? The wound is not healed. However, the ‘it’s all about me’ PC crew are happy with the book, because their tender sensitivities are given a stereotype that they approve of. One hopes they buy lots of copies because they’re the only benefiting party and the author might as well get the income.
Which brings me to the ‘count the tokens’ approach this refers to. It’s often the complaint I hear about Steampunk. “Oh it is whitey-white.” (and yes, there is some that isn’t) which of course offends the victims because they feel marginalized and the book isn’t representative. It spills over into every other facet of the genre, and particularly into Hollyweird. And you end up with a talley list of token suitable stereotype officially designated under-represented ‘victims’. Sigh. Anyone who had any delusions about just who sets the agenda for this needs a serious kick in the mathematics department, because they’re way over population proportions in fiction (if you skip cherry-picking and consider fiction. But that’s not convenient). If they believe, a la Zuky, that it is somehow the official scapegoats setting these proportions, well, I suggest they don’t buy on that street corner again… Or whatever it is that they’re thinking with, it does not include zombie food. Yes, there may well be discrimination as to lead characters happening–but it comes from the drivers of PC, the powers that be, who approve of stereotype tokens, not authors. This is the guy speaking, who parted from the ‘top’ agent in the field who kindly told him the industry wanted black side-kicks, not main lead characters. Judging by the success I’ve had in selling that story, despite about a 1/3 of a million books sold, he was right. For the record, my current agent, Mike Kabongo, has never told who or what to write about. In books I have designed from the ground up I have a Turk, a child of a Zulu-English mixed marriage, a Londoner of West Indian descent, two with female leads, and yes, one with ambivalent sexuality and in the same book, his co-lead a conservative, white Christian male, oh, and a brain-damaged woman and a just ordinary young guy. And a dog, and a dragon. Funnily enough readers don’t seem to care (by the sales), just the industry does (by buying). But it’s the author’s fault. Always. They are lead characters and the stories rotate around them. But settings sometimes have dictated that no, the books are not representative, or at least not in the sense that the PC-police require. Because if you want me to suspend disbelief, without lots and lots and ridiculous lots of handwavium, there will not be the prescribed list of tokens, occupying the prescribed list of roles, and having me be nice to their lovely cultures. To do this (as I said above) is the death of your audience, and thus an exercise in futility.
Another thing that really bothers me about PC roles and character in books is the sheer arrogant Victorian-era racism and sexism that goes with it. It’s as condescending as hell. ‘We Anglo-Saxon superior types must be nice to these lesser people, because we are so far above them that they’ll be annihilated otherwise.’ As an egalitarian myself who has lived and worked with people who aren’t white or male: there are individuals among them who are my intellectual and physical superiors. Quite a few of them have been third or fourth generation of University graduates. To treat them (merely on the basis of skin color or sex) as if they need an extra leg-up is a bit of an insult as well as a display of ignorance. They certainly deserve EQUAL treatment. I’ll back that to the hilt. There may be some bloke from the back of beyond who has suffered from say a lack of education or job opportunities, based on his skin color. He’d get a break, a leg-up from me–but I can’t reach a decision like that on the basis of skin color. It’s a decision reached about an individual, on its merits, not the entire mob.
There is of course a large amount cynical manipulation for their own benefit, by people who have realized there is a big advantage in Western Society in claiming victim status and farming guilt, so they get preferential treatment. They tend to yell very loudly and angrily at any suggestion that these privileges should give way to mere equal and fair treatment for all, or that each and every case should be treated on merit. Humans have always gamed the system. At least one (and quite possibly more) of my ancestors did so by ‘passing’ as part of the elite and privileged of their day. I understand why they did it, but gaming the system should not be necessary. That’s what we should strive for. Not ‘who can claim the most injury’ competitions.
