I was recently interviewed on the Boulder radio station KGNU for my book series and on the topic of diversity and climate change.
Myths are fascinating and interesting arenas within cultures. Every culture has some kind of myth story (but not all cultures have creation myths i.e. the Piraha) that helps us to understand what in the world we are supposed to be doing as human beings.
But here’s the thing. There are a lot of video games and fiction out there that just throw in cute myth story for no apparent reason. The myth is fascinating but doesn’t have any weight in the character’s lives. The culture gives it a nod here and there and it holds no real consequences in the society. This is a major problem. This is where many fictional worlds go wrong. So here is a list of things about myths that you should consider in order to create better cultures and better worlds.
Note: You may want to check out Worldbuilding parts 1-3 over here
1. Myths aren’t just about religion. They aren’t all false. They are repositories of knowledge a culture uses to interpret reality.
Every country has a myth about it’s creation. In the United States we tell a story of the Founding Fathers, a group of men who fought for liberty against the tyranny of the King of England and ultimately won out. Upon the granting of our independence, a sacred document was penned to replace the faulty Articles of Confederation that tenuously held the colonies together. This document is called the Constitution.
Every American grows up hearing this. We interpret these stories and this document over and over when new ideas, technologies, court battles, as they come into our culture. That document and it’s amendments structure the values of our society and so, there are endless debates and interpretations of what those men wrote. This is a very active and powerful myth structure.
When you create your myth structure, be it religious or secular in nature, what impact does it have in society? How do people debate the meaning of those myths? Are their other myth structures at odds with the dominant one? For example, how do the Christian myth structures support or conflict with that of the Founding Fathers and the formation of our country? We see constant debates on laws and rights based on these two competing (and sometimes overlapping) myths. This is an arena in fiction that is rife with making authentic and interesting conversations that your characters and cultures have.
2. Myths structure our idea of purity
Mythology also tells us what good and bad things are in society. Not all myths are concerned with simple binaries (regardless of what structuralists might think). But many of them identify what things are good and bad to have in a culture or give prescriptions for the kind of mind, body, or spirit to cultivate.
Returning to the American example, the political myth of our country includes a number of concepts about what kinds of governments are good and bad. Who should have the right to vote (which has changed over time) and with the Bill of Rights, attempts to map out the rights of citizens that are required to keep maintain a working political system.
Myths may or may not include the following
- What things are we supposed to eat/avoid
- What are good/bad/ideal sexual relationships or practices
- Marriage patterns
- Clean and dirty parts of the body and when or why you should wash
- Important dates
- Important people
- How we mark or think about time
- What kinds of intelligences are there (does nature have a will of it’s own? Is there an all-knowing being in the sky? Does a fox have human intelligence? ect.)
- How many genders are there? Which one is in charge or are they equal? Are there more than two genders (recall part 2’s conversation about the Native American Two-Spirited system with up to five genders)
- How was the world created?
- Will it be destroyed? When? How?
- What about disease? Is there germ theory? Is, like in the middle ages in Europe, smell associated with disease?
- How about the question of suffering? Is there a being that makes suffering? Is suffering from ignorance? Is suffering a thing at all?
- Is there free will?
- How many lives do we have?
- What words are sacred/dangerous?
- Is there a certain style of dress or attire or tattoo or body modification that is considered sacred or taboo?
- What is reality? Are we living in a giant theater performance? Do we live in a simulation like in the Matrix? Is there a better place to go when we die? A worse one? How do physics/magic/will structure reality?
You don’t have to include all of the above but you should at least consider them and their ramifications. Lots of tension and conflict in fiction can, like in the real world, arise for competing myth structures or provide interesting limitations that characters have to work with.
3. Myth legitimizes the present social order and system of power
Myth often offers an explanation for why people have the life conditions they do. In Hinduism for example, the Hindu caste system, and the breakdown of wealth and poverty is addressed in numerous Hindu texts. People are born into certain conditions because of consequences of their past lives. In Christian Europe it became popular for Kings to claim that they had a Divine right to be in their throne. In China, an emperor was thought to have a “Mandate of Heaven.” These are a mix of religious and political myth structures that allow those in power to continue to consolidate their power and claim a legitimate right to their station. Similarly in the United States we have the bootstraps myth, the idea that with hard work, you too can one day be wealthy and that often, the poor are lazy and unworthy of success. This myth goes back to Benjamin Franklin. (Check out this podcast “Poverty Myths Busted” on why it’s more complicated than the bootstraps myth suggests and also as an interesting study in myth-making and consequences.)
Your fictional world should include myths that have consequences related to power. Manifest Destiny was the myth structure that justified the Europeans conquerors actions during the 15th – 19th century. It claimed that God wanted Europeans to civilize the world and spend Christianity far and wide. That had some really deep and pretty awful consequences for non-Christians and non-Europeans. Empires always spread their myths. Even the Mongol empire which had freedom of religion and a secular state, still spread it’s myth about the mighty Genghis Khan and the legitimacy of their power.
4. Myths Explain The Nature of Reality
Myths can sometimes act as a kind of proto-science, that provides explanations for the state of reality. In the absence of scientific investigation (and even with it) Myths can provide us with the story of where we came from, why we are here, and where we are going. They can explain why man has two legs, why some creatures have different kinds of tales, what are good morals and values to have and provide limitations on what can/can’t do or can/can’t know. Myths can be flexible and empirical, based on the observation of individuals and experience, but they can also be fanciful and strange or even non-nonsensical to outsiders.
