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Monday, 22 May 2017

Race, Representation, and White Saviours

This picture of Fagin is a silent comment on the 'progress' made in discussions about inclusion.

Inclusive writing appears to be all the rage these days. All sorts of advice is available to the aspiring or established author as to how to represent people from different races, sexual orientations, and socio-economic brackets, in a 'sensitive' and 'inclusive' manner. I suppose this reflects the recent discussions around cultural appropriation and controversies surrounding various authors presuming to write, with greater or lesser success, from within a skin colour which was not their own.

As an ethnic Chinese in a majority white country, I have personal experience of the impact of representation and inclusion, having been brought up in the long, long shadow of Bruce Lee, Fu Man Chu, and Charlie Chan. So why is it, then, that the idea of creators making deliberate efforts to include me makes me so uncomfortable? Sticking with the idea of the representation of ethnic Chinese, there are a few aspects of this whole culture of affirmative action which are highly distasteful.

First of all, the whole idea underpinning the concept is fundamentally racist. The assumption that my skin colour dictates the shape and nature of my mind is no different, in essence, to the kind of social Darwinism which informed much of the racial hatred and prejudice of the twentieth century. The idea that Chinese people exist in some kind of ethno-cultural quarantine zone which can only be explored with special sensitivity training strikes me as a rather stupid and counter-productive inversion of the whole concept of pluralism. The point of a pluralistic society is that difference of any kind, while interesting and potentially productive of corporate advantage, should be largely irrelevant. For difference to be elevated to the status of some kind of sacred cow is simply moronic - it misses the entire point and purpose of key liberal values.

I'm aware that much of the model for 'sensitivity' and 'inclusiveness' is driven by ethnic minorities themselves, but this is, if anything, even more offensive. The belief in some sort of yellow, black, orange, or rainbow privilege speaks to a belief in the fundamental difference of these people, which is all kinds of wrong. Common courtesy dictates that we not deliberately offend each other, but common sense equally dictates that packing a given segment of society in victim grade cotton wool is offensive in itself.

And then there's the whole idea of patronage. The strong implication of all of this effort is that I should be somehow grateful. Look at all the effort those lovely white people are making to ensure that I feel included. Which is also deeply unintelligent - whether it's positive or negative, division is division. Also, anyone who's ever been picked for a team because the teacher has insisted that the fat and the uncoordinated should also be given a go, understands exactly what this kind of treatment feels like. My ethnicity is not a disability, and even if it were, simple courtesy demands that I not have it thrown in my face in a patronising manner.

I was once asked whether I included 'diverse' characters in my writing, and whether I thought this was a good thing to do. My response was that people, and types of people, occur in my work for the simple reason that they occur in the real world. Because all fiction, regardless of the height of its brow, depends for its validity in the reflection of some sort of truth. If any author is unable to understand a person as a person, regardless of their ethnicity or their walk of life, they simply have no business writing them. This isn't political, it's a fundamental principle of art.

Sunday, 7 May 2017

Pericles and the Loneliness of Logic

Roughly two and a half thousand years ago, the Aegean and Mediterranean worlds were wracked by the Peloponnesian wars. Arguably, the long term effects of these wars ripple down to us today. Without the defeat of Athens and the depletion of Sparta, Philip of Macedon could not have conquered the Greek world, thus paving the way for his mercurial son Alexander to Hellenise the Persian Empire, creating routes for the flow of ideas, merchandise, disease, and conflict which continue to shape the world we live in today.

It makes sense, then, that the causes of these wars are hotly contested in the mainstream of historical discourse to this day. Thucydides and the war he chronicled are justly taken as the fons et origo of modern historical inquiry, and we devote as much time to unpicking his methodologies and motives as we do to understanding the events he chronicled.

There are many theories of the root cause, but possibly one of the most disturbing is Kagan's. He contends (very convincingly) that the fundamental error on the part of Pericles, official and de facto first citizen of Athens, was to overestimate the rationality of his opponents. Faced with a complex and existentially perilous set of circumstances, Pericles conducted a linear and cool-headed appraisal of the situation and, largely through the force of his personality, embarked Athens on a policy exactly rationally matched to his circumstances. Kagan's contention is that if Sparta, Corinth and Corcyra had been equally rational, they would have seen Pericles' plan for minimal deterrence for what it was, and maintained the balance of power and the peace, thus avoiding the war that arguably destroyed the classical Greek world. Unsurprisingly, however, Pericles was alone in his rationality, and his policies were sadly out of place and ineffective in the face of the reactionary fear and anger manifested by the other great powers.

This argument is particularly well evidenced, but the most compelling factor for me is its familiarity. Its plausibility is rooted in its deep resonance with that we already know about how people work. The age of the internet is an eavesdropper's paradise in that the vast majority of online material consists essentially of conversations overheard, usually in the form of dispute. An analysis of the progress of these 'arguments' makes it very clear that the vast majority of people simply do not know how to think in a linear fashion, and those few who do, seem incapable of pointing that line in any reasonable direction.

Mental acrobats like Edward De Bono contend that we naturally think in a linear fashion, but I would argue that this is a thought only possible for someone who lives in an academic and intellectual bubble. It is painfully obvious to me that the default mode of thinking for the bulk of humanity is free association. We see something, it reminds us of something else, which reminds us of another thing, ad infinitum. And this woolly and unreliable process really only serves for the rationalisation of emotion. Or, put more simply, our natural mode of thinking is highly effective for justifying our knee-jerk reactions to ourselves and others - a vital evolutionary development, but also a highly specialised one. This kind of thinking allows us to very effectively understand social dynamics and short range, simple, or repetitive phenomena, but what it is emphatically not useful for is the parsing of large scale and abstract complexity.

What is required for the understanding of such complexity, or the balancing of non-binary and potentially perpetual problems, is a kind of thinking which can only be developed through rigorous mental exercise and ceaselessly vigilant metacognition. It's important to remember, however, that anyone who embarks on such a process is likely to be quite the rara avis, adrift and alone in a sea of muddle-headed sentimentality and reactionary outrage. I'm willing to bet everyone reading this is inwardly nodding and congratulating themselves on being exactly such an island of rationality, but I'd suggest that this reaction is an indication of peril. The essence of this kind of thinking is in the constant doubt of one's own thought processes, and vigilant attention to the processes of others - precisely the two areas in which Pericles, rational as he was, failed.

The simplest test of rationality runs thusly:

Qaere: 'Am I utterly convinced my thinking is rational?'

If the answer is 'yes', it's time to rip down the entire framework and start again.