Change, Reaction and Pain – Coping With Cultural Backlash

'Hello, God? I know I don't believe in you, but could you please send everyone fluffy kittens - things are getting way too tense down here.'
‘Hello, God? I know I don’t believe in you, but could you please send everyone fluffy kittens – things are getting way too tense down here.’

I love that the world is changing. I love the variety that brings and the novelty it creates within our culture, even as the dark fingers of uncertainty send tremors of fear through my body.

Unfortunately, fear of change is currently rearing its big, ugly head all over geek culture.

The most prominent and hideous example of this is the treatment of feminists in computer gaming. There are some great designers and critics out there critiquing the domination of gaming by white, straight, male gamers and characters, and the way this excludes others. This has triggered a huge backlash, in which people have been called the vilest names and even had their lives threatened for expressing their opinions on a medium they love.

Then there’s the fuss, for the second year in a row, around science fiction and fantasy’s Hugo awards. I think there are a lot of problems with the Hugos, but they’re certainly high profile within the core of sf+f. This year, a reactionary group have managed to dominate the nominations with a slate of conservative, white, male authors. It’s a shame, but it is at least getting people engaged with the awards, and may favour the pro-diversity arguments in the long run.

Outside the world of geek, anti-immigrant party UKIP have risen to prominence in this year’s British general election. It’s no great revelation to say that an anti-immigrant party is reactionary and playing on people’s fears.

I find all of this distressing, especially given the way that it has impinged upon what I normally consider a safe space, the welcoming a varied world of geek culture. And I find it hard to balance my own emotional reactions.

On the one hand, I understand that change is frightening, that many of the reactionaries respond this way because they feel threatened. I feel sorry for their hurt and for the way that they aren’t able to embrace all this wonderful variety. But in understanding them and trying not to become reactionary against the reactions, I risk undervaluing my own feelings on the subject. They’re attacking things I value, they create an unpleasant atmosphere, and it’s not unreasonable for me and others like me to feel hurt by that, even a little frightened at where this is going.

I remain hopeful. I’ve always been something of an opportunistic humanist, and the history of humanity, as well as that of the culture I love, to me shows an upward trend toward great diversity and understanding. But there are downward moments as well as upward ones, both becoming ever shorter and more frequent as humanity grows and change accelerates. For the sake of my sanity, I’ll lean into the hurt as well as the hope, use it to power my own work, and remember that this too will pass.

Whatever the outcome of the Hugos, the general election, and a series of nasty Twitter spats, the diverse and joyful things I love aren’t going away. The ranting of sad and angry reactionaries will never stop that.

Of idioms and elephants

Language can be a wonderful thing, as demonstrated for the gazillionth time in this article on the BBC news website. The article explores ten forms of endearment from around the world, from ‘fruit of my heart’ to ‘my flea’.

One of the wonderful things this highlights is the poetic role of idiom in language. I was recently watching an episode of Archer in which a character struggled again and again with translation because the speeches he was translating used American English idioms. Because idioms are culturally specific, their meaning rooted in their native culture and often lost in the depths of history, direct translation turns them into gibberish. But because of those cultural and historical roots, they are highly evocative in the native language.

They also reveal something about the culture they come from. The use of ‘gazelle’ as a term of endearment is rooted in Arabic history and taboos against direct depiction of certain subjects. The use of ‘little elephant’ in Thai connects to religion, history and even national pride. The Chinese ‘diving fish swooping geese’ evokes for me the precision and poetry of the land of Confucius, and is a reminder of the vast cultural differences between China and Europe.

Idioms speak powerfully of their native cultures. If as genre writers we can create idioms for our invented cultures then they can add depth through their poetry and all they imply about their origins, as long as the audience still understands our meaning. We need our idioms to translate.

And now, my little pirate robots, I’m off to write.