In writing your fiction, remember that even in a secular state, there are many competing myths. We still have creationists in the United States who argue the world is only 6,000 years old, along side scientific evidence that the world is 4.5 billion years old. Which leads me to…
5. Myths mark In Groups vs Out Groups and for the In Group bring Unity
Myths not only structure the way that people see the world and the elements above, but they also make clear cultural distinctions about who is a part of a group and who isn’t. Sometimes this can be as simple as, hey, I subscribe to that belief so I am part of the group. Sometimes, it can something like, in my mythology this particular group of people has different color skin because they are punished by god(s) (yes that’s a real myth story and has some obvious and very dangerous consequences). Myths can tell us, who is allowed to join in the community and who is a pollutant (back to that purity stuff) and a danger to the society. Thus, in your fiction, it can be a source of conflict. Perhaps the origin story of one group states that another group was created by an evil being hell bent on taking over the world. Enter your main character who suddenly finds themselves working with a person who they thought were inherently evil their whole life because of the myth structure they were raised on. Again, myths are a lens from which people see the world and how they order society.
And one final thing…
6. Myths are not monolithic
If you write a world where you have hundreds of thousands or millions of elves and they only have one myth story… you’ve got a serious problem. If you write an alien planet that has only one religion/language/myth/culture… you’ve also got a serious problem. Look around at all the myths in your own culture. How many religions are in the world? How many flavors of each of those religions that use different myth stories to justify their existence? If your cultures only have one myth and everyone agrees on it… that’s lazy and bad writing… unless you do it on purpose. If you do this, you will have to justify why you did it. Maybe there was some event in the past that forced everyone to agree on the same thing? But that has to be one hell of a justification. There are currently 42,000 denominations of Christianity in the world and some of them are very different from the days following the death of Jesus. Over the course of time, myth and politics and religions change. If you are doing one myth as social commentary, or a purposeful reason, make sure you have a good reason for doing it, otherwise it will just come of as lazy and/or bad writing.
If you are going to spend a lot of time creating a myth for your fictional world, make sure it has consequences. Nothing shows poor writing more then an amazingly well built myth structure that doesn’t impact your characters lives or adventures. Myths have weight. They are another arena to build good tension. Use them wisely.
Oh and Also, if you like sci-fi check out my books!
This is a bit of a “Rules to live by” post I guess. I have spent the last five years of my life teaching both undergraduate and graduate students anthropology, culture, and diversity. In my classroom I try to make things as practical as possible. We can fill our students heads with theory all day long, but what I try to do is try to give a baseline understanding of how different cultures view the world so that when they encounter other people in work or out traveling the world, they can find a way to understand another person and prevent some of the conflicts and communication traps that we run into.
I find myself repeating a lot of the following over and over and so I thought maybe it would be useful to some of you out there. Of course, you can completely disagree with me (that’s kind of the point here) but these are things that if you apply them, you might be able to understand those difficult people in your life in a new way.
1. There is no glorious past when things were better. That’s a figment of the cultural imagination and based on the ideals we want in the present. There is no period in history, no culture in history that was ever perfection and/or paradise. Fantasies of the past are fun, but they are just projections on the wall in the great cave of our times.
2. Every culture, every religion, every language, is weird. We are all weird, our entire species is weird as hell. The only reason you don’t think your ideas/thoughts/beliefs are weird is because you are used to them.
3. If one group is disenfranchised, that means someone is benefiting. I.E. if Women are payed less, that means Men are paid more and reap the benefits. If people are treated poorly because they have darker skin, that means if you have light skin you benefit (even if it isn’t obvious). That’s what privilege is. It is not an attack on your character, people cannot help what system they were born into, but they can change it.
4. Everything has a cost, everything. Nothing is cost free. Every major world empire was built on, and is maintained by a river of blood. The very fact you live in this country at this time in history means you benefited from war, colonialism, genocide, ethnic cleansing and all other manner of terrible things. But so has every other great empire. The Romans, the Islamic Empire, the Mongolian Empire, the Chinese Dynasties, they all did the exact same thing. So why teach them? Why talk about our mistakes and terror? Because I believe we can choose to be different. The first step is acknowledging that our culture did some fucked up things to other cultures.
5. Communication is really freaking hard. Words are really powerful. Everyone has words and images that they are sensitive to and trigger them (obviously survivors of trauma like many of my friends and myself have to spend a lot of time working through this) Figure out what yours are and watch your reactions. Sometimes just watching and understanding which words hit you hard can be a powerful tool for healing. But do remember, the only thing you can control is you. Life and most the world doesn’t care if you are triggered.
6. People are allowed to change. Something someone did 10 years ago does not necessarily reflect who they are now. Social media has created a distortion of static identity. Digging up ancient photos and tweets is only really useful if people are still exhibiting the same terrible behaviors now as they were then. Most of us go through a long hard process of testing ideas. This is normal and healthy, until you let your ideas take over and make you rigid.
7. Ignorance is not the problem in this world. Everyone is ignorant of something fundamental. Ignorance simply means to not know something. The problem is willful ignorance. When someone presents you with a new idea or a challenge to what you think about the world, take a breath. Let the emotional outrage simmer down and then try to approach it with calm and detachment and weigh all the evidence. Sometimes you might still be correct, and sometimes not. This is an uncomfortable but powerful process.
