Friday, June 20, 2008

Open Not the Door


Katrina Britt's Open Not the Door (1978) might also be titled "open not the pages unless you don't mind reading some rather overt moralising, traditional ideas about femininity and some nationalist stereotypes".

Here's a statement from Laraine, the heroine of the novel, on the issue of cohabitation: "lots of people do appear to be living together if you believe the press, but there are many more who are decent and clean-living, and I happen to be one of them" (43).

"Clean-living" young women, it is further revealed, take an immense interest in feminine undergarments (unlike the non-clean-living young women, who it is implied may even dispense with night-wear altogether, or at very least show little interest in it!):
Margaret [...] signalled Laraine to follow her to a chintz-covered chest serving as a seat. Inside was the kind of cobwebby negligé a girl dreams about, frothy silk and lace with ribbons, all delicately made.
Laraine breathed in the delicate scent of pot-pourri as the garments were revealed between layers of tissue paper.
'They're gorgeous!' she cried. 'Thanks for showing them to me.'
Margaret replaced each garment almost reverently. 'I think every girl should have beautiful things to wear on her honeymoon. A pity that girls today don't seem to think much beyond a nightdress, and not always that. They miss such a lot by not being so essentially feminine.' (116)
Charles, who's the type of hero who, when angry, is prone to forcing the heroine's "lips to the will of his. [...] He was all cruel strength, punishing lips, and bone-cracking arms whipped tightly around her. When he released her, Laraine was like one who had been shocked out of her senses, pain and ecstasy together. Her bruised lips trembled at the thought" (154-55) eventually describes Laraine as
everything I'd looked for in a woman, demure, feminine, good company, with your lovely eyes filled with compassion for a poor little hedgehog and a girl in a wheelchair. I loved your sense of humour, your courage, your understanding and tolerance of human frailty. (186)
So there you go. Now you know what you have to do if you want to be a truly "feminine", "clean-living" woman.

Another aspect of the novel which I noticed, and which I thought I'd mention is the way in which particular national characteristics (which one might well term "national stereotypes") are presented.

Laraine, on arriving in Scotland looks around her: "She was imagining a land peopled by a fierce army of Borderers, big handsome horsemen, proud and independent, men who had inspired Walter Scott to immortalise them in his Waverley novels" (17). Charles's statement on the matter of the national character is that:
We Scots might descend from a savage race of Borderers, but we do now manage to live in a civilised manner. The traditions of the past are still dormant within us and we're a fiercely independent and proud race. [...] However, we respect and love our women, our land and our heritage. (37)
Laraine comes to the conclusion that
The world that Charles moved in was far different from her own. His was a world of wild Border country where old beliefs still existed from ancestors which made her own look pale in comparison [...]. They had carried the stamp of a fierce proud race, and Charles was no exception. (110)
There's also a brief description of an Italian doctor, which gives Britt the opportunity to generalise about the appearance of Italians: "Of medium height, with sleek black hair and liquid dark eyes gleaming [...] Dottore Padrilli was handsome with the beautiful bone structure of face often to be seen among the Italians" (175).

