Prying A Closed Mind Open

First, take an ax… Okay, maybe not, but it’s certainly true that it’s very difficult to convince some folks that they might, just maybe, be a little bit less than correct. It is not, however, impossible.

This may be the appeal of fiction to the SocJus set: characters can be faced with situations that force them to re-evaluate their lives and yes, change their minds. The problem here being that life tends not to give a damn about social justice, and furthermore, is – by SocJus standards, anyway – horribly racist, sexist, and everything else-ist.

Life, after all, obeys the laws of physics, biology, chemistry, and so forth, all of which lead to such terrible facts as women generally having different physiology than men, and this being the actual basis of societal sexual differentiation. You know, if it can grow babies it needs to be protected and so do the babies. And the physical adaptations that make it possible to grow a healthy baby and give birth to it also cause women to be shorter, weaker, slower, and to have different thought patterns. This is called sexual differentiation, and occurs throughout biology. We humans may be able to override our biology, but we are still very much creatures of it – and if you disagree, try not eating for a few days. Or even better, not using the bathroom for a few days.

Biology and other things aside, it actually isn’t true that after a certain age it’s impossible to change someone’s world view. The clue here is that precisely what the certain age is varies depending on who you ask. Now sure, it’s harder, but it’s possible. And makes for a lot of the fun in fiction, throwing characters into a situation where they have to adjust their world view if they are to survive.

Like, for instance, a thirteenth-century knight, well educated for his time and station – he can read and write Latin and Germanic, and speaks a couple of other languages well enough to get by – faced with a collection of misplaced, formerly enslaved aliens and pagan humans he inadvertently freed from slavery (Yes, the setup is kind of complex. He thought he was killing demons, and figured people, even pagans, were redeemable. Demons, not so much. So he killed the demons – who are actually a different alien race. One that regards anything not of their race as talking animals at best. And food if they’re no use as slaves).

The poor man spent most of the story lurching from one crisis of conscience to another, trying to wrap what he’d always known was right and good and proper (namely, medieval Christian doctrine) around a reality that includes non-humans as well as humans from cultures that have never heard of Christianity and aren’t even as advanced (by his lights) as the pagans he’d been fighting before being abducted. He also wound up having to beat sense into some of his fellow knights – because he also understood a little of that tool of the patriarchy known as math and science, particularly the part that says if you have too small a population you die out, and there are only just enough people to make it possible to survive, so yes, we are going to have to make a few compromises and convince them to accept us.

This is, more or less, how minds get opened to new ideas. Not necessarily quite so dramatically, but the process is the same. First is being confronted with evidence that the current world view is not adequate for the reality (it might not actually be wrong, per se. Just not sufficiently right to work in whatever mess your character is in. Or you are in). This generates cognitive dissonance, which is a very uncomfortable sensation. Most people go to a lot of effort to avoid it, and when they can’t they react with anger.

Gosh. Explains a lot about modern headlines, doesn’t it?

Anyway, moving on. There’s two things you or your character needs for the world view to change: the cognitive dissonance is one of them. The other is to need something that you can’t get without accepting the thing the cognitive dissonance is about. In my character’s case, he had to accept that the aliens were also people and that he’d need treat the pagans and aliens as equals if he was going to survive. A rather more simple case is having to learn this shit to pass the exam.

Then you get an integration phase where the old and new play tag with each other and you’re never sure which one is going to be on top (at least, if you’re sufficiently self-aware and didn’t run screaming from the cognitive dissonance). Reality being what it is, people who make it this far generally wind up reaching the end of the process, where the integration has finished, and the new stuff is part of their world view.

Characters usually get that far because the technical term for a character who doesn’t learn from cognitive dissonance is “corpse”. Or in some cases “red shirt”.

Okay, it’s not as much fun as taking an ax and prying someone’s skull open to open their mind. But it’s not as messy, either, and if you want them to survive the experience you definitely don’t want to use the ax method.

And now I must go see what kind of disaster the berserker kitten is creating.


