Monday, July 20, 2009

Grappling with, and Portraying, Discrimination

This post was inspired in part by a comment on the Analog forum about how difficult it is to portray discrimination if you've never been subjected to it. In fact, I think that it's difficult to portray well even if you have been subjected to it.

The other source of inspiration is an epiphany I had about portraying discrimination in a story that I've already written, but which I was never fully happy with.

I'll start by talking about the experience of discrimination. I'm from the US, which means that ideologically I'm not supposed to value discrimination on any basis. On the other hand, I do recognize that it exists all around me. For one thing, I'm female, and while I've never been told by my own parents that I can't do something because I'm a girl, I've been told it in other contexts. Believe it or not, when I was a kid I got really ticked about the way boys could go shirtless and girls couldn't.

My experience of discrimination changed and sharpened when I went to live in Japan. Wow, was that interesting. The variety of reactions I got was quite remarkable. Here's a sample:
  • There were the people who asked to touch my hair.
  • There were the hairdressers who told me they couldn't help me because I had fluffy hair like a cat's.
  • There were the people who wouldn't sit next to me on the train, even though it was packed.
  • There were the people who didn't recognize that I was speaking Japanese until I addressed them directly, because they just couldn't believe Japanese would be coming out of a face like mine.
  • There were other people (fewer, fortunately) who never did recognize that I was speaking Japanese.
  • There were people who would praise my Japanese up and down, making sure to remark on how difficult Japanese was for foreigners - at first I found this nice, and later I realized that many people would say this for anyone who could put together a basic sentence, so it really ended up belittling all my work.
  • There were also people who told me I spoke Japanese "too well" and that it made them uncomfortable - I suppose because they wanted to keep it for themselves and they felt invaded by my skills.
I also got gender discrimination in Japan - probably less than a Japanese woman would, but at one point I was told that because I was attending Ochanomizu Women's University (where the government had chosen to place me) that I must be smart for a girl. I nearly went apoplectic.

I once had a five-minute argument with a male professor over a point of English language grammar, because he decided to expound an analysis that was incorrect before he gave me a chance to answer the question he'd asked me. And this wasn't linguistics stuff, folks - he asked me the function of the word "but" in a complex sentence. It took me a while to realize he wouldn't back down, and I was in trouble because I don't believe in capitulating to something I think is incorrect, so I just said I couldn't agree with him and sat down. The girls in the class were open-mouthed at my audacity; the professor never spoke to me again. I am not proud of this, in fact, because it shows me that I'd missed some critical cues to the social situation.

I spent a lot of years learning to understand Japanese culture and social context, but I never learned to find it easy. As my husband says, "The good thing about being a foreigner in Japan is that you never get treated like you're Japanese. The bad thing is, you never get treated like you're Japanese."

The experience was an eye-opener, for sure. I've only started to scratch the surface with the things I've mentioned here.

For the purposes of writing fiction, I would begin by making the following observation: discrimination is complex. It is pervasive, and it has many different faces, all of which will show themselves in the relevant contexts. Even people's attempts to be nondiscriminatory in one way can show their bias indirectly in other ways. And even though I resent bias, I understand that I hold many biases myself, subconsciously.

If you want to show discrimination in your world, it's not enough to show people calling one another names. That's the obvious one - and you can do it, but you should also try to push beyond it into the overall picture of how a society marginalizes one group of people. Explore the limits of how your people define "self" and its value, and how they define "other." All the nuances of these definitions will make themselves felt in different social contexts.

I've dealt with this in more than one of my stories. Cold Words definitely deals with questions of superiority, inferiority, and the perception of discrimination between people. I also deal with this a lot in Varin, which has a complex caste structure with seven different levels.

My recent epiphany had to do with Varin, and in particular with my main character in one of the novels, a girl called Meetis. Meetis is a subversive (if not a revolutionary) because she chooses to look beyond the easy caste-based definitions of people and try to fathom their motives; she believes that people have common human characteristics in spite of caste. Here's the problem: this view of hers appears to be quite normal to many modern Americans. Thus, when I began the story with her, she appeared to be rather insipid and I was never able to get fully in touch with what her subversive character would be. Now, I'm thinking about it differently, and I won't be starting her part in the story until three or four chapters in.

The trick is to set up the context of discrimination first. To show the blatant abuse, to show the subtleties of labeling while visiting the POV of characters who are not at all like Americans. Once I can get that moving in all of its multidimensional horrible qualities, then when she shows up on the scene, her views will stand in contrast to what I've established as the norm. And now that I'm thinking about it in these terms, I'm starting to see how hard Meetis has had to work to maintain her views - the pressure she's been under to change, even within her own loving family, and the fierceness with which she must hold her beliefs because she knows precisely how dangerous they are.

Are any of you dealing with discrimination issues? I'd love to hear about it.

I will also note that on Wednesday night I'll be leaving for two and a half weeks in Australia. During that time I should have internet access, but I'm not sure how much blogging I'll be able to do. I'll be back here in California - and seriously jetlagged - on August 10th.


