Can You Respect the Work of People You Don’t Respect

The other day, I read something that essentially said that modern writers shouldn’t try to emulate H.P. Lovecraft (or, for those who aren’t familiar with his work, the guy who invented Cthulhu), because in real life, the dude was a massive racist.

Now, I’m not necessarily the biggest fan of Lovecraft, but I respect his work. I find that his greatest writing weakness (from a contemporary standpoint) is also his greatest writing strength, which is that he has inspired so many later writers, such as Stephen King and Robert Bloch. At this point, his work feels a little bit predictable, but that’s only because he created so many of the conventions that we see in modern horror and fantasy. In fact, it’s almost a little difficult to write in those genres without drawing a little bit of influence from Lovecraft.

So perhaps that’s part of the reason why I find this statement interesting (after all, how do you contribute to a genre that has roots that you might have a genuine reason to disagree with). But, more than that, this just seems to be part of a larger discussion that we have been having lately.

In 2017, a librarian at Cambridgeport School refused to accept Melania Trump’s gift of Dr. Seuss books, stating that Dr. Seuss was a racist and that his illustrations are “steeped in racist propaganda, caricatures, and harmful stereotypes”. This response drew both support and criticism, the latter coming from people who called Dr. Seuss a “product of his time” and claimed that his racism does not necessarily come across in the texts themselves.

And, personally, I have read countless stories from authors that were incredibly racist. Sometimes this came across in the texts themselves (Edgar Allan Poe’s “The Narrative of Arthur Gordon Pym of Nantucket” is literally about evil black people) and sometimes they didn’t (if you only read L. Frank Baum’s “The Wizard of Oz”, you might not even know that he wrote anti-Native editorials as well).

Even today, problematic people still produce highly respected works. Orson Scott Card’s “Enders Game” is considered a modern sci-fi classic, even spawning a movie adaption in 2013, and yet his homophobia and political views have been a subject of great debate amongst confused readers for years now.

So, what do we do with this information? Can we continue to respect the works of people who might not necessarily deserve respect themselves?

Now, keep in mind, from hereon out, I am merely going to be stating my personal opinion. This is not a definitive answer; all I am trying to do is facilitate discussion.

And, personally, I believe that it is possible to respect the work, even if you don’t respect the artist.

Now, obviously, there are circumstances that make this issue a little bit more complicated. For example, I will go out and spend money on a work from H.P. Lovecraft, but I won’t do the same for Orson Scott Card, primarily because as a consumer, I do not want my money going toward someone who I know is still alive and still actively spreading a message that I do not agree with. Lovecraft, Poe, Baum, Dr. Seuss – all of these men are dead and of a different time period, which doesn’t excuse their beliefs and doesn’t make it okay, but it does put a little bit of distance between me and their political views.

The works that I have mentioned here are all highly influential, and I don’t necessarily think that that should be ignored. Many of these are artists who changed the genre they were working in – that changed storytelling, to a certain extent. I think that that is something that is worthy of respect, even if their political views weren’t.

But even as I say this, there is another layer that needs to be added – their political views shouldn’t be erased or ignored either.

These writers are not heroes. They did not transcend humanity, and they were not above hatred. We need to remember that. We need to respect the people that they hurt with their hate speech. And if we don’t talk about the ways that they failed, just as much as we talk about the ways that they succeeded, then we run the risk of forgetting it. We privilege the good that they did over the bad that they did.

As a result, I don’t think that this is an all-or-nothing scenario. We can’t forget the impact that these writers had on literature, so I disagree when their books are banned from spaces on principal. But we also can’t forget the impact that these writers on society, so I disagree when people take a very “get over it” attitude to the matter.

End of day, I think that the choice to read these works or emulate these writers should come down to the informed individual. It is possible to respect the writing that they produced, but not the person themselves. But if the writer and their political views turns the reader off too much, then that is totally understandable.

Advertisements

Why White Pride Does Not Exist

I am white. I am a white person, with white parents, and I spent my teenage years in a town that was predominately white.

And as a white person, I am here to tell something to my fellow white people: white pride does not exist.

But let’s backtrack a little bit here: why am I saying this? Well, there’s this idea that I have seen tossed around from time to time, on social media sites and the like, that states that white people should be allowed to go out and express their pride for being white.

When this opinion is raised, I often see it equated to other varieties of racial pride, most predominately, black pride. Black people in America are, to a certain degree, allowed to express their pride in their own race, through such methods as art, fashion, and music. And, in response, some white people have gone out and said, “well, why can’t I do that too?”