  1. There’s also the tendency to form a mental cyst out of things that disagree with one’s worldview. Someone absolutely convinced that X is shiftless and bad will not change their view when encountering a member of X that is industrious and good. No, they’ll consider this challenge to their world view as being an exception to X. It’s not even the logical view that obviously all of X isn’t shiftless and bad, but that all of X still is except for the person he’s met. He’ll use a term like “He’s a good X,” and never really change his world view at all.

    That’s not a given, of course, but it does happen.

    1. See every dysfunctional parent reaction towards a child. Child is always seen as That One Thing they did when they were young, and evidence to the contrary is always over-ridden.

    2. You get the opposite as well. People will start shoving knives in one another’s back as they learn the badthink of their former friend. No matter whether they have ever even shown a smidge of the evil actions they now associate with them.

    3. That tends to happen if someone encounters a more or less isolated X. When they’re the isolated minority in a sea of X it can get… er… interesting.

  2. And (despite what I read in the last fiction that got walled [metaphorically. I don’t throw my Kindle]), massive changes in word view don’t get processed instantly with the character accepting everything new and different and happily going his/her/its way thirty seconds later as if they never had any other take on things.

    1. The funny thing is that sometimes “stolid” people are better at processing weird stuff, at least in the short term. They deal with the priority bits of what is happening, in a very simplified way, and don’t bother their heads about the implications. They might understand things wrong or right, but it does not slow them down.

      So yeah, there are some people who would be more worried about binding an alien’ s wounds and finding him food, than about where he came from and what it means for the human race.

      If the knight acts first to do justice and protect the weak, and worries about the rest later, he would be doing what he was trained to do. (By his raising and by the Order, presumably.)

      1. The case I was thinking of was an egregious case of “Character now has modern, Progressive views just like all good people do, sees error of previous world view and loves the difference” type authorial forcing. That’s a bit different from what you or Kate are describing.

        1. HeadDesk HeadDesk HeadDesk. Especially since there will still be those evil latent thoughts. Like calling how resisting refugee floods or Invaders under pretense of immigration (no intent to assimilate or often even stay) is evil and inhumane but then decrying how businessmen from other countries buying up real estate in your city is evil because it drives your own rents up. (Seen this one myself.)

          Although the concert is often the most zealous proponent of the new, critic of the old.

      2. Interesting observation. I just might have to steal it and write a post/essay on the subject re: crafting the perfect protagonist to be thrown into a fantastic setting.

        Or at least: crafting a co-protagonist to balance/rein in the “Oooh! Let’s explore everything and figure out what it means!” partner.

      3. The knight is a sincere follower of the Order, and acts on their motto (Help, Defend, Heal). He’s better at the defending part than the other two, but he does his best.

    2. That is one of the reasons I am trying to go thru novel with machete. I definitely want to have that eye opening moment but gotta add more leadup so that the Kernal of ‘maybe not all monsters’ gets into his head before the actions that actually break him.

      And I use the ‘break him’ phrase intentionally.

    3. I always have fun trying to figure out how much a feminist – the screeching harpy feminazi misandrist sort – would last if they got literally thrown out of a plane and straight into Saudi Arabia.

      Well, on a less wishful thinking note, I wonder how much modern people would do if thrown into a society other than their own. Such as, say, about 200 years ago at the minimum. How hard would it be for them to adjust, assuming they don’t get robbed for their clothes or thrown into an asylum.

      1. Well, the answer to your first question is heavily dependent on how high up the plane is and if you give them a parachute.

        As to the other, circumstances matter. Do they know the language, and are they dropped into a city or a small town?

  3. So, all those probing questions abut how large objects act in Earth orbit wasn’t just idle curiosity after all? I thought not.
    Looking forward in great anticipation to reading the whole thing front to back all in a chunk.

  4. It has been said that the fiercest hawks are doves who got mugged. My experience of people is that they generally:
    A) Don’t really do the things they say they believe in, and
    B) Cannot be moved by logic and evidence.

