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Some thoughts on cultural exclusion

Right now, the results of my research are forcing me to reassess the world around me. It’s giving remarkably clear indications of how perfectly nice and thoughtful people help set up a complex culture in which bigots can source their hate. Now that I know a bit more about where it comes from, I need to take a pause in my research and digest it.

I’ve written a summary of key aspects of my latest findings for those who want, and that summary has tentatively been accepted for publication. Watch social media, for I will announce it when it emerges. Beyond those findings, the project might have to wait for years. This post is a bit about the project and a bit about why it’s delayed. And how I’m living the life… but not in the way anyone expected.

Quite simply, if I get the right kind of job then I can do the full academic shebang and hit the subject hard and sort it out. I know what I’m doing and how to turn it into a book. If I don’t get the right kind of job, then slow and gentle is all I can manage, with occasional reports like this one and very occasional conference papers. I’ll be able to teach from it, and each course will be exciting and amazingly useful. That’s all, though. No book. Very few articles.

For those who have seen my work so far and have said “But this is important”, I’m sorry, but I can’t do that kind of research in my current situation. Income matters. At the very least, some of my results will appear in my fiction, for my fiction continues without money. More slowly than if I had money, but it continues.

This knowledge is based on experience. Putting other peoples’ intellectual wishes first has not helped me get enough money to live on, so I now put my own needs first in my big life decisions.

There’s another reason for putting my own needs first in those big life decisions. My research has pointed to a bunch of narratives that set up society to exclude perfectly good people and to nurture bigots. I’m right now observing how it hits the disabled and the cultural and religious minority and gender minorities. I’ve now realised how much my own life in Canberra is affected by this.

It’s complicated, but there are two main outcomes.

The first is that many Canberrans exclude me by making decisions for me regarding what activities they expect from me in my life. Some of the reasons are probably excellent. I don’t know. I don’t know what those reasons are. I am to them sufficiently lower in status to not need an explanation or consultation.

The second is related. One of the most annoying aspects of being minority right now is that earned status is difficult to retain unless one is the token representative of that minority. So in Canberra (but certainly not in all other places) I often have to negotiate work as if I were new to the workforce. And I’m one of the lucky people in my lack of seniority, for who else at my level of the hierarchy has two PhDs and whose short list of publications is four pages long? (there is no long list – I dumped it when my short non-fiction hit the 500 mark, which was while ago) And I have friends, who help. And patrons. And I’ve managed to get to several conferences this year, despite living on around $20,000 annually.

Usually these two factors lead to both exclusion and silencing. I keep pointing out that other people who are excluded are silenced more effectively. I can be left off this list or that, but I still get invitations to write and I still have things to say. This is one of my privileges. (and now I’ve used loads of current jargon – such virtue!)

Taking things back to my research for a moment, I’m talking about these issues today because I found a gap in my knowing. I need to find out if that same gap is present elsewhere, especially in my interpretation of how wider culture affects story. I need to look at who is allowed in a group and who isn’t in novels and other long stories.

I noticed something interesting in The 100 today. Skin colour counts in US tales. This isn’t new. This isn’t what I noticed. What I noticed is that focussing on US definitions of racism and silencing and exclusion to assess who got killed under what circumstances made me miss something else.

In our fiction, our central characters have certain types of personalities. It’s as if they come from a range of action or emotional figurines. We take them out of the box and play with them. Those who lack those characteristics are painted figures on the back of the box. They don’t get full lives. Most people define themselves as the figurines when they place themselves in story, people with full lives. What I think I’m seeing is how people are defining those who are merely figures. And I’m seeing the circumstances when I am a figure, left behind when the figurine is brought out to play but considered to be part of the backdrop. I’m not seen as excluded because of my painted role, but indeed, my role is limited to being in the backdrop of the lives of others.

Like all of us, I carry my own prejudices and see other people as active in my life (figurines) or as backdrop (painted figures). My personal need is need to find out who I see as painted figures and give them the dignity of full lives if I’ve excluded them due to prejudices I bear. I also have to accept that a lot of people who were once close to me have, in the change of culture, shifted me to the painted figure category. They want me on the back of their box to illuminate their life, but they don’t want to have dinner with me. I need to accept that some of this is due to prejudice.

As ever, this is a simplification. I needed a quick and dirty overview so that I could start to think how we do what we do.

I wanted to use the circles shutting people out that are described in Joan G Robinson’s When Marnie Was There. Anna was excluded by these invisible circles and, re-reading the book today, they felt very familiar. The subjective feeling of being excluded by invisible circles, however, rests on whatever draws those circles. In my childhood, it was a primary school child whose name I mentioned the other day to my oldest friend. She laughed and remembered, with equal irony.

This is our old way of seeing it. It works when we move from circles to circles and when we see individuals as having to deal with being alone but assign them equal status as human beings. It’s well encoded and very well described. This means that it’s a part of what’s happening culturally right now. A part. Not the whole thing. For culture is changing. We need to encode the changes. That’s what I’m doing here, but it’s a rough sketch. I need something better than toy figurines and the drawing on the box.

This means it’s back to novels. We encode cultures in the nice straightforward framework of the novel. This means that I can find out a lot about what’s happening around me by looking closely at how we depict ourselves and what we write into a story without knowing. The most worrying discovery so far is the one I explained in my Helsinki paper. The Helsinki paper isn’t for publication yet. This isn’t because it’s bad research. It’s because that paper encapsulated the moment when I realised just how big the thing is that I’m doing and how large its ramifications.

I wish I had that fulltime academic job. I wish that researching this didn’t have to come at the end of the month, after everything else. I only do the amount I do because I’m efficient at it. I can’t spend large amounts of time in archives and libraries right now for I simply need to spend that time earning grocery money. That’s my lifestyle problem.

My scholarly problem right now is that, with this strange lifestyle, I’m carrying too much baggage. I can’t do the research partly because I need income, but the lower status lifestyle gets in my intellectual way. The life carries emotions with it. Every time I’m excluded I feel them come to the surface, for I need to explain them.

Those emotions are why I’m not making as much sense as I’d like tonight. I’m in the middle of big things, intellectually, and my life echoes them.

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