Lit Ignorance is Bias: The Diversity Manifesto

Discussion in 'Literature' started by CooperTFN, Sep 2, 2012.

  1. Mechalich Force Ghost

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    Feb 2, 2010
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    While I understand the reasoning behind it to some degree, I must say that I find breaking down 'diversity' on a single scale to be a problem. It conflates a number of very different core issues, both from a continuity, political, and thematic perspective. While prejudice may indeed be applied globally without regard for actual classification differences, we cannot treat a proper representation of actual diversity the same way - simplification plays into the hands of those who wish to ignore the issue, as noted by the 'Saba as a female character approach'

    Star Wars doesn't have a single demographic slider, it has several. I count at least four.

    1. Gender: Males vs. Females vs. Neuters

    This is probably the simplest to understand, since it most closely parallels the reader experience of human life and life on earth in gender. Star Wars, as a universe, is structured so that, in the overwhelming majority of cases, species are divided into two genders not simply biologically, but mentally as well, with hermaphroditic species such as Hutts generally adopting one gender or the other in society. There are very few, if any, truly neuter character options, even droids are programmed with gendered personalities.

    This slider also has the most obvious target value: 50:50. Since almost all species in Star Wars follow K-selected life strategies (small number of offspring, parental care, long life span), skewed gender ratios are uncommon, though not entirely absent. Species that did display strong behavioral differences of this nature would have different target values, but for the most part this can be assumed to even out on the galaxy wide scale and we can hope for a 1 to 1 experience. However, it should be noted that misogynistic tendencies have been documented from an in-universe perspective and certain cultural constructs, most obviously the Imperial military but expanding to a degree to all military units in general, have embedded prejudice.

    2. Species: Humans vs. Near-Humans vs. Humanoids vs. True Aliens

    This gets complicated fast, but this is both the most significant, most complex, and most important form of diversity present in Star Wars. It is also, very critically, the one that involves the greatest internal differences in characters and one where real choices regarding viewpoints must be made. Non-human characters are just that not human. This goes beyond the physical to real differences in inherent psychology that change the way these beings think and as a result act. While this has not always been well portrayed, that's bad writing, not a diversity issue, and hardly unique to Star Wars. The take home message though is that certain types of aliens simply are not suited to center stage viewpoint roles because they are well, too alien. Portraying a Hutt, to pick an obvious example, as a viewpoint character would be an immense writing challenge especially considering that even the most 'mature' of Star Wars EU materials are aimed in part at teenagers.

    Such realities bleed into the demographics - the manifesto above makes a point that appearance shouldn't matter in the Galactic Alliance, and that's true, but mindset does matter, and, the further one gets from a human physical structure the less likely that the mindset is going to match with the norms of a universe created largely by a single species with a single physical setup. Form does, to a degree, dictate function. A hive species can't properly set up shop within a human city without redesigning everything around it, inherently ghettoizing itself no matter what society might want.

    What this means is that the target numbers for a diverse society of humans and aliens in Star Wars do not need to reflect the total diversity of aliens on every planet around every star in the galaxy, but only those species that are sufficiently adjusted to, and have chosen to try and, live amongst a mixed interstellar society. There will be many species that are simply too xenophobic, hostile, or otherwise alien to ever leave their home planets and have a peaceful existence (several references to the Unknown Regions have made this point explicitly in regards to the dangers of that region, there was no thousands of years of Republic to convince the Vagaari and their ilk to stay home or be destroyed). By the way, this undoubtedly includes some nasty human cultures, so we're not playing favorites or anything.

    That said, we really don't know what the targets are for the galaxy's demographics. My personal preference, reflected my own Star Wars writing is about 50:15:15:20, but that's little more than a guess. Some sort of concrete decision-making in this regard from LFL would be very helpful.

    3. 'Race': Intra-species Diversity in Humans

    While humans are not the only species in Star Wars with internal ethnic divisions, they are really the only one were it matters to a great degree, largely because of out-of-universe concerns. Race apparently means little to nothing within the Star Wars universe, for while there is cultural prejudice among humans, it appears to be organized largely by planet and to ignore any physical traits. Character race then, becomes a reflection of the expectations of the readers and creators, based in the real-world cultural context. This is very different from species, as mentioned above, since differences between species involve real differences in both mental state and physical capability (ex. Wookiee-level strength), while 'race' is a cosmetic construct bound up with human history and prejudice.

