Random Post on God, Goodness, and Nature

So, here’s the deal: Tess is extremely busy this week and I forgot to send the schedule to everyone else (this has since been remedied) and I’m exhausted and have a hundred other things on my mind. So, while I apologize that this may not have anything to do with writing, today you will get some of the random things that have been on my mind today. First, Alayna had her first serious ‘I might be in labor’ moment today. She wasn’t, but the doctor did say that it will probably happen fairly soon. Also, in the Euthyphro Plato raises the question of whether the gods are good because they do what they know to be good, or whether good is good because the gods do it. While the question was originally phrased in this way by Plato, it has become one of the major questions in Christian moral theology: does God do what he knows to be ontologically good by some outside definition, or is what God does good because God does it? Four major positions have been presented as a response to this:

  1. God does what he knows to be good. In Euthyphro Plato argues that the gods do what is good because they know it to be good. In both this text and in The Republic Plato argues for a conception of the good as an ultimate form of reality that the gods know better than men because they have greater access to knowledge of it. Thus, the good is good ontologically speaking regardless of what the gods say or do and the gods are then beholden to follow this ontological definition of good if they are to be deemed good gods (though in The Laws Plato retreated from this view and argued that for the good to have a meaningful ontological existence it must be founded in a divine mind). Many Christian thinkers have adopted a similar idea, arguing that God does what is good ontologically speaking and that this good is good regardless of who does it or who does not do it. Thus, on this conception God could do evil and be judged for it, but he chooses not to. However, this seems to impose an outside restriction upon God. If God does not decide what is good then who does? Where did the good as an ontological reality come from if it did not come from God? Who has the power and authority to tell God what he must do to be considered good?
  2. Whatever God says or does is good because he is God. Several Christian thinkers have adopted a volitional idea of goodness. God is sovereign and has all authority and thus whatever he says or does is the definition of what is good. Thus, God’s word defines what is good for reality and for men simply because it is God’s word. This idea sufficiently accepts God as sovereign and argues that the world must simply submit to his will. However, it also seems to argue that God could declare anything to be good. Thus, if God suddenly decided that rape, theft, or the sacrifice of children in the worship of Moloch are good then they would actually and ontologically be good. This makes ‘good’ entirely subjective and arbitrary, which seems to reject the actual notion of an ontological reality. If the ‘real’ good can be arbitrarily changed then it is subjective, not objective or fundamentally real.
  3.  God’s nature defines the good and his word and will reflect this nature. Many Christian thinkers have argued for an understanding of the relationship between God and good that weaves a thread between the above two views. This argument goes that God’s ontological and unchanging nature defines what is good and evil: that which corresponds with God’s nature is thus good and that which does not correspond with God’s nature is evil. Thus, it cannot be argued that good is simply subjective or that it an be arbitrarily altered by God’s command. It is God’s nature, his essential and unchanging being, that defines what is good, not God’s word or action. However, this also defends a strong conception of God’s sovereignty: there is no outside ontological standard of goodness to which God is beholden and no one can be said to have imposed a standard of goodness upon God. It is God’s own nature that imposes the standard of goodness that his words and actions then reflect.
  4. However, this has led to a conception that God’s words and actions necessarily follow his nature: that is that God cannot do evil in the sense that he is ontologically incapable of doing evil. This seems to limit God’s omnipotence. While we may certainly argue that God has not, would not, and will not ever rape someone, it seems to limiting to say that God is ontologically incapable of rape. Proponents of this view have argued that it can fit within an understanding of omnipotence if we understand omnipotence as the ability to do anything that is within one’s nature to do, but this seems to be a deficient understanding of omnipotence. If, for instance, I am a perfect human that cannot fly or create stars I could, under this definition, be called omnipotent because I can do everything that it is within my nature to do. However, if a human can be omnipotent on his own then it seems to be of little value to say that God is omnipotent.
  5. A solution to this problem is a strong distinction between ontological capability and volitional capability. That is to say that it is correct to say that God cannot do evil. However, saying that God cannot do evil is not to say that God is ontologically incapable of doing evil, as if some greater power were restraining him, but to say that he is volitionally incapable of doing evil. God cannot do evil because he will not do anything that violates his own nature. This is something that cannot be said of humans: we violate our own nature on a regular basis. Even those who give a very loose definition or conception of human nature must accept that the average human experience existential and psychological crises because they violate that which they perceive to be their own nature. On a stronger definition of human nature it is necessary to accept that humans consistently violate those purposes for which they were created and thus violate their own nature. However, God does not violate his own nature, and thus because he is volitionally capable of perfectly living out his divine nature he is volitionally incapable of doing evil, which is that which is against his nature. Thus, God can do evil in an ontological sense (which provides a strong concept of omnipotence), but he perfectly refuses to do evil in a volitional sense (which provides a strong conception of his omnibenevolence that protects his sovereignty).