  1. Possibly the single most difficult task in fiction is to portray someone with beliefs you detest in a sympathetic way. The tendency is to assign All Bad Behavior to the Other-Who-Does-Not-Think-Like-Right/Good-People-Like-Us. So here's dude who sincerely believes, let's say, that women are intellectually inferior, talks down to them in a kindly, patronizing way -- and has no clue that he is being anything but kind and gracious. There is no need to portray him as bigoted against everyone else on the approved lists, a economical-political fascist, =and= he picks his nose. He might, other than his quirk of holding doors open for women, be a nice guy.

    I suppose a lot of boys back in high school also saw no reason why girls shouldn't go topless.

    Here's something, too: what if there is an operationally valid reason for the discrimination? Let's say the appaloosies have in the past generation and after many generations of struggle finally expelled the geezenstacks who had been occupying their country and treating them as second-class subjects in their own land. But there are also numerous geezenstack colonists who were left behind when the rulers were overthrown. One of their beliefs is that no geezenstack should live in a realm unruled by geezenstacks and so substantial numbers are in continual communication with the Grand Geezenstack-in-Exile, who rules just across the Straits. They yearn for His Return, pass on intelligence, and so on. The appaloosies therefore discriminate geezenstacks from among the general population. This will be Seriously Unfair to those few who don't believe in geezenstackihood, but anything else would be destabilizing for the new independent regime.

  2. Very good points, Mike. In the arena of portraying people with beliefs you detest, in fact one of the people in my Varin story is undercaste and extremely resentful with ugly beliefs about those above him - he's been a serious challenge for me, because he is a protagonist and not an antagonist. All in all, he's a good guy. Mind you, I am working toward altering his belief system somewhat over three books, but where I'm going is not full acceptance - more like, the evaluation of individuals one by one on the basis of their personal circumstances. Still, it's very challenging.

    Another good point is that there are degrees of discrimination, and that it can show itself in subtle ways as well as in obvious ways - while the person can well be a great person in loads of other ways.

    History is always a huge factor in discrimination. Cold Words has a historical component, and so do my Varin stories (those have about 1000 years of history mapped out).

    BTW I can't wait to get my Analog and read your story.

  3. When discrimination is approved by society, there is an extra layer of complexity when a character doesn't believe in the ideals of the society, but doesn't feel comfortable violating them in public.

    So, for instance, 2 members of two different castes fall in love under some strange circumstance. The woman (or man) of the higher caste is tender and affectionate in private, but whenever another person is watching, she will not even acknowledge his presence. This kind of prejudice could be particularly wounding, because the man (or woman) in the lower caste may have lowered his emotional walls.

  4. And I never turn down an opportunity to discuss X-Men, which deals heavily with the subject of discrimination.

    In the first movie (as well as the comics), Senator Robert Kelly wants to create a Mutant Registration Act, which would require all mutants to publicly list their powers and identity for all to see. His argument is that this act would be akin to requiring registration for handguns, but it's a much different subject when the ability is inborn, as it would take away many freedoms, and open the mutants up for all sorts of discrimination and become targets for anti-mutant violence.

    The character of Magneto has always particularly interested me. As a Holocaust survivor, he's learned the harsh realities of the cruelty and hatred that can exist in the human mind. He shares Professor X's goals, but not his methods. His hatred and fear have twisted him to become exactly what he hates and fears.

  5. Being half chink, I was fortunate to be near white enough so that I missed the worst possible expressions of racial discrimination.
    Nevertheless, may I tender the following observations:

    1. As a woman, I'm sure you've experienced various forms of discrimination both here in the U.S. and overseas. As such, I'm equally sure that you have some emotional experience to draw on. Whether or not it's the *Right Stuff* to pour into your Meetis characters, however, is still unclear to me based on what you've written.

    Although I haven't studied linguistics, it seems to me that communications in general, and language in particular, are exercises in transplanting state information from one mind to another. English seems more than adequate at transferring fairly accurately non-emotional state information between two people. Like every other language that I am aware of, however, it is totally inadequate at accurately transferring emotional state between two people they happen to share some common experience that the language can reference. For example, as a woman, I'm sure that there is *IMPOSSIBLE* for you can ever tell me in any accurately way, what you felt when you gave birth to your children. OTOH, we *MIGHT* be able to accurately share how bad it was to lose someone close to us if we each when through such an experience.

    So far, you haven't mentioned anything to indicate you've gone through anything that's really all that close to your Meetis character is supposed to have gone through, and if you haven't, I doubt that you can ever give a realistic rendering of her that someone who has gone through gone through a similar experience won't detect isn't accurate.

    2. I'm sure that Mr. Flynn is correct about the difficultly of portraying someone you detest. As a non-writer I can offer no help/advice in doing so that you probably aren't aware of.

