Lit Ignorance is Bias: The Diversity Manifesto

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

  1. CT-867-5309 Force Ghost

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    Jello, where is this discussion taking place?
  2. The Loyal Imperial Manager Emeritus

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    I don't think making sense was ever particularly high on Hitler's list of priorities.
  3. GrandAdmiralJello Moderator Communitatis Litterarumque

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    It's on the game forums for Crusader Kings II. I -- being a lousy mod -- have completely forgotten whether or not we have a rule against linking to outside forums or not, so I won't provide a direct link. But yeah, it's not here on the JC.
  4. Random Comments Force Ghost

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    I'm fine with that, but everyone else calls me RC, so I'm continually confused when somebody calls someone else that.
    Last edited by Random Comments, Dec 10, 2012
  5. cthugha Force Ghost

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    I want to have that discussion some time. Especially with Tolkien himself comparing the dwarves to jews and stuff... I think one could argue that The Hobbit was the book that started the whole "it's not politically opportune to write racist fiction anymore, so let's just transfer it to a fantasy world where there actually are different races" spiel.
    So in a way I guess it might even be relevant to SW.
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  6. Mechalich Force Ghost

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    I don't know about the relevance to Star Wars. One of the key differences between a LOTR swords & sorcery style setup and a Star Wars style space opera setup has to do with major variances in the nature of biology. Swords & Sorcery epics generally advance a fundamentally religious worldview that is creationist in outlook. LOTR is explicitly creationist, as Tolkien took the time to explain his creation myths at great length. Space opera epics, while they may include rather fantasical elements, outright laws-of-physics-defying magic, and play fast and loose with any science they do include, tend to have an evolutionary basis.

    This is a big deal because the difference between the two changes how we understand variation in populations on a fundamental level. Even though the literary process is one of arbitrary creation in both cases, the justifications are different. In a setting like LOTR the differences between Elves, Dwarves, Humans, and the subpopulations of each were determined by the design of the Gods, in one way or another. In a setting like Star Wars those differences are based on the pressures and changes induced by evolution and/or the outright genetic meddling of other, very much mortal beings. Star Wars does muddle the waters somewhat by utilizing the pseudo-divine Celestials on certain occasions or supplying agency to the Force, but in general the evolutionary view holds.

    To dive in with an example: if we look at outward traits, both LOTR and Star Wars have humans and elves (the Sephi and their relatives). In LOTR differences between humans and elves were dictated by divine fiat and their relationships and powers, and all the moral and ethical storm that follows are based in the mythology of the setting. In Star Wars the humans and the Sephi are related, closely, on a genetic level and we can speculate on what selective pressures might have produced those differences, what the psychological changes might be as a result, and how relationships would be conducted as a result.

    The outward appearance may be the same, but everything behind it is different. Both formats are equally capable of being racist of course, but they come at it from different foundational positions.
    Last edited by Mechalich, Dec 10, 2012
  7. Barriss_Coffee Chosen One

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    @Mechalich: Be careful; you're coming awfully close to conflating "culture" with "biology" again. I'm not sure if that's your intent, but you're headed in that direction.
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  8. CooperTFN TFN EU Staff Emeritus

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    Oh, we can absolutely have that conversation here; I was just saying that it's particularly annoying to me, and I don't know that two pages of me ranting about how the entire Tolkien universe is inherently racist would go over well around here.

    ::looks warily at Coffee's avatar::
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  9. Barriss_Coffee Chosen One

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    Go for it. I may be a fan of the story but I know enough about Tolkien to flame him on the ethnocentrism.
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  10. Mechalich Force Ghost

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    I don't see how. I'm pointing out how the philosophical basis for racism changes depending on the underpinnings surrounding the universe (which actually has real life parellels).

    In a creationist world view, humans (and any other sentient entities wandering about) were created directly, in their presence form, by divine agency. So if say, the view is that 'black people are inferior' then is do to God having made them that way, or perhapschanged them to appear that way. There have been various theological noises about 'blackness being the mark of Cain' and other such foolishness at many points throughout history.

    In this view, because the 'races' are the product of divine agency inferiority (or conversely the superiority of the 'chosen people') is self-evident and requires no further evidence or explanation. It is that way because the scripture says it is.

    In the enlightenment/scientific/evolutionist view this changes. Races, or if we move into fantasy scenarios races and species, are the product of evolution (and possibly genetic engineering). Their causes behind observed variations (physical and cultural) can be examined and deduced, the variations themselves can be measured (and in the case of Homo sapiens on Earth found to be measureably without meaning).

