Women are Not Cattle or Slaves

Kameron Hurley is a terrific fantasy author who wrote a great piece called ‘We Have Always Fought’: Challenging the ‘Women, Cattle and Slaves’ Narrative for the recently retired Dribble of Ink blog. I’m on record as questioning the fantasy genre’s marriage to redemptive violence, but Hurley does a masterful job of asking why fantasy—a genre that should, by definition, not be a slave to history—should have such a laughably simplistic (and historically inaccurate!) portrayal of women:

[W]omen did all sorts of things we think they didn’t do. In the middle ages, they were doctors and sheriffs. In Greece they were… oh, sod it. Listen. Foz Meadows does a better job with all the linky-links, for those who desire “proof.” Let’s just put it this way: if you think there’s a thing – anything – women didn’t do in the past, you’re wrong.

The whole piece is genius. If you like fantasy as a genre, you owe it to yourself to read this.

The Moral Source of Violence

In People are violent because their morality demands it, Tage Rai notes how common explanations for the sources of violence lack explanatory power, before arguing that violence is, very often, moral:

Across practices, across cultures, and throughout historical periods, when people support and engage in violence, their primary motivations are moral. By ‘moral’, I mean that people are violent because they feel they must be; because they feel that their violence is obligatory. They know that they are harming fully human beings. Nonetheless, they believe they should. Violence does not stem from a psychopathic lack of morality. Quite the reverse: it comes from the exercise of perceived moral rights and obligations.

His examples show that violence isn’t just people losing control or trying to accrue some sort of advantage:

A mother in the American South beats her child because he disobeyed her authority, to protect him from himself, and to ensure that he becomes a responsible adult. Drill sergeants, gang leaders and guerrilla fighters brutally ‘beat in’ new recruits to create lifelong bonds with their compatriots and unflinching obedience to their superiors, both of which are fundamental to success in battle… A brother in northern rural India kills his sister because her sexual infidelity has contaminated and shamed their family; her death is the only way to restore the family’s honour and prove to their community that they can be trusted… A suicide bomber in the Middle East kills himself and others in the name of an authority he respects and out of loyalty to his compatriots who will also die. A US fighter pilot bombs an ISIS target, killing several terrorists along with nearby civilians because his commander calculated it was an acceptable loss in order to achieve a greater good, the death of their enemies.

How, specifically, are these actions moral?

The general pattern we found was that the violence was intended to regulate social relationships… Across all cases, perpetrators are using violence to create, conduct, sustain, enhance, transform, honour, protect, redress, repair, end, and mourn valued relationships.

These insights really tie into some of my previous posts on redemptive violence

The Violent Fantastic Imagination

I am a card-carrying fantasy nerd. Nerds such as I were highly anxious when we heard that Peter Jackson was adapting J.R.R. Tolkien’s sacrosanct Lord of the Rings trilogy into movie form. The high praise given to Jackson’s adaptation from nerdy sources was largely due to relief that he hadn’t botched it like we’d feared.

I am also a fairly stereotypical fantasy nerd in that I harbour dreams (read: delusions, we’re good at those) of some day writing my own fantasy epic that will force me to modestly turn aside comparisons to Tolkien’s great work. Of course I couldn’t compare to him (but thanks for stroking my creative ego).

But, as I’ve collected notes and ideas towards a half-dozen or so possible stories, I’ve been increasingly stymied by the fact that most standard tropes within high fantasy (wizards, castles, etc.) are about redemptive violence. The truly good, just, and heroic in this regard are those who  wield violence against evil judiciously and courageously, as opposed to the indiscriminate and capricious methods of those who use it evilly.

Aragorn stands as an excellent example of a courageous wielder of the sword against evil. Unlike the corruptible Boromir, Aragorn takes no pleasure in violence and will only exercise his well-honed martial skills when righteousness and the greater good demands it. He seeks no glory for himself, as opposed to Boromir, who can think of little else.

This is all deeply problematic for someone such as myself who is committed to Christian nonviolence. I am highly critical that anything that justifies human violence in terms of righteousness, justice or holiness. I believe that the Cross is God’s final judgement on our sordid history of violence, as there we went so far as to attempt to destroy the very source of our being in the name of righteousness.

Now, the subversion of violence and the exaltation of self-sacrificial love in the mode of the Cross is not without precedent in the fantasy genre. Frodo defeats Sauron not through combat, but rather through a journey based on friendship, self-sacrifice, and a steadfast commitment to doing what’s right and true in the face of seemingly certain defeat. But this is after many battles and much bloodshed that is largely cast in an heroic light. Some subversion of violence is better than none, but why must nonviolence so often be portrayed as an option to be considered when all violent options have been exhausted and deemed ineffective?

To further compound matters, those who resist war and desire peace in the fantasy genre are largely portrayed as non-virtuous weasels who are weak and deluded at best, and—more often—collaborators with the enemy at worst. To stick with the Lord of the Rings examples, Wormwood is one who bewitches King Theoden to desire “peace,” but this is only because of his allegiance to the enemy wizard Saruman. In the fantasy genre, the virtuous are those who have the will to kill the enemy. The exception to this is the Hobbits, who are mostly romantically portrayed as those for whom violence is not an option that would be conceived.

I do not pretend to be an expert on all matters fantastical. I’m sure there are many examples of fantasy that call violence into question and present nonviolence as more than an option to be considered when all violent means have been exhausted. I commend them, wherever they may be labouring in obscurity. But they have not yet made a dent in the genre as a whole, and they likely will not, for it seems that the fantasy genre merely mirrors humanity’s pathological exaltation of violence as the right means for the right people. I will continue to do all that I feebly can to be a part of the people with enough imagination to dream—and write—otherwise, God help us.

