Terminology is important. I went off on a rant yesterday about a Facebook post that used the word “stories,” and I’m going to share the rant with you, because this is my blog, and that’s what I use it for. But on further reflection, I can see that my rant was based on one of two very different meanings of the word “stories.”
In a location described only as “my daughter’s classroom,” probably on a blackboard or whiteboard, was written the following: “Always ask yourself: Who writes the stories? Who benefits from the stories? Who is missing from the stories?”
If “stories” means “accounts of historical events,” then this is a very reasonable list of questions with which to encourage 11-year-olds to deconstruct their own history textbooks. As somebody once said, history is written by the winners. For that reason, historical accounts are often skewed. I would quibble only with the word “missing.” In Confederacy-friendly accounts of the Civil War, the African slaves are not missing, it’s just that their role in the affair is deliberately distorted.
On the other hand, if “stories” means “works of fiction,” these questions are deeply and profoundly wrong-headed. They’re an attempt to use critical race theory as a way of analyzing works of fiction. And yes, that would mean that CRT is being taught to 11-year-olds.
Fiction is always about individuals. The question, “Who is missing,” refers to groups that share some common identifying feature — racial groups (African-Americans, Hispanics, Asian-Americans, Native Americans, etc.), groups that share sexual and gender characteristics (gay, Lesbian, trans), or groups that share some common physical or mental characteristic (deaf, autistic, etc.).
Fiction that is primarily about identified groups is bad, inferior fiction.
When people are urged to see themselves as members of some group, we’re dealing with identity politics. Identity politics arises through the use of critical race theory, and it’s bullshit.
Identifying with a group for the purpose of uniting with others to take political action is a fine and noble thing! But these days, far too many practitioners of identity politics aren’t involved in political action; they’re just being whiny assholes. Anyway, you don’t have to be a member of the identified group to participate in the political action. In the 1960s, many of the civil rights workers were white. Taking political action requires only that you recognize an injustice. You don’t have to be trans to support trans rights. You don’t have to have limited mobility to press your local meeting-place to install wheelchair ramps. I trust this is obvious.
In the news recently, the head of the psychiatry department at Columbia University was put on leave because he made a remark in a tweet about an African model’s skin color. He used a phrase that some snot-nosed anti-racists found objectionable. They got loud, and the administration of Columbia promptly kowtowed to them rather than support a respected professor. This is not an isolated incident, and it’s the kind of thing that happens when identity politics runs amok.
My response to this sort of crap, if I were ever faced with it personally, would be to smile and say, “Do you enjoy being a victim?” Because that’s what it amounts to. When the anti-racist goon squad attacks someone for using language that they find offensive, they’re embracing their victimhood. “I”m a victim!” they shrill. “My ancestors have been victims for centuries! You’re perpetuating my victimhood by using that awful adjective!” Even people who are quite well off, financially or otherwise, will sometimes wrap themselves in the mantle of perpetual victimhood.
I have news for you, folks. We’re ALL victims. Death makes victims of everybody. Death is such a profound victimization that when you whine about a white man using a poorly chosen adjective, we can easily see that you’re engaged in what Jung called projection. Yes, you’re going to be a permanent victim. Death is going to do that to you. But rather than acknowledge that those you’re attacking are also victims, you displace your anxiety by projecting it onto someone that you imagine is victimizing you, even if that person’s action is trivial and not directed at you personally.
For a good discussion of this topic, I recommend the book The Coddling of the American Mind by Lukianoff and Haidt.
If “stories” refers to works of fiction, the implication of the questions is that an author is expected to present a varied cast of characters, to include in that cast members of various marginalized groups. If an author chooses to do this, there’s nothing wrong with it, assuming the cast of characters is large enough to support it and that the milieu of the story allows it. In my Leafstone saga I included, let’s see, a gay woman, a man who is confined to a wheelchair, a wizard with very dark skin (though he’s not African, since the story is not set on Earth), a pedophile (one of the bad guys), a woman who is old, blind, and bedridden, and a half-breed whose mother was human and his father was a demon. The half-breed makes some very pointed remarks about racial bigotry against demons. I added the dark skin and made the gay woman’s situation more explicit at the suggestion of an editor. The editor was right.
