Article: We’re all the same deep down, or “it’s all a matter of degree”

(with thanks to Brian Dolton, for sparking this one off)

The above is something that I’ve often heard quoted when speaking of “writing the Other” [1]. And I’ve been struggling with it ever since I heard it; because it rings fishy to me. And yet there’s nothing intrinsically wrong with it; and indeed, much that is right. Of course we’re all human beings. We’re born and we live and we age and we die. We love and we care and we hate and we fear. We have parents and grandparents and some sort of family; and a non-insignificant bunch of us will have friends and children and partners. There’s a whole spectrum of experiences and emotions that we share on what, for want of a better word, I think of as the human continuum. And, given that a few centuries ago people of a different colour or gender or creed were thought of as no better than beasts, I’m certainly not going to complain at the impulse to declare us all part of the same species.

At the same time… I think the main problem I have with the above sentences is that they’re too reductive: they go straight to what they see as “the essential”, and forget that our lives are often made up of many large and small details, of a mosaic of beliefs and cultural mores which comes from the environment we’ve been raised in, the society we’ve moving in, the subcultures we’re members of, the people we frequent… Yeah, we’re all the same deep down, but, broadly speaking, life in Hồ Chí Minh City follows very different rhythms from life in Paris; and the social structure and attitudes can also be very different [2]. Similarly, of course French politics are like US politics, but for a matter of degree; but that doesn’t get across the way that those two are fundamentally un-alike, and the myriad differences that make French politics characteristics of France.

Of course there’s nothing like “French-ness”, or “Black-ness”, or “Asian-ness”–and of course you don’t want characters who are walking stereotypes (personally, if I see one more Eastern mystical master, or one more Asian family obsessed with school grades and arranged marriages, I’ll hit someone). But the reverse approach, the one that advocates that “we’re all the same deep down”, is a bit like globalisation to me: instead of being a vibrant celebration of what makes us different, globalisation tends to smooth everything into an over-arching culture (which is a mix of European/US cultural mores, to oversimplify). Or like “universal stories”, which so often tend to be the Hollywood variety (rather than, say, the Bollywood or Nollywood one, to take just two examples).

This approach assumes that everyone in every country wants the same things: which might the case if you go deep enough, but is intensely problematic if you stop, say, at tastes in food, or beauty standards, or cultural values. And, like globalisation, the “we’re all the same” approach tends to lead to characters who might feel powerfully individual, but who basically remain 21st-Century US/European people in costume with a few “exotic” [3] words thrown in: it makes a mockery of all that makes us different.

In other words, saying “everyone is the same deep down” carries the risk of being boiled down to “everyone is like me”, and that in turn can lead to thinking everyone has the same beliefs and culture as you do, aka imposing your own thought processes on others at the expense of their own.

So, yeah. We’re all the same deep down. Except for a matter of degree. But degree is a huge thing.

This isn’t my most articulate post. I’m fully aware that I’m struggling to pinpoint why I disagree with the above assumptions; and I’m not entirely sure I succeeded in putting my thoughts down on, er, blog electrons. I guess it broadly boils to a matter of balance between two ends of the same problem: characters as walking stereotypes, and characters as entirely similar to the writer or the assumed majority audience (both stemming from an incomprehension of difference, and to some extent for me, a tolerance fail). Am I making sense to you? What do you think?


[1]I also have issues with this expression, but I’m going to stick to one problematic assertion per blog post…
[2]They can also be eerily similar in some respects; and yes, they’re going to hugely depend on who you are and where you live in both cities. But my point is that they don’t coincide 100%, or even 90%. There’s overlap, but no equivalence (yes, I’m a maths geek 🙂 )
[3]”exotic” is another of those words that makes me want to hit something, just in case you have a doubt. Especially when it’s applied to food I happen to have eaten and enjoyed since childhood.

