Confronting our biases

I putter around in a lot of random corners of the internet, and in one of them I participated in a discussion about how to manage our biases and prejudices in our writing. What follows is a slightly modified version of my side of the conversation, with some portions rearranged to read more cohesively. Comments and critique are gratefully accepted.

One way to confront one’s own biases is to cultivate an understanding of the more pervasive social issues–racism, sexism, ableism, homophobia, etc.–and how they typically manifest in individuals and society. Exploring the plights of the underprivileged can help us to be aware of our own privilege, and our inherent reactions to particular stories and situations can then help us root out and address our biases. As someone else mentioned, this isn’t to say that writing should be stripped of all bias, but it is worthwhile to acknowledge our power, and arguably our responsibility, to illuminate those social issues in ways that encourage their elimination.

I think this sort of progressive work (not as in politics, but as in positive forward motion) is best done from a trench rather than a soapbox. The more we understand not only our own biases, but the biases of others, the more we treat each other as people rather than platforms. When we write, many of us work to craft fictional people rather than mouthpieces for particular viewpoints. By doing so, we hopefully reach the people who favor those viewpoints by holding up a mirror that is flat rather than wavy, reflective rather than distorting. Few people like being talked down to or patronized. I think, ideally, we can do this good work by making the flaws self-evident rather than pointing at them and shouting.

That isn’t to say there isn’t a place for outrage in the public and private spheres. I wouldn’t dream of policing anyone’s tone or mandating how they express their feelings. That’s one more facet of life that we can reflect in fiction, one more type of person we can portray: the righteously angry who rail against injustice. We can also explore this in our non-fiction pieces, of course, in whatever way we choose. That has more to do with the “face to meet the faces that you meet” as Eliot said, the way we present ourselves to the public.

I disagree with the notion that it doesn’t matter who is right or wrong, and that we can’t know for sure. I think in certain cases there are strong arguments for each side, and they can boil down to belief systems or unknowns that make “truth” impossible to pin down. But cultural and moral relativism only get us so far; in fact, they work as a philosophical method of stifling discourse by asserting that there is no right answer and that therefore discussion is essentially meaningless. They compel us to tolerate viewpoints and power structures that are dangerous in a very real and immediate sense for many members of society, and to suppress objections to such behaviors in all the ways they manifest.

However, as authors, for the most part our goal is to craft realistic characters, and they would be very boring indeed if all they did was walk around being nice to each other. Conflict is at the heart of all stories, characters with opposing goals striving against each other or against humanity or nature, etc. There is a difference between character and author; we can have a character espouse or epitomize perspectives that we might consider abhorrent, and we can present them in a way that both humanizes them and makes clear that we, as authors, do not support what they do or think. It’s a fine line to walk, because I hope that even if someone works to accurately portray, say, Hitler, there is no sense that the author is glorifying or apologizing for those darker words and deeds.

Writing things “as they were” in historical fiction doesn’t necessitate approving of them. The strength and agency that characters have can manifest in different ways, and the ways in which we write situations and relationships can convey a tone that is at odds with the “reality” of those times. And as readers ourselves, we know that not everything is meant to be taken literally, and that we can critique the actions of characters from our modern perspectives without it taking away from the realism of the narrative.

It’s also interesting, in my experience, to read stories that fill gaps in history, that draw from real people and events but whose details are largely lost to obscurity, and so are ripe for reimagining. A great recent example is Hild by Nicola Griffith, which explores the life of St. Hilda of Whitby. It’s beautifully written, and the amount of agency the main character, and the other women in the story, have despite the established social mores is very carefully developed.

The beauty of stories is that they can teach in ways that are so subtle as to be subconscious, or they can be more overt allegories with clear, stated rhetorical goals. One can encourage and provide visibility without sacrificing literary quality. It’s just one more plate to keep spinning in the massive spectacle that is our craft. One valuable part of our educational system, ideally, is to expose kids to a wide range of approaches to dealing with sensitive subjects. An essay and a poem and a short story are all delivery vehicles for themes, even if that is not the stated goal for a particular piece, but each tends to deal with that delivery in a very different fashion. Courier versus email versus skywriting, to use a bad analogy.

In my own recent work–and I do not offer this as a mandate, just a perspective–I try to tell stories of underrepresented minorities, be they from less visible races or classes or sexual identities. I do this not only because visibility is a very important way to facilitate greater understanding of and appreciation for the diverse perspectives in our world, but primarily because the members of those minority groups deserve to see themselves in fiction and poetry. I myself grew up rarely seeing Hispanics in fiction, and it subconsciously conditioned me to feel embarrassed about my heritage, and to emulate the white literature I was uniformly reading instead of digging into myself to find my own voice and stories. If there is any way I can help encourage minorities to feel pride instead of shame, and to share their own voices instead of mimicking the majority, I am glad to do it.

One Response to “Confronting our biases”

  1. Dad says:

    FYI, no matter the subgroup of humanity as a basis for diversity, essentially the most basic elements of humanity are homogeneous…

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