Social justice and storytelling

Don’t get me wrong, I prefer not to have sexist or racist tropes in my stories, it’s just that from a creative standpoint, my primary objection is to tropes themselves; they should be subverted, satirized or better yet, avoided altogether. Tropes, racist, sexist, ableist, homophobic or not, are creative minefields.

For this reason, representation in-front of the camera, or in-character, is important to me creatively, not primarily for social justice reasons, but because it makes the story more real. The umpteenth visit to “The Planet of The White People” should become tiresome for anyone, left-wing or otherwise.

But I don’t see story telling as an exercise that should be undertaken by committee. What this means is that consultation has it’s limits; yes, a white writer can for example go into various Asian communities to ask questions (and should seriously consider paying consultation fees – there’s no reason why this information should just be free), but this doesn’t automatically make members of those communities part of the writing team; they may get a credit, but unless specifically hand-picked for the task from the beginning, they don’t just get editorial authority.

Creative integrity excludes like that.

From a social justice perspective though, there is an obvious if difficult workaround: representation at the writing/production level. Publishers can seek out members of a community or social group to write about that community or social group. Universities can review their admissions policies to check for institutionalized biases that arbitrarily exclude various social groups. Hollywood could be more thoughtful about which producers it supports, and be more pro-active about inclusion at that level. And people who care can campaign for these things.

I think it’s a little conspicuous though, that given how much attention has been given to representation of minorities in casting decisions, just how little the staffing of direction, production and writing positions have been similarly considered. A hundred and one hot-takes, with most focused on the limelight when their stated problems run a lot deeper, speaks of a culture pathologically attracted to celebrity.

The cogs and wheels behind the edifice may not be as glamourous, but they’re no less fundamental to increasing representation. Any cultural obsession that obscures that fact can reasonably be considered a political obstacle for anyone seeking progress.

Social justice is a consideration for some, creatively. But so is creative independence. There is a limit to what critique by third parties can contribute, and social justice doesn’t magically extend these limits. Unless you’re living in a totalitarian state, neither does any other political imperative.

From the misogynist nerds who think they own Rick and Morty, to woke-acting narcissists who think they get to provide directorial input on Doctor Who via social media, to any number of vain social media didacts who just can’t butt out, there’s no shortage of jerks online who’ll co-opt any political cause – left or right – if they think it’ll enable them to insinuate themselves into someone else’s creative process. A little bit of professional courtesy wouldn’t go astray here.

I could probably think of a thing or two about Cleverman that I’m not 100% behind, and I could probably go on to offer a critique. But there’s a huge leap between that and going on to pontificate about what Ryan Griffen needs to do with his work, as if he were obliged to listen to me in the first place. Well he’s not obliged, so I’ll not bother. Obviously white fellas are pretty apt to shoehorn their way into other people’s expression because on balance we’re raised with an implicit, unrealistic sense of our own importance. But as a general rule, ideally nobody should be doing any shoehorning.

I don’t see this being any different if the creator in question just happens to be conservative, either.

Perhaps if something was so far-right that it literally incited political violence, there’d be a Millian corn-seller argument there to stop the expression in its tracks – but that’s an extreme that goes well beyond mere critique. Similarly, if a particularly right-wing text defamed, there could be ethical and legal grounds for a demand of cease-and-desist and possibly compensation. Again though, that kind of injunction goes well beyond the realm of critique.

Litigation and indictment aren’t creative or analytic tools. (They’re not necessarily ethical all the time either).

Short of these kinds of injunctions, critics have very limited entitlements. They can critique. They can boycott. They can sulk. They can devise their own creative visions and attempt to build upon them. Ideally such creative visions can get a fair hearing, although often they don’t. The arts world can be rough, and is rarely ever fair.

But critics can’t just magically front-up via viral media and magically expect to be made a de facto part of an existing production or editorial team. And any critique undertaken with that sense of entitlement is bound to be self-indulgently bad. Any creative process that caves in to this kind of entitlement is likely to break – its reason for being being necessarily watered-down.

Maybe any given work of art, free of intrusion, will still turn out to be garbage. No political persuasion has ever been substantially represented without multiple failures occurring, and there’s still a role for critique in documenting these failure after the fact. Entitled didacticism still isn’t going to make this any better though.

Want to critique Star Wars to make the franchise better? Tough. It’s not your franchise to make better. Someone else may find your critique useful though.

Progressive or not, good critique is primarily for the public interest. It’s not a means of grasping control for one’s self. Professional boundaries matter.

So where does that demarcation leave white, male, heterosexual, left-wing creators who do have a care about social justice, but also a regard for professional boundaries? Hopefully nowhere too self-pitying. Hopefully nowhere crying and moaning that a woman has won out. Hopefully somewhere getting used to seeing other ethnicities on occasion being promoted above and beyond them.

I have a sneaking suspicion that while straight male left-wing creators may or may not have had ample experience at getting used to the success of gay male creators, the prospect of successful lesbians may still cause resentment. This is pathetic if true.

Beyond these realizations, good faith, a respectful curiosity regarding humanity, and an aversion to group-membership tropes are to my mind, if not ideal or all-encompassing, sufficient. I certainly have no intention of ticking off every box on some officious blogger’s checklist-for-wokeness, and unless somehow brainwashed, I doubt I ever will.

There will always be conflict occurring between these concerns every now and then, and I think creators need to resign themselves to that fact. When given the chance, I probably will consult with others that I trust, in private, if it’s not an imposture upon them. And I will peruse critique on an ongoing basis.

Unsolicited edicts from self-appointed editors though? Nope. Not a part of the process.

~ Bruce