Why do we need all that baggage?

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I’m feeling the need to say more about the messages embedded in Star Wars: The Last Jedi. I expect I know where they come from. After the Force Awakens, there was controversy about new directions in the series. Presumably the producers were a little annoyed by this, and the result is all these messages about letting go of history. The loss of the old Star Wars is inevitable, actually, as the original characters are now too old to be dashing action figures, and the Princess is dead. As a traditional fan, I understand these messages, but how is a younger audience to take them?

The old Star Wars was about the resourcefulness, courage and discipline that it took to be a Jedi. It was about attaining wisdom and skill in the arts and sciences, and about how easy it is to slip off the narrow path and fall to the dark side. The reward for all the time and effort Luke put into his study was self-esteem, ability, adventure and success in the new world he helped to create.

To review: Most of the troubling messages in the film come from the conversations between Luke and Rey, where we see Luke has rejected his accomplishments and claims the Jedi “religion” is outdated and empty. He advises Rey to kill off history in order to reach her full potential. Rey is ambitious. She makes feeble efforts to train by herself, but blunders through obvious mistakes, while Luke still refuses to help her. We’re left in a universe of kids with no guidance, and the result is wild magic to get what they want, to defend themselves, and maybe to rescue their friends. There’s no emphasis on study, planning or organization. The message is that individual grandstanding, insubordination and mutiny against your leaders is both forgivable and all good in the end.

So, are these really good messages to send to children? I’m sure a lot of kids will love hearing they don’t need the older generation. But, should elders make a decision that the old order is dead and refuse to teach kids the skills and wisdom they’ll need to run the world by themselves? Do we really need to remember all that baggage about codes of honor, the Holocaust and the US Civil War?

I agree that there’s a certain weight to baggage like that. Minorities that see themselves only as victims of discrimination will have a hard time rising above it. If you spend all your time mired in events that ended over a hundred years ago, for example, then you won’t accomplish much that’s new. But civilization grows because we know about the past and pass on knowledge and wisdom to others. It grows because we, as a society, organize, study the mistakes of previous generations and come up with a common plan that most people support to deal with problems in our world.

Don’t grandstanding and individual self-serving only undermine this effort? Why do we, as a society, want to glorify that above study and hard work?

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Thoughts on Atlantic’s Interview with N.K. Jemisin

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In the run up to the Hugo Awards, Atlantic magazine’s writer Vann R. Newkirk II interviewed N.K. Jemisin on her finalist position for the Best Novel Hugo Award. Of course, The Fifth Season went on to win the award.

Jemisin’s nomination and win in the Best Novel category are historic, as she’s the first black writer to achieve this milestone. Newkirk notes the brilliance of the ideas in the novel, and Jemisin admits that a story of this length and scope has been somewhat difficult for her to deal with. Then they go on to politics in the SFF genre (i.e. the Sad/Rabid Puppies) and what has informed the content of what will be a trilogy with The Fifth Season as the first installment. Jemisin notes that she has read a lot of history that will go into the oppression theme of the trilogy. She also suggests she will add “hints” from the Khmer Rouge and the Holocaust to the extant slavery theme and what Newkirk calls the “racial critiques” the first book presents.

In light of current social trends, Jemisin’s comments seem confusing. One of the hot-button topics in the culture war is cultural appropriation (already featured in other blogs here). Some people might consider Jemisin already privileged because of her American birthright, and with her nomination and Hugo win, she has now joined a privileged class of SFF writers. No one questions her right to comment about slavery and oppression, as she comes from a heritage of African American slavery, but is it cultural appropriation for her to borrow from the Khmer Rouge and the Holocaust? Will it be transgressive for her to be putting words in the mouths of Asians and Jews? Also, as an American, is it transgressive for her to be making assumptions about Africa and African history?

I’ve asked these questions before just as a theoretical, but here we have an actual example. Is Jemisin planning something that will be considered cultural appropriation? Or should she not be limited by her race and heritage to writing only about certain racial groups and a certain cultural experience?

Victimhood as Political Power

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So, after the quickie comparison, I’m now back to commenting on social trends. Today’s topic is victimhood and how this is used as a political weapon. This connection shouldn’t really be a surprise to anyone. Just typing “victimhood” into a search engine produces an amazing array of articles on the subject and the effects and possible effects of victimhood on current politics and society.

For anyone unfamiliar with the term, here’s how it works. A person or group of people experiences unfair treatment that leaves them injured and at societal disadvantage. These individuals then claim that other members of society owe them deference, change and/or reparations based on moral obligation. There are a number of examples around of this kind of behavior. For example, here’s a right-leaning article that mentions John McCain’s exploitation of his status as prisoner-of-war and Gabby Giffords’ exploitation of her status as a shooting victim to push their political agendas.

In a recent article, Jamie Bartlett points out that in a victimhood culture, everyone wants to be a victim. This is, of course, so s/he can be seen as someone who deserves respect. Bartlett also points out that the profusion of arguments over who is being victimized reduces the resources that should be going to identifying real social ills and finding solutions for these. This is an important point.

The big advantage to victimhood is that it confers moral power, which can often be translated to political power. Conor Friedersdorf quotes sociologists Bradley Campbell and Jason Manning in an article here, who describe characteristics of victimhood: “…rather than emphasize either their strength or inner worth, the aggrieved emphasize their oppression and social marginalization.”

Freidersdorf points out some of the problems with what he calls “victimhood culture.” According to the author, there is no solution to a victimhood argument, as it only leads to a shouting match between offended groups. Interestingly, he notes that “victimhood culture is likeliest to arise in settings where there is some diversity and inequality, but whose members are almost equal.” Friedersdorf includes some examples, but a more widely publicized one occurred recently at Oberlin College where the victimhood of slavery collided rather unsuccessfully with the Holocaust. Predictably, responses to Freidersdorf article called his use of the word “victimhood” a microaggression .

My comments aren’t to say that political pressure groups don’t address real problems in culture and society. However, I’d like to suggest that remaining mired in victimhood can warp an individual’s self-image and end up becoming a self-fulfilling prophesy. If we really believe in diversity,then shouldn’t we have a look at Okorafor’s opinion? As an outsider to American culture, she seems to think harmonizing and looking for solutions can lead to positive results.

A Bit More on Trangressive Fiction

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I was having a conversation with friends while I was on holiday, and the subject of transgressive fiction came up.

“I had a great story idea a while back,” I said. “It was full of drama and conflict, and I was really in love with it.”

It was also one of those wonderful stories that arrives fully blown—a story that writes itself and only asks you to take the time to make it live.

“You did finish it, didn’t you?” asked my friend.

“No,” I said. “It was transgressive fiction.”

So what was the problem? It was set during the US Civil War and happens from the African American point of view, while I’m pretty much white-bread American. That mean’s I’d be putting word in the mouths of slaves and ex-slaves and projecting feelings that don’t come directly from my own cultural heritage. In other times, it would have been fine for me to write a short story or a play about Reconstruction. I mean, look how well Margaret Mitchell did. But in the current climate, I’d be certain to step on someone’s toes with this story. It’s cultural appropriation, and social commentary about issues like slavery and the Holocaust are very touchy. Even if I spent the time to write the story/play, what editor would feel safe publishing it?

So, my judgment has to be that this is an unwriteable story. Regardless of the richness of the idea, it’s just not worth the effort to put it on paper (er, Word document).

I’m still in love with it though. It does exist, still hanging there in the back of my consciousness, just waiting to be born.

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