Wednesday, October 14, 2015

The Great Narrowing: Two Fundamental Errors of the Representation Crusade

Once again, people on Facebook are beating the dead horse that is the diversity debate -- so once again, it's time for me to pen a quick post on the subject.

On one level, I understand and sympathize with the best impulses behind the multicultural movement in popular literature. To discover a mirror image of yourself in the books you read does produce a frisson of excitement that is difficult to dismiss. Moreover, a sincere and deep inclusiveness (in other words, one that includes diversity of thought as a matter of course) simply makes for better books in the long run as new voices and new perspectives refresh, remix, and subvert established tropes. A genre that does not evolve is a genre that grows stale and eventually dies.

Still, we all know what folks say about the road to hell -- and the cliche proves all too true when it comes to today's social justice scolds. In the wake of their increasingly granular - and ultimately superficial - demands for "representation," I see at least two pernicious consequences. On one hand, we've seen a rapid decline in our all-too-crucial sense of solidarity; on the other, we've seen the fettering of artists who happen to hail from minority groups.

Regarding the first: A pluralistic society can only function so long as its disparate subgroups are capable of perceiving the essential humanity of other subgroups. Multiculturalists, however, appear to deny that this is feasible. When they insist that children must see characters who are just like them in every respect in order to feel validated, they imply that differences in race, ethnicity, religion, gender, sexual orientation, etc. are insurmountable barriers to understanding and emotional connection. And have young people gotten the message? Increasingly, yes. Our schools are now beset with unteachable pupils who belligerently refuse to accept that Shakespeare - or any other "dead white male" - might have something to teach them about compassion and human feeling. This is not a state of affairs that will lead to love, peace, justice, or universal brotherhood. On the contrary, if it is impossible for people of different backgrounds to comprehend one another, wouldn't segregation - or perpetual defensive warfare - be our only recourse?

It's good to include characters from many different backgrounds in our stories because in doing so, we will more accurately reflect the world in which we live -- but we shouldn't encourage children to play the empathy game on the easy setting. We should instead embrace the possibility that a gay black boy from the Bronx can recognize the common ground he shares with a straight white character who suffers the continual taunts of a school bully -- or that a religiously conservative Muslim girl can connect with a evangelical Christian counterpart when it comes to modesty and sex. If the story is true enough, surface issues should cease to matter.

Regarding the second: Multiculturalists, it seems, love to tell writers and artists of color what to do. Sarah Hoyt was once chided for refusing to write about her Portuguese roots. Nnedi Okorafor's Akata Witch was recently declared an unbearably "white" story because -- it's set in Nigeria? 20th century black artists who harbored a fondness for Abstract Expressionism were derided for ignoring the African American experience. The accusation underlying all of these incidents, though unspoken, rings loud and clear: Oreo. You have a responsibility to dwell on your race -- and we don't care about your creative preferences or your personal vision. Stick to your ghetto. Don't intrude on the white man's turf.

As others have observed, this attitude is profoundly racist. People of color have just as much right as their white contemporaries to create what they damn well please without social justice bullies springing from the wings to declare that they are representin' wrong. There are as many iterations of the "minority experience" as there are people from minority groups; to argue differently is to dehumanize the folks you're supposedly trying to help. As Hoyt has remarked, "We are not interchangeable widgets!"  Indeed not; people of color are intelligent individuals who should be permitted their freedom and agency.

Alas, the left champions the Great Narrowing instead.    

1 comment:

  1. You are correct in your conclusions but you have not taken the next step and pondered the consequences of what you're postulating.

    That the Left has pushed things so far is not unintentional. Races, genders, religions, etc are intentionally pushed further apart to keep us fragmented and unable to resist pronouncements from on high. Gay, black males were never unable to be entertained by stories starring straight, white (or gay white or straight black) characters until they were told they were not entertained by them. The push for "representation" is nothing more than a way to divide and conquer.