8. Being socially active, being mindful, being able to give back, boycotting products or getting an advanced education are all a privilege. Not everyone has access to these things. Remember again, that the only thing you can control is you. But also remember that you are powerful and that individuals are capable of making great (and terrible) changes to the world. You cannot force responsibility on other people and you should always remember that people face different barriers in life.
9. Read lots and from a wide variety of perspectives. Try and consider that you might be wrong about everything once in a while. It’s terrifying but sobering. Consider how little knowledge is contained in the entire human experience compared to the vastness of the rest of the universe.
10. Make sure you learn the difference between something that is opinion or cultural options (i.e. Monogamy or Polygamy are the best kinds of marriage) vs something that is objectively and verifiably true (I.e. The Earth is round). While your at it, learn about the scientific method and what good evidence is. Most things on the internet are easy to debunk with a little effort and awareness of your own bias.
11. Take a moment before you blame someone else for your problems or the problems of your culture. Yes, sometimes things are out of your control, structural violence absolutely exists, sometimes crazy random shit happens, and some people are unlucky, but if you keep seeing the same pattern over and over again, you might be a part of the equation. On a cultural level, if we are scapegoating people, who benefits? Blaming other populations for our issues, historically always turns out to be shortsighted.
12. Apathy and greed are deadly and destructive. A society that bases it’s institutions on these things will always have very serious problems. Empathy and generosity go a long way.
13. Listen to people’s stories. Share your own. If you don’t represent yourself, someone else will. Stories are how we save the world.
14. Diversity and difference is one of the most powerful tools in the human experience. Why? Because different people and cultures think about things in different ways. That means that there are many ways to approach complex problems. Sometimes we can’t see how to solve something because we are too close to it (personally or culturally).
15. There is no such thing as a homogeneous culture. People are people everywhere you go. Just because someone has the same language/religion/gender/nationality/income doesn’t mean they have the same inclinations or hopes or dreams. Each one of my children have different hopes and dreams about the future. Why would a group living on the other side of the world be any different? Don’t put people in boxes or make grand assumptions.
16. The is no one size fits all solution to anything. There is no single solution to solve any of the worlds major issues. All of history demonstrates this.
17. You are the bad guy, the evil empire, the oppressor, the asshole in someone’s story. No one in history is perfect. The people we claim as saints were either assholes earlier in life and grew from that or we are missing information. Plenty of people think I am an asshole. Plenty of cultures think Americans are terrible. No one ever thinks they are the asshole and every culture thinks they are they greatest ever.
I could probably think of more, but those are a lot of the things I find myself repeating most often. You, of course, are free to disagree, and of course comment and discuss.
Stories are one of the most human things we do. They are vital to the human experience. The Romero Theater Troupe made me realize just how powerful stories can be.
Back during my time in graduate school, I stumbled upon a little theater troupe in the Denver area. At the moment, and after several major life setbacks, I was uncertain if I was even going to finish my graduate degree. It as one of the more difficult periods of my life and I was just trying to put one foot in front of the other. I was in a kind of limbo, but I was looking around for a project so I could complete my Master’s research in anthropology and move on.
A friend recommended I check the Romero Theater Troupe out. At the time I was unsure of what to think. A theater organization with no actors? A group that just told stories about the community? It sounded interesting but I was unsure of what to do. So, I reached out to James Walsh, the founder of the Troupe and we got coffee.
A side note, I will never forget that morning, partly because of my introduction to Jim and partly because I accidentally ordered bagels and lox… which I had never had before and biting into it as I was talking to Jim I was shocked to realize I was eating fish. I like Bagels and Lox now, but it was one of those silly moments where you eat something unexpected and are trying to keep a straight face to a total stranger.
After meeting Jim, I was felt a sense that something interesting was going on with him and this Troupe. He simply radiated a kind of joy that I hadn’t encountered very often in my life. He spoke of how important community stories were and having read Howard Zinn’s “A People’s History of the United States” I was intrigued, so, that weekend I went to the rehearsal.
I was shocked. What they called a ‘rehearsal’ was a lot of time in the beginning with the community checking in. They circled up and everyone talked about issues they were facing, story ideas, community activism events and then, and only then, when everyone had their say, did they begin working on scenes.
The very first scene I saw them work on, was the life of a conscientious objector to the First World War named Ben Salmon (I am currently working on a short form documentary about his life) and how despite being tortured by the military and abandoned by his church, he never wavered in his courage to say ‘Thou Shalt Not Kill’
But there were more stories, a lot more, and over the next weeks and months as I began my research and filming the documentary Unbound: The Story of the Romero Theater Troupe, these stories changed me forever. There were stories about mothers and children being driven apart by a broken immigration system. Stories about a man who nearly lost his life at the hands of the police for apparently making an illegal left turn. Stories about a group of Janitors on the very college campus where they were rehearsing facing terrible workplace abuse and total apathy from those around them. A story of a homeless man who died alone and in the cold because of our apathy. With each story, I heard, I found myself rethinking my views on the world. With each story I heard, I began to understand how powerful sharing your story is and how amazing a community can be to help one another.
Fast forward to this week. The teachers in Denver went on strike and, like they often do, The Romero Theater Troupe reached out to them to give them a space to share just what they go through every single day as a teacher. They accepted and, even though the strike ended quickly, the Troupe insisted that it was important for teachers to share their story, to show the world just what it’s like to do one of the most demanding jobs out there. In this vein, the Denver Paper, The Westword heard about what the Romero Theater Troupe was doing and did an article on them and the Teachers Strike. You can find that article here.
