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Posts Tagged ‘society’

arsefaceAs a cisgendered, melanin-lacking, imperfect female I’m often considered to have privilege and thus not to be worth listening to on any topic you care to mention. Apparently, and without irony, because society is designed to cater to my every whim – not that it feels that way. However, there is at least one arena in which I can be considered an oppressed minority and that’s the arena of mental health. I’m not neurotypical.

OK, I prefer to speak straightforwardly and I can’t keep that up for much longer, so let’s cut to the chase.

I am mentally ill, if functional, in that I suffer from moderate to severe depression. Having inadvertently seen my doctor’s notes I know that I’m on record as being much more at the severe end. This doesn’t mean I’m cuckoo for cocoa puffs, just that my brain is broken in such a way that I have an incredibly low self image (resistant to outside reinforcement and support), have trouble experiencing joy and happiness, have a naturally quite pessimistic outlook and am frequently indescribably miserable and unmotivated for no reason that makes sense to someone who hasn’t had a bout of depression. I have been depressed to the point of being suicidal a handful of times in my 37 years, though I’ve only been diagnosed and treated for a handful of years now.

Enter the controversy du jour in nerd circles. The Harley Quinn sexy-suicide competition.

Suddenly it’s not my whiteness, maleness, age, first-world geography or regrettable lack of obvious gender/sexuality minority status that’s important. It’s my broken brain and the fact I’ve been a victim of my own desperation (or rather, a ‘survivor’).

This is a fucking weird experience.

I’ve written about my depression but not so much from a position of authority but one of empathy and understanding. I’ve been there. I know what it feels like. This’ll pass, you just have to hold on. Tea and sympathy for other people feeling the same way. I’ve also written scenes of desperation and self-loathing in my stories, especially in the book that’s still in editing. In fiction, my experiences can lend writing about that sort of scene an authenticity and reality that improves the writing and draws the reader in. I’m not a huge believer in only writing what you know, but it can help.

The temptation is to thrust my mental illness into people’s faces while they’re talking about this, in a sort of vengeful ‘HAH! You have to listen to me now! I’m the victim! My opinion is the only one that counts!’ It’s also a rush to be in this position of… well, unlike claims of privilege made for being white/male/cis this genuinely does feel like privilege.

I’ve made a few comments here and there but I’ve also felt held back a bit. After all, my personal and deeply subjective experience creates bias in me and despite suffering from bouts of depression and having come to the point of suicide several times, that doesn’t actually make me an expert on the issue. I’m also uncomfortable with the way swinging the fact of my issues around like a club reduces me to that issue, rather than a whole person.

Personally I feel that I would rather have discussions and depictions of mental health issues out there in public, even poorly done, even comedic, even flippant. Anything to familiarise people with the issues, reduce the stigma and stop people feeling so isolated. In the few comments on this I have made people seem to have leant weight to my opinion simply because I’m a sufferer, not because I have made any particularly cogent argument.

So I stopped myself, took a deep breath and a step back and did a bit of research.

Turns out that the question of whether media depictions of suicide are helpful or harmful is still a bit up in the air. In factual media there is an effect, called the Werther effect, where information about methods of suicide or high profile cases (such as celebrities) lead to copycat suicides. With fictional media the effect is not so easy to discern and it’s unclear whether it has a genuine effect or not. It’s further unclear as to the effectiveness of media on de-stigmatising, provoking people to seek help, or directly helping them cope and find the resources to survive.

My opinion is now a bit better qualified due to reading up on genuine scientific research in the field and isn’t that much changed from what it was before. Still, I take a few lessons from this:

  • It’s dangerous to lend too much weight to someone’s opinion because of their victim status.
  • Victim status can be a more powerful and effective privilege than many others.
  • Having this privilege is an addictive rush and it’s tempting to use it aggressively to shut people down.
  • Having victim status can make people afraid to argue, even when you’re wrong or ill-informed.
  • Knowledge trumps emotion.

For the record, I don’t see the problem with the Harley suicide competition thing, other than that it seems an odd and difficult topic to run a competition around.

