?

Log in

No account? Create an account
If the Grand High Whatsit says so, it must be...a) so, b) crap, c) said by him. - Barnstorming on an Invisible Segway [entries|archive|friends|userinfo]
Marissa Lingen

[ website | My Website ]
[ userinfo | livejournal userinfo ]
[ archive | journal archive ]

If the Grand High Whatsit says so, it must be...a) so, b) crap, c) said by him. [Sep. 13th, 2011|07:47 am]
Marissa Lingen
[Tags|, , ]

I made something like this as a comment to a locked post, and I had a request to take it public where someone could point at it, so here we are:

I think one of the easiest things to get wrong about depicting other people's belief systems is how to predict how much they will follow what they say they will follow. When you're talking about someone from the same larger cultural umbrella as yourself, it's much easier: I have a sense, for example, of how much my Catholic friends and neighbors will change their mind on an issue if the Pope issues a new ex cathedra statement about it. I know what the range of responses will be for Midwestern American Lutherans if the ELCA comes out with a resolution, or if their own pastor preaches a sermon. But I find this much harder to predict with a religion or other belief system I'm less familiar with, and I think it's simultaneously disrespectful to assume that members of group X will do exactly what their holy book, leader, etc. tell them to because clearly they don't have minds of their own, or to assume that members of group X will ignore their holy book, leader, etc., because clearly they don't take that stuff seriously.

And that sort of stated or implied reasoning is big part of the problem. I know that a lot of my Catholic friends and neighbors disagree with the Pope because they're devout and believe their interpretation of human sexuality or other human rights issues is a better expression of Catholicism than his. But if I don't know a lot of, say, Japanese animists, and I come up with something that is supposedly a deeper expression of their animism than the stated beliefs, then I have fallen into the smelly pit known as What These People Need Is A Honky. (Or a Gentile. Or just My Brilliant Self; this is not limited to non-white groups.) I have been in arguments with people who decided they knew what I thought and believed better than I did, and it was condescending and unpleasant. I don't care to be that person.

Which doesn't mean I'm off the hook for depicting people from more distant/different belief systems--and on the up side, figuring out the details of this sort of thing is one of the more interesting parts of making up a belief system. I've just been thinking of this as one of the hard bits to remind myself so I don't default to behaving as though fake fantasy religions are all approximately Midwestern American Protestantism in funny hats.

This was not part of my original comment, but I wonder if this kind of mismatch in how much to assume people "mean it" and which directions of "meaning it" they will follow is part of the disconnect in how we talk about politics and religion in this country. Various subcultures have different assumptions about what to take literally that don't always match up very well.
LinkReply

Comments:
[User Picture]From: cathshaffer
2011-09-13 01:16 pm (UTC)
It's always interesting to try to reconstruct the context for something like this. Critiques of belief systems you don't subscribe to and participate in are almost always derailments from wherever the discussion started.
(Reply) (Thread)
[User Picture]From: mrissa
2011-09-13 01:57 pm (UTC)
Yah, I think a lot of times we should be steering clear of critiques of belief systems not our own in fiction. Not always, of course--sometimes there are cogent things to say that don't come out preachy or undermine whatever story is there. But the same behaviors that can look like accurate portrayal of a person who holds a particular belief system when we know a lot about that belief system and the culture surrounding it pretty quickly look like critiques instead when we're shakier.

Research is our friend, but this is the hard kind of research, much harder than looking up official positions.
(Reply) (Parent) (Thread)
[User Picture]From: cathshaffer
2011-09-13 02:02 pm (UTC)
In fiction? Yes, that's a minefield.
(Reply) (Parent) (Thread)
[User Picture]From: shweta_narayan
2011-09-13 10:04 pm (UTC)
but this is the hard kind of research, much harder than looking up official positions.