Just a few thoughts that have been bouncing around in my head for the past couple of days. I hope that you enjoy them and that, in some way, they benefit your writing.

Philosophical Story Challenge of the Week

So, Alayna is an absolutely amazing wife. For a combined Father’s day/Anniversary present she got me a pre-order of the new game Total War: Warhammer (which comes out on the 24th). This is a game that I (and a lot of other people) have been waiting for someone, anyone, to make for around fifteen years. I still play a few video games, but I don’t generally play that many (I don’t have time to play that many…). I actually still haven’t gotten around to finishing Pillars of Eternity (though it is an awesome game). However, like I said, this is a game that I’ve been waiting for fifteen years to see someone make. I’m a little bit excited about it. Anyway, on a completely different note, something that I’ve been thinking about lately is American Christian attitudes towards money (on the individual level) and economics (on the societal level). I often see attitudes in the Christian church that do little to reflect the actual teachings of scripture. In general, these attitudes tend to follow the two common secular attitudes towards general economics: Capitalist Christians and Socialist Christians. Now, I should point out first that when I speak of Capitalism I mean primarily the economic structures that you see in America, not the economic structures that you find in Columbia or Niger. Similarly, when I speak of Socialism I mean primarily the economic structures that you see in Austria, Germany, or Canada, not the economic structures that we saw in Society Russia or Maoist China. A good argument can be made that extreme Communism is a form of Socialism. However, a good argument can also be made that the oppressive ‘free’ markets of South America and Central Africa are a form of Capitalism. So, for a good comparison conservative Capitalism and Socialism should be compared to one another and extreme Capitalism and Socialism should be compared to one another: that is that Soviet Russia should be compared to Columbia and Canada should be compared to the US.

That being said, I don’t honestly think that either Capitalism or Socialism effectively presents a biblical attitude towards economics. It is true that Adam Smith’s original theory (Capitalism) did make some use of the Christian concept of providence in the ‘Invisible Hand’ of the market. However, even in his original theory this comes across more as a statement that ‘God is in control so we don’t need that many rules’ (and in laissez-faire capitalism this tends to turn into ‘we don’t need any rules’). However, this seems to be a muted and generally empty conception of Providence, which must be combined with Sovereignty to have any meaningful content. Christian versions of Capitalist theory generally faik to acknowledge that the world is the Lord’s and all that is in it, but attempts to rely on the idea that God guides the unknowable forces of the free market. Instead of actually living in a world that is seen as meaningfully God’s, with all of the responsibilities (social and theological) that come with that understanding, it tends to adopt a Capitalist assumption that economic growth is essentially good (that is in Aristotelian terms that goodness is a necessary component of economic growth such that if it is not good it cannot be called economic growth, this would be opposed to an accidental and contingent goodness of economic growth which accepts that economic growth is good when it stems from good motives and is used for good ends). In extreme forms of Capitalism this assumption is used to justify over oppression and subjugation of vulnerable people groups. However, even in less extreme forms of Capitalism the assumption is present and generally leads to the rejection of regulations that are necessary to effectively guide the market according to God’s principles. For instance, consider the economic laws of the Old Testament such as the Sabbatical Years or the Year of Jubilee, the requirements against the charging of interest, etc. These laws existed to ensure that the economic growth of the nation of Israel protected and provided for even the weakest among them. The economic oppression and subjugation of the weak members of Jewish society was not acceptable under the Old Testament law, and throughout the Prophets this very economic oppression and subjugation is one of their primary condemnations of Israel.

