Seeing this post reminds me that someone I’ve known for years, and who has a rather expensive college degree, said these exact words to me in regard to ASOIAF/Game of Thrones this past Tuesday at a gaming tournament:
“Things were just like that back then.”
There were not enough faces for me to palm. I just ended up yelling, “When was that again?? In the good old days of Westeros??”
P.S. literally the only reason there are almost no people of color in ASOIAF is because George R.R. Martin decided there wouldn’t be, and the reason they’re portrayed the way they are is because he decided they WOULD be. With great acclaim comes great accountability.
I suspect this was not aimed at GRRM, specifically. MedievalPoC has made the same point about “historically accurate” medieval European video games that make conspicuously inaccurate choices in development, and so forth. MedievalPoC points this problem out as endemic to the genre in general, which isn’t really a surprise since it’s endemic to our society. The blog is dedicated to pointing out the literal erasures and revisions that have been inflicted on art of the era to make it conform to modern — and quintessentially white supremacist — beliefs about how medieval Europe “should” have been. (And if you haven’t figured it out yet, you should be following MedievalPoC. Like, now.)
But this isn’t just a problem of revisionist history (by which I mean white supremacist history, though this term is typically applied to history that attempts to correct the supremacist stuff; isn’t that interesting). It’s a problem of psychology, so permit me to switch hats for a moment. To the Wikipedia!
Confirmation bias (also called confirmatory bias or myside bias) is the tendency of people to favor information that confirms their beliefs or hypotheses. People display this bias when they gather or remember information selectively, or when they interpret it in a biased way. The effect is stronger for emotionally charged issues and for deeply entrenched beliefs. People also tend to interpret ambiguous evidence as supporting their existing position. Biased search, interpretation and memory have been invoked to explain attitude polarization (when a disagreement becomes more extreme even though the different parties are exposed to the same evidence), belief perseverance (when beliefs persist after the evidence for them is shown to be false), the irrational primacy effect (a greater reliance on information encountered early in a series) and illusory correlation (when people falsely perceive an association between two events or situations).
Confirmation bias doesn’t cause the phenomenon of Mysteriously Whitewashed Medieval Europe. (Or Peculiarly Denuded of Women Europe, or Puzzlingly Focused On The Nobility Europe, or any of the other bizarre things we tend to see in medieval Europe-flavored fantasy.) Confirmation bias causes the freakouts that occur whenever somebody points out these phenomena, and names them as inaccuracies. Like the “go kill yourself” messages Medieval PoC has gotten for simply pointing out that people of color could easily have been present in a game set in central Bohemia. Or, for that matter, the rape threats that Anita Sarkeesian (no actual rape threats or misogyny in the article; just showing some of the harassment she deals with; avoid the comments, however) gets for pointing out that there should be a lot more women in fantasy games, and they shouldn’t all be buxom wenches getting rescued/laid by the male protagonist. Or the death threats that I sometimes get for, y’know, posts like this.
Like the Wikipedia entry suggests, confirmation bias is usually worst when a person feels threatened by anything that challenges their preexisting beliefs. Since the preexisting beliefs associated with bigotry are all tied up in identity and privilege, it’s not really surprising that the sense of threat is there, merited or not. Identity and privilege are things of the ego; they’re about what we think of ourselves. Bigotry tells privileged people that they deserve to be privileged; that they should have an easier life and a better self-image and more power because they are special; that the reason less-privileged folks don’t get the same preferential treatment is because they are inferior in some way. Challenging this thinking means saying to people: actually, no, you’re not all that special, or maybe you are but not because you’re [insert identity], and also those other people aren’t inferior at all, they just weren’t “lucky” enough to be born with your identity. For people who get used to being incessantly told “You’re awesome!” being told instead that, “Eh, you’re just okay” is a little bit of a comedown. (But a comedown is not oppression. Anyone who thinks that really has no concept of what oppression really is.)