(picture credits: nanarmitvn on stock.xchng)

 

19 comments

  1. For me, I guess the question that arises from this is simple to phrase and impossible to answer: How deep is deep?

    I’ve spent a long time writing “the other” (whether I do well at it is, of course, another issue, and one I’m obviously not in a position to judge). My characters are as often non-white as white, as often female as male, despite the fact that I’m a clear archetype – white male in his fifties. What do I “know” about writing the other? Well, nothing, because I’ve never BEEN “the other”. But I am tolerably well travelled (visited 30+ countries across five continents), and I’ve been to enough places to feel pretty onfident in my assertion – that, deep down, most people (NOT everyone) want the same things. They want security, they want love, they want family, they want their kids to have a better life than they did. Nope, this doesn’t apply to everyone – I myself don’t want children, something I recognise puts me in a pretty small global minority.

    Of course, how they go about trying to get these things – even, in some cultures, how they define these things – differs. There certainly are differences in cultures: I live in small-town New Mexico and I see intriguing clashes of culture in a community that includes fourth-and-fifth-generation miners, third-and-fourth-generation ranchers, homeless vets, retired professors, artists, and former hippes. I’m not trying to say that these people are all the same, but I am trying to say that focussing on their surface differences is not always helpful.

    My current musings on culture arise because I’m working on a story set in near-future Iran, with a young gay male narrator. Comments on the story have been interesting, both in what they reveal about the commenters and in what they reveal about me. The particular troubling comment was one that said “I want these people to feel more Iranian; they could be secular Americans”. Now I don’t know how to respond to this. I have already dropped in some very specific cultural details about homosexuality in Iran. For example, I’m given to understand there’s a “tradition” of sorts where some young men, unable to interact sexually with women outside marriage, will have homosexual relationships until they are ready to marry, at which point they switch back to being exclusively straight. That’s not something that would happen among secular Americans. I also quite deliberately have the very first scene being a communal open-air prayer, everyone dutifully facing Mecca – even though this is the beginnings of a mass protest. So I’m trying to put in specific cultural details, and yet at the same time I’m trying to avoid stereotypes (not that I’m sure what an Iranian stereotype is – part of the problem is that, when receiving critiques, you don’t know how well-versed the critiquer is in a given culture; I had issues with one critique that said “this feels like it could be in any Arab country” even though I was very careful to set it in a real Iranian city and use Iranian, not Arabic, names; the commenter later admitted that they did not actually realise the names weren’t Arabic, so how this reader would have been able to get a feel of specificity in this instance I really don’t know).

    And indeed, this brings me to the issues of “audience expectations”. No matter what a writer intends, any story is the reader’s experience, and the reader brings things to the story that the writer didn’t put there. Some people will see a stereotype where others see an archetype. Some people will see differences because that’s what they look for, whereas another will see common frames of reference because that’s what they are culturally or personally conditioned to see. I’m writing ABOUT young gay Iranians, but I’m not writing FOR young gay Iranians, and though I don’t ever write with a specific audience in mind (that way madness lies), I think every writer is always worrying, deep down, about how a given story will be taken. After all, we’ve got Saladin Ahmed’s Salon.com piece on “Game of Thrones” kicking off this year’s debate on the handling of race in fantasy, it seems, and no story exists without context. I myself grow tired of reading mid-American SF story after mid-American SF story, with default white guys doing default white things – I grew up reading SF and fantasy for the escapism, the straneness, the “otherness” – but of course run the constant risk of exoticising the other, with all the magical-negro noble-savage etc tropes laid out like a vast minefield in front of me, waiting for a single misstep (I can see that, while some writers genuinely don’t even considering writing the other, some probably make a conscious choice not to do it simply because it’s hard; but hey, if we never do anything that’s hard, we never do anything that’s great, either).

    This is probably more than long enough. I’ll go away now, and work on my gay Iranian story, and think some more.