    Star Wars is a universe created by an America and written and produced largely by Americans, despite its global appeal. This is very important regarding its treatment of race. Firstly, the US is an ethnically diverse country, and this creates an expectation of diversity. If Star Wars was being published in Beijing, everyone would be Han Chinese and no one would care. Second, the US has a long and troubled history of ethnic conflict and prejudice, but that is skewed towards a single axis, Black vs. White, that no longer represents the demographics of a changing nation even if it still dominates the chatter. Third, the United States is undergoing a period of dramatic demographic change that continues to this day, making 'US equivalent diversity' a moving target which it is not clear how Star Wars, a property that dates to the mid-1970s should address. Fourth, in the United States, ethnicity is not distributed evenly over space, even though in the color-blind universe of Star Wars they presumably are. This creates mismatches between demographics and experiences, and as a result the experience and perspective of just about every individual in America, including our authors and the readers, does not match the demographic reality of the country as a whole.

    So what's the target? Here's the US by Race in 2010: White: 78.1%, Black: 13.1%, American Indian 1.2%, Asian 5.0%, Pacific Islander 0.2%, Two or more races 2.3%, Other 4.8%. Hispanic or Latino 16.7%, White, non-Hispanic 63.4% (Hispanic is a self-defined category, according to the US census, so the demographics of that grouping and vis-a-vis the white population are a mess).

    Now, here's US race in 1980: White, non-Hispanic 79.6%, Black 11.5%, American Indian 0.6%, Asian 1.5%, Other 0.3%, Hispanic 6.4% (in 1980, Hispanic was not seperated from racial identity as a category, yeah, it makes comparisons more complicated).

    Those are some pretty big differences, and it creates something of a catch-22 in-universe, follow changing demographic trends and you impact continuity, ignore them and you ignore representing diversity accurately. Take Asians as an example: the difference between being 1 out of every 100 humans and 1 out of every 20 humans is massive.

    So what do you do? I'm really not sure myself, probably following current trends is best, but that means older materials have to be evaluated differently than new ones, but that we should also keep in mind, as readers, that older authors grew up and lived in a different, less demographically diverse (and less integrated as well) United States.

    4. Life-Type: Organic vs. Machine

    This essentially, is the droids issue. It's very complicated. By rights, within the Star Wars universe, droids should out-number organic sentients by a significant margin, though one varying drastically depending on technology level and degree of industrialization from one location to the next. However, we know that organic beings dominate the galaxy absolutely, to the point that free droid societies, when and if they come into being, are viewed as aberrations and indeed, dangerous threats to be exterminated. Even more significantly, droids exist on a vast continuum of both intelligence and capability. The most common droids are often the least intelligent (ie. the ubiquitous ASPs), and many models, such as power droids, aren't really capable of anything beyond specialized interaction with the humanoid world around them regardless of how many cognition upgrades they receive.

    There's also some key in-universe factors limiting the viability of droids as main characters. First, its Star Wars, almost every story involves martial conflict in some fashion. However, the universe has gone to great lengths to prove that, in the martial arena, droids simply don't measure up to organics. While the accuracy of this is ultimately debatable, this is a storytelling necessity, otherwise you're reduced to infighting among machine armies and the occasional Terminator-style anti-machine resistance. These are not the stories Star Wars is designed to tell, so droids have been pushed to the side. Secondly, the question of the 'rights' of sentient machines are muddled. Droids are, after all, not-quite all in the same way that organic beings are, in Star Wars this is made explicit via the Force, and a code of ethics that applies to organic beings that share certain commonalities, such as death via the destruction of the body, doesn't really apply to droids. Effectively immortal, vaguely understood combinations of hardware, software, and experience shouldn't be held to the same ethical standards as flesh and blood, but who knows what those standards are. It would be the central premise of a very ambitious science-fiction series to grapple with such issues and their implications (please see Ian M. Bank's Culture universe for an example), and Star Wars is not that series.