But what surprises a lot of people — especially people who don’t think of themselves as racist or sexist or classist or whatever — is how much they’ve come to expect those positive-but-bigoted messages. How much they’ve come to believe them. So when you hit them in the face with contradictory facts or logic or, in the case of MedievalPoC, actual visual evidence of just how skewed and inaccurate those beliefs are, those privileged folks have to swallow that not only are they not special, just okay, but they’re also suckers who fell for the racist okeydoke. They’re thinking like racists.
And since our society tries so hard to position the word “racist” as some sort of inhuman, barely-comprehensible evil — instead of, y’know, the way our society functions — those people who’ve just realized they swallowed a bit of bigotry immediately suffer pangs of cognitive disonnance. They can’t be racist. That would make them an inhuman, incomprehensible evil! DANGER WILL ROBINSON DOES NOT COMPUTE bluescreen 0011010 reboot. What are they to believe, that they’ve turned into inbred hicks wearing white sheets? (Or whatever cartoonish image exists for “racist” in their mind.) Unpossible! So instead they reject the contradictory evidence. They reject it vehemently; they repudiate it, they throw holy water at it, and they toss a Molotov cocktail after that. And then they decide that the person who showed them this contradictory fact must be Evil Incarnate for causing them psychological pain. This person must be stopped. Or at least, intimidated into silence.
And meanwhile, they double down on the original problematic belief. Because if the person who contradicted this belief is Evil Incarnate, well, that must mean the original belief is good, right? So of course there were no people of color in medieval Europe. Evidence to the contrary? La la la can’t hear you. Can’t fool me with logic. So there’s no need to diversify any medieval European fantasy novel because Things Were Just Like That Back Then.
And here’s the thing: us fantasy readers are particularly susceptible to confirmation bias because we tend to be binary thinkers. Just look at the works that have become bestsellers in our genre: how many of them contain a force of good and a force of evil? A Dark Lord versus warriors of light? A Shadow in the East versus the good Men of the West? This is comfort food for most of us — yeah, me included. Binary thought was our formative meat and milk. And even though a lot of us have moved on to accept shades of gray since — as GRRM fans can attest — there will still come a point where we’re faced with facts that threaten us on some level of privilege. When that happens, a lot of us default back to these formative modes. We react to the ego-threat with confirmation bias and other cognitive defense mechanisms; we double down and raise shields and prepare to defend our psychological selves to the death. Us vs Them. We stop thinking, in other words, and lose our goddamned minds.
So if you catch yourself getting upset when someone puts something in a fantasy that “doesn’t belong” — women in positions of power who aren’t sexualized, for example, or people of color in a part of the world where you think they never “existed”*, or a trans woman in a patriarchial society, or an important disabled person in (this! is!) Sparta, or whatever… Take a breath. Calm down. Do some research. Don’t immediately reject the contradictory information, and don’t assume that the person giving it to you is trying to hurt you. Ask yourself why you feel hurt, if you do. Why is this making you so mad? Why is it so important to you that Things Were Just Like That Back Then? Why does it bother you so much to realize things weren’t like that? We can’t always control our reactions to psychological threats, but sometimes understanding why those reactions happen can help us at least short-circuit them before they really blow up. It takes work, but you can shake it off.
And if you’re a writer, and you catch yourself getting defensive when someone suggests you add something to your fantasy novel that “doesn’t belong”… again, take a breath. Do some research — beyond the basic stuff you got in high school history class, that is. (You should be doing that anyway. It’ll improve your worldbuilding.) Write whatever you want, of course; handwave the historical evidence if you feel like it. But own your decisions, if you do so. Recognize that the Things Were Just Like That excuse is just that — an excuse. Existential angst manifesting as unjustified certainty. You wrote what you wrote because you wanted to write it that way. And if you don’t like what these choices imply about you… well. Then you’ve got some work to do, too, haven’t you?
* Scare quotes because, FFS, people of color have “existed” everywhere, in every age of human history. Most of the world is people of color, and always has been. Sometimes I’m just amazed at the leaps of non-logic white supremacy tries to put over on us.