The Romero Troupe will be performing their new play in support of teachers on February 22nd on Auraria Campus at 7pm in the North Classroom Building room number 1130. The play is free but donations to teachers will be accepted.
I often tell people what the Troupe taught me, stories are what will save the world. If you can, share yours. You have no idea how powerful sharing your story can be, both to heal, and to show people that they are not alone in their struggle. Write it down, tell a friend, record a video, whatever form it takes, share if you can and are ready. We are all in this together and you would be surprised how often someone has a story similar to your own.
We have all had the experience right? Someone decides that it’s time to blow up your post about something you feel passionate about, or worse, something that you simply thought was funny. Next thing you know, it’s all out war on your page and you’ve spent 4 hours of your life you never get back, leaving you to feel emotionally and physically exhausted, if not in a terrible mood.
But why does this happen? There are lots of articles that talk about confirmation bias and that people are more divided than ever before or how hard we cling to certain ideas, and so on…
But after teaching a college course specifically on diversity in the modern world, I have come to discover a few things when having in class discussions about social media. Now I may not be the first to notice these things, but I think there are at least three major problems (feel free to comment if you see an additional one) that we face when communicating online that we should consider.
1.People have different intentions for the internet
This one, in particular, was really hard for me. As a person who loves books and learning and the spirit of debate, I view the internet as a space to discuss important issues and try to learn from and understand people who are different than me in both philosophy and culture.
For years I loathed it when people shared cat videos or jokes or posted memes. I would grumble to myself about “what a waste of an amazing opportunity” and yes, sometimes I would comment just to be a jerk. Or, someone would post something that was clearly misinformed and I would go on the attack, because, of course, I must. How else would they‘learn.’
Do you know what I learned from thinking and behaving that way? I was completely and totally wrong. Also, people think your an asshole and it’s counterproductive to any useful thing you might say.
People use the internet for a host of reasons. It may be to share news, or keep up with family, or post information about their baby or their cat, or perhaps they like to joke or are looking to relieve stress after a hard day at work. Maybe they are promoting their new book, or using as a space to promote their business. Some people are looking to build awareness around particular issues and provide a space for discussion. I have to tell myself all the time that for some, critical debate is the absolute last thing they want to engage in at the end of their day (or the beginning).
There is also another side of this. Some people use the internet because they want to troll and bully others. Their idea of humor is to harass and bully and get cheap laughs at the expense of others. So we have this group into the mix aswell, which further complicates things. A few weeks ago, when discussing this exact topic in a class, one student raised their hand and said, “But don’t you think it’s funny to write a bot program to troll people and have them waste all their time arguing with a mindless bot?” My response was, ‘well, I suppose that’s one way to engage online.’ But in reality, I think that is hugely problematic for a number of reasons, but I won’t get into that here.
The point is, when you are on social media, it is hard to remember that people’s intentions and use of the social space vary greatly. We are not all on the same page, and so this alone creates conflict, confusion, and misunderstanding.
2. There is no paralanguage, and so we put things on other people that might not be there.
Paralanguage is the components of speech that help us to understand the meaning. It includes pitch, tone, speed, gestures, and facial expressions. It’s how we understand if the following phrase, “That’s so amazing.” is a sincere expression or a sarcastic one.
We don’t have that in written speech. Grammar helps, and a good writer can create a scenario where you understand the tone and attitudes within dialogue, but even then, stuff can get lost in the translation. Also, think how hard it is to tell if some people are joking or not. I am told often, that I have a dry sense of humor, and it’s hard to tell if some of my jokes are serious and that’s in person.
So add this to a forum of total strangers. You don’t know any of these individuals, or you might know a few from previous online interactions. So, someone makes a statement like, ‘That’s so amazing,’ to something you said. But the context of the conversation is such that you could interpret it as either.
In that situation, what your brain does is make assumptions. If you are in a bad mood, or you have had other bad interactions in this conversation, your brain may frame the statement as an attack or a comment in bad faith, which could launch a series of escalating replies and blow up the whole conversation, even if the person was commenting in good faith.
I can’t tell you how many times this has happened to me on both Twitter and Facebook and recently even had to unfriend and block someone who took a comment that I said, as support, in a way where she nuked my page because she understood my comment as something completely different.
It is always always important to get clarification before you lash out at someone online, on social media or in anemail, because a lack of paralanguage will have our brain fill in the gaps. Depending on our history and our current experiences, we may completely misunderstand what the other person is saying. Remember when you assume you make an Ass out of U and Me (I have never stopped loving that play on letters).
3. When it comes to issues of diversity people are both at different stages of understanding and different states of acceptance
First of all, before I dive in here, there is a very excellent episode on the Netflix series “Explained” on PoliticalCorrectness that I highly recommend watching. It is a highly complex thing, and there are no easy answers there. The episode talks about the history of the phrase and some of the debates around free speech vs. censorship. But it does not provide you any clear answers, and that, in this case, is a good thing, because there are none.
The internet is constantly alight with debates of diversity and inclusion. Regardless of how you feel about these conversations, they are, for the most part, productive and useful to ensure that people who are sincerely facing injustice and oppression, are opening other’s eyes to their experience.
The problem with these conversations is multi-leveled. And when I say problem, what I mean is, why they are so combative and tense. These are important conversations. This is how society changes into something better.