However complimentary they may be, such descriptions of individuals (or groups of individuals) which refer to their nationality as though this in itself ensures physical and/or emotional homogeneity are problematic. In the nineteenth century "a series of authors divided Europe's population into discrete and homogeneous national groups on the basis of sexual characteristics. These pseudo-objective taxonomies reflect the arbitrary figments of nationalist fantasy" (Maxwell 266). Unlike Britt's romances (and, in fact, many other romances which describe the exotic attractions of the foreign hero), many of these nineteenth-century male writers were particularly interested in describing female beauties and
They examined "specimens" for unique "characteristics"; botanical metaphors were frequent. An 1881 article in Leipzig's Illustrierte Zeitung, for example, discussed "the unique specialties of female local flora" in an article on Vienna's "Female Types." A German fashion magazine similarly wrote that Spanish women "grow and bloom in the fertile soil of Iberia, without troubles, without culture, like the flowers and fruits of this blessed land." Pseudoscientific authors suggested that readers, too, could learn to classify women by nationality, just as they might learn how to classify various shrubs or beetles. (Maxwell 268)
This pseudoscience did not restrict itself to outlining the physical characteristics of women along national lines. Personality as well as appearance were thought to be determined by nationality:
Jakob Ignjatović, a Serbian lawyer who briefly sat in the Hungarian parliament [in his] 1865 essay "The Serb and His Poetry" [which] appeared in the Slavisches Centrallblatt, a German-language newspaper published in Saxony. Ignjatović argued that [...]:
In every people [...] feminine beauty has a particular character. The German woman is characterized through her sky blue eye, her golden-yellow hair, the tenderness of her whole being, and her soft heart;—the Greek woman by her regular facial features, her fiery eyes, her proportional figure, and the lively expression of her heart;—the Italian by her beautiful oval face, her sly eyes, her adorable voice, and the lightness of her movements;—the Englishwoman by her friendly expression, the fullness of her developed body, and her worthy figure;—the Frenchwoman by her animated complexion, the loving expression of her face, and her noble bearing;—the Hungarian by the purity of her complexion, the Caucasian, almond-shaped eyes, trustfulness, and the expression of openness;—the Arabian her exceptionally beautiful deep, dark complexion, the whiteness of her teeth, the bold gaze and the masculine, almost angry features on her face.
All women are beautiful, but the character of their beauty depends on their nationality. This text powerfully illustrates how readily pseudoscientists ignored obvious facts: Ignjatović knew that not all German women have "golden-yellow" hair nor all Hungarian women good complexions.(Maxwell 277-78)
One might also observe that not all Englishwomen have friendly expressions, soft hearts are not solely to be found among German women and so on.1 Researchers from the University of Manchester's PUG (Public Understanding of Genetics) project observed in a recent leaflet that
Race, ethnicity, nationality are overlapping ways of thinking about how humans are different from and the same as each other. [...] Racial thinking often uses ideas of “natural” bodily substances - for example, “blood” - that are supposedly shared by people of similar geographical origin and transmitted through descent and that, in this way of thinking, shape both physical appearance and culture. Today, racial thinking is scientifically seen as invalid (1-2)
and
Genetics sees all humans as the same because, as a species, our common evolutionary origin in Africa means that we all share more than 99% of our genetic material. Genetics also sees humans as different because there are variations in genetic make-up. Although there is still some debate on the matter, most geneticists now think that these variations do not correspond to what people think of as racial, ethnic or national categories. There is no clear genetic basis for racial, ethnic or national thinking. (2-3)
I wonder when we'll see the door close on racial stereotypes (the Scottish barbarian, the arrogant, domineering Spanish/Italian/Greek macho hero, the noble Native American savage) in the romance genre.
  • Britt, Katrina. Open Not the Door. London: Mills & Boon, 1978.
  • Maxwell, Alexander. "Nationalizing Sexuality: Sexual Stereotypes in the Habsburg Empire." Journal of the History of Sexuality 14.3 (2005): 266-290.

1 Here's some more from Ignjatović, describing the Serbian woman:
She does not have the lightness and enchantingness of the Italian;—nor the docility of expression and loving heart of the Frenchwoman;—nor the solid and solicitous sweetness of the Englishwoman;—nor the light-hearted trustfulness and openness of the Hungarian;—but she does have something of the self-respect and pride of the Spaniard. She has the most in common with the Arabian woman. . . . All these characteristic features unite in the Serbian woman to an expression of heroism, through which she distinguishes herself from the women of all other nations. (qtd. in Maxwell 279)
He also produced a description of men of various different nationalities:
Every nation [...] has its own characteristic beauty. The German is handsome because of his gold-colored hair and soft blue eyes, the Frenchman because of his ideals and friendly facial expressions, the Spaniard because of his proud eyes, the Arab his dark complexion. The Serb, by contrast, does not have a soft appearance: his eyes spew fire. For this reason, the costume of a warrior suits him. The sight of a Serb in a frock coat is almost comical. (qtd. in Maxwell 287)

30 comments:

  1. The urges to collect and to classify are very basic, and when accurately focused and applied, they lead to genuine scientific advancement and understanding. Indeed, it was this urge to classify 'Nature' that formed the bedrock of the Enlightenment.

    It is hardly surprising that the creation of classificatory frameworks sometimes takes a wrong turning through imperfect understanding of the subject, influenced by widespread ideas and beliefs that we now see as mistaken. We need to see this (as I am sure you do) in the context of 19thC ideas about human societies.

    Yes, I know that the fiction example you are quoting is not 19thC at all, but very recent, from the 1970s, but such things cast long shadows, and Victorian certainties are by no means banished from popular perceptions yet. It is also important to remember that the 1960s marked a real change in travel opportunities throughout Western Europe, and many middle-class people were able to visit foreign countries for the first time (not possible in wartime, and pre-War, this was the prerogative of the comparatively wealthy). The differences between cultures, even including things such as physical appearance and body-language, will always strike the untutored more forcibly than the similarities. All these things fed the idea of 'typical' individuals of various races and nationalities, and it would be idle to pretend that there is no truth at all in them.

    Only a few days ago, you and I both noted on another forum how we are still occasionally taken aback by the unfamiliarity of American culture! The secret, as with any stereotype, is always to examine it with fresh eyes, never to accept it as a tenet of belief without subjecting it to scrutiny. Stereotypes, like clichés, can only exist because there is some truth in them - as any Northern European who has been physically backed into a corner while in conversation with a Southern European can testify, because different cultures have different standards about personal space.

