So you’ve read through all the articles tagged “social justice,” and you’re convinced: Bigotry is wrong. It’s evil. And it leads to lousy writing. You want to do your bit to fight bigotry with your stories. That’s highly commendable.
Now you’ve come up with an idea. Why not write a story where black people, gay people, women, or some other marginalized group rule, and white people, straight people, men or some other privileged group are oppressed? Why not show a privileged group being subjugated, so real-life members of that group understand what it feels like to be downtrodden? This is called a persecution flip story, and there are many reasons why you should not do this.
For our purposes, “privileged” and “marginalized” refer to groups in the real world. “Ruling” and “oppressed” refer to groups in a persecution flip story. I’ll also mention positive flip stories, which argue that the marginalized group should rule.
Content notice: This article describes bigoted arguments and briefly summarizes stories that include sexual assault, harmful medical procedures, and problematic stereotypes.
1. It Stereotypes Both Groups
If you’re going to depict a marginalized group ruling, you’ll want your audience to see the difference between that group and the privileged group. If there is no difference between them, then how can you tell which group is which once power has changed hands?
To differentiate between these groups, you’ll present both of them with all the stereotypes, caricatures, and misconceptions you can cram into your story. In the process, you’ll reveal your own prejudices, conscious or unconscious.
These stereotypes insult and demean the marginalized group. As for the privileged group, the good stereotypes presented just reassure them that they are indeed better than the marginalized group and that they deserve to be on top. This is the opposite of the intended effect.
Positive flip stories present good stereotypes about the marginalized group and bad stereotypes of the privileged group. However, any stereotype caricatures people and frames them as “other.” Furthermore, any privileged person who doesn’t believe these particular stereotypes will reject the entire story and learn nothing from it
In an episode of Tripping the Rift, the crew visits a planet inhabited only by homosexuals. Rather than arguing against homophobia, the episode presents every gay cliché it could muster.
In the episode, the public suspects a governor of being straight. This was the news story:
Governor McJersey was almost stoned to death today by an angry mob of gay men. But since all the men here throw like girls, it seemed like he was going to get away with only a few minor scratches. Until the women’s softball team showed up and finished the job. Way to go, Bulls!
Even the title of the episode is problematic at best: “You Wanna Put That Where?”
2. It Presents Human Rights as Zero-Sum
In a zero-sum game, you can only win what someone else loses. For instance, poker in a non-casino setting is a zero-sum game.
Some people claim that human rights is a zero-sum game. This means that for me to gain a right, you have to lose it. These people argue that letting the marginalized group have a human right devalues that right for those who already have it. For example, they might say, “Gay marriage diminishes straight marriages. If two men or two women can marry, then the union of a man and a woman is meaningless.”
They might also insist that nobody truly wants equal rights and that marginalized groups only want to take it away from those who have it. A good example is the backlash against Black Lives Matter, a movement against police killing unarmed black people. Those opposing Black Lives Matter will say something like, “Hey! All lives matter! Why do you say that only black lives matter? Are you saying white lives don’t?” Of course, all lives do matter, but the police do not equally target all people.
At its worst, this argument alleges that privileged-group members have the “right” to insult, dominate, and abuse the marginalized group, and the marginalized group has no right to resist or fight back. They claim, “You just want to do to us what we do to you!”
Of course, all groups have extremists who do want to oppress others, but almost all of us fighting for human rights want equal rights for everybody. A persecution flip story is about the fear of losing a privileged group’s rights the way the movie Arachnophobia is about the fear of spiders. It feeds into the view that human rights are zero-sum. And a positive flip story all but states this view.
In the Red Dwarf episode Parallel Universe, the crew enters a universe where everyone (except Cat) is gender-flipped. The men with authority in the Red Dwarf universe are women with authority in the parallel universe. Women insult and belittle men, even grope them against their will. Men had to fight for equal rights throughout history, and when Rimmer protests about men being objectified, his female counterpart asks, “You’re not one of those boring masculinists, are you?”
There is no equality there; women have the power and men are the victims, though this is mitigated because Red Dwarf takes place in the late 22nd century, where women have apparently made major strides toward equality.
