Diversity… and Diversity… in Fiction?

At present in fantasy and science fiction, and, it seems to me, especially in fantasy, there’s a great push for cultural and ethnic diversity, especially in the last few years, at least in part as a reaction to the history in the genre, where stories and books largely focused on white male characters. That’s not to say that there haven’t been quite a number of notable exceptions that dealt with non-European ethnicities or with female characters, or even hermaphroditic characters, as in the case of LeGuin’s The Left Hand of Darkness. But the criticism that the field has been too “white male oriented” definitely has validity.

I certainly applaud works that effectively create or celebrate different racial or ethnic backgrounds, and even those that tastefully explore sexual diversity, but I’d like to sound a note of reality and caution for authors in dealing with “diversity.”

Some writers explore “diversity” by creating and exploring a culture very different from those traditionally depicted in fiction, and that can be enlightening and entertaining, but that’s very different from presenting a civilization/society which contains large numbers of people from diverse ethnicities.

First, all low-tech powerful civilizations [the kind often depicted in fantasy] have been dominated by an ethnic elite. These elites haven’t been all white, either. The Nubian culture conquered and ruled Egypt for a time, and that was definitely not a “white” culture. Most people know about the Mongol culture, and the fact that it ruled China for a time [until the Chinese absorbed the Mongols in China, which has happened more than once]. I could give a substantial list of non-Caucasian empires throughout history, but the point is that these cultures weren’t “diverse.”

They were different in ethnicity from other cultures, but there have been very few successful civilizations that embodied a great diversity in cultures. One could make the point that the United States, for all its failings, is the largest multicultural nation that has ever existed. Now, there have been empires that included different cultures, but those cultures, for the most part, were geographically distinct and united into the empire by force. About the only places where you might see diversity in any significant numbers were major port cities and the capital city.

Second, diversity in a society creates internal conflicts, sometimes on a manageable level, but if history is any indication, usually not. Even the “melting pot” United States struggles with internal ethnic diversity, and the rest of those nations with significant ethnic minority populations aren’t, for the most part, doing even as well as we are with diversity issues.

That doesn’t mean that a writer shouldn’t write about different cultures. I’m all for that – if it’s well-thought-out and consistent. In reality, however, such stable cultures will likely have a dominant ethnicity/culture, unless, of course, the author is going to explore internal ethnic conflict or unless the author has some truly “magic” potion that can solve the problems of wide-spread cultural internal diversity, because past experience shows that any internally diverse culture is likely to be highly fractious. And that’s something that both writers… and almost everybody else… tend to ignore.

2 thoughts on “Diversity… and Diversity… in Fiction?”

  1. R. Hamilton says:

    One difficulty is that many now regard “melting pot” as too conformist to the majority – i.e., effectively racist, holding out more for a “chunky stew” that purports to enable cultural diversity in support of ethnic diversity, but also may exaggerate differences of the sort that promote conflict rather than cooperation among those with potentially useful variety of perspective.

    Absolute conformity would be tyrannical. But emphasizing differences would be Balkanization. Some among those who favor a degree of continuity of largely Western-derived culture suspect that some of those who favor otherwise, desire the downfall of the US as a major power. Painting that suspicion with too broad a brush across too many people may be paranoid, but given the volume of evidence supporting allegations of various foreign powers attempting to subvert US society (regardless of what political slant one applies to that in recent questions), one might be forgiven for supposing that the premise has some validity, since there have been enough trying to achieve that outcome, and enough willing followers of not dissimilar ideologies here to support such efforts, whether or not they knew where the leadership of those efforts originated.

    (sorry, but I think in old-fashioned half-page sentences, sometimes)

  2. David Sims says:

    That was quite a thoughtful treatment on the inherent disharmony of racially diverse societies. Different races are differently endowed by nature, and for that reason the set of laws, the system of government, that is best for one race is usually less than optimal, and often less than good, for the other races.

    You can satisfy some, or you can satisfy none, with the way the government and the economy work, but you cannot satisfy everybody, simply because of the innate differences between races.

    Balkanization might not be a bad thing. It might be the answer to an otherwise intractable problem.

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