I will illustrate this with my own experience. I am a white guy, as white as you get. All my ancestors are white as the snow in the northern countries from which they originate. I am a Cis, I am straight, and I grew up in an all-white community. For the first 12 years of my life, before I moved to Colorado, I grew up on the east coast in Philadelphia, in what was possibly the whitest community you can imagine. Segregation in Philadelphia (and many North East Cities) is a real problem (See this for more). So, when I moved to Colorado at twelve years of age, I was shocked to discover there were still Native Americans alive. I had been taught, by omission mostly, that all Native Americans had died out years before I was born.
Let that sink in for a moment.
I could go in more detail, as to the various kinds of ignorance I had going into college, (middle school and high school was also an all-white experience)because, for me, college was terrifying. Everything I thought I knew was challenged. It was a kick in the gut, it was uncomfortable, but it was a good thing. Why? Because there are a near infinite ways of experiencing the world, and I had made endless assumptions that really, the world was simple, orderly, and experience was mostly universal.
I was, legitimately ignorant of so much of the rest of the world. And that’s a real thing. There are a lot of people out there like that. Even ones like myself, who became an anthropologist, who lived and worked with other cultures, took a long time to challenge all those deeply planted ideas. And I am a person, who is willing and open to learning and accepting that I might be wrong on things. The reality is, some people aren’t willing to learn. Some people are, what we call, willfully ignorant. In other words, no matter what you say, no matter how well you craft an argument, you aren’t going to change their opinion on something, even if you have all the data and truth on your side.
Remember too, we are all ignorant of something, we all have sizable holes in your knowledge and experience. This is based on your gender, race, class, religion, family, language, etc. You cannot know everything, and it is not reasonable to expect someone, who grew up in vastly different circumstances to intuitively understand something you do. If you have never seen poverty for example, how can you understand what it’s like to live that way for your whole life? You can, but it’s no easy task, and you have to think critically about it.
So, when discussing online, the first thing you have to figure out is, which kind of ignorant do you have? Do you have a person who is willfully ignorant? Or is this a person who simply lacks exposure? That does make a difference, and it is a big mistake to treat both kinds of people to ad-hominem attacks because both of those individuals have entirely different intentions when discussing.
This comes to the next point, which is, even people who are willing to listen and learn, they can’t do it all at once. Keep in mind, that by the time you are an adult, your brain has been programmed to think in a certain way for at least eighteen years of life. Neurologically speaking, you simply cannot dismiss ideas overnight, unless you have a massive brain trauma that changes your brain chemistry drastically.
Using myself again as an example, when I first discovered the Implicit Bias test, (the test that measures our subconscious assumptions about things like race and gender) I thought, of course, I would receive the coveted neutral result. Because I didn’t hate anyone or any group right? At age 23, when I took this test and got “A Strong Bias Toward Individuals of European descent,” I was shocked. But, this is entirely explained by the background I grew up in, which I already explained. After that, I went out into the world and studied anthropology. I learned about other cultures, worked with them, and lived with them. After a few years, I remember that test. Took it again, and got “A Moderate Bias Towards Individuals of European Descent.” It wasn’t until after graduate school, that I finally got a Neutral result.
The point? If you are online, you cannot reasonably expect people to understand an issue overnight. You are fighting against years and years of programming and often, lack of quality education. People need time and space to digest things, to shift gears in their thinking. Acceptance of a new idea, rarely happens overnight and the older you are, the longer it takes because there is more social programming.
Does that mean you don’t hold people accountable for saying or posting really awful things? Of course not. But remember what you are fighting against. Remember, that you may not win that discussion, but also, other people are reading and watching even if they aren’t interacting, so it’s still worth having those discussions if you have the intention and inclination to do so.
To Sum Up
The internet can be the most amazing place for building ideas and spreading important social critique and creating a space for inclusion. But it can also be a messy imperfect mess that allows for long-established ideas, to persist and spread. We have seen some pretty terrible events in the last few years, like what happened in Charlottesville or a number other instances of social media being used to spread all kinds of nastiness.
But, if you want to avoid dumpster fires on your social media, keeping some of the above things in mind, may help. In reality, though, it’s not possible to avoid problems, because well, people are messy creatures, and any social space is fraught with controversy and difficulty. But I hope this lengthy piece was useful to the few of you who got all the way to the end. I wrote it, because I believe, that we can do better.
Note: Sometimes I have friends read my blog posts before I post them to get feedback.
This time around, a friend recommended this amazing Ted Talk titled “A Black Man Goes Undercover in the Alt-Right” I highly recommend as he covers a chunk of what this blog talks about long before I ever even considered it.
This entry applies to writers and general audiences. For writers, you can use this blog to think about how your characters make choices. For the general populous, you can consider how conflict and misunderstanding arises and perhaps consider some of this to help in your daily life.
When I teach anthropology I have a saying that I drill into students heads.
You don’t have to like it, but you do need to try and understand it.
This is the essence of what we call cultural relativity. There is a lot of misunderstanding about this topic. For example, if someone tells me that cultural relativity is postmodernism, or that it’s ‘poison’ or that it means anything goes, I know they have absolutely no clue what they are talking about.
I wrote an answer on cultural relativism on Quora on this question a while back so I am not going to go into detail here but in short, if you want to understand someone’s choices (especially if they are in another culture) then there are three things you need to consider to begin that understanding, context, conditions, and choice.