While this episode was meant to show men the tribulations women face, it is just as likely to convince men that things are great right now and should not change.
3. It Alienates the Marginalized Group
At first you might think that a persecution flip story would have a special appeal to the group marginalized in the real world, that it would give them a chance to imagine what it would be like to be on top.
It doesn’t. The whole point of a persecution flip story is to show how bad things would be if a certain group were on top instead of on the bottom “where they belong.” It emphasizes how abnormal it would be for members of that group to have any power. And since the story usually implies that those people would be corrupt, incompetent, oppressive, or all of the above, the takeaway is that they should not rule. Furthermore, the story typically has the oppressed group treated the exact same way the marginalized group is treated in real life. While any story can have unpleasant triggers, persecution flip stories pretty much require them.
Even a positive flip story can be insulting; it presents stereotypes that a member of the marginalized group knows to be untrue. If your story depicts a world-wide matriarchy that’s peaceful because women are nonviolent and always negotiate rather than fight… well, I know more than one woman who’d disagree.
Victoria Foyt’s Save the Pearls is a YA series about a dystopian future in which black people (called Coals) are the highly privileged majority and white people (Pearls) are the downtrodden and oppressed minority. Pearls typically wear blackface to pass as Coals. Eden, a 17-year-old Pearl, “must fight to save her father, who may be humanity’s last hope.”
Save The Pearls Debunked, a tumblr written by a person of color, features what the site accurately calls an “in-depth look at the racism (and terrible writing) in Save the Pearls.” It’s a condemnation, not a commendation.
Lines from Save The Pearls Debunked include:
- “I can only guess Ms Foyt thought ‘uppity’ was too obvious a word choice.”
- “Racist white people are the only ones who are convinced POCs will ~rise up~ and attempt to do to them what they have done to us for centuries.”
- “I have a feeling the author doesn’t even know she’s being racist, but the whole thing reads like she’s made a concerted effort at it.”
4. It Doesn’t Teach Privileged People Anything
Persecution flip stories usually aim, as stated earlier, to teach privileged people about the challenges that marginalized people face. However, even at this they can fail, because instead of learning the experiences of the marginalized group, the privileged group may feel like they’re being attacked. They may become so defensive that they are unwilling or unable to judge the story fairly or listen to the point it’s trying to make.
Of course, any story involving social justice is, almost by definition, intended to unsettle the privileged group. But while calling someone out on their harmful beliefs is necessary in many contexts, it isn’t an effective way to convert them to your cause. When a person feels the need to defend their beliefs, those beliefs often become stronger – even when they’re obviously wrong. They are likely to feel even more defensive in response to a positive flip story. In this case, the privileged group is insulted deliberately. Yes, pernicious beliefs should be attacked, but those attacks are not the same thing as education.
Persecution flip stories are usually written with the intent to increase sympathy for the plight of the marginalized group. However, by putting privileged people on the defensive and treating marginalized people as caricatures, these stories may even reduce sympathy. Plus, sympathy is not the same thing as understanding or respecting the marginalized group. (See “white liberal guilt.”) If the goal of the work is to teach privileged people to change their ways, a persecution flip story will not accomplish it.
In the short French film Majorité Opprimée (Oppressed Majority) – which was written and directed by a woman – women degrade, sexually harass and even sexually assault men, and society restricts men from defending themselves. My first reaction upon watching it was not, “Women sure have it tough, and I should make more of an effort to treat women with dignity and respect,” but rather, “Don’t accuse ME of that, because I certainly don’t act like that toward women.” I believe I treat women with dignity and respect, but I have to admit my knee-jerk defensiveness distanced me from the film’s theme.
5. It Is Hard to Sell
Whether regular or positive, persecution flip stories sell poorly, if at all, in the current market. They are considered unoriginal, even cliché, in addition to any personal insult the editor may feel.
