It shouldn’t be easier to identify with fictional ‘others’

It’s hard to focus on writing while every day there are more stories of children being kept in cages, separated from their parents, and there’s every indication that one country with nuclear weapons is being tricked by another country with nuclear weapons to tear itself apart. It’s even harder when you think about all the great novels and films out there that have tried their best to teach us how to empathise with others. How come it’s easier to identify with a depressed robot than a real-life child for some people? Why aren’t more people out there, protesting, concerned, fighting fascism?

 

Are you in or are you out?

As a psychologist, I’m well aware of the in-group versus out-group phenomenon. Since people are only able to keep a limited number of concepts in their brains, they form a subconscious barrier between the people they treat as individuals – people like them – and the people they treat as ‘others’. And unfortunately, the shortcuts they take in labelling those other groups usually lead to horribly stereotyped, often negative depictions in their head.

If you’ve never met a muslim, and all you hear from your incredibly biased news sources is how horrible they are, how will you ever learn they are just humans like you, with flaws and dreams and no control over what the extreme few do? I mean, do you have control over the hateful things people from your ‘group’ say or do? Or even your own family members?

Yet there are many books out there who try to teach us that everyone is flawed, A Song of Ice and Fire being probably the most well-known at the moment. How can some people feel for Jamie, who literally tried to murder a child at the start because he didn’t want people to know he was sleeping with his sister, but not for the people that live just a few blocks away from them and are struggling? I’d like to say it’s all the nuanced writing, the depth of character, and the fact that we don’t have such a close relationship with real-life others, but I know it could just as easily simply be because the guy’s white.

 

Celebrating the good

Rather than just stating the negatives of our current reality, I wanted to point out a good example of a novel that manages to make us question our stance on things and how we view humanity, without clobbering us over the head with the message. Because as much as some people might just never get it, the rest of us surely appreciate and celebrate fiction that acknowledges and celebrates diversity.

The novel, or rather series of novels, I’ve chosen is Becky Chambers’ Wayfarers Series, the third instalment of which is due to be released soon. The first book, The Long Way to a Small, Angry Planet, sees a human with an (at the start) undefined past join a crew of aliens on a mission that, for once, has nothing to do with blowing anyone up or fighting with other races. It’s delightfully slow-paced, giving us all the time in the world to get to know the various alien races and fall in love even with the grumpiest of crew members. It discusses sexuality, how others have different concepts of private space, gender and sex, and how to embrace new and exciting ways of being.

The second novel, A Closed and Common Orbit, discusses identity and what it means to be a sentient being. I don’t want to say much more for fear of spoiling these excellent books – seriously, go buy them or borrow them from your local library – other than to say that they have taught me that: a) you can write an excellent sci-fi book without having earth-shattering, widespread stakes (take out the planetary travel and races and Becky Chambers could have easily won a highbrow literary fiction award), and b) identity is a lot more complex than we pretend it is.

Back to the main point, this is just one series among the many that naturally compels us to empathises with alien races who are vastly different from our own. It makes me think, how hard could it be to make the parallels with people in our own world, and to just be kinder all around? Surely everyone who reads these books will have a more compassionate view of the world, right?

Then again, the recent controversy surrounding Star Wars should have taught me that even a film with all the right messages can have fans who don’t understand that the rebellion is supposed to be more appealing than the dark side – like the minority of Star Trek fans who are somehow also racist and sexist. Maybe I just need to accept that other people may have a very limited empathy-bubble and start preparing for the inevitable apocalypse. In the meantime, I tip my hat to all the writers out there who are managing to keep writing their stories. Well done, and good luck.

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The toxicity of the American Dream

Make America Great

Again A Wall is Built

Who Will Tear it Down

This time

When will we learn?

When will we change?

 

I wrote the above not long after Trump was announced as President of the US, and I’ve since watched, with a mix of horror and numbness and worry, all the toxic things that have been happening in the US, all the things I knew where going to happen and so much worse. I don’t live there, there’s nothing I can do, no elected officials to call, no vote that can change anything. It reminds me of the Brexit vote, where I also watched, with horror, as this country I live in voted to try and kick me out, as a marginal victory was touted as the unavoidable ‘will of the people’ with no sense of rhyme or reason.

