Greetings, social justice adventurers.* If you have been on the internet for more than a few minutes, you’ve probably noticed that people have a lot of bad opinions, especially when it comes to including progressive values in fiction. They claim that such stories never sell, that they are shameless pandering, and other such nonsense. Some people make these arguments sincerely, while others use them as a cover for the fact that they simply don’t want more progressive values in stories. Either way, the arguments are wrong.
I’ve talked about this problem before, but the marketplace of ideas is ever changing, and a whole new crop of bad arguments sprang up while I wasn’t looking. That means it’s time to examine them once again, hopefully saving you a few brain cells the next time you encounter such an argument in the wild. Alternatively, if you’re ever tempted to make such an argument yourself, hopefully I can show you why it’s a bad idea.
1. Pointless Symmetry
Pointless symmetry holds up the occasional example of a story that actually focuses on a traditionally underrepresented group as evidence that it would be unfair to push for more diversity in future media. Black Panther is the popular one right now, but there were other stories before it, and there will be others after it. Of course, Black Panther is an ironic choice because it already has more white characters than most superhero films have black characters, but that’s beside the point.
This argument is a fallacy because it misunderstands the reason for having diversity in the first place. As much as regressives might wish it, diverse casts are not the result of a checklist handed down by a shadowy cabal of Hollywood elites/lizard people. Instead, the push for diversity is meant to correct an existing imbalance.
White people have dominated Western media for as long as it has existed.* This is also true of men, straight people, cis people, abled people, etc. If a trait comes with privilege, it has been overrepresented in fiction. When marginalized groups have been represented, it is usually in a negative capacity. It gets worse! In theater and film, marginalized characters are often portrayed by privileged actors. While blackface is frowned on these days, producers are still more than happy to cast straight actors for gay roles, abled actors for disabled roles, etc.
This underrepresentation does real harm. Not only does it mean marginalized folks don’t get to see themselves in fiction or that they see themselves portrayed badly, but also it contributes to the idea that these people are rare and unusual. Diverse stories fight back. They give marginalized audiences someone similar and normalize their existence at the same time.*
By contrast, privileged groups are in no danger of being underrepresented. Black Panther does not hurt white people because we already have nearly every other superhero film ever made.* You can’t simply reverse the dynamics of privilege and expect them to work the same way any more than you can throw a fighter jet into reverse and expect it to fly backward. If by some fluke privileged groups did become underrepresented in fiction, it would be incredibly easy to correct. Privileged creators have an easier time getting their work out there.
2. Straw Man Standards
This is the argument that if you can’t make all your characters part of all underprivileged groups at once, there’s no point. The straw man standard is amusing because the people who make it invariably reveal their ignorance of the real world by whatever combination of traits they choose as their impossible example. They’ll demand to know if you want a character who’s queer, disabled, black, and Native American, somehow not knowing that there are plenty of people with all those traits in real life.
Leaving aside the ignorance of its proponents, this argument just doesn’t make sense. Not only is it perfectly plausible to have a character with lots of underprivileged traits, but also no one has ever said you need to have all of them all the time. That’s why this is a straw man argument: its proponents are setting up an argument no one is making and then making a big show of defeating it. This logical fallacy is worsened because the specific examples they fabricate aren’t actually that extreme.
In retrospect, I suspect this argument is a reaction to the storytelling habit of creating characters with exactly one underprivileged trait. This happens everywhere, but it’s especially common in cartoons from the 90s. These shows have a team with a white girl, a Latino guy, a white disabled guy, etc.* It’s like the creators started with a team of white dudes and then gave each of them one underprivileged trait because having a character who was both female and black would be too out there.
With a generation raised on such entertainment, it’s no surprise that some reactionaries think they can shock us with the idea of characters having two or even three underprivileged traits. GASP!
3. Personal Freedom
In this argument, some claim that calls for social justice are hampering a storyteller’s right to self-determination. Wanting more respectful stories is basically the same thing as taking hold of someone’s hands and forcing them to write “T’Challa is our lord and savior” one hundred times.
