Constructed Worlds vs Civil Rights Metaphors

This post is basically a re-run of a post that I wrote two years ago.  The ideas are all the same.  But Detroit: Beyond Human came out and got all high profile while committing the grave and fatal sin of pressing my pet peeve buttons, so here we are again.  Let’s talk.

I think we can all agree that racism, sexism, all those -isms are horrible things.  Sure, we can come to a whole host of interpretations on what sort of behavior falls under those banners, where the lines are, how much of an impact they have in modern society and how much they should have, what needs to change to get there, and why we’ve let stupid assholes control the discourse on all sides of these matters, but beyond all the battle lines there, I think we can agree that these are bad things.

Lots of creators are moved by this, and want to write about it.  That’s a good thing.  A fair amount of how many people interpret their world comes through the media they consume, and this opens the door to exploration of it.  Lots of creators also like to write about robots and elves and constructed worlds and all sorts of exotic and unrealistic places and people.  That’s also a good thing.  Take us all outside this meatspace shell where everyone has their stresses and their troubles and has to deal with the fact that they will never look as good as I do.  Some creators like to put those two together, and write about the prejudice that their completely different and unusual people face in this world.  That’s also a good thing.  At the very least, explore how rights and social structures and whatnot work in that world, perhaps also getting people to see the mundane matter from a new perspective.  All good so far.

But then some creators take things a step further than that.  They take their constructed race, and try to tie it with the historic civil rights issues faced by some other targeted class of people.  And that’s where it stops being a good thing.  Because in so doing, they undermine the entire point they think that makes, and do a disservice to the whole movement against those issues.

The big, bad thing that so central and horrible about all those isms is that they ascribe a treatment to and a mentality against a people based on mostly immaterial differences.  A person’s race, gender, sexuality, beliefs, etc. has next to no impact on the vast majority of the interactions a person has with the world, and treating them differently according to these factors is injecting a whole host of problems into their lives based on nothing more than your own stupid ideas.  That’s the crux of it.

But a most of these constructed peoples that are used as allegories for real world issues?  They do have demonstrable, practical differences from the rest of the people.  In games, maybe they have different stats.  Or access to different unique abilities.  In stories, maybe they have different physical or intellectual capabilities.  Maybe they’re connected to different living gods or magical hiveminds.  Or maybe they’re robots, and nobody has reason to believe they’re sentient beings.  Whatever.  But they have material differences that go beyond surface level.

Again, that’s fine.  You can still make a lot of points about prejudice when talking about them.  You can make a lot of good, compelling points.  The prejudice against them may still be horrible.  That’s fine.  But by trying to use them as a metaphor for real world prejudice, you’re tying a prejudice that’s grounded in some material difference to a prejudice that’s completely ungrounded, and that weakens everything involved drastically.

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The X-Men probably present the biggest example of the problem here.  So, for a refresher, the X-Men and the other associated titles are about mutants, a race of humans who by a quirk of genetics have powers that they often can’t control and, at least going by the named characters in the series, are generally geared towards combat.   Central conflicts regularly center around the abundant anti-mutant sentiment in this world.  For years, the series called back to the civil rights struggles of its time, but twisted them in a way that was specific for their world.  That was all fine.  They used the real-world stuff to inject realism and explore prejudice, but the mutants weren’t equated with any real group, weren’t intertwined with any real world cause.  This meant all this exploration could happen without undermining any real world groups of people.

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But slowly, that line started to erode.  And the mutants started being obviously equated with real groups.  First with the black rights movements, then drifting over to the sexual equality issue as time went on.  Direct parallels between them were drawn, to try and make that connection clear.  The struggles faced by our beloved X-Men were equivalent to the struggles faced by these other people out there.

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What’s the problem with that, exactly?  It helps people make the connection when they’d normally be barred by their preconceptions, right?  Not so much.  See, there’s a bit too much difference between them.  Specifically, mutants?  When they find out about their powers?  They often do so explosively.  Examples abound in the mutant materials of kids hitting puberty and accidentally killing a whole bunch of people.  Some mutants still can’t control their powers, and do a whole bunch of harm on accident.  Even those who can still misuse their special abilities to the detriment of the mundane people around them.  Yes, even the good guys.  And that’s avoiding the whole issues of evil mutants, entirely, of the fact that there are people out there who can wipe whole countries off the map with a thought and that the only means of stopping them are in the hands of an uncontrolled military force.  So… yeah.  There’s a lot more to justify prejudiced views against mutants than there are against the real world groups creators try to equate them to.  Doesn’t mean those prejudiced views aren’t horrible in result, but they’re a lot more grounded.  Trying to say they’re the equivalent to the ungrounded prejudice real world groups face undermines those groups.  Hell, what’s presented as bigotry in the X-verse has a lot more in common with the gun control debate than it does with civil rights, and writers end up making a very different point than they’re intending to about that.