And it's a kind I'm setting myself up for, along with (probably) much screwing up and rethinking along the way. This is really helpful thinky food for it :)
(Reply) (Parent) (Thread)
[User Picture]From: freelikebeer
2011-09-13 01:33 pm (UTC)

My post-structuralist thinking self ...

thinks that it is natural to assume that there will be an impedance mismatch between circuits connected at just one point. And then, that it should be assumed and either one circuit should be reengineered to match the other [learning] or that there needs to be an adapter [translation]. And maybe even some of one and one of the other.
(Reply) (Thread)
[User Picture]From: kizmet_42
2011-09-13 02:02 pm (UTC)
I frequent an atheist web forum regularly where your bit of wisdom is daily ignored. Having read the Bible from their perspective, they believe they understand everything that any Christian must do, say, believe. Lacking context, they fail to understand the point you're making.

I wonder if this kind of mismatch in how much to assume people "mean it" and which directions of "meaning it" they will follow is part of the disconnect in how we talk about politics and religion in this country. Various subcultures have different assumptions about what to take literally that don't always match up very well.

This I would post on my Twitter, if I had one.
(Reply) (Thread)
[User Picture]From: aedifica
2011-09-13 02:53 pm (UTC)
Wow. I think *anyone* who reads the Bible and thinks they know what a Christian must do (etc) is... I'm not sure what word I want to use here, but "impressive" works. It's not a particularly unified text, that. (And I say that as someone who majored in Religious Studies with an emphasis on Christianity [mostly ancient] and Judaism.)
(Reply) (Parent) (Thread)
[User Picture]From: kizmet_42
2011-09-13 03:52 pm (UTC)
I have a word for it: asinine.
(Reply) (Parent) (Thread)
[User Picture]From: mrissa
2011-09-13 02:59 pm (UTC)
I have seen this happen, and I think it's an excellent example. It's the same line of thinking that leads Christians to treat the Talmud and the Qu'ran both as though they are the New Testament: people say, "If I said I believed in this book, what would that mean for my behavior?" And then they don't ask the next questions: "How is this person who is making this statement using it differently than I would?" and "What else does this person believe in?"
(Reply) (Parent) (Thread)
[User Picture]From: columbina
2011-09-13 03:56 pm (UTC)
I would note that there are any number of politicians who are not helping ease this situation by always hewing - in public - to the hardest, most literal, most dogmatic line they can find. I'm not sure why they do this, nor why it doesn't piss off more of their followers than it attracts.

I admit that I'm thinking of certain odious Republican political candidates at the moment, because last night's debates are on my mind, but the problem is not historically confined to them. Still, to use one of them as an example: Does Michelle Bachmann talk hate for homosexuals because she genuinely believes that her faith prohibits homosexuality? Does she believe her potential voters believe that? Do her potential voters believe that SHE believes that? Who is playing a guessing game here, who is lying for effect, and will it ultimately turn out to be a beneficial tactic for her or a mistake?

There are times when I would really like to be able to use telepathic emanations or a crystal ball and find out what someone's internal ideology REALLY is.
(Reply) (Parent) (Thread)
[User Picture]From: mrissa
2011-09-13 04:51 pm (UTC)
Well, to a certain extent I just don't care. If she doesn't really believe gay people are all that bad but is willing to screw them over anyway? Hell with her.

It's when people start to try to use this as an excuse for a candidate they wish to support that I start to get really bothered. "Well, you know they have to say that, but once they're in office they'll quietly let the issue die." I know there are cases where that's true, but betting on someone's insincerity as a positive thing is...iffy at best.

Anyway, I know why they do it: because they fear that nuance will get lost, or worse, cut so that it appears to say something it didn't say. If you say, "ALL GAYS SUCK," it's hard for someone to cut the footage on the news channels so that it looks like you said, "Americans who are homosexual, or who have homosexual urges...should come to my house...for pizza."
(Reply) (Parent) (Thread)
[User Picture]From: columbina
2011-09-13 03:46 pm (UTC)
I tend to assume, until proven otherwise, that the ratios along the curve of "always follow dogma" at one end to "never follow dogma" at the other end are roughly the same for any religion - that is, the curve for Catholics looks roughly the same as the curve for Buddhists looks roughly the same as the curve for the Muslims, and so on.

