Wednesday, February 18, 2015

Messaging Versus Entertaining

Hey, things have been getting way too heavy around here.

Sarah Hoyt notes the hazard in trading entertainment value for a socially approved message:

[A] story that relies on “right think” to justify its right to exist might not bother with less glamorous bits of craft such as making sure your reasoning makes sense throughout, or that you have established the character’s traits to evoke an emotional response from the reader and catharsis at the end of the story....[I]ntroduce a minority character, be it racial, sexual or religious, in one of the approved “categories” and the readership, which are “fans” of social justice will immediately imbue that “victim character” with all the characteristics of noble victims ever penned since Jean Jacques Rousseau rode the noble savage into the sunset.

Because of that, “message writing” will always be inferior to “entertainment writing” when viewed in the dispassionate cold light of day....

But there is more moral peril to “message writing” because of the very mode of thought it encourages amid its practitioners; a mode of thought best described as “seeing oppressors under every bed.”

Sarah's target in the above-cited essay is the "social-justice writing" crowd that seems to be entrenched beyond all possibility of removal at the conventional publishing houses I usually call Pub World. Both her points are valid, but it's the second one that has enduring importance.

When your culture screams that you're a victim, you're far more likely to accept that that's what you are, unalterably. When a culture tells an entire demographic that it's a victim-group, that group is likely to exhibit all the most unfortunate features of such groups throughout history. The worst of those features is the "victim's" tendency to define himself in relation to his "oppressors."

The case of a true victim class, the enslaved Negroes of pre-Civil-War America, is most illustrative. The Negro slave defined his entire existence relative to that of his owner. He had no choice in the matter, for his owner dictated the conditions of every moment of his life. Even once the slaves were emancipated, the former slave tended to view his cone of possibilities from the vantage point of his prior enslavement. That persistence of outlook gave rise to the tenant farming / "sharecropping" economy that flourished in the South for some years after the war.

In contrast, members of the ersatz victim classes of today voluntarily adopt such a perspective. Some of them do so insincerely: i.e., in pursuit of advantages available to officially recognized, legally privileged groups. Some do so for reasons deriving from their personal circumstances, for there are still social pockets in America where the great majority exhibits disdain for members of certain minorities and treats them unfairly. But a great many, perhaps most, do so because the culture in which they're immersed tells them loudly and multifariously that they're oppressed.

The culture, be it ever remembered, swaddles all of us at every instant of our lives. It's embedded in our journalism, our entertainment, our commercial and social conventions, our prevailing modes of dress and conduct, and our habits of speech. Though it cannot dictate with godlike force, it can condition us, cause us to look away from certain possibilities, and refuse to admit that certain alternatives to "the way things are" even exist.

Culture, like motivation, is a field-like force. It presses all of us in the same direction.

“A mechanical process can reverse a bit at random, but motivation acts like a field — the elements won’t change unless the field does.” — James Tiptree, “Faithful To Thee, Terra, In Our Fashion”

Some will resist the urgings of culture, and some of those will be successful. But the pressure will still be there.

One of the best reasons for conservatives to reclaim the American culture is that it's probably the only way, short of mass bloodshed, to put an end to the cult of victimism that pervades today's legal and political environment. The proliferation of self-nominated victim-groups has become absurd. Everyone seems to want to be classified as a victim of some sort, and why not? There are legal privileges to be had. There are social accommodations for victims, all the way from support groups and twelve-step programs to victims-only movie nights, dating websites, and fetish clubs. (Watch out for that "Fifty Shades" stuff; there's no telling what could follow it into your neighborhood.) Companies large and small chafe under de facto hiring quotas designed to mollify victim groups -- and once hired, many such victims demand and receive special accommodations. If we omit government itself, there's no more noxious influence on our social order.

