Ruth Johnson on SFF, Psychology and the Culture War

Ruth Johnson has a fourth column about psychology and the Culture War which may be of particular interest to science fiction fans:

http://www.ljagilamplighter.com/2015/11/11/culture-war-post-4-the-war-over-archetypes/

The culture war over “gender” has been especially bad in the last two years. You know it started out as about job equality for women, then it shifted to ending exclusion and discrimination against gay people, but lately it is going much farther. If marriage is the same whether a man marries a woman or another man, then in a sense, being a man or a woman is just an external accident, like having a birthmark or blonde hair. What really counts is who you are inside, not how you look on the outside. The next logical step is transgender, the idea that you can shift from man to woman at will, regardless of what you were born. As we write this piece, there are news stories about the federal government ruling that any man who identifies as a woman must be given unrestricted access to women’s locker rooms and bathrooms, and a few days ago, voters in Houston rejected a proposed city law to that same effect. I’ve read any number of opinion pieces that say “gender is a construct,” and that you are a man or woman only to the extent that you believe it inside.

I see this battle as a war over the importance or reality of archetypes. …

Because archetypal ideas are part of our animal instinct, our sense of what makes the world right and safe, the war over gender issues always has a layer of fear to it. When I read things about why we should accept whatever gender someone feels they are [sic], there’s usually an argument about how people will die if we don’t. They will commit suicide, or they will be beaten up by gangs. It’s not just an argument, there are news stories linked to show that this very thing has already been happening. The argument goes that we need to make these changes so that people won’t die tragically. If you resist and oppose change, then either you don’t realize that people are dying, or you don’t care, or in your own small way, you’re participating in killing them. And if you aren’t actually killing them, then you’re helping keep them vulnerable by denying their reality a full place at society’s table. So it’s not an academic dispute, it’s felt to be about life and death, good and evil. There’s a call to action: which side are you going to take, the side of hate and death, or our side?

Q: So the group that is interested in exploring gender roles and seeing them as less restrictive probably loves books like Ancillary Justice or Left Hand of Darkness, which do just that. In fact, it was probably a major factor in Ancillary Justice winning the Hugo in 2014.

A: If there’s one thing the two sides in the Hugo controversy agree on, it’s that the most important thing about Ancillary Justice is not the story itself but the way it used pronouns to obscure gender. Everyone is “she” until the narrator has a reason to identify male or female. It’s explained in the story as just part of the narrator’s native language which, like Chinese and Turkish, doesn’t specify gender in a normal sentence. The narrator, writing in English, is forced to make gender choices in every sentence, so instead just uses “she” for everyone. But I had to read some of the story to understand the thing about language, because when people talk about Ancillary Justice, they elevate the single pronoun to such importance that it’s like the story was really just about obscuring gender. If they liked the story, it’s because at last we’re disrupting mental assumptions that gender will always be visible. If they didn’t like the story, it’s because obscuring gender became more important than whatever was happening.

So that’s a great example of the wider culture battle interfering in science fiction and crowning a winner in what might otherwise just be a dispute about literary taste. Once it’s connected to the wider question of how we, in real life, see men and women, then it’s about life and death, good and evil. It’s like they’re saying, “If you don’t like this story, maybe it’s because you want to suppress the “‘other’.” Those who didn’t like the story respond in defensiveness: “well maybe if you like the story, it’s because you care more about message! You just want to disrupt society.” Now it’s no longer about literary taste, it’s about hurting people or destroying the culture…

… As we’ve said, I’m an outsider to fandom. But watching this from a distance, I noticed the vehement insistence among the mainstream publishers that it was about race and gender identity. Not just insistence, but vehement, at times highly emotional, insistence. A core idea in my personality theory is that parts of our minds are organized around inborn ideas of what a safe world looks like. When I see such vehemence, I suspect that at least some of the people actually feel, deep in their minds, that safety is being challenged. It’s not just “politics” to them…

When you already have a strong fear, it’s very hard to believe that something isn’t connected to it. And with this particular set of fears, Introverted Intuition is a driving force. … All you need is for someone to suggest that “Gamergate and straight white men are trying to hold onto power” and anyone with this belief framework will instantly feel the truth of it. From that point on, any protestations to the contrary are just so much rubbish and self-deception.

When I look at the Sad Puppies, I don’t see straight white men, but I do see leaders who have personalities that value human role archetypes. Their books don’t try to confuse roles like hero and villain or man and woman. They have what I’ve been calling the A combination, in which Intuition is willing to believe anything, but Sensing is deeply tied to roles. When they attack “message fiction,” they are not attacking fiction with any message, but rather the fiction that has the anti-archetypalmessage.

 

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