    However, it isn't necessary to concoct some hypothetical scenario to see a case where discrimination is done for what might reasonably be called *A Good Reason*. In this country, Women of child bearing age were excluded from a higher paying factory environment (a uranium processing plant, IIRC) because of the possibility of increased birth defects caused by that environment.

    3. No offense, Mr. Steffen, but you smell like a white man. I can't think of a single person who's experience any non-trivial (that's not the right way to say it ... but it'll have to do for now) amount of significant who thinks there's any complex about discrimination. The clothes may change, but what's in them doesn't.


  6. "Like every other language that I am aware of, however, it is totally inadequate at accurately transferring emotional state between two people [who] happen to share some common experience that the language can reference."

    Although I agree with the poster's statement, it is my understanding, despite only limited experience as a writer, that it is not a writer's goal to directly 'transfer emotional state', for the very reason that the above sentence states. Any attempts to do so would be ineffective.

    However, I do think that there is an attainable goal, even if it's only attainable by very skilled writers (and other artists), of causing the audience to re-create emotions in themselves similar to those the writer is trying to communicate -- albeit disconnected from reality.

    One simple method to do this, in this context, might be to relate events and facts similar to those the writer has experienced or at least observed in actual instances of discrimination. If the writer is good at his or her job, and is fortunate enough to have readers coming to his or her work without prejudice of what to expect, this should be sufficient. Those who have experienced discrimination this will recognize it immediately and empathize. Those who haven't experienced it may still recognize it, and understand what the writer is trying to portray. If the story fails, however, either at the author or the readers end of the communication chain, the reader may have a reaction similar to the poster's phrase "you smell like a white man".

    -- Irving Washington

  7. Interesting comments. I'll start by addressing Dave's points. Yes, indeed, you can set up really interesting internal conflicts for characters by putting them in situations like the one you've described. I think these are more common than not – anyone who doesn't agree with a prevailing societal view will be under pressure to agree with that view (even if they're not being pressured directly by specific individuals). It would be very easy to develop a bipolar set of reactions – and this is in fact what Meetis does. She's very meek generally in order to protect herself, even as she tries to understand the motives of the upper castes to anticipate what they will want and what they'll do.

    X-men puts discrimination issues out in a very clean and obvious way. Conceivably it may even intend to set up a well-ordered playing field to demonstrate discrimination for those who don't understand it as well. I think the character of Magneto is intended to evoke a real instance of racism to make the parallel explicit. Magneto's character seeks revenge, but his issues are more complicated than just social ones. I've never really tried to delve deeply into his motives, but he's experienced discrimination and persecution on two separate elements of his identity, which adds a layer of complexity there.

  8. Puppy, you bring up some interesting issues. One of the reasons I went into detail about my own experience as a "racial" minority in Japan was to show that I'm not entirely without experience in this regard. On the other hand, there is no way that I or anyone on Earth could experience what my character Meetis experiences – because this is a society I've created, and the expressions of caste discrimination bear similarity to Earth's, but are not the same. If you'll bear with me, I'll explain in a bit more detail how I feel about this issue.

    You make a statement about "transferring emotional states." As Irving Washington remarks, this is not in fact what is going on. Language evokes; it does not transfer. This is part of why misunderstandings occur so easily, I believe. Reading research suggests that a large part of the personal impact of a story comes from within the reader, rather than inside the text.

    I've had an experience that I'd definitely describe as inexplicable, ineffable – that of becoming a parent. The fact of the matter is, you can talk and listen all you want, but until you're doing it, the full impact just won't hit you. On the other hand, childless people can and do write successfully about the experience of having a child.

    Because of my background in anthropology and educational research, I'll compare this phenomenon to what I know: qualitative research. This is what people most commonly refer to as "field otes." When you're taking field notes, the idea is to cast as little meta-judgment as possible on what is going on, but to catalog the tiny details of a social situation that might have significance. Your instinctive read on the situation will give you an emotional reactoin, but readers of your research don't want to hear about how YOU felt about it. They want to know exactly what was going on. Thus, when taking these notes and writing them up, the primary aim for the researcher is to recreate the details of the situation, thereby allowing the details to evoke a similar reaction in the reader. In other words, not to try to convince the reader of something, but to give them enough evidence of it that they reach the same conclusion you do.

    Thanks again to everyone for their thoughtful contributions to this discussion.

  9. "On the other hand, there is no way that I or anyone on Earth could experience what my character Meetis experiences – because this is a society I've created, and the expressions of caste discrimination bear similarity to Earth's, but are not the same." I'll grant you that your world is what ever you say it is. But may I not so humbly suggest that if the characters in it are human, they should react just as humans do here under what are *LOGICAL EQUIVALENT* (not necessarily identical) conditions.

    If they don't, then I as a reader will likely ask myself why not and if I can't come up with a reason that sounds plausible to me based on what I've read in your story and what I know from education and experience, then there's a very good chance that I'll regard your character as unrealistic and will likely lose interest in them and the story (unless I've somehow become sympathetic in spite of the lack of realism as was the case with Harry Potter, et. al.).