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  2. It is also important to remember that the 1960s marked a real change in travel opportunities throughout Western Europe

    Katrina Britt's real name was, according to McAleer, Ethel Connell (287) and:

    Like [Violet] Winspear, Ethel Connell was a fan of Mills & Boon novels, especially those by Rosalind Brett, and set her novels in foreign lands, although she also never travelled abroad. From her native Blackpool, Connell, a cashier and shop assistant, wrote to Mills & Boon in 1968 with her manuscript [...] Connell, whose success (and talent) was far inferior to Winspear’s, eventually wrote thirty novels for Mills & Boon. (125)

    Whether or not Connell/Britt ever travelled to Scotland I don't know, but it really isn't so very far from Blackpool to the Scottish Borders.

    Only a few days ago, you and I both noted on another forum how we are still occasionally taken aback by the unfamiliarity of American culture!

    Yes, but what Britt's doing is the equivalent of assuming that all Americans have the blood of cowboys running in their veins and will therefore be wild and untamed at heart and born with the ability to handle a Colt revolver. In other words, she's not exactly taking a good look at the existing culture of the place, but is being inspired by the (romanticised) distant history of the Scottish Border.

    And on the subject of Scottish History, The Records of the Parliaments of Scotland to 1707 are now available free online in a

    fully searchable database containing the proceedings of the Scottish parliament from the first surviving act of 1235 to the union of 1707. The culmination of over ten years’ work by researchers from the Scottish Parliament Project based in the School of History at the University of St Andrews, the new edition seeks to make this key historical source freely available to all in a technologically advanced and user-friendly format.

    -----

    McAleer, Joseph. Passion’s Fortune: The Story of Mills & Boon. Oxford: Oxford UP, 1999.

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  3. Oh, I am absolutely not arguing against your basic case, Laura - only trying to remind people of some of the background and context. All of us take a huge amount of what we believe as 'fact' on trust, and it is often only the distance provided by either time or space, or both, that can show up clearly how irrational some beliefs are.

    Maybe I am just being deliberately argumentative...
    ;-)

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  4. it is often only the distance provided by either time or space, or both, that can show up clearly how irrational some beliefs are.

    Maybe I am just being deliberately argumentative...


    As I'm being deliberately argumentative myself by posting on these topics in an attempt to speed up the process of the genre acquiring the requisite distance to stop perpetuating stereotypes, I can hardly object to you being argumentative. In any case, it gives me the opportunity to think a bit more about the topics and, where relevant, add any information I've left out of the original post.

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  5. Why was the hedgehog in a wheelchair?

    "The French are a frivolous people, fond of light wines and dancing."

    And the Scots, of course, subsist exclusively on a diet of whiskey, haggis, and deep-fried Mars bars.

    WV: gwmkcepu--Inuit word meaning "Why can't they eat seal blubber like everybody else?"

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  6. with your lovely eyes filled with compassion for a poor little hedgehog

    This is great. This is beyond great. I have to use this in a future book! (The question remains what the dunderhead of a hero did to the poor hedgehog in the first place ...)

    However complimentary they may be, such descriptions of individuals (or groups of individuals) which refer to their nationality as though this in itself ensures physical and/or emotional homogeneity are problematic.

    Indeed. Especially when you consider what this belief led to in Germany in the early 20th century. For this is, of course, the other, uglier side of this particular medal.

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  7. "...what this belief led to in Germany in the early 20th century. For this is, of course, the other, uglier side of this particular medal."

    I think that is a little disingenuous, and it is certainly an over-simplification. While it is true that it is necessary to stereotype a group before one can demonise it, it is not the case that stereotyping invariably leads to demonisation. Indeed, some stereotyping leads to the unrealistic glamorisation of distinguishable and 'different' groups, and heaven knows there are enough examples of that in American romantic fiction, with ludicrous and ignorant parodies of Irish and Scottish people and society, for example. (We Welsh are fortunately obscure enough to have escaped the worst excesses of Brigadoonery).

    The demonisation process arises from another universal instinct, one that is not even peculiar to the human species; the preference for Us over the Other, the perceived Norm over the Exception, especially in times of stress. The conditions that lead to extreme and unquestioned patriotism also lead to the desire to apportion blame. Yes, a stereotype is needed for it to work, but it is not the trigger.

    I cannot emphasise strongly enough that I am not defending racial, ethnic, religious or any other stereotyping here: on the contrary, I regard it as foolish and highly dangerous. But it is easy to be glib about it, to be casually dismissive of those in other times and places who have fallen victim to it, as though we ourselves are too enlightened ever to have been misled in that way. As in all matters of culture and society, we have to understand the context and the background, the pressures, sometimes amounting almost to a form of brainwashing from childhood onwards, which shaped people's assumptions of what was 'normal' and factual.

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  8. Why was the hedgehog in a wheelchair?