I love this argument because it attributes so much more power to advocates than we actually have. It conjures a world in which SJWs command armies and can send squads of righteous soldiers to the homes of regressive storytellers. From there, we presumably put them on trial and sentence them to watch Zootopia as penance. Now that’s a power fantasy I can get behind.
In real life, of course, no one is being forced to do anything. This is true of any storytelling discussion, not only social justice issues. No one is being forced to craft an ending that satisfies the promises they made in the beginning or use language that is both evocative and understandable.* When we talk about social justice in storytelling, we’re advocating a best practice. That’s it.
Occasionally, this argument has a follow-up about how even though we SJWs don’t have any actual legal power, we’re still forcing storytellers to accede to our demands via buying habits. When we refuse to purchase works either containing bigotry or made by bigots, we’re starving all the storytellers who don’t accept our agenda. Worse, we even go online and tell creators about our preferences in the hope that they won’t make more bigoted work in the future. What monsters!
Sorry to anyone who espouses this belief, but what you’re describing is just the free market at work. People buy what they want, and in this case a growing number of people want stories with social justice. The only alternative would be for the government to mandate that people buy stories they don’t like, which would violate personal freedom just a bit, don’t you think?
4. Appeal to Realism
We’ve all been there. You’re having a good time talking about ways to make a story more progressive, but then someone shows up to tell you, “Well actually, it’s just not realistic for a story to be progressive like that.” Often they’ll name someone else as the source of their information. This comes up a lot in discussions of historical accuracy, but you can also get it when discussing women’s rights, queer visibility, and just about any topic worth talking about.
When this argument comes up, our natural instinct is to drop what we’re doing and spend hours poring over the information or doing our own research if no sources are provided. We have an intense need to show that the argument is wrong and that our progressive values are completely realistic. You don’t have to do that. It’s a waste of your time, and it’s all beside the point.
It’s true that many of these arguments are wrong, frustratingly so, or they’re on such fuzzy topics that it’s impossible to draw any real conclusions from them. But if you spend a bunch of time trying to disprove it, you’ve exhausted yourself for no reason. Even if the claims made are correct, and they sometimes are, they aren’t relevant. We’re talking about fictional storytelling here, not a documentary.
Let’s assume for the sake of argument that discrimination based on skin color was hardwired into our biological makeup and would arise in just about any culture where people have different levels of melanin. That’s not true, but imagine that it was. It wouldn’t matter. The vast majority of stories aren’t so focused on the nitty gritty details of neuropsychology that they would benefit from such knowledge. On the other hand, most stories will benefit a lot from a setting in which people of color take center stage without anyone thinking it’s weird. That not only inspires people in real life to be better, but it makes the story easier for audiences of color to enjoy because it doesn’t make them relive the discrimination they face every day.
What proponents of this argument don’t understand is that stories break realism all the time. Do you know how incredibly unlikely it is that a world with the geography of Westeros would produce culture that’s nearly identical to War of the Roses–era England?* That’s incredibly unrealistic, but readers accept it without question. That’s the key with realism in fiction: it isn’t about being a perfect mirror of reality; it’s about making a world seem plausible to the audience. Since audiences are showing again and again that they’re perfectly fine with social justice content, most storytellers don’t need to worry whether they’re being 100% realistic.
5. Edge Cases
For the edge case argument, someone will take a piece of social justice storytelling advice, work really hard to find a specific scenario where it doesn’t apply, and then claim it as evidence that the advice is meaningless. After all, if a piece of advice doesn’t list every caveat imaginable, it can’t really be true, can it? An old favorite is to bring up Scandinavia in the context of pre-modern European diversity. Edge case proponents will grudgingly admit that much of Europe had people of all different skin tones, but the Nordic countries were all white all the time, and what if they want to write a Nordic story? What then?
