shweta_narayan (shweta_narayan) wrote,

As we're looking through our prison bars do I see mud when you see stars?

This is cobbled together from IM conversation with tithenai and kirizal, and grounded in recent lj-discussions, me thinking about my own writing, and my brain being rearranged by one of my advisor's papers on viewpoint (she does this.) So it's sort of about Everything, as understood by Shweta.

ETA: If this sparks a response post of any sort, I do hope you'll link it here! I have no energy/focus for more than the minimal necessities at present (appearances are deceptive!) and have not been following my f-list.


We learn as writers that we need to know our fiction's point of view, and be consistent, and think about how things look like through a character's eyes and brain.

(This has always been pretty weird to me, in the "but what else could we possibly do?" sense. Not that I've always done it (or always do it) well, but it never did occur to me that there was an alternative. I don't think this is just me, and want to get back to it in a bit.)

Anyway, as writers, we don't seem to talk so much about why that matters to readers. As a cognitive linguist, I've got a thought about that: it's that it matters to humans. Viewpoint* is the combination of physical/social/cognitive givens that underlie and structure of everything we think, everything we say, every gesture we make, every understanding we have of anything. This is true both for physical viewpoint (consider what on earth "here" or "that" or "the" or "yesterday" might mean without an assumed physical viewpoint) and cognitive viewpoint (consider what "our" or "scary" or "if I were you" could possibly mean without an assumed cognitive viewpoint).

So if it's fundamental to human cognition, why would it be hard for writers to get right? I think because it's implicit, and it's very seldom conscious. This stuff is invisible, precisely because it's everywhere. So when do we notice?

Not just when we get it wrong. When our noses are rubbed in the fact that we've got it wrong.

- When someone says "your point of view is screwy here," and we get that zero-g stomach-doing-flips sense of I have done something fundamentally wrong.

- When someone says "Wow, your representation of [CULTURE] plays into racist stereotypes," or "No way anyone who was really from [CULTURE] would do that," and we get that zero-g stomach-doing-flips sense of I have done something fundamentally wrong.

- When someone says "Picking and choosing from oppressed cultures for your pretties is appropriative," and we get that zero-g stomach-doing-flips sense of I have done something fundamentally wrong.

- When the voices we have been socialized to ignore and belittle grow too many to ignore and belittle, and we get that zero-g stomach-doing-flips sense of I have done something fundamentally wrong.

- For those of us from non-dominant cultures, every hour of every day when someone just blithely assumes that of course we know that [SOMETHING ALIEN TO OUR VIEWPOINT], unless we assimilate enough that the dominant viewpoints surrounding us don't grate and jar and hurt, every hour of every day.

- For those of us who live between cultures**, every hour of every day when "our" people from different cultures blithely assume that of course we know that [CONTRADICTORY THINGS]. No matter what we do to assimilate to anyone/everyone.

So yeah, viewpoint errors and conflicts? REALLY REALLY SUCK. Defensiveness and anger aren't exactly surprising responses.

But know what sucks more? Always having to deal with the dominant culture's point of view, and finding, when you finally get to read a story about a non-dominant culture you're invested in, that it's written from the dominant culture's unconsidered viewpoint.
That's what.

So is there a simple or painless way to figure out other viewpoints, and to make our own assumed viewpoints accessible to conscious thought? I don't think so. -- I do think fiction can help -- it can give us a less painful way to do so than reality; readers get that buffer of what we're experiencing not actually happening to us. But readers don't have to fully understand a character's viewpoint, assuming they're reading for fun. Readers can stop reading. or find characters unsympathetic (ignoring the fact that sympathy is a thing that happens between people, not a characteristic of one person); and readers can be avoidant of stories that are really fundamentally about (or by) Others -- and have plenty to read, so long as they're of a dominant culture.

And if there's an easy way to live a viewpoint enough to write from it - or a way that doesn't leave me wondering who the hell I am anyway - I don't know it. I think that might be part of why we as humans only do it to the extent we're forced to.

And I think a certain amount of racefail in writing involves getting the (explicit) facts right and the (implicit) viewpoint just wrong.

Implication 1: Losing a viewpoint, losing a self

This is a spinoff from kirizal saying: And I think gives me some insight into why so many people are so fiercely resistant to engaging with Other. They're afraid of losing their viewpoint, and therefore their sense of self?

I think this is exactly right -- losing viewpoint, even temporarily, is a scary thing. And I think it's why some of us who are assimilated to a dominant culture are so resistant to recognizing what we've lost thereby and engaging with even the Other that is Us. It's not just borrowed privilege we have to let go of to find our own viewpoint, it's a sense of self that has been damn hard to get to. Sometimes it's a sense of self we've been bullied into, with our differences picked on till they're invisible.