    The hedgehog would have been in a wheelchair or dead had it not been for the intervention of the hero. Charles is driving Laraine back to his house when

    she saw the slow-moving little brown object in the centre of the road, and he seemed to be making straight for it. Even as the hedgehog closed itself up into a ball, Laraine closed her eyes, and clenched her hands.
    She felt the van move to the side of the road and stop. [...] She nodded and scrambled from the van before he could come round to help her out. But his long economic stride had taken him to the little pathetic brown ball even as she rounded the bonnet of the car, and he was picking it up gently.
    'Come on, old chap,' he was saying in a very different tone of voice from the one in which he had used with her. [sic!] 'This is hardly the place to camp. Let's put you out of harm's way, shall we?'
    Very gently he held the small creature against his jacket and came towards her. For the first time she saw the trace of his smile reflected in his eyes. So this man was human, she thought, pleased and grateful that he had rescued the hedgehog from a cruel death.
    (15-16)

    The person in the wheelchair is Moira Frazer, who soon tells Laraine that she (Moira) is engaged to Charles:

    'Not officially, but it's understood that we shall marry. [...] I know you'll regard me as a selfish pig to marry in my present condition, but Charles won't mind. He doesn't particularly want children, and the estate keeps him fully occupied.' (33)

    It's not explained why Moira couldn't have children. We're told that the accident that caused her to require the wheelchair has left her without feeling in her legs, but there's no indication that it damaged her uterus. I suspect that we can add a dollop of "ableism" to the mix of sexism and nationalism.

    I forgot to mention that Charles is patronisingly benevolent towards gypsies. Earlier he'd told Laraine about

    the gypsy palace of Kirk Yetholm [...] It was the home of the gypsy kings of Scotland for centuries. Coronations were performed there and gypsies came from all over Britain for the celebrations. (17)

    I wonder if this historical background leads Britt to have a romanticised view of them too, but as I said, Charles still comes across as highly patronising. He plans to meet with the vicar (and I don't know why it would be a vicar, since in Scotland it's likely to be the Minister if it's a Church of Scotland church) to

    discuss the problem of the gypsies in these parts. They need somewhere to put up for a while, and the vicar wants my views on the subject. [...] I'm sure you'll smile when I tell you that I'm giving the gypsies a field. There's plenty of fish to be caught in the fast-flowing little burns that abound, and no doubt they'll be industrious enough to use their fingers in weaving and whittling wooden things to sell in the little market towns. (42-43)

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  9. I think that is a little disingenuous, and it is certainly an over-simplification. While it is true that it is necessary to stereotype a group before one can demonise it, it is not the case that stereotyping invariably leads to demonisation.

    I don't think Sandra was saying that this sort of stereotyping always leads to what it "led to in Germany in the early 20th century." She was, however, pointing out that it may, in certain circumstances, lead to that kind of outcome.

    The conditions that lead to extreme and unquestioned patriotism also lead to the desire to apportion blame. Yes, a stereotype is needed for it to work, but it is not the trigger.

    Even if they don't lead to a "desire to apportion blame" one may find that they lead to so-called "benevolent paternalism" rather than outright "demonisation." I'm thinking, for example, of the way in which the idea of the "white man's burden" was used to justify imperialism/neo-imperialism.

    From a feminist point of view one can also identify problems that will arise for women if they're seen primarily as mothers whose wombs will ensure the continuation of the race.

    And talking about motherhood, I've found another quote about Moira which seems to hint that a woman in a wheelchair can't be sexually active or become a mother. It's less explicitly stated than in the last quote I gave about this, but here it is anyway:

    'I'd like to see Charles settled - and I'm sure he wants it too. It won't be the same if Moira never walks again, but I don't think he'll mind. He has his work cut out here on the estate and he will take good care of her.'
    Laraine caught her breath for a moment in her throat. 'It won't be much of a marriage, will it?'
    Margaret shrugged. 'It isn't exactly what i would want for Charles, but he'll cope. [...]'
    (115)

    it is easy to be glib about it, to be casually dismissive of those in other times and places who have fallen victim to it, as though we ourselves are too enlightened ever to have been misled in that way.

    I think it's easier to spot some of the examples from earlier periods because (in the case of novels) they're more explicit or (as in the case of Nazi Germany) more horrific, but I certainly would never think that the current age is "too enlightened" not to be misled this way. I'm sure Sandra would agree with me on this. The fact is that these attitudes persist, albeit usually in a milder form, which is why I ended my original post by writing "I wonder when we'll see the door close on racial stereotypes (the Scottish barbarian, the arrogant, domineering Spanish/Italian/Greek macho hero, the noble Native American savage) in the romance genre."

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  10. I think that is a little disingenuous, and it is certainly an over-simplification.

    As Laura quoted from nineteenth-century discourses on the relation between ethnicity / nationality and outward appearance, I don't think what I said is an oversimplification. A sentence like "The German woman is characterized through her sky blue eye, her golden-yellow hair [...]" inevitably (at least for a German!) invokes memories of what was eventually propagated as the Aryian ideal.

    I cannot emphasise strongly enough that I am not defending racial, ethnic, religious or any other stereotyping here: on the contrary, I regard it as foolish and highly dangerous.

