||[Jul. 11th, 2010|05:18 am]
Whenever people talk about literature - and here I include TV and movies and computer games and whatever - they always wax poetic about how it conveys the narratives of the powerless and such. About how we can read about some poor orphan from a minority group in some far-off country and, by hearing their story, learn about how they too are human and deserving of our respect. Books that win big literature prizes are now practically required to have this theme, whether it's about women in Pakistan or blacks in the Southern US or robots in some future that's prejudiced against robots or whatever. Through literature we learn to identify with these people and gain sympathy for them.
...and this is sorta superfluous. We're humans. We already have lots of sympathy for the underdog and the persecuted. And we're humans in a twenty-first century liberal society. We've spent our entire lives getting it drilled into us that we need to be sympathetic to the powerless, that racism and discrimination are the great evils of our age, that we should be doing something about it. I think every book I was assigned to read in elementary school was either about a black person who overcame hardships, a woman who overcame hardships, or a black woman who overcame hardships. And perhaps this is as it should be; twenty-first century liberals who sympathize with the powerless don't come out of nowhere, and maybe it's all those novels we're assigned to read in elementary school that makes us that way. Maybe the whole reason being sympathetic to the powerless seems so obvious to me is that I come from a society that starts teaching that lesson at birth and never stops.
But I started learning that lesson long before I started reading books good enough to remember, so I don't count that as a lesson I learned from literature. The most important lesson I've learned from literature is something completely different: how to be sympathetic to the powerful.
Responsible people usually avoid blatantly dehumanizing the powerless today, at least openly on mass media. No one says "You know, I bet poor orphans in Latin America are plotting something". But dehumanizing the powerful is basically our official global sport. Politicians, corporate CEOs, bureaucrats, leading scientists, rich people - whoever. And just from looking at what a lot of these people do, it's hard to sympathize with them. For that, you need to be able to see the world through their eyes. You need literature.
I'm going through Babylon 5 episodes now, so let me give an example from there. Captain Sheridan, the main character, is military governor of a space colony. He's a nice enough guy who enjoys things like maintaining peace in the galaxy and fighting off unstoppable alien invasions that threaten to destroy humanity.
At some point during his command, there is an accident on the space docks, and some dock workers die. The dock workers, who until now have labored in terrible conditions, demand better conditions and better pay. Captain Sheridan would like to help, but Earth only gives his colony a limited budget, and he's already stretching it just trying to maintain the colony and the military resources it needs to save humanity, so his hands are kind of tied. He tells them he'd like to help but there's nothing he can do at the moment.
The dock workers decide to go on strike. They yell out angry slogans about how the Captain's evil and wants to keep his boot on the throat of the little guy; how he's just a tool of the military establishment. They say they won't go back to work at the docks until he raises their pay. The colony needs the docks to get imports from Earth, presumably including most of their food, so the captain hires scabs to work the dock. The workers try to block the scabs from getting to the dock. The captain, who doesn't want the colony to starve, asks the workers to leave, and when they refuse, he sends in the station police to force them out. Someone throws a punch, everyone panics, it turns violent, and we get treated to scenes of the police beating up the workers and the workers demanding people come see the violence inherent in the system.
And then of course Captain Sheridan manages to find some stuff in the military budget that's just there to keep bureaucrats from Earth happy, he cuts that out, and the problem miraculously solves itself, because it's a TV show and all problems must come to a satisfying, mutually agreeable conclusion within an hour, with twenty minutes of that reserved for commercial breaks. But still.
This seems to me to be an astoundingly mature treatment of a complicated political issue. Captain Sheridan is a good man who just wants to keep his colony running and fight off evil aliens. The dock workers are good people who just want to work in a safe environment for fair pay. Yet by the climax of the episode, the dock workers think Captain Sheridan is some shadowy evil figure who gets his jollies by ordering brutal attacks on the working class and then goes home to count his gold and maybe dine on the blood of young infants (Captain Sheridan, of course, manages to remain gracious and understanding of the dock workers throughout, but only because he's the hero of the series and if he showed any human failings we might start rooting for the evil alien invaders).
And this is, I think, the general template for most political issues. There's a good person in power who implements some policy because he's trying to do a decent job. There are big powerless masses of good people who interpret the same policy as being horribly evil. They fight, both sides demonize the other too much to be able to think straight, and whoever wins there are endless lingering bad feelings.
But why the heck does it take a cheesy 90s sci-fi TV show with comically-haired aliens to get this right? How come the majority of so-called respectable political commentators still prefer to think of it as "all people in power really are evil and are doing it just because they hate you"?
One of the reasons literature is such a powerful political tool is that it gives you new models you can use to interpret situations. Let's say your neighbor was speaking out against the government, and suddenly he gets arrested and is never seen again, and the government says "Oh, he was an enemy of the state who was plotting to betray us to the commie nazis, thank goodness our brave policemen caught him in time." One possible reaction might be "As a patriotic citizen, I hate commie nazis! Thank you, overbearing police state!" But reading 1984 gives you an example of where there was something very different behind this kind of situation. If you've read 1984 you have the option of thinking "Wait a second, maybe this is like that 1984 book where these sorts of arrests were actually a really bad thing."
And maybe you're wrong. Maybe your neighbor was Osama bin Laden, and it's a good thing they caught him when they did. But if you'd never read 1984, the Osama possibility might have been the only one that occurs to you, or the only one that has enough emotional relevance to catch your interest. After you read 1984, you can think to yourself "This neighbor could be like Osama, but he could also be like Winston from 1984". Both possibilities are mentally available and have strong emotional relevance, and you can consider both when deciding what exactly you think of the situation.
Next time I hear about workers striking for better conditions and getting beaten up by brutal security forces, I'm going to think "Sure sounds like all those books I read in elementary school where the poor powerless people were oppressed by the evil ruling class to line their own pockets. But it also sounds a lot like that episode of Babylon 5, where both sides were equally at fault. So I guess I should wait to hear both sides of the story before jumping to any conclusions."
Sci-fi and fantasy books are especially good at this, because they tend to be more focused on political situations, especially unusual political situations, than other genres. I remember reading a book set after an apocalypse, where there were only a few humans left and they were all fighting with each other over the few remaining scraps of civilization. The few remaining military leaders managed to restore a semblance of order, and then declared martial law and threatened to shoot anyone who disagreed, on the grounds that getting civilization up and running again was more important than letting every single person have their say. And y'know, it was something totally new to read a story where people declared martial law and threaten to shoot dissenters because there was an emergency that mandated it, instead of just as a plot device to let you know that they were, in fact, Evil. But it took an apocalypse to really drive it home; maybe no situation outside the scope of science fiction would have worked. But after that apocalypse, every time you hear about martial law, you think "Hey, maybe this was declared by people who really do think there's an emergency and are trying to help."
I'm of course not saying the powerful are always right, or never evil. I'm just saying that, in a society where we're generally taught they're always evil, I'm very thankful for the few books that teach the alternative so I can make an informed decision.