    In this view justifying racial prejudice via superiority is much more difficult. It requires finding empirical evidence of such things, evidence which doesn't actually exist, though plenty of people have tried. See The Bell Curve and other related examples.

    Of course, in the real world, Creationism is factually disproven and the only way to try and justify racism is to turn about intellectual contortions and generally look foolish while ultimately being unsuccessful.

    Now, when we move into fantasy realm, things change. The creator, during the process of setting design, has to choose whether the universe that comes into being is creationist or evolutionist. In the former, the author acquires what is effectively divine agency over the creation, being bound in choices by only the limitations of maintaining verisimilitude. They can be as diversity oriented as they wish, they can be as racist as they wish, they can even try to ignore the whole concept by recasting the human species without any differences in the appearance traits commonly associated with race. Therefore, if the read detects prejudice, it is based on the conscious or subconscious choices of the author (or editors or whatever).

    But if an evolution-based view is chosen then there are limits on agency. The internal logic of the universe has to at least nominally math what we know about evolutionary patterns. So, if you introduce an alien species the looks almost exactly like Homo sapiens you have to be prepared to answer 'why do they look like humans' with something more complex than 'because that's what the gods did.' Likewise, if you put a population of human beings on a desert planet to bake in the sun it is legitimate for a reader to wonder why their skin color doesn't gradually darken over generations.

    So to get back to the LOTR versus Star Wars comparison, LOTR is a creationist universe. Everything regarding the population dynamics of that universe traces back to the mythology that Tolkien created, and ultimately to his choices. The same is not entirely true in Star Wars. For example: the Chiss species is established as having descended from humans. I doubt that was something Zahn was really thinking about at the start, he probably just thought blue skin and glowing red eyes would look cool on his alien admiral, but the relatedness flows naturally within the scientific context of the universe.
  11. CooperTFN TFN EU Staff Emeritus

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    If I may - you seem to be saying that subtextual racism in LOTR doesn't count, because there doesn't need to be a scientific basis for its setting. No?
    Last edited by CooperTFN, Dec 10, 2012
  12. Mechalich Force Ghost

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    What? How on Earth do you arrive at that interpretation?

    If anything I was saying the opposite: in a creationist setting, all racism, subtextual or otherwise, traces back to the creator. Tolkien is, effectively, the god of LOTR, everything results from his choices, and therefore we can lay everything quite firmly at his feet (speaking broadly of course, he obviously worked with others during the creative process and accepted their input at points). Whether he was aware that he was being racist, consciously, doesn't really matter, he still put the words down.

    What I was trying to make clear is that in contrast to something like LOTR, Star Wars has another factor in play - our understanding of population dynamics and traits through the science of evolution. In Star Wars, if you define something as a 'species' that has definition is not entirely arbitrary, it has a meaning based in the scientific consensus. That could potentially be a source of prejudice in itself: as in the Tholothians, which someone at Lucasfilm may have mistakenly labeled a new species without thinking through the connotations beforehand.

    If your setting has a scientific foundation, you can bend the rules, but you can't break them. To offer an extreme hypothetical: in LOTR if an elven couple betrayed their people and then gave birth to a dwarf that would be pretty darn prejudiced. If in Star Wars two humans betrayed the Rebellion to join the Empire and then gave birth to a Zabrak, that would be impossible. The reader would wonder about surrogacy, in-vitro genetic manipulation, and so forth. It would still be racist, but it also wouldn't make any sense without further explanation.
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  13. Barriss_Coffee Chosen One

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    First off, @Mechalich, I'm not talking about Creationism.

    Second off, "race" is a much-debated term in anthropology, sociology, etc etc. And it's use varies all over the board in fictional literature. From your arguments throughout this thread it sounds like you're using it like "ethnicity." Ethnicity is not the same as race.

    Uhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhh... did you know science operates with a political agenda? It's not free from bias. It's been and is constantly being used to substantiate all sorts of racist propaganda. And they often do it without looking "foolish," which is why it sometimes takes decades or more to tear down false theories.

    From the way I see it, it sounds like you're pigeonholing fantasy into two types with some sort of nebulous, arbitrary boundary. It sounds from your argument that the "creationist"-types are more prone to racism. And you're using environmental determinism without taking into consideration the fact that you're dealing with thinking, sentient individuals who aren't simply passive automatons adapting to their environmental settings. A large population of Elves, Chiss, whatever, are going to develop into a diverse hodgepodge of different cultural groups over time with intrinsically different behaviors because their cultures are historically contingent just as much as they are dependent on external environmental adaptations. People make deliberate choices that eventually pile up over time, sometimes based on the environment, sometimes not (i.e. social interactions), and sometimes under false judgement. That's where you get cultural variation.