The first problem with the edge case argument is that its proponents are spending a lot of brain power coming up with scenarios in which they think they don’t have to address social justice concerns. This is a strong indicator of ulterior motives. Are they actually interested in using this edge case to tell a story, or do they just want to use it as a weapon? And if they actually want to use the scenario they describe, are they going to address the social justice issues that are still present? Sure, they could write a story set in Norway that’s realistically lacking people of color, but are they going to address discrimination against the native Sami people? They’ll probably forget to include that.
The second issue is that while these edge cases are presented as ironclad proofs against social justice, this is rarely the case. For most of them, including more progressive elements is the work of a moment. Nordic countries may not have had the same level of pre-modern diversity that central and southern Europe did, but it would take only a few paragraphs to describe how a Han Chinese merchant family crossed the Silk Road and eventually wound up on Svalbard. They can be friends with the armored bears who were also put there for the sake of the story.
Finally, even when the edge case is legitimate, it’s little more than a piece of trivia. Storytelling is complex, and there are exceptions to every rule. In most scenarios, it’s good to show gender diversity in your settings, but Discworld’s Unseen University is an exception. There, Terry Pratchett is making a deliberate point about how the men in power are useless and self-serving, possessing great influence but never using it to help anyone. For that scenario, it’s important that the wizards are men.*
If an edge case is a legitimate exception to a rule or best practice, then that’s that. There are also rare exceptions to the rule that a story’s ending should satisfy the dramatic issue raised at the beginning. That doesn’t make advice about satisfactory endings null and void. Anyone who thinks an edge case disproves the general rule is going to be in for a rude shock when they actually sit down to write.
6. The No-Win Scenario
The no-win scenario can be phrased two ways. First, someone might claim that there’s no correct choice for privileged authors, that they are condemned whether or not they include social justice in their stories. Second, someone might argue that authors specifically get in trouble for including diversity in their stories because the standards for doing it right are so high. So why should they bother?
The first version is easy to disprove. If it were true and storytellers were equally condemned no matter what they did, then it would be a non-factor. Storytellers should make the choice that’s right for their story, because in this scenario, they’ll be critiqued no matter what they do. We’ve already covered why including social justice makes most stories better.
The second version is a lot more insidious, because it has some truth to it. I’ve even found myself sympathizing with that viewpoint in moments of frustration. It seems like there are so many ways to fail at social justice that it’s safer not to try, but this is an illusion. It’s true that if you do nothing, you can blend into the sea of other privileged storytellers who are also doing nothing, and you are less likely to receive individual critiques. That’s just how the limits of human attention work.
But if critiques are your concern, then doing nothing is no way to escape them. It just means you’ll be part of the general problem, and that gets talked about a lot. Every progressive article targeting the broad problems with media will be referring to your story. Yikes. At the same time, blending in probably won’t work forever. As the long arc of history bends towards justice, the number of storytellers completely leaving social justice out of their works will shrink. As doing nothing becomes less common, those who don’t make an effort will stick out more and more.
Finally, while no part of storytelling is easy, there are lower-risk ways to include social justice in your work. We talk about them a lot on Mythcreants. Maybe you’re not ready for a fantasy setting based entirely on a non-Western culture. That’s fine – you can have your Western-inspired culture and slot a diverse cast into it. These methods are important because no one wants to inadvertently cause harm, and they let us build up our skills in a safe environment.
So if you ever find yourself thinking it would be easier to just throw out all social justice elements and go with the flow, remember that’s not the solution to your problem. Instead, look up some resources for how to include social justice properly.
Congratulations, now you understand the illogic behind another round of regressive arguments. Opposition to social justice is an ever-mutating beast, always ready with a new final form, so it’s important stay on top of this stuff. If you like, you can use this knowledge to win arguments with people on the internet. Or you can simply recognize what the other person is doing and move on, saving your energy for a more productive outlet. Not everyone thrives on yelling at strangers.
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