So two things I read last week have set me thinking. The first was this post
on principles by Nancy Jane Moore at the Bookview Cafe website. The second was a question posed on twitter by kateelliott
on twitter. Two proposals, two remarks -- 'the first thing a principle does is kill someone' 'do you self-censor and why/' -- that spoke straight to my core, to that part of me that sits back and tries to drive. To, if you like, my madness, and the ways in which I work with, through, around the world.
I've talked before about rules and how they accrete in my head. I am trained to accept rules, to be mindful of them, to be, I suppose, law-abiding. I'm trained to be, as the tag sometimes notes, a Professional Good Girl. Professional Good Girls keep to the rules and remember all the things their friends and relations and acquaintances don't like, don't want, don't approve of. Professional Good Girls end up with a head full of voices telling them about all the things they are not allowed to do. Don't say X or do Y, because person P hates that. Don't think Q or wear R, because person S doesn't like them. Don't think the mean things, even in the space inside your head, because Good Girls don't. Good Girls sit still and accept the blame, the pain, the anger, because Other People matter more than they do.
It's not an easy space, being so Professionally Good. And that's just the bit about what I'm allowed to do and say and think.
Then, there's Other People. Other People have more rights than me. Other People are more important. Other People must be pandered to, served, obeyed, deferred to. It gets, frankly, tedious. Especially when all this Goodness and deferring runs up against a principle.
You see, I believe in principles. Principles matter. Principles are the flood defences, the storm shelters, the shields that hold back cruelty and injustice and unfairness. Principles stand between us and the madness of pure, unbridled self-interest. In my head, anyway. Principles matter to me, because they are at the foundation of who I am, of what I believe. I may be, as my friend M once said, the last old-fashioned socialist in captivity, but that's fine with me. I'm proud of my principles. It matters to me, to stand by them.
I don't want to bore you explaining what my particular principles are. That's another post. But the thing that caught my attention, between Nancy Jane Moore's blog post and Kate Elliott's question was this: what happens when the rules and the principles collide.
The answer is fairly simple. I get into hot water. Any time I have my throat exposed in public, any time I post one of my rants or long commentaries, you can be pretty sure that a rule and a principle have met. The last time I really got into an on-line mess? That started because I felt that a third party had been harmed, and should be defended. That's one of the principles, you see. I cannot stand by and let someone else be bullied, harmed or undermined. However much I hate conflict -- and I do -- I am not allowed to look away, because someone has to do something, and I can't be sure that anyone else would. Because Good Girls help. This particular behaviour -- which is a rule and a principle (It Is My Duty To Help, combined with Bullying shouldn't be condoned) has been getting me into trouble my whole life. But I can't unlearn it. In my head, that need -- that duty -- to stand up for others is bigger than any inconvenience or pain it may cause me, however much it may frighten me. In my head, it's never right to put my self-interest or comfort ahead of the need of others who are less privileged than me, who are being belittled or dismissed, who are being treated unjustly. I may, alas, be the stuff of which martyrs are made. It is my duty -- and my sense of duty is harsh and strong and unrelenting -- to speak out, to act, to Do Something, because somebody has to, but the only person I can be sure will is myself. It doesn't make me nice to know, sometimes. It certainly doesn't make me comfortable, to myself or others. There's a piece of me that empathises on some level with that cold, principled, unkind man Robespierre, who on a number of occasions chose what he considered the common good over his own wishes and desires. (I don't agree with his policies. But, pace
Simon Schama, he wasn't a monster, only a man driven to his extremes by his harsh, unforgiving principles. Saint-Just may have been a monster.) Principles can be hard, and cold and even cruel. But they matter, because without them, the tentacles of selfishness grow too strong.
This attitude of mine is, frankly, somewhat annoying. It drove my teachers mad 'don't get involved'. It used to drive my colleagues mad, because I would insist on asking the questions that the powers that be did not want asked. It drives the marquis mad, because I get myself into messes and arguments. It drives me mad. I am harsh on myself, and, sometimes, judgemental of others. I am bound up with ideas of duty that drive me bonkers. But I can't not do it.
And yet, I self-censor. I think most people do, in one way or another. There are lots of reasons. Other people's privacy, for instance. It's not up to me to decide what to say, what to reveal, sometimes, when others are involved. Rules -- those noisy things that infest my head. There are things I don't say, because I know it will upset or annoy or distress others. There are a handful of things I don't say because I don't want to deal with the consequences. There are things I don't write about because I feel they are better expressed face-to-face. And there are lots of things about which I don't think the world really needs my opinion, where I don't know enough. None of this means I don't care about those things. But I have chosen not to join in.
