Thursday, November 21, 2013

Kalpar Lectures: Why Get Offended by Fiction?

Kalpar's Note: Sorry, this is another long, wordy post this week with me ranting about various things which I have opinions about. I had considered doing this as a video lecture but I'm much better at writing my ideas down and I feel like I can transmit it in a more cohesive fashion through this medium. No I haven't died or been attacked or anything, I just haven't felt up to making videos for quite a while due to a combination of laziness and Minecraft. I hope you at least enjoy this post.

Recently I had someone ask me what was the point of getting offended over fiction. The gist of their argument was that since fiction's made up then it doesn't really matter and there's no point in getting offended. I have a much longer response which I'll detail through the rest of this post, but the main point I'm going to make is that fiction does matter and we should care about the messages it sends. And obviously people do get offended by works of fiction, otherwise we wouldn't have a list of the most commonly banned books in the United States, however that offense is not always justified or with some of these books is frequently misguided. But every once in a while you get a book that truly is offensive and sends a message that has no merit whatsoever and it is our right and responsibility as readers to stand up and refuse to accept this sort of garbage as reading material.

Perhaps for as long as humans have existed, we have had fiction. There have always been stories and in some cases they actually pre-date the written word and have been passed down in the oral tradition before being committed to paper. These stories, more specifically these myths (for that's what I'm talking about), served a very important role in helping people understand and make sense of the universe around them. Questions like, "Where did we come from? Why are we here? What's life all about? How should I act towards other people? What happens to me when I die?" Myths sought to explain all of these questions and give people meaning to their existence and an idea on how to operate in the larger world. From the very beginning fiction was a medium to communicate ideas to other people.

Obviously things have gotten a little more complex in the past ten thousand years, but fiction retains its power to communicate philosophies, ideologies, and even theologies to a large number of people in a familiar form. Sometimes fiction is used like a mirror, such as in Gulliver's Travels, where the author reflects all the flaws and issues in society and how they seem so terribly important to those involved, but are really quite silly if you can look at it objectively. Sometimes fiction is used to show how the world really is in contrast to how it really is, like in All Quiet on the Western Front that dispelled the legend of glorious and honorable combat and revealed war for the nightmarish hell that it really is. And sometimes fiction is a means to talk about what's wrong with society and how things can be made better, like the many tangents in Les Miserables which deal with sewers, taxation, and prison reform and how they failed a modern France. With fiction the possibilities are practically endless because you can do all of this and more and are only constrained by the limits of the imagination. Fiction has been and remains a powerful force for influencing how people think, how people act, and how people live and enables one person to share their ideas and beliefs with a very wide range of people.

However, once we get into issues such as opinions and beliefs we start getting into sticky territory. At least in the United States with this glorious freedom of speech and the press, people are allowed to express whatever opinions they wish, no matter how misguided or ill-informed they may be. This has lead to an almost sacred nature of other people's opinions and you're not allowed to challenge their opinions and explain why you think they're wrong in the public forum and be taken seriously. Granted, as the public forum exists now it's very hard to have a reasonable and rational discourse of ideas with another person and it very quickly devolves into a loud shouting match, but ideas should constantly be challenged otherwise there's no way to see if they have any merit and the important thing is to remain respectful despite your disagreement. As with any rule, though, there is of course an exception: when people are completely and utterly wrong and have an opinion that is hurtful than others. Much of America's progress as a nation has been because people have been brave enough to challenge the "opinions" of other people. For example, it was the opinion of quite a few people that African-Americans were "better off" as slaves in the United States and they just didn't have the intellectual capacity to be equal citizens in our country. It was the opinion of many people that Catholics could never be true American citizens because of their loyalty to an overseas absolute monarch: the pope. It was an opinion that women could never be rational enough to trust the vote and they'd just end up voting how their husbands told them to vote. All of these opinions were offensive and based on illegitimate facts and if they had been considered "sacred" and weren't allowed to be challenged in the public forum then we'd be faced with a country still completely dominated by rich, white, Anglo-Saxon, Protestant men. (Although now it's only mostly dominated by rich WASP men. So...some progress I guess.)

In the same way, because fiction is capable of transmitting philosophies and ideologies it is very possible for fiction to transmit beliefs and opinions that are simply wrong and need to be vigorously challenged in the forum. And sometimes the author may not even be aware of the unfortunate implications of their writings, such as stating that a strong female character's backstory is because she was raped in her past. As I explained in another lecture elsewhere, rape as a backstory diminishes the agency of a female character and is offensive because it implies that women can only become tough and strong if something extremely bad like rape happens to them. And this trope has been so strongly woven into fiction that some authors might not even be aware that there's something wrong with this message so it's our duty as readers to inform them about why it's wrong and suggest how they can avoid such pitfalls in the future.

There are times when it's a lot harder to tell if the author accidentally put a message into a novel or honestly believes the message that they're promoting through their work. If they appear to be fully behind this message, though, then it once again is our duty to counter their opinions and explain why we find them offensive and what's wrong with them because it is only by doing so that we can affect change. If an author writes a book that is about a truly abusive relationship but constantly describes it as true love, then we should point out how and why it's abusive and challenge this definition of "true love" at every turn. If a book claims that only the best and brightest deserve to prosper and all others should be left behind to suffer and die, we should challenge this assumption and point out that we're all in this together as human beings and, after all, the world needs ditch diggers in addition to geniuses. Offensive and wrong opinions deserve to be challenged and fought in the forum to help us become better as readers, as writers, and as people. If we demand better writing from our authors and vote with our wallets, we can definitely change how things are written and, although to a lesser effect nowadays, what gets published.

Now, is all fiction going to have deep messages and somehow affect how you live and look at the world? No, of course not. Sometimes a story is just a story and you want to be entertained for a while and there's nothing wrong with that. I do that myself on numerous occasions. The danger is assuming that because fiction is fun it is harmless and cannot affect the world beyond the bookshelf and the library. The simple fact of the matter is yes, books can change the world and greatly affect how people live, even fiction books. If this wasn't the case then tyrants would not have censorship and book burning. Authors have a great power in their writing and can influence thousands, if not millions of people with their words, but not every author is going to utilize this power responsibly. We as the consumers have the power of choice in what books we read, what books we recommend for other people, and what books we tell other people to avoid. By voting with our voices and wallets we can control what ideas spread and flourish, and what ideas wither and die. It is an awesome responsibility and we should use it wisely.

- Kalpar

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