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Creating culture

The world faces so many problems right now, and they’re all underpinned by a virtuous normalcy. People who expect that life will be generous and take it for granted, so don’t see or deal with what’s blocking and hurting the lives of others.

I’ve seen this happen in areas where people dedicate their lives to others.

Many spend their lives in service because they really do want to improve the world. Some do it because they want to be seen improving the world, that is, they have an emotional need for attention. I first remarked on this many years ago, when the hardest workers and most innovative people were overlooked for reward, because this person who was shinier deserved it more. ‘Deserved’ meant that every moment of work was trumpeted as special.

Let’s call them Person A. As often work exceptionally hard, but are seldom the original leaders. This trumpeting and reward leads to those who do the work that keeps communities going and who actually change the world being made somewhat silent. Those emotional needs for rewards by As cause a pallor of invisibility around those they work with. I have dealt with many As in my time. Two of my novels, in particular, were affected by As – I had to make an active decision not to centre my writing upon them, for they already had their fame. Judith in The Wizardry of Jewish Women isn’t me, but she’s not an A, either.

Some As have a particular concept of being left-wing and helpful. This concept sets up problems.

Quite a large proportion of As fail to look at the people they’re working with or working to benefit. I’ve heard them described by friends who come from the backgrounds these do-goods are cultivating: they’re people who want the colour or the disability in their life so that they can feel good about themselves.

Not only do they not look, but they are intimidated when one of the people they claim to help turns out to be a strong and independent human being. That’s when we (for I’ve been on the receiving end of this) are regarded as intimidating or even scary. This is because there isn’t a picture in the A’s mind of a human being. The picture is of a stereotype and that stereotype needs help. When the stereotype wants dinner with A as a friend or shows an unexpected side, nothing computes and the new friend is dropped.

This latter group can actually hurt disabled people. In fact, they can hurt anyone, for these As work from stereotypes and people are humans, not cardboard cut-outs. I like to joke that I’m too round to be a cardboard cut-out, but the truth is that these well-meaning people can do more emotional damage than rampant bigots, and they can silence people they regard as allies by simply not paying attention to anything that doesn’t fit their pre-packaged view.

Another side effect of helpful As is when only one person with that particular ‘issue’ or ‘problem’ is included on a list. As don’t see people for who they are or what they can do but because a mental list of doing-good needs to be upheld. An Indigenous person is needed on one list, a woman on another, someone with SE Asian ancestry on a third, or a religious minority on a fourth.

The vast bulk of our actual problems (and here I’m talking as the recipient of racist violence as well as everything else) are ignored unless they fit prior patterns. Mine mostly don’t fit those prior patterns for these people, for one cannot be as strong as I am and still have been ignored or walked over. I am left off many lists, for I am an unsuitable minority.

One of the things I hate most about this is the lack of opportunities these biases create for the victim group. Why do I say ‘victim group’? Whenever people are turned into objects, we become victims. We’re not given the same opportunities as other people, but we’re also turned into “Don’t complain – we’re virtuous and you’re difficult.”

I’ve seen this described in some places as people who assume they’re allies but are actually undermining or hurting others. Pretend allies. Allies who are only there to be seen ie for their own benefit. The thing I’ve noticed over the years is that As don’t often realise what they’re doing. They think they’re allies.

I never used to talk about these things as applying to me. Other people were in more need of help than I was, I thought. That was my bit of A culture.

I’ve added my life up in recent years and discovered that, being intersectional in terms of my lovely minority status means that I have had fewer opportunities than many and very little chance to make a living. I left the public service because I was in a really difficult position due to being Jewish and, without anyone helping me to get out of the position, the best option for me was a redundancy. And in all my other worlds there have been similar incidents. Sometimes it’s because of my cultural and religious background, and sometimes it’s because of the shape of my body (literally), and sometimes it’s because of the fact that I can’t walk quickly and so forth. The fact that I can and do work very long days, and that I get good reviews for my work are not relevant. Every day in some way, I’m treated as a new kid on the block. It was a tough cure for a minor case of being an A.
It’s also something many others have to deal with, especially those who suffer from more than one cultural, mental or physical disadvantage. If society doesn’t treat them as a poster child (which has its own problems) then they’re stuck having to prove who they are, day in and day out. There’s no “They’re experienced.”

This is a very Australian approach to disadvantage. I see it every time I visit Europe. I’m suddenly a person with a lifetime of experience, instead of the one who can be left off lists.

I’ve been working for years on why this kind of thing happens. I’ve also been working on how to avoid it. Alas, my skills on this (which used to be a major source of income for me) have gone the route of “She’s not right for this.” I’m not the token minority allowed to teach these subjects to the public sector anymore.