And in answer to these question, there have been some who say, “because that isn’t simple pride in being white. That is white supremacy.”

And yet, from what I’ve seen on certain social media sites, I’m pretty sure that there are many white people who still do not understand why they cannot be proud of being white, or why being proud automatically equates to white supremacy.

I mean, there’s nothing wrong with being white, right? Your race isn’t really one of those things that you can control, and nobody should ever feel self-conscious about the way that they were born, regardless of who they are. So if that’s the case, then what’s wrong with being proud of who you are? What’s wrong with learning about and cultivating your cultural background?

Well, there are a few points that I can talk about here, and most of them involve comparing what black pride is as opposed to white pride.

First of all, what is black pride? Why did it start? Well, to put it quite simply, black pride began in the United States as “a direct response to white racism especially during the Civil Rights Movement”. In other words, black pride was born out of a society that told people that it wasn’t okay to be black. Its intention is to regain power that was taken away, to empower people who were made to feel like they weren’t cared for or wanted. In that way, the black pride movement is similar to such things as the gay pride parade (something which has similarly made straight people wonder where their pride parade is).

So one of the many, many problems with white pride is the same problem that arises with this idea of the ‘straight pride parade’: white people are not being told that they are wrong or lesser than because of their race. In fact, ‘whiteness’ is simply considered the default in North America: the majority of our most successful celebrities and politicians are white, black people face a certain level of hiring bias, and even despite that, black people tend to be paid less than their white counterparts. And that’s only the tip of the iceberg when it comes to the way that white privilege affects us all.

So, essentially, what I’m getting at here is, black pride is a reaction against racism toward black people. White pride is a reaction against nothing, except for black pride. This might be part of the reason why so many people point at white pride as being, in and of itself, racist. The way that this idea of white pride has come about is not, quite simply, pride in being white; it is pride in being not black, or not Asian, or, quite simply, not a person of colour.

But, again, we are returning to this question of, what is wrong with being proud of who you are? I mean, so long as you aren’t being a jerk about it, why can’t you be proud of your cultural heritage?

Well, the thing is – you can.

Black pride is, by nature, a very different creature from white pride, because the history of black people in America is very, very different from the history of white people in America.

I’m going to assume that the majority of readers here have at least a passing knowledge of the history of slavery in America. This history is extensive and it continues to affect us, even to this day, but what I specifically want to focus on right now is that this history means that many black people were, quite literally, kidnapped from their country of origin and forced to come to America. Because of this, there are many black people living today who have no idea where their ancestors originated from. They might have a general idea of somewhere in Africa, but which part of Africa? What is their cultural heritage? What practices did their ancestors engage in? It’s really difficult to know for sure, when white slave owners quite literally forced their ancestors to forget these practices.

As a result, many African American people do not have a cultural history outside of America. They have the black culture that has been created in America since the end of slavery. That is all.

Not that I, the white woman, can speak for every African American person, but from what I have observed, I gather that black pride is mostly about two things: it is about reclaiming pride in a skin colour that their society tells them that they are lesser for, but it is also about a pride in their culture. For most white people, on the other hand, white pride is about nothing more than pride in their skin colour – a skin colour that they are, in fact, privileged for.

Because, the thing is, most white people know where their ancestors come from. They know the culture that their ancestors practiced, and because they have that knowledge, they can continue learning about it and practicing it and being proud of it.

White pride might not exist, but national pride does.

You can be proud of being British, or French, or Italian, or whatever the case may be. That is allowed, and I sincerely hope that pride in that culture is what many people who are seeking white pride are actually looking for. But pride in whiteness, in and of itself, is an entirely different matter. That is not a pride of culture or heritage; that is a pride of not being a person of colour. And nobody should ever be proud to not be someone else, because that sends the message that there is something wrong with the other person in question.

And there is nothing wrong with us, no matter the colour of our skin.

Why Do We Bother Fighting?

Quite often, I write and I talk about issues surrounding social justice. And, as you might have guessed, that’s because I care about these issues. I care to see women receive the same rights that men take for granted. I care to see people of colour enjoy the privileges that many white people aren’t even aware that they have. I care that anyone at all, be they gay or bisexual, transgender, disabled, neurodivergent, or whatever the case may be, is able to exist within this society feeling safe and loved and accepted. All of this matters to me.

