Of Blood and Titties

by rsbakker

 Aphorism of the Day: The only thing certain about morality is that you have more of it.

I’m just going to jump right into Theo’s response to my last posting…

On the second point concerning 2) Moral certainty versus relativistic confusion, I very much disagree that there is any straw man, let alone a Great Straw Man involved. Bakker writes: “The idea seems to be that ‘moral relativism’ has some kind of ‘moral dampening effect,’ which in turn forces the author to reach deeper to achieve moral effects. I’m not so sure this makes much sense.” But I don’t see how the dampening effect can be reasonably doubted. Let me put it in visual terms. If I am painting with primary colors, it is not difficult to achieve the effects of “red” and “blue”. I simply use red and blue paint. If, however, I have nothing but grey paint, it takes a tremendous amount of skill to achieve any distinction between a red effect and a blue effect. So most painters, not being sufficiently skilled, will be forced to utilize other means of getting the effect across to the viewer by appealing to the viewer’s strongest preconceptions about color, preconceptions which are entirely external to the work. (This is what I meant when I referred to an “artificial facsimile of a moral sensibility” which is located within the work itself.) A “red” stop sign or a “blue” police uniform can serve as artificial substitutes for color that isn’t actually there. While one might quite reasonably argue that it is “simplistic” to use traditional and commonly understood colors in order to achieve a certain color effect, I don’t see how one can rationally argue that not using color, or worse, using yellow for red and brown for blue, is a more effective or powerful means of communicating color. What might work out extraordinarily well in the sophisticated hands of a master painter is very likely to turn out as a gaudy and nonsensical disaster in less accomplished hands. And these sorts of morally incoherent disasters are precisely what I perceive in much modern fantasy today. To extend the analogy a bit further, the problem with the end result isn’t that the painting doesn’t have the exact amount of blue that I, (or anyone else), might believe it should have, the problem is that it is an ugly mess that lacks versimilitude and is incapable of stirring any feeling in the viewer but contempt and disgust.

This analogy mystifies me. I truly don’t have a blasted clue what he’s talking about.

The most I can do by way of response is offer an analogy of my own. One of the weird things about teaching nowadays is the way students no longer fit into Perry’s famed stages of ‘undergraduate development’: rather than arriving at university as naive moral realists with a dualistic, defer-to-authority attitude, they tend to be naive relativists. The bulk of them, I have found anyway, will say right or wrong depends on your cultural frame-of-reference, or something similar. To which I’ll reply, “So female circumcision is quite proper so long as it is practiced in Sudan.”

You can almost hear a “poof,” their naive relativism evaporates so fast. The point is this: our moral intuitions often don’t care about our ideas all that much. Humans, as social animals, are other-evaluating machines, and as such, there are very few consistent relativists out there (as I’m sure Grin and Theo would agree (thus the Nazi references)). Relativists are perfectly happy to live and let live as far as lifestyle choices go, but when it comes to acts of obvious harm, they are as censorious and as judgmental as a televangelist at a gay rights parade.

I guess I can see how people like Grin and Theo, who seem to think that ancient tribal prohibitions formulated in an age of endemic violence and prolonged scarcity are every bit as applicable to these wildly prosperous and technologically mediated times, would come to think of naive relativism as ‘dampening morality’: given their rigid and anachronistic yardsticks, the ‘worldly’ must seem ‘less moral’ in any number of respects.

But the empirical fact is that to be human is to be moral. And, as researchers are discovering, to be human is to generally think you’re more moral than others. ‘Me good, you bad,’ is expressed through many of the different biases we suffer. Some of the most pious, insufferably judgmental people I know are self-proclaimed relativists. They certainly seem immune to the ‘moral dampening field’ their ideology is supposedly generating.

Because there’s so damned many of us, our hardwired sense of moral superiority generates quite the chaotic soup of claims and indignations. So the ‘ugly mess’ he refers to at the end of his analogy, far from lacking verisimilitude, is quite an apt description for our all too human moral state of affairs. The ‘contempt and disgust’ he describes is likely just a product of his sense of moral superiority. His attribution of these emotions to some ‘generic viewer’ is likely an example of something called the Consensus Fallacy, our tendency to assume our judgments are more universally shared than they in fact are.

