Kicking the Hornet’s Nest and Standing Up for Myself: PC and Worthwhile Stories

[This post has been saved for a while. For a “rainy day,” you might say. I didn’t exactly expect this topic to come back around again. I would rather keep my head down. I don’t want to pick a fight. But after Damien Walter falsely accused me of some vile things at the end of this talk on Twitter, it’s time to finally stand up for myself. I have taken a fair amount of hurtful and false accusation from unscrupulous people in the last few years, and it’s about time I start holding them accountable. I will only be a doormat for so long.]

If the thing I’m aiming to one day accomplish and make a living with — telling worthwhile stories — is threatened, then I will speak up. And when someone misconstrues my stance, then receive comments like, “Well, I won’t read that guy’s fiction, that’s for sure,” I consider that a threat to my future living.

I took a “creative” writing course at UCCS in 2008 (I put quotes around creative because the teacher stated that she wanted us to write literary fiction, as opposed to “low,” “crass” genre fiction; that’s another rant, though). One of the stories I wrote for that course got a compliment from a classmate which was roughly as follows: “I really appreciate [character’s name] being a strong female, and not a helpless milkmaid needing to be rescued by the hero. Us feminists really need characters like that.”

I appreciated the compliment, but my inner reaction to the last sentence would best be described as Uh, sure. I guess that’s all right. It was nice to hear, but I just wanted the character to be well-rounded and able to take care of herself.

I do love strong female characters…indeed, strong characters of either sex are good to have. They’re vital to a worthwhile story. I just wasn’t trying to serve The Cause, as it were. Just telling a story.

How does it help diversity if we demand that certain types of characters and themes must occupy your story? Telling worthwhile stories gets unnecessarily harder when the definition of “worthwhile” is changed to placate the ranks of the perpetually offended. If a sci-fi or fantasy book doesn’t have a perfect balance between male and female characters and all skin colors (except for white people; they’re “annoying,” “generic,” and more or less dispensable), the story is no longer considered “worthy” of time, honor, celebration, or being taken seriously.

I don’t think that stories are terrible if their characters are more diverse. Far from it. I’m just saying diversity is not the point. An important phrase to keep in mind for what makes a worthwhile story: Quality before message.

The perpetually offended and propagandists seem to be the only people on this Earth who value fiction for its message above everything else, and shame anyone who doesn’t look at stories from their viewpoint. They lack the versatility or the maturity to put aside a cherished cause; even when “escaping” into fiction that takes place in another world, their heart is still firmly planted in whatever they’ve decided is a Big Deal in our world.

They’re choosing to not escape. Fiction is treated like an essay or editorial or biography, which are entirely about the world we live in and primarily relate to issues we can face now.

Fiction by nature is supposed to be about going somewhere else. “Escaping,” if you like. Even if/when it can be used to deal with real-life issues, that’s not the point of writing a fictional story.

Last time I kicked this nest of fire ants, I got a comment whose author unintentionally illustrated my point:

No really. I used to say the same thing. “Who cares what color/gender if the story is good?”

Look, the reason people call it out, make noise about it, and generally say “hey, this isn’t ok.” is because the story should be good regardless of skin color. That the story is good should be a GIVEN. If the story isn’t good, you shouldn’t be writing it (exception:beginning writers). Period.

The rest of the comment is a rant on how the option of learning about other cultures/peoples is now suddenly an obligation for writers, because apparently a human being cannot connect to a character unless they share skin color, cultural background, sexual orientation, etc.

Did you notice that the quality of the story was a “given”? As if a story being “good” is akin to a gear in a pocket watch, a step to the really important work: spreading the Message. That’s the problem I have with modern Political Correctness tracts disguised as “fiction.” The quality of the storytelling is taken for granted. It’s treated like a support for the really important thing: the all-important Message.

As a lover of great stories, I’m calling this out for the destructive foolishness that it is. When the book becomes all about the issues going on in our society right now, what’s the point of writing science fiction or fantasy?

I’d like to keep my head down. I’d like to be popular, approved of, and respected. But if being those things means I have to soapbox about the social justice cause of the week, I’ll break apart the soapbox and use it as firewood, that I may comfortably write and read good books by the hearth.

And I’m not apologizing for it.

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A Note on Science and Skepticism

“Question everything.” If only Neil deGrasse Tyson would turn this elegant phrase on his own positions, especially regarding known historical fact.

