Monday, 9 December 2019

On Violence and Fig Leaves

T'other night, while half-asleep and looking to pass time while I waited for my wife to fall so soundly asleep that my snoring wouldn't get me punched, I clicked on an interview of Anna Smith Spark by Womble with the result that I woke up again. The reason for this was mostly this question and answer:

"Your series has both shown the huge attraction of violence and its horrific repercussions?  What fascinates you about this in your work and do authors need to be responsible and show the uglier side of battle including the victims of it?

Again, I think the stories I grew up hearing and reading had a huge influence on me – Greek and Norse mythology, for example, both have a very complex attitude to war, neither are remotely simply ‘anti-war’, but, as the products of a society immersed in violence, both are very aware of the personal consequences of war. Think of that great, terrible scene in the Iliad when Hector says goodbye to his wife and baby son for the last time – it’s impossible to read that scene without being aware of the horror and pity of war (and remember listeners would have been very aware what will happen to all the characters, Hector’s death isn’t a shock plot twist but a fundamental part of the shared experience of listening to the story), yet Hector’s speech is all about how he wants his own son to grow up to be a great warrior. War isn’t seen as good or bad, but as some terrible inevitable thing, like being ‘pro or anti’ famine or pestilence or flood. It happens, it’s terrible for those who suffer in it, it’s glorious for those who triumph.

We still today hugely fetishize military prowess and violence as something to aspire to, just adding in a woolly-minded coda about ‘but only if it’s to uphold good’. The current cultural obsession with superheroes depresses me, frightens me. Someone makes a quick speech about how violence is a last resort in the face of evil, not something to be celebrated … then immediately trashes half a city in a massive consequence-free CGI explosion. If I watch one more sub-Tolkien ‘no one wants to live in these times …’ speech immediately followed by an uncritically black and white smash the baddy fight scene, I’ll commit violence myself. I think we absolutely need to show deeper consequences, look at what violence ‘for the greater good’ actually means.

And think also very deeply and critically about the way we other the proponents of violence, refuse to concede that these evil inhuman beings are … just trying to look out for each other, following orders, wanting to get on in life, frightened, hopeful, just like us.  In the Iliad, it’s important to remember, the Trojans are the ‘enemy’ – but also the human side of the story, the ones who are shown in a domestic context, wanting peace. Achilles is the great central hero in the classical sense of the term, but it’s impossible to see him as morally ‘a hero’. Since the Middles Ages, the hero of the Iliad has always been Hector, the leader of the ‘enemy’, the one who loses and dies. That nuance is totally lost in many modern stories that are so uncritically Manichean. Life generally isn’t Manichean. We need to always question our beliefs, ask why we’re doing something and what it might mean for others.  It may be that an act of violence is morally good and necessary, no question. But we still need to recognise that even morally justified violence has consequences for everyone involved.  If I kill someone who is in the act of committing mass-murder, that has to be justified, it can’t not be justified. I am a ‘hero’, yes. But that person I’ve killed …. someone loved them, they looked at the world once and something in it made them happy, and I’ve killed them.

The great danger in sff is that we can present the enemy as literally inhuman, and that basic reality is erased. Orcs, robots, zombies … it’s terrifyingly easy to make the enemy in sff so inhuman that killing them becomes a consequence-free game.

So, yes, we all have a huge moral duty to try to make people think more deeply about the world. Absolutely, yes."

Now, there's a ton of things that made me go "Yes!" (in the silence of my own head) there, not least the thinking about the old stories. But the thing that really got me was that second paragraph, with its anger at the woolly-minded codas - because it's an anger I too have been feeling more and more without being able to put my finger on it until now. Superhero movies are among the worst offenders but there are plenty of fantasy novels that seem to feel the need to jam a "but this is all horrible remember" speech in the space between fight scenes.

I'm sure this is mostly done with the best intentions and that some of the books I'm thinking about might strike others as having done differently. I know how hard it is to balance story elements and how we all have our own slightly different views on the world. If I ever make it, I expect I'd get criticised on such lines, as my ability to understand things greatly exceeds my ability to communicate. So I don't want to be all "Be better! Why aren't you better!". But I do want to put what Anna Smith-Spark said out there in more places for more people to see, and I do want to point out three of the biggest drawbacks of this sort of woolly-minded thinking.

