Power, Bullying and ‘isms’

It’s been a while since I wrote up one of my ‘Philosophy behind my stories’ posts to bore everyone rigid with. So if you have insomnia… help is at hand!

One of the current memes being aggressively pushed is: On attacking and demeaning someone of another race (usually white) “I can’t be racist, I am not white. Whites are in power and dominant and you have to be that to be racist.” or on attacking and demeaning someone of another sex or orientation (usually male, heterosexual) “I can’t be sexist, I am not male. Males are in power and dominant and you have to be that to be sexist.”

Oddly, I believe there is a fragment of rightness in what on the surface makes as much sense as a hedgehog full of LSD reciting the Koran backwards. In Latin. With a lisp.

Racism is quite simply and clearly prejudice (against or for) on the basis of race. Sexism is prejudice (against or for) on the basis of sex. Both rest on the mean group characteristics always trumping the individual’s characteristics. Think about it: it can’t actually work any other way. Obviously there are no ‘exclusions’ – the concept transcends current circumstances and passes quite cheerfully through cultures and history.

Of course, logic says (and this is the grain — a tiny one — of rightness in the bizarre meme) to translate that prejudice into discrimination which could hurt (or help – let’s not forget it works the other way too) the other person/s involved is that the individual expressing that racist/sexist prejudice needs to be in a position of power to do so.

But of course what is missing in the meme is that power is relative and localized. Coming back to my own work, I have a character in Crawlspace and Other Stories — Laggy — who was a Khorozhet slave, before being liberated by HAR Marines (and hereafter are certain spoilers. Proceed if you have read the space-set murder-mystery, or don’t care).

So: naturally a hero… well, certainly a hero by current sf-tropes. Slaves are by definition always wronged, always victims, always good (Jack Vance was the last author I can think of to not go with this trope. A brave and vastly under-rated and under-appreciated author.)

Let’s play this one through, logically. A slave is at the bottom of social pyramid. He has to be a victim…

Except of course he is not alone at the bottom of that pyramid. And among slaves there too is a hierarchy. Laggy, it turns out, was a trusty. A slave who exploited other slaves. When we take a close look slaves or prisoners… it turns out that, actually, this is quite common, and widely reported, except in modern fiction. There is also the interesting assumption that someone who has been enslaved was somehow always an innocent saint before the bad men (always in modern sf, by bad white men. Once again, history is not congruent with this version of the narrative. Enslavement and slave-keeping haven’t actually been limited to any one race or culture. It seems to have cropped up for a long long time – those bad white men were plainly in the pyramid building business.) came took them from their peaceful vegetarian matriarchal idyll and enslaved them. Let’s face it: innocent saints living in peaceful vegetarian matriarchy are probably very easy to capture and enslave. But of course, in reality such societies tend to die quite quickly unless protected by people who are none of the above, or extremely isolated with very high natural mortality. And even there: saints are thin on the ground. Slave takers didn’t care if you were a wife-beating child abuser who murdered his neighbor, or a saint. The former probably got away or possibly sold out the latter, but if a tribe or a village – or a stray individual got captured, the slavers didn’t do a thorough background check before issuing a ‘be a slave’ license (as in A MANKIND WITCH, where they enslaved someone they should have either ransomed or handed over for the dead-or-alive reward, and better dead). Slaves have to be a cross section of humanity too. Good, bad and mixed. Extreme conditions bring out the hidden best in some, and the worst in others… except in modern fiction.