  2. It’s making sense to me, especially when you frame this desire to make characters “the same” despite different cultures, backgrounds, etc., as a matter of “tolerance fail”. I was just trying to articulate this earlier today (via Twitter, always a bad idea for complex discussions) with a GRRM fan who was arguing with me that increasing diversity in fantasy should be a simple matter of writing something like GRRM’s stuff but with brown/female people. (And that PoC should be inserted into fiction using the Heinlein Maneuver — hide their difference ’til the end then spring it on the reader as a surprise. ::sigh::) Leaving aside the fact that this completely ignores the impact of racism and sexism on the audience and industry —

    There is something fundamentally, quintessentially “white male” about most popular fantasies, which isn’t surprising because they’re being written by white men. But the focus on European (or secondary-world Fauxropean) culture, the focus on traditionally Western and masculine definitions of virtue (e.g., rugged individualism, women as objects/prizes), the Christian/Puritan/binary moral underpinnings of every Dark Lord and humble farmboy… these books are written for white men, by white men. They’re hailed as universal because people in most Anglophone cultures have been conditioned to privilege the white male paradigm, but they’re really not universal to begin with.

    And the attempt to seek “the essential” characteristics of nonwhite nonmale nonEuropean characters isn’t about welcoming diversity. It’s about trying to shoehorn those characters into the box of white maleness — and judging them by how well they fit — so that the reader can accept them without having to accept their differences. It’s the opposite of welcoming diversity; it’s actually a rejection of it, instead reinforcing the idea of white maleness as universal. It’s the fundamental flaw with the idea of tolerance versus acceptance — to tolerate something is to see it and endure it, but not engage with it on anything deeper than a surface level. More than a “tolerance fail”, it’s the failure inherent in tolerance. ::lightbulb::

  3. This is very well said, and touches on the heart of many of my late night discussions. Thank you.

  4. I agree! Sure, we are all the same when we say something like “we all want to be loved”, but then we get into the REAL details:

    -How do we want others to show us they love us?
    -How do we go about seeking love?
    -How do we show love to others?
    -What do we think a “working relationship” looks and feels like?
    -What is our family ideal? Our other ideals?

    And so on and so forth. Sure, deep down we’re the same, but how we express that “sameness”, that “humanity” is vastly different from person to person, and even more different from culture to culture.

    I’m not really sure we can grasp that, though, unless we’ve lived and been immersed in a culture not our own for a long time and have a probing, questioning, open mind about who they are, what they want, and how they want it, however. And even then, it’s difficult because we have to depend on unreliable memory, vague feelings, jotted down notes, and book-research to write about the “Other” paradigms we’ve experienced. Yeah, speaking from experience. So I get why it’s easy to use “we’re all the same deep down” as an excuse for why we just can’t get it right. It’s hard, and we can’t do everything, though we may try. :/

    Par exemple, en 2006 j’ai habité en France pendant un an. J’étais assistante d’anglais, et j’habitais dans un petit village dans le Nord tout près de la frontière Belgique. La culture là-bas, c’était complètement différente de la culture Parisienne, de la culture Lilloise, Lyonaise, etc. A chaque fois que je parle de mes expériences aux français, il faut que je dise que 80% des parents de mes élèves étaient au chomâge, sinon ils s’inquiètent et ils se hâtent de me dire qu’en générale la France n’est pas comme j’avais décrit. Ma réponse explique beaucoup des différences entre la culture dans ce petit village et la culture dans le reste du Nord, mais ça n’explique pas tout.

    Et ouais, ces phrases que je viens d’écrire en français prouvent que j’ai perdu quelque chose. Je n’ai plus, je me rapelle plus un certain…gout. Je pense premièrement en anglais, et ça c’est un problème. Il faut penser en français pour bien écrire…. Il faut penser comme les autres pour les bien imiter.

  5. Laura, you make a great point about the layers and granularities of culture – nobody is a product of just one monolithic culture (in the US, it’s impossible to define a “typical” American – and interestingly I think many/most Americans would realise this, yet perhaps fail to see that it is equally impossible to define a typical Moroccan, or Chilean, or Uzbek). There are multiple layers of cultural influence, to the extent that, just as “everyone wants the same things”, everyone is also a unique individual. The art of trying to portray convincing, unique individuals who are a valid product of their culture(s) is the challenge we writers face. And what will succeed with one reader may fail with another – both, possibly, for perfectly valid reasons. I think that’s what makes it hardest of all; that no matter what you do, how hard you try, not everybody will agree that you’ve “done it right”. Internalizing and accepting that is something I’ll probably never truly manage.

