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Author of queer, quirky sci fi/fantasy books. On Amazon.
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Wednesday, 8 March 2017

Wish it Away: The Dystopian Side of Positivity Culture

Hello hello!

As I tidy up the loose ends and incorporate beta-reader feedback for The Meaning Wars, the third installment in the series of the same name (also including And the Stars Will Sing and The Stolen: Two Short Stories), I find myself on Quartz and The Establishment fairly often, doing research and reading coincidental articles that often align with ideas I'm trying to express. Recently, Quartz had a piece on a psychologist's research about positivist and 'happiness culture' that struck home.  Then I saw this on Facebook, and after a short, friendly conversation on Twitter, an article was born.





What is 'positivity culture'? 


The Self-help and pop psychology industries are sources of this, but it's not without links to modern Christianity, either. "How to Win Friends and Influence People" author Dale Carnegie, and more recently, The Secret have endorsed the idea that, in a nutshell, thinking about good things makes them happen and makes bad things less likely to happen.

This sounds simple, innocent, and feasible, and that's partly why it's so popular. It's hard to object to something as inoffensive as the proposition, 'be happy to be happier'. In a world where mental health issues are at an all-time high, though, it has sinister and unpleasant ramifications. Since the self-help industry preys on people in distress, these books - and many employment policies - effectively end up telling people in bad situations to 'just think differently' to fix their problems.

This is at best, naive, and at worst, insulting. When the issue is a lack of neurotransmitters and the right chemicals, wishing them into existence doesn't do the trick. But as with eugenics in the old days, it's more pernicious than just accentuating 'good traits'. The problem comes from refusing to deal with, accept, or acknowledge negative emotions and experiences on an institutional level. When people essentially get punished at work or socially for not faking happiness, it gets difficult.

Anyone who's worked in the service or retail industries (hello!) can relate to this; faking a cheerful, peppy, or calm attitude even when one feels otherwise, and being subservient in most or all interactions causes a sensation of distress and can be triggering for those with anxiety issues or depression. More dangerously, the fake happiness can mask more severe symptoms of depression and other disorders, and train people in these situations that reaching out and being honest about their feelings is more dangerous or less safe than 'faking happiness' or normalcy. Particularly in the early stages of depression, this is a serious danger, because treating depression and anxiety early on can help prevent nervous breakdowns - like the one your dear author had a couple of years ago.


What's the worst that could happen? 


This is one of my favorite question, because it can lead to absurdist or sinister trains of thought in almost any situation. The thing is, I've had a taste of the weirdness that is extreme happiness culture. After surviving the strangely repressive experience and the weird culture of fake enlightenment that permeated the Addictions Counselling faculty where I studied for my degree, I got a taste of what the worst looked like. Even as I studied ways to make clients open up and feel safe talking about the most difficult events in their lives, myself and other students were graded on our weekly lab sessions, where we had to disclose real personal information and family trauma or risk failing the course.

Without so much as a legal waiver to protect us from gossip and each other, people learned to be selective about what they disclosed and how they protrayed events and emotions. Being comfortable with trauma was treated as 'not understanding it enough yet', but being too honest about, say, any sort of bad decision led to peer disapproval and shunning. In the context of a degree program where authenticity and acceptance were supposed to be the ideals, it was bizarre and not a little damaging.

Through my mother's social circle as well as the department, I also got a unique look into the dark side of the New Age movement. There were no sex cults or drug orgies to be found, disappointingly; no, in the realm of yoga classes taught by and for white people, positivity and motivational posters (yes, the real ones, with black borders and inspiring photos and vague captions), and wellness retreat weekends, there was only Healthy Living.

I'm not saying my childhood, adolescence, and early adulthood were entirely a wasteland of vacuous smiles, diet Buddhism, culturally appropriated rituals, and crash diet and exercise routines, but those elements were certainly omnipresent. A stint in a private school with unique and bizarre architecture - classrooms facing into windowed halls, a library that could be entirely observed through indoor windows, and a perfectly positioned stair platform, no hidden corners or stairwells - also gave me a taste of what it was like to watched constantly by professors and other students without any form of egress.