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catch22A few conversations and discussions of late have thrown into additional light on the problems and discussions that have characterised 2012 for me. That is to say arguments about inclusion, tolerance, race, gender, depictions, sexuality etc as they relate to creative endeavours. For me this has mostly been in gaming, but more broadly this seems to be a hot topic across games, film, writing, everything.

Part of this is the hysteria and bandwagoning nature of social media acting as an amplifier, but it’s persistent enough across all media lately that I think it needs addressing.

It’s a huge goddamn issue and it straddles all manner of different topics like some bloated, Tolkienesque spider awaiting its prey. Worth a bash though.

TheComputerYou Can’t Create if You’re too Paranoid

It’s hard enough to create, unless you’re arrogant enough to think yourself infallible. Pretty much most people who are good creators – in any field – are riddled with self-doubt, second-guess themselves and fret constantly. Many are just good at hiding it.

It’s hard enough struggling with your own demons without having to take into account everyone else’s and the rapidity of modern interactive media means that every single word you write or image you draw is subject to enormous scrutiny and feedback with a laser-like focus it would not have attracted even ten years ago.

Accounting for any and every Tom, Dick and Harriet and their personal foibles and concerns is impossible and if you ignore it or minimalise it you’re going to get flak. You’re going to get flak anyway though so…

CaucasianAdventuresExclusion/Appropriation

If you happen to be white and/or male and/or straight and/or anything else perceived rightly or wrongly as being a position of privilege and you create, you’re stuffed. If you ‘write what you know’ you’ll be accused of being racist, sexist, homomisiac and any number of other things whether you write about them or not.

If you leave these things out you’re *ist by exclusion. If you include them you’re *ist because of the mistakes you’ll be perceived to make. You’re damned if you don’t and you’re appropriating cultures, minorities etc if you do.

close-but-no-cigarMore Right-on than Thou

Even if you do your absolute best to be a right-on, ‘politically correct’, progressive and enlightened 21st century human being it will never, ever, ever be good enough as someone else will be out to prove their chops by being even more progressive and right-on than you are and by making you out to be an evil cunt. Here’s a really good example of someone super-progressive being monstered in a perverse game of one-upmanship.

muhammad_cartoonYou Are to Blame for your Audience

Your intent and even your execution on a topic doesn’t matter. a jot. What seems to matter is the reaction your audience has to it. Of late this kind of argument seems to have been centred around Tarantino’s ‘Django Unchained’ wherein some people are worried/concerned and upset about the racism in it.

Racism all but confined to villains who get their comeuppance.

Racism which is in no way presented as being a ‘good thing’.

Racism which is funny because it is absurd and extreme.

Of course a few no-chin, redneck, white-supremacy types are going to get a kick out of the word ‘nigger’ and black characters being terrorise but that’s on them. Not the creator of the material. It’s unreasonable to hold the creator accountable for every single reaction to their work.

stjeromeDeath of the Author

It doesn’t seem to matter what you think you’ve made. Those who choose to analyse your work will presume they know your intentions better than you do and will ascribe motivations and reasons to you themselves, without listening to what you have to say about it. just because you made a thing doesn’t seem to mean you know anything about it.

6obeSatire is Dead

Someone will take what you say seriously and as if you meant it. This happens to The Onion all the time and is a part of ‘Poe’s Law’. Parody will be taken seriously by someone, somewhere and what’s serious can also be taken for parody. The two can be almost indistinguishable (reference the Westboro Baptist Church for an example).

Once someone’s failed to understand that what a piece is, is satire they often still won’t back down when this is pointed out. Again they may claim that this is some sort of reflection of your subconscious prejudice or, simply, that it ‘isn’t funny’ or ‘isn’t well done’. It’s never that the person has no sense of humour or that they’re embarrassed that they didn’t ‘get it’. Oh no.

sign-brownest-thingContext Doesn’t Seem to Matter

Are you writing an historical piece? Drawing an image from a fantasy or science-fictional society with different morals and social mores? Is the material we’re discussing from fifty years ago, a hundred, more?

Doesn’t matter. If something is offensive it always is and it doesn’t matter if its historically accurate or a preservation of old attitudes for cultural and historical reasons (Nigger Jim anyone?) It’s bad and wrong and will be used as a stick to beat you with.

