Making assumptions

Much has been made of late of media bias, the limits of political correctness in speech, and the question of just how free a speech the freedom of speech does or is meant to or ought to entail. What have unfortunately been far less examined are the conceptual assumptions that lie behind not only every spoken or written word but the generative thoughts themselves that give rise to those words. Each and every one of us are prisoners of our assumptions and those assumptions are closely tied in with our situational and linguistic contexts.

To begin, consider Citizen X, born in California in 1995. X came of age in a time when the internet was already as normal and as daily a tool as pencils and paper; indeed for X pencils and paper probably seem like somewhat strange devices and X could well be unaccustomed to using them and far less dextrous in their manipulation than X is with her smartphone. She will have a different mindset towards such tools as her parents do, her thinking is generational and historically bound in this way. And of course not only in this way. She also views many of the turn of the millennium social issues in a way that is common for her peers and the conclusions about them that she has drawn seem entirely self-evident to her; they are non-issues in fact. It’s all so obvious. She cannot imagine communism as anything other than a set of very cool logos and the “communist” countries she is aware of are either struggling (Cuba), false (China), or insane (North Korea). Capitalism and its darling child consumerism are the only ways of life she is familiar with and such are so familiar that she does not spend even a moment thinking about them. Again, self-evident. Being Californian also carries with it particular traits and perspectives as well, and these will moreover vary depending on if she is a southern Californian or a northern Californian. Her own familial situation and standard of living, wealth, resource access, etc. will play into how she perceives her world as well, as will her genetic inheritance and personality – partially based on that genetic heritage. She is socially, historically, economically, culturally, ideologically, geographically, environmentally, biologically, bound by a tremendous amount of influencing factors. All of these and more go into making her who she is and how she thinks and she had essentially no control over every single one of them. The eyes she looks out of will be fundamentally different than those of someone in her same age cohort born elsewhere, and will be different still – far more so – than those of someone older or younger than her, poorer or more wealthy, culturally varied, and on and on. Even her birth language will color how she thinks as each language carries within it a network of associations buried behind its terms. Her Californian American usage of “freedom” will have a substantially variant nuance to it, and maybe even a distinct meaning, compared with another person’s use of the equivalent term in, say, Korean. It will contain other assumptions.

And there is the rub. We have trouble even imagining the degree to which we are stamped out by the factory molds of these forces. We are unique individuals, of course, but we are hardly in charge of our own destinies for our destinies are tied up so thoroughly with the default selves we find ourselves being. (We can of course break out of these molds through much personal effort but that is a topic for another day (and probably another text and forum).) As it goes for us so it goes for our characters. Our characters will see their worlds through similarly blinkered lenses and it is our challenge to communicate just how their thought-worlds are structured in both their broad form (social, historical, economic, environmental, linguistic, etc. factors) and their narrow form (details of personal background, traits, goals, motivations, etc.). Some of our characters may share many of these points, some may be wildly different and provide the needed conflict to drive the story forwards, but all will have them and we must never forget that when writing and when trying to inhabit their points of view