Choice. A good thing?

I came across two wildly different pieces of information, and their juxtaposition sent my brain into cartwheels on the subject of having choices.

choiceConsider having no choice. I read the Economist most weeks, because it is one of the better ways to keep informed about the world outside my home country. If you’ve read my books, you’ve noticed that I am fascinated by the rest of the world. I also consider myself somewhat informed, so I read the following from the Feb 25 2017 issue of The Economist three times.

In a 2012 household survey … more than half [of Indian women] said they could not visit a shop, or even a friend, without someone else’s approval … and 52% thought it normal for a husband to beat his wife if she ventured out without telling him.

2012? Half the population? But I know women from India who live in the US, and my writing and the internet have combined to introduce me to women who live in India now as well. This doesn’t sound like their reality. The article adds

For wealthy and middle-class Indian women, freedoms have steadily grown.

Oh, right.  Those are the women with whom I have contact. In fact, those are generally the women with whom I have contact here as well. Both education and the influence of others work to increase a woman’s freedom. I wonder what percentage of poorly educated women in remote rural locations live a similarly constrained life here?

Then I came across this.

While people like having choices, too many options makes settling on one specific choice difficult. There is a technical term to describe this problem: the excessive choice effect (ECE). The ECE refers to the inverse relationship between the number of options and the ability of a person to make a choice. It is most famously related to a study involving jam. Authors Sheena Iyengar and Mark Lepper found that consumers more likely to purchase jam when presented with six choices than when they were presented with 24 choices.

jamIt was part of a newsletter from the American Association of Independent Investors. If you’ve read d4 you know that I handle stock investing for myself and other family members, and so I’ve subscribed to a wide variety of newsletters on the subject over the past decade or so. Most make money, but mostly for the people who write them.  However, the AAII aims to provide “unbiased, actionable investment education” often playing the role of a sort of “Consumer Reports” for the individual investor. Here, they were trying to help the non-professional navigate their way through mutual funds. (There are an awful lot of them out there.) So I checked out the jam story, and apparently it is true.

I have always believed that having no real choice about what you can do is the very definition of misery. The essence of happiness is the freedom to choose the alternative you believe is best. You may choose to defer your happiness, or to forego it altogether to aid or please another. You may choose to do something difficult; you may choose to take a nap. When circumstances beyond anyone’s control give you a lousy set of choices, that might make what you pick all the more valuable to you.

growing-bolder-8To artificially restrict anyone’s decisions (visit a sick friend and get beaten, or don’t) is to artificially limit their joy in life. No, you can’t study to be a doctor because we say so. No, you cannot try to run a marathon, because I don’t like the idea. This exertion of control, this limiting the potential of others with arbitrary rules, is of course not confined to the experience of women. However, women have far too often been on the losing end of it. On this blog and in my life, I cheer on the women who have found a way to regain their options.

But what an interesting idea that we also don’t like to have too many choices. At least when it comes to something trivial like what cookie to eat, a half dozen options are good. More important decisions like what career to pursue or what mate to choose presumably warrant having more than six to pick from. But can we suffer from choice overload even then?

Maybe what we all want is enough meaningful choices, in all aspects of our life. We don’t like being forced to pick among things that don’t matter that much to us. Ask anyone who has recently had to plan a wedding and pick from dozens of nearly identicle type-fonts. And yet, we rebel deeply against not being able to choose the things that matter most to us. Of course we do.

Funny creatures, aren’t we?

Am I writing sexist science fiction?

daxI’ve been a feminist since I was a teenager; longer than that if you consider wanting to be the chief science officer on the star ship Enterprise as a sign of early feminism. And yet, like other like-minded authors of speculative fiction, I struggle with feminism in my writing.

My first problem is that I define feminism as the radical notion that women are people. This means that some of them (women, or people if you prefer) are foolish. Some are selfish or incompetent, and a few of them are downright mean. All of them have flaws. I believe that to make every female character, or even most of them, models of virtue is to not treat my female characters as people, but rather as carriers pigeons for an ideology.

I recently stumbled on an online group discussion about a book I read years ago. Dreamsnake (a multiple award-winning 1978 science fiction novel written by Vonda McIntyre) defied the stereotypes of the genre way back then by putting a gutsy lady hero in the middle of a broken world. I wanted to like this book so much. But I didn’t, at least not all that much.

dreamsnakeThe main character Snake seemed two dimensional to me. She was everything a feminist hero should be, which was great, and she was never anything else, which kind of bored me. The rest of the women in her post-apocalyptic world were equally unwavering in their strength and capability. There may have been exceptions (it has been many years since I read the book) but my lingering impression was of a cast of characters carefully crafted to make a point. Interesting, but not engaging.