    As a result of the above, the proper abundance of droid characters in truly significant roles is a matter of considerable debate, and I don't see any real reason why author preference shouldn't win out.


    Okay, that was a lot to digest and I'll stop now before going further. The take home message is this: diversity issues in Star Wars are a lot more complicated than simply an over-abundance of White Male Humans, and I do not see the universe being well served by boiling the matter down to white men versus everything else. Too many white male humans is the symptom, its not the disease.
  2. beccatoria Force Ghost

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    Fantastic. I don't really recall if I was an active participant in the old thread, on the old forums. Rather shockingly I think it may have been active when I was less active on the forums and it might have passed me by completely. Suffice to say, this post is aces, and I agree with it entirely.

    To join in the issue of aliens and droids, it's tough because they can be used very effectively to highlight issues of diversity or oppression. A diverse cast, even if it does not exactly map onto the diverse humans we see day to day, still helps break down the subliminal assumptions that all the important characters must be WHMs.

    That said, is Ki Adi Mundi as valuable as Adi Gallia? I'd say no. They're both aliens, but one's clearly "really" a white man. I think we also have to take into account whether the aliens presented are going to fall into a clear racial/gender category or whether they really are presented as raceless/genderless.

    But also, I think sometimes aliens DO fall directly into these discussions, particularly near-humans, or humanoids. Luminara Unduli and Barriss Offee are clearly Not White People. Bib Fortuna, on the other hand, I'd argue is, same with Ki Adi Mundi, mentioned above.

    On the other hand, how do we identify Ahsoka? Or more interestingly, Kit Fisto after he showed up in TCW with a Jamaican (I think?) accent.

    I don't think clear answers to this are necessary, but I do think it's worth acknowledging that aliens in SW straddle boundaries, sometimes performing as members of certain groups with which real humans identify, and sometimes not.

    The notion of alien/human diversity is inherently valuable to the verisimilitude of the Star Wars universe, not simply through demographic accuracy but, as Coop notes, in creating a world that further undermines the notion of WHMs being the default main character, even if they're not doing that by forwarding another human demographic group as an alternative. That's useful because it's escapist fantasy and plain fun, that's useful because it's probably going to have a positive subliminal effect on people who would otherwise be resistant to what they'd perceive as "political correctness" when they saw non-male, non-white human protagonists, it's useful because it encourages authors to create interesting, new characters.

    That said, no one in the realworld is going to be hurt because of the lack of Sullustan representation, and I recall being derailed from attempting to discuss the death of Crys Taanzer in Dark Times through a lens of gender representation because Dark Times did such a good job of non-human representation, I should stop knocking it, as though that were equivalent to realworld representational issues.

    And broadly speaking, where aliens don't also double as members of underrepresented human groups, I think their inclusion is important to a message of diversity, but not to the degree it can substitute for better diversity amongst human characters.

    Finally, in response to Force Smugger, I think that Force-users vs Non-Force-users has the potential to allegorically discuss a lot of class/ability/disability issues, but it doesn't inherently do so, and until it's made extraordinarily explicit in the text that that is its intention, I would be wary of using "but this character can't use the Force," as an example of the type of diversity this thread is set up to discuss and promote?
    Last edited by beccatoria, Sep 3, 2012
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  3. Havac Some Guy Who Moderates Lit

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    No, he's not . . . just a fat little mental patient.
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  4. CooperTFN TFN EU Staff Emeritus

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    @Mechalich, I absolutely agree with all of that, and I'm very happy to have those perspectives be a part of this conversation. As I tried to make clear in the OP, there are a number of messy and less-than-ideal equivalencies being drawn by framing the debate the way I have; I focus on WHMs because reducing their prevalence inherently fixes at least some of the problem. I certainly don't like lumping women and gays and Barabels into a single discussion when each is more than worthy of its own, but the core problem I've faced with the diversity topic, historically, is people not wanting to talk about it at all. Like I also said in the OP, this thread isn't about catch-all advocacy, it's about making diversity an established concern; one that plays into the creators' calculus by default. When and if that becomes the norm, it would be great to have four different conversations per your sliders (or better yet, to have one or two because some areas have improved), but I don't think we're there yet.