While terms may be hurtful–sometimes depending on person or situation (Call me vertically challenged and I’ll probably punch you just where I’ll deliver the best upper-cut) – you cannot simply ignore the context or the intent. Steampunk, alternate history and fantasy which is set in realism-based feudal situations are often eras in which sexual discrimination and racism, for example, were norms. It is no use having the token black and Asian and gay character there without some very serious handwaving. It can be done, but they will have a discrimination hill to climb in that book. And it would perfectly plausible to have an entire book where there were none of the tokens, because, certainly in some echelons of society and work that would have been true. Likewise a book of say only Asian characters would be, in certain settings, a norm. But the setting is key: A black man would have been totally unlikely in a Victorian Country village. You could put him there if you wanted to, but you’d need some very good handwavium. And, rather like the inevitable villain, you can’t do it every time, if you wish to sustain belief.
The role of women was in these settings was subservient. Your female character can rail against this, rebel against it, prove it a stupid idea… but that, in a Victorian or earlier era book will not be typical of all female characters. The point, rather, would be show how you really didn’t want to have lived then!
Which brings us to the other issue of PC – sacred ground. You’re not a woman/Asian/gay/etc, you can never write from their point of view. It’s their property, and you could never understand it because you can never experience it (Rolls eyes). Right. So I’m PC damned if I fail to use the correct stereotype tokens, PC damned if I don’t make them lead characters and PC damned if I do because they will be POV characters. So: basically this is job reservation. JUST like Apartheid, and no one but the PC-anointed need ever apply? It’s worth noting that the PC-anointed can write a book is totally unrepresentative – has only gay or Indian characters, or has no trouble whatsoever writing point of view of the standard model villain – that wicked heterosexual middle-aged Christian white man, despite never being able to experience it, or for that matter one of the PC-anointed writing about another of the PC- anointed (as long as they’re of the same or higher status). So long as the writing follows the prescribed stereotype rules, a woman can write about gay males, an Aboriginal man can write women from their POV, if the woman is Asian, she must fit the prescribed ‘nice and oppressed’ stereotype. If she’s white, he can make her a nasty piece of work.
I’ve got news for them. Most people don’t even understand themselves, and they’ve had a lifetime of practice. And yet, for example, there are female authors (Heyer and Hoyt spring to mind) who peg men pretty well. I’ve never felt ‘that’s impossible’ with their men. I’ve read other PC-contributions where, yes, it is impossible or at least improbable. The authors have ascribed emotions, motivations, behavior and beliefs to the standard villain which probably don’t exist in the species, let alone men. The same can often be said of the rest of their characters too. The problem isn’t Political Correctness. It’s just bad writing, a lack of homework and a lack of empathy. By all means, rip into an author for doing that. But good character writing is not caused by merely being PC-anointed. It’s caused by hard work, some innate talent, keen observation, lots of empathy, and even more homework. Those claiming PC-anointed status “and we deserve special treatment for that” (and probably quoting Zuky to justify themselves) really hate that idea, because that means they have to compete on that awful thing – a level playing ground. There are great writers in the PC-anointed groups. They deserve a fair chance to be heard. But they don’t deserve any more than that, and they will have to employ the same skills as anyone else if they want to write great characters. There are those out there, and they are as capable or more so as any other human.
So: that in a mere six page nutshell is why I oppose the PC diktat. Not because, as Zuky fantasizes, because I want to have fun or repress anyone. Not because I support prejudice: the opposite is true. As a tool to put down prejudice it has become a tool to merely shift prejudice. And I am favor getting rid of prejudice, not just shifting the irrational kicking boy to the new bottom of the pecking order. The trick is going to be–to use a cliche that you really need to understand the history of to grasp well–to not throw the baby out with the bathwater. To keep any gains from the concept of PC and to lose the bad aspects. To build the bridges that lead not to a conquest, but to a better country for all.
A country where respect and reward is earned by the merit of individuals and not prejudice based on perceived group characteristics.
A country where we look at intentions and learn to laugh at ourselves. Where we do not magnify trivia for the sake of manufacturing indignation. Where we accept that different cultures will not always see things our way, and where we try to meet them half-way, and find that they come and meet us too.
A country where we heal wounds, and there is no value in keeping the flesh raw and suppurating forever.
A country which has no ghettos for anyone.