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The exception proves the rule, take 2

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Here's a revision and expansion of that entry I yanked the other week. Hope this one works better. I wrote most of this over a week ago and then forgot to post it—oops.

 

I've seen a lot of situations in which someone makes a broad general statement (most often about gender or race) and then adds a comment to the effect that there are exceptions, but they don't count.

For example, Judy Small is one of my favorite folksingers, but one song of hers ("Montreal, December, 1989") completely infuriates me. Its chorus contains the line "What is it about men that makes them do the things they do?" The song is all about how violent men are, and how peaceful women are. It notes that yes, there are gentle and kind men, but that doesn't affect the truth of the statement that all men are inherently violent, because "the exception proves the rule." In other words, her theory about The Way Men Are can't account for men who don't fit that theory, so she dismisses such men into the category of "exceptions."

A friend once told me that she was no longer interested in going out with men, because the power dynamics were too frustrating. "But the dynamics aren't like that with you, of course," she added; "you're more like a woman." In other words, anyone who doesn't fit the negative characteristics associated with the category "man" doesn't count as a man. If you define Y as bad, then all good Y must be X, right?

The Swarthmore College weekly newspaper, the Phoenix, recently ran an article about SWIL, the Swarthmore science fiction (and general silliness) club that I was heavily involved in as a student. Although the group is apparently widely disparaged by people not affiliated with it, it's been one of the largest campus organizations at times, and has more alumni participation than any student group other than Swarthmore's two fraternities. (And, perhaps, sports.) At various times, SWILfolk have been in charge of the newspaper, the campus radio station, much of student government, the computing center, and various other aspects of campus life. The article is fairly cool, and came with this nice cover photo, but it was accompanied by an editorial which says, more or less, "Those darn SWIL people don't get out enough. We feel that they owe it to the rest of campus to make friends outside of SWIL and participate in other groups." This statement, of course, provoked a great deal of discussion on the SWIL students-and-alumni email chat list; general opinion seemed to be that SWILfolk are very much involved in the rest of campus life, but that they aren't visible as SWILfolk in other contexts. (It was also pointed out that the editors had no business telling people who their friends should be, and that if the editorial had said "Those black students don't mix enough with the rest of campus; what's wrong with them?" that outraged letters to the editor would've poured in from all over. But I digress.) The relevant point here (see? I had a point) is that all SWILfolk who do have friends and activities outside of SWIL are considered to not count as SWILfolk; SWIL is considered to consist of "those weirdos over there," and any individual person in SWIL who you happen to know is an exception to the general rule that SWIL people keep to themselves.

 

Sometimes there are rules that are pretty good general rules but have a few exceptions. (Hartman's Primary Rule About Rules: All rules, including this one, have at least one exception.) But sometimes (not always, just sometimes) when I see someone say "sure, there are exceptions, but . . . ," it suggests to me that the person saying that may be ignoring any data that doesn't fit their theory. If the data doesn't fit the theory, find new data!

I do this all the time, of course (and have been much more aware of doing it in the past few weeks). Humans are good at generalizing (there I go again); I would even go so far as to violate one of my other rules ("No attempting to justify social or psychological traits by evolutionary arguments!") and suggest that ability to generalize from experience is a survival trait, and thus might conceivably be biologically based.

But generalizations often fall apart when applied to specific cases. And I think it's important to have a flexible enough reality-model that you can adapt the model to changing data.

What brought all this to mind most recently was this month's editorial at SH, which talks about mothers in science fiction. An interesting topic, but a couple of lines in it bothered me. In retrospect I'm not sure they should have; I think I'm conflating a couple of different things Audra says there. But I think she may be conflating some of the same things.

(As an aside, I disagree with her about a couple of other things there; in particular, I don't agree that "The mother/child bond is a constant throughout time and place." I know people in the modern world who have a wide variety of types and degrees of mother/child bonds, from close to antagonistic to nonexistent; I can certainly imagine societies in which those bonds being minimal or nonexistent is more common. In fact, such societies have been written about in SF, often by female writers. But that's a side point.)