    Therefore, in fiction, a character who is wrong about something will ride that hobby horse until Reality knocks him off it. Hard.

    Something else, this is reinforced by numbers. Groups will literally commit suicide together, as was seen with that weird UFO cult in 1997. They’ll die trying to protect the Holy Hand Grenade from unbelievers.

    So if you want to convince a character of something, it’ll be best done one at a time.

    Finally, there are nut-groups out there that Will Not Change, and we see their depredations all the time. No single religion or cult is responsible, it is a human thing.

    If you want to change one of those guys, the Reality check is going to be a trip to hell and back. Guantanamo Bay style.

    All of the above, maybe I’m a bit weird but I don’t want to read about that. I want to read about a guy or a girl with a functioning moral compass, that is having an adventure. Maybe the adventure includes Bad Guys, that’s fine. But some schmuck who can’t understand morality and has to be taught the hard way? Leave that sh1t for the SJWs.

    This is as distinct from the Hero’s Journey. The trip from Boy to Man to Paladin is not the same thing as the trip from Schmuck to Normal Dude.

    1. A good character will learn from the book just as reader should. I don’t mind the character growing as he learns, but it has to fit the storyline. But I think in part it is a function of who the reader identifies with. For us it seems that we identify with the protagonist, wanting to root for them. For authors and reader’s that do the heelface turn I’d say a good sized part is wanting to correct the thoughts of the badthinker.

      Plus I tend to see the heelface character go from irredeemable evil to perfect good which is the biggest breaker for me. Everyone needs flaws and the turn to perfect goodthink reeks of cults and propaganda.

      1. One of the best heel-face turns I’ve ever seen is that of Prince Zuko in Avatar, the Last Airbender. Things that make it work is that he was never really “evil”, just misguided (however badly that term has been abused and used as the excuse for all kinds of stuff over the years). He had numerous “good” influences around him. It took time for him to “come around”. He had periods of backsliding. And it wasn’t without consequences that were painful on several levels.

        1. Yep. Another I can think of was a Russian character in Rainbow Six. For most of the book he was putting together a series of terror incidents to drive up hype and get his client the security work. But once he recognized that it wasn’t security but genocide on their mind he spilled everything. Still not truly repentant but at least tries to do right.

          1. Then there was the utterly terrible example from Return of the Jedi. Okay, given the mystical mind-control thing with the Force, Vader was just barely redeemable when RotJ was released. The “Well, at the last instant he saved his own son’s life” act of redemption was weak in the extreme, but I could go with it.

            Then they came out with the prequels, particularly Revenge of the Sith. Nope. Sorry. Vader has just been made completely irredeemable. There is literally nothing he could do that would redeem him from that. And “he saved his own son’s life”? Get outta here.

            Sorry. Pet peeve.

            1. With ROtJ it helped that we didn’t know what Vader had been doing between that and Empire, and that the focus shifted to Palpatine as the central villain.

              But I still think it would’ve been stronger if, when Luke surrenders and confronts him, Vader again made his offer: we’re going to see the Empire, help me kill him and we can take over! Then Palpatine somehow turns it around on him and gets them fighting and Luke tearing into Vader.

          2. Well, yes. That, and the Russian, cynical as he was, as exposed as he was to the negative side of humanity, had never quite been exposed to the kind of evil that values everything else over human life, the kind of evil that decrees that ‘those who don’t think like us must be removed entirely from the face of the Earth.’ Former KGB as he was, ‘subvert, undermine, and take over’ still meant that you took over the conquered people.

            1. Yep. There is a level of evil that wants control. Eradication goes past that.

              But that is an interesting way to play with how you can turn the ‘obvious’ big bad into a sympathetic character and Segway to someone that was controlling them.

