Thursday, June 5, 2014

Cultural Ideologies: A Dive into Worldbuilding! Hangout Report with VIDEO

I was joined for this discussion by Glenda Pfeiffer, Lillian Csernica, Lesley Smith, and Reggie Lutz, who were all just wonderful and helped me have a great hangout on a pretty rocky day.

We started out by referencing a post I made early on at TalkToYoUniverse, called Don't make them all the same. One of the points made in that article is that social groups, which will often have "values" that all their members supposedly hold, are not as uniform as you might imagine. Some members of the group will likely be totally bought into the group's ideological statements, and maybe even justify their actions based on their group membership, but not all! In fiction, far too many characters fall into that pattern of using identity to justify actions, rather than using personal convictions that have grown out of a complex relationship with one's own identity.

Lillian mentioned her protagonist in Sword Master, Flower Maiden, who both belongs and doesn't, because she is an Englishwoman who was brought up as Japanese from a young age. She has to play by the rules but can't use her non-Japanese identity to justify any part of her behavior. She has to honor her obligations anyway.

Glenda mentioned individuals who are cross-cultural as having reasons to question their own ostensible ideologies.

In young adult fiction we often see young men and women struggling against the expectations that society holds for them.

When it comes to farmboys turned mage/hero, however, there seems to be little conflict explored except for a sort of general nostalgia. If you must take a farmboy and turn him into a mage or hero, I'd love to see you delve a bit deeper into the cultural mindset of the farm and see how that influences events!

Lesley mentioned how a lot of people in stories want powers but don't want to consider the crap that might come with them.  Lillian felt that the new Superman was, also, because he was trying not to show his powers. The X-men is a notable exception to this, since mutant powers are seen as bad in the general society and different members of the group approach their mutant identities in different ways (Magneto vs. Professor X alone is an excellent example). Mutants are victims of ideology and struggle with their own identities, whether they can "pass," etc. Spiderman is also notable for portraying a superhero who has nonetheless to maintain a normal life (make money, take out the trash, etc.).

Where do ideological divisions in a society come from? They grow out of a historical context. This historical context often involves past wars and imperialism, greed over resources. Wars lead to "othering" or demonizing of the enemy, and the effects of that demonization last for an indefinite period of time. Lesley asked whether there was such a thing as a just war. When is war justified? Can it be? Is the justification for a war just another kind of ideological stance? Wars lead to stereotyping and lasting animosity between social groups. There is also a kind of cultural ideology that develops within military groups, which soldiers carry home with them after the war is ostensibly over. Soldiers are affected, but so are civilian populations. Reggie mentioned the British empire, and problems faced by British people living in Africa after the empire had withdrawn.

After that we moved on to sexism, that ideological monster from our own world. Lillian mentioned that often modern veterinary schools still have student spaces reserved for men. Glenda described this as due to a belief that large animal veterinarians "require strength," which of course implies that women do not have this.

Women have the vote, but only because of the tireless bravery of the suffragettes. And even though we have the vote, women can still all too easily fall into the ideology of patriarchy and vote against their best interests. We still have inequity. People look for all kinds of evidence of gender, not just physiology, to draw distinctions and change their behavior. Women in sports are invasively checked if they appear too strong. These kinds of trends, and others, can be extrapolated into a fictional world.

What is the consensus reality of history in your world?

Reggie told us about a project she is working on that has a "high group" restoring a city while the villagers around the city subsist and then are asked to help with the restoration and feel obliged to comply. There is another group of people, the hunters, with slightly different beliefs. All of these people share the ideology that places the restorers on top until something happens to cause them to ask questions. There is lost history. As far as the population knows, there were no wars after the cataclysm that caused current conditions on their world. The challenge for her as a writer is to leave the traces of history without creating a sense that these people have a general education or knowledge of their history.

Glenda mentioned how political borders are often created by outsiders, as when Europeans came in and divided up territories they colonized without any regard for cultural identities. This created national boundaries that don't reflect the identities of the people living within them. This can be a problem any time the colonizer is drawing the maps. Lesley had recently learned about the colonization of the United States, which involved many of the same phenomena: the English took over and cut things up. I mentioned the exception of West Virginia, which is ideologically interesting in and of itself because it took place legally during the Civil War and then remained that way permanently.

We spoke about the idea of separation of church and state. The tension between the two has existed in changing states for thousands of years. In the US, the introduction of the word "God" in the pledge of allegiance was an ideological response to the perceived threat of communism, which was associated with the word "godless." Thus, counter-protestations came to use the word "God" by purposeful disassociation, even though they are parameters that vary mostly independently.

If you are looking to examine the ideology of empires, it's good to look up the British Empire, but also the US concept of manifest destiny.

If you want to see a great example of the imperialist mindset examined in fiction, I highly recommend Ann Leckie's Nebula award-winning novel, Ancillary Justice.

Lesley brought up the contrast between the Scots independence movement and the Indian independence movement, which would be fascinating topics to research.

Glenda remarked that there seems to be a "new" idea that political boundaries are permanent and can't be changed. I speculated that perhaps this consciousness had been strengthened after World War II.

Also, if you will be working with ideologies in a fictional environment, it's good to ask, "How are these ideologies taught?" Sometimes they are taught explicitly in schools or by mentors, as with Lillian's character Tendo who has grown up in bushido. They are taught by parents and older siblings. Also by schools, and by media, in various ways. These messages sneak in all around us, like gender roles and expected behaviors, etc. It's good to consider how such teaching would take place in your world.

As often happens, we reached the end of the hour and felt like we'd just gotten started! Thanks again to everyone who attended - it was a pleasure to have you there.

Today at 11am Pacific we'll be discussing Domesticated Animals, so I hope to see you there!



  1. The Russian Empire might be good to look at as a contrast to Britain and the US.

    1. Good suggestion, Atsiko. Thanks for your comment!