    As for what other readers do or take away from your story, as far as I'm concerned, that's entirely up to them, and I don't see how anything I've said could be construed as suggesting otherwise. (I took your reading research reference to indicate that you think that I believe otherwise.) I have long been well aware of this as I've long known that what I feel when I listen to the lyrics of certain songs is exactly *OPPOSITE* of others and what I'm sure the song writer had in mine.

    With regard to your claim that my statement about "transferring emotional states" is wrong, I am not a linguist or a writer and do not know what has lead you to think that I am wrong. What I do know is that as a former software proctologist with an interest in the brain and the hard AI premise, I have seen the following in computers over and over again: invoking transfers, and in complex coordinated systems, invoking transfers state. One can quibble about how much is transferred, whether what was transferred makes it to its destination, whether what is transferred is sufficient to do what was intended, whether the resulting state is that which was intended by the transfer, but *NOT* that invoking transfers, including, at times, state. If you and Mr. Washington are adamant that I'm wrong on this, them we have reached an impasse.

    One reason why I'm so adamant about transferring emotional state," aside from believing that I am correct and don't want to be wrong, is that I don't understand how it is useful to you to assume/believe otherwise. Specifically, you say, "On the other hand, childless people can and do write successfully about the experience of having a child." Define "successfully." Compared to what and/or who? Are you saying that there are people with children who can not write about their experience in a way that is every bit as entertainingly, compellingly, cathartic, inspirational, and informatively as a childless person? And if as I think you're saying, you share more with people who have children than without, then why can't the former come up with something that's even more entertaining, compelling, cathartic, inspirational, and informative than the latter? And if they can, then by extrapolation (both in terms of logic and emotion) why doesn't it follow that *YOU* should be able to write a better Meetis character if you shared more with her in terms of logically equivalent experience, rather than simply (or not so simply) analyzing the crap out of her?

    Enquiring minds and all that.


  10. Not to monopolize your blog, but you originally asked, "Are any of you dealing with discrimination issues? I'd love to hear about it." I assume what you are doing is soliciting possible background material for your Meetis character. I'm not willing to air any such issues (old or new) here, but FWIW, let me give you my Reader's Digest Condensed version of the nature of discrimination and what it suggests to me about your Meetis character.

    First, the nature of discrimination is can be boiled down to five words: You're One of Them.
    That is, a person that's discriminated against is categorized as belonging to a particular group, and as a result of this categorization, the person stops being treated as an individual and is instead thought of and treated as if they were a generic instance of the group as a whole.

    You're black. You're One of Them ... lazy, slow, untrustworthy, usually hopped up on drugs ....

    You're oriental. You're One of Them ... pushy little know-it-alls, most of whom don't even bother to learn our language, who work for
    nothing displacing our kind ....

    You're a woman. You're One of Them ... emotional, irrational, man-hating bitches every time ....

    You're a man. You're One of Them ... lazy, inconsiderate, usually barely potty trained dogs that are only interested in one thing ....

    Don't like Them? Well, it's okay to hate Them, ignore Them, torment Them, treat Them inconsiderately, imprison Them.

    Feel superior to Them? Well, it's okay to be patronizing and assume you can make rules that apply only to Them.

    Fear Them? The sky's the limit.

    There's *NOTHING* complex about discrimination. *NOTHING*

    So, extrapolating this to Meetis, here are some things I wouldn't be surprised to find out about her:

    First and foremost, she knows what defines Them and she knows she's one of Them.

    Her "radar" is up at all times for others who are looking for Them. She'll likely know what condition(s) lead to an increased presence of
    those looking for Them and avoids them without good reason. She implicitly knows at all time whether or not she is outnumbered and modifies her behavior accordingly.

    She will tend to keep non-Them people at a distance and will have developed her own definition for the Them that have hurt her in the past (i.e. she
    discriminates herself in self defense even if she conceptually knows that it's wrong).

    Having been indoctrinated since consciousness that she's one of Them, whether she likes it not, she has probably unconsciously internalized some bullshit the others spew out about Them. At times, she'll have to make an effort to apply reason over the pre-programmed bullshit. In some cases, she'll still feel uneasy even though logically she shouldn't.

    How her family members react to her "subversiveness" likely depends on how close she is to them and how it is viewed in her environment. She may well hide it if she feels that it will hurt them or her, or she may not give a rat's ass what her family thinks. If she were asked who in her family would react badly to her subversiveness," she will be able to correctly name those individuals ... plus several more that wouldn't care.

    She will likely hide her "subversiveness" from non-family members until she's come to trust them enough to be open about it. Regardless of her social skills, the number of people she actually trusts to know it will tend to be low.

    She will tend to mistakenly assume that other people in the Them group knows what she feels like (i.e. she discriminates in favor of those
    she thinks are like herself). While this may often times be the case, it isn't always and if/when she runs into another Them who doesn't
    feel the way she does, she may react in a way that's disproportionate (e.g. excessively angry, hurt, betrayed).