So, my female characters are all over the place. Most of my protagonists are strong women, but my novel y1 features a gay male shape shifter, and his friends.

I remember being so excited when a blog called The Future Fire agreed to review the book, and being so disappointed when the reviewer remarked “I do have to say, I am not really impressed by the depiction of women here. Of the two main female characters, one is shown to be foolish and unstable (where have we seen those words before?) and the other a child-like creature who runs from one daddy figure to another.”

y1-final-smallNo, I wanted to scream. That’s just two of the characters. What about capable Chloe? Resilient Raven? They are just as important to the plot. But of course one of the things you have to learn when you write books is not to scream at your reviewers, even in your own head, no matter how much you think they are missing the point. You just try to make your intentions more clear in the next book.

The other problem I have with my own sense of feminism and writing, is that I want my world to feel real to my readers. Sadly, our cultural stereotypes are internalized from childhood whether we like it or not, and they color our sense of what is believable. A writer can easily have one top surgeon at the hospital be female, and I think a good story ought to have a few of them. However, if the writer insists on making well over half of the doctors female (and more than half of the nurses male) then today’s reader will struggle to settle into the plot. This works fine if gender is supposed to play part in the story, or in the world-building. But if it isn’t, then you’ve got a bright light shining where you don’t want one, and you have to choose between making your point and engaging your reader.

A while back I read a fascinating article on a blog called Mythcreants entitled Five Signs your Story is Sexist.  This wonderful and helpful post included such gems as

“Patriarchy conditions us to think of men as normal and women as special exotic creatures. That’s why in many stories, particularly stories written by men, characters are only women if the storyteller thinks they have to be.”

Excellent point. If every female in the story is someones girlfriend, sister, daughter or mother, I think a good storyteller should seek out a few other characters and change their gender. You know, the helpful bartender who notices something that saves the hero can be a girl, and no, your hero does not have to fall in love with her. She can even be an old woman.

Here is another gem.

“Because most of us have a very skewed sense of what ratio of men to women is normal, the only way to ensure equal representation is to actually count them up and tally the total.”

This is an exercise well worth doing. While I think that a writer may not be able to achieve “equal representation” without making gender an issue in a novel meant to be about something else, I bet writers of all genders will be surprised by how far we all lean towards predominantly male stories. Yes, we can lean less that way and still tell a tale that sounds like it is real.

I’m already working on the novel I hope to write after I finish my 46. Ascending series. My protagonist will be a she, of course, and I already know that she will be smart, capable and kind. That part is easy. Now I’m working on what she doesn’t do well, developing the ways in which she is vulnerable. To me, those traits will be what makes her story interesting, and also what makes her fully human.

One Great Idea From the Misogynist Wing of the Alt Right

Like almost everything you can imagine, and a whole lot of things you can’t, it exists on the internet. The same wonderful, amazing tool that fuels my stories by letting me see locations I’ll never visit and open doors into the minds of others I will never meet, also allows me to find voices that repulse and frighten me. In fact, it allows me to find them easily.

Like most people, I avoid the dark corners of the internet, until my desire to make a character or incident more authentic drives me back to some putrid place. This time, I was trying to do something that seemed pretty safe. I was trying to learn more about Argentine women, because I was writing about one. Flipping through sites, I landed on a blog about how to get laid in Argentina. It seemed to be part of series of posts advising men about how to obtain casual, consensual and free sex in every country on earth. Crass but harmless.

The author advised me that women in Argentina were far too high maintenance and that I would be better off just heading over to neighboring Brazil. Something about the general tone started to bother me, and I filed it away for a possible future blog post of my own.

geniusBecause I’m a news junkie, over the last few days I’ve heard a lot about Trump’s new campaign chief executive Stephen Bannon, who also heads up Breitbart News. I had not heard of Breitbart News before, but according to a wealth of sources it is part of an alternate reality known as the alt right, in which a wide variety of paranoid white-centric ideas are held as truths. I checked it out for myself, and found headlines like “Obama Golfs as Louisiana Floods” and “Texas Voter ID Case Compared to Area 51 Alien Conspiracy” (two actual headlines used today). Okay, I’m going to go with the talking heads.