So to try to get a better handle on this, I'm gonna do a close reading of a few lines of the editorial. Audra writes, "My mother and I tend to stick to women writers, even when the characters are male and the children aren't children at all." So far, that's simply a descriptive statement, with no value judgments. She goes on, "Why? Because it makes sense to us, because we have found that in general, women are more internal, more open to us." I'm not sure what that means, but except for the "more internal" part, it appears to be simply describing her tastes; non est disputandum. And then she goes on, "Of course there are exceptions, but are we being sexist and exclusionary? We don't think so. Not at all." So if she's just saying "My mother and I have found that we tend to like female writers more than we like male writers, in general, by and large," then I can't argue with that.

But she goes on to use A.I. as an example; as far as I can tell, she's saying that the fact that the movie doesn't portray a mother-child relationship she finds believable is due entirely to the fact that the movie was written and directed by men.

So at that point, it begins to sound like she's claiming that women simply write about mothers better than men do, taking it out of the realm of personal taste and into the realm of Objective Quality. (Though to be fair, on careful re-reading she does seem to mostly be saying mostly that the movie's portrayal of the mother-child relationship simply wasn't to her taste.) And to the extent that that's her claim, that's where I start to get annoyed by an argument that explicitly ignores the "exceptions."

Especially since, as Tiptree demonstrated, in a blind taste test it's hard to identify the gender of a good enough author. Most male romance novelists use female pseudonyms, for example. And though it could be argued that someone who's experienced motherhood may be able to write about it (or at least about certain aspects of it) more convincingly than someone who hasn't (I think this was the gist of Mary Anne's argument), I'm not sure why a female author who's not a mother and doesn't want to be one would necessarily write about mothers (much less about men) better than a man would; how can you-the-reader tell whether a given female author is a mother or not? It's certainly more difficult for someone who isn't a mother to write well about a character who is; on the other hand, much SF involves writing about characters who are very unlike their authors. In the end, no one's experience is completely universal; if you're writing about anyone other than yourself, you're in some sense writing about aliens. (This is related to what M'ris said, of course.) Imagination is required, and research presumably helps, and if you do it well enough you may manage to be convincing, whether your characters have eyestalks or children, or both. Yes, someone writing about a character close to their own experience does have an edge, sometimes a big edge in certain aspects of writing; given my own cultural background, I wouldn't even try to write about people from certain cultures, because I'd be too unlikely to get it right without more time and work than I'm probably willing to put in. (And arguably I couldn't get some parts right no matter how much time and work I put in.) But I think there are enough exceptions to the "men can't write good female characters" rule to make me doubtful about that particular rule's validity. (Though again, I have to remind myself here that when I talk about "the rule," I'm not talking about Audra's tastes; more about the general idea that female writers are necessarily better in some way than male writers, a notion that I may have unfairly read into Audra's editorial. Am I setting up a straw (um) woman argument to attack here? Not sure.)

And of course, to top it off, gender is a tricky and confusing thing. Does a transsexual woman necessarily write about mothers better than a man would? What about a transsexual man? What if you don't know they're trans? What if you know that you don't know the author's gender, or the author has no fixed gender? (How convincing are Raphael Carter's gendered characters?)

Of course it's legitimate to say "I prefer to read authors who fit category X." Hell, I prefer to read authors who write speculative fiction; I definitely prefer to read the work of authors who write fiction (as opposed to those who write exclusively nonfiction). But it felt to me—and I think it felt this way to M'ris—as though Audra was saying that female writers are just better, and was backing this up by (a) dismissing any good male writers there might be, and then (b) claiming that a bad movie (that includes a mother character) was bad because it was written by a man. I'm not sure that Audra really made those statements per se, and I'm not sure I'd quite call those statements sexist anyway—I try to avoid tossing that term around. But I think I would call them mildly prejudiced in the literal-rather-than-derogatory sense: prejudging things based on not-necessarily-relevant characteristics.

Anyway. Mostly this doesn't have anything to do with the SH editorial; mostly I'm just whining about a pet peeve.

I'm in the process of writing an editorial (on an unrelated topic) for SH for December, so soon it'll be my opinions up on public display. . .

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