I just watched the Robin Williams movie What Dreams May Come, a film I watched a long time ago in another part of my life. At the time I read it fairly differently, but I enjoyed it when I first saw it. Seeing it again, I was struck not so much by the imaginativeness of the depiction of Heaven and Hell but more by the way it handled human nature, mercy and love and compassion and pain and respect. I like especially how it handled love: how many movies do you see which discuss love that is broken and mended, that survives horrible pain? In a world where divorce is billed as an easy answer (which of course it isn’t), I found this fantasy a moving essay on what love is: willingness to give up everything if necessary, willingness to face the utter shit that can come your way in life and fight against your fear, pain, and your desperation not to give up.
And yes, it is a fantasy, which is something I think people didn’t take into account when they saw it. That millions of people could enjoy Independence Day and hate this film astounds me. But as I remember, tons of people bad-mouthed this movie when it came out, tons of people hated it. The criticisms were that it was hokey, too sentimental, that heaven was too fake, that it was too romantic, that it included reincarnation… why this should be so objectionable in a fantasy movie, I don’t understand at all.
I think most people are fundamentally unimaginative, of course. They think that if they accept the basic tenets of, say, a religion, then all of the assumptions that evolve in folk-culture around it are true. For example, I’ve heard that Mary Magdalene is not explicitly described to be a reformed prostitute in the Gospels. She’s obviously a woman with a past, but a priest once told me there was no evidence her “past” involved selling her body; it could have been theft, lying, beng divorced by a husband, being a widow of a hated man… but a myth of the woman has evolved in Christian lore that makes it hard to find a person, even an atheist, who doesn’t associate her name with the world’s oldest profession. Some writers have gone to great pains to illustrate that in each age Magdalene has been remade to suit the era’s religious-mythic needs.
Another example, and one that’s jumped out at me recently as I am once again reading James Morrow‘s Towing Jehovah: the idea of God that exists in modern Christianity. That is, in Western, specifically North American and European, Christianity. God is omnipotent, omniscient, omnipresent. God is outside of time. God is immortal. God is the Creator.
Now, I won’t criticize the person who believes in a God. But why that God should conform to the specifications of a Church, or any group of people, and how any given group of people could actually manage to speak authoritatively about the nature of such a being, is overwhelmingly questionable to me. Sure, not everyone believes that God is an old man with a white beard in flowing spotless white robes… that old strawman might be good for satire, but it’s not how most people over the age of ten understand their God.
But even given a God, why should all the other beliefs that have been posited around—and stapled onto—that central idea be even probable, let alone the cold hard facts of reality. Why would there necessarily be such things as souls, as afterlives? What if we were “Created” for one trip through physical existence, a thing of fleeting beauty which is nonetheless crucial and beautiful and good? Or why should there not be reincarnation, if we’re in the market for an afterlife? (I know, traditionally in Eastern religions reincarnation was a cycle of sorrow that people wished to escape, but it could be that the greater cycle tended towards harmony and joy in life, rather than suffering and pain—and it could be that moving the world toward joy instead of pain is the whole of our purpose here.
In the other book I am reading now, Faces of Korea, there are two interviews with foreigners almost side by side. One is of a Nigerian man who was smuggled into Korea illegally, by Korean embassy officials in Nigeria as well as Nigerian human traffickers. He had a horrifying experience here, including being in police custody for about five months. He was beaten, filmed in ways that remind me a lot of the photography at Abu Ghraib, and for what? He was never officially charged with a crime, and he was picked up because a Filipina waitress assaulted him with a broken liquor bottle.
And then, there is the report of a Mormon “missionary” from Salt Lake City who is living in Seoul. As he goes on and on about the importance of his mission, of doing community service and recruiting several generations of Koreans as rapidly as possible into his religion—a faith based in part on the fantasy of Israelites moving to America “at about 600 AD”, as he mentions—I felt a rising, unshakeable feeling that this man was not really in touch with the very part of Korea that he ought to be involved with. Why is this man not visiting the prisons as a chaplain? Why is he not helping the poor, the downtrodden, the prisoners who are chained to ceiling pipes and videotaped naked? Perhaps it is difficult for a foreigner to get access to prisons, of course. But I suspect the real reason is because it is far more important to recruit, recruit, recruit. Missionaries are the sorts of people whom Thoreau said make him want to go running for the hills: they’re the people who want to “help” you.
