Do writers of color avoid discussing existential problems?

If you want to read a much better-reasoned and more articulate discussion of the issues I'm talking about, I recommend Oscar Wilde's mind-blowing essay, "The Soul of Man Under Socialism."
If you want to read a much better-reasoned and more articulate discussion of the issues I’m talking about, I recommend Oscar Wilde’s mind-blowing essay, “The Soul of Man Under Socialism.”

My portion of the internet has been abuzz with Hiromi Goto‘s and N.K. Jemisin’s Guest of Honor speeches at Wiscon. Both are very political speeches.Both deal with what it means to be a writer of color in a predominantly white milieu, and both positioned the current moment as a time when people of color are injecting ourselves and our stories into the literary discourse.

Both speeches are very powerful and are well worth reading.

They’re also not speeches that I’d ever give.

I’ve written before about how I get frustrated with the activist worldview. I don’t disagree that there are issues with the world or that change is necessary. But everywhere I look, the paramount concern amongst most of the intelligent and sensitive writers that I know, and particularly amongst queer writers, female writers, and writers of color, seems to be social justice. It’s not that they don’t care about other things–moral philosophy, aesthetics, and all the other big questions that the world has to offer–but when they give interviews or post on Facebook or write blog posts or deliver speeches or issue a tweet, social justice will usually be the predominant theme.*

It feels like we, as writers, have abandoned the task of advancing a positive vision for how people should live. We seem to have little sense of what constitutes the good life, or how a person should go about figuring out what the good life involves. Instead, we focus on the opposite. We focus on describing, in exacting detail, all the things that we know to be bad: the racism, homophobia, colonialism, sexism, ableism, and economic inequality that blight the world.

Alright, I know that social problems influence existential problems (and vice versa), and that politics and culture have tremendous bearing on the question of how a person should live their life, but I also don’t think that social problems are existential problems. I do think that the two things are different.

Social problems are situated outside the individual. They’re about the relationship between the individual and their society.

Existential problems, on the other hand, are situated within the individual. They’re about the individual’s relationship to him or her ambitions and emotions and desires and history.

Right now, when writers of color are called upon to comment about the world, we often say something like, “Look at the child of color. Look at how disadvantaged he is. Look at all the things that stand in the way of him becoming what he wants to be. Wouldn’t his life be much better if he didn’t have those disadvantages?”

And yeah, his life would be better in many ways. But we never seem to talk about the ways in which it wouldn’t be better: the ways in which he’d still be a solitary human being who must struggle with the fact of his own inevitable death. A world in which he’d need to wake up every morning and go out and do stuff, even though there’s no rational reason for him to do something instead of nothing.

Oppression doesn’t remove existential problems: it exacerbates them. It’s even harder to find meaning in a world where the system is stacked against you. It’s harder to find meaning in a world where your aims and goals and thoughts and history are not privileged.

But we elide that problem. Instead, we say things like:

Arm yourselves. Go to panels at Wiscon and claim the knowledge and language that will be your weapons. Go to sources of additional knowledge for fresh ammunition — histories and analyses of the genre by people who see beyond the status quo, our genre elders, new sources of knowledge like “revisionist” scholarship instead of the bullshit we all learned in school. Find support groups of like-minded souls; these are your comrades-in-arms, and you will need their strength. Don’t try to do this alone. When you’re injured, seek help; I’ve got a great list of CBT therapists, for any of you in the New York area. Exercise to stay strong, if you can; defend what health you have, if you can’t. And from here on, wherever you see bigotry in the genre? Attack it. Don’t wait for it to come directly at you; attack it even if it’s hitting another group. If you won’t ride or die for anyone else, how can you expect them to ride or die for you? Understand that there are people in this genre who hate you, and who do not want you here, and who will hurt you if they can. Do not tolerate their intolerance. Don’t be “fair and balanced.” Tell them they’re unwelcome. Make them uncomfortable. Shout them down. Kick them out. Fucking fight.

And maybe one day, when the fighting’s done, then we can heal. On that day, all of us will dream freely, at last.

— N.K.Jemisin

Which, I want to reiterate, is a wonderful and stirring sentiment that should be  said and needed to be said.

But I worry that we’ve marginalized ourselves by getting into a place where we’re only expected to talk about stuff like that, and we’re not expected to think about or attempt to answer other questions, things like: What constitutes a beautiful sentence? What makes a story worth reading? Is it worthwhile to pursue material gain? Is there any honor in acceding to your family’s wishes when their desires contradict your personal preferences? To what degree (and in what manner) can a person change their nature? What is love? Does love endure? Is love worth pursuing? Is there a value in status-consciousness? Why should a person read fiction? Why am I standing here, delivering this speech, instead of doing something else? Why am I doing something, rather than nothing?