        2. I particularly loved the episode where it’s been clear for months (of in-show time) now that he’s going to make a heel-face turn, and here comes the obvious moment for him to do so… and then circumstances offer him everything he’s ever wanted on a silver platter as long as he doesn’t turn, and he takes the offer. Well, everything he’s ever said he wanted, at least. Cue several episodes of him figuring out that what he’s been saying he wants, this whole time… tastes like ashes now that he’s figured out what he really wants.

          Yeah, that was GOOD writing.

  5. Per Michael Flynn’s research for Eifelheim, there was a lot of room in the Greco-Roman and medieval worldview for the existence of different breeds of humans, like dogheaded men (a la St. Christopher, who was sometimes also described as a giant) and monopods. Prester John’s legendary Asian kingdom was supposed to have tons of such critters. People were perfectly willing to believe that the children of Adam and Eve might include humans with non-human looks. The idea that rational material beings could be soulless was not a medieval idea. Nonhumans might not be covered by salvation the same way as humans, but all creation would eventually be saved and remade. Evil creatures chose evil.

    Obviously there might be conflicts or gaps between the scholarly view of the world and the folk layman, but weird humans and monsters were part of medieval pop culture.

    1. The other thing about medieval pop culture was that, in legends, traveling knights were supposed to run across weird stuff and do justice to strange people. So yes, a Teutonic knight who suddenly found himself in the middle of a minnesinger romance adventure story, or a tale like the Emperor Charlemagne enjoyed, would be nonplussed — but maybe no worse than a modern man. (Knightly romances were pretty popular with women, so he might have flashbacks to his days as a page, occasionally helping the castle ladies out and hearing something read of the sort.)

      1. Once they’d seen enough foreign lands, even aliens would just be more of the same.

        And then… there’s always the end of Anderson’s “The High Crusade”, where an Earth ship finally made contact with some Christian knights still swearing fealty to an English monarch who no longer existed… and the original group of knights had been successful enough that *these* knights weren’t even human.

      2. There’s this, yes. In this case the strange people are much stranger than he’d ever thought he’d encounter, but once he rearranges his mental furniture to include them as *people*, he can function.

        The rest happens over time.

  6. There is a theory out there that Mary Catelli probably knows about — that some kinds of folktale worry about the implications of stuff like talking animals, and others don’t. (I think the theory was that one kind was more mythic or dreamlike than the other.)

    Basically, the knight is finding himself living the kind of tale where he does have to worry about it!

    1. I received a copy of that newly discovered trove of fairy tales collected in Germany, and one of the things they talk about in the foreword is that von Schoenwerth collected the tales as he found them, while the more popular Grimm collections did some editorial cleaning and plotline construction. The von Schoenwerth tales are often plotting messes, with things having no particular reasons other than “and then this happened.” So I’m not so sure about it being one kind of folktale versus another; a lot of it might be up to the editor and the ability of the original tale spinner. (Note that this is not a slam of von Schoenwerth; his work is more true to the actual mission of “let’s collect folk tales before they disappear with the spread of urbanism.”)

  7. In one of his books on writing–don’t remember which one–Orson Scott Card described writing “polemic” fiction. The mistake many people make is making the folk on the opposite side uniformly villainous. This, however, does nothing to convince people who are not already on your side. Instead, he recommended starting with a character who takes the opposition viewpoint honestly (the example he gave was the engineer main character in “The China Syndrome”) but that learns, over the course of the story, the bad results that follow from that viewpoint and, being a decent person even when holding “bad” views, is gradually won over.

    There is much to be said for this approach. I just happen to suck at it.

  8. Choosing good or evil is the opposite of EESmith’s Lensman series, in which the Eddorians are all evil, and attempt to build an intergalactic empire based on BDSM (well, not so much M) relations with all inferior species. I thus have opening notes for a novel whose working but absolutely surely not final title is ‘The Eddorian Lensman’, the fellow having concluded at first on purely pragmatic grounds that the Eddorian approach to Empire did not work at all, and has been doing the opposite. Approximately, the tale opens where has duplicate — who does not know that he is the duplicate is on not-Eddore as it gets zorched by the not-Arisians.

