And guys, let’s all calm down a bit, ok? Let’s dial down the angry race-talk and take a deep breath – but let’s not just drop the issue that kicked this off, because I think it goes to an important part of what makes the CoG community distinctive.
CoG writers take more seriously than most the question of whether their stories include or exclude people – whether the choices in those stories lock the reader/character into traditional roles or give you freedom to break out of them.
And writers or not, we’re all here because we love stories – especially the kind of story that catches you up and makes you identify with the main character. We grew up with those kinds of stories and we’re still reading them today.
So let’s not make stories less important than they are. It’s not just entertainment sold for profit, like so much popcorn. In every culture, stories are the main thing that teach us roles and boundaries – especially as kids, but continuing as adults. They open up other people’s worlds to us. They can also tell us lies and blind us to truths. Powerful people and groups in society tend to produce lots of stories that reinforce and justify their power. Even if you aren’t forced to read/hear/watch them, stories are “part of the atmosphere” that shapes what we expect and how we react.
Some of the most popular stories are those that simplify other people to objects of the main character’s choices. Like stories that treat women as objects to be screwed or rescued by men; or poor people as victims who need to be saved by kindly rich people; or our enemies as inhuman monsters who hate us without cause and must be killed if we are to survive. If we put ourselves in the shoes of the active, powerful character in those stories, they’re quite satisfying.
It’s easy for us not to realize how those stories can be heard by people from the objectified group. (What the orcs think of Tolkien is admittedly hard to tell). When someone tries to tell you what the story says to them, it can sound or feel like a personal attack. (With the orcs, presumably involving a nasty-looking bladed weapon). Or it can just sound like a bizarre or “twisted” way of seeing things – especially if it involves a metaphorical interpretation of the story that wouldn’t have occurred to us. (Wait – the orcs are actually Turks, echoing Europe’s longstanding fear and enmity toward the Muslims along its eastern border?) But we need to listen and try to understand – especially those of us who do naturally associate ourselves with the protagonists, because we’re the same color or sex or class or culture.
So yep, on one level, Avatar’s a story about a soldier who realizes that he’s fighting for the wrong side, that his enemy aren’t monsters but beautiful people on the verge of extinction. All that is fine – in fact, I think it’s a nice inversion of the “hordes of inhuman monsters” shtick for the guy who made his name with Aliens. It’s just a shame that the story not only has its hero join the right side, but swiftly become its messianic leader.
That implies that the “natives” couldn’t have won without the outsider leading them; that native skills can be mastered much more quickly by the outsider; that their religion and culture find fulfilment in an outsider. And all those ideas are part of a familiar story that we’ve told a lot in the West. We used to tell it much more offensively, back when Kipling could in full seriousness ask his readers to “take up the White Man’s Burden” and feel good about saving non-whites from themselves. In this well-meaning, uneasily guilty age, a lot more Westerners have forgotten those stories – but the formerly colonized nations haven’t, and they hear our current stories in the light of the ones we used to tell ourselves and them to justify our rule.
We can’t pretend those stories never happened. Yes, we need to be careful not to replace them with stories in which every bad thing ever is the fault of the colonizer. Those aren’t true, and don’t do anyone any good. But in light of the oppressive old stories, we who love stories and take them seriously should proactively look for ways to include what the old stories excluded; respect what the old stories treated with contempt; show what the old stories swept under the rug; and understand what the old stories distorted.
That’s the spirit CoG writers tend to show when it comes to sex/gender; let’s see if we can’t manage it in the similar minefield of race and culture.