*I’m being persnickety, of course. This speech was delivered at WisCon, which is a very political sci-fi convention. I’m sure that both guests of honor talk about and think about other things all the time. Also, my whole argument falls apart if you don’t accept either of the core premises (Firstly, that writers of color tend to be more concerned with social problems than existential problems; and, secondly, that there is a difference between social and existential problems.)


Why you have to care about what other people think of you.

Hero-WorshipA friend just linked, on Facebook, to this article about why you should stop caring about what other people think:

Living a life that follows the ideal notions of what other people think is a terrible way to live. It makes you become the spineless spectator who waits for other people to take action first.

I agree with several things about this article. Other people are the worst. And, generally speaking, they–even your closest friends–are not able to help you make decisions that will increase your emotional well-being, because they have no access to it. I give people advice all the time that I would never take. For instance, when people are agonizing over their novels and wondering whether to give up, I’m all like, “Don’t give up. Keep trucking! Quitting makes you a quitter! Revise it and send it out!”

However, I’ve given up on plenty of novels in my life, and it’s always been an excellent decision. That’s because I have observed myself, and I know what’s good for me. But I don’t tell them it’s okay to quit, because I don’t trust them to know when it’s alright to quit and when it’s not alright.

So yes, in principle, it’s best to not pay attention to what people think.

In practice, though, it’s not possible.

This is for three reasons. Firstly, sometimes you just want this person to like you (or continue liking you), and you need to take their thoughts, opinions, and desires into account. Secondly, sometimes people tell you things–even painful things–that you genuinely do need to hear, and if you’re in a mindset where you’re always like, “Rah, I know what’s good for me!” then you’ll tend to ignore them.

Those two are the uncontroversial reasons. I’m sure even the article writer would agree that in those cases, it’s wise to listen.

However, there is  third (and much more common) reason why you need to listen to what other people think.

And it’s because you’re living a lie.

Yes, right now, you are living a lie. You’re living in some weird fantasy version of your life where you possess all kinds of attributes (talent, determination, beauty, ruthlessness, kindness, etc) that you, in actuality, don’t really have. That’s because we, as human beings, are not really capable of understanding how mediocre and non-special we really are. Because we are ourselves, we craft a narrative whereby our lives are, for some reason, worth living. We tell ourselves that there is some weird way in which the universe cares about and notices us. I think this is true even for people who are depressed or have low self-esteem. We are all constantly building this narrative around ourselves (“I used to be like this, but then that thing happened, and now I am this other way…”)

And that narrative is what gives meaning to life. It tells us the next thing that we ought to do.

But that narrative relies on other people to support it. You can’t be anything–kind or tough or beautiful or earnest or whatever–except in relation to other people.

In order to hold onto your narrative, you need other people to support it.

In practice, they don’t need to give it very much support. Because human beings are so good at creating patterns, we’ll ignore anything that doesn’t fit our narrative and hold tightly to any evidence that does. But we do need other people to give us something.

When other people say things that make us question our narrative, then it’s extremely painful. When our narrative comes into question, we all have to face up to the truth that we are living a lie. And no one wants to do that. So, in response, we need to do something when other people question us. We either need to change their opinion of us (by acting differently) or we need to seek out someone who’s willing to contradict it for us or we need to put ourselves in a situation where they’re no longer able to speak to us.

But I do not think that not caring about other peoples’ opinions is an option, because our narrative cannot be maintained without the help of other people. The exception, of course, is if you’re willing to abandon your narrative and try to live without it.

However, if you disregard the narrative, then you’re forced to confront the fact that you are not special and that life is meaningless. In this state, there is, literally, no reason to keep living. You might be able to keep doing it, out of habit or stolid resolve, but that hardly seems like a victory.

The problem with majoring in the humanities is that you’re getting an education that’s fundamentally pre-professional

(c) DACS; Supplied by The Public Catalogue FoundationI just finished teaching a class where I made students read the first chapter of Made To Stick, which is a phenomenal book on communicating your ideas. After we discussed it, I told them that they really ought to go out and read it on their own, because reading that book made me aware of a way of communicating that I had never recognized as something that I could and should be able to do. But I also felt compelled to add that nothing they learned from the book would really be very useful to them in their college careers.

That’s because Made To Stick is solely concerned with one thing: “How can I make other people remember the things that I say?”

And that is not something that is of value in college, because the mission of college is to train kids to come up with original things to say. College is not really concerned with disseminating ideas, because its methods of communication are already so efficient and so well-established. Academics communicate using conferences and journals, and they communicate using pre-existing forms and types of language that are fairly well-defined. To a certain extent, a compelling presentation is distrusted, because there’s a suspicion that it’s being used to obscure the trueness of the idea.