There’s also the problem that a statement you make in the heat of an argument with a douchebag or off the cuff in a moment of humour now lives forever on the internet and will be relentlessly quote-mine forever and ever even if you change your mind over time or you’re being misrepresented. Sometimes these quotes will even be completely made up! IT doesn’t matter!

Solutions?

There’s no easy solutions here as, in the main, the problems lie with other people. I think a starting point to dealing with the problems above are:

  • Surround yourself with people you respect to give you feedback: Not necessarily people who agree with you, but people whose dissent you can acknowledge and take seriously. Not YouTube commentators.
  • Understand your own values: Other people are going to judge you by theirs, but what are yours? Are you a libertine or a moralising conservative? Do you value verisimilitude or comfort? Do you want to be unflinching or accommodating? To thine own self be true and if people want work that meets other criteria, they can damn well do it themselves. What’s your hierarchy of interests and concerns? You can’t cover EVERYTHING.
  • Publish & be Damned: Do it anyway. Fuck ’em.

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molesworth“I would like to present to you…” said the worthy-looking man, all grey hair, patched elbows and the threadbare spirit of the educator “…the St John’s Boy for Schools!”

The Minister blinked, wetly and gave the old professor a smirk. “I think you mean School for Boys Mr Wick.”

“Oh no,” the professor smiled and swept aside the sheet, revealing a small boy in short trousers and a school blazer, skinned knees, snotty nose an entirely unremarkable child.

“Your son?” The Minister sighed and leaned forward, resting his three chin upon his interwoven sausage-fingers.

“No Sir. This is a Mark Two Molesworth. A genetically engineered, near-human replicant, designed to fix a major problem in education.”

This was all far beyond the Minister whose mind was already dwelling on whether to have the pigeon-breast salad or the pork loin for lunch. He was only half listening. “Some sort of robot? What’s it for?”

“Um, not really. If that helps you understand though yes, it’s a sort of robot.” The professor scratched his head and stroked his beard as he thought how to get his point across.

“The problem, you see, is that learning simply isn’t cool. Girls get all sorts of encouragement from each other and from society at large to learn in order to overcome the perceived ‘bimbo’ factor. Boys, however, get no such aid despite being far outstripped by girls in many academic fields.”

“Yes, yes,” said the Minister, picking waxy dirt from under his thumbnail. “Terrible business, white paper, special committee, more funding to subsidise private schools…” it was a mantra he’d learned soon after he took on the job. The same thing he trotted out to reporters.

“Yes, well, none of that does any good. We can’t change the culture that holds them back by such methods. We can’t make learning ‘cool’. We can’t make boys want to learn and any young lad that does take up the opportunities we present to them is in for a drubbing.”

“Quite.”

“The Molesworth can fix that!”

The Minister’s attention was diverted from thoughts of lunch by the passion in the professor’s voice and the implications began to penetrate his thick skull, millimetre by millimetre.

“…how?”

The professor took his seat opposite the Minister and gestured wildly as he excitedly laid out his plan. “We produce large numbers of Molesworths and insert them into classes in large enough numbers to form the beginning of a clique or group. One that values education and good behaviour and applies a positive degree of peer pressure to counteract and overcome that of being an illiterate thug!”

The Minister paled and scowled, his jowly face crinkling like a boiled tomato. “Won’t that, ah, skew the classes to being predominantly male?”

“We also recognise the value of… ah… positive reinforcement for men coming from young ladies. We hope to have the Jessica and Elizabeth versions completed soon. They, of course, will be pretty and charming and will only have eyes for well-behaved and academically adept boys.”

“It all seems a little unethical.” The Minister hemmed and hawed, rocking back in his seat. The professor just looked at him.

“No worse than making up Father Christmas in order to get children to behave all year and we have to do something. Tests have demonstrated a marked improvement in the academic development of boys in such an environment. It wouldn’t be too expensive to implement and the potential rewards of a better educated and better behaved populace are…”

“…not as great as you might think.” The Minister interrupted and his frown deepened even further.

“What?” Cut off mid-flow the professor didn’t quite know what to make of this statement.

“Put, plainly Mister Wick, we need plebs. We need foolish, uneducated and dim-witted men to clean toilets, sweep streets, die in the army and keep the prisons nice and full – and profitable. Your plan would not serve that end and with immigration being so damn unpopular there’s no other choice.”