I also went back to the how-to-get-laid-in-Argentina blog, thinking I might write about it, and lo and behold I found another post there entitled “If Trump Doesn’t Win We’re Screwed.” Hmm. Seems like this guy writes about more topics than effective pick-up lines. It didn’t take much in the way of looking around to find a post called “Ugly Minority Girls Are Winning Beauty Pageants To Satisfy The Diversity Agenda” and to find comments like (I quote the exact words and apologize in advance for any offense) “overweight and obese girls have more sexual partners on average than girls who are in shape, because the same lack of impulse control that leads them to stuff their faces with food also leads them to hoover up cocks left and right” and “homosexuals and bisexuals are more likely than heterosexuals to be mentally ill: their malfunctioning sexual impulses lead to their entire personalities being dysfunctional.”

By this point I was looking for some bleach to clean out my browser. Ick. Yes, people can believe anything they want and they can also share those thoughts with others. But does this blogger seriously believe what he writes, or, like much of the alt right, does he just enjoy shocking people with outrageous statements?

I decided to look further into this. The blogger has a name, Daryush Valizadeh, and he achieved a small amount of infamy when he wrote a post in 2015 suggesting that rape be legalized on private property. His argument was that such a law would coerce women into becoming extremely careful (or paranoid), to the point of never being alone with a man with whom they did not want to have sex. Thus rape would be eliminated. After a lot of criticism, he claimed that he was being sarcastic.

sungazing5The Southern Poverty Law Center follows him due to his “specific examples of misogyny and the threat, overt or implicit, of violence” and you can read their latest on him. (I am happy to provide a link to the SPLC site, but will not link to his blogs.) According to the short Wikipedia entry on him, he is against female promiscuity, which seems a rather odd stance for a man who writes books with titles like Bang Lithuania: How to Sleep with Lithuanian Women in Lithuania and Don’t Bang Denmark: How to Sleep with Danish Women in Denmark (If You Must). I  have no idea what he has against Danish women.

Another odd contradiction is that along with his clarion call for men to be sexually aggressive, he has recently begun to rally his followers to reject globalism and adhere to nationalism. It seems a strange stance for a man who is the child of two immigrants, who has lived in multiple other countries and who writes travel books. Perhaps he is trying a little too hard to merge his philosophies about sex with the politics of the alt right.

I do confess to reading one of his posts from start to finish. It was titled something like “don’t have sex with feminists” and it advised men that the feminist movement could be seriously diminished if males would simply refuse to become intimate with women who held unacceptable ideas like wanting equal pay. (I’m serious, equal pay was the horrible feminist idea that he used as an example.) His plan for stopping feminism is for every man in every bar to respond clearly and firmly to every such statement with something like “then forget it, I’m not attracted to feminists.” He thinks this would make women feel so rejected that they would rethink their silly ideas.

I almost wrote the man to say “Please get all of your followers to do this. Please. What a service this would be.”

Imagine the scene in the bar. He says “Forget it, lady, I’m not attracted to feminists.” She says “Thank you so much for telling me. I’m not attracted to assholes.”

And everyone leaves the bar happy. See, even I can find one idea from the misogyny wing of the alt right movement with which to agree.

 

 

 

I know sexism when I see it?

When you read a book of fiction written decades ago, you steel yourself for possible sexism, racism and general intolerance. You accept that the hero will likely be a tall, non-elder, physically fit and able, straight white male possibly assisted by inferior but lovable sidekicks from other demographic groups. I’ve listened to many a lively discussion about how much slack a writer from days past is entitled to before the enlightened reader of today gets tired of the stereotypes and throws down the book.

sustainable human 1I don’t have an answer. But I do know that there is a difference between writing that reflects cultural norms of its time and writing that has a mean spirit. It’s a little like Supreme Court Justice Potter Stewart’s famous 1964 quote regarding obscenity. “I know it when I see it.” I think we can all agree that we would never all agree completely on what is obscene and what isn’t, yet the vast majority of people would reach identical conclusions on either side of a small fuzzy line. That is obscene. That isn’t. We know it.

I believe that the same sort of standard applies to older fiction. I just finished reading Frederick Pohl and C.M. Kornbluth’s 1952 science fiction satire The Space Merchants. I enjoyed it. But being female, I’m particularly sensitive to sexism in a story and, let’s face it, older science fiction often was as sexist as anything else of its time. On the surface, The Space Merchants suffers in this way. The hero is a tall, non-elder, physically fit and able, straight white male. The women are called “girls”, every executive has a female secretary he orders around, and most of the rest of the work force is male.