  6. I hate globalization. But not because it brings the world a bit closer together and enables an easier access to information, but because it tries to fulfil its goal by reaping apart cultural differences. What makes this world great and rich is the diversity and multitude of cultures. Each wonderful in its own way and each with its downfalls. To say that everyone is the same or to attempt to blend all these cultures makes me think of George Orwell’s “1984” or the “Equilibrium” movie. And it would be a world I would not like to live in. True, the speculative fiction in general and fantasy in particular has some patterns that seem to go in a loop. But lately there are more and more voices who bring diversity to the genre and that is wonderful. It enriches my favourite type of fiction. But what it seems like a slow turn in the speculative fiction scenes it’s not true on other fields. Economy comes to mind at the moment.
    I live in Romania and I was able to travel through the Eastern Europe a bit. After the fall of the Berlin Wall and the change of the Communist regimes in the Eastern European countries there is a Western Europe economical invasion taking place. I see all over the Eastern European countries the same brands taking over the market. Clothing shops, supermarkets, outlets and so on. I do not have a problem with their presence, it is very good to a certain point. But in Romania, with a little inside help, they overpower the majority of the local producers. And we end up with plenty of products without soul or consistency. They level the things to a certain point. We end up by being a mass of consumers that wants the same thing. The diversity is killed and the individual ignored. That is one example for which I do not like globalization. I like diversity and its beauty.

  7. Brian: I definitely agree with you that focusing on surface differences is not helpful (and is indeed harmful), but what I’m trying to say is that it’s a balancing act between forgetting the differences altogether (which leaves a void you tend to feel with your own beliefs), and presenting everyone as some kind of incomprehensible alien. In your Iranian example, you already have stuff that goes beyond surface (like friendship patterns and relationship patterns), and I’m sure there is more of those, like attitudes to religion and justice, which go deeper than “surface” (I tend to think of surface as everything that doesn’t go beyond costume, but maybe that’s not what you meant?). I’m not saying it’s easy, or that we shouldn’t attempt to write other cultures and other people (of course we should); just that it’s hard to come up with ironclad rules (which is as it should be 🙂 )
    Audience expectations I’m a little unsure of: same, I do recognise the need to not lose your audience first thing, but there’s a point at which taking into account your audience expectations is basically feeding them the clichés they expect to see (like GOT does, by presenting only white people to people who expect to see no POCs).

  8. Nora: thank you! I love the idea of acceptance vs tolerance. It’s a very powerful one. And yes, I agree there is something intrinsically white male about a lot of fantasy, and that making fantasy more diverse would definitely involve more than a chance of costumes while keeping the same plot: epic fantasy as it’s understood today is, at the very least, underpinned by very Christian concepts of messiahs and world redemption, and overfocusing on male expressions of strength while having a nasty tendency to belittle women’s parts (but sadly, fantasy’s not the only culprit in this game).

  9. Sandra: thank you for reading! I’m glad I’m not the only one having the late night discussions on this 😀

  10. Laura: wow. If that’s you forgetting French, then I can only hope my forgotten Spanish sounds like that…
    I agree, it’s very very hard to get across how different things can be unless you’ve lived immersed in another culture and have been open-minded enough to get something from the experience (I know a lot of expats who came back not knowing much about the country they’d lived in). And even then, getting rid of your mental bedrock is all but impossible, I suspect–might as well rip your brain out of your mind… (speaking the language helps, too–it does get you in a different frame of mind).
    There are definitely vastly different cultural experiences within the same country, definitely! (and I can imagine that having 80% people out of work in a village would create a very particular atmosphere, very different from the rest of the North..).

  11. Mihai: yup! I like globalisation because it brings countries closer and makes it easier to travel beyond the boundaries of your home country (at least for some of us. I’m aware there is a great dissymetry depending on where you’re from in the world). I hate it for gutting out entire cultures in the name of uniformity. (and I hadn’t thought about Equilibrium, but yeah, that’s an awesome parallel. Must remember to bring it up next time someone mentions globalisation).
    The takeover of the chains has been one of the saddest things of the past few decades. I remember I was struck by how many chains there were in the UK high streets when I went there; today, it’s the French “artères commerciales” that have become invaded by chains. And now even when I go to Madrid, I see the same chains taking over. It’s very creepy. *shudder*).

