Sunday, June 19, 2016

How Understanding Privilege Helps Your Worldbuilding

The idea of privilege is a hot and contentious topic in the world today, especially because with social media it's become easier to share our experiences, and people are beginning to be exposed to how the world looks through different eyes. Truth is: It looks different. 

Now, to paraphrase something Ed White once said, writers are the type of people who are gathered at a deathbed, with all the crying relatives, and are like, "dammit, where's my notebook?" Yes, we grieve; yes, we understand that some things are really serious and very important. But the world is material. We're just paying attention.

So, when confronted with people saying, "hey, you've got privilege! Check it!" Don't waste time denying it and being offended. This is not a problem. This is an opportunity! It's time to gain a more nuanced understanding about the world, and replicate it in your fiction.

So, privilege. What is it?

Privilege is any advantage that is unearned, exclusive, and socially conferred.

Having privilege can feel like nothing. Why would I be scared to hold hands with my romantic partner while walking down the street? Why would I think anyone would accost me when I'm heading home through my own neighborhood? Why would I ever consider missing class to celebrate my religion? Holidays are on Sundays, and we always have those off.

Not having privilege, on the other hand, can feel like everything. Just going about your normal business--having a job and a relationship and a home--is a source of stress and distress.

Being aware of this, of how whether or not a character is considered 'normal' by society shapes the way they see the world, can really improve your characterization.

But this blog post is not about characterization, it's about worldbuilding. For worldbuilding, the most important part of the definition of privilege above is 'socially conferred.' What does that mean?

Socially conferred means that the benefits of privilege and the costs of its lack are an intrinsic part of a social system. So when you are creating a society for your world, don't forget to pay attention to who has privilege and who doesn't. 

But just saying that 'the Mages are the privileged upper classes' doesn't actually give you a good sense of the world. How does privilege shape a society?

First thing: privilege and its opposite, oppression, are both institutionalized and systemic.

This means that when you're creating your society think about what institutions might support privilege and cause oppression. 

Sometimes its simple, like anti-sodomy laws, or bans on same-sex or interracial marriage. Do you have an alien species that greets its friends by a meeting of ectoplasmic fluids. Is that outlawed? 

Sometimes it's a flank attack, like requiring photo id to vote, or promoting English-only education and cutting funding to ESL departments. Do you have alien refugees who need specialized instruction to learn to communicate with humans? Can they get this instruction? From whom? Why? Do you have vampires who can't have their pictures taken and are disenfranchised by the photo-id law? Do you have a type of chaotic magic that can destroy whole neighborhoods if not contained? Are the people in those neighborhoods allowed to sacrifice the goats necessary to contain this magic?

Sometimes it's inadvertent. The rules were made before anyone bothered to think about what other groups might want, like having Christmas break or Sundays off. But other groups have their own systems and conflicts emerge.

Think about whether there is pressure to change these things, or pressure to institute more oppressive rules. Perhaps werewolves can only digest raw meat, and there are people saying werewolves shouldn't be allowed to eat in cafeterias so normal people don't have to watch them. Probably most werewolves are already eating in the bathroom because they're embarrassed. 

Maybe there's a push to normalize these things, to come out as werewolf--I'm hairy and I'm here! (Caution about appropriative language: Supergirl 'came out' as an alien. She also loudly insisted that she wasn't gay. This is taking queer-coded language, using it for pathos, and rejecting the queer community all in one go. It's a slap in the face. Guess how this could be fixed: actually having a major queer character in the show. It can be okay to make parallels and use elements associated with other communities for relevant purposes. It's not okay to do that without paying your debt. If you make a metaphor for queerness, blackness, non-neurotypicality, you had better have queer, black, and non-neurotypical heroes. (Lesbian!Alex Danvers, please!) If you are thinking about appropriating some Native American stuff, though, think again, read up on it, seriously, and then talk to actual people about it, and then . . . don't do it.)

The other aspect, 'systemic' means that this isn't just an issue about government and politics. Society is made up of people and everything that people create replicates their beliefs. 

The media, also made up of people, plays a huge role in supporting and maintaining privilege and oppression. One way of doing this is through use of stereotypes.

 Stereotypes, as pointed out by social scientists, are a way humans have of making decisions with minimal data. If we find out that one snake is poisonous, we want to avoid all snakes, even the non-poisonous ones, because better safe than sorry, right? So if you don't have a lot of exposure to people of different races, sexualities, abilities, etc, you will make up a vague idea of what they're like, based on the exposure you do have. And that knowledge is going to be flawed, because there is a huge amount of variety within groups. Which is great for fiction! There are so many stories about a kid getting adopted by centaurs and discovering that they aren't all brutish horse people after all, or an alien integrating into a human culture and discovering that they aren't all murderous greedpots plunging toward their species' impending doom. Only it's not that easy.

Your centaur friend--how is he going to feel watching centaurs on TV all the time portrayed as brutish horse people? How is it going to be, knowing that everywhere he goes, people will look away, cross the street to avoid him, or follow him in case he decides to attack someone? How will he feel when he can't find a book in the library where a centaur gets the girl?

The media is created by people who have grown up in a society inundated by stereotypes and they recreate these stereotypes in their media for three reasons. 1) They believe them. 2) They don't realize they're doing it. 3) They're marketable.