“But…”

The Minister waved his hand dismissively. “Good day Sir. Your funding is cut.”

“But the future! Technology, science!”

“Good. Day.” The Minister pressed a buzzer and his aide came in, leading the professor and his young – artificial – charge back outside. Pausing at the door.

“Everything alright sir?”

“Fine Jenkins, fine. Honestly, some people. They seem to think the current state of affairs is unintentional.”

“I blame the education system sir.”

“Quite.”

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There’s a lot to like about being British and while there’s a lot of anger inducing nonsense in politics and other issues at the moment I thought I’d break the habit of a lifetime and be positive for once.

  • There’s history everywhere. You can’t go two steps without hitting some spot that has some historical significance or some story attached to it. Any village, no matter how small has some kind of ghost story or other local legend. Within striking distance of me are ales of cockatrices, wurms, dragons and more ghosts than you can shake a bell, book and candle at.
  • We can say ‘Hello gorgeous!’ whether the person is or isn’t actually gorgeous, still mean it AND make them smile their face off.
  • That unique combination of unspoken politeness and acceptance of eccentricity that gives otherwise stressful encounters a bit of structure. It’s like a mutual coping mechanism or a dance.
  • You don’t have to talk to anyone at bus stops, on the tube or – indeed – anywhere. Anyone that does talk to others in these places is considered odd but since we’re so accepting of eccentricity, that’s OK too.
  • Windswept and interesting or dragged through a hedge backwards? Only I truly know.
  • The weather is actually worth passing comment on.
  • The English language is beautiful, bewitching, dazzling, magnificent and wonderful. It has a lot of synonyms is what I’m saying. Apparently English has more adjectives than any other language so, that’s… good.

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My mind tends to wander and mull over things when I walk and I’m trying to up my exercise for my mental and physical health so my mind’s been wandering a lot lately. On this wander, for no reason in particular, though perhaps percolated through from watching the first episode of The Newsroom (I won’t be a regular watcher though. We have this myth of the citizen journalist, the blogger, the brave new cutting edge of political, social and scientific commentary and news. Newspaper readership is plunging and news shows and channels are polarising politically and becoming more and more extreme and opinionated in chasing a smaller and smaller audience.

There’s a problem though. The citizen journalist isn’t a journalist. They’re not bound by ethics (little wonder then that journos are increasingly forgetting theirs). Many of them are just soapboxing their own opinions, spouting a particular dogma, chasing a particular demographic as though they were selling something rather than informing us. They are selling us something, what we want to hear. Fox News is probably the most egregious case of a politicised news channel, commercialising right wing politics and providing comforting mooing noises to the American right wing. They’re by no means the only ones to do so and one can find similar bias going the ‘other way’ if you look for it. I lean left so I’m not so sensitised to it, but I acknowledge that it’s there.

The irony is that this is absolutely not what we need from the mainstream media any more. If I want opinion I can read any of thousands of blogs. I can dip into my twitter feed or search on the hashtag of the item in question, like the #arabspring. I get ill informed emails and facebook messages from distant relatives and friends of friends all the time. I am drowning in opinion, conjecture and dogma the entire time I’m logged into the internet. These aren’t citizen journalists, they’re gossips.

Gossip is great, witnesses are great, people like Laurie Penny who go out there and become part of the news and report from the front lines are all well and good but they’re not giving us THE news. They’re giving us THEIR news. It’s the same with Fox etc in the US and to a lesser extent here in the UK, at least on television. We’ve been somewhat spoiled by the BBC which, other than its simpering towards the Royal Family gets criticised from all sides of the political spectrum which is generally a good indicator that they’re doing something right. Our printed news sources are as partisan and biased, if not more so, than the US though.

Market pressure, the commodification of information, has ruined television news on an international basis and it is creeping in to the UK now despite our public institutions. It’s making these big news companies do things that they’re simply not suited to. No television broadcast can hope to keep up with the internet when it comes to breaking stories. No television broadcast can tailor itself to fit someone’s views precisely. People stream their own opinion-based news from the blogs, RSS feeds, twitter subscriptions etc that they make for themselves.

