Home > Opinion > The prejudices betrayed by what we say and write

The prejudices betrayed by what we say and write

Sometimes, when reading non-related items in the news, the mind can suddenly identify a common denominator. Since it happened today, I’ll celebrate the event with an opinion piece. It seems there’s a self-published book called The Pearls: Defending Eden by Victoria Foyt and Weird Tales, under its new management, has tied itself in a knot over whether it should reproduce the first chapter of this book in its magazine. Also in America, I note that Todd Akin has refused the demands of his political party to withdraw from the election to represent Missouri in the Senate — as an aside, the drunken skinny-dipping episode in the Sea of Galilee may suggest other members of the same party can act in a debauched way. For the record, Akin distinguished between legitimate and other types of rape, asserting the belief that women could control their bodies to ensure they could not become pregnant if unwillingly impregnated. On our side of the pond, George Galloway offered the opinion that Julian Assange was not guilty of rape as he understood the word. Rather it was a case of bad manners or poor social etiquette. This on the day the Augusta National Golf Club ended its eighty-year single-sex membership rule and admitted its first two women members. It seems Darla Moore and Condoleezza Rice are now lining up as many of the male members as possible in friendly competition on the golf course with a view to demonstrating they are better players of the game (the ambiguity is deliberate).

The lives we lead as social beings inevitably involve the use of signs and symbols to transmit meaning to each other. We talk, we write, we draw, and we use body language and facial expressions to package the meaning and send it to others. This means our society must agree what meanings are to be given to combinations of letters or symbols, and to lay down rules for the interpretation of what we see. As you might imagine, this would appear to be an immensely complicated communication system to learn if you saw it all written down. But we assimilate it as part of the socialisation process. Growing up, we listen to authority figures and interact with our peers. When we say and do things meeting with group approval, we’re rewarded. When the group disapproves, we may suffer social penalties or more formal punishments. This stick and carrot approach throughout our formative years teaches us how to conform or, at least, how to appear to conform.

As adults, we’re the sum of all our prejudices and beliefs. Everything we see and hear is filtered through the lens of our personal sensibilities. If input matches our prejudices, we applaud. If input fails to match our prejudices, the reaction can range from simple dismissal to an angry physical retaliation. In my early schooling, we were taught self-reflection, to look with some degree of honesty at what we believe and decide whether those beliefs are “legitimate”. Today, no-one in the schooling system is taught critique whether for self-reflection or the assessment of others. People unthinkingly communicate with the world not realising how they reveal themselves in what they say and do.

So what would happen in a book written by a homophobe? Well, early on, the previously well-regarded A is outed as gay. Suddenly, all his co-workers stop co-operating with him and his employment is terminated because he can no longer perform his job effectively. His reputation follows him so no new employer will offer him a post. He ends up losing his home when he cannot pay the mortgage and, in the final pages, is beaten to death when found begging on a street corner. This would conform to the prejudices of many readers and they would buy the book. What might a gay author write on the same subject? When A is outed and suffers discrimination, he takes his employers to court and gets substantial damages for wrongful dismissal. He uses this money to establish his own business which supplies goods and services first to the gay community, and then more generally. When the opportunity arises, he offers employment to gay and straight people, making no secret of his own sexuality nor of his policy for equal treatment. He becomes a multimillionaire and buys the company that fired him. In a management evaluation exercise, he reallocates all the homophobes who abused him to work under managers who are openly gay.

Both books would be considered parables, expressing different points of view to appeal to niche groups of buyers. In other words, authors don’t suddenly stop being prejudiced when they write. They write about what they believe and express opinions about what they think is right and wrong. Fueling this process, organisations exist to make awards, but their criteria for deciding who deserve the awards represent their own prejudices. So, for example, The Libertarian Futurist Society makes an annual Prometheus Award to the books best demonstrating what it means to be free. The Black Caucus of the American Library Association Literary Awards are given to outstanding works of fiction and nonfiction by African American authors. There’s no overlap between the award winners.

In an election, voters look for candidates holding opinions similar to their own. If they are anti-abortion, they will vote for candidates who deny abortion no matter how the woman became pregnant. If the political tide is turning against overt sexism or racism, people and organisations can trim their sails to move elegantly into line, or they can try to swim against the tide. So Augusta can, with whatever grace it can muster, offer membership to two token women of high status. The blogosphere can turn on Weird Tales for offering support to a book the commentators have labelled as racist. British George Galloway feels free to comment on the Swedish laws as they define rape. All these events mean we live in a society where we value free speech. For better or worse, people can say what they want to get elected to high political office and publish what they think will sell. Looking back this year, I’ve read books that suggest grooming young women to be sex slaves is OK, that killing illegal immigrants is OK although, if you want to be kind, you could intern them and then deport them by sending them out to sea to become someone else’s problem, or that trying to depose a military leader because he’s gay is always justified even if the country’s defence is then put at risk, and so on. There are as many opinionated authors as there are books published. It’s sad so many of them have no idea that what they write can seem [insert word]ist to others not sharing their beliefs. Or perhaps they are aware and actually want to offend those who don’t share their beliefs. Whatever the truth of the matter, it doesn’t really matter because the alternative of censorship is not in the public interest. We should all be allowed to make fools of ourselves or become heroes in the eyes of others for saying what needs to be said. As an elderly, white, male atheist, I’m no exception since I frequently hold opinions at odds with the rest of the world and assert my right to publish them.

  1. August 23, 2012 at 2:57 am

    I have heard the controversy over The Pearls. Haven’t read it so I can’t comment intelligently on it, but as someone who has been burned by the charge of racism myself, I’m inclined to give the author the benefit of the doubt. Not much benefit, but to use the example you gave above of the two homophobe story plots, I can actually imagine the first story being written by an author who is a gay rights advocate. The first plot outlines the crushing of a gay person by an intolerant society; the second the triumph of a gay person in a more fair society. Both stories could move the reader to positive action.

    This is, of course, beside the point to your point, which is that the best response to bigoted and intolerant speech is more speech–something many people who ought to know better are forgetting.

    • August 23, 2012 at 11:47 am

      I haven’t read The Pearls either. From descriptions, it seems to be a “reverse racism” story in which Coals are in the majority and Pearls the minority following an ecological catastrophe. Without reading it, it’s impossible to say whether this inversion of racial balance makes the book “racist” but there seems to be a crowd effect amplifying the assumption of racism.

      The problem you raise about interpretation is of critical importance. Let’s assume a text is published in an ambiguous form, i.e. the author expresses no opinion on the events described in the text. This silence could be an encouragement to the prejudiced readers to see only the interpretation matching their prejudices. The positive action could therefore be the more overt oppression of gays. If the author wishes to avoid encouraging this outcome, there must be a balance struck in the text showing how or why the author believes the prejudiced interpretation is “wrong”. Taking this one step further, what would we think if the author of The Pearls were to take to the mass media and say, “I deliberately published an ambiguous text to provoke a debate about whether we are prejudiced. Now that we have the ball rolling, let’s consider the following points. . .” Potentially, the author would be performing a public service by inspiring people to examine their beliefs in the light of their reactions to the controversy. Since most will not have read the book, it challenges people to justify why, based on a one or two sentence summary, they were so willing to believe this author’s work was inherently racist.

      • August 23, 2012 at 12:11 pm

        Couldn’t have said it better myself–but then I’m just a hack writer!

      • August 23, 2012 at 12:21 pm

        Well, this hack critic salutes the hack writer!

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