However, on the other hand, Socialist theories tend to attempt to take regulation into the hands of man. They tend to reject the concept of the invisible hand of the market and the concept of providence that goes with it. However, this equally rejects the sovereignty of God. Scripture absolutely supported the equitable provision of opportunities, and this is consistently seen in the Law through the emphasis that the land could not be permanently bought or sold. Every Israelite family had the opportunity to develop their own land and thus prosper economically. However, scripture no where supports the intentional redivision of resources in order to provide equal income. What the Israelites did with their land was on them. Those who cared for their land well and prospered tended to have more and those who neglected their land fell into debt and sometimes had to sell themselves into indentured servitude (I use this term because it more accurately described the strictures of the law than ‘slavery,’ which has specific connotations in America that do not reflect the Mosaic Law). However, even in these cases their masters were to treat them well, and every fifty years slaves were freed and their original land was returned so that the family could start over. So, the idea that a universal $15 minimum wage is a moral necessity simply doesn’t see biblical support, nor does the excessive taxation of the wealthy in order to provide welfare services to those who could work, but don’t. However, the taxation of those who can and do work in order to provide for those who legitimately can’t (i.e. the seriously handicapped or very vulnerable) absolutely sees biblical support. As does the argument that the government has a responsibility to care for the poor (in fact, in the Old Testament it is most commonly the King, Judge, or Ruler who is expected to enforce the laws that provide for the legitimately poor, and it is the wealthy who are expected to leave some of their income in order to supply this provision).

Ultimately, Christian Capitalists tend to fall into the trap of ignoring the impact of greed upon the economic structures of the nation while Christian Socialists tend to fall into the trap of ignoring the impact laziness upon the economic structures of the nation. This is very general and the issue is significantly more complicated, but this seems to be an apt, if very general, description. So, here is my question for you: is there a third option? Some Confucian scholars have pointed to several area in the Far East (specifically Singapore and Japan) that are in the process of developing ‘Communitarian Capitalism,’ which stands starkly against the individualistic and often greed-focused liberalism of Laissez-Faire Capitalism, but stands equally against the thoroughly State-Led nature of Socialism and accepts the general idea of a free market that is, to some degree, self-directing. However, this is effectively experimental and, for Christians, likely falls into some of the same traps as I outlined above. If there is a third option, what significant underlying assumptions would it be founded upon?

As always, write me a story of 1000+ words that gives your take on the issue.

Philosophical Story Challenge of the Week

So, Fyodor Dostoyevsky argued that if there is no God then anything is permissible. Philosophers such as Friedrich Nietszche and Jean-Paul Sartre generally agree with his general premise, though, unlike Dostoyevsky (who concluded from this that there must be a God), they thus conclude that anything is permissible if one believes that it is right or necessary. However, other thinkers, such as Aristotle, argued that there is a moral reality to which man is beholden, regardless of whether any god exists, and some have argued that any god or gods are also beholden to this moral reality. David Hume argued that moral principles could not be drawn from observations of the natural world (i.e. an ought cannot be drawn from an is–also known as the is/ought problem or the naturalistic fallacy), but also concluded that while morality is thus subjective, it can still be universal because all men are driven by the same subjective passions–even if they do resist or bury them.

So, I’ve had you all write on the idea of moral realism, both theistic and philosophical, before. However, in today’s challenge I want you to imagine that Nietszche and Sartre are correct. There is no God, and because there is no God absolutely anything is (at least potentially) permissible. What would such a world look like? Why?

As always, answer the challenge in a story of 1000 words.