    On that we wholeheartedly agree, and this is what I was driving at in my earlier post, perhaps rather clumsily so. I certainly didn't mean to be glib about it.

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  11. She was, however, pointing out that it may, in certain circumstances, lead to that kind of outcome.

    Indeed, I did. Thank you, Laura, you put it much more clearly than I did.

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  12. Point taken, from both of you.

    I think what makes me nervous is that all these issues are so very complex, and as soon as one starts to try to set them out clearly, they come out in a rash of exceptions and contradictions and even justifications. Certainly it is far easier to see patterns when looking at the past than the present, but one of the reasons that it is easier is that we are simply not familiar with all the fine details. I need hardly point out that in the early 20th century, German and English (English, I think, rather than British) patriotic and racial arrogance, the belief in a kind of Golden Age in the past, and even the vile stereotyping of Jews, were not all that different. There are many other factors (including the way that Germany was treated after the First World War), that led it, but not us, along the hellish path to the gas chambers. Thank heavens that that particular concatenation of events does not arise too often.

    It behoves us all to reflect on how we would measure up in a very different society.

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  13. I think what I am really saying is this: I hear what you both say, and I am, most emphatically, on the same side as you. But I am very wary of being too judgemental when I do not necessarily understand all the circumstances, the social context and conditioning, and sometimes I think that the easy, superior condemnation of the way people thought in the past is itself culpable, a sign of superficiality and even hubris.

    Forget it. I am old and cynical. One thing in which I shall always believe is that human beings are not very nice creatures. We can only keep trying.

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  14. I am very wary of being too judgemental when I do not necessarily understand all the circumstances, the social context and conditioning

    I think there's quite a big difference between reaching a judgement about a person's ideas and being judgemental about the person who holds them. At its simplest, if someone says that 2+2=5 I'll say that they're wrong. But I won't deduce from their answer that they're a stupid person.

    sometimes I think that the easy, superior condemnation of the way people thought in the past is itself culpable, a sign of superficiality and even hubris

    I would almost certainly condemn some ideas that were held in the past, but that doesn't mean that I would condemn every idea that was held in those societies. In addition, there is usually something logical, internally coherent or otherwise admirable about other people's belief systems/some part of other people's belief systems. And just because I hold to my ideas doesn't mean that I don't always bear in mind that some other people will disagree with me. They may even be right, and if they can give me evidence to back up their ideas, or if they can argue convincingly, then I might change my mind.

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  15. "I think there's quite a big difference between reaching a judgement about a person's ideas and being judgemental about the person who holds them."

    Yes, that is a fair point. It is one that many of us observe on a regular basis with reference to religious or political convictions:
    'X is a devout Catholic/ strident atheist/ true-blue Tory/ card-carrying Communist; but apart from that, she is a really fine person and a good friend...'.

    But it is all too easy to give the impression that rejecting a person's belief-system, which may have been built up by means of pressures that might be unfamiliar to us, is equivalent to rejecting their value as human beings.

    We ARE all one the same side, here. But there is a real danger of simply reversing a stereotype, rather than correcting it; going to the opposite extreme, rather than achieving a balance. And again, you know, and understand, that I am arguing for the sake of argument. Thank god for the rare internet sites where one can engage in debate without people foaming at the mouth and taking everything personally!

    :-D

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  16. If someone believes, for example, that all handicapped children should be put to death as soon as they are diagnosed, can she really be "a really nice person" apart from that?

    There is one series of books I follow that has a good-guy homicidal maniac (he only kills people who REALLY deserve it, and he helps the poor and outcast); but I don't want him moving in next to me, even though his followers are known as the Mole People (they live in the abandoned subway tunnels under NYC).

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  17. 'If someone believes, for example, that all handicapped children should be put to death as soon as they are diagnosed, can she really be "a really nice person" apart from that?'


    Actually, Tal, my answer is 'yes'. I think that it is perfectly possible for individuals who, by and large, are ‘nice people’, with a generally benevolent and unselfish view of life, the universe and everything, to hold to certain tenets of belief that are very far from ‘nice’. Indeed, it is not merely possible, it is quite normal.

    First of all, human characters are both unbelievably complex and ever-changing. It has always been quite easy for most of us to believe six impossible things before breakfast, and furthermore, to believe firmly in two things that actually contradict one another, perhaps subtly, perhaps very obviously. This is as true of intelligent and highly-educated people as it is of those who lack those advantages, though the intelligent and highly-educated are perhaps more likely to become aware of such contradictions and subject them to closer scrutiny.

    In addition to the built-in logic filter than enables us to believe in the unlikely, the impossible, and the things that contradict other beliefs that we hold, there is the issue of what kind of belief it is. We can believe things intellectually or emotionally: we can believe things because ‘everyone knows that’ or because we have painstakingly hammered out an hypothesis ab initio. We can believe things in a vacuum, purely on the grounds of principle, or we can believe them as the result of personal experience. Very often irreconcilable differences of belief are based on one party arguing an emotional case and the other an intellectual one, or one reflecting higher principle, and the other gritty practical realities.

