Philosophical Diversity in Fiction

May 1, 2020 | Thoughts, Writing Advice, Writings | 0 comments

No, this is not a post about the culture war. Chill.

This post is about writing other cultures such that they are believable–not as middle-class Westerners wearing funny hats, but as fundamentally different worlds.

The first step is simply to step outside of one’s own culture. This is easier to do if you’ve studied another, real-world culture, but the necessary mindset-shift is deeper than that. You, by virtue of living, have a certain set of values. Not the cliché about different people having different but equally valuable “beliefs and values.” No, I mean that what you decide is right–what you believe is winning in the game of life–differs from that of other people in other cultures. You may also have different beliefs, but first, values.

For example, it is very likely you are a lower-case-d democrat, in that you would prefer to live in a country where you have the right to vote. Could you cite beliefs that the republic is a better form of government than the autocracy? (Finding peer-reviewed studies to this effect is difficult.) Certainly. But simply that you value the right to vote, whether a thoughtful decision of yours or simply gained through cultural osmosis, does not make it something everyone values.

(Monarchists, invert the above paragraph.)

Let us say you are writing about a monarchy. You wish it to be realistic. Yet most authors don’t explore the nature of monarchical government even despite the plot-critical presence of monarchs, unless the monarch is a villain and it’s all about freedom fighters. What I almost never read is a defense of monarchy. No, at most it is simply tacitly agreed that it was an accident, and if things were better there’d be freedom from the Dragon Mountains to the Mermaid Sea.

And that is where the book fails to be philosophically diverse. It may be a fine vista point of strange cultures and stranger magics, but it is not really about a group of people who simply think differently.

Government, I hope you all agree, derives its just power from the consent of the governed. Ergo, unless it is a dystopian despotism, the people consent to having such-and-such a person with such-and-such powers make such-and-such decisions. They may value the benefits of monarchy more than the benefits of a republic. Or, quite likely, some of them have thought it through, while the average peasant simply believes in the majesty of His Majesty. The basis of their reasoning, in either case, is not going to start at “We want the right to vote” then list a bunch of sad circumstances that reduced them to a monarchy. 

There is only one way to truly express another culture’s philosophy, and that is to personally consider it yourself. Do you know that the republic is better than the autocracy? Is it always true? Even if it is always superior, is it superior in every way, in every circumstance? Count the possible ways you would enjoy it if your own country’s government was replaced by another.

But here we are at beliefs, yet we started at values. You may agree with the hypothetical monarchist that stability of the realm is critical for the government. But can you imagine that a glorious, majestic ruler would be a good of its own? You do not need to agree. But you must realize that the goods others desire are still goods, even if they are not ones you yourself desire.

Do not be fooled into some kind of pan-culturalism, where every culture is equal and equally the same. All cultures are valuable, but their values do not agree, and if there is any objective truth in the world–any at all–then some cultures must be better than others. Do you really believe that democracy is right? Then you must believe that tyranny is wrong.

For a work to be truly philosophically diverse, you, the author, must judge. You, the author, must treat cultures and their philosophies and values as more than curios in a dusty museum, but as active, living things, that can lead their adherents to both right and wrong. To truly say that all cultures, all values, all judgments are equally valid is to renounce the ability to judge at all–a motion of which every human being in the world is truly incapable.

To say that in fiction is simply to stuff a dreary postmodernism into the mouths and minds of your characters. Unless you are writing about dreary postmodernists, this is inappropriate.

Let me end with a test, like the infamous Bechdel test (which–I will admit–I do not value) for philosophical diversity inside a work of fiction. For a work to pass the Schmidt Philosophical Diversity Test, it must:

  1. Contain a proponent of another philosophy than the author’s.
  2. The proponent must legitimately argue with another character about it, particularly if the other character is of the author’s persuasion.
  3. The author must not shirk the responsibility of creating a work of art, and must have one side or the other claim a reasonable victory, or at the very least allow the reader to decide, as opposed to throwing his hands up in the air of cliché and saying everyone’s views are equal.

For works that to this well, I suggest the game Geneforge (or, I hope, later games in the series) where both final bosses offer you a chance to talk it out and even join them. In books, the Mistborn series at least gives the dystopian tyrant a fair shake, although I fear it suffers from middle-class-Westernisms. For works that do this poorly, the obscure novel Lightpaths boasts of having the collision of multiple worldviews, but the philosophical speeches given by the characters all agree and the only disagreement is from (of course) a Catholic priest, who is (of course) mocked. The Malazan Book of the Fallen gives the reader a choice of many, many, equally terrible forces to root for, all of which either stew in nihilistic despair or are delusional, but in neither case have a meaningfully distinct philosophy. 


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