Yoder on Powerlessness

I’m currently reading John Howard Yoder’s seminal The Politics of Jesus, and there are many times when I could have posted excerpts. Yoder discusses how modern ethical theory is obsessed with first defining the meaning of history and then grabbing the right handle to move it in (what we have identified as) the right direction. Most conflicts assume that a handle exists, and argue about which one to grab and strategies for grabbing it. Yoder thinks that the gospel provides no such handle, only obedience in the way of Jesus:

[The] gospel concept of the cross of the Christian does not mean that suffering is thought of as in itself redemptive or that martyrdom is a value to be sought after. Nor does it refer uniquely to being persecuted for “religious” reasons by an outspokenly pagan government. What Jesus refers to in his call to cross-bearing is rather the seeming defeat of that strategy of obedience which is no strategy, the inevitable suffering of those whose only goal is to be faithful to that love which puts one at the mercy of one’s neighbor, which abandons claims to justice for oneself and for one’s own in an overriding concern for the reconciling of the adversary and the estranged…

This is significantly different from that kind of “pacifism” which would say that it is wrong to kill but that with proper nonviolent techniques you can obtain without killing everything you really want or have a right to ask for. In this context it seems that sometimes the rejection of violence is offered only because it is a cheaper or less dangerous or more shrewd way to impose one’s will upon someone else, a kind of coercion which is harder to resist. Certainly any renunciation of violence is preferable to its acceptance; but what Jesus renounced is not first of all violence, but rather the compulsiveness of purpose that leads mean to violate the dignity of others. The point is not that one can attain all of one’s legitimate ends without using violent means. It is rather that our readiness to renounce our legitimate ends whenever they cannot be attained by legitimate means itself constitutes our participation in the triumphant suffering of the Lamb. (243-4)

This is a serious indictment of those advocates of nonviolent resistance in the wake of the successes of Ghandi and MLK Jr. Further on, Yoder makes his point more theological:

Once a desirable course of history has been labeled, once we know what the right cause is, then it is further assumed that we should be willing to sacrifice for it; sacrifice not only our own values but also those of the neighbor and especially the enemy. In other words, the achievement of the good cause, the implementation in history of the changes we have determined to be desirable, creates a new autonomous ethical value, “relevance,” itself a good in the name of which evil may be done…

It what we have said about the honor due the Lamb makes any sense, then what is usually called “Christian pacifism” is most adequately understood not on the level of means alone, as if the pacifist were making the claim that he can achieve what war promises to acheive, but do it just as well or even better without violence. This is one kind of pacifism, which in some contexts may be clearly able to prove its point, but not necessarily always. That Christian pacifism which has a theological basis in the character of God and the work of Jesus Christ is one in which the calculating link between our obedience and ultimate efficacy has been broken, since the triumph of God comes through resurrection and not through effective sovereignty or assured survival. (245-6)

Cartoons and the Myth of Redemptive Violence

I grew up watching a lot of cartoons. The Transformers held pride of place in my life, while many others that came and went never ceased to be a source of endless fascination to me. They all portrayed what seemed to my credulous little mind the endless battle between the forces of good and the forces of evil.

autobots vs decepticons

Every episode would culminate in a violent showdown between good and evil, with good invariably staving off evil… until the next episode of course. Some (rightly) complain about the quantity or explicit depiction of violence in cartoons, but this is actually only a secondary problem. The problem, in fact, is that these cartoons perpetuate the myth that violence is necessary in dealing with evil.

Walter Wink expounds more on this in his The Powers That Be, having previously shown that what he calls “domination societies” need a myth to justify their constant and systemic use of violence:

The story that the rulers of domination societies told each other and their subordinates is what we today might call the Myth of Redemptive Violence. It enshrines the belief that violence saves, that war brings peace, that might makes right. It is one of the oldest continuously repeated stories in the world.

The belief that violence “saves” is so successful because it doesn’t seem to be mythic in the least. Violence simply appears to be the nature of things. It’s what works. It seems inevitable, the last and, often, the first resort in conflicts. If a god is what you turn to when all else fails, violence certainly functions as a god. What people overlook, then, is the religious character of violence. It demands from its devotees an absolute obedience-unto-death. (42)

Wink goes on to talk about the archetypal pattern of a good vs. evil cartoon:

The psychodynamics of the TV cartoon or comic book are marvelously simple: children identify with the good guy so that they can think of themselves as good. This enables them to project out onto the bad guy their own repressed anger, violence, rebelliousness, or lust, and then vicariously to enjoy their own evil by watching the bad guy initially prevail. This segment of the show… actually consumes all but the closing minutes, allowing ample time for indulging the violent side of the self. When the good guy finally wins, viewers are then able to reassert control over their own inner tendencies, repress them, and reestablish a sense of goodness without coming to any insight about their own inner evil. The villain’s punishment provides catharsis; one forswears the villain’s ways and heaps condemnation on him in a guilt-free orgy of agression. Salvation is found through identification with the hero. (49)

It’s a small wonder then, that most people mutter something about pacifism not “working.” We have been formed by the system of the world to believe precisely this. And although I’ll probably want to go see the new Transformers movie when it comes out, it’s also a bit surreal to see how it’s played its part in making me hesitant to believe that non-violence is a tenable position. I’ll conclude with Wink’s chilling words on this very point:

The myth of redemptive violence is the simplest, laziest, most exciting, uncomplicated, irrational, and primitive depiction of evil the world has ever known. Furthermore, its orientation toward evil is one into which virtually all modern children (boys especially) are socialized in the process of maturation. (53)