Broadcast TV can’t compete with that and equally individualist internet journalism cannot hope to compete – still – with the prestige and weight that broadcast news does.

What broadcast news should be doing is not giving us more opinion, not trying to stay on top of breaking stories. What broadcast news with the money and resources that it still commands should be doing is offering us THE news, free from bias. Broadcast news should be doing the analysis, the depth, talking to the experts. ‘This is what happened, this is what educated and intelligent people are saying was involved’. Not blame games, just the pursuit of truth and accuracy with an integrity that makes it trustworthy.

Leave the opinion and shouting to the ‘citizen journalist’.

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leda and the swanTired of people linking to this article (or more specifically this article’s title) without paying attention to the content. IDoR a link to the original. To remove any ambiguity whatsoever, the point of the article was simply this: No topic should be off limits. Nothing should be exempt from being story fodder. Whether rape, murder, torture, mutilation, cannibalism, racism or any other nasty thing anyone can think of. Artists must be free to explore without being censored, controlled or limited. The mere existence of something nasty in a story, game or piece of art is not sufficient reason for the art – or the artist – to be pilloried. Nor should we only allow people we consider (subjectively) skilled or politically acceptable to tackle difficult subjects. TL;DR – Censorship is bad, offence, upset or discomfort isn’t a good enough reason to prevent something being made. If you still object to that, stated as plainly and simply as that, we’re going to have a problem.

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Laurie Penny recently wrote an article about Game of Thrones. There’s a lot of stuff in the article that I could comment on – and I will very briefly, but I want to concentrate on one particular bit later in the article, aside from the political and social commentary which I broadly agree with.

Briefly I’ll just reassert my belief that a fictive content that involves issues of racism, sexism etc need not, itself, be racist or considered ‘problematic’. We admit that these things happen, have happened etc and to talk about them or include them in fiction does not entail approval or endorsement. Good stories often come from conflict and from difficult situations or concepts. Entertainment should cover these things and should not pull back from examining or portraying them.

The main thing I want to talk about is encapsulated in this part:

“Game of Thrones is based on the Medieval World, and the Medieval World Was Sexist and Racist.” Well, yes, 14th century Europe wasn’t a lot of fun if you were a woman, but nor did it have, for example, dragons, or magical shape-changing witchy-woo assassins. Westeros does, because Westeros is a fantasy world. If the creator of a fantasy series can dream up an army of self-resurrecting zombie immortals he can damn well dream up equal marriage rights, and if he chooses not to do so then that choice is meaningful, as is our assumption that the default setting for any generically legendary epic must involve really rather a lot of rape.

There’s a couple of things to address here but the main one for me is that someone the existence of magic, dragons etc means that you can – or indeed should – let anything and everything go or change the world around these elements in order to appease modern sensibilities.

To my mind the more fantastical elements you bring in the more you desperately need something to ground the story. You need to contrast and contextualise he fantastical within a graspable, understandable, relatable arena. Just because there’s a dragon in your story doesn’t mean you should ignore the social structures and mores of medieval society if that’s the basis for your change. Shifting those becomes another fantastical element and too many of those and you can lose your readers.

Mieville’s New Crobuzon stories are overflowing with fantastical and surreal elements but they’re grounded in societal struggles, class war and interpersonal relationships that are much more conventional an understandable archetypes.

Lewis’ Narnia books take place entirely within a fantastical world but are grounded by the origin, mores and familiarity of the wartime Pevensie children and how they relate to it.

Tolkien’s Middle Earth commences its adventures from within the Shire, a comfortable little piece of Southern England that just happens to be peopled by Hobbits who, compared even to the humans within his stories, are much more understandable to the modern audience.

It seems paradoxical but the stranger and more fantastic the world the more important the hooks that people find intelligible.

When it comes to rape and murder and the arrogance of ‘divinely’ appointed kings we don’t have to look any further back into history than yesterday to see how violence, gender roles, mass rape etc have been used and continue to be used in war, civil war and other struggles. These nasty aspects of life would be implausible to ignore in these settings and form a part of this very grounding as well as being interesting and useful story elements in their own right.

I don’t think we have to say these things are problematic to enjoy them. They’re not really problematic. Better for us all to remind ourselves that fiction isn’t reality, even though it can be useful for looking at reality.

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