No joke, I grew up with these around the house and school. 

The dark side of 'enlightenment' 


Combined with the pervasive whiteness - both in the interior decorating sense and the cultural group context - of these settings, I got a deep look into the weirdness that is the liberal side of conservatism. In more recent times, as the 'All Lives Matter' crowd rose up and discussions of white feminism took to the air, I had another opportunity to see how certain forms of debate and discussion could be suppressed once people found them 'too unpleasant'. It's the Taylor Swift school of feminism: 'girl power' that has no impact on anything, no ramifications, no real cost. It spliced neatly with happiness culture, because discussing actual inequality issues can conflict with the goal of 'not focusing on negativity'.

What this has to do with science fiction 


It's a common element of dystopias that citizens are miserable, often in a sort of pseudo-Communist situation - highly ironic, in the context of current events and the lack of adequate housing and nutritious food for so many in America. But instead of merely swallowing their feelings for stoicism, I wanted to explore a world of vigilant attention to peacefulness. Taking inspiration from both dark sides of some North American Christian cultures and the suspiciously similar white Buddhist/spiritual movement, I merged the values to create a setting of oppressive faux-tolerance, where real inequality and deprivation were comfortably distant, but people nonetheless lived in fear of judgement from others and humiliating or dangerous punishment.

And thus, The Meaning Wars were born.

***

Thanks for returning to the nest. Leave a comment and say hi! I want to hear from you. Keep up with the new releases by getting on the mailing list. Buy my books on Amazon, and keep up with me on TwitterFacebookTumblr, and the original blog. This is the one and only SciFiMagpie, over and out!

Saturday, 4 March 2017

Censorship and 'Censorship': Who Gets to Speak?

Hello hello!

In the increasingly surreal absurdist comedy that is current international politics, the issue of free speech has been awfully prevalent. With the new development of sensitivity readers and an outsized backlash to their existence, as well as cries of outrage over the cancellation of Milo Yiannopoulos' book contract, a lot of people have taken these as 'attacks' on free speech. Meanwhile, Beauty and the Beast is being banned from certain theatres because the character Le Fou will be openly gay.

There will be people who say that these actions are on par. Neil Gaiman, who I love and respect, wrote an essay to that effect about nine years ago.

There was a time when I would have agreed with that essay, because after all, who does get to speak? Is there really a difference between public censorship and government censorship? Is refusal of a business to deal with an individual really censorship at all?

The thing is, all taboo or unpopular comments are not created equally. The people who would like to have the freedom, or 'freedom' to support violence and harassment against others are eager to make the claim that they're doing so for the sake of provocation, but it's funny how they never stand up for, say, the gay or 'ethnic' people who are also saying socially unacceptable things.


"Censorship" versus lack of support 


Censorship refers to the practice of an official, government-led organization removing or culling content for the sake of a moral agenda. Refusal to allow a speaker or publish a book due to protesting is not government censorship, it's a decision for the sake of consumers. That's well-trodden ground and I don't plan on tramping it into smoothness yet again. Rather, I'd like to focus on the real issue - that all 'unacceptable' speech, as I'm going to call it, is not created equally and does not come from equally supported, safely-positioned, societally enshrined sources.

Who's the target? 


For a long time, the broad left and the liberal segments of the right have grappled with the idea that people want to voice and discuss things that aren't socially rewarded. Sometimes these things are simple, like, 'black people are treated badly', and sometimes these things are basically underage teen girl porn by famous authors.

There's a certain idea that's been prevalent since the 90s; namely, that offending people is automatically good or moral in some way. In television, from my understanding, there's a weird attitude of equality in terms of who is allowed to be targeted for offensive jokes, which gives the inaccurate idea that all groups have equal weight in choosing targets. With this idea, offending everyone is fine, even moral, because it 'makes people think' or 'shakes them up'.