But because I talk about these issues often enough, I’ve come across a person or two who offers me this question: Why? Do I really think that I’m going to make a difference? Is pointing out that a specific train of thought is sexist really going to stop people from thinking that way? All of these issues that I fight to bring light to – racism, sexism, homophobia, heteronormativity, ableism, etc. – are all so deeply ingrained in our culture that I can’t even really expect it to change. So why bother, right?

Shouldn’t we just give up? Shouldn’t we just accept that the world is flawed and move on with our lives? Wouldn’t that make things easier for everybody?

Well, speaking from personal experience, I have to say – no, it wouldn’t make things any easier. In fact, it only makes things worse.

My problem is that I can’t not be aware of these things. I can’t help but notice that they are not only present but prevalent, in everything that we think, do, watch, say. It exists in the politicians that we choose to elect, in the celebrities that we choose to look up to, in the fictional characters that we choose to relate to. It exists in our personal relationships, in the ways that we talk to different people, in the things that we expect from them. I have seen sexism destroy families, and I have seen homophobia kill children. Some people can go their whole lives without noticing any of this, but I can’t – partly because I live it, as a bisexual woman, but also because I’ve gone out of my way to try and educate myself on these matters.

As I said, these issues are important to me. I need to talk about them. And I know I’m not the only person who feels this way.

But even ignoring all of that for a moment – let’s say we as a society could stop talking about these issues. Let’s say that we just dropped every social justice movement tomorrow, because from the logic of those who ask the question to begin with, you’d think that what would happen would be – nothing. The world just wouldn’t change – it would remain the way that it is right now, forever.

And maybe it would.

Maybe women would continue to be told that it was their fault, that they should have dressed or acted differently to avoid being raped.

Maybe black people in America would continue to get shot in the streets by white cops who get off punishment-free.

Maybe gay, bisexual, or transgender children would continue to kill themselves before they even reach adulthood, because they don’t see any possibility that they will ever get to be themselves.

Or maybe all of this would get worse over time, because no one is talking about these issues. No one is making sure that these people know that they aren’t alone, that someone cares and is truly trying to make a difference for them.

And if that’s all you do by talking about these issues – just let someone know that they aren’t alone, and that if they just keep fighting, things might just get better – then isn’t that a worthwhile fight in its own right? Isn’t hope, at least, worthwhile?

Maybe things won’t get any better, I don’t know. Maybe this truly is as good as it’s going to get. But maybe it’s not. Maybe things will get better. They already have, after all. We reach new and exciting milestones all the time – in 2015, the United States legalized same-sex marriage because people cared enough to talk about it. In 2014, Laverne Cox became the first transgender woman to be featured on the cover of Time magazine, accompanying the claim that we as a society were at “the tipping point” for discussing transgender issues. And, no, things aren’t perfect; we still have a long way to go, but little by little, we are winning battles. And we are doing this because we refuse to give up. Because we know that these issues are worth talking about, and so we talk about them.

We fight, not because there is any guarantee that we’ll win, but because we know that it’s a worthy fight nonetheless.

So if you can say that you feel that same way – maybe not specifically about a social justice movement, but about anything at all – if you feel that it is worth defending, and worth believing in, and worth fighting for if you have to, then by all means, fight. Maybe you won’t win, but at least there will be someone fighting. At least people will see that this is something that people care about, something that matters. And maybe not everyone will agree with you. Maybe not enough people will, anyway. But that isn’t the important part. What’s important is that, end of day, you can rest easy with yourself knowing that you did everything you could in your attempts to make the world a better place.

And that, after all, is what we all want to accomplish in our time here on earth, isn’t it?

Is It Okay To Like A Narrative That Is Problematic?

Let’s talk about something that I know everyone enjoys: the media and politics.

More specifically, let’s talk about narratives – whether that be movies, television, or written stories – and their connection to social justice, representation, and politics.

It’s become more and more common lately for people to point it out if something in a narrative is racist, sexist, homophobic, ableist, or whatever. And whenever something like this because common, we’re always going to see a counter-reaction. For example, you might see an exchange similar to this one somewhere on the internet:

Person One: I found this recently released movie to be very sexist/racist/homophobic.

Person Two: Oh my god, how dare you, I can’t like anything anymore!

Now, the reason that I bring this up is not because I want to make fun of either side of the argument. Rather, I’m sort of interested in this idea that a piece of media is inherently unlikeable because it includes questionable politics. I mean, if this was true, then what media could we consume? Is there any media? Would we have no other choice than to reject media altogether – stop buying books, stop going out to movies, all to avoid media that is racist, sexist, homophobic, or whatever the case may be?