    Finally, she's a girl so she will feel like a girl, meaning that whatever feelings you experienced while a girl are more likely to be
    on the mark than whatever feelings I experienced while a boy.


  11. "What I do know is that as a former software proctologist with an interest in the brain and the hard AI premise, I have seen the following in computers over and over again:"

    Computers/software do not think or communicate like humans and I doubt they ever will. That's why computers can be extraordinarily better at some things, like computing mathematical formulas with speed and accuraccy, but have trouble with vision. I mean, any human could look at a picture of a car, any model, any background, any lighting condition, and say "that's a car" with 100% accuracy. But to create something that did the same for a computer wouldn't be possible, at least at this point. Communications aren't done in the same way--an exact string of data is transferred, there's no "lost in translation".

    Connections in the human brain, are much much slower than a fast processor, but they're also massively parallel and associative, which is both a strength and a weakness. Also, there's much of the human brain that we still don't understand, while a processor is completely mapped, since humans design and manufacture it.

  12. As my reference to "hard AI" (or as it's now called "strong AI") should have lead you to suspect, Mr. Steffen, I disagree with your assessment.

    The reason why computers are better at somethings and humans are better than others is because they "evolved" in dramatically different environments which has led to dramatic differences in architecture. That evolution favored a fast serial processor in computers versus a slower massively parallel array in humans. However, there's no strong evidence I've seen the indicates the two aren't Turing equivalent which means that they both can do the *EXACTLY* the same things, but not at the same rate of speed.

    It's interesting that you should talk about visual recognition because that's been an area of much research and computers can be made/taught to recognize a car (or anything else you choose) in a noisy environment with very good accuracy. Neural nets modeled on parts of the brain and blackboard systems have been doing that for quite some time. Again, what can be done with such systems serially, can be done in parallel and vice versa (i.e. they are Turing equivalent) ... it's just a matter of how long it takes for one to do the job of the other.

    As for what we know about the human brain, I think that one neural research put it quite well when he basically said, "The brain is not a thinking machine that just happens to feel ... it is a feeling machine that just happens to think." There's a lot of emotion related hardware in the brain for which there has been no particular need to simulate in a computer.

    Of particular interest as it I believe it relates to this thread is what are called "mirror neurons." These neurons fire both when an animal takes an action and another animal *SEES* that action taken, in effect, "mirroring" one another in the different animals. It is believed that this may have something to do with why we are sympathetic/empathetic, and interestingly, "mirror neurons" fire off not just when we see an action, but also when we read about it. You can call this "invoking an emotional response" if you like, but I call it transplanting emotional state.


  13. So if there's no need for the emotional hardware in an AI system how are they analogous? It's such differences as the emotinoal hardware that make them different, and make an AI not a good basis for comparison.

    Besides the emotional differences, human communication is much more noisy than computer communication on the semantic level. The same word or phrase doesn't mean exactly the same thing to two people. If they did, then discussions like this wouldn't exist. We would all just understand each other immediately.

    Show me a system that can reliably recognize a vague object like a car in a variety of backgrounds/lighting/car models. I haven't seen one. ANN's will do it for their training set, I'm sure, but I have yet to see them do such a general task reliably.

  14. The absence of specialized "emotion" hardware in the brain which conceptually only speeds up that which can otherwise be done algorithmically in a computer means that the brain and a computer are still Turing equivalent. So long as they are both Turing equivalent, one is capable of doing *EXACTLY* what the other is capable of doing in functional terms, the only difference is how long it will take to get there from here. And as for them being Turing equivalence of the brain and a computer in the first place, I will simply note a computer can algorithmically simulate the function of a neuron or small groups of neurons to any degree of accuracy you desire so long as you're willing to wait long enough to see the result. (Unfortunately, going beyond small groups take a *LONG* time, but again, this does nothing to effect the Turing equivalence.) And it is because of Turing equivalence that your argument about AIs (by which I assume you really mean the the ability to apply computer principles to understand the human brain) is simply wrong.

    As for the human communications being much noisier (by which I assume you mean there's more ambiguity involve) than with computer communications, I agree, but that in no way constitutes proof that computers can't deal with such communications, at least in principle, if you were willing to wait long enough to see the result or if they were equipped with speed up hardware comparable to what a human has. For evidence they should be able to deal with the ambiguity of spoken speech, all I have to do is to think back to the blackboard system Hearsay-II's ability to respond to spoken queries for information present in a database. That was back in the '70s.

    As for the ambiguity of words/phrases/sentences somehow being the sole source of human understand, this is clearly wrong as can easily be demonstrated if you (like me) have ever listened to the lyrics of a song and felt differently after at different times even though your interpretation of the meaning of the words didn't change. The same words/phrases/sentences with the same degree of ambiguity producing heard by the same hardware (the listener) yet having a different emotional response (understanding). In my case, there is one set of lyrics I'm sure that the writer intended to encourage fear and yet when I'm in a particular mood, it invokes longing.