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So what’s the issue with Detroit: Become Human?  They try to make a similar point about the horribleness of prejudice against androids.  To be honest, I don’t know enough of the material to talk about how it’s handled yet.  But what really grinds my gears, is the connections they try to draw to the real world.  The androids’ uniforms, the arm-bands, the ubiquitous triangles, all draw iconography from the way Nazi Germany forced its ‘undesirables’ to dress in real world history.  The racism and classism there should go without saying.  The horrors against humanity there would be absolutely galling for any reason, but they were still based on a bunch of largely imaginary differences between peoples.  The implication that that is equivalent to the struggles of a people for whom the differences are concrete and the general public seemingly has no reason to believe the androids are even sentient of is… well, it’s frustrating to me.  Now, given my lack of knowledge of the material, it’s possible that they develop that.  Turn that connection into something more meaningful than it appears at first glance.  But given the cartoon caliber characterization of its early scenes, I’m not counting on that.

So yeah, that’s my bit.  This isn’t a great horror of modern writing, or even a big deliberate disrespect to the struggles of survivors.  Just a pet peeve of mine, but one I’d love to see be handled a lot more smartly in the future.

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The Fantasy Prejudice Problem

Fantasy.  Science Fiction.  The whole Speculative Fiction umbrella.  A genre or genres that are very much apart from this lame boring realistic world were you have to get a job and not all the lasses are buxom and not all the dudes are hunky and you only get to hunt dragons a few times a year.  These stories present their own worlds, with their own rules, that can be as separate from meatspace as the writer’s skills can stretch believability.  At the same time, though, they’re close enough that they can actually speak to the real world.  Allegory and metaphor are powerful tools available to this medium, with the writer offering familiar situations in an unfamiliar setting to help the reader see them from completely new perspectives and in a completely new light.  Lots of authors feel strongly about lots of things, lots of authors write speculative fiction, so lots of authors bring these two great tastes together.

But lots of authors don’t think things out the whole way through.  And therein lies the problem.

So, racism is bad.  Sexism is bad.  There’s a whole lot of –isms out there that are bad.  You know what?  Let’s just go ahead and say screw prejudice as a whole.  That will be our platform.  Screw Prejudice 2024.  Then if anyone argues with us, we can prove that they’re really a racist elf.  That’s how you win politics, people.  Anyways, the roots, causes, and impacts of it are an incredibly complex subject, far more than any self-proclaimed expert can just pick up from Tumblr, but we can still go out on a limb and say prejudice is a bad thing.  We all on the same page here?  Good.

Lots of other people think prejudice is a bad thing, too.  So they decide to use their medium of choice to change hearts and minds around it.  Get people to understand it better, look at it from a new perspective.  Make the world a bit of a better place.  Speculative Fiction is a ripe ground for metaphor, so it seems to fit right in.

But in the process, it’s easy to change too much, and tie a whole lot of other implications into that metaphor as well.  It’s easy to inadvertently give ammunition to the counter-point.

Elves and dwarves just hate each other.  You can find entire slave races all over the place.  So many people have to deal with a world that hates and fears them for having powers they never asked for and can’t control.  And all too often, these aren’t meant to just make a plot point in and of themselves, but to remind you of the plight of a specific strain of humanity.

Real world prejudice is a blight because it assigns poor treatment to people because of traits that really don’t matter.  A lot of speculative fiction prejudice impacts people with real, tangible, physical differences that set them apart from other races.  That weakens the metaphor drastically.  Having races with different capabilities and stats makes them interesting, but if you’re trying to use them to create a real world analog for racial treatment, making them differently capable just starts implying that there’s maybe a reason for that prejudice.  Like, you remember in the Elder Scrolls, where Khajiit just get treated like an entire race of thieves but that’s what their stats lay out?  And you know, that was all fine, until they started brushing, lightly brushing, but still brushing, against the real world “racism is bad” metaphor in Skyrim, where wasn’t it such a shame that all the Nordic cities treated all Khajiit like thieves even though EVERY SINGLE FREAKING KHAJIIT NPC WAS A MEMBER OF THE THIEVE’S GUILD!

And then when you go further than that, start giving races access to weapons and tools that others don’t have, that they can’t even control themselves, and yet isn’t it such a shame that everyone else is so phobic to them?  X-Men is a big offender here.  Back in the day, it just made itself more realistic by grounding itself in the more recent civil rights movement rather than directly confronting it.  The struggle of mutants was something that the team was working on, was a major focus of the plot, but they didn’t start trying to make the real world parallels right away.  And when they did get around to it, did start saying that “these are your blacks!  These are your gays!”, the whole comparison rang a little unfortunate, because really, by that point the humans were at least partially justified in their fear.  The comics have spent story upon story detailing characters with little control of their deadly, dangerous, powers, showing people who first realized they had these mutant powers in the first place by nearly murdering those around them, and have spent years showcasing mutant characters who were unabashedly, openly evil.  Trying to make that analogy, trying to say you have no reason to treat a population that way, just makes things worse when you give the people in your story plenty of reason to fear and be wary of them in the first place.

That doesn’t mean there’s not a good reason or a good way to handle this topic in media.  Honestly, there’s a lot of works that do it well.  Deus Ex: Human Revolution, Final Fantasy X, and Tales of Symphonia all hit those notes quite well, for example.  Just, when you’re dealing with it, keep in mind that you’re walking into a very complex subject, and make sure you’re paying attention to all the elements you’re bringing to it, as such.