Culture War Post 4: The War Over Archetypes!

Subversive Literary Movement

Forth in our series of articles of Speculative Fiction meets Jung as viewed through the work of Ruth Johnston in her new book: Re-modeling the Mind: Personality in Balance.




SF Culture Posts 


Part One: What Forces Drive the SF Culture War?

Part Two: Optimistic in the Night Land

Part Three: If You Had Introverted Intuition, My Love


Part Four: The War of Archetypes

Q: We've talked about how an individual personality sees the world and how this influences stories, which reflect how we see the world. However, it's a big jump from individuals to groups large enough to sway the votes in a competition like the Hugos. Are you suggesting that everyone who sided one way or the other has the same personality?

A: No, it's tempting but I can't go as far as saying that. If the connection between personality and belief framework was as simple as that, we'd have figured it out long ago. I think what happens is that some leaders and influencers in thought and culture do have a particular cast of personality, and the belief framework they create really does reflect just how they see the world. But other people have many different reasons to subscribe to the belief framework. Certainly, when their own personality also sees the world that way, they're very likely to feel like the framework is just plain true, and that finding it is like coming home. But they can also have different ways of processing the world, and yet be nudged toward this belief framework by their own experiences and fears. And then the sense of group membership takes over; we identify with a group of people and adopt their belief framework, and after that, it just seems right. I think this is true for any split of factions, and I'd say it's true of myself and the people who agree with me—I don't mean it as a hostile way of talking about some "other."


Q:  Belief framework is an interesting concept. Can you give more specifics in this case?

A: There's a very strident battle in the wider American culture right now over the basic meaning of being human: does the archetypal image of "man" or "woman" have any real meaning? Is it biological and factual truth, or is it a cultural belief that is limiting our options and making many people unhappy to the point of killing themselves?

The culture war over "gender" has been especially bad in the last two years. You know it started out as about job equality for women, then it shifted to ending exclusion and discrimination against gay people, but lately it is going much farther. If marriage is the same whether a man marries a woman or another man, then in a sense, being a man or a woman is just an external accident, like having a birthmark or blonde hair. What really counts is who you are inside, not how you look on the outside. The next logical step is transgender, the idea that you can shift from man to woman at will, regardless of what you were born. As we write this piece, there are news stories about the federal government ruling that any man who identifies as a woman must be given unrestricted access to women's locker rooms and bathrooms, and a few days ago, voters in Houston rejected a proposed city law to that same effect. I've read any number of opinion pieces that say "gender is a construct," and that you are a man or woman only to the extent that you believe it inside.

I see this battle as a war over the importance or reality of archetypes. As I laid out in previous conversations, Introverted Sensing (part of the A combination) sees the world in terms of visual archetypes, while Introverted Intuition (part of the B combination) suspects that visual appearances may be false fronts or masks. Introverted Intuition is searching for some truer truth that's hidden behind appearances. So at heart, I think the culture war going on around us is a battle for which archetype is better. I call it the Battle of the Archetypes in my own mind. Which is more important, the appearance of being a man or a woman, or the idea that your identity can be different from your appearance?

Because archetypal ideas are part of our animal instinct, our sense of what makes the world right and safe, the war over gender issues always has a layer of fear to it. When I read things about why we should accept whatever gender someone feels they are, there's usually an argument about how people will die if we don't. They will commit suicide, or they will be beaten up by gangs. It's not just an argument, there are news stories linked to show that this very thing has already been happening. The argument goes that we need to make these changes so that people won't die tragically. If you resist and oppose change, then either you don't realize that people are dying, or you don't care, or in your own small way, you're participating in killing them. And if you aren't actually killing them, then you're helping keep them vulnerable by denying their reality a full place at society's table. So it's not an academic dispute, it's felt to be about life and death, good and evil. There's a call to action: which side are you going to take, the side of hate and death, or our side?

On the other side, there's a numerical majority of people in all places and times who feel that Man and Woman are very deep concepts that can't be wished away, nor should they be. If we became interchangeable Humans, there would be dangers that we can't quite imagine now. Retooling obvious reality is like burning your house down just to see what happens. Men and Women have key roles in maintaining the generations of mankind and they each have ways to guard against various evils. It's okay for individuals to be "different," but we must hold onto the archetypal ideas of who we are. Anyone who wants to blur or erase the boundaries between archetypal roles is actively dangerous, perhaps as an individual, but certainly as a force against stable human society.