I am going to tell you something that is really really hard for many us raised in the Western part of the world to understand. You are not an individual. This doesn’t mean you aren’t responsible for your choices, but if you want to understand how the world works, put that idea aside for a moment and consider the following.
You are contextual. What do I mean? Well, you live in a particular culture at a particular moment in history and you speak a particular language. In some cases even being born a few years earlier or later can radically alter the course of your life. Think of people who were born just in time for the Vietnam War and were then selected in the draft versus someone who missed the war by a year or so.
This body of knowledge (as some of us social scientists call it) is so vast that we spend years growing up and learning all about it. This process is called Enculturation and is largely what institutions like elementary school is all about. Primary school is far less about learning facts, and more about learning how to behave in your given society. Every culture has their version of passing on their culture, though it varies.
Every culture is holistic. Each facet of your context is an integrated whole. Technology, economics, religion, etc. All these things can impact the entire culture. For more on this read my past blog on Worldbuilding Part 2 Anthropology and Key Elements of Culture
Of course, history is a big part of this. What has been happening for the past few decades or even centuries before your birth directly impact your experience. You, as an individual are not free of a cultural and historical context. Change that context, and you also change. Remember, no matter what you do, your culture and history is constantly changing all around you. Life is a dance of constant change and movement. No matter how tightly you clamp down on something, it still changes.
Embedded within context is your particular experience. Let’s get specific. Let’s assume that two people grew up in or around Denver, Colorado. One grew up in a wealthy area that is heavily Protestant and the other grew up on a poor neighborhood that is heavily Catholic. Their cultural context is pretty much the same. They grew up at a particular time period in a particular culture but the conditions of their lives are different and thus their experience will be different. Their gender, the color of their skin, the religion they subscribe too, even the block they grew up on, changes the conditions of their lives and their experiences within the cultural context.
This is why you get an extraordinary amount of variation within a particular culture in a particular part of history (have I said particular enough for you yet?). Even something as simple as catching the last bus versus missing the last bus to make it on time to work can radically change your conditions. Maybe you got fired from your job as a result or perhaps you got a promotion as a result. Perhaps you are diagnosed with a chronic disease or maybe you won the lottery. Your conditions are constantly changing within the context of your culture. Change really is constant.
Okay, now we can talk about choices and free will. Your ability to make choices (or your agency) is impacted by both your context and your conditions. Your choices are not limitless and you certainly can’t make a choice that you don’t know exists. There are also laws, taboos, and social pressures that influence how we choose and move through the world.
But we certainly aren’t passive actors either. Individuals can cause massive changes to both their own conditions and their cultural/historical context. Even minor figures in the historical records influenced small things in ways that may or may not have had a big effect on that particular cultural moment.
Why should you care?
Well if you are fiction writer, this may help you to flush out character profiles and understand the choices your characters make. I talked about this a lot in my third part of World Building.
If you are just someone trying to get through their day, and your boss is a total asshole, sometimes a little understanding can help to dissolve conflict.
But honestly, the real core of this is this is how we can solve big problems.
If you can take Context, Conditions, and Choices and use these three to analyze someone or something, you can understand it’s source and how it persists. You can see where big and complex problems arise from and can in turn act to address them. Of course, it’s not always so clear or so simple, but without understanding, you can’t even really begin. Honestly, this is a huge reason why people who, have nothing but good intentions, go out into the world to solve an issue, and it backfires and makes things far worse.
Let’s go an intense route for one moment. What about suicide bombers? Anthroplogist Nasser Abufarha asked this question in his book “The Making of a Human Bomb: An Ethnography of the Palestinian Resistance”
Now this guy has got some guts, he did his research with some pretty scary folks. But in his research what he did was examine context, conditions, and then the individuals (the agents) who carried out some of these attacks. He talked to leaders of these terrorists cells and tried to form a picture of why they do the things they do. Their answers? Well I will let you read for yourself if you want to dive in, but let’s just say quickly that violence begets violence.
You want to understand the rise of Hitler? Context (The history of the interwar period in Germany and of antisemitism) Conditions (The experiences of Hitler’s life that made him such an angry asshole) and Choices (The genocide of six million Jews).
If you can understand some of this stuff, you can solve all manner of problems. Of course, even if you have the answers you still have to contend with political bodies and economic interests who may or may not want things to change, but that is an entirely different topic.
Seeking understanding, and information of the experiences and context of your fellow human beings can change the way you think or behave forever. Sometimes understanding can illuminate our experience and in that light, perhaps you can see an easy way to dissolve conflict.
Look, I get it, you might be thinking right now (if you made it all the way through) that this seems like an awful lot of work. You’re right. It’s a lot of work to be an informed citizen, to know the history of our own country, let alone other’s. But consider this, maybe if you aren’t sure about something, consider withholding judgment. Instead, find an expert or pick up a book on the topic before you decide that one particular group of people is evil, or that a singular event is an anomaly. History and Culture are really messy things, and it’s rare that there are clear black and white answers.
The world really is an amazing place and a little patience can make it all the more beautiful. People are just so damn interesting if you let yourself see it.
Alright, so after reading my first two blog posts on world building you have some semblance of the kinds of dynamics that go on in crafting a cultural environment right?
Also, here they are if you need them.
So here’s the key question, how does your world impact your characters? This really is the biggest and most important piece of your world building and the easiest place to lose consistency. If you mess this up, your story could suck or at least have readers rolling their eyes. At the end of the day, it’s compelling characters that we care about. Also, don’t forget to listen to your characters. They have hopes and dreams too.
