Day: September 26, 2011

Denial of Agency and Being Off Base

Recently I participated in a brief exchange on Shelfari that annoyed me.  On a science fiction thread a commenter said he (or she) had recently read Isaac Asimov’s I, Robot and had enjoyed it even though the fictional conceit was off base.  I asked why and the response was  “His worldview is off-base because it is humanistic – it excludes God.”

That annoyed me.  Actually, it pissed me off.  The exchange ran a little while and then I suggested it be moved or abandoned.  The admin allowed that it was a troublesome thread and it would be better to just stop it.  I withdrew (except for one more exchange about why it had troubled me since as it continued it turned into a typical “does god exist” thread.  My annoyance was with the assumption that stories can be judged automatically off-base because they don’t take into account a particular belief.

When pressed, the original commenter admitted that it was Asimov’s world view in general that was the problem—which means that the beliefs (or disbeliefs) of the author were used a priori to judge the quality of the stories.

Here’s the problem with that:  fiction is about the human condition and the writer is responsible for getting the character and interactions within a story right.  In other words, to tell the truth about people, how they feel, what they do, why they think or act certain ways.  To do this, the writer must imaginatively assume the viewpoint of the characters (to greater or lesser degrees) in order to treat them honestly so what is then written about them is a true picture.

To do that, the writer must be an observer, a very accurate observer, a student of people, of humanity, even of civilization and culture.

To claim that a writer cannot write truthfully about the human condition unless he/she already holds a particular world view is sheer, slanderous nonsense.  At its most basic, it suggests that to hold a particular world view might guarantee that a writer not only can but will write the truth, and that simply doesn’t follow.

But further, it suggests that the truth of human beings is hidden from a writer who doesn’t believe a particular way.  Extend that, and you can take the position that a writer of any other religious view must be incapable of writing accurately and truthfully about people as compared to  a writer who holds a preferred view.  You are immediately immersed in the unsolvable debate over which view is the Truth (capital T) and which false.  Or, furthermore, you would have to accept that a believer would be incapable of writing as honestly about atheist characters, since that is a world view not shared.

We would, very simply, be unable to speak honestly and truthfully to each other.

One would have to accept that stories written (truthfully, honestly) by a believer would somehow be different than stories written (honestly, truthfully) by an unbeliever.  But that would deny the universality of human experience.

On a meaner level, this is a denial of agency.  It’s very much like the argument put forth by those who think Shakespeare is a pseudonym for another author, one of which is the Earl of Oxford.  The argument says that “William Shakespeare” lacked the education and aristocratic sensibility to have penned works of such insight about nobility.  This completely discounts the richness of imagination writers must apply to any subject of which they lack first-hand knowledge.  It says I, if I were Shakespeare, could not possibly have imagined what I wrote and told the truth so accurately because I didn’t possess the proper “world view.”  You can see this argument used against any author or group of authors another group (usually not authors) seek to deny validation.

(I suggest finding a copy of the late, great Joanna Russ’s How To Suppress Womens Writing  for a detailed examination of this process.)

It suggests two things that are false—one, that there are human experiences to which only select groups are privy and that no one on the outside can possibly know about, and two, that human experience is not universal on some basic level that underlays all successive experiential additions.

If a religious writer wrote truthfully about two people falling in love and an atheist wrote about the same two people, and both told the truth of what they observed and described the experience of those two characters honestly, how might they differ?  For either of them to make the case, within the story, that their world view mattered in the telling of human truth, the author would have to intrude and, to greater or lesser degrees, proselytize.  You would end up with a bad story at best, propaganda at worst.

Throw a dozen or two dozen stories on a desk without attribution.  No one knows who the writers are.  Tell me what the beliefs are of the author of each story.  (This presumes excellent stories, truthful stories.)  The idea that an atheist, a humanist, would write “off base” stories because of their world view is a denial of agency.  What that says is that no writer not a believer could write a truthful story about believers, or that a believing writer could not possibly write a story about atheists.


On the question of whether the universe would be depicted differently, well now that is a bit more interesting, but the fact is that the universe is how it is and both atheist and believing scientists see it, measure it, explain it pretty much the same way.  They may argue over first causes, but in the advent of thirteen billion years since that event, both see the cosmos essentially the same way.  Atoms operate the same way for both, gravity is the same for both, the life and death of stars…

But in fact, it was not the stories that prompted that initial remark, but a knowledge of the author’s world view that colored the perception.  (Of course this is one more reason I tend to tell people that if they really love an artist’s work, see, hear, read as much of the work as possible before finding out anything about them.  The personal facts of an artist’s life can ruin the appreciation for the work.)  This is a dishonest gage.  It sidesteps the only valid metric, which is, does this story say true things about people?

I won’t go so far as to say that a writer’s world view doesn’t affect the work.  The whole point of doing art is to express personal opinions about subjects.  But at the level of good art, all authors’ work must hold up in the court of truth, and to suggest that certain world views de facto  prevent someone from telling the truth about the subject at hand is overreaching at best.  You can certainly say of certain writers “his/her beliefs so color their work that it is skewed from truth” but it is not correct to say “these beliefs guarantee that their work will be skewed from truth.”

It also suggests that personal experience can be disingenuous at its core if it leads to conclusions inconsistent with a preferred world view.

Denial of agency indeed.