  12. Thanks for this. I’m reading J.K. Rowling to my daughter right now, and your post expresses why I cringe every time Lavender Brown and Parvati Patil show up (and Cho Chang too for that matter). Throwing characters of color into an English school for wizards, only to have them run around in robes waving wands and shouting joke Latin or whatever like everyone else, is a perfect example of “we are all the same.” This kind of move accomplishes several things at once, and none of them are good. It dresses an expression of a dominant culture in “multicultural” trappings; it freezes out interest in a wider range of cultures (what might Indian magic look like?) by rendering those cultures invisible; and by erasing culture while preserving color, it reduces culture TO color. Color becomes what makes us different–what makes Cho different from Harry–not experience, or language, or anything with meaning.

    And I love “the failure inherent in tolerance,” from the comments. That’s brilliant.

  13. The interesting thing about “globalization”/”Westernization” is that it’s not a new thing. It feels like a recent development, but it’s as old as… I don’t know. Once upon a time, every country wanted to mimic the Italians, then it was the French, then it was the British, and so on, and so forth. On the other side of the world, China had a huge impact on every country around it (Mongolians, Manchurians, Koreans, etc.). Whoever holds the largest economic and politically-looming power conducts the music of all the surrounding countries’ cultures, unfortunately.

    The only difference between then and now is scale. It’s not just the neighboring countries being affected. It’s the entire world. And we have technology to thank for that.

    Which brings me to my reply to Brian-

    The reason why we’re so daunted by “getting it right” is because we have a huge burden on our shoulders. In the past, no one ever really expected writers to “get it right”. All they really wanted was an “exotic flavor”. Why? One, because writers didn’t have the research resources they have now (thanks to technology, mostly the Internet but also to ease of travel). Thus – two, because we have more available we are more accountable for getting things right. Someone somewhere will know more than us because information is so widely available, and so there will be a greater number of fingers blaming us when we mess up. And three, minority cultures now have more power to speak up now than they ever had before. This is a blessing for the minority, but a hindrance for the majority.

    Why is it a hindrance? Because anyone in the majority (“white male atheist American” in SF&F, for example) is suddenly finding themselves needing to accurately represent every minority culture, whether they touch it or not. Unfortunately, the power and the money is still in the majority culture, meaning that it’s still the “white male atheist American” behind the microphone, trying to mimic all the minority cultures’ voices. As soon as more minority cultures become more widely published, etc., this will no longer be the case.

    For example, when was the last time anyone in America read a Thai fantasy novel translated into English?

    The reason why it feels so impossible to accurately portray all the nuance is because it IS impossible, (though we still try anyway). Expectations on what authors must do have gone way way up in the past couple decades–no, even the past couple of years. But I’m not sure the majority culture will ever accurately represent a minority one.

    Especially since I completely agree with Aliette-

    I’ve also known a lot of expats who are still blind to the new culture they are living in. Willfully blind or ignorantly blind. So we can’t really trust them to expand anyone else’s horizons since they won’t expand their own.

    I would actually vote for somehow finding a way to give minority cultures more power to write, publish, and express themselves to this global-American-Western-majority culture. To do that, we would have to somehow convince (or trick?) the presiding majority culture to take interest in reading what minority authors have to say. (And to stop treating literary translators like dirt.)

    So, yeah. My personal approach is to come at this problem from both sides. I’m a white American female writer, true. But I’m also going to try to expand the horizons of what I write about and who I write about as accurately as I can. But I also have the benefit of being a translator, and I’m going to use that power to translate and make available writings that American publishers don’t believe in simply because they’re not from the majority and so they believe it’d never make them any money. (Thank goodness for indie publishing. We don’t have to wait for anyone else to okay funding.)

