To Comfort the Disturbed, and Vice Versa
This is my third guest post at Jeff Vandermeer's Ecstatic Days. Which was supposed to be my second but it took a long time to write it. Original post here.
A few years ago, when I was a wee one in the social justice blogosphere (ok, who am I kidding, I still am), I read a quote that went, “Read six disturbing things a day.” A little after this, I ran across a saying, a kind of motto, that ran thusly: “Comfort the disturbed, disturb the comfortable.”
The motto is a modified version of a longer saying about newspapers, “Th newspaper does ivrything f’r us. It runs th’ polis foorce an’ th’ banks, commands th’ milishy, controls th’ ligislachure, baptizes th’ young, marries th’ foolish, comforts th’ afflicted, afflicts th’ comfortable, buries th’ dead an’ roasts thim aftherward” credited to one Finley Peter Dunne.
What I really like about fiction in general is that it does both. The SF/F genre has even more potential for comforting and disturbing, because of the slightly-beyond-reality elements the genre has to offer.
Comforting the disturbed means more than escapism. Many readers who are not represented in mainstream US/Canada SF/F tend to fall into one marginalized grouping or another. People of colour (to use a U.S. term; substitute as necessary). Disabled people / people with disabilities. Transgendered/intersex/queer people. Even homosexuals receive mere lip service equality and surface privilege (which is confused for actual rights, for the maintenance of which they often push back against down the cause of other non-gender-conforming groups). The poor and downtrodden. You know. Those People. Of which privileged groups can say, if only they worked harder / weren’t so angry / didn’t insist on being different / just weren’t who they were / stopped insisting on bursting the bubble of privilege, we wouldn’t be in a marginalized position.
Comforting the disturbed is validating our experiences. It’s telling us that the gaslight really was adjusted instead of lying to us that it’s just a matter of perception. It’s speaking our truths to power, presenting our side of the story as a reality that must be discussed before the problems can be discussed. It is soothing through narratives in which we are the heroes who are right, who can overcome, who are given the tools we need to dismantle the master’s shed. It’s giving us an outlet where we can be our secret selves in someplace other than where we are.
We do this because we deserve it. Because the marginalized are the ones whose backs upon which the comforted are supported. Because we are held in larger systems that we cannot escape from, face prejudice everyday in ways direct and benign, because there just aren’t enough stories to contain them all. So we read and write stories about ourselves, taking the control of our own destinies that we are denied.
Science fiction and fantasy can do this. We don’t have to be kings and queens to be movers and shakers in SF/F. We can be our truest selves, and show how our true selves shining through will save the world.
Disturbing the comfortable is just as necessary. Looking at the long known history of man, it seems that most of today’s innovation and progress come from conflict of some sort, or rebellion against a larger cause. (Now, whether it’s because SOME folks who have thus far monopolized historical priorities have decided this was a much more exciting narrative than just recording how people got along with life is up for debate.) Marx’s proles versus the bourgeoisie (or, if you like, the broletariat versus the doucheoisie). Assorted empires over the ages. World Wars I and II, followed by the Cold War. A lot of science fiction and fantasy has been used to sooth the fears of these conflicts, even if just to distract us with “look at this nifty thing!”
Let’s use a good ol’ fashioned fallback example; Star Trek: Original Series was challenging for its time – a black woman with lines?! An Asian-American?! A Russian on the bridge during the Cold War? WHOA! What a turn-off it all might have been back then. (I read that the original pilot had a female First Officer that women didn’t like. I know nothing for certain; I wasn’t even born then.) Speculative “What If?” fiction is disturbing, because it gives those of us comfortable in our places a look at what might have been, and what could be, and in either of those places, we wouldn’t be where we are.
Disturbing the comfortable is reminding ourselves that we are ensconced in our privilege, often as a matter of luck, of having the right skin colour and the right education and the right amount of money at the right time. “There but for the grace of God go I” and all that. It is the reminder that we have it better than others, and more disturbingly, we probably owe it to them, despite the myth of bootstrap-pulling. That our source of comfort is a source of pain to others, and that our computers are built by people who will only be paid a fraction of the cost of the machines that allow us to enjoy our privilege to the fullest.
Science fiction and fantasy can do this. We sometimes need that slap in the face when we try to be heroes where we shouldn’t be meddling. We can remind ourselves that we live lies of validated normalcy, when in fact, we are a lucky few living in ignorance.
It is good to be jarred out of our comfort zones, to see different horizons, to be reminded that we are diverse in how we enjoy life, and how we suffer.
It is good to share that we are not alone, despite our unique troubles, to be presented with possible solutions and to be reminded that we can presevere and overcome.
Because science fiction and fantasy present themselves as mere stories, we slide into these liminal spaces that burst with the potential for both education and entertainment. But these are also spaces where we reflect ourselves and are reflected, holding up improbable mirrors that show us a different side of ourselves, whether we like what we see or not.
Unfortunately, as most marginalized people can attest to, it’s too easy for science fiction and fantasy writers to forget this double purpose. The treatment of rape in a lot of fiction is triggering to survivors of the crime (and many aren’t even given the benefit of a trigger warning). White protagonists are still educated and applauded at the expense of token non-white side-characters. A story of rags-to-riches does little to clothe all those the now-rich has left behind in their climb to fortune.
Too often, revolutions have only re-created the power structures revolutionaries were trying to change in the first place. They consolidate their positions by re-writing the narratives that justify their place, adjustments to previous narratives.
It is the continual questioning of the status quo, offering a different narrative from party lines in what appears to be a form different from reality, that is the subversion fiction offers.
Because stories? They’re our chance to understand, and thus change, our world.