Expanded Horizons, a webzine that promotes diversity in speculative fiction, specifically states in their submissions guide: “We do not publish ‘reverse discrimination’ [persecution flip] stories.” Six years ago, Dash,* the Expanded Horizons editor-in-chief, stated in a Livejournal post, “The concept is not new, not creative, not original, not fresh, and not clever.” In a private communique, Dash added, “To the authors of these submissions, perhaps the concept seemed fresh and new, but from the other side of the submissions process, it was the same premise, reworked, over and over again.”
Strange Horizons, an online speculative fiction magazine, has a list called Stories We’ve Seen Too Often, in which they warn potential writers of overused tropes. Item number 42 is not about Life, the Universe, and Everything, but rather:
Story is set in a world in which some common modern Western power structure is inverted, and we’re meant to sympathize with the people who are oppressed in the world of the story. [Such stories usually end up reinforcing the real-world dominant paradigm; and regardless, they rarely do anything we haven’t seen many times before.]
- Women have more power than men, and it’s very sad how oppressed the men are.
- Everyone in the society is gay or lesbian, and straight people are considered perverts.
- White people are oppressed by oppressive people with other skin colors.
So What Do You Write Instead?
One option is to have a society where a marginalized group rules, but it is not depicted as a ruthless dictatorship. Black Panther comes to mind. The society doesn’t have to be a perfect utopia. In fact, it probably shouldn’t be. That can come across as arrogant, preachy, or just plain dull. But it should not be significantly worse than many real-life governments (admittedly a low bar).
But suppose you do want to show the effects of oppression. What then? Well, your story is already science fiction, fantasy, or in an alternate universe. Just take it one step further.
Robots are specifically built to be servants and slaves. The term “robot,” first used in K. Čapek’s play R.U.R. “Rossum’s Universal Robots” (1920), literally comes from a Czech word meaning “forced labor.” If they become sentient, they may be the newest oppressed group. Or the robots could rise up and turn the tables, so we have to serve them. Terminator is the most obvious example of this, though the robots there want to wipe humans out, not enslave them. Even robots oppressing robots is a possibility, as in the classic comic “Judgment Day,”
Aliens are another good choice. In the Doctor Who episode Planet of the Ood, humans enslave an alien race called the Oods, treat them like cattle, and even routinely “lobotomize” them. Alien overlords in fiction are too numerous to list. And some aliens might persecute other aliens, based on the number of heads or whether someone has pincers or tentacles.* The Star Trek TOS episode Let That Be Your Last Battlefield takes this to an extreme.
There are even more alternatives:
- Vampires (Vampire: The Masquerade, I Am Legend)
- Elves, Dwarves, Orcs, etc. (most traditional fantasy settings)
- Superheroes, mutants, and psychics (Steelheart, X-Men, Wild Cards)
- Magic users (Harry Potter)
- Animals (Zootopia, Planet of the Apes, Animal Farm)
- Even ants (I, for one, welcome our new insect overlords)
Whether a group rules, is oppressed, or both, this will allow you to explore social dynamics without cultural baggage. Of course, you must take care to avoid unfortunate implications. If the ruling High Elves have pale pink skin and the lowly Deep Elves have dark brown skin, you are on the wrong track. And if the oppressed group has magic or another advantage that the privileged group does not, you may be misrepresenting the dynamics of power and privilege.
Now, there are few absolutes in writing, and a persecution flip story can possibly work. Noughts and Crosses by Malorie Blackman, a book in which Africans enslaved Europeans, and the Sliders episode The Weaker Sex, where the sliders arrive on a female-dominated world (with Hillary Clinton as president), have both received good reviews. But a persecution flip story is much more likely to do harm than good.
Examining privilege and marginalization, rulership and oppression, from a different angle can show people old issues in a new way. And speculative fiction in its various forms is uniquely qualified to present that different angle. But the best stories do not confirm old beliefs and prejudices, either deliberately or inadvertently. They challenge them.
Dave Lerner is a long-time writer who spends far too much time arguing online. His most recent work is The Cat in the Sprawl: Blake Snyder’s Genres and Postnarrative Fiction, a rather esoteric guest post for the blog of Sean P Carlin, writer of things that go bump in the night.
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