    As for showing you a [computer] system that "can reliably recognize a vague object like a car in a variety of backgrounds/lighting/car models" I recall that back in the '70s, MIT was playing with a system that would break down a scene into its constituent parts (points, edges, etc.) and use them to recognize objects within the scene ... basically how the human brain does the same task. I don't recall what happened to it, but since you've already acknowledged that ANNs can do the job of recognizing an object when trained, I get the sense that you won't be satisfied with anything less than a [computer] system that works as well as a human, which is something I've already acknowledged does not yet exist. (Certainly ANNs are capable of recognizing beyond their training set as you should know if you've read anything about them and certainly the fact that they have to be trained can't be held against them since babies don't automatically recognize cars either.) So I'll leave it as an exercise to you to poke into object recognition if you're really interested. However, FWIW, here's a link to something MIT announced a few years ago:


  15. Thanks for your contributions, Dave and Puppy. I'm sorry that my absence has made it hard for me to enter into the discussion to this point. I will begin by noting that artificial intelligence is not my area of expertise, but that language and its interpretation most definitely is.

    Part of what science fiction and fantasy set out to do is to set common elements of human experience against widely differing backgrounds. This is in part why so many authors spend so much time talking about characters, their goals, their emotional states, and what they stand to lose - because these are the elements that human beings share and care deeply about. In my experience, this caring about characters is one of the main drivers for a reader in following a story, regardless of the trappings set around it. If we had somehow to duplicate existing human experiences, science fiction and fantasy wouldn't exist as genres.

    As far as portraying the unfamiliar successfully, I suppose you could say that commercial success might be one measure of that. The way I measure it would be whether I feel a personal resonance when I read a story. For example, the book Memoirs of a Geisha was written by a caucasian male, yet it evoked the dilemmas and personal experiences of a Japanese female in ways that I found very successful, for I was entirely submerged by the experience of that book (and I do know a bit about being female, and about Japan, as has been previously remarked).

    Dave made a comment about the ambiguity of words, which you appear to have interpreted as meaning that words have connotations - but I'm not sure whether that was what he meant. Here's how I understand what he was saying (it is something I've discussed here on the blog previously, if you'd like to go looking). Words do not have single meanings. Their meanings are not simply dictionary meanings, and are not simply a list of dictionary meanings plus accepted connotations. For each individual, hearing or reading a word invokes every possible context-based meaning that that particular person has encountered for that word. This explains the phenomenon that you mentioned, where a person hears the words of a song and they have a different personal meaning at different points in the listener's life. This also links in with what I was saying about reading research. Words in the text, and phrases, situations etc. carry basic meanings but also pull up associations with the reader's life experience.

  16. So to follow on, because of the complexity of human experience, there can be no precise logical equivalency between one person's experience and another's.

    When it comes to the question of whether someone with children should be able to evoke parenthood more successfully than a non-parent, I think it boils down to that person's skill in making observations and writing about them. Common experiences and the ability to express them are two different kinds of resources.

    One final set of thoughts on creating characters (like Meetis). I generally approach things from two directions: one analytical, and one on the gut level. Each one has its contributions, but when I'm writing scenes, the instinctive is generally in charge. Other writers may experience this divide differently.

    Your list of "Them"s was definitely a good one, and I think you're right on target in pointing out how people assign others to "us" and "them" groups. The examples you cite are good ones, but definitely associated with the contemporary United States. When you're working with a created world, simple words like "us" and "them" have different definitions, that cluster with connotations and past experiences associated with a life in that society. There are basic common elements, which is one reason why people use discrimination so often as a theme or plot element in writing. The complexities lie in the context surrounding it - the different labels applied, the different locations associated with particular groups (districts, etc.). Meetis in particular lives in a society where there are seven different caste levels, which means there are different definitions for each of these types of people - and though the groups remain consistent, each group has a different set of "other" type labels for the groups that are not their own. There are also (as in our world) appropriate and inappropriate ways to speak to people according to their status etc.

    I hope that addresses some of your issues. I hope also that other readers here will feel welcome, and unthreatened, in making contributions to the conversation.

  17. Juliette,
    That is exactly what I meant by words having different meanings to different people. Because our memories are associative, and we all have had different experiences, an entirely different set of associations will occur for each person.

    This is not the case with computer to computer communications where data is data is data. The data transferred is the data received.

  18. Thank you for your replies, Ms. Wade.

    I take it that we are at an impasse regarding the nature of communications and language and so shall not trouble you further on the subject.

    With regard to the ambiguity of words, from what you've said (and what Mr. Steffen has agreed with), I understood what he meant before. I am well aware of the fact that words can have multiple commonly accepted means and connotations, and that depending on the choice of the means and connotations a person selects, one can come up to a different understand of what a message (sentence or phrase) ... hence the "beauty" some find in poetry.