I touched on this a little bit last time, but this time we’re diving deep into a little social science of identity construction.
1. Nature vs Nurture
Since good old Descartes (but really all the way back to the ancient Greeks) wrote on Dualism in the 1600’s there has been a question of what influences us most, Nature or Nurture.
Most of you probably know this already but the answer is both.
Humans are not a tabula rasa (a blank slate). On a very physical level we have certain tendencies that have been fostered by natural selection. For example, human’s don’t have wings (of course if they do in your story you might need to consider various elements of winged culture) they walk on two legs (known as bipedalism) and they speak.
A terrible example of world-building done wrong because of the physical limitations is the Planet of the Apes series. Now, I enjoy those movies but what kills me is this. In order to have human speech, your mouth, throat, and tongue must have a certain shape to produce human noises. Apes do not have the physical apparatus for speech and even the shape of their face and neck would have to change significantly before they were capable of human-like speech. Still, they are fun films and I do enjoy them, but I can be heard grumbling like a disgruntled Star Wars fan after I watch them.
So that’s an example of nature, there are certain things in our neurology and physical makeup that put limitations on us as well as certain instinctual things that pop up.
There’s now also some science to suggest that your experiences and traumas may pass themselves on to the next generation. This surrounds epigenetics, and I am not going to get into this here (as I am definitely no expert in this area) and admittedly there is still a lot of unknowns about the science behind this, but if true, it certainly complicates things doesn’t it?
What about nurture? Well, there certainly isn’t something inherent or genetic in religion. If there was, we would have people who have never had any contact to Christianity spontaneously becoming Christian in remote areas (we don’t). We are enculturated (basically taught our culture) as we grow up. Our family brings us to church or perhaps we are raised Atheist or Buddhist or Pagan and learn the values and ideals of those practices (remember that purity stuff back in part 1). A huge portion of your personality comes down to nurture.
Speaking of which…
Personality is one of those that is a hard mix of both. If any of you out there reading this have more than one child, you know that they are born with a tendency towards a certain personality. Some children are more cautious, some are absolutely fearless (I’ve got both types and it’s fascinating to see the difference). Some have short tempers and are emotional while others are calm in almost any circumstance. Add environmental factors and it shapes and reshapes their personality. People always have tendencies but the wonderful thing about human beings is that we are capable of changing the way we experience the world, it’s just that a lot of us don’t because it’s a lot of work. As some of you frequent readers know, I have spent a great deal of time working on meditation and have seen changes in my own thinking and experiences, but damn is it hard!
So how does this relate to your character? Well, what elements of nature and nurture come into play? If you have a genetically engineered winged population that’s going to change the experience of your character. Are there benevolent vampires? Well, they gotta eat, right? Perhaps your humans have undergone gene editing to live on Mars but suddenly find themselves back on Earth? Robert Heinlein’s famous sci-fi book Stranger in a Strange Land posits the question of a human who is raised by Martians returning to earth and how he struggles to understand what it means to be human with some fascinating cultural results. So, just in the nature/nuture part, there’s a lot to consider.
2. Imagined Past
So, before I get into this, when I use the phrase ‘Imagined Past’ I don’t mean that something is made up. What it means is that our upbringing and cultural perspective foster history in such a way that we imagine that one event is important and another isn’t. Of course, there are objectively more and less important events in history, but how we imagine those events unfolding is based on things like culture and ideology.
The reality is, history is always messy as hell. I don’t care what event you are talking about. Nothing is ever straightforward and simple. Remember our discussion in part one of world-building on Power and Resistance? That’s why.
The Imagined past is your perspective and your wider culture’s perspective on history and events. They are an interpretation of what happened and why they happened that way.
Let’s take an example that is debated every October, Columbus Day.
If you are a fan of Columbus Day you might say that we should honor a man who changed the world and ‘discovered’ the Americas. Here is a perspective on that point of view.
If you are of indigenous heritage though or perhaps you’ve read some pretty terrible (and true things) about Columbus… you might be a bit more critical of this point. For that perspective check out this article.
But where you sit on the side of Columbus isn’t the point here. The point is, both sides IMAGINE THE PAST and take a certain perspective on what happened and if the events were good and we should honor Columbus, or they were bad and we should ax the holiday. I am, admittedly very critical of Columbus day, but it is impossible to argue that 1492 wasn’t a very important year in world history. After Europeans realized there was a huge chunk of populated territory waiting to be exploited, the world changed significantly. The event happened but how we interpret it changes in our imagination and our perspective. That is imagined past.
So why should you think about imagined past in your worldbuilding? Well, if you have a story where two sides are at war, you might consider having characters from both sides of the conflict. For example, In Avatar the Last Airbender, where four different nations rule the world (one for each of the four elements) the Fire Nation, the conquerors have a very different imagined past as the Earth Kingdom, whom the Fire Nation are trying to subjugate. The amazing thing about that world is that you have characters from all four nations (I really recommend that series if you aren’t familiar), and you get an amazing backstory and shift in perspectives of characters from different nations and even variety within each of the nations (Remember in Part 1 we talked about how every population is variable?) So consider that in your world-building, how do your characters imagine the past? How can this create conflict? Could the sharing of a perspective of the various perspectives on a historical event change the character interactions? Could it further entrench them? Perhaps part of the past was hidden and is now revealed and changes how charters see things? Think of how your favorite stories do this well.