And the underlying assumptions we've learned aren't just unconscious, they're what lets us make sense of everything else. And they're what lets us feel like whole, coherent people. And gods, if that's true -- well, it is so hard to feel like a full person as a non-member of dominant groups; no wonder we cling to the bits we have. No wonder sometimes people from oppressed groups have a hard time even acknowledging the fact.

(I'm not excusing anything failtastic I've said in the past, here, mind. What I said, I own, even if I am a different person now. I'm just trying to make sense of it, and, heh, of my own viewpoint on it all.)

Thing is, the coherent self is in fact an illusion; humans have Very poor global coherence in our thoughts, reasoning, and beliefs. But it's an emotionally important illusion (heh, cognitive science meets Buddhism again).

Implication 2: Mysterious Others

We're forced to shift viewpoints when we run into someone (or some dominant culture) who we a) have to understand, who b) has a fundamentally different viewpoint (which is to say fundamentally different experience and structuring of the experiential world) from ours.

When you have (b) without (a) then you get the Mysterious Other - Women are Incomprehensible, Orientals are Inscrutable, the Resentment of these Natives Makes No Sense, Heathens are Ungrateful, etc.
And you get their modern descendant -- Why Are You So Angry.

When you have (b) with sort of partial (a) - you have to figure out some of what the other person's viewpoint is, but you don't have to live as though it's valid - you get the cute all-is-subjective-everyone-is-wrong philosophizing. You get the blind men and the elephant, you get every-interpretation-is-equally-valid-and-I-like-mine, or you get some other blithe and smug form of subjectivism. These all have a fundamental lack of respect for other viewpoints, a lack of work to understand them and why they are what they are; they have no room for "Hey, I might be wrong and might need to learn something here." It's sort of like "people can be brown yellow or purple for all I care" in the way it throws the doors open -- it's... acknowledging the fact of the difference but refusing to internalize its implications.

When one is part of a non-dominant culture one has to do (a) and (b) and some of us (most of us?) lose our own viewpoints to some extent in the process.

This is why we get so angry when members of the dominant cultures complain about being "screwed either way" when it comes to Writing the Other - cause we're stuck Being the Other. So treating our viewpoint as an inconvenience or an irritant is dismissing us as human beings.

But I think it's different again for those of us who are in-betweens; we have to do this with both or all the cultures we're immersed in (but not fully part of), and it leaves us good at translating but bad at figuring out wtf our own viewpoint IS. We're chameleons; we're mimics. And when a member of an established culture does what they think is gracious, and treats us like we're them -- well, if we're aware of this at all we can get resentful as hell.

Implication 3: The in-betweens are good at in-betweening.

Part of what this all means is that those of us who are trying to find our viewpoint, in between established cultures and subcultures, are Others to every side. Yeah, we're good translators and we're good at taking points of view other than our own -- not because it's easy but because we've always HAD to; we are expected to pass in order to be accepted by every side. But (not speaking for everyone but it's been true of the people I've talked to about this) if we try to find our own voices and think out loud about this stuff we will fail, failtastically, on the way, not just because it's hard but I think cause we've lost our starting point.

And we have to do it ourselves, perhaps even more than other Others, because the problem with believing one group all the time is that it's just another point-of-view alignment, not a real own point of view. And we are so used to doing this that we have to deliberately refuse the option, or we're screwed.

And that is an issue once one starts to think about it, with any argument from authority or peer pressure.

And here's a tricky bit - I think sometimes we in-betweens sound to each side in an argument like the other side, no matter who we really agree with to what extent, because we're trying to sort out our own points of view and we can't really do that by agreeing. And of course everyone has a default idea of who they're talking to, in the absence of other information, and we're never that default.

And since telepathy doesn't work so well, it's really hard to tell the difference sometimes between Between-struggling and unconsidered privilege; but some actions that might poke at unconsidered privilege (like citing bingo cards) have the opposite effect on Between-struggling. Not that it should stop people from voicing their frustration, and I certainly know I can be very frustrating. I just think it's worth knowing that what we're often struggling to do is to have a point of view at all.

And, non-betweens? It's not yours. It really isn't, no matter how good we are at sounding like you. Even to ourselves. I'm not A Designated In-between Spokesperson or anything, but I think I can validly say this much: we are, fundamentally, not you. If you treat us, or write us, as "just like you", you are erasing us. Even if you get every explicit fact right.

* Oh yeah -- writers say Point of View (POV), linguists say Viewpoint (VP.) I'm using Viewpoint here because I mean the pervasive, underlying, unconscious stuff, and I do not mean what person one is writing in.

** I am not bi-or-multi-racial, and I have no insight into issues specific to being bi-or-multi-racial. I and all my formative experiences are multicultural, and I'm certainly trying to figure that out.
Tags: cultural appropriation, in-between, race, viewpoint, writing

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