I had the great honor of meeting Tyson at the 2006 Space Symposium in Colorado Springs. He was incredibly witty, friendly, and accessible. We had a grand time discussing the possibility of life on Jupiter’s frozen moon Europa, while waiting in line for ice cream. For this reason and others, Cosmos was a series I looked forward to. So far I’ve watched the pilot, and more than half of another episode (there’s a lot of TV I have yet to catch up on; procrastinators unite…tomorrow). The visuals are incredible — they are the kinds of things I’ve longed for since Jurassic Park forever spoiled me to special effects. If only Tyson’s “polite” antagonism toward theism didn’t keep throwing itself in the way. Oh well. One day I’d love to meet up with him again over coffee and discuss science once more.

However, I bring up this matter to illuminate a larger point, about skepticism. What passes for “skepticism” today ain’t what it used to be. What it should be.

Anyone can make a claim about reality. But whether it meshes with what is already known is another matter entirely. Like Tyson’s inaccurate portrayal of Giordano Bruno tarnishing an otherwise amazing introduction to the wonders of the universe, a faulty line of reasoning or a powerful and trendy agenda can throw a wrench into the gears of critical thinking.

Science is by its nature investigative. It is a fine scientist indeed who manages to put aside as much of his bias as possible, and draw conclusions based on what is observed rather than what he thinks “should” be there. It’s an ideal we may never fully realize, but knowledge is only gained when you keep reaching for it.

In other words, science as properly practiced has no sympathy for dogma or declarative statements that something is “impossible.” Nature itself seems to lack that sympathy, as well. Seashells have inspired possible modifications of military armor. Jupiter’s moons were thought to be boring, cold chunks of ice before the Voyager probes revealed otherwise. Soft tissue has been confirmed in dinosaur fossils, which surprised just about everyone. The universe keeps knocking our expectations off their fragile pedestals over and over again. I thought we would have learned our lesson by now.

Alas, the modern skeptic, rather than pay any attention to his creed and examine matters at hand with a careful eye, tends to arrogantly scoff at certain verboten claims even before he examines them. Clumsy ad hominem attacks and self-assured political grandstanding start to take the place of any actual care for accuracy. Oftentimes they can make a legitimate point (as in the case of vaccine safety), but follow a faulty line of reasoning. Being right for the wrong reasons is almost as bad as being flat-out wrong.

For that reason, I tend to distrust the conclusions of a self-described “skeptic.” If you call yourself a skeptic, I only ask you to please walk the talk. Send the hard questions in every direction, not only at your favorite punching bag. Remember to sharpen your own thinking skills, and remember: even those with a university degree and grant money can engage in pseudoscience.

The Joy of Writing: Robbed and Regained

Like many fantasy writers, I get a ton of inspiration from J.R.R. Tolkien. The more I read his work, the more quotable he becomes. He has left quite an impression on my work and imagination, even in the reasons I write stories.

This will just be a brief instance of that procrastination known as “writing about writing,” before I finally return to the long-neglected bliss of rewriting that fantasy novel and bringing out what I pray will be the story it was meant to tell.

When people began trying to equate his stories of Middle Earth with contemporary events or themes or hot button topics, Tolkien bristled at the notion that he was writing commentary. He was fine with applicability, but current events were not the point. Tolkien had what he described as a cordial dislike for allegory. “I much prefer history, true or feigned, with its varied applicability to the thought and experience of readers.”

That’s largely my perspective as well. He weaved together this world of Elves and Hobbits and noble Men, and made his stories about the characters and their situations. Not about “the dangers of power” or “relationships” or “self-sacrifice” or the other themes some writers will obsess over. Fiction loses something important when it angsts more about theme/meaning than what its particular characters go through. You can’t quite escape from this world when that happens. Fiction loses its intended illusion of reality.

Perhaps I’m too sensitive, but the fact is my jaw sets, and my enthusiasm and imagination begin to shrivel, when fellow readers and writers spend more time discussing the “themes” or “meaning” of a story than they do discussing the tale itself. I had far too much of that in college, where nearly every professor read ideologies into the text, coldly dissecting it and scrutinizing it like a crowd of microbes in a petri dish.

And then I fell into the creative deathtrap again with too much time on my hands after graduation, taking to the blogosphere and reading deconstructions of movies that only served to rob my enjoyment of the movies themselves. I got fixated on the themes and elements and meanings and cinematography techniques when I wanted to focus on the story. Maybe it’s a side effect of ADD. I don’t know.

Thank God this doesn’t happen to everyone, however! One of my friends told me about how this same practice of dissection and examination can enrich his enjoyment of a story. And more power to him for that!

Being a writer, I still have the responsibility to study the craft of storytelling, and knowing how to tell good tales in satisfying ways. For some reason I enjoy that part of the process.