    However, to assert that without this ambiguity we would all understand each other perfectly was and is simply wrong. Here, I believe I'm echoing what your reading research reference in that it sounds like it is saying that the meaning of a message to a particular reader of the message is entirely up to that reader, which I entirely agree with. The extreme example that demonstrates this is what someone who is schizophrenic might make of a message or even a blank sheet of paper.

    That this can happen in a non-schizophrenic case was made especially clear to me by the "For Nothing" by Amanda McBroom (who's most famous song is "The Rose"). This song begins:

    White shadow on a blackened wall
    Picture of a young boy standing tall
    Pointing skyward where ashes fall
    On Nothing

    Are we gone without a trace?
    A burning ball in empty space?
    Even God turns away His face
    From Nothing

    Ms. McBroom goes on to try to try describe the nothingness which I suspect she wants the listener to fear or at least sense as *Bad* in some sense:

    No more courage
    No more fears
    No more passion
    No more tears
    All that loves just disappears
    In Nothing

    The memories of what we dared
    The way we hoped
    The way we cared
    And all the noble dreams we shared
    Are Nothing

    While I always understand the words the same way each time I hear them, and at times understand the nothingness is something to be avoided, at others, it something to be longed for with almost every fiber of my being.

    Another example is the message left behind by a mother who killed herself:

    And then the day came when the pain it took to hang on
    Was far greater than the pain it took to let go

    With all due respect to your abilities as a linguist and your experience as a mother, you won't understand either of these examples in the same way that I and some others do, and that's not because of the ambiguity in the words or their connotations ... it has to do with the emotional state (mood) of the reader.

    As for your Meetis character and "us" versus "Them," thank you for your encouraging comment. Once again, to do my bit to prove the old adage about no good deed going unpunished, let me note one thing further: The criteria used in the categorization is not orthogonal as we computer weenies like to say. Using my previous examples, one can be both black and a woman. Hopefully, then you will not neglect in your story the discrimination that can take place within a caste.

    As for other readers of your blog feeling welcome and non-threatened to make contributions, I certainly hope that anyone who wants to will make a contribution. However, as Happy Rhodes said in her song, "Words are made for cowards, There's no room to hide behind ...." To me, if someone writes something that is questionable or writes that they feel that something I wrote is questionable, I think it reasonable to question or defend as appropriate. Obviously, since this is your blog, if you'd prefer that I don't, I will respect your wishes and bow out.


  19. "This is not the case with computer to computer communications where data is data is data. The data transferred is the data received."

    Incorrect on both count.

    In the case of the former, bits have not intrinsic meaning to a (binary) computer except with the context of their usage. A particular bit sequence may be used to represent some type of number in one instance, a string of symbols in another, or some form of instruction in yet different instance. And it is not at all uncommon these days for entities called "objects" to retain hidden which alters the meaning ascribed to a bit sequence (e.g. output stream processing).

    As for data being transferred being data received, I suggest that you look into "Error Correction Codes" work at sometime.


  20. Puppy,

    You said, "However, to assert that without this ambiguity we would all understand each other perfectly was and is simply wrong." Fortunately, I've made no such assertion. In fact, I think we are in agreement on the meanings that different people can derive from poetry (as much as from other forms of language up to and including this blog!).

    I don't think this is the proper venue for your discussion of the nature of computer communication. I hope you will feel welcome to make constructive contributions on other topics.



  21. Wow. Intense debate going on here. I'm going to stay out of it since I'm not really qualified.

    Speaking of not being qualified, I wrote a post on my book review site on your story Cold Words. Rather than actually critiquing your story (I wouldn't presume,) it's more praise/homage to your skills and a kind of repayment for the service you perform by hosting this blog and imparting knowledge to aspiring writers like myself.

    If you'd like, you can check it out here:

    Keep in mind I really don't have any readers, and I'm not really going for the "critic" role or anything. My blog is just something I do for the fun of it. (So don't judge me too harshly.)

  22. Thanks, Colin! That's very kind of you, and I appreciate it a lot.

  23. No problem Juliette. It's the absolute least I can do.

    Btw, hope you're having a good time in Australia!

  24. I mean, any human could look at a picture of a car, any model, any background, any lighting condition, and say "that's a car" with 100% accuracy.

    Really? *Any* human? A partially sighted human? A blind human? Or are those with less than 20/20 vision not human in your understanding of the world?

    You see the point? Everyone has unconscious prejudices. I understand exactly what you mean, and in context you're right. But I know that I can't identify objects, pictured or real world, with 100% accuracy. So, my prejudices or preconceptions if you prefer are necessarily different from those of a fully sighted person.

    I find attempts of sighted authors to write from the perspective of blind characters, insofar as any sighted authors I've come across do so, to be less than successful. At the same time, I often write from the perspective of young men even though I have no experience of being a young man. In my own defense, male readers don't seem to have problems with my male characters. Maybe transgender differences are easier to surmount than differences between able bodied/sighted and disabled/blind? I don't know. Certainly, many female authors successfully create male characters and the reverse.