    Many contradictory beliefs are the result of a hierarchy of belief-priorities that we all hold. Before we all deny that we rank principles according to circumstances, we should look within our own consciences. Most people in our society sincerely and very strongly believe that it is very, very wrong indeed to kill another person, ever. Most of us, however, would agree that killing in self-defence is different: this difference is incorporated in law. Many would go further and say that to kill in order to save another person from murderous attack may often be justifiable. Very few people would condemn a parent who killed someone who was savagely attacking his or her child. And then, there is war. A great many good and responsible people serving in military forces are required to override their killing inhibition, and do so, for reasons that they are assured completely override the basic rule ‘thou shalt not kill’. In the past, people who challenged that priority, the rule that it is right to kill ‘the Enemy’, were treated as criminals or even traitors in time of war.

    This comes back to what I was saying at the start. I agree that it is vitally important for all of us regularly to subject our own principles and beliefs to detailed, and perhaps sometimes painful, scrutiny. I believe that we should be alert to examples of bigotry and prejudice wherever and whenever we encounter them, whether in our contemporary political institutions or in 1970s romance novels. However, in condemning them, I think it is vitally important not to lose sight of the social context, or the (often unconscious) formative influences behind some of those attitudes, because if we do, we are being grossly unfair to people, people like us, who may have been doing the best they could at the time.

    As for ‘paternalistic’ and patronising: well, on the whole I’d rather be patronised than tortured. The 19thC Christian missionaries who assiduously converted Africans and others, and confiscated the symbols of their traditional faiths, thought that they were doing the right thing and saving the souls of these poor, ignorant people. Very easy to say now that they were wrong, but their motives were actually benevolent. They thought it was their duty to save souls, because they knew that their religion, and theirs only, was Right. They were ignoring social context. And today, some people see it as our Duty to bring so-called ‘democracy’ to countries that have, and prefer, other forms of government. We are doing it for Their Own Good. How do we know this? Because we are Right, of course. History will not judge us too kindly, either.

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  18. Virginia DeMarce22 June, 2008 16:20

    It is also true that the very aspects of such a book that some readers find problematical are the ones that would make it valuable to a social historian who was attempting to understand what tropes were considered by the author and publisher to appeal to a designated segment of a specific reading public at a certain time and place.

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  19. Have you ever seen the documentary about the Holocaust, Shoah? The filmmaker divides his subjects into three classes: the victims (the Jews, Gypsies, etc.), the perpetrators (the Nazis and their Ukrainian henchmen), and the witnesses--everybody else, including the Germans and Poles who knew what was going on and had no problems with it. Some of them even taunted the Jews in the cattle cars when a train passed by, making throat-cutting gestures.

    The classic example of this attitude was stated by one Polish villager, who was asked if it didn't bother him when all his Jewish neighbors were rounded up and taken away?

    His reply was to quote a Polish proverb that transfers roughly as "When you cut your finger, I don't bleed."

    Of course there are people like Wagner who spewed anti-semitism but had a high regard for certain Jewish musicians, including the only orchestral conductor he really admired; but on the whole, people who hold such attitudes tend to act--or refrain from acting--as they believe.

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  20. Are you taking me to task, Tal?

    Yes, of course I am well aware of the points you make, but I don't see that it contradicts what I said about all of us being a mixture, and often a constantly changing mixture, of good and bad, responsible and irresponsible, perceptive and ignorant.

    Thank heaven, most of us do not have to put our lives on the line in order to 'behave decently'. You know as well as I do that there were also many people in Europe during the late 30s and 40s who did have the courage to speak out against the atrocities, to hide and protect Jewish neighbours: many of their names and stories are recorded and honoured: and many of them died for their principles.

    How many of us are quite sure that we would refuse to turn a blind eye to depravity and wickedness if we knew that open protest would lead to unemployment, perhaps beatings and imprisonment, and resultant poverty and starvation for our families? Many people who have the courage to face death for their principles on their own account hesitate to sacrifice their children's lives for their principles, and I, for one, do not blame them. This comes back to what I said about priorities.

    We can look at the horrors of the Third Reich with the distance of history, but at this very moment, in Zimbabwe, the attempt to get rid of an evil and insane dictator has ground to a halt because the opposition leader has conceded that he simply cannot ask people to vote for him when doing so ensures that those voters, and their families, will be beaten, imprisoned and in many cases murdered.

    Most of us are lucky enough to live our whole lives without having to make these terrible choices, and it ill behoves us to censure those who laboured, and labour, under pressures that we can barely imagine.

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  21. Again, I wrote a long post which Blogger ate. My point was that I was not taking you to task, but taking issue with your point. It takes courage to defy the authorities to save Jews or work for the Resistance; but one need not turn in one's neighbors or sneer at Jews bound for the death camps.