Being a good communicator is never useless, but it is much less useful in academic environments than it is in other contexts.

And it made me pretty depressed to think that students are being trained in skills that they won’t need when they leave college, and that they’re not learning the skills that they will need.

When academics talk about the value of an education in the humanities, there’s always an essential falseness to their argument. They argue that the humanities help you lead a good life and understand your place in the universe and become more empathetic and be a better citizen and all that stuff. And maybe those things are true, but the academic has a fundamentally different relationship to the humanities than his student does. As one of my MFA classmates once remarked to me, “I’m expected to be an advocate for the humanities, but, for me, all my humanities education has been in preparation to becoming a professor: my college education in the humanities was, fundamentally, pre-professional.”

For the student, the humanities are an interesting body of knowledge. But for the academic, they’re a job skill.

The academic makes his living doing the things that he is training his students to do. And the education he gives is a pre-professional one: it obviously makes tons of sense to write that fifteen page paper on the treatment of Islam in Moby Dick if you hope to someday make a living by writing fifteen-page papers on X element of Y text.

Almost none of the academic’s students, though, are going to be paid to conduct original thinking in the humanities. And the crisis of the humanities is that the system doesn’t take that into account.

Historically, there were only three kinds of higher education–priestly, technical, and managerial–and they were all pre-professional. For example, if you were a middle-class person  in 19th century Britain, you could’ve gone to Oxford to become a priest, or to some medical college to become a doctor, or to Sandhurst to become a soldier.

To a large extent, these divisions have carried over into the modern day. When you’re in college, you can major in an applied science (engineering or pre-med), or something ‘practical’ (communications, business, economics, etc), or in something more abstract and intellectual (physics, math, history, cultural studies, etc.)

Generally speaking, the applied sciences and the practical majors seem to have pretty clear missions: they try to teach you the actual job skills that you will someday use in your the job that you hope to get once you graduate from college.

Math and the natural sciences have a slightly fuzzier mission in that their aim is to educate you to be a scientist or a mathematician. However, most people who major in Physics are not going to do original work in physics. Most people who major in Math are not going to discover new mathematical theorems. But much of this existential confusion can be ignored because the natural sciences also give you some fairly practical skills. If you majored in math, you can work on Wall Street. If you majored in biology, you can go to med school. And so on.

The real problem comes in with the humanities. There too, the aim is clear: to give their students the tools to extract original interpretations from texts (with the definition of ‘text’ changing depending on the given discipline). The problem is that very few jobs utilize these tools. Being able to draw meaning out of an ambiguous text is really helpful if you’re a scholar or a priest, but it’s not so helpful when you’re trying to make a career in human resources. In most jobs, the texts are just not that ambiguous (or if they are, they should be ignored, because they’re purposefully written in a way that’s vacuous). That’s why so many English majors end up in law school: it’s one of the only profession that requires textual analysis.

So people in the humanities are reduced to arguing that the ability to conduct textual analysis will result in positive side-effects: humanities majors will be more articulate, more empathetic, more aware of their place in the universe.

The problem, though, is that these claims ring false, because the way in which the humanities are taught makes it clear that none of the above are part of its primary aims. If we cared about making our students more articulate, we wouldn’t have them write jargon-filled papers about the tortured interpretation that they’ve coaxed out of Hamlet–instead, we’d make them read Made To Stick, and then we’d force them to find a way to convey (in a clear and engaging and ‘sticky’ fashion) some of the current thinking on Hamlet. If we wanted them to be more aware of their place in the universe, then instead of asking them to figure out, in the abstract, what Plato might’ve meant, we’d ask them to write personal essays on what Plato makes them think about with regards to how they live their own lives. If we wanted to teach them to read and enjoy literature, then we wouldn’t focus (as English classes so often do) on lesser-known or less-traveled parts of the canon (works that it’s easier to write about because fewer academics have picked them over). Instead, we’d make them read Middlemarch and Moby Dick and we’d try to teach them to experience those books as things that are vivid and alive (rather than as corpses that we must dissect using our superior intellects).

It’s not that I don’t think that the humanities are worthwhile. I definitely do. It’s just that I don’t think literary analysis is the only way (or even the best way) for a non-academic to experience the humanities. I’m not one of those people who has any problem with literary analysis. I’ve read plenty of academic writing in the humanities (well, Baudrillard, Barthes, and Delany, mostly) and have found it to be worthwhile. I just don’t think it’s a particularly worthwhile skill for a person who is not going to be writing academic papers about literature.