All of this has made it hard to write. It’s made it hard to do many things other than get through the day. Will I get kicked out of the country in (less than) two years? I don’t know, so I can’t plan. Will we be in the midst of a nuclear war before then? I don’t know (follow Sarah Kendzior on Twitter for a clear, reasoned and sadly worrying view on where the US is heading), and it terrifies me. My friends and family in the US are shielded by some degree of privilege, but I’m not sure that will be enough. I doubt my partner will be drafted into military service (what a weird thing to not have to worry about as a woman, and feel like for full equality to ever happen maybe we should, but then again… Sexism is super weird sometimes). But many other people likely will end up dead, not to mention the damage being done to the planet, and all because certain people with varying degrees of privilege are afraid of seeing that privilege ever so slightly diminished, of giving anyone else a seat at the table, so they voted to slice their nose off just to spite their own face.

And most of all, of course, these frightened people have been told their whole life it’s not the people in power that are screwing them over, but the other guys, the ones that have zero power at all. And because the people in power make sure they have no eduction that allows them to question this, they believe it. It’s very interesting from a psychological perspective, but also very scary, because it’s hard to change this narrative.

Another part of the problem, the part I wanted to write a cohesive, well-argued blog post about all those months ago, is the mindset of ‘US = Number 1’, and its British counterpart of (as I like to call it) Empire-state-of-mind. If you’re told your whole life that you’re the best, or you were the best, and in a place like the US it’s highly unlikely that you ever step outside the country to see any different, then you can never see what other countries have done that you can learn from (the prime examples for the US being healthcare and labour unions/worker’s rights). And indeed, you can never see that the people that serve you, and the news that reaches you, is actually doing you harm. You need to step outside your own narrative to get a better sense of it (much like with writing!).

In the UK, the feeling of quiet superiority is made worse by the tendency of politicians this last decade (or more) to blame everything that goes wrong on EU regulation and take the credit for anything that the EU does right. In the US, it’s made far worse by the American dream idea that you don’t need anyone else to succeed – all it takes is a lot of hard work. This ignores the fact that most billionaires got that way by using inherited wealth, pre-existing networks, or a combination of both (not to mention a whole lot of white privilege). And even if a person somehow manages the rags-to-riches story, it’s not like they haven’t had to rely on a lot of other people doing work for them and helping them in many other ways. Oh, and there’s the fact that they use roads, feel protected by police and firefighters, see their intellectual property protected by the courts, and generally rely on a lot of public good. But since everyone in the US is told they don’t need anyone or anything else to succeed, they are never told it’s okay to ask for help, that it’s good to have a community to rely on, that some Government intervention and help is warranted. That it’s better to succeed together, and a good thing to help others because someday you might need help yourself.

Looking out for number one, and thinking without factual basis that you are number one, are two very toxic ideas that make it hard to adapt and improve yourself. And what’s worse, if you think you’re the best, then any information that disagrees with that falls to the sword of cognitive dissonance, and you end up in a situation where a Trump-voting lady with an immigrant husband is genuinely surprised when they come to take her husband away. Or where people tell me “Oh, you’ll be fine” when discussing Brexit, because obviously it’s those other immigrants that are in trouble, and I’m somehow magically exempt merely through being someone they know…

Anyway, all of this means that it will remain hard for me to write for the time being, and I’m not sure how to get over that. I wish there was something I could do to change the world, but I can’t, and I’ve lost faith that writing can change anything, because nobody seems to take note of the people who are doing the best writing about the current situation and using that to change things. Politicians seem more selfish and short-sighted than they’ve ever been. Nobody seems to be in sufficient uproar (I mean, the NHS is being dismantled, but because it’s being done slowly, or maybe because British people find it hard to protest, to realise that their vote matters in a democratic system where oftentimes votes do not – who knows how much of an effect the not-very-democratic voting systems of the UK and US have had on the current situation – politicians are feeling free to continue as they are). All of the lessons from history are sitting ignored in books, as we repeat them once again.

And here I am, watching and feeling like a failure because I’m not writing, I’m not in London protesting at Westminster, I’m not important enough for any UK politician to listen to. What can I do? Well, I’m open to suggestions.