Red alert Red alert! If you have heard this term before and don’t understand it, you might cringe at its use. I promise I don’t have some crazy agenda here so just hear me out.
It’s actually really quite simple.
Intersectionality = Identity is complex and variable
Intersectionality is really about considering the various components of identity. Identity is really complex.
I will use myself as an example to begin with. A White, Middle Class, Straight, Male, Raise Catholic (and now Buddhist), with a Graduate Degree in Anthropology and raised on the East Coast is going to have certain kinds of expectations, perspectives, and thoughts that will impact his perspective. All of those components, plus my personal experiences went into making me the person typing this blog right now.
Now, imagine an African American, Woman, Wealthy, Gay, raised Atheist, with a degree in Engineering, and Raised on the West Coast. She’s going to have very different experiences, expectations and perspectives then I do right?
Intersectionality shows us that Identity is Conditional. It is based on the various ingredients of your life and your experiences and fosters different identities.
But it’s still not even that simple! Because imagine you took another copy of me and raised me five blocks away in near identical upbringing both of us are still going to end up different, aren’t we? We may have a lot in common but maybe my clone loves Nickleback (which means we couldn’t be friends) and thus we may end up going to different concerts and meeting and encountering different people and thus changing our experiences and perspectives.
Let’s talk about freewill really briefly here too. Though, if you want a prolonged philosophical discussion on this check out my blog on Freewill. When studying a culture Anthropologists often look at something we call ‘agency’. Agency means basically, your ability to act based on the rules (formal and informal) of the society. Agents are individuals within a society that have to function based on cultural norms, laws, and expectations. So yes, we do have free will, but our culture puts rules around what that means. For more on this check out a YouTube Video on ‘Field Theory’ Also if this or anything is confusing to you, feel free to comment and I will do my best to clarify.
There is nothing wrong with difference, but if we want to understand someone else’s perspective and why they might think or act in a certain way, then intersectionality, understanding the conditional nature of identity is a good tool to consider.
What about intersectionality in your characters? Well, intersectionality can help you to avoid those annoying stereotypes and tropes, such as strong women come from tragic backgrounds. Maybe, for example, the woman in question was raised as a blacksmiths daughter and had to work with her father and deal with difficult customers on a daily basis. Or perhaps you have a character that comes from a race of elves that are savage and violent, yet the character has adopted a pacifistic religion after a personal revelation? The point is you can look at the conditions of your characters lives and upbringing. Some people make character profiles in this regard where you can plot different parts of your character identities. I don’t do this unless I run into a roadblock, but some of you may find it useful to do so. Really, there is no wrong answer for method in writing.
Oh, one more thing, your identity changes every day little by little (or a lot if your world comes crashing down) based on your experiences and daily interactions. You are never the same person from day to day. Consider this also in your characters.
4. Personal Bias and Blind Spots in knowledge
All of the above contributes to this section. Everyone has blind spots in knowledge. Everyone has bias and limitations as to what they can see and understand. If you put me in front of a motorcycle and tell me to fix it I will blink at you until my eyelashes fall off. If you tell me to understand the experience of a Muslim woman growing up in Sri Lanka, I probably can’t help you there either. There is nothing wrong with having blind spots, the problem is, when we assume that blind spots equal weakness and we make arrogant statements to cover it up (I can’t tell you how many times I myself have done this only to realize what I was doing later).
So back to me and my conditional identity. I grew up on the East Coast. On the East Coast there is often a kind of linguistic style in play where it’s actually weird and awkward not to interrupt people. We are very often active communicators cutting each other off mid-sentence and it’s not considered rude. Also, I come from a huge family. Now you might think your family with 3 kids is big, but my Dad had 14 brothers and sisters and I have 3 brothers, with some of my aunts and uncles, who were my age raised almost like siblings. So, on top of this east coast conversational style (Here’s a wonderful YouTube on that for you who really want to understand the linguistics of it) and my huge family upbringing, I can be a loud, arrogant, interrupting son of a bitch. Now living in Denver Colorado, it took me a long time to understand that people don’t always appreciate the way I communicate because this region in the Rocky Mountains has a very different conversational style. So there is a huge blind spot for me. Understanding that blind spot was really powerful and helped me to see the way I bulldoze people in conversation sometimes.
So what are your character blind spots? Is your character a Buddhist monk and barely knows anything of Christianity? Is your character a male who suddenly finds himself in a female-dominated society? Hell, look at Star Trek TNG, is your character a Klingon growing up in a human world and trying to bridge both cultures? What kinds of things wouldn’t your character easily understand because of their training or knowledge? A pacifist priest isn’t usually going to understand combat. A warlord may not understand diplomacy. Good characters have flaws and weakness and blindspots. No one likes a perfect character. They are boring. My character Mimi, in Mimi of the Nowhere, doesn’t trust easily. She struggles with sharing intimate parts of herself after a long life living on the streets. Blindspots can also be where your characters grow and change. The world you built could suddenly come crashing in and force them to change and alter their identity.
I hope this short series was helpful for some of you on your writing journey. Certainly, there are other blogs and podcasts and stuff on worldbuilding out there, but I hope sharing some of my knowledge and experience from my field of study helped you to consider some things about your writing.
I am more than happy to entertain other questions and perhaps write future editions to this series but unless someone has a specific question about worldbuilding, I’m gonna call this series complete for now. Good luck with your writing journey!