Philosophical Story Challenge of the Week

So, Alayna and I saw Captain America: Civil War today, and I have to say that I was very impressed with the way the movie was handled. There was, of course, a suitable amount of action: car chases, fights, buildings being destroyed, etc. However, there was a well-developed plot that, while not exactly the story from the Marvel Civil War comic series, dealt with a number of the same major issues very well. In classical Greek tragedy the focal point of conflict it the collision of two equally real but mutually exclusive goods which inevitably ends in the destruction of one or both. This theme was a major part of the comic series and is a major part of the movie. Most everyone in the movie is actually trying to do the right thing, but they have radically different understandings of what the right thing actually is, and the film paints this extremely well. One of the deeper ethical issues that they handle with a good amount of tact and fairness is the issue of the relationship between volition, culpability, and responsibility. Let us assume that there is a murderer who is not in control of his actions: perhaps the individual is mentally deranged, brainwashed, in the midst of a night terror, etc. This individual kills several people, but does not actually choose to take any of the actions leading up to or including these killings. In the absence of volition but the presence of real suffering is the individual culpable for this suffering? Does he bear full guilt for the actions that were not in his control? Is he responsible in some way, but not in a way that implies legal or moral culpability and thus guilt? Is he freed of any and all responsibility because the actions were not his to meaningfully choose or reject? This is my challenge for you today.

As always, write a one thousand word story that presents your answer to the question. Also, watch the movie to see what their answer to the question was :).

Philosophical Story Challenge of the Week

Okay, I’m sorry that this post is late (again). It’s been an absolutely exhausting month. So, recently a group of students (according to some reports associated with the Black Lives Matter Movement) at Ohio State staged a protest at Bricker Hall. The students sang and chanted, reportedly ‘rushed’ the doors (though claims are conflicted), and several employees working in the building reportedly felt threatened by the protest. Lastly, the group refused to leave when the building closed at 5:30, and this act prompted this confrontation. The protest itself was demanding greater transparency from the university concerning the allocation of funds in the budget. I’m honestly not entirely sure why the students wanted this information or why they felt the need to protest about it. However, my interest here isn’t actually in the intention of the protest itself.

If you watch the video above you will note that the administrators warn the students that if they do not vacate the building the police will be called and students still in the building after 5:30 will be subject to both arrest and expulsion. However, the phrasing here is important. One administrator claims that students will be ‘given the privilege of being arrested for their beliefs’. When I watched the video, and the student’s reactions to the warning, I was struck by this phrasing. 1 Peter 3:14 (NASB) tells us that “even if you should suffer for the sake of righteousness, you are blessed.” Further, many throughout history have seen it as an honor to suffer and die for beliefs to which they strongly held.

So, this is my question for you today: is it a privilege to suffer for strongly held beliefs? Or is it a burden that should be avoided? Something in between?

Philosophy Challenge of the Week

One of the questions that is often brought up in discussions of legal natural law theories (i.e. the idea that law is an purposive power that should guide people to better themselves by rewarding those actions that are morally good and punishing those actions that are morally wicked) and legal positivist theories (i.e. the idea that law is a practical entity that can be good or bad in nature an it may reward or punish anything a culture chooses) is the question of whether a government can be trusted to train its citizens in morality. The argument can be seen in this way:

  1. A claim is made that the law should train citizens in morality by rewarding morally good actions and punishing morally bad actions.
  2. A counter-claim is made that a bad government could then make bad laws that would train people to be immoral, and thus it is better to pass laws in a morally neutral way that protect the liberties of all from gross violation.
  3. Proponent A (of Natural Law) makes the argument that a libertine idea of freedom (i.e. freedom means doing whatever you want) actually encourages immorality because people are likely to follow the easiest path to a goal (moral or immoral) unless taught to do otherwise.
  4. Proponent B argues that it is up to parents to train their children in the moral beliefs that they hold, not up to the government to determine moral beliefs for a nation.
  5. Proponent A then argues that this will result in a nation with many moral disagreements, which strikes at the basic fabric that holds any society together and makes the nation itself inherently unstable.
  6. Proponent B argues that a morally pluralistic nation can work if a no-harm principle (similar to John Mill’s–that one may act as one pleases unless this action directly harms another) is in place.
  7. Proponent A points out that an individual can be harmed by indirect action. For instance, if my children are taught in school to embrace moral beliefs that I am convinced are actually immoral (i.e. such as the idea that gay marriage should be either embraced or condemned–each view held to be immoral by certain parties) then I have been harmed. Thus, a society that seeks to be pluralistic in a libertine fashion is not actually pluralistic unless it openly embraces indirect harm to everyone in the society.
  8. Proponent B then introduces an expanded no-harm principle that considers indirect harm as well as direct harm (similar to John Rawl’s ‘original position’ in A Theory of Justice which proposes that justice can only be known from an entirely unbiased position that assumes [or pretends] that the individual making the laws is not yet a part of society and could end up being any part of society [i.e. a fundamentalist Christian, Ecological activist, Homosexual, Abortion Doctor, Rapist, Congressman, etc.]),
  9. Proponent A points out that such an unbiased position is likely no more than a figment of our collective imagination because it is impossible to entirely know or put aside one’s personal biases.
  10. Proponent B disagrees and argues that the scientific method involves doing exactly that.
  11. Proponent A points out that scientists never put aside all of their biases (for instance, they are biased towards the position that the scientific method is valid and their senses are generally trustworthy), and that some scientists rarely put aside any of their biases.
  12. Proponent B disagrees again, pointing to the great progress that scientific work has achieved and arguing that a belief in the scientific method is based on clear reasoning and thus not a bias.
  13. Proponent A points out that the belief that human reason is valid is, in and of itself, a bias.

I’m sure that you can work out how the rest of this goes. It generally gets less complicated rather than more complicated from this point forward and an agreement is rarely achieved. So, this is my challenge to you today: I want you to respond to this debate. You don’t need to take one side over the other, though you can if you want. In fact, your response can be an attempt to show that the entire debate is ridiculous. However, you should respond to the debate.

As always, your response should be in the form of a 1000 word work of flash fiction. Enjoy!

Philosophical Story Challenge of the Week

Well, we got the Rosetta Stone for Mandarin Chinese (levels 1-5) today and I started into that. The adventure of learning Chinese has begun. Given the conversations I’ve had I think I should be able to substitute Chinese as a research language for my Ph.D. program, which is going to involve taking classes at a university somewhere, but I figure that Rosetta stone is a good place to start… that and the books that I already have :). I also think, given the debates that I’ve seen and the very, very public open-ended internet brawl between the top candidates, that we might be in the process of watching the Republican party tear itself apart. At the moment there seem to be three major wings of the party: 1) the political and economic conservatives–embodied by the mainstream party and its candidates who seek to compromise where possible with democrats; 2) the extreme conservatives–embodied by the Tea Party and outsider candidates like Ted Cruz who seek to institute specific social, political, and economic policies and often go to extreme measures to do so; 3) the homespun political conservative–embodied by the supporters of Donald Trump who see someone to blame for their problems and are buoyed by the flamboyancy, ferocity, and crass honesty of their candidate.

Polls thus far have shown that white collar moderate religious and non-religious Republicans tend to favor the mainstream party to some degree, though they will not always support all mainstream candidates, but they seem to be quickly losing ground to the other two groups. I will argue that Marco Rubio was the candidate of this group, and we’ve seen how he did and why he is no longer in the running. White collar extreme religious and libertarian Republicans tend to favor the more intelligent, but hard-nosed section of the party and Ted Cruz is clearly their candidate. Blue collar Republicans tend to favor the more flamboyant and crass candidates like Donald Trump, and they are thus far the majority of the party currently represented in the voting. I’m curious to see where this goes, but I would not be entirely surprised in the next eight or twelve years to see the Republican party break down as these groups become more frustrated with one another. This is your challenge today. It’s a little bit political philosophy, and little bit sociology, and a little bit prophecy. Do you think the party will stay together or break apart? If so, when? Why and what might the split look like?

As always, write me a story of 1000 words that presents your position.