Nor is the other standard trope: even if they were axe-murdering drug pushers when enslaved… when freed they’ve learned from the experience and become good people (TM) and would never ever exploit (or enslave) anyone else. It does happen — and that is at the root of our criminal justice system (I don’t think this ideal, but that’s a different discussion, different books). But if it worked that way all the time, there’d be no recidivism. That’s not true, and neither is the assumption that just because someone has been a victim, they will not victimize someone else. Sadly, that is not the case. It does happen that the former victim is determined not to do the same… But it is far from inevitable. And, because we are the center of own perceptions, it is quite plausible (and I suspect common) for someone to be be bullied… and at the same time to be bullying another. Or to join in bullying another to avoid being bullied. Or to have been bullied when small, growing and bullying others. And this is at the heart of CRAWLSPACE – Laggy is presumed innocent and good because he was a Khorozhet slave. In actual fact he’d murdered the man whose identity he’d assumed, been captured along with the other miners on the rock, and ended up as a trusty – by betraying some of them. He had seen opportunity with liberation – and kept the other (alien) slaves who had hidden during the attack, hidden after liberation, and still slaves. His slaves now, unaware that they’d been freed – a process he repeated with highly addictive drugs and the prostitutes at his bar. Note that the story does not portray ALL slaves as like Mr Laguna, or even most slaves. It is merely a hopefully plausible example of the variability and of the importance of relative power in any circumstance.

So what does this have to do with racism, sexism and the trope of “I can’t be… because I’m not a white male, and I have no power to be that in a society in which white males are dominant.” Well, it’s just power is a local or proximal thing, and, logically differs on the basis of the individuals (not groups) in the power relationship. So for example, you might (if you were a moonbat excusing your racist and/or sexist behavior) say White Men still dominate business and politics in Western society and therefore I can’t be. Or even more illogically ‘historically white men were dominant’… Well, let’s take traditional publishing. Historically white men were dominant. But that’s a shifting picture, which, with 74% women employed, and at least 70% in editorial… only 51% in management (and by the salary/age facts those men in management are old, and gradually fading from the picture. In ten years time it’ll be — conservatively — 85% female, and 70% female management.) Given an editor’s (or even someone in marketing) power over an author, it is perfectly accurate to say, despite history or the larger picture of society, the women in publishing would be well positioned to apply sexist prejudice against male authors. On the other hand male authors might be sexist about the editor, but he is in no position to discriminate against (or for) her as a result. The same is not true of the other side of the power equation. It’s not the situation in the wider society, it’s in that relationship. And the historically abused can be abusers. Sometimes they feel it is ‘payback’. Of course, it is never payback to the actual individual person/s who hurt them, but a payback to the ‘group’- which usually boils down another individual/s who may well not ever have inflicted any hurt on any of their group, and who may be in a very fragile personal position. Just because someone is a man, does not mean he is not also poor or suicidal or mentally unstable. When you treat individuals as individuals, that is obvious. When someone is a ‘group’ you can be wildly wrong.

Power determines who can bully who. And it is proximal power. Just as the kid who might come from an intelligent, well-off, socially and financially powerful family can still get the crap knocked out of him by a big kid whose single mother is on welfare and is slightly thicker than your average Hugo ‘Noah Ward’ voter (i.e. needing ‘breathe in, breathe out’ instructions to stop themselves dying of anoxia to the brain cell*) in the locker room, it’s a question who has power in that circumstance.

We’ve had a similar dose of insanity with sad/rabid puppies, with publishers, editors, powerful and successful authors with multiple awards shrieking loudly that the puppies and the nominees – who are none of the above – are bullying them. How, pray? Oh and despite all the evidence to the contrary, they’re sexists and misogynists (even the women) and white racists (even the not-white, or married to not white folk). And, besides the fact that it’s wildly inaccurate, what difference would it make? They have no power to apply prejudice. The inverse, of course is not true.

It has always struck me — as a guy who believes in judging individuals as individuals — how sometimes what is called ‘discrimination’ or sexism or racism is no such animal. Take the cop who hears a noise in an alley – he steps into it and sees a white woman and a black man wrestling desperately. He can only deal with one of them. It’s dim, he sees knife steel, but has no idea what’s happening. What does he do? By the current PC rules one way he’s a sexist, the other racist.

Maybe he should call for a safe space for them talk about it.

Or go for coffee and leave them to it, which is what I am going to do.

*if you think this is a bit harsh, you haven’t thought about the obvious ‘reply’ to this. Nor what good recruiting fodder it is for their foes.



Filed under philosophy, politics, science Fiction

7 responses to “Power, Bullying and ‘isms’

  1. catseyes

    “Always in modern sf, by bad white men.”