As I finished the book, however, I decided that the authors’ failing was not one of prejudice, but rather an inability or unwillingness to see some parts of future society as significantly different than their own. In 1950, women were called “girls”, every executive did have a secretary, and most of the work force was male. This story was intended to focus on other changes in society. Even if the authors did consider it, reworking the common role of women was not necessary to the plot, and might well have distracted from the main messages of the book when was being read back in the 1950’s.

In the authors’ further defense, the love interest is a female surgeon, the main character’s compliant secretary is uncommonly capable, and one of the evil characters is a deranged woman who is an expert at torture. Women may play a fifties-style role in the book, but they are as three-dimensional as the males and as good at what they do. It’s hard to call that sexism.

I know that in the seventies and eighties Frederick Pohl went on to write Gateway and Beyond the Blue Event Horizon, both excellent books filled with fully-developed and competent women. C.M. Kornbluth died at age thirty-four. We will never know what masterpieces he might have written as he aged.

I’m completely okay with giving this book a pass on its treatment of its female characters. Other science fiction books of that era? Well, that’s another blog post waiting to be written.

(For more about the Space Merchants, see my posts The Kinky of the Future, Through the Eyes of Another, and Predicting the Future or Shaping It.)

 

Embracing the Yin in Costa Rica

I developed a strong dislike of Chinese philosophy in early high school, the first time that the well-known yin-yang diagram was explained to me. I’m sure that different words were used, but what I remember being told was that the dark sort of fish looking thing represented the female. You know, weakness, darkness, emptiness, inactivity, insincerity and nothingness. Oh and also the moon, which only reflected light but gave off none of its own.

The white side represented the male. You know. Shining, strong, noble, upright, something-ness that was active, productive and everything cool. But I was not to worry. Both were needed for life and equally important and that was the beauty of yin and yang.

Screw the Chinese, I decided.

Soon after that my own Catholic Church denied my request to be the first female gospel reader in our small town parish. They appreciated my sincerity, they told me, but women have their place. It is an important one, I was assured. It’s just that their place is behind the scenes, hidden, supporting the men. Equally valuable, just different.

Have you guys been talking to the Chinese? I wondered.

beautiful life6After awhile, I discovered that everybody had apparently been talking to each other. By the time I hit college I couldn’t find a single thriving modern culture on earth that at its root didn’t delegate over half the species to the passive and receptive half of the food chain. By this point I had a pretty good idea of how sperm spurted out to fertilize a waiting egg, and an equally good idea of what he and she were probably doing on the macroscopic scale while all this spurting was happening.

No excuse, I thought. He doesn’t get to be everything active and strong just for that ten second performance. Screw them all.

To this day I maintain that there is far more variation amongst males, and amongst females, then there is variation between the average man and woman. She or he can be good at math, mountain climbing or knitting and while biology and culture may predispose more of one gender to any of those activities, you cannot accurately predict any person’s individual skill level or interest at anything based on their gender alone, and that is good.

We are complicated, and our sexuality is only a part of us.

That is why yesterday surprised me so much. I am here in Costa Rica, once again attending a week long seminar in qigong, the ancient Chinese art of energy flow. I let go of my anger at yin and yang years ago and now view it as a useful concept that was unfortunately tainted by the sexism of ages past. Sort of like holy books such as the bible and other older documents like the U.S. constitution. You might as well look for the parts of all of them that are good and stop complaining.

As we are letting the qi flow, I feel a strong and positive sense of something different in the energy around me. I peek. I’ve landed on a side of the room in which I happen to be surrounded by several women who have been practicing qigong for years. These women all have a strong sense of self, and working in the middle of them I think I feel what must be yin. It’s comfortable to me, familiar, and powerful all at once, like a group of sisters and wise women who buoy each other up in spite of their many differences. It’s not less than yang and not more than it and in spite of the Chinese focus on opposites it is not so different from it either. But it is, and I feel comfortable with it.

I remember that I’m not the only one who has changed. Much of modern society has caught up with my teenaged vision of equality from long ago, and my own daughters never knew a world in which they could not go to Harvard or be astronauts. I wonder how the attributes assigned to yin and yang would have sounded if they had been articulated by the women of China instead? Maybe I don’t have to wonder.

I have an internet for doing research. I now write speculative fiction. It might be fun to learn more, I think, and then to create a world in which women describe the attributes assigned to the universe. How do you think they might sound?

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