Q: So the group that is interested in exploring gender roles and seeing them as less restrictive probably loves books like Ancillary Justice or Left Hand of Darkness, which do just that. In fact, it was probably a major factor in Ancillary Justice winning the Hugo in 2014.

A: If there's one thing the two sides in the Hugo controversy agree on, it's that the most important thing about Ancillary Justice is not the story itself but the way it used pronouns to obscure gender. Everyone is "she" until the narrator has a reason to identify male or female. It's explained in the story as just part of the narrator's native language which, like Chinese and Turkish, doesn't specify gender in a normal sentence. The narrator, writing in English, is forced to make gender choices in every sentence, so instead just uses "she" for everyone. But I had to read some of the story to understand the thing about language, because when people talk about Ancillary Justice, they elevate the single pronoun to such importance that it's like the story was really just about obscuring gender. If they liked the story, it's because at last we're disrupting mental assumptions that gender will always be visible. If they didn't like the story, it's because obscuring gender became more important than whatever was happening.

So that's a great example of the wider culture battle interfering in science fiction and crowning a winner in what might otherwise just be a dispute about literary taste. Once it's connected to the wider question of how we, in real life, see men and women, then it's about life and death, good and evil. It's like they're saying, "If you don't like this story, maybe it's because you want to suppress the "'other'." Those who didn't like the story respond in defensiveness: "well maybe if you like the story, it's because you care more about message! You just want to disrupt society." Now it's no longer about literary taste, it's about hurting people or destroying the culture, and things "just got real," as they say. There are pre-existing political sides to take, and these sides are ready to swing into action even if they don't care about science fiction or fantasy.


Q: One thing I've been wondering a lot is why the Sad Puppies are always being called "straight white males" or even "white supremacists." If you look at the works they promoted, and at the people who were doing the promoting, you'll see women as well as men, and plenty of people who aren't of Anglo-Saxon descent. But every time the Sad Puppies said "this is really about stories," the mainstream antagonists said "you're just saying that to cover up that you're actually suppressing non-white, women, or gay people."

A: That's the very point that started me thinking about archetypes and personality. As we've said, I'm an outsider to fandom. But watching this from a distance, I noticed the vehement insistence among the mainstream publishers that it was about race and gender identity. Not just insistence, but vehement, at times highly emotional, insistence. A core idea in my personality theory is that parts of our minds are organized around inborn ideas of what a safe world looks like. When I see such vehemence, I suspect that at least some of the people actually feel, deep in their minds, that safety is being challenged. It's not just "politics" to them, and if you use that word, they'll get mad. Because it's really about whether we'll live in a world that allows us to define who we are, or one that does the defining for us. The people who feel most strongly about transgender and same-sex marriage have their own reasons to fear a world that defines us.

When you already have a strong fear, it's very hard to believe that something isn't connected to it. And with this particular set of fears, Introverted Intuition is a driving force. It is always suspicious that someone is trying to cover things up so that we can't see what's really going on. It easily falls into believing conspiracy theories (though on the other side, someone with that kind of Intuition could be just as hotly against conspiracy theories). All you need is for someone to suggest that "Gamergate and straight white men are trying to hold onto power" and anyone with this belief framework will instantly feel the truth of it. From that point on, any protestations to the contrary are just so much rubbish and self-deception.

When I look at the Sad Puppies, I don't see straight white men, but I do see leaders who have personalities that value human role archetypes. Their books don't try to confuse roles like hero and villain or man and woman. They have what I've been calling the A combination, in which Intuition is willing to believe anything, but Sensing is deeply tied to roles. When they attack "message fiction," they are not attacking fiction with any message, but rather the fiction that has the anti-archetypal message.


Q: These ideas are fascinating. I think, for the first time, I an put into words some of the differences between the A and B, at least in our SF field, that even I, who have sympathy for both points of view, had not seen before.

To the A's, who believe that, say gender roles, may be flexible, but that they have a certain amount of objective truth to them, the concept that they are fluid seems, both unpleasant and–more importantly–uninteresting. So when they see a story about this issue, to them it is as if the author picked that subject so as to stick a finger into their eye, to flaunt a message that the As have already rejected.

But to the B's, to whom the subject of how flexible these roles may be is fascinating, a story exploring these roles is science fiction, i.e. it is the exploration of unknowns, an investigation of what if's, just like other science fiction.

 My big question, however, is: Is there any way to solve this mess? If we look at it as based in personality, as you're suggesting, what do we gain? Can this approach help us build bridges between the A’s and the B’s?