    Is cultural variation observed in fantasy often? No. Occasionally, but it's not the norm. This is the fault of the authors. So if all the species of a single planet in SW act the same, that's specism. If all of Tolkien's dwarfs behave roughly the same and have the same values, that's racism.
    Last edited by Barriss_Coffee, Dec 10, 2012
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  14. Mechalich Force Ghost

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    Nebulous? I find the difference between a world that was created by the deliberate act of will of a divine entity versus one that came into being through a long process more or less in line with present scientific theory rather stark.

    If I, as an author, produce a creationist setting, then I get to choose the rules of that universe completely, down to the very physical constants. For example: in the D&D setting Spelljammer, gravity doesn't function in the way we know it does in this universe. As a result, any issues of prejudice are the ones I have chosen to generate, because I the author, choose what the history is, how populations came to be, and how they interact. I can declare that Elves are naturally superior to Dwarves who are in turn superior to Humans, and it is simply because the gods decreed it to be so. As the author I control the divine beings in this universe so anything I wish to be true is so because I say it is true.

    In a setting that has a scientific foundation, one where the universe took form in a fashion that generally accepts what we currently know of the history of the universe, then I the author have considerably lesser powers. I have accepted an underlying set of rules and I interact with them as I produce my world. I said evolutionist because, when we get to talking about population and species differences, evolution would be the fundamental guide principle. If I produce an Elven-form species that is somehow 'superior' to Homo sapiens I have to provide a reason why this should be so. What conditions produced those differences? As the author in a setting of this type if I wish to define something as true, I must provide an in-universe justification for the same.

    The basic point I was trying to make at the start of this is that I don't feel it is particularly useful to compare the diversity issues of a creationist setting like LOTR, where Tolkien controls all the decisions, to one like Star Wars, where Lucas, and later authors, interact with a consensus view of reality. It makes a vast difference, particularly in how we view in-universe vs. out-of-universe issues.

    I have yet to see a scientific justification of racism that did not look pretty darn foolish upon any level of in-depth scientific scrutiny, at least not in the modern day. It might fool portions of the media and through them the populace anyway, of course.
  15. Rilwen_Shadowflame Force Ghost

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    Also impossible, but hey, theoreticals.
    Last edited by Rilwen_Shadowflame, Dec 10, 2012
  16. CooperTFN TFN EU Staff Emeritus

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    Of course they look foolish in hindsight; that doesn't negate the evil they've done.
  17. Barriss_Coffee Chosen One

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    Did I deny there was a difference between creationism and evolution? No. My argument against the rules your proposed is that there is no fine line. In fiction, the boundary between creationism and science is nebulous. The rules are up to the author.

    I grant you that biologically, the species would differ. Now answer me this: What do you mean by "superior"? Who is making this judgement?

    I sort of see where you're going with this, but I would argue Lucas broke the real-world rules almost as much as Tolkien. Case in point: bipedal sentients! Bipedal sentients everywhere!

    [/quote]

    Anything proven wrong can look "foolish." But racism is still alive and well throughout the world, and using science for justification. It's because science isn't completely objectively -- there's always human bias going on. Data doesn't just speak for itself; you've got to interpret it. Plus your procedure could be biased from the start. This is why scholarly critique is so valuable.
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  18. Mechalich Force Ghost

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    Not really. Iluvatar can always change his mind at any point and alter the nature of reality. In a created setting that is sufficent explanation for anything. It's not good storytelling, obviously, but it could happen. If god exists he can always change his mind.

    Superior in a statistical sense, across populations. Therefore the judgment is made from data presented. In LOTR, Elves are superior to humans in well, just about everything, but we could use say, combat capability, as an example. If you stack 1,000 of Tolkien's representative elves in formation and have them fight 1,000 representative humans the elves will win every single time. So, when Peter Jackson had Elrond say 'Men are weak' in the Fellowship film it was a prejudicial statement, but it was also a statement of fact.

    Making one species clearly possessed of better overall statistics than another is a fairly obvious form of prejudice, which is one reason why Star Wars RPGs (and RPGs generally, even those set in Middle Earth where equality is clearly not the case) take such care to balance the abilities of every species so that no one has an unfair advantage over anyone else.

    I don't see it that way. Sure there's all kinds of things in Star Wars that don't meet current understanding, but in a setting of this type we can assume empirical understanding of reality holds in the absence of canon overiding it. It a created setting the opposite is true, we can only use a scientific principle when we are specifically told it applies. It's two entirely different forms of reasoning.