Fifty Shades of Trump

Fifty ShadesHonestly, I had a plan for this week. I really did… for the life of me I can’t remember what it was. I’ll get back to my series on Theology and Fiction soon, but this is something that has been bubbling in the back of my mind for quite some time. America is on a downward spiral, and honestly I think that we are nearly the end of that spiral. In fact, I think that the popularity of E.L. James’ novel Fifty Shades of Grey and the popularity of Donald Trump’s presidential campaign prove that we are nearly the end of that spiral. These two things have something very important in common.

A few years ago I wrote a review of Fifty Shades of Grey. I was not a fan. I actually stopped reading in depth and skimmed a significant portion of the novel because the writing was painful. Technically, the writing is grammatically challenged, inconsistent, and the present tense style (which is poorly done in the first place) is chosen specifically to make the sex scenes seem more explicit. Artistically, the story is cliched, the characters are flat and unengaging, the choices made are rarely realistic, and the setting overall is underused. Apologetically, the novel and the movie both have been condemned by the BDSM community for presenting a completely unrealistic portrayal of the BDSM lifestyle that is exceedingly lewd and violent. Morally, the novel reaches levels of graphic sexual violence normally reserved for the darkest corners of Erotica and internet Pornography. The book has no redeeming value of any kind, which leads one to wonder why it was so popular. The only reason that I can find is that it filled a desire for novelty and perversion.

nbc-fires-donald-trump-after-he-calls-mexicans-rapists-and-drug-runnersDonald Trump’s campaign does the same. If you actually listen to Trump’s speeches and his responses in debates he provides no depth. Politically, he makes wild claims (we’ll build a wall and make Mexico pay for it because they like me?), but offers no substantive plans for accomplishing those promises. He is also inconsistent in his message and appears to have has a political tectonic shift in the course of a couple of years. Rhetorically, he is a decent speaker in so far as he doesn’t stutter, stop mid-sentence and stare at the audience, or nervously chew on his lapels, but he is far from a great one. He commonly loses his point, interrupts himself, and uses diversion tactics to keep the audience from realizing that he has no idea what to say. Logically, he make no clear arguments, even in his attacks on other candidates. His entire campaign is built around the message ‘make America great again,’ but this is a message to which he gives no substance. Morally, he is prone to tantrums on stage. He is crass, crude, insulting, and has shown evidence of racism and sexism to fairly extreme degrees. He has been supported by White Supremacists, he has had multiple affairs, and he brags about them to no end. He boasts that he has never sinned and never needed forgiveness. By all appearances he seems to have no empathy, concern, or compassion for anyone but himself, and his ‘strength’ and ‘toughness’ sound a lot like a bullies braggadocio. Further, the best that his proponents can say in his defense on these issues is ‘Well, he’s not really like that,’ which implies that he is a hypocrite who is flatly lying to the American populace about his entire personality, which should lead us to wonder what else he’s lying about. So, why is the Donald Trump campaign so popular? Again, the only reason that I can find is that it fills a desire for novelty and perversion.

In fact, some scholars have argued that modern America has reached a level of excess not seen since ancient Rome, and the fact that the majority of the American populace seems to be moved solely by what titillates the darkest parts of their fantasies and introduces them to new levels of moral depravity should be profoundly frightening. It should move us to ask what is wrong with our country that it has come to this place, and it should move us to question the fundamental validity of the American philosophy and the American dream. Perhaps this questioning will return us to what the American dream was originally meant to be. Perhaps it will force us to admit that the foundations of our nation were flawed, and that our most basic assumptions are in need of a renovation. Either way, it should cause us to question.

