“People would love it, and defend it with their lives because they would somehow know that their lives could be nothing without it.
If the Earth were only a few feet in diameter.”
This gap, between real things and representations of things, is at the heart of something I’ve been struggling to get my head around in recent months. The passion I see for stories, be they movies, games, or—gasp—sometimes novels, is something that I share, and yet it boggles me that as much as they affect culture in a broad sense, they seem to often have little impact on the individuals most devoted to them.
If the Standing Rock land defenders were nine feet tall, blue, and had pointed ears and cat eyes, would the viewers who made a shitty film $2.788 billion give some of that time and money in the fight against DAPL? If the cops gunning down unarmed black people in the streets were wearing Stormtrooper armour instead of blue uniforms, would white geeks sympathize with Black Lives Matter’s rage? If North Americans of different classes were divided into twelve large geographical districts rather than a patchwork of segregated neighbourhoods ripe for gerrymandering, would struggle against the 1% become a more palatable idea outside of the typical activist demographic?
Speaking as a responsible adult, we often worry about the messages young people take from media. Can a kid playing a violent video game distinguish between fantasy and reality (my own response to this is nuanced; in most cases yes, in some cases, actually not so much, or the military wouldn’t use video games for recruitment)? But I think in focusing on that, we often neglect to examine why these stories exist in the first place, and what we stand to learn from them.
Genre stories in particular are often morality tales; the more elevated a story is in pop culture, the more likely it is to be this. They train us to root for good versus evil, the underdog versus the oppressor, and showcase heroes for whom force is a last resort, but for whom force ultimately becomes a necessity in the face of injustice. Viewed superficially, these narratives can be dangerous; one only needs to look at the far right to see how easily the straight white cismale can be reframed as the underdog, fighting against a vast liberal machine seeking to take away his freedom of expression, while subsequently dehumanizing the Other as some sort of Tolkien-esque orc mob. They remove nuance (not that nuanced genre fiction doesn’t exist; it absolutely does, but it’s rarely elevated to the point of cultural touchstone). The “bad” side seldom has a motivation beyond money, revenge, or power, even while individual villains may be complex and interesting characters.</div>
This is the obvious reason for distinguishing fiction from reality, but I think most adults are able to do that. What is more confusing for me is that the social usefulness of such morality tales often gets lost in the shuffle.
I hate to be harping on the antifa thing with so many posts, but it’s a good example of where I feel lessons of fiction have utterly failed the casual citizen. The typical anti-antifa (dear fuck, what an awkward construction) post I see on Facebook focuses on two things: violence and masks. Because antifa are sometimes violent—even though in reality only a small number of antifa commit actual violence in a small percentage of anti-fascist work—and we dislike Nazis because Nazis are violent, the two are morally comparable. This is an easily debunked argument, though I imagine its proponents must have a difficult time wrapping their heads around, say, World War II.
The mask issue is what I find more interesting. One meme I saw equated antifa to KKK, because both wear masks, and if you believe in your convictions, you wouldn’t hide your face. This was from a nerd, though journalists also ask this question frequently. Presumably, nerds and journalists are both familiar with the tropes of superhero comics, in which both heroes and villains often wear masks to disguise their identities.
“But wait, Sabs. You’re not living in a comic book! This is real life.”
Okay. But. Fiction exists for a reason, which is to tell us stories about who we are and why people do the things they do. Otherwise, there is no point to it; the stories we tell would have no resonance if they were meaningless.
So why does Batman wear a mask? Partially to invoke fear, but also to, oh, protect his friends from retaliation. To, to frame it in real-life terms, avoid getting doxxed. We can—and I do—argue that perhaps donating his copious billions to build up Gotham’s infrastructure and mental health services might go a lot farther in terms fixing the root problems plaguing the city, but I don’t think even the most hyper-critical pedant would argue that Batman’s failures are because he wears a mask. Or because he is secretly ashamed of his beliefs. Or even that he is morally equivalent to the villains he fights, either because of aesthetics (mask) or actions (violence), despite the existence of grimdark comics revisionism.
Of course, I am not just talking about violence—in fact, critiques of left-wing activism often, at their root, have little to do with what any reasonable person would deem violence. Any political action outside of state-sanctioned action—which is to say, voting, and possibly calling your representative if we’re feeling generous—meets with the most vicious criticism from people looking for an excuse to either disparage the cause or not do anything themselves. There is nothing remotely violent about, say, blocking a major street with a peaceful demonstration, but large swathes of the right and centre are quite comfortable with running over protestors who do so. They would prefer it, I suspect, if we did not push back at all.
This, despite the presence of myths that tell us to venerate individuals and groups that worked outside of the system, whether fictional or real. The Civil Rights movement may very well be a fairy tale for all that an average commentator knows about it; those who idolize and quote Martin Luther King Jr.’s legacy of civil disobedience tend to be the first to criticize Colin Kaepernick’s even less disruptive non-violent resistance, let alone the blocking of a highway.
I’m not the first to make this observation, as evidenced by the many posts framing our current troubles in terms of Star Wars, or Harry Potter. Nor am I naïve in terms of why we root for idealized, allegorical representations of real life struggles and not their flesh-and-blood equivalents, or why dystopias are largely the real-life sufferings of brown and black people transposed onto white protagonists. But what drives me to hope and despair alike is the capacity, and failure, for fiction to breed empathy and imagination. Stories should not make us act like we’re living in a comic book, but they should inspire us to do more than cast a ballot every four or five years and spend the rest of our time crying into cake (no, I’m not going to let that go). They should expand the range of the politically possible. They absolutely have for the far-right, which has risen to prominence largely on iconography adopted from pop culture—ironically, often drawn from the very people they seek to eliminate, such as when the Alt Reich took the Red Pill from a film made by two trans women about a multicultural group of freedom fighters.
The most trite and popular fiction is chock full of examples of disobedience, civil and otherwise, unruly heroes who work outside of the system because the system is broken—often in far less dire straits than we currently find ourselves, with climate apocalypse looming and a legitimately cartoonish villain with his finger on the big red button. If you can understand why Panem doesn’t just elect a new president with better childcare policies, you should be able to understand why legitimate and unobtrusive channels don’t seem all that appealing to people who hunger for change.
comment(s) on this entry at Dreamwidth.