Robert E. Heinlein and the hubris of the present, part III

Jim Hines writes his own thoughts on Robert E. Heinlein, and links to one of my posts in the process, so I thought I’d consider two of his points here.

1. “[I]t is fallacious to judge deceased writers by the political fads and fashions of the modern era.”  I.e., it’s unfair to judge Heinlein, because his work is “a product of the time.”

Taking that train of thought further, is it unfair to judge the American colonists for the attempted genocide of the Native Americans, because that was just a product of the time?  Is it unfair to condemn slavery, because times were different back then?

Historical context is important.  It’s also good to recognize the lens through which we’re analyzing a text, whether that lens is political, theoretical, or whatever.  And I’m well aware that many countries view the United States’ attitudes toward racism and sexism as a bit wacky.  But to claim that just because your perspective is, like Heinlein’s, grounded in a particular time and culture, it’s therefore invalid and/or fallacious is … well, a little silly.

There’s a substantial difference between “not enough diversity for 21st century sensibilities” and “advocating genocide and enslavement”. The inability to distinguish between the two causes no end of problems. Perhaps the difficulty is linguistic; people use the word “sexist” or the phrase “a hatred for women” both to describe a movie where a helpless woman is rescued from malefactors by a strong man and “Saw”-style sadistic torture pornography. No one with a sound conscience will argue that “Saw” does not express a hatred for women (or, indeed, for all of humanity), but it’s rather hard to apply that to, say, “Super Mario Brothers”.* But because “racist” and “sexist” are such emotionally charged words, it becomes difficult to use them to convey clear meaning. (More on that below.)

The crux of contention for point one is whether one regards the customs of the “academic, literary, gender/race/orientation obsessed tribe“, as Sarah Hoyt describes the tribe, as a logical and intellectually valid paradigm for examining literature.

I do not – but that’s off-topic for this blog.

2. Then there’s “How dare you call Heinlein sexist?”

There is a valid point here.  As an author, it makes me uncomfortable when people blur the work with the writer.  I’d hate to think of someone reading the goblin books and deciding Jim C. Hines is a closet cannibal, for example.  The work =/= the writer, and I think we need to be aware of that distinction.

But there are those who’ll say “racist” or “sexist” are the nuclear option, nothing but insults intended to destroy the recipient.  If you dare utter those words, you aren’t interested in conversation or discussion; you’re just name-calling, trying to slander poor Burroughs.

…which makes it kind of difficult to talk about issues of race and gender and discrimination and so on.  But then, sometimes I think that’s the point: to shut down discussion.

Accusations of racism and sexism are the nuclear option, because when successfully delivered, they can inflict heavy social and financial costs upon the recipient. It is quite possible to get someone fired with an accusation of racism or sexism, and with the economy ruined this carries the risk of irretrievable lifelong financial reversal. As for calling deceased writers racist or sexist, even reading a book deemed racist or sexist can carry a heavy social cost. Jim writes that he hopes no one would mistake him or his readers for cannibals based upon his “Goblin” books; such an accusation, of course, would be ludicrous. (One hopes.)  But consider the case of the university of janitor and student who almost got fired for reading a book about the Ku Klux Klan riots at Notre Dame in the 1920s. The book was against the Klan, yet the janitor almost lost his job because some of his fellow employees decided that the book constituted racial harassment and complained. Now suppose someone sees an employee reading Heinlein’s “The Moon Is A Harsh Mistress” in his car over lunch and complains to HR of sexual harassment. That employee is at real risk of losing his job. So it is both logical and rational for people to respond defensively to accusations of sexism or racism (or accusations of sexism and racism against their favorite writers).

Finally, one personal opinion: one of the cornerstone beliefs of 21st century liberalism is that consenting adults have the right to do anything they want, and so long as basic safety parameters are met no one can object for any reason whatsoever. Given Heinlein’s favorable view of sexual liberation, it seems odd to see him castigated for sexism.

-JM

*The princess is always in another castle. And Ganon always escapes with Zelda after the third dungeon.

One thought on “Robert E. Heinlein and the hubris of the present, part III

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