A: The first step has to be gaining some understanding of how the other side sees itself, as you just pointed out. What makes the 2015 Hugo antagonism so interesting is that nobody even agrees on what is at stake. How can you solve a problem that isn't definable?

So as you pointed out, you can now see that people who value Ancillary Justice's gender-obscuring language really believe that it's probing a fascinating idea. They want to find ways to downplay and exclude simple appearances, whether it's male/female or just not being a T. Rex. This becomes a proposition you can debate: is appearance and identity a valid part of science fiction, or is it an avenue of speculation that's heading in some new genre direction? That's a problem that can be solved, where hating Larry Correia isn't.

One of the cultural problems we're up against is that the outside culture has already made some decisions about what's good or bad: "if you don't think Caitlin Jenner is a woman, you're bad. You're clinging to the old archetype of Male and that harms a person. Your precious archetype is harmful." Much would be gained if the archetype-busting viewpoint could grudgingly admit that human role archetypes are not always oppressive or harmful. When I claim that some personalities have archetypes built in as instinctive knowledge, and that this is morally neutral, I am flying in the face of what's generally called PC culture. It may be that many people just can't go that far. Their own instinctive fear of archetypes (masks! false fronts!) may block the generosity required to say "okay, you have a different way of being virtuous or kind, one that doesn't require ditching archetypal roles. You're not harmful."

Another huge cultural problem I see is that the word "fear" has been turned into something we're ashamed of. We're generally okay with saying we're afraid of cancer or severe snowstorms, but the idea of an internal fear has been converted into an accusation. Someone who beats up a gay man is a homophobe: he fears alternative sexuality. In this way fear became a code word for something bad, especially if I say that it's a fear you're not fully conscious of. It feels like I'm calling you a stupid noob.

But that idea has to be thrown out completely. The way I talk about personality in Re-Modeling the Mind, every personality is organized around innate fears; we all have inborn templates we can't do without. The "fear" I'm talking about is an existential fear that if you do or permit certain things, bad stuff will happen. If the center doesn't hold, we'll have chaos. If you don't have fears like that, then you don't have a conscience, and nothing personal but I'll lock my doors when you're around.

When we don't recognize our own existential fears, then we assume that our viewpoint is identical to objective fact. (I think my saying this is going to sound to some people like I'm saying "morality is relative." I don't mean that. If you want a fuller explanation, please read my book!) It's basic common sense to sort out misunderstandings before accepting a declaration of war. Then at least the battles and debates can be meaningful.

So, Jagi, let me ask you a question now…

Ruth Q: Do you think that the 2015 Hugos will prompt some debate about the nature of science fiction? One science fiction fan pointed out to me that the Golden Age stories were written in the shadow of the nuclear threat and the race to the moon, so they tended to explore how technology can save us or turn on us. Our time is posing different questions, such as "what is the meaning of civilization?" Will the meaning of science fiction change with the times?

Jagi A: This is an ever-ongoing debate in our field. People have many interesting takes and what one person will allow is science fiction, another person distinguishes as fantasy, magical-realism, or some other genre. Though, often, nowadays, when we say Science Fiction, we really mean science fiction and fantasy. The two genres used to be in different sections of the bookstore, back when I worked at the now-defunct Walden Books, years ago. But there was so much confusion about where to put certain books—and therefore, for customers, where to look for them to buy them—due to the overlap, that, basically, they are the same genre today.

But it is true that when science fiction was young, technology was new and there was a sense that science could do anything, that it could solve any problem. Therefore, science fiction was by its basic nature a hope-filled fields. Not that all stories were hopeful. Many were cautionary tales about science going awry, but the underpinnings of hope were there—both in the field and, more importantly in our culture.

Nowadays, very few people still believe that science is the answer to all problems. So, hope is now not an intrinsic part of the field. Thus, we have a larger disconnect between those who came to it for the hope and those who came for the exploration of “what if”, but not necessarily a hopeful “what if”.

I hope that answers your questions, Ruth.


In closing, thank you all for reading. Ruth and I urge our readers to send us their questions, comments, major dilemmas, as well as objections to any part of this series you think is half-baked, as my father would have said. If we get enough responses, we can do a 5th post highlighting readers’ thoughts about the series.



For more of Ruth’s work:

Re-modeling the Mind: Personality in Balance

Ruth’s extremely interesting site on the Middle Ages: All Things Medieval

Ruth’s excellent book on Beowulf