As racism grows, the shoddy echo of it also grows and life is harder for people on the edges. This is one of the reasons I’ve started talking about it in places like this. Where someone like me (with those two PhDs and so much amazing work experience) is left off lists as not relevant, then people who haven’t had even this much joy in life are stuffed. Mental health problems get added to the list of ills that those dealing with bigotry must endure.

Then there are other issues. I see this in fiction. I can’t distance myself from fiction, being a fiction writer, even though I work very hard at trying to ensure I don’t do these things. My paper at the Woldcon showed one aspect. All my work right now, in fact, shows many aspects, but, of course, I can’t get a job or funding, so this work is likely to take decades. Normally I’d say “I can write novels instead” but in this case, I really need to be able to teach people how to see what they’re doing with their writing and how they’re setting things up for a society that’s not the one they think. It hurts to see this and be unable to help change things.

What the research for my Worldcon paper showed (to put this bluntly) is how perfectly nice writers who hate bigotry can set up a Medieval fantasy world that’s the perfect playing ground for the extreme right. I didn’t describe it as the perfect playing ground for the extreme right, for that’s just an aside ie it wasn’t what I was looking for in the paper. I was looking at the role of religion in those novels.

I was talking to a friend of mine yesterday and she said “It’s not actually a problem that fantasy writers leave Judaism out of their Middle Ages” and for some novels it isn’t. But if all of us leave a standard part of a society out of our invented versions, then the world we create (the shared world, the stuff of which other’s dreams are made when they read a half dozen novels) is one with no Jews. Not many women. Not many (close to none) people who are not from very limited backgrounds. I need to finish this study and find out more about the worlds we create. Income would be nice. It comes down to that.

In the meantime, the shape of the shared invented world sets up problems. Firstly, the extremists will say “Look, our world!” and will use that fiction to develop anger against those of us who are still in their universe and who ought not be. Jews. Non-Subservient women. Others. Many others. This is one of the cultural spots that causes othering, in fact.

Secondly, someone will wave a single book that has one of these elements (the written version of Morgan Freeman in a Robin Hood story) and say “You’re wrong!” They will use this single book to shore up their personal status as a do-good person and an ally.

I have quite a few friends whose books are waved around in this manner. Sometimes it’s for the content and sometimes it’s because of their own background. It has to hurt. Their career, comes with a price and it’s a price they’re always aware of: that they’re the token ‘other’ for their particular group. Their writing is still amazing, but they usually appear on lists as this token other rather than as themselves.

I’m in two minds at this point. I want to discuss this in far more detail, and bring all the evidence forth and argue and explain. I also want to whimper “Does this make sense?”

That whimper comes from the place that says “Some people will not read this or try to understand it or, worse, will dismiss themselves as part of it if I don’t demean myself.” Anyone who has told other people I’m worryingly intelligent has helped cause the need for whimpering. If I’m intimidatingly bright and you’ve shoved me away from opportunity or basic income because of that, then you’ve helped set up a situation where the only way I’m comfortable talking is by being even more intimidatingly bright or by atoning for my existence.

Othering causes some people to live a life of perpetual apologies.

This is a form of silencing. And I’m fed up to here (making a late 1930s German joke about the height of rubbish in a bigoted environment) with subtle silencing. It’s the acceptance of all this garbage that’s got us into such a mess. We hurt people and then we say “But we’re not the problem.”

My life is an ongoing revision. I know I’ve got biases, for biases come from deep cultural places. I address them every single day. It’s the big reason I can’t stop doing what I do. That’s my share of the hard work.

What really scares me right now is that people seldom question themselves like this when they live in places of greater comfort, with income and health and sufficient majority status so that they don’t have to face this garbage personally. They patter at the edges. They take from others and they tokenise others and they say “Aren’t I good?” They turn themselves into As.

If you’re a writer or a critic I can tell you precisely how good you are – this is part of what my research is about. And I can say upfront that most of us are doing far more damage than we think. We’re creating a cultural cradle for exactly the parts of society that our fine words claim to hate. I’m not, in my writing, but I’m part of the problem because I am not visible as a writer. Being a minority means this – we have smaller sales unless we’re a token, and bookshops think “I dunno – let’s follow the mainstream.” Every time I walk through a bookshop, I see this problem. Every time I hear a writer talk about their work, I see this problem. Every time I hear an editor talk about what they’re looking for in fiction, I see this problem.

Writers and artists decide the kind of world we live in and we help to create it. So do organisers and critics and academics. Powers of force. Powers for hope. Each and every one of us should be questioning rather than accepting. Being an A is comfortable, but it hurts other people.

1 comment

  1. Adrian Smith

    Wonderful essay. Lot of food for thought.

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