    On October 14, 1943, members of the Sobibór underground, led by Polish-Jewish prisoner Leon Feldhandler and Soviet POW Alexander "Sasha" Pechersky, succeeded in covertly killing eleven German SS officers and a number of camp guards. Although their plan was to kill all the SS and walk out of the main gate of the camp, the killings were discovered and the inmates ran for their lives under fire. About half of the 600 prisoners in the camp escaped.

    Only about 50 escapees survived the war, however. Some died on the mine fields surrounding the site, and some were recaptured and shot by the Germans in the next few days, but survivors' accounts also indicate that some of the escapees were killed by the Polish underground and civilians, including a massacre of ten former prisoners on or about October 17, 1943, in the forest to the south west of the camp. Most of those who did survive were hidden from the Germans by other Poles, at the risk of their own lives. Feldhandler was murdered by Polish antisemites who shot him through the door of his apartment in January 1945. Pechersky was imprisoned by the Soviet NKVD, but later released. (Wikipedia)

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  22. Sigh. Tal, you do not have to quote chapter and verse to convince me, or anyone else, that appalling crimes against humanity were committed under the Third Reich. We all KNOW that. Nor do you have to persuade me that there are people who are profoundly wicked and evil, just as there are others who are noble and virtuous to the point of saintliness. The vast majority of us come nowhere near either of those extremes: we are a mixture, and more than that, we can change ourselves or be changed by circumstances beyond our control; we can become more tolerant than we used to be, or less so.

    The point we are debating is not whether or not some Poles were actively complicit in the Nazi atrocities; we all know that some were. Equally, we know that there were other Poles who put their own lives at enormous risk in order to help their Jewish neighbours. Look at some of the stories on the Yad Vashem website, if you can face the emotional punch of reading them. None of this proves anything, beyond the fact that human beings are capable of extremes of good and evil.

    My complaint is that it is neither sensible nor fair simply to assume that any person who holds (or seems to hold) a particular view that we find offensive is therefore automatically an all-round wicked person. In fact, that assumption is close to being a form of bigotry in itself, since it is an opinion based on inadequate, incomplete or even incorrect knowledge. We need to know a lot more before we can make a balanced judgement.

    First we need to know why an apparently rational person should believe that everyone of a particular race or religion is an affront to humanity. We need to know how important that belief is within their lives, and how they would act upon it, if at all, in certain circumstances. You are nearly as old as I am, and I would be amazed if you have never met people who were quite clearly decent, kind and responsible individuals in most respects, but who, at the same time, held perfectly outrageous views on some political, religious or idealogical point. I have certainly met such people. Their offensive views are often based on childhood brainwashing and sometimes on profound fear of the unknown. They are not necessarily evil people (though they can be used by evil regimes, of course). Their fault is not wickedness, but a disinclination, or inability, to think for themselves. Many will blithely contradict themselves:

    'There are far too many of these Pakis in this country these days'.
    'But I have heard you praise your local mini-supermarket - that is run by Pakistanis, isn't it?'
    'Oh yes - I don't mean them. The shop is loads better since they took it over - they're a really nice, hard-working family'.

    In fact, it is quite often other Pakistanis (Indians, Chinese, West Indians, Nigerians, Ghanaians, Somalis, Turks, Poles - insert nationality of choice) whom they don't encounter in daily life who are objectionable to these muddled thinkers; the ones with whom they interact personally, as everything from senior hospital doctors to bus-drivers and shopkeepers, are perfectly nice people... Remember what I said about people being able, very easily, to believe contradictory things. Most people are just not trained to think rationally anyway. To write such people off as past praying for is a really bad strategy. What needs doing is to try to influence them to change their views, to argue and push them into examining their automatic stereotypes in the light of fact and logic, and also in the context of good and evil.

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  23. the very aspects of such a book that some readers find problematical are the ones that would make it valuable to a social historian who was attempting to understand what tropes were considered by the author and publisher to appeal to a designated segment of a specific reading public at a certain time and place.

    I think you're right, Virginia, that social historians could make use of these texts to better understand the attitudes that existed, and were acceptable, at the times in which the texts were published. It certainly reveals something about the attitudes of the authors, and, as you say, about what publishers and editors thought would be acceptable to the public.

    Of course, to really be sure about how common these attitudes were among M&B authors one would need to read quite a lot of books, because different authors almost certainly had at least slightly different attitudes to things, and some might have had very different attitudes from others.

    In addition, as far as gauging the attitudes of readers is concerned, one would want to check whether the books with particular attitudes expressed in them most explicitly were really those that appealed most to the readers. It could be that readers (a) enjoyed the books despite some of the attitudes expressed or (b) didn't enjoy the books because of those attitudes. It would be difficult to deduce that from the sales figures because readers would only be able to tell if they didn't like a book after they'd bought/read it. It might affect future sales for that author, but only if the readers didn't feel the way I described in (a). In addition, if a large percentage of books were being bought automatically by libraries, that might make it more difficult to work out which books were actually the most popular with readers. It would be interesting to know if the M&B archives included any letters of complaint about these issues.