    Where Star Wars blurs the lines is through the Force, which is an unusual form of supernatural actor in that is it embedded in natural law. Essentially the reality of Star Wars is governed by five fundamental forces instead of four Gravity, Electromagnetism, Weak, Strong, and The Force, but the Force is not a god and while it may have some measure of agency via midichlorians it still conforms to a set of universal laws (as an aside, I've always found this very clever, since it allows Star Wars to present a system of objective good and evil as a principle of the universe itself, rather than through divine moralistic decree).
  19. CooperTFN TFN EU Staff Emeritus

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    Okay, what are we even talking about anymore?

    Let's back up a little - Mech, in what ways do you see LOTF as portraying racist outlooks (or not, I suppose)? Do you think said outlooks have an influence on real-world culture, or at least the fandom?
    Last edited by CooperTFN, Dec 10, 2012
  20. Rilwen_Shadowflame Force Ghost

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    And George Lucas could have arranged an apocalypse consuming the entire GFFA, and said 'oh hey, this revived ancient precursor race with weird powers threw a cosmic tantrum, destroying everything.'
    If you're going by what could happen, you might as well go whole hog.
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  21. GrandAdmiralJello Moderator Communitatis Litterarumque

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    Yeah, basically I'm not understanding this supposed dichotomy between a fantasy "creationist" world and a sci-fi "scientific" world. Both are fictional creations, that come out of the mind of the authors involved. The argument seems to be that if a universe puts restraints on itself by being a science fiction universe (which I don't buy, since authors will discard realism whenever it suits them regardless of genre), that any racism you see is -- what, harder to justify IU? Whereas in a world where elves are superior by fiat, the racism IU is more justified but then it appears more like a deliberate choice to be racist on the part of the creator?

    I don't know why hairs are being split here. I also don't know what speciation has to do with accusations of racism -- whether in-universe "speciesist" stereotypes or out of universe racial stereotypes being projected INTO the fiction.

    In either case, we're talking about culturally derived attitudes and perceptions. Whatever biology or science is invoked has little to do with it except create a pretense -- and this is so regardless of whether we're in a universe where those assumptions are true (assuming for the sake of argument the thing about elves is true, since I'd have no idea).

    Fiction is a cultural product and like all cultural products, the attitudes of their creators influence what's in the work and the attitudes of the readers influence what society gets out of it. The responsibility belongs to those who create it and those who consume it.
    Last edited by GrandAdmiralJello, Dec 10, 2012
  22. Barriss_Coffee Chosen One

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    Why is this not bending (heck, even breaking) the rules of science?
    Last edited by Barriss_Coffee, Dec 10, 2012
  23. Rilwen_Shadowflame Force Ghost

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    For the record, the Tolkienverse has had Elves who monumentally messed up.

    (They're pretty much all dead by the time of Lord of the Rings, leaving some fans to theorise that any apparent Elven superiority in wisdom is because the impulsive ones Darwin Awarded themselves out of existence, and the rest have had time to learn better.:p )

    And nary a Dwarf child to be seen as a result!;)
    Last edited by Rilwen_Shadowflame, Dec 10, 2012
  24. JediFreac Force Ghost

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    Except for Thor, who was a redhead in the original myths....in the movie, depicted by a blonde Australian. And of course in the comics he is friends is a space horse who can wield the power of milojnir.


    I think part of the problem with the outrage here is that the loudest complaints were led by folks who practice the religion of Odinism as part of the white supremacist movement...for them it was less about adhering to the religion than about complaining about the presence of a black man (these folks also complained that Thor fell in love with a Jewish woman in the movie...) If they were really upset about authenticity or the way Odinism is represented (but it's....not) they would have gone after some of the other stuff in the film, not just exclusively Heimdall.

    ---
    Briefly hitting on the Star Wars/LOTOR/ scifi/fantasy discussion, I kind of want to posit that Star Wars is just fantasy with lasers. Not just because hardcore scifi fans call it that, but because there was some intentiionality in Lucas's approach, such as deliberately mapping Star Wars to ancient myths, legends, and archetypes (kind of like a certain JRR...) Also, both creators developed very male-oriented and white-person-oriented fantasy worlds as a product of their time and exposure to diversity and systemic discrimination--their worldviews are projected into the resultant product.
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  25. Valin__Kenobi Author: Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Praji

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    There's one major dopey thing about Heimdall that no one has mentioned, and it's that he and the Asian guy are unique in Asgard in their non-whiteness. The place is populated by, from all appearances, Northern Europeans except for these two. If it's a multiethnic place, why are there not a ton of non-white people? And if not, where did these two come from? Either way it doesn't make sense.
    Last edited by Valin__Kenobi, Dec 10, 2012