Philosophical Challenge Post of the Week

KasichEvery now and then I get a class that is just frustrating (I teach university classes by the way). Most of my classes are good. There are always a few students who are frustrating, arrogant, or just don’t get it, but by and large classes are filled with students who actually want to learn and have some capacity to do so. However, there are those rare classes where the highest grade in the class is a 76 and the average grade is a 52. For some students this is because they’re just too lazy to try. For some it’s because they actually are in over their heads and can’t tell up from down–its like I’m speaking to them in Greek, even when I’m not. For some it’s because their lives have just gone completely haywire and they just can handle work that would normally be challenging, but doable. These classes drive me crazy. I find myself frustrated, and generally struggling with a desire to just fail the entire class outright and not even look at the rest of their assignments. I don’t do this, of course, but sometimes the struggle is real. So, what does this have to do with philosophy or writing? Well, I have a question for you: when should we do something that seems pointless? We’re not talking about a ‘choose the lesser of two evils’ decision, but instead a decision that just seems to have no purpose whatsoever. Teaching a class of students that you know will fail. Picking a fight you know you can’t win. Staying in a race in which you can win last place (at best)–John Kasich is a good example at the moment. When do the pointless things actually have a point, and how can we tell?

Here are a few ethical perspectives to prime you’re pump. Consequentialist reasoning (i.e. utilitarianism, ethical egoism, pragmatism, etc) says you don’t. If there’s no point in doing something then you shouldn’t waste the time and effort to do it. If everyone is going to fail, then don’t teach the class. If you can’t win the fight, then give up. If you’ll finish last, then quit.

However, deontological reasoning (i.e. kantianism, divine command theory, etc) argues that you should do your duty, regardless of the outcome. You teach the class because it’s you’re job. You pick the fight because your cause is just. You stay in the race because its your duty to finish.

A third perspectives comes from character reasoning (i.e. aristotelianism, humeanism, etc), and this argues that you should do what leads you to becoming a better person. You teach the class because you are a teacher, and you aren’t the kind of teacher who gives up on students. You pick the fight because you’re the kind of person who stands up for the little guy, even against Goliath. You stay in the race because you’re not a quitter. However, in each of these there is a limit. You don’t give up on students, but you also keep encouraging them to be better students. You stand up for the little guy, but you ask for help from a bunch of other little guys also. You stay in the race, but you pace yourself instead of killing yourself.

So, this is your question: when do pointless things actually have a point and how can we tell? As always, write me a story of 1000 words that presents your response to the question.

How to avoid cultural appropriation when writing historically-influenced fantasy stories

Hello, internet. I have another slightly philosophical post for you today.

Following up from my last post, I’m trying to force myself back into the habit of writing a solid 500 words every day. I currently have two book concepts in the forefront of my mind, and I’m trying to work on both of at the same time. I might have to drop down to one if juggling two books proves to be too much of a hassle, but at the moment I’m enjoying the freedom of being able to hop between worlds, or to focus exclusively on one project for a while if I’m having trouble with the other. It also means that I can’t use the excuse of ‘book problems’ to slack off from writing.

One of the projects that I’m working on is a continuation of the story that I shared with you last month, set in a fantasy world that shares a lot of parallels with 19th century Europe. I’m essentially taking the Crimean War (the original one in the 1850s, not the more recent Crimean conflict) and adapting it into fantasy, with fantasy analogues for most of the belligerent factions and major events of the war.  This is a fun concept and I’ve been enjoying the process of fleshing it out into a complete story. But a while ago I started to wonder if there were some awkward problems with the initial concept.

My story features a large empire which resembles an industrialised, centralised version of Sauron’s empire from the Tolkien legendarium. In the events of the story, this empire plays the same role that the Russian Empire played in the Crimean War. Due to events that occurred before the start of the narrative, the orc empire is at war with an alliance of other nations who have landed an invasion force on the empire’s shores and laid siege to an ancient city. These events are intentionally similar to the 1854-55 Siege of Sevastopol, and the allied forces are fairly transparent fantasy analogues of Britain and France. But I’m concerned that my story might have unintentional racial undertones if the Russian Empire is ‘replaced’ by orcs, whilst the British remain mostly human. I’m not trying to use my story as a piece of anti-Russian political commentary and I’d hate for any Russian readers to think that I was comparing them to orcs, at least in the common cultural understanding of what an ‘orc’ is like.

Orc
Boo

My own depiction of orcs is quite sympathetic, but that’s the sort of nuance that might not make much of a difference to someone who’s angry with me for appropriating Russian history.