    1. Not so much BDSM, as an absolute meritocracy coupled with the idea that “might makes right.” Every interaction between people was filtered through their social dominance/submission paradigm.

        1. Social Justice?

          Not really.

          Back before the setting had much intelligent life, there were the Eddorians and the Arisians. IIRC, the Eddorians had come from somewhere else, where the Arisians hadn’t known to look before it was too late. Eddorians decided they had to settle for dividing the known universe between themselves. The Arisians hid from the Eddorians, because the Arisians knew they couldn’t kill all the Eddorians back then. The Arisians waited, and built gun enough to kill all the Eddorians.

          When other intelligent life came along, it was pretty alien to the Eddorians, and the Eddorians didn’t like dealing directly with it. Ploor was the least alien to the Eddorians, so served as the proxy they were most comfortable working with. Kaloonians and maybe also the Eich were potentially closer to Eddorian normal, and hence served as proxies fairly often.

    2. Do they describe themselves as ‘evil’ or do they simply believe the nature of reality works a certain way, that their ideology is the best way to live in that reality, and that it’s an ideology open to converts (sort of like the Japanese empire in Correia’s Grimnoir books)?

      1. They most definitely do not. TRX’s “might makes right” comment pretty much nails it: The weak deserve to be trampled simply for being weak.

        I could see the “pragmatically sees it’s not working” plot-line working, but it would be, iirc, difficult for the “current” Eddorian to overcome the weight of all the “past” Eddorian’s it is carrying around inside (genetic memory).

        1. Probably less choice than genetic memory implies. Eddorians fission, and the only ones that survived what they did to themselves could no longer be destroyed by physical forces. They were assholes before that last internal war destroyed every one that could be destroyed, and they essentially desperately resorted to external conquest as a practical means to satisfy their drives.

          Think sorta ‘nuclear wars wipes out humanity, excepting Hitler, Mao, Pol Pot, Fidel, and Saddam, who became immortal through force of will’.

          Thing is, I think it does explicitly say Eddorians could still learn and grow, and they’ve had a very long time to do so. Maybe a human immortal murderous tyrant could change if they lived for thousands of years.

          1. I give points for creating a plausible sci-fi scenario for a group that’s just ‘evil from birth.’

    3. Doc touched on that. After Kinnison conquered the Boskonian Empire, he went to each of the senior oligarchs in prison and did the following:

      –Went into deep mind meld with him, carefully NOT touching his will,

      –Gave him a crash course on what Civilization was and how it worked,

      –Asked, “Now, which way of running an empire do you think would be more satisfying TO YOU?”

      His conversion rate was rather high.

      1. Reminds me of one of the ways (heresy it might be) that Brooks was better than Tolkien (I do not say “on balance” but in this particular area) was that his “bad guy” races–trolls and gnomes–at least in the first books, were more fully realized and just not “they’re evil. Period.” We see folk who, while part of the enemy forces, are nevertheless not bad guys. And, indeed, we see the “redemption” of an entire race where they ended up mostly switching sides in the course of the first (as published) and into the second book.

        1. IIRC Tolkien is on record that he should have made it possible for the Orcs to be redeemed.

          Of course, David Weber’s Bahzell was basically an Orc who got recruited by the Gods of Light. 😉

          1. If you’ve read the History of Middle Earth, the moral status of the orcs became a growing concern to Tolkien in his later years, as he tried to put together the Silmarillion into a publishable book. HOME includes a fair amount of notes in which he wrestled with the problem of orcs as an always-evil race, with solutions varying from “they’re not people, they’re beasts that can be trained to mimic the behavior of people” to “they’re lesser Maiar that chose to take on embodied existence to serve the Dark Lord.” Yet none of them was ever 100% satisfactory for him.

            I’m finding myself sympathetic to his struggles, as I’m trying to (re)write some stories and novels that have their roots in stuff I wrote when I was in jr. high and high school. It looks deceptively easy when I first pull a notebook out of the filing cabinet, but as I dig into the materials, I keep running into complications.