Although he characterized it correctly, I don’t think Bakker quite understood the third point, 3) Organic consistency versus moral anachronism, in its entirety. I applaud his refusal to bow to the temporal moral anachronisms that litter modern fantasy like a virulent STD, and will happily assure him that I have never presumed “individuals in ancient contexts were not morally conflicted”. The simple fact that has apparently been missed here is that in order to be “morally conflicted”, there must be at least two moral poles between which that conflict can take place. It doesn’t matter what the moralities are, as one can create a credible moral conflict regardless of whether one believes that stoning homosexuals is a moral imperative or a totally immoral act. The point is that there must be a defined pole and an anti-pole or else there is no moral conflict; define those poles how you like, albeit with due respect for historical definitions if you have decided to make use of a recognizable historical setting. As for the connection between moral anachronisms in fiction and certain sensibilities, I would think it is rather obvious that it is almost always those writers who reject traditional moral standards – or alternatively, the very concept of universally applicable moral standards – who are so uncomfortable with them that they insist on introducing the moral equivalent of laser-sighted handguns into an era of swords and spears. This is just bad judgment leading to bad writing.

Another argument I’m not sure I understand. I’m inclined to agree that moral conflict requires “at least two poles,” but Theo continues as if he had said something quite different: that moral conflict requires “two immutable poles and two immutable poles only…” Something which is just not the case, as, once again, the real world demonstrates in vivid, heartbreaking detail. We live, and have always lived, in a world filled with moral conflict that turns on multiple, transient poles. Saddam is our trusted ally. Saddam is an evil-doer. The list goes on and on and on.

Finally, I have no choice but to conclude that Bakker has missed the primary thrust of my argument when he writes: “As I hope should be clear by this point, Theo’s four recapitulations of Grin’s points are really different spins of the same complaint: modern fantasy is a moral failure.”
But this is not what I am saying at all. I am observing – not complaining – that modern fantasy is a literary failure and that the literary decline of the genre over the last fifty years is one of the many symptoms of a greater societal decline. That this literary and societal decline has a moral component is readily apparent, but is beyond the scope of my argument, nor does that argument rely upon subscription to “a certain family of wish-fulfilment moralities”. In other words, there is no circle, which is why the potential difficulty of squaring it is irrelevant. I have no desire to tell anyone what they should or should not write, anymore than I wish to tell them what they should or should not eat. Write what thou wilt is the whole of the literary law. But if you happen to be wondering why so many people think your breath stinks, I’m certainly not going to hesitate to explain that you may want to reconsider your eating habits.

‘Things have gone from better to worse.’ If this isn’t a value-judgment then I don’t know what a value-judgment is.

‘I’m not telling people what to write, only that their writing is contributing to the world’s destruction.’ Yeesh.

Seems to me that Theo has a genuine talent for squaring circles, which is what we all do when we find ourselves pinched by our moral intuitions. By shifting the ground of the debate to morality, I think I forced Theo into an uncomfortable position. The notion of art unconstrained by moral or religious prejudice is a venerable imperative that we have inherited from the Enlightenment. By emphasizing the way moral concerns marble his arguments against modern fantasy, I basically pressed his nose against this imperative. Thus the doubletalk of making sweeping value-judgments under the guise of disinterested observation.

Smells like moral cowardice to me. If you really believe it, then just say it: “Joe, you are leading innocent souls to potential damnation,” or whatever it is you say by way of self-confirming commiseration to your in-group peers.

Christ, I spend half my time telling the literati to write genre largely because I think genre reaches people who have been duped by their cognitive shortcomings into thinking they know, in succumbing to a sense of moral certainty that is deceptive (as a matter of empirical fact), as well as an engine of untold social conflict and sorrow, and something we can scarce afford in the technological madness to come. “Write what thou whilst” as far as I’m concerned, is code for “Write for yourself,” which is code for “Write for those like yourself,” which is code for, “Apologize for the in-group status quo.”

Then call yourself ‘critical’ because the people who never read you would be challenged by your presumptions if they did.

There’s nothing wrong with arguing the moral effects of cultural artifacts. Thanks to our hardwired moral conceits, everyone likes to think they are part of the solution rather than the problem. So if you can make a convincing case that modern fantasy is harming society as opposed to simply evolving in directions you don’t like, then, no matter what the writer’s ideological persuasion, you can call them out on their own assumptions, their own yardsticks.

Of course, they will never believe you. But if your position is compelling enough to extort some kind of sustained consideration, then the trajectory of everything they write afterward will have shifted for passing through your semantic field. Maybe they’ll think twice about those blood-drenched titties.

I just don’t see anything remotely convincing about either Grin’s or Theo’s case. Quite the contrary, my guess is that many modern fantasists would look at their arguments as proof that they’re doing something right. That their fantasy has triumphed in some way.

More blood. More titties.