And then there are the ones that make me angry. The places I self-censor because of the Rules. The places I am silent because I've been taught that I Am Not Allowed. Don't say X, Kari: Y won't like it. Here's a list of things I self-censor not out of principle, not for any of the reasons above, not even entirely out of fear, but because someone else's voice is too loud in my head.
The Labour plan for I.D cards in the UK
Private education (in certain circumstances)
My own blasted country and its history
Why I really, really don't enjoy sunshine and heat
In a sense, none of this matters. Except... One of my principles is that I should not silence others. Silencing someone, particularly someone who has less power, or less privilege, is never good. Free speech -- if you believe in that (and I only do up to a point, because I live in the UK which has different rules on hate speech to those of the US, say) -- must be granted to all participants in a discussion, not just those with the loudest voices or the biggest sticks. Any statement that begins 'Your opinion doesn't matter because...' is a warning sign. It's an attempt to control, to dominate, to insist on a single story. Other people may well be right or they may well be wrong, but they should be listened to with respect.
Which brings me, in a roundabout way, to fantasy -- and to sf, for that matter. Principles are out of fashion right now. Since the 80s, at the latest, we have lived, in the west, in the realm of the Individual. It's all about Us. Heroes are mavericks, doing it Their Way. Other people have to get on board or be run over.
I'm generalising, of course I am, but a lot of current sff is about personal success, personal goals, personal achievement. Even when this is set against a background that refers to improving conditions for others, the latter is very much a sideline, an also ran. The focus is on the hero and how -- while saving The Suffering -- he or she achieves personal gratification and happiness. There are very few heroes who walk away from their own interest for the sake of others. Sacrifice is as unfashionable as principles. You have to go back a way to find examples. Galadriel rejecting the one ring, and accepting that she must dwindle. Gandalf holding back the Balrog. Michael de Sandoval of Dorsai and his companions, holding the castle against high odds. The pilot who stays on board the dying spaceship to let others escape. These days, there always seems to be a get-out, a back door via which the hero escapes at the last minute to enjoy the glory. A happy ending, yes, but it's a cheat. Principles are not easy. Duty is not easy. And when we don't show that, when we cheat, we undermine them, we reduce them to toys and poses. We undermine their value and their importance. And we reduce those acts, those choices made by the characters to just high-jinks and flash. The story becomes all about the hero. The poor who are always better off under the stable-boy king become no more than window dressing, because they don't really matter to the plot. They are just there to make the hero look good. In a sense, such fantasy is dangerous, because it makes change look easy and cheap, and it seldom questions the idea that what really matters is the individual getting what they want. This kind of narrative silences the underprivileged, the poor, because it reduces them to tokens, subordinate to the personal success of the chosen few. They have no agency. They are a voiceless mass, awaiting rescue, and nothing more. That, frankly, is a pretty patronising approach. And this story -- Wam the trainee pilot saves the galaxy and becomes admiral -- is a lie. It's never that simple. History shows us that, over and over.
In the real world, self-interest and the interests of others will conflict, probably on a daily basis. Uncontrolled, unchecked, it leads to exploitation, deprivation, huge social inequity and the Conservative Party (also the US Republican party) (Yes, my personal political prejudices are showing). Greed is not good.
There's a reason why Yvelliane makes the choices she does in Living With Ghosts
. A number of readers didn't like those choices much. They wanted her to live happily ever after. In the very first draft of that book (which was hugely different to the final version) she did. And everyone got ice cream and kittens. (Or, all right, that's not the case.) It was a rotten draft and a rotten ending. I was lying to myself, offering fluff and nonsense. Power comes with responsibility, and responsibility should -- must -- be shouldered. It's a matter of that cold thing, principle.
And it matters. It should matter in our genre, because books have power. Books effect those who read them, though seldom in the ways the authors expect or intend. When we omit people or belittle their experience, we harm them. When we imply that following our own self-interest is all that matters, we contribute to a culture that grows ever more selfish and unkind and unfair. PRinciples may be out-of-fashion, but they have a lot to offer us.
And there are authors now who still speak of them, write of them, write with them. Patricia Bray, pbray
, whose heroes do what they must, what is right, in the teeth of their own wishes and needs. kateelliott
, who writes about the effects of war and wealth on ordinary people. Ken MacLeod. Walter Jon Williams. Aliette de Bodard, aliettedb
. Lois MacMaster Bujold, sometimes. The comforting ending, the personally advantageous decision are all too often not the best. The stable-boy king or space admiral is not really a hero, if it's All About Him. Because the world is always bigger than us, bigger than the hero. And that should be remembered.
Edited to add: Ursula K LeGuin has written about principles today, much more insightfully than me: http://bookviewcafe.com/blog/2012/10/08/restraint/
Skirt of the day: denim.