I also tend to assume that the curve is basically bell-shaped and that the bulge in the middle therefore consists of people who pick and choose which parts of the dogmatic rules of their faith they personally care to observe.

These may not either of them be *absolutely true* assumptions, but so far they seem to have been useful rules of thumb and have kept me out of trouble in various ways.
(Reply) (Thread)
[User Picture]From: mrissa
2011-09-13 04:53 pm (UTC)
But it's multidimensional. Which parts of the dogma do the people in the middle consider essential and normal, and which is the weird stuff only their fundy-equivalents believe? Sometimes hard to say.
(Reply) (Parent) (Thread)
[User Picture]From: cakmpls
2011-09-13 10:05 pm (UTC)
This is pretty much what I was thinking.

It's likely, ISTM, that for any belief system (not just religion) for which there is a "standard"--whether that is a living person or a volume of revealed truth or whatever--there exists a full range of adherents and nonadherents to it who still identify themselves as members. Therefore, I think that a writer has a lot of leeway in presenting a character who is a Flurbik, as to how much or how little, or which parts, of the Great Book of Flurbik Truth this particular Flurbik actually believes, purports to believe, lives according to, and so on. Where the writer errs, I think--and this is so even if the writer is a Flurbik--is in presenting the Flurbik's beliefs/actions as being necessarily what they are by the simple fact of Flurbikness.
(Reply) (Parent) (Thread)
[User Picture]From: rysmiel
2011-09-13 04:58 pm (UTC)
Indeed, I often find my Irish Catholic upbringing-based reflexes turn out to be off with regard to how US Catholics of my acquaintance approach some important stuff, so even thinking one has the same upbringing is no surety here.
(Reply) (Thread)
[User Picture]From: mrissa
2011-09-13 05:35 pm (UTC)
Right, I think it got a little lost, but I do feel that I am much better at predicting the range for my Catholic friends and neighbors than for Catholics in Poland, Ireland, and Sri Lanka.
(Reply) (Parent) (Thread)
[User Picture]From: columbina
2011-09-13 07:03 pm (UTC)
I would go even further than that and subdivide "US Catholics." If you'll allow me the caveat that these are generalizations and full of holes, as generalizations are: I grew up in Louisiana, where (in general) the Catholics are laid-back, forgiving people who sin their sins as they choose and repent at leisure, and the Baptists (Southern Baptist Conference type) are blood-and-fire hardliners who forgive nothing.

Then I moved to Boston, and encountered Boston Catholics and several families of New Hampshire Baptists (American Baptist Conference type), and it was shocking how totally reversed the stereotypical situation up here was.
(Reply) (Parent) (Thread)
[User Picture]From: columbina
2011-09-13 07:04 pm (UTC)
[Of course, one could argue with justification that the differences between those two groups of Catholics are actually just French Catholicism vs Irish Catholicism in very thin disguise.]
(Reply) (Parent) (Thread)
[User Picture]From: rikibeth
2011-09-15 12:50 am (UTC)
with the caveat of me being an outsider, I think you've nailed that one RIGHT THERE.
(Reply) (Parent) (Thread)
(Deleted comment)
[User Picture]From: mrissa
2011-09-13 10:38 pm (UTC)
I did the Girl Scout version of that as a small child.

Seriously, there is a Girl Scout pin you can earn by doing all sorts of other things that include visits to faith services from faith traditions not your own. Its existence is one of the many reasons I approve of GSUSA.
(Reply) (Parent) (Thread)
(Deleted comment)
[User Picture]From: mrissa
2011-09-13 10:57 pm (UTC)
Probably depends a bit on where you live! "Your local faith traditions (that can be reasonably found without Knowing People)" will vary a lot throughout the US. Still not approaching your convention level, I will agree.
(Reply) (Parent) (Thread)