A Call to Stop Politicizing People’s Existence

There’s been this thing happening online the past few days.

First, Alex Dally MacFarlane wrote a column for Tor exhorting SFF authors to stop thinking of binary gender as the default.

Then this happened.

There’s been a lot of chatter all over the Internets since, of course.  Too much for me to address, even if I wanted to engage with it all.  But there’s one thing I do want to speak up about: I’m downright sick of people labeling the inclusion of PoC, women, genderqueer, or other QUILTBAG people as a political agenda.  As leftist.  As “liberal.”

People with non-binary genders aren’t an agenda. They exist. They’re reality. Same with people of nonwhite races and non-Western ethnicities and queer orientations. I don’t consider my existence to be part of some “liberal agenda”—in fact, my personal political ideology might be considered quite conservative in many respects, but my existence is neither conservative nor liberal.  And neither is anyone else’s.

(Goddammit, now I’m tempted to write some excessively message-heavy CONSERVATIVE science fiction in which all the characters are gun nut libertarians but also just happen to be non-binary gendered or PoC or women or queer, because, dammit, we exist.)

Like MacFarlane, I want an end to defaults. I want to read fiction where diversity is just part of the landscape, where there doesn’t have to be a “story reason,” where people just are different races/gender identities/orientations because people in the real world just are. We don’t have “plot reasons” in our lives that make us nonwhite or QUILTBAG or whatever—why is it somehow a “liberal agenda” if we argue that this reality should be reflected in fiction?

I don’t see why advocating a lack of default is so controversial.  After all, fiction doesn’t even come close to reflecting reality—come talk to me about “political agendas” when half of SFF main characters are women and we regularly get 60-percent-Asian casts in humanity-to-the-stars space operas.  Come talk to me when I see as many gay people in media as I interact with in daily life.

And yeah, I think it would be great if science fiction worldbuilding didn’t automatically assume two genders, if authors made the decision to invent binary-gender worlds rather than defaulting to them.  If authors regularly considered making characters genderqueer for no reason at all even if they ultimately decided against it, in the same way they might consider what hair color to choose.

SFF has always identified itself as a genre where anything is possible.  Yet as a genre, we so often automatically fall into assuming narrow representations of humanity before we even begin writing.  I would like to see SFF be a proper superset: to encompass all of humanity, and go beyond.

But first, for the love of God, can we stop calling the existence of actual, real-life people a political agenda?

4 thoughts on “A Call to Stop Politicizing People’s Existence

  1. Heather

    I don’t know whether you are hoping for responses, or simply stating your opinions in the hope of being heard, so I hope my response is not unwelcome.

    I think there is a real problem with assuming that terms like “liberal” or “conservative” are meaningful when we’re talking about multiple different groups of people. “Liberal” and “conservative” are constructed in American political discourse through the lens of specifically white liberality and white conservatism. And these two political groups have been constructing their identities in opposition to each other for 200+ years. But what liberal and conservative mean in that specific context is pretty meaningless outside of it.

    Personality studies have shown a huge overlap between self-identified liberals and openness to novelty; conservatives, by contrast, tend to show fear (or even disgust) at novelty. Liberals tend to be interested in changing things, conservatives in conserving. In studies of group dynamics, liberals tend to be better at incorporating new people into their group in order to achieve a goal, while conservatives tend to be better at creating hierarchies that tell people what to do in order to achieve their goals. (Groups that successfully implement both strategies tend to best, apparently.)

    A major aspect of white liberalism over the past century or so, IMO, has therefore been expansion of the “group”, of who is considered good/worthwhile/part of the community/human, to include those formerly outside it in various ways–women, the poor, Mexicans, blacks, disabled folks, gay folks, trans folks, Asians, etc. Of course, with certain exceptions, folks within these groups never saw acceptance of themselves as liberal, because they are themselves. Of course they accepted themselves.

    Whites often mistake, say, blacks voting Democratic as signifying that blacks are liberals, but it actually signifies no such thing. Democratic policies are only “liberal” from the white perspective. Policies intended to help black folks aren’t liberal at all if you’re black. They’re just common sense.

    The converse is that acknowledging your existence isn’t liberal to you, but within the white liberal/conservative dynamic, it is.

    This particular aspect of discourse being framed through the majority experience is probably true wherever there happens to be a majority experience, whatever that experience happen to be. So long as people think in terms of group identities, there exists some disagreement on the subject of in-group and out-group, and there exists some majority group of some sort, I don’t see the conceptual issue of a particular construction of “liberalism” being invalid outside of its construct-area going away. But that a concept is bounded in certain ways doesn’t mean that the concept itself is invalid simply because it loses meaning outside of its construct-area. Ultimately all meaning is socially constructed, so the limits of our concepts are just something to keep in mind while talking, not a reason to throw out meaning out with the bath water.

  2. Puck

    YES. My partner just stared at me as I literally started snapping while shouting “Yes!” half way through the second paragraph of this post.

    I don’t even have words for how hard I agree with this whole post–the reality of people’s lives shouldn’t be evidence of some political side or other.

  3. http://beatrice-otter.livejournal.com/

    (Goddammit, now I’m tempted to write some excessively message-heavy CONSERVATIVE science fiction in which all the characters are gun nut libertarians but also just happen to be non-binary gendered or PoC or women or queer, because, dammit, we exist.)

    YES, PLEASE! I would love to read stories like that. As an ace woman who’s socially liberal but politically and economically moderate/conservative/gun nut, that would be AWESOME.

  4. slhuang Post author

    @Heather — I definitely welcome other people’s thoughts! Thanks for stopping by!

    @Puck — Thanks. :)

    @Beatrice Otter — I’ve been mulling it over. ;) It’s hard for me to write heavy-handed “message” fiction — I’m prone to coloring all over the black and white with shades of gray, no matter how strongly I feel personally! But this might be a cause worth shooting for…

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