1) Inadequate attempts to show the cost of violence often end up not just failing to show the cost, but accidentally diminishing it and increasing the appeal of violence.

To expand on this, I think of these sorts of speeches as being like fig leafs; just there to make the whole thing seem a bit more socially acceptable. And the problem is that fig leafs frequently call more attention to what's underneath than actual nudity would. The same is true of violence. It draws our attention to it, underlines its importance as the climax. 

What's more, it makes it somewhat taboo. "You wouldn't actually want to do this, it's hard and morally wrong except in this case where it's morally awesome". And breaking taboos is attractive. Obviously, we want violence to have a taboo attached, but the taboo needs to be enforced if we mention it, or elsewise we get the attraction without the caution. Only a little appealing fig leaf.

Of course, violence in the cause of good is widely considered admirable. Its hard We all know that, even if we don't agree with it ourselves. We all seen it shown in many books and movies. Something that's admirable *and* taboo? That's a rare and heady combination. Think back to when you were at school, doing something your mates loved but you knew the teachers would hate to think just how great it is. And that's just what the woollier "Woe is us" speeches do. They make violence a teenage prank. Nothing encourages less thought than that.

2) Framing violence in these terms all the time obscures the truth that not everyone thinks about violence in the same terms.

Go back to what Smith-Spark said about the way mythology saw war; the way they saw it as just another natural disaster. It's just one of many, many ways we know those who came before us saw war and warriors differently. Read Georges Dumezil's The Destiny of the Warrior for one scholarly account of how they viewed warriors in myth, or John Keegan's The Face of War for how soldiers viewed war at different points in history. Uniformly happy campers about it they weren't, but that sort of woolly codas? Often times in fantasy, they feel like modern attitudes in medieval clothes. And yes, fantasy is often like that and that's not wrong, but sometimes it jars.

And even if we are talking about fantasy that's modern attitudes in medieval clothes, its not like there aren't modern people who are just straight up happy when they discover they get to live those times. There's plenty of career soldiers who find they love the taste of war and when the war's done, they're looking for another one. You've got to suspect - like Alan Moore and plenty of others - that most superheroes are of a similar ilk. When they protest "Why does it have to be like this?" it often feels like a lie. And lies weaken the arguments they're used to make, resulting in them being less persuasive. Talking about the huge attraction of violence is often needed to make arguments about the horrific repercussions real - particularly in stories that are, well, based on the huge attraction.

3) Honesty about all aspects of violence make for better stories

Don't get me wrong, you can tell a perfectly enjoyable story about violence while only concentrating on certain elements. I have watched Commando more times than I can conveniently count. It mightn't be the most morally thoughtful entertainment in the world but dear gods it is fun.

But ultimately most stories work based on honest observation of the world we live in. The more honest and observant the author is, the better the story. Bowdlerised versions of violence and simple good vs evil have their place but they rarely live as long in the imagination as stories that have more to them.

Why did Lord of the Rings become the standard bearer of fantasy instead of any of the other early works? There's many reasons, and I suspect the strong notion of good vs evil was one of them, but I'd like to believe the empathy and focus shown to Gollum is part of it as well as the way Frodo suffers through violence rather than winning because of it. Why is Wheel of Time now the most highly thought of from that wave of 80s/90s fantasy? Again, many reasons, but I believe the depiction of ordinary Darkfriends as still being humans worthy of empathy and the way Rand cracks under trauma is a big part. And part of why grimdark took off it provided more honesty about violence - both in terms of appeal and consequences - than 80s/90s Epic.

I would like to believe most people would engage with the ethics of violence when writing stories about it simply because that's the right thing to do. But if anyone needs a little extra encouragement, its probably the right thing for your story as well. It doesn't have to be graphic, or loud, or take over your story. It just needs to be more than a woolly minded coda. It needs to be honest.

And honesty means not putting a fig leaf on the attractions and consequences of violence.

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