A reclaimed culture that emphasizes individualism and self-determination is the winning counterforce to the victimist tide:

  • A journalistic culture that refuses to treat crimes differently according to the races, sexes, and creeds of the perpetrators;
  • An entertainment culture that refrains from valorizing characters because of their group membership;
  • A commercial culture that ignores group membership and recognizes only performance;
  • Social conventions that recognize race, sex, and creed without privileging particular ones;
  • True tolerance of freely chosen "roles," especially traditional masculinity and femininity;
  • A lexicon and a diction that are indifferent to the assumed sensitivities of various groups.

The heart of this prescription is individualism. Your membership in a group means only that you're a member of that group: i.e., that you conform to the genus and differentia that define the group. If the group is known for certain disagreeable patterns of conduct, it's your job to demonstrate that you diverge from that pattern. This is especially important in matters of race, sex, and creed. It becomes critical when stereotypes are involved.

Something the celebrated Judith Martin, a.k.a. Miss Manners, once said strikes me as apposite. A mother had written to her about worries about her teenage daughter's social circle. Apparently that group was trending in a destructive direction -- the specifics elude my memory at this time -- and Mom was worried that her daughter would succumb to "peer pressure." Martin's reply was stunning: "Tell your daughter, 'You're a peer too, so why not start some pressure in the other direction?'"

Why not, indeed?

The connection to my personal concerns is, of course, through fiction. Sarah's essay reminded me of a complaint I got from a reader about the religious connotation attached to the name of an antagonist character in one of my books. I was nonplussed. My reader was offended by the idea that a person of her faith might ever turn out to be a villain. Though I let her complaint slide off my back, it has remained with me as a reminder of the insistence activist groups have placed on being represented in some venues and being excluded from others.

Have you noticed how seldom the villain in a contemporary police or detective drama turns out to be a Negro? Yet I can't name a show in which none of the good guys are black -- possibly because I only watch television between paragraphs -- and to cap the irony, the black character is usually cast as a master of technology or some other sort of bulging brain. Impossible? No, not at all. But given what we know about academic proclivities and occupational distributions, how likely is it?

That's rankled me for quite some time. I allowed it to influence certain decisions I made in the Realm of Essences books -- in the reverse direction. Call it my contribution to re-establishing true proportionality. After that set of adventures, when I tackled the Spooner Federation saga, I resolved not to mention race at all.

That's how our fictional culture is formed. Those already in the arena have made their decisions. It's high time those of us who love freedom got in there, too. But, please: always make entertaining the reader your first priority. Don't risk boring or alienating him for "a pot of message."


Weetabix said...

My goodness, you do get the entertainment portion of your writing right. But without the messages (themes?), I don't think I'd enjoy it.

I read a book once on how to write. The author said something like, "Needless to say, a writer's sensibility can only interlock with the affections of readers who share his fundamental moral views." Then, "A writer's sensibility, which compounds his moral views and his sense of human character into themes that can be fictionally explored, is near to unalterable." [/flattery]

Those are messages, too, really. But like cultures, not all messages are equal. Some are much more valuable. If your "pot of message" is actually valuable and well presented, it will sway some in the right direction.

I like your pots of message. ;-)

GamegetterII said...

"A journalistic culture that refuses to treat crimes differently according to the races, sexes, and creeds of the perpetrators;..."

Until we can reach the things you mentioned above,I say we need to name a few new "protected classes",
as the following have been discriminated against...

1)gun owners

2) hunters

3) white Christian males

4)ranchers/others who raise livestock to be processed for food.

5)real investigative journalists-
( Sharyl Atkisson etc.)

6)indie writers who refuse to follow the SJW "code of honor"

Vernon said...

I assume you are familiar with Bill Whittle ( One of his primary messages is that it is necessary to take back the culture in order to take back the country.

Reg T said...

On "victimism", I recently saw a cute paraphrase of an old quote on a Day By Day cartoon. I don't now if Chris is the originator or not, but it went, "To the victims go the spoils".

Perhaps "Into victims go the spoiled" would be appropriate, too.