As an author I feel it is my job to pay attention to cultural leanings and norms. I’ve written before about the politically charged climate we live in. People have adapted an “us verses them” mentality not just with politics but faith, lack of faith, and even mundane things like movies. Yes, movies, I’ve seen some impassioned arguments about them on the internet. With these discussions one primary accusation comes up; the other person or side is a hypocrite.
The truth is, no one likes a hypocrite and we can smell hypocrisy a million miles away in another person or group but struggle to see it in ourselves. It’s undoubtful that everyone has been a hypocrite before. I certainly have, everyone I know has been. That is an inevitable part of being human. There is a problem when hypocrisy is a pattern or even a lifestyle.
Hypocrisy can evolve to a point where a person is utterly lacking self-awareness. The problem compounds when such lack of self-awareness spreads throughout a culture like a cancer. Perhaps I’m cynical but from my perspective this seems to be where we are at in western society. We see this especially in politics. If someone from our “team” is guilty of something we look the other way and justify their actions. However, if the “other side” does the same thing we lose our minds and catastrophize the situation. The same thing is with religious verses irreligious folks. The common attitude is that people can have their faith and believe what they will, but they must keep it to themselves. However, irreligious folks, sometimes flood the internet with comments about how people who believe differently than them are delusional idiots.
There is a surface celebration of diversity in our culture, but rarely are diverse ideas met with approval. It is the norm to shout down, belittle, and attack those who think differently. Maybe we should try to understand why someone believes differently instead? That is much harder. It also goes against human nature. It requires an immense amount of empathy, but it is not impossible. I’m directing these comments as much to myself as anyone reading this. This is how we become self-aware and do not become what we hate in others.
We all undoubtedly have memories of doing something stupid and our parents saying something like “if all your friends jumped off a bridge would you do that too?” The point, just because other people are doing something doesn’t mean we should do it too. This is one of the major themes in my latest short story.
Most of us know intellectually that following the crowd and believing what others believe just because it’s popular is not healthy. However, most people are still guilty of this. I know I have been. It is hard being the odd person out. Humans desire to have belonging among other people because we are social creatures so it becomes easier than we like to compromise our beliefs, or at best downplay them. How many kids swear they will never smoke, but do that exact same thing when they are a little older because their friends are doing it?
It is easy to spew platitudes about thinking for ourselves and doing our own thing, but in practice it is far more difficult. This is the inspiration for my latest book The Cursed Forest. There are many odd beliefs circulating lately that I would wager most people who adhere to them don’t really know why they believe it. Look no further than our current political climate. How many people vote simply because there is a “D” or an “R” after a candidate’s name? His desire to fit in, I believe, is the driving factor behind the tribalism in our culture.
How many dangerous ideas spread quickly due to fear of what others might think? Children’s television shows constantly teach “being your own person “but some adults don’t adhere to this logic though. Take a look no further than the atrocities of the 20th century. Sadly, history is replete with examples of group think and allowing or attributing to terrible things. The best way to curb this is to know why we believe what we believe and to resist compromising our believers because an ideology is popular.
There is something I have noticed in Fantasy, and I’m sure many others have too. Certain races not only share universal characteristics, but individual members are indistinguishable from each other. Take a look at orcs, not just in Lord of the Rings, but in other forms of fiction they have appeared in. Their race is depicted as war-like, strong, and destructive. Depending on the story their might be some variations, but that is typically what happens. Elves are stuck up prudes and dwarves are rowdy Scotsmen essentially. Yes, I know, there are plenty of stories that give a more nuanced approach to these races. However, I feel the generalization of specific races may represent our humanness when it comes to people outside of our group who shares our ideology.
On social media I have become a silent observer of conversations. I have concluded that arguing on Twitter or Facebook about important issues is rather pointless. All it does is cause tension, after all has anyone changed their opinion about something due to an argument on Facebook? If the answer is yes, then I doubt the number is very high. I’ve seen Atheists attack religious people based purely on presuppositions and assumptions instead of what the person is trying to say. I’ve seen the opposite where someone assumes things about all irreligious people and create strawman attacks. This has been happening especially amongst Conservatives and Liberals since the last presidential election. I’ve seen Liberals attack Conservatives, especially white rural Conservatives, for being dumb and uninformed, while Conservatives attack Liberals for having a supposed mental disorder. When it comes to these discussions there only listening or reading to respond, not to hear what the other person has to say. Honestly, this is the sort of thing social media breeds since people can hide behind a computing device and not see the hurt they cause others.