    Edit: to wit, I should repost from the temp thread an excerpt from Tosche Station's recent interview with Zahn, Stackpole, Allston and KJA:
    Granted, that was a long time ago, but decision-making like that is the problem that underlies everything you talked about.
    Last edited by CooperTFN, Sep 3, 2012
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  5. The Loyal Imperial Manager Emeritus

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    Yeah, this is something I'm not really a fan of. Reference actual cultures if you must, but assigning them (obviously) to aliens is probably the second-worst way I can imagine to do it. At the very least, you're making audience members identify their culture with something that is fundamentally Not Human (and usually marginalized), and more often than not, any in-depth treatment is probably going to be something offensive.
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  6. RC-1991 Force Ghost

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    That first image... :oops:What's going on with Kage, exactly? Aside from child marriage in order to stake a claim to Quarzite?
  7. The Loyal Imperial Manager Emeritus

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    They're an entire species of ninjas with a name that's the Japanese word for shadow.
  8. RC-1991 Force Ghost

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    :rolleyes:

    Well, it's good to know that LFL takes such a nuanced approach to cultural diversity. I'm sure they think that all Scots look like Mel Gibson, covered in kilts and woad.
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  9. The Loyal Imperial Manager Emeritus

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    There are more. The banking planet Aargau is named after a real place. In Switzerland. Of course, they only have three laws on Aargau.
  10. imiller Force Ghost

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    Also...Nemoidians...
  11. CooperTFN TFN EU Staff Emeritus

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    Relevant bit from FANgirl Blog on Ryder Windham's "Chiss Jedi" CVI panel:

    Last edited by CooperTFN, Sep 3, 2012
  12. The Loyal Imperial Manager Emeritus

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    Sullustan would've been better.
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  13. CooperTFN TFN EU Staff Emeritus

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    But then he couldn't go on to become Spiker!
  14. Rogue_Follower Manager Emeritus

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    Also interesting (though less of relevance to this thread):
    Hmm.
  15. The Loyal Imperial Manager Emeritus

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    On a related note, something that really, really annoys me: using highly culture-specific Earth titles. We have a caliph, a khedive, an archon, and a sultan. I can tolerate the titles that have spread widely enough that they're no longer automatically tied to one place or group in particular, but something as specific as a sultan or a caliph just seems excessive.
  16. CooperTFN TFN EU Staff Emeritus

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    Well, that's a slippery slope. Once you veto something like "sultan", how long before you have to take a second look at "rendezvous"? I mean, it's French. :p
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  17. Todd the Jedi Mod and Sitcom Dad of SWTV

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    Or half of the ISD ship names. Chimaera, anyone?
  18. The Loyal Imperial Manager Emeritus

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    Also not a fan of Chimaera.
  19. Zeta1127 Force Ghost

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    What is so wrong with Chimaera?
  20. Todd the Jedi Mod and Sitcom Dad of SWTV

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    It's blatantly from Greek mythology. Of course, most english words can trace their etymology to Ancient Greece and Rome, but stuff like that is a little too blatant.

    And then of course there's all four of Daala's ships in the JAT, also from mythology.

    But anyway, we're off topic. Back to diversity, or the lack thereof.
    Last edited by ToddtheJedi, Sep 3, 2012
  21. The Loyal Imperial Manager Emeritus

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    Hydra, Basilisk, Manticore, Gorgon, Chimaera. References to a mythology the GFFA doesn't, to our knowledge, possess. It'd be like naming a ship Zeus...
  22. Zeta1127 Force Ghost

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    I am well aware of where they come from, and I like all of those names...
  23. Todd the Jedi Mod and Sitcom Dad of SWTV

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    I said,
    :p
  24. CooperTFN TFN EU Staff Emeritus

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    And "Luke" is from the Bible. Like I said, slippery slope.
  25. AdmiralNick22 Fleet Admiral of Literature

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    That is... wow. I guess Aragau is essentially the Switerland of the GFFA.

    I demand that we see the Galactic Alliance army equipped with Aragau Army Watches!

    --Adm. Nick