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  24. My complaint is that it is neither sensible nor fair simply to assume that any person who holds (or seems to hold) a particular view that we find offensive is therefore automatically an all-round wicked person

    Was anyone here arguing that, though? The idea that someone can be labelled "wicked" or "evil" is no doubt comforting, in a strange sort of way, because it suggests that an evil person is an aberration, a monster who's different from basically good people, and who can be readily identified and destroyed. As you say, "that assumption is close to being a form of bigotry in itself" and can lead to scapegoating, witchhunts etc.

    It seems to me that people can be strange mixtures of good intentions, bad intentions, confused ideas, uncontrolled impulses, and their own version of whatever they've learned or deduced from the value systems they've been exposed to. Very, very few people, if any, are good at all times and even those who have done very bad things may do some good things and/or may change. I certainly wouldn't even want to be asked to say who the few wholly "good" people might be, because my answer would be affected by my prejudices, belief-system and in any case, I could never know what was truly going on in someone else's mind.

    So yes, I think we can discuss ideas, and decide which belief systems we think are wrong/immoral but always while bearing in mind that all of us are flawed and not omniscient. As for deciding who is "an all-round wicked person", "He that is without sin among you, let him first cast a stone" (John 8:7).

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  25. Tal said this:

    'If someone believes, for example, that all handicapped children should be put to death as soon as they are diagnosed, can she really be "a really nice person" apart from that?'

    I read this as an argument that if a person holds one deeply offensive attitude, that person cannot be an estimable character in other ways, or indeed, in any way at all. This was the position with which I was disagreeing. For all the reasons that have been set out here, it seems to me that it IS perfectly possible for otherwise civilised and humane people to hold some utterly objectionable beliefs.

    And just as in real life, the only way one can get to the bottom of these seeming contradictions in fiction is by understanding as much as possible about social context and the personal history of the characters involved and quite often the author as well.

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  26. Oh, I see what you mean. When I read Tal's example I instantly thought of the Spartans, and while I don't think of them as "nice" I don't think of them as all bad, so I didn't read Tal's statement as having the same meaning as you obviously did. There's a huge difference between not being a "nice", cosy, person and being an evil, wicked one. But unless Tal clarifies and says otherwise, I suspect you've understood her meaning better than I did.

    Richard Hooker observes that

    It's hard for textbooks to say anything nice about the Spartans. Take up any world history textbook and read; you'll find that the Spartans were "an armed camp," "brutal," "culturally stagnant," "economically stagnant," "politically stagnant," and other fun things

    But he points out some of the positive aspects to their society, including the position of women in Spartan society compared to their status in other Greek states. Not that I know much about the Spartans, while I'm sure you know a great deal.

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  27. Thus saith the Tigress: My complaint is that it is neither sensible nor fair simply to assume that any person who holds (or seems to hold) a particular view that we find offensive is therefore automatically an all-round wicked person.

    But that is not at all what I was saying! What I meant is that people who hold such views are very likely to act on them, or at any rate not to object to others' acting on them (like the people at the railway stations who mocked the Jews in the cattle cars). Obviously, one cannot condemn people for actions they have not taken--but one might predict their behavior from their views.

    I have been trying to read Hannah Arendt's EICHMANN IN JERUSALEM, in which she coined the phrase "the banality of evil." Her point is not that Eichmann was a monster, but that he was an ordinary bureaucrat completely devoid of any moral imagination.

    And we are both familiar with the Milgram experiment, itself inspired by the Eichmann trial, and similar tests:

    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Milgram_experiment

    I wonder how many of the ordinary people who held unthinking anti-semitic views were among the Righteous Gentiles?

    Most older Americans will remember the hit TV series ALL IN THE FAMILY (based on the Britcom TILL DEATH DO US PART), in which protagonist Archie Bunker spouted bigotry of every hue but was always ready to help out his son-in-law's black friend Lionel when necessary. I think we take our notion of the "nice guy with rotten views" from him; and I think we are mistaken to do so.

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  28. Virginia DeMarce25 June, 2008 12:45

    Laura Vivanco wrote: "Of course, to really be sure about how common these attitudes were among M&B authors one would need to read quite a lot of books, because different authors almost certainly had at least slightly different attitudes to things, and some might have had very different attitudes from others."

    Oh, of course. I'm a historian and a great fan of data bases.

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  29. Tal, I won't argue with you further here. We can take it to e-mail or IM, if we feel strong enough. Either you are still not understanding me, or we have a real difference of opinion here. And yes, I know about the Milgram experiment.

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  30. OK, but I think it is you who is misunderstanding me...

    Insectivores get no respect.

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