In the Lord of the Rings there is very little attempt to understand orcs. They are orcs and serve the Dark Lord, and there is nothing more to it. This viewpoint may work in fiction depending on how it’s utilized, but reality is nuanced. I have my views on faith and politics, same as anyone else, but I need to listen and understand why someone may believe differently. If we do not spend the time doing that, how then will people ever understand one another? How will the chasm between political belief systems ever be bridged if we cannot even agree on the fundamentals of communication and human decency? Is being right of the utmost importance? These questions I must ask myself a lot, we all should.
The Tolkien era of Fantasy had brought us villains who were evil for the sake of evil. Their motives were pretty much they wanted to destroy the world because they were evil and nothing more was really known about these antagonists. That was the point, they represented the force of evil more than being individual characters with motives. In a few stories this works, but now there is a call for more depth to the villains of the stories. Generally, now there are antagonists with motives and backstories, and just like reality these people tend to not see themselves as evil but as saviors.
History is rife with horrible rulers of both nations and organizations. Some of these people were like Sauron who simply wanted to dominate others without sympathy or empathy for anyone else. Others though were more like Darth Vader, horrible people who saw themselves as protectors or necessary such as Valad The Impaler.
How often do we do things that are wrong and justify it in our minds? Taking that line of thought further, how often do we glorify our ideological positions while demonizing the “other” side? Sure we may not be killing anyone or desiring to, but isn’t that a similar train of thought that these evil people in history and fiction acted on? I’m not saying everyone who dug in their heels and stood up for their convictions is akin to a villain, but just that it is easy to continue down the rabbit trail and become so blinded by ideology empathy no longer remains. This is especially common in political spheres from 2015 to present in America.
Certainly, there are things we all disagree with. That is okay, in fact it is necessary for anyone who has a spec of critical thinking and morality. With the advent of the internet it is becoming easier to live in an echo chamber and grow angrier at those who are outside of your thought circle. Hope is only found in those who agree with you and me, while despair and the end of the world comes in the form of those that dare think differently. To me, it looks like there is less nuance in our culture than there was even ten years ago. People are ready to sever ties with friends and even family because of differing viewpoints because their beliefs are “dangerous.” With this mentality, called Tribalism, which I addressed in previous blogs, it is only opening the door for a real evil to rise to power. As freedoms erode the people will cheer that person on because “their” person was in power, not the “other” side. Of course, the opposite group will do everything they can to oppose the person in power, but perhaps it won’t be enough. This is hypothetical, and not a subtle dig at the current president or any before him. I know that some already view him in this light, but that isn’t what I am referencing. In an environment where people are looking to be offended or read into their own bias, I feel that is necessary to state.
Fiction is meant to teach us. To help us ponder our own actions as well as the happenings within our own culture. Let us actually implement the lessons from history and fiction, lest we create a monstrous world we cannot undo.
“If you aren’t with me, you’re against me.” Hopefully most people would find that to be an absurd line of reasoning. Yet, we see it put into practice by so many people. Particularly lately when tensions are high between political ideologies. At this moment everything is affected, and it quite possibly will only get worse.
I’ve said many times before on this blog that it isn’t the writer’s job to pander. An author is a conduit which the characters use to tell their story. In my previous blog, I focused on how media is often seen through the lens of politics. I did address that sometimes authors use their medium in order to push an ideological agenda, but for the most part I feel a lot of times people are simply reading into stories and getting offended over nothing.
It is time to address the fact that there is legitimate political pandering in not just books but television, music, and movies. This contributes to the paranoia that everything is pushing an agenda, whether that is the intent or not. When this happens, there isn’t just a bias, but too often the message is, “If you don’t believe or think like me you are evil.”
To avoid the misconception that I am adhering to political conspiracy theories, I will simply say that often only one side of the spectrum is what’s represented most. When this viewpoint is represented, it also more likely takes the more extreme point of view of this ideology which is “if you don’t believe like me you are a terrible person.” Yes, I know there are people who think like that in EVERY belief system. This is merely a general observation I’ve witnessed. This isn’t productive, nor what fiction is about. Obviously, the beliefs of the creator come through into the product, but it shouldn’t be overbearing or pandering. Subtlety is almost always the best approach in fiction when trying to get a point across, that is what all of us writers must remember.