When I’m learning how to improve my own stories, and when my reading of fiction is done not to scrutinize but to enjoy, I get inspired rather than frustrated. That diminished capacity for joy begins to regain its life and color, and its roots plunge deeper. That frame of mind reminds me how much I love creating new worlds and characters.

Don’t ignore the components of a great story, though. If you are a writer, don’t skimp on technique or think that inspiration is all you need. That’s not what I mean to convey. I only mean to say this: Don’t forget the joy of escaping into another world and making new friends through the pages of a book.

Shared Thoughts on Privilege and Political Correctness

I’m still using this blog. Sorry I haven’t posted lately. I’ve also been writing a few things for Bubblews. A hard-to-pronounce name, I know. So lately, I’ve been blowing off some steam (and still trying to be nice about it) regarding the political correctness-style bullying I was subjected to a short while back. Wanted to rant here, but I’d just be repeating the things I’ve already written. I’ll just offer the links, if you’re interested. On Privilege, the Racebending Incident, and the fact that “sensitivity” has nothing over manners.

Hope you had a very Merry Christmas, and happy New Year!

And if Foz Meadows and/or anyone at Racebending actually reads this: I hope you all had a Merry Christmas, too. May your next year be full of joy, wisdom, and many more smiles than frowns.

A Thank You Note for Tumblr

Dear Tumblr,

Thank you kindly for exposing my insidious subconscious prejudices with near-psychic depth of insight. I owe the site Racebaiting — bending, sorry, Racebending — a tremendous debt. I never would have found out what a horrible, ignorant person I was without random rebloggers reading my thoughts and deciphering my motives for me.

The boost in views is proving quite nice, given Tumblr’s prestigious reputation for cultivating rationality and careful thought. Not like reactionary websites that just encourage knee-jerk reactions, over-the-top flippancy, and groupthink.

But seriously, thanks for displaying exactly the kind of reaction I was speaking against. There’s a huge difference between being “oblivious,” and being mature enough to focus on what is actually worthy of our attention and effort.

If you’ll excuse me for being so rude, I’m going to go join the grownups, and return to my trade: crafting the kinds of stories I want to tell, giving it my best shot, and hoping others will get something out of it.

Good day to you.

P.S.:

A Plea for Reason in Sci-Fi/Fantasy “Discrimination”

Edit: November 2, 2013: Don’t like what’s said on this post? Fine by me. But if you choose to mistake maturity for being “oblivious,” then there’s not much I can do to help you. I could go off on another rant, but I’ll defer to Brad Stine on this one.

—————————————-

Lately I’ve been seeing quite a few accusations of discrimination being flung around the sci-fi/fantasy community. Mainly, it focuses on the fact that many of the writers are white males portraying white male protagonists.

Sorry, what? I must have forgotten to change my race and/or gender before I embarked on writing sci-fi and fantasy. My bad.

Forget about telling me that my “white privilege” is showing or I’m “mansplaining” things to you. I’m addressing you all as human beings, created as equals in the image of God — no more and no less. Look, can everyone quit the mud-slinging for five minutes and just admit this for what it is? If sci-fi and fantasy have somehow been overwhelmed by white, male protagonists/authors (and to a certain extent, that is true), that doesn’t mean it’s racist or sexist. It’s just boring. Well, it’s boring if skin color and gender of the protagonist(s) are a huge deal and determine the quality of a story.

I’m not arguing to keep things the way they are. By all means, let’s start increasing the variety of characters. But it’s nowhere near as important as crafting a good story and fascinating characters to drive it. Aren’t those the basics?

Honestly, I don’t care what the author or character’s race or sex is. I just want the story and the people it’s about to be interesting. In my experience, the only people who have cared a great deal about things the author and character cannot help, like their melanin content or chromosomes, belong to one of two types:

  • Those not-too-common actual racists or sexists — immature people who try to ruin others’ experience with science fiction and fantasy by belittling their race or gender (though I have hardly met any of them)
  • Equally immature people with notes from their classes in race studies or gender studies constantly on the brain, worrying about different types of humans and whether they are “represented” equally among authors or characters, and who think an under-representation of any group is a miscarriage of justice that MUST be addressed (I have met plenty of these, and would rather hope to not run into them again)

Last time I checked, writing classes and books didn’t have much to say on the subject of race or even gender, though that could easily change in the Age of Political Correctness. I don’t care one bit that Avatar: The Last Airbender or The Legend of Korra hardly have any “white” characters. I don’t care that Korra is a girl. I love both series, because the characters are well-developed, and the stories are amazing. And the fight scenes are mind-bogglingly awesome. That too.