    1. Pretty sure they didn’t consider themselves evil, either. They just needed others’ life-force to survive and enjoyed torturing it out. Calling them “evil” is much like calling a shark evil for eating a human alive (how exactly it’s supposed to kill people before starting to eat them has always escaped me).

      Certainly worthy of xenocide, but I wouldn’t necessarily say “evil”.

      I’d never noticed before now, but they seem awfully close to Stargate Atlantis’s Wraiths.

      Look at it from this perspective: Do bison think people are evil? (I don’t think cows are a good example; we take too good of care of them.)

      1. It is quite reasonable for a sapient species to consider another species “evil” because the second wants to eat the first.

        Bison & Cattle aren’t sapient beings so they aren’t able to consider humans “evil”. 😉

        1. I think he’s saying that it”s perfectly reasonable for humans to consider vampires evil, for instance, because vampires eat humans, even if they’re only doing it to survive. Goes back to “treating people as things”. But sharks aren’t evil, because they lack the moral capacity to understand what evil is. Vampires should know what evil is, but they persist in doing so, our of (understandable) self interest. Which gets into some interesting moral questions depending upon the particular feeding cycle. Do vampires have to kill/finish their victims, or do small feedings spread through a group (who may or may not have volunteered) over a period of time suffice?

    1. No, they are mentioned as feeding on the psychic energy generated by the pain they inflicted. They did enjoy the dining though.

  9. For that matter, if we’re using Doc Smith as an example, consider Marc DuQuesne — one of the great villains around. Totally honorable — if he gives his word, he keeps it. All he wants is to rule everything, and doesn’t particularly care who gets destroyed as part of that.

    It’s hard to like him; it’s impossible not to respect him.

    (Although, when Smith went back decades later to write Skylark DuQuesne, he’d lost enough skill that the characters weren’t up to what he was writing earlier. DuQuesne is too close to nice/caring, despite Smith’s attempts to keep him as the same villain.)

    1. I think that was not a flaw, per se. There was a “meme” in several pieces of the time that Homo Superior (or those who believed themselves to be) would eventually realize that ruling Homo Sapiens was nothing but a constant aggravation. So they leave to form their own completely “pure” society.

      One sees echoes of this, for example, in Heinlein’s Friday – and, come to think of it, in one of Sarah Hoyt’s series – the “Good Men” who left for another system.

      I’m trying to recall, in fact, if there has ever been a story where the two “species” live side by side – and am failing to do so. Separation, or genocide, or the “inferior species” dying out (Childhood’s End, a horrible novel, IMHO, maybe the first that ever hit my wall – quite annoying to my parents, as they were the old-fashioned plasterboard…).

        1. Hmm. Hand-waggle, there, but I’m probably not in the best position to judge, never having acquired all of the series. Did those mixed communities survive and dominate in the end?

          But a good point – although I always saw those as a (more creative than usual) retelling of many of the vampire / human tales. Simes were superior physically – not so much mentally.

          1. Nod.

            The Sime needed to “feed” on the Gen and later learned to make their relationship with the Gen to be more symbiosis than predator/prey.

            Note, it appears the Sime have legends of beings (perhaps humans) that they could not feed on.

            Apparently, these other beings created both the Sime and the Gen.

    2. I first read the Skylark books when I was of single-digit age. Even back then, I was rooting for DuQuesne.

      All DuQuesne wanted was to be The Boss. He wasn’t a nice guy, but compared to Seaton… who was the guy who destroyed the Mardonale civilization? Who destroyed the Fenachrone species? Who set himself up as dictator of Earth and had a corps of alien overseers to ensure his will was carried out? Who set humanity at war against a multi-galactic civilization on his own initiative? Hint: not DuQuesne.

      I felt much the same about the Lensmen vs. the Boskonians. The more Smith described the two, the harder it was to tell then apart. And after the Black Lensmen came along, it was pretty much a wash.

Comments are closed.