Modern authors will usually do that sort of thing in one form or another, because they understand the issue. They want to be inclusive! But it’s their choice. It isn’t always going to fit conveniently into the framework of the story, and in any event a story is not about being inclusive. We dare not dismiss the works of Dickens, Austen, or Trollope because they failed to be inclusive! Their culture was different from ours, and their readers’ expectations were different. When we encounter their stories, or for that matter the stories of a modern author, we’re always reading about individuals, not about identity groups.
Who is missing from the stories written by Heinlein, Clarke, or Asimov? Let’s see — Winston Churchill isn’t in any of them. Stan Musial isn’t in any of them. Walter Cronkite isn’t in any of them. Billions of people aren’t! The question, “Who is missing,” can only make sense when it’s understood as referring to identified groups. And the question implies, without saying it straight out, that those who are missing, and also those who belong to the same identity group as the missing, are being injured in some way by not being included.
Injury by omission. What a weird concept!
“Who benefits,” is just as ridiculous when applied to fiction. The author benefits by making money and acquiring enhanced social status. The publisher benefits by making money. Readers benefit by enjoying the story. That’s the sum total of who benefits. A black Lesbian in a wheelchair can benefit from reading a novel by Jane Austen, even though there are no black Lesbians in wheelchairs in the novel. I trust that’s obvious.
“Who writes the stories” is also a problematical question when applied to fiction. It’s true that women and African-Americans are under-represented in the lists of authors of successful fiction. That’s changing, but it’s not changing fast enough. On the other hand, authors are individuals too! A novel ought to be chosen for publication because it’s a good novel, not because the author belongs to some specific under-represented identity group. Truman Capote was clearly gay, and he got published, because he was a fine writer. Henry James was almost certainly gay too. E. M. Forster was gay. They were published. But their novels were not about the gay experience.
Interestingly, Forster did write a novel about gay love, but he set it aside. It was not published until after his death, because at the time it wouldn’t have been safe to publish it. It wouldn’t have been publishable at all. Today, his publisher would probably have just the opposite reaction. Literary agents these days are clamoring for stories by authors who identify with under-represented groups. But that’s not quite as jolly a trend as we might at first imagine. What if an author who is gay doesn’t want to be identified as gay? I’m pretty sure a literary agent will move a manuscript by a gay author to the top of the pile only if the author is out of the closet, and if the novel is about the gay experience. If a gay Mexican with autism chooses to write about robots using the name Robert Smith rather than José Jimenez, his manuscript will get tossed into the pile with all of the other Robert Smiths (of whom there is no shortage). The advantage is not in being a member of a marginalized group, it’s in being seen as a member of a marginalized group.
It’s identity politics.
There are two lessons in all this, I suppose. For writers, the lesson is, write what you want to write, share as much or as little of your personal identity as you want to share, and don’t worry about it. For anybody at all, the lesson is, you’re an individual, and so is everyone you will ever meet or encounter online. Don’t judge them based on their presumed membership in an identity group. If you look down your nose at a white, cis-gendered, heterosexual male, if you devalue what he says or writes because of his membership (real or presumed) in some identified group, you’re an asshole. You’re presenting yourself as a perpetual victim. And we’re all victims. As Hank Williams once sang, “No matter how I struggle and strive, I’ll never get out of this world alive.”
Yes, racial injustice and other forms of bigotry are real. But that doesn’t give you an excuse to make other people miserable because they’ve stepped on your toes. One of the anecdotes in the really awful document that purports to arise from an investigation of racism in the Unitarian-Universalist denomination is told by a woman of color who was offended that when she sat down next to a white woman, the white woman moved her purse closer to her side. That may have been racism (conscious or unconscious), or it may have been simple politeness, creating more space for someone who sat down next to you. As an aside, my sister once had her purse stolen during an event at Laney College, a predominantly black community college in Oakland. Maybe the person who stole it was white — who knows? My sister never blamed black people for it, I can tell you that for sure.
In this anecdote, we don’t know the white woman’s motivation. What we do know is that the woman of color who brought this up as an example of white racism is a whiner and enjoys being a victim. Presenting herself as a victim shores up her self-esteem. Maybe it needs shoring up, I wouldn’t know. But if that’s all you can find to complain about, the hell with you.