But sadly, the help they offer is simply to tell you the world is this way until you are worn down and allow yourself to accept their worldview, whole cloth. You must believe in this or that book, in this or that collection of folkstories that go with the book and the community. Oh, and by the way there’s a lifestyle that goes with it. And if you’re really interested, I guess there’s some, you know, debate and questioning and, uh, actual thought going on over there, but don’t bother with that stuff, it’s not very important. And, uh, by the way, things that are proscribed this season include gay marriage and, uh, well, let me check the newspapers, okay? Oh, and abortion, abortion’s always in style. Okay, lemme get the newspaper. Read this nice book with the angels on it while you wait.
Dawkins, though he is a little more scathing than me, is on the right track when he writes,
Out of all of the sects in the world, we notice an uncanny coincidence: the overwhelming majority just happen to choose the one that their parents belong to. Not the sect that has the best evidence in its favour, the best miracles, the best moral code, the best cathedral, the best stained glass, the best music: when it comes to choosing from the smorgasbord of available religions, their potential virtues seem to count for nothing, compared to the matter of heredity. This is an unmistakable fact; nobody could seriously deny it. Yet people with full knowledge of the arbitrary nature of this heredity, somehow manage to go on believing in their religion, often with such fanaticism that they are prepared to murder people who follow a different one.
Not even Korea, with its massive turning to Christianity in the last century, is evidence against this, though it does suggest that in times of turmoil, people tend not to abandon religion for atheism, but rather to abandon one religion to adopt another. The fact that the newly adopted religion is remade in the recipient culture is not evidence against heredity, either. Heredity of religion picks up and continues on its way once the turmoil settles down enough.
So a generation later, or often enough even less, people say, “I don’t believe in gay rights and all that stuff.” Even if it contradicts the same freedoms they cherish for themselves—the religious freedoms that allow them to practice their own faiths, no matter how bigoted, are the ones that protect the free world from the rule of theocrats and moralizing theofascists—they hold to their positions. They go to great lengths to construct arguments for what they believe: they’ll call you a communist, they’ll talk for hours about a gay plot against the institution of straight marriage, they’ll tell you that they’d never allow a homosexual to teach their children.
They’ll say all the same things about gays that racists said about blacks, Asians, Irish, or even just foreigners in general thirty or forty years ago. It’s sad to see how very simple bigotry is, how very easy the form replicates itself even when the content changes. Gays are plotting against straight marriage. Blacks steal white women at night and rape them. Jews poison the wells and spread the plagues wherever they go. If you think about it carefully, the way in which these three statements are function in terms of reversals of reality, in denial of facts, and exaggeration to the point of ridiculousness, renders them almost the same kind of statement.
To which I can only respond with a question—which I unfortunately didn’t get a chance to brandish today during a discussion of the subject, but which I’ll toss out next time the subject comes up, and that is this:
Do you actually believe that human nature is as malleable as all of that?
I can never get over the way some men think their sons’ minds will be polluted by exposure to homosexuals, or even the idea of homosexuality being acceptable. This is, after all, an incredibly small minority of people worldwide. They’re endemic to the human population, suggesting that their behaviour is genetic in basis—which suggests it’s not cultural, not the kind of thing that could be transmitted in the ways that people who are “against gay rights” seem to fear—and what’s more, I can testify in my own experience that I’ve never had an urge to commit any kind of act that could be termed homosexual. I’ve never been attracted to a man, never in any of my memories, and I am very suspicious of anyone who thinks that I might have been radically different if I’d had a gay teacher in fifth grade. Either many more men are latently gay and in severe denial of their real urges, or else they have pathetically simplistic understandings of how inculturation interacts with human instinct and specifically sexual instinct.
I asked, “If you wouldn’t have a gay teacher for your child, would you have a leather queen for your child? Would you even know? Do you even have the right to know if your kid’s teacher is a leather queen? And if she is, does it matter if it never comes up in the classroom? And if it comes up in the classroom and she says nothing except that all humans who do not harm one another are worthy of basic human respect and human rights, is that a problem? And if so, why?” I stated a couple of times that democracy and theocracy are incompatible.