As Lord Vetinari says in The Truth: "People like to be told what they already know. Remember that. They get uncomfortable when you tell them new things. New things…well, new things aren’t what they expect. They like to know that, say, a dog will bite a man. That is what dogs do. They don’t want to know that a man bites a dog, because the world is not supposed to happen like that. In short, what people think they want is news, but what they really crave is olds."

People don't want their stereotypes challenged. They want to feel comfortable, like they understand the world, and when they are faced with the fact that the world is different from what they expect they can react with anger, fear, and guilt. Often they argue, attack the speaker, or ignore the information and flee. People who are what their society considers 'normal' are especially likely to not be able to take this kind of information. 

So, if you have a society where the dominant class is tiger people, and you have one tiger person who meets a human who tells him just how hard it is for humans. But the tigers have worked hard at making a good society. Maybe they're refugees from oppression themselves, and every day they tell themselves how good Tiger Country is and how now, finally, they deserve the good life. This tiger isn't just going to believe that there's something wrong with the way humans are treated in their society. They know that humans are stupid and lazy and weak. That's what they're told every day. Just because one human says otherwise--well humans are always whiny, trying to get what they don't deserve. The society is fair. If they deserved better they would get it. But this human is pretty convincing. That sudden doubt, the crack in his worldview, he'd get angry, he'd get scared. Do all humans believe these lies? Are they going to be violent? Do the tigers have to band together to stop them?

Here's the third way of maintaining stereotypes and oppression: People. Our tiger goes to his friend. He tells his friend about this human, but he knows that the other tiger believes the same as he does. So he doesn't say, "I think tigers might be mistreating humans." Instead he says, "This silly human, he said that humans are getting ground up into tiger food. That's absurd, right?" And his friend, regardless of what's true, picks up on the fact that he needs reassurance and says, "of course it is. Everyone knows humans are always making things up." This assuages the tiger's fear and he's back into his usual worldview.

People in groups are very good at supporting each other, even if they end up supporting lies and violence. They talk, they make assumptions, they don't ask questions. When they encounter things that are not as they expect, they even make exceptions. "He's pretty smart for a human." Acknowledging that one human can be smart doesn't lead tiger people to believe that all humans have the capacity to be smart. Instead it picks this one out as exceptional and reinforces the stereotype of the group as dumb.

Kids hear these conversations and they accept the premises. They grow up, having the same conversations, recreating these ideas.

The one thing that we know from social science research is that if people are taught about equality and that people are people, etc. they can police their own attitudes. An enlightened tiger person will still think, 'oh, he's smart, how strange for a human,' but then they will remind themselves that, 'no, humans can be just as smart as anyone else.' They might even think, 'as smart as normal people' and then have to go, 'no, humans are normal too.' But those first, second and third thoughts are still going to be there. People have racist, classist, homophobic thoughts thoughts, but if they're aware of their own racism, classism, and homophobia they can have anti-racist, anti-classist, and anti-homophobic thoughts also.

If you are building a society that has privileged groups and oppressed groups, remember that because privilege is a quality of the society, everyone has these kinds of thoughts. -Isms and -phobias are the default. Characters need a reason to combat these attitudes.

And this is the fourth way that oppression is maintained: The Self.

You might think that in our tiger society, humans aren't speciesist toward humans, but of course they are. Living in a society where at every turn you are told you are stupid and weak and lazy, you look at yourself, you ask yourself, am I? Maybe I am. It's hard to not believe the lies that are told about you. It's hard to combat them when you know that even if you succeed you'll be told that you're 'the exception.' Sometimes you're even told you're the exception by your own group. Sure we want to be special, but special isn't fun when it means you don't belong anymore.

So, when building your society, remember the four common places that privilege and oppression reveal themselves:

1) Institutions
2) Media
3) People in Groups
4) The Self

Figure out what the lies are that people tell about different groups. Why do they tell those lies? Some lies sound positive on the surface, but any generalizations that apply to whole groups are going to be false. 

Why is there oppression in this society? (The harder question is often why isn't there oppression in this society. If there are multiple groups, there's probably going to be some imbalance, for historical reasons. People make up lies to say that this imbalance is the way things ought to be. The conquerers deserve to oppress the conquered. Migrants should be grateful that they can live here. They chose to come here, so clearly they chose to be treated this way.)

It's important to take the why seriously. There are many stories where one group is oppressed because they are 'different.' But the difference is non-significant. Now, from a liberal standpoint, all oppression is based on non-significant differences. But blaming oppression all on simple hypocrisy and selfishness shows a lack of understanding of how privilege works in a society. A story of oppression for oppression's sake, where oppression is bad and only bad people do it, is a comforting lie. It's the same lie that says there is a way to exist in a racist society and be non-racist. Any time there is a belief that a whole society holds and one character denies it--not because of any particular reason, but simply because they are the 'good guy' and 'know better'--the reader is thrown out of the world, because it no longer makes sense. Societies are made up of people, and society influences the way people think. When you're worldbuilding a society, you've got to commit to how it will shape your characters.

Things to keep in mind when plotting:

You can't stop systemic oppression by deposing a tyrant. But sometimes it helps.

1 comment:

  1. Here's the thing. We need to get used to being called racist. Our society is racist. We can't not be racist. So then, instead of struggling so hard to not be perceived as racist, to not get called racist, we can actually try to do something against racism. When did you ever get to be the hero by NOT doing something. Heroes act. You don't get to be the good guy by not doing the wrong thing. You're the good guy when you do the right thing.