    This has a few exceptions. One interesting one is the alternate history series that starts with Lion’s Blood, by Steven Barnes, who happens to be Tananarive Due’s husband, the final book of which is supposed to be published RSN.

    • 🙂 There are always a few exceptions (and I am not surprised it comes from Barnes. I’ve enjoyed some of his other books) but they are so statistically rare as to run alongside the ‘there is no political bias in the Hugos’ as an argument.

  2. Yelling about how oppressed you are is an excellent way to disguise the fact that you’re actually not only in power, but abusing it. When all is said and done, most people pay much more attention to what is said than to what is done.

    • Indeed. And it is the largest and most powerful -and greatest beneficiaries of cooking the system screaming about it.

      • I’d love to see THIS insight propagated via fiction. It would balance out victim sanctification in a way that merely saying “you don’t do too badly” does not.

  3. Connie Elliott

    Well, of course. How do you think they ensure they stay in power?

  4. I know I’m a year late and a dollar short but *shrug* I still have this habit of never keeping my mouth shut.
    While I am familiar with the type of comments you’re talking about and can understand the frustration, there’s a lot more rightness than you seem to be able to see. The issue, to me (disclaimer, linguistics major here), is that there is a lack in our language. So when we have someone who’s rude to another because they are, say, an affluent white male we use the word “sexist” or “racist”. In this instance the only result is some upset feelings. However, when we have someone who is at a disadvantage due to systemic racial or gender inequality we use the same words. These experiences are so vastly different regardless of the smidgen of similarity they share. It’s racism when a black man calls a white man “Cracker” (I’m currently living in the US so you’ll have to forgive my regional vocab). It’s also racism when a resume is sent out with the name “Jose” and gets zero responses, but the same resume with the name “John” gets many. The latter is something that’s been done in a few different situations and always the same result. One results in upset feelings or a bad day, the other can result in poverty, homelessness, or even death. I can link you to news reports and studies on this, if you like, but it’ll take me time to track them down.
    Now when we get into the issue of privilege, which seems to be your next bone to pick, it’s incredibly complex. Privilege is not a monolithic thing with strict boundaries. It’s an overlapping system that’s built on history and the status quo. Your slave example is actually a really good visual, but the whole thing is…well…complicated. If you have one hundred dollars and I have five, are we on equal footing since I have more than the homeless man on the park bench? You can do many things and I can do few, even if I can do more than the man on the bench, but you are in a better position than I. I will not be able to eat at a nice restaurant and you can. This is ridiculously simplified of course, but it is an illustration of how privilege can work.
    Given that I’m female, I’ve always had first hand knowledge of the different “types” of sexism. In high school a guy who slept around was amazing, but because I had large breasts I was a slut and despicable (literally a virgin on my wedding night, for the record). I guess I learned to ponder the things I didn’t have first hand experience with because of my upbringing and how shocking adulthood and the real world were to me. My parents were divorced and my mom lived out in the boonies in an area that was overwhelmingly white. My father lived in the city and, due primarily to our large family and income bracket, our homes were almost always in immigrant neighbourhoods. I grew up thinking racism was a thing of the past because I never saw it. I was surrounded by people from all over, Nigeria, the Ukraine, Pakistan, Thailand, the Philippines, you name it. It was a fantastic way to grow up, honestly. However…I can remember the first time I heard someone in real life use “n****r” in all its racist and hateful glory. My heart leapt into my throat and I didn’t know how to handle it. That started the path to me realizing that the -isms weren’t dead I realized after that that just because it was something I didn’t experience didn’t make it any less real.
    I know this is a year later and you’re doubtless rolling your eyes at the notification going “Really???” but I was never raised to be a quiet one. I believe things worth saying are worth saying regardless of when. There’s no time limit on courteous disagreement and discussion. I would just ask that you try to read what I have to say and think about it for a bit. If you respond I’m happy to reply back when I have the opportunity, and if you don’t I’m totally fine with that too. I’ll just assume you’re writing more books for my greedy little brain ;).

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