Because, after all, all narratives are written by human beings, and they are not written in a vacuum. We exist in a society where ideas that are racist, sexist, homophobic, transphobic, ableist, etc., are sometimes considered the norm. Sometimes writers internalize these ideas. Sometimes, by the time that a writer sits down to write a particular story, they haven’t yet thought critically about every last social justice movement that exists out there. And, not only that, but there are many common, historical tropes in writing that rely upon certain sexist ideals – like the trope of the persecuted heroine, or the hero (who is usually characterized not only as male, but as hyper-masculine as well). So chances are, nearly every narrative, even the ones that go out of their way to be inclusive, fail to live up to one standard or another of being inclusive. Maybe they’re very feminist, but they’re also kind of racist. Maybe they’re very pro-gay, but they’re simultaneously kind of classist.

So what does this mean? Can we not enjoy any story because of this?

Well, while different people might have different opinions on this, I’m personally a huge fan of stories. And I don’t think that someone pointing out that a narrative isn’t inclusive enough means that you can’t enjoy it.

For example, I kind of like the 2006 action movie 300. It isn’t my favourite movie or anything, but I like it. I’ll watch it whenever someone says, “hey, let’s go watch us some 300.” And I am also very aware that it isn’t inclusive toward… anybody. At all. 300 is a very sexist movie that doesn’t even pass the Bechdel test (which, for those of you who aren’t aware, is the absolute lowest standard to prove that a movie includes women as active agents in the text). 300 is also a very racist movie, portraying all of the villains as dark skinned while all of the heroes are light skinned, playing on America’s post-9/11 Islamophobia. And, as the cherry on top of this sundae, 300 is also very, very, very homophobic. “Boy-lover” is used repeatedly throughout the film as an insult toward men (something which is not at all historically accurate for the Spartans, I might add). The villains are all designed to look rather feminine while the heroes are designed to look very, very masculine. And, perhaps worst of all, director Zack Snyder also admitted to playing with homophobia as a tool to make the lead villain seem more foreign and more intimidating to the presumed audience, claiming that he intentionally coded the villain as gay because “what’s more scary to a 20-year-old boy than a giant god-king who wants to have his way with you?”

So, yeah, this movie is a political nightmare, but I still kind of like it. And why? Because I also think of it as sort of the definitive action movie. It won’t make you think (and if you do, you won’t like what you think), but it does have some good fight scenes, some super macho tough dudes, and visually speaking, the movie is stunning. There’s enough in the movie that, as much as I’m aware of its political faults and I’m not going to forget them, I still manage to leave the movie feeling like I got what I wanted out of it.

And, end of day, I think that’s what we should mostly be striving for when we say that a narrative is racist, sexist, homophobic, etc.: awareness. You can still like Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs even if you know it’s sexist. You can look fondly on Breakfast at Tiffany’s, even knowing that it’s kind of racist. But end of day, it’s important that you are aware that it is, because if you aren’t, then the entire context of the narrative changes. Instead of accepting that this is wrong, that this is just for the purposes of a narrative and the narrative is entirely fantasy, you run the risk of taking that into the real world, of believing that this is actually how people are. If I didn’t know that 300 was sexist, then I might just assume that women were all passive agents who didn’t really contribute all that much to anything… unless they happened to be Lena Headey. If I didn’t know that 300 was homophobic, I might assume that all gay men were inherently threats to straight men. These are the lessons that the narrative is teaching me, so if I’m not questioning them, then I run the risk of accepting them instead.

And more than that, we seem to be at a big of a turning point for a lot of media. The most recent movie to win the Academy Award for Best Picture was about a gay black man (Moonlight). One of 2017’s highest grossing movies was about a female superhero (Wonder Woman), but it wasn’t very long ago that movie studios were refusing to put female superheroes in their own solo movies because they tended to flop when compared to their male counterparts. People are getting more and more interested in seeing diversity in our media, and this is awesome. This gives so many more people the opportunity to see themselves represented, rather than just the same straight, middle-to-upper-class, young-to-middle-age white dude that keeps getting catered to over and over again. And as people get more and more interested in diversity, it becomes more important for us to talk about what kind of diversity. We might see a movie about women and say, “that’s great, but the writing was kind of sexist. Can you give us more of this instead?” and if there are enough people demanding, the media will eventually supply.

We point out that there wasn’t enough racial diversity in something because we want to see more racial diversity in something else; not necessarily because we think that you shouldn’t like the original narrative. You can like the original narrative all you want; just be aware that it can be improved in the future. And hopefully, if enough people can keep talking about it, it will be improved in the future.