But I also don’t care that many of the other stories I love, from Star Wars to Lord of the Rings to Jurassic Park, happen to have a lot of white, male characters driving the story. Because those are exactly the traits of human beings no one should be making a big deal about. What was that Martin Luther King, Jr. said, about people being judged by the content of their character rather than the color of their skin (or the arrangement of their chromosomes, for that matter)?

Female protagonists are supposed to have strength of one kind or another and be proactive, not because they’re female, but because they’re the protagonists. That’s why. There’s nothing in the chief character’s sex that robs him/her of the need to be decisive and proactive. No one except for the aforementioned groups is going to care how light or dark an author’s or character’s skin is. Most of us just want a great story, featuring interesting people and created by someone who knows what they’re doing.

Now can we please get back to having fun, writing the best fiction we can and sharing it with the world? Thanks for your time.

Megalodon and the Decline of Science: From Enthusiasm to Contempt

After Animal Planet ran some specials regarding mermaids, Discovery Channel released another mockumentary which (a) I haven’t seen but my interest is piqued, and (b) has many scientists and science enthusiasts up in arms, blogging up a storm. Here’s the trailer:

Disclaimers were released with the special, but not ones that flat-out said its scenario is strictly fictional (which is problematic). The program, like the mermaid ones before, is a thought exercise. It asks “What if?” — that beloved question of writers, artists, and anyone with an imagination. What are the charges against this show? As I understand it, it’s a combination of “That’s not real,” “Discovery is abandoning science and reality,” and “People fell for it.”

Can I be honest with you? I can agree that Discovery should have done more to let people know the program was presenting a fictional scenario. However…this show isn’t a threat to science. Where are those “huge numbers” of people who still think mermaids are real after seeing the shows on Animal Planet? Are they hiding behind the conspiracy theorists who think the Moon landings were faked?

People are smarter than that, in general, and are probably tired of getting talked down to. I don’t know about any of you, but I am definitely weary of the fear and fretting, including the endless proclamations that science is somehow harmed by mockumentaries.

Sure, don’t lie to people. But if the show is presented in a “what-if” manner, then bring on the Megalodons!

This is part of a bigger issue that stretches across a much larger canvas, from the endless complaints of scientific inaccuracies in movies to the mindset that scientists have “all” the tools we need to discover truth (as a Christian, that’s something I’ll respectfully disagree with). Without asserting it firmly, I worry that the most vocal supporters of science are turning increasingly contemptuous toward anyone who sees nature in a different way than they do, or who asks different questions.

I speak as someone who loves science. I may not have a PhD, but I love nature. I love science. And I appreciate accuracy and realism, insofar as they go. I grew up with Bill Nye and Beakman’s World. David Attenborough nature specials are sources of beauty and amazement. Bob Bakker and George Blasing can talk about dinosaurs for the rest of eternity without boring me (admittedly that’s already hard to do when we’re talking about dinosaurs). Neil deGrasse Tyson is always a delight when he speaks about astronomy — I met him at the Space Symposium in 2006, and count myself blessed for that.

You know what all of these people have (or had, in some cases) in common? Enthusiasm. I caught the science bug from them because they recognized and shared the wonders and the fun it holds. Where is that today, at least on Facebook and the blogosphere? The internet seems to be where science goes to die, even when the cemetery is marked “National Geographic” or “Discover Magazine.”

Please tell me I’m not crazy. Is anyone else noticing scientists now make more headlines for shouting that creationists and global warming “deniers” are idiots than for encouraging us to finally put humans on Mars? Even Nye and Tyson are starting to get in on the rhetorical bloodshed. The contempt is getting old. Fast.

One incontrovertible fact goes all but ignored by the online community as it does its Chicken Little impressions: nature includes so much more than what we know about or can currently explain, even where it seems no surprises are left. Just because a stone is overturned doesn’t mean a door has been closed on this or that possibility. Giant prehistoric sharks living in the present aren’t “impossible.” I find it doubtful that we’ll discover Megalodons surviving in the ocean. But I’m not going to say something foolish, like “all evidence says it’s extinct.” We don’t have all the evidence.

Contempt finds its roots in hubris and paranoia, both of which are well-displayed in the blogosphere. Passion and humility are what drive curiosity forward and breed enthusiasm.

Reality holds a lot of beautiful surprises. Who could have guessed we’d find gigantic pink slugs living in a lost world? That’s reality. What of the tantalizing possibility that it’s raining diamonds on Uranus and Neptune? And those are just the little things, tiny parts of a huge, mysterious universe that we’re nowhere close to understanding in full. There’s still plenty of room in the world for things that we little humans have a hard time imagining to be real.

Why waste my time yelling at Discovery Channel, when I can go look for those surprises? You’ll find me striving alongside Johannes Kepler to “think God’s thoughts after Him.”