But you see, it’s impossible to get anywhere when you’re fighting faith. Faith in some things can be good, but often people use faith in X as an excuse to have faith in Y and Z, faith in ridiculous and bigoted positions, positions that are fueled by fear but which are defended by the shield of faith.
It’s sad, it’s pathetic, this bigotry that so many humans base their thinking on. It makes me wonder why some people show it, and others don’t. I know foreigners in Korea who use the word “The Koreans” a lot, as if Koreans are anything like as homogenous as their schoolroom propaganda (falsely) suggests. I know Koreans who think of foreigners the same way. But why is it that some of us don’t? Why is it that some of us are able to think in terms less coarse-grained than that?
Coarse-grained, by the way, is a term I’m borrowing from the physicist Richard Feynman, if I recall correctly. He said that the reason the world looks like classical mechanics though in fact it’s operating by the rules of quantum mechanics is because, well, we normally don’t look close enough to see the weirdness of the quantum stuff. We evolved, as I think the evolutionist Dawkins once said, with the physiological and psychological equipment to be able to hunt deer on the African savannah, not the equipment necessary to witness and natively comprehend quantum superpositions. All this is to say that simplifying things is built into human perception from the very get-go; it’s been demonstrated to be part of how we process visual information, and sound, as well.
I suspect probably somewhere far back in our existence, we kind of developed a tendency to simplify schema of the world, and by this I mean not just our physics but our social formulas, our schema of how people work as autonomous agents and as groups of collective agency. This tendency is universal, and strong human tendencies usually have roots in genetics. But of course, individuals have a choice whether or not to follow through on the instinct or question it, just as men have the choice whether to mate with as many females as possible, regardless of evolutionarily programmed instincts. We all have the urge to simplify at times: look how often men say, “Ah, women are crazy!” or women say, “Men are such pigs!” Kids and parents generalze about one another all the time too. In fact, any group of humans who are forced by circumstance or love to interact for long periods of time at least sometimes generalize about the behaviour of identifiable others. Boys vs. girls, adults vs. kids.
And so within our cultures, we learn who it is acceptable to hate, and who it is not acceptable to hate. Watching episodes of the TV series The Sopranos recently, I was struck by how acceptable it was for Italians over, say, fifty to express hatred for “The Jews” and their supposed conspiracies for control of America. Watching American drama set in times before, say, the fifties, it always hits me hard how nonchalant people were about hating and demonizing black people, as if all their excuses for doing so were self-evident and obviously unquestionable, as natural as the trees and air we breathe and water running down in the river.
Sometimes, I think, this is what it is to be a science fiction writer, though. Maybe it’s the job of all writers, actually: to look up from the mud and slop that humanity is fighting its way through and say, hey, wait, this mud and slop looks a lot like that other mud and slop, but you know, I can point out a few of the similarities and the rest of us can work on fixing those blind spots. A good writer, I think, isn’t someone who is always free of the bigotries of his or her age, but it is someone who can at least see some of them clearly as the pathetic same-as-last-generation crap, recycled with a new target in the crosshairs.
And sometimes I think being a science fiction writer in this age is like being an aspiring engineering student living in a trailer outside the big city, with not enough money to go into even the slums and suburbs. The future is that city, and it’s full of all kinds of sights we will never see, wonders none of us are smart enough to predict. Now matter how powerful they are, our ideas about the future, about what stories make sense, are all as believable as anything Jules Verne wrote, which despite a few prescient ideas are not all that believable anymore at this present juncture. SF is all about now, too, I find, all about us and our present, and in a way it’s fancied-up fantasy, guilty fantasy that tells us its for grown-ups because the make-believe follows a certain set of rules.
Doesn’t every form of make-believe follow rules? Bigotry, stories of the afterlife, the way we imagine that all women or all men are crazy… all the things we tell ourselves follow fundamental rules that are part of us because of what we are: souped-up apes with some kind of hyperdeveloped brains stuffed full of ideas about how everything in the universe, including souped-up apes with some kind of hyperdeveloped brains stuffed full of ideas, works.