Other writers tell me that I worry too much about this sort of thing, but I think it’s very important for authors to consider that their work can have unintended cultural aftershocks. Even if I’m only intending to write a harmless swashbuckling fantasy novel, it still has the potential to cause offence, and that’s not something that I want to do. Some people roll their eyes at ‘political correctness’, but for me being PC just means ‘wanting to upset the smallest number of people that I possibly can’, and I don’t want to belittle or dismiss things that are hurtful to other groups of people. I’ve read enough to know that turning someone’s culture or history into a piece of set dressing in a fantasy novel can be very hurtful. Just today, JK Rowling has come under fire for appropriating the “living tradition of a marginalised people” by writing about the Navajo legend of the skinwalker in a new short story. You only have to look at the responses from Navajo Americans to see why they are upset, and why this isn’t something that Rowling should have done. Navajo writer Brian Young wrote “My ancestors didn’t survive colonisation so you could use our culture as a convenient prop.”  The people of Russia aren’t a marginalised people who survived colonisation, but the same principal applies. I’m taking part of Russian history – a war in which many Russians lost their lives – and using it as the inspiration for a fictional war in which their sacrifices will be attributed to inhuman fantasy creatures.

Fortunately, there’s a lot that writers in my situation can do to make their writing more culturally sensitive. The most obvious way is to avoid homogeneous depictions of any factions or races within my fantasy world. A lot of fantasy writing doesn’t do this very well, and it’s hardly surprising, when we’re all just following the example set by J.R.R. Tolkein. Tolkein’s orcs and goblins are uniformly nasty, brutish, savage, and deformed. His humans are mostly noble warriors, with a few odious exceptions. His elves are mostly wise and fair. His dwarves are mostly avaricious and argumentative. This obviously isn’t very representative of reality: “racial attributes” are the stuff of tabletop roleplaying, not real life or nuanced fiction. I’m going to do my best to present orcs as nuanced characters rather than savages. I’m planning to present many of our own cultural stereotypes about orcs to be racist misconceptions. When we think of ‘orc’ we think of the caricatures from the Peter Jackson Lord of the Rings adaptations – slimy savages with foul habits and no morals, who are born out of holes in the ground. I’m going to present this image as propaganda. Ordinary soldiers in my story will believe these things about the orcs as well, the same way that soldiers always believe their enemies to be murderers and rapists who roast babies on spits, but these ordinary soldiers will find out that they’re wrong. One of the things I want to say with this story is that misconceptions and generalisations of other cultures can lead to unnecessary suffering, and I hope that message  is enough to make amends to any Russians who might be upset by my initial decision to replace them with orcs.

Another step that I can take to make things more realistic is to diversify all of the factions in my own story. Different factions in fantasy novels are often divided along racial lines – there’s not much overlap between different races and political entities – but this has never been the case in real world history. If the armies in my story are made up of human and orc soldiers, it would reinforce a lot of unhealthy colonial attitudes that still linger in our cultural subconscious, which I’ve talked about this before in a previous post. To combat this, I can make sure that each army has a varied racial makeup: the allied army has humans, but it also has dwarves, gnomes, half-giants, reptilians, or whatever other interesting fantasy races that I want to throw into the melting pot. The opposing army has orcs, but it also has humans. This doesn’t just increase the cultural sensitivity of my writing, it also makes both armies much more interesting, and much more realistic: a ragtag, multi-ethnic army with a diverse racial makeup is much more fun than an army made up entirely of orcs or humans.

 

I’m running out of space, but I hope I’ve made you think about how you can avoid cultural appropriation and racial homogeneity in your own writing. If you want to read more, there are lots of places that you can go online to educate yourself about the issues. Tumblr is a good place to start: blogs like Writing with Color are a great resource for finding out how to handle these concerns sensitively, and also a great place to go and remind yourself of exactly why authors should be so careful to avoid cultural appropriation: the team there are very eloquent at setting out the issues, and they are very quick to inform you if they think your story concepts contain anything problematic.

That’s all from me today, and I’ll see you on Sunday!