But pretending that all ugly speech is created equally is a fallacy that has allowed the proliferation of hate speech and violence of various kinds. It comes from the same idea that everyone is born with the same opportunities and advantages, when that simply isn't the case. Black people in the USA die four years earlier than white people, Trans people experience disproportionate rates of mental illness and violence, leading to a shockingly low life-expectancy - roughly age thirty. Simply being born or developing a particular set of circumstances has a drastic effect on people's lives.

It's an ugly but empirically proveable fact that being a woman subjects one to greater risks of sexual violence and limits career advancement, that being transgender has the same results but multiplied, that being disabled in any way  results in a lower lifespan, that being a sex worker carries both danger and stigma, and that being a person of colour, or fitting into intersections of any of these groups, has a magnified effect of inequality. I haven't cited every one of these ideas to avoid turning my post into link soup, but it's not hard to find support for them.

Who gets to say what?


The problem comes from the fact that some people are used to hearing certain things on a regular basis, and some experience disproportionate harm from these things. A black woman listening to a "n---" joke from a fellow black comedian may experience commiseration in the context of talking about a shared experience. The same joke from a white comedian plays into historic and present inequalities, and even if it's intended in a friendly way, can reinforce those inequalities.

With that in mind, considering the audience targeted by a certain piece of art is essential to deciding on whether or not to support that art's expression. The time has come for us to choose which 'free speech' we're going to support, and I personally plan to use the audience and targets to determine the people I'm going to stand behind. The idea of 'punching up' compared to 'punching down' is unquestionably vital here. Sometimes intersectional nuances can make it difficult to choose a side, and in those cases, a full-force attack is less necessary than a careful, mediated conversation. But in a lot of situations, the people experiencing blocks and resistance tend to be those disempowered by social circumstances.


"But everyone protests things!" comes the counter-argument. "We need to be able to say awful things just in case..." 


In Canada, as well as many other countries, hate speech is punishable by law and considered separately from other forms of free speech and self-expression. In the US, that is not the case, and it's because of a refusal to acknowledge that saying ugly things about people who can be harmed by them is different than annoying people.

It's really worth considering why it's so important to demonstrate one's freedoms by vocalizing aggression or violence towards others. Since white people and men in general tend to be protected by social structures and the way laws are enforced, it's vital to realise that things that hurt our feelings seldom hurt us in ways that leave a lasting impact. Feelings do matter, but in the context of violence and poverty, refusing to be criticized because it's annoying seems awfully greedy.

What does this mean for writers? 


Those of us who create content play a role in creating culture itself. Instead of being upset about sensitivity readers, it's better to embrace them and appreciate their role in helping us improve our fiction and ensure its fairness. Sure, there will be times when an issue is nuanced and sticky and effects a couple of groups of people on the sharp end of prejudice, or when people from the same group have multiple differing opinions on content. For example, Asian people are divided over Madame Butterfly and Miss Saigon, which provide casting opportunities but reinforce prejudiced ideas. While it's seldom possible to please everyone, doing the best to satisfy most people, or at least the important people, is generally advisable.

As for situations where portraying a troubled or troubling character is 'part of a story', it's important to think about one's own 'artistic integrity' in the context of the social world we live in. Where have your ideas about this character come from? Art can feel like magic sometimes, but treating it as an uncritiqueable sacred cow both cheapens its quality and lets creators get away with not challenging themselves or their beliefs. At the end of the day, it's not easy to strive for equality, but it's the right thing to do in so many ways - and that's why I support some forms of challenging media and art, and refuse to support others. Milo Yiannopoulos can get phuqued.

***

Thanks for returning to the nest. Leave a comment and say hi! I want to hear from you. Keep up with the new releases by getting on the mailing list. Buy my books on Amazon, and keep up with me on TwitterFacebookTumblr, and the original blog. This is the one and only SciFiMagpie, over and out!
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