    If Jung is to be believed there is, to put it crudely, a man in every woman and a woman in every man. Thus, the other is not wholly alien. Whereas, disability seems very alien to many able bodied, alien and frightening. And what we humans fear, we tend to villify, demonize, ultimately objectify. "Them" is as totally unlike "us" as possible. They have to be. Otherwise, if there were any commonality whatever, our treatment of them would be unjustified and unjustifiable.

    I do know that straight, able bodied white men have less experience of being on the receiving end of discrimination than does, say, any woman. At the same time, discrimination can, sometimes, be in the eye of the beholder. Take Mike's apparently casual equation of gender discrimination with simple, old fashioned gallentry. I'm not going to call every guy who holds a door for me, or helps me on with my coat, or stands back and lets me go first a filthy male chauvinist pig. Quite the reverse, actually. I see no reason why gender equality should trump good manners. Of course, I am a Medievalist by training... *grin*

  25. Catreona,

    I really appreciate you coming to comment, since you have a unique perspective on this question. I think this is one of the best possible arguments for in-depth research on characters unlike oneself. So far as possible, I think it would be highly valuable to seek out people who have had the experience you're trying to capture, and listen to the way they speak about it.

    The question of gallantry is a tough one, because whether gallantry is interpreted as good or bad is all a matter of context and interpretation between the individuals involved! I can't say I mind a little help now and then, when I have my arms full...

  26. Hi Juliette. Sorry I've been away so long. The time hasn't been entirely wasted, though. Marooner's Haven, the title I finally settled on for my Nova Britannia story, is coming along nicely. Still several million light years from being finished, you understand, but coming along.

    So, you're having a good time down under?

  27. Catreona,

    I've seen you here and there on the Analog forum, so I knew you were still around! I'm glad the story is coming along; this is excellent. I know sometimes writing has to take precedence over things like forum-hopping. You have none of the obligations to comment here that I have! Anyway, it's a pleasure to see you.

    Yes, we're enjoying our time in Australia. My kids are trying to pick up the accent, which is just lovely. Lots of adventures.

  28. Quite a lively debate here!

    My story is an exploration of descrimination and prejudice and the effect that has on groups and individuals.

    In this world, homosexuality is punished by death, and this has been a hard sell for a lot of people. As a lesbian who has had a gun pulled on her more than once for being so, that part wasn't such a stretch for me.

    To my surprise, I actually love exploring my antagonist's POV. My antogonist believes he is doing the right thing to try to cure my protagonist of her deviancy. I'd hate him in real life, but I'm fascinated by his story.


  29. Thanks for your comment, K.
    I agree that plumbing the motivations of an antagonist can be a fascinating process.

    I'm really glad we've had so many different kinds of discrimination brought up in this discussion. This is something so pervasive in the human condition that it's no wonder it's such a rich source of inspiration for conflict in fiction.

  30. It's interesting, as a straight white male, I feel like it's pretty true that I've had very little experience with real discrimination (hence my earlier comment about not being qualified.) Even being Jewish I haven't experienced any real negative effects in that regard. The only thing that I have experienced to any degree is reverse racism. Being picked on (putting it lightly) by members of a minority group specifically because I am a straight white male. But, this was early in life, on the playgrounds and such... more recenlty, in my adult life, I don't really see any of that, nor do I see much discrimination of others. And this may be related to where I live. I think in a city environment where there is a wide diversity of ethnic and cultural backgrounds and where there is enough room for people to spread out, these kinds of things are kept to a minimum. It could also be that I've learned to keep my head down and just don't notice it, and the fact that I am not really a target for it, I can avoid it.

    Does all of this mean I can't write about the topic succesfully? Maybe. Although, I feel that anyone can write about anything successfully given enough devotion to the topic. Were I to spend a good portion of my life researching discrimination, I feel that I could potentially write about it succesfully. It is our nature to be empathetic, and that is exactly what makes fiction writing possible, and reading fiction enjoyable.

  31. K, if homosexuality is punishable by death, then your antagonist probably thinks he is saving her life.

    Not to mention the satisfaction some people get from saving others from deviancy and sin (real or imagined).

    People you would hate in real life are often the most interesting characters.

    The Chinese curse "May you live in interseting times" comes to mind.

  32. Discrimination is a really hard subject to talk about outside your core group IRL. The high emotions raised in the comments here are pretty typical, I'd say. I think SF/F give us a way to explore these difficult subjects on safer ground. Kudos to you, Juliette, for willing to take it on in your blog!


  33. Thanks, everyone, and sorry I've been incommunicado for a few days. I think there are a lot of ways to deal with this topic fruitfully, from whatever perspective you happen to be closest to. David Marshall, you're right on that K has some great potential issues to work with in her story. I'm looking forward to seeing it, K!