    Woo! Tangent? Anyway, that’s why I love Nora/N.K.Jemisin and Aliette’s work. They’re both from relatively minority cultures, but they both have taken or found the power to speak to the monolith majority white American culture and make us shut up and listen. 😀 So I highly applaud, well, this whole discussion thread. 😀

  14. Haha, oops, that came out longer than I thought. XD

  15. Sofia: yes, totally! There’s much that I loved about Harry Potter, but whenever Lavender or Parvati or Cho crop up in the narration I want to throw the book across the wall. It’s not even magic; it’s that they don’t seem to be anything more than average students with slightly different names. I would have loved for the Cho/Harry relationship to have dug deeper into what a multicultural relationship entails, but it never got near that point of complexity. And yeah, just skin colour as a marker becomes immensely problematic.

  16. Laura: 😀 I don’t think the majority culture will ever accurately represent a minority one, but boy is there margin for progress today (I mean, a lot of books I read can’t even get French or Vietnamese right, or even something so basic as modes of address…). I also agree that any attempt at diversity must also include those outside the White Anglophone population, though I think that today the dominant (US) market in genre is too busy dealing with inclusion of its own minorities (which is a fine and a good thing) to look outward yet. I’m hopeful this will improve, partly through all the stuff we write (and translate, in your case!)
    (and, er, I really don’t feel like an ambassador for minorities? *embarrassed*
    Insofar as I’m concerned, I have the luck to live in a First World country, even if it’s an non-Anglophone one; and to straddle two cultures, one of which is very close to the dominant one. I have plenty of differences with the majority culture; but by and large I also have many common points, especially if we’re talking about majority culture in the UK. Makes it easier for me to climb on my pedestal and be listened to…)

  17. Yeah, I agree with you. There’s a huge margin for progress. Many authors are still too busy trying to get their other facts right (such as hard science and what the world views as the “pertinent” historical details) to really grasp cultural differences between the majority viewpoint and minority groups and other countries.

    I think this is a failing of the American culture at large. We are a huge country (with deceptive differences in culture from state to state) and we are isolated from much of the world. Even though Canada is a different culture than our own, we don’t really view them that way, so we don’t appreciate the differences, for example.

    So, though you are still in a First World country and can converse in English like a native, you have the privilege of coming from a perspective few Americans have, and you represent a cultural voice underrepresented in our culture.

    The same goes for Nora. Though she’s American, she still counts as a minority voice standing against the monolith due to her own unique heritage. Her American-ness is a leg-up as well, a common point that makes it easier to be heard, as you say. I don’t think we will ever find a minority culture that doesn’t intersect or overlap with the majority one in some way. *amused*

    Anyway, like you, I hope we look outward soon. But it’s harder to look outward when our resources aren’t translated into English. I’m currently researching a book I’m going to set in 1810 Strasbourg, and I’m having a hard time gathering resources because they’re simply not available in this country. (Everyone loves 1810 Britain, not the First Empire for some reason.) Luckily, I’m fluent at reading French, but I was talking to Mary Robinette Kowal about how she handled research for Glamour in Glass which she partially set in 1815 Belgium (if I recall correctly). She told me how much she struggled to find resources, so she said what she ended up having to do was extrapolate from what she did have.

    Hmm. I feel like I’ve contradicted myself over my series of replies. Let me acknowledge that – On one hand, we have more resources than ever before, but on the other–we’re still sadly lacking. On one hand, we’re more aware of the problem than every before, but on the other, not enough progress has been made.

    There’s quite a challenge ahead of us! But it’s rather exciting being on the frontier of change, I think. 😀

  18. Excellent post and discussion. The first thing that sprang to mind after reading this was this passage from Walter Mosley’s “Devil in a Blue Dress” (which was something of an ‘ahah!’ moment for me):

    “…there I was, a Negro in a rich white man’s office, talking to him like we were best friends–even closer. I could tell he didn’t have the fear or contempt that most white people showed when they dealt with me. […] It was the worst kind of racism. The fact that he didn’t even recognize our difference showed that he didn’t care one damn about me.”

    While the notion of essential sameness is important in matters of rights and laws (basic human rights, being equal before the law, and other abstract notions that are meant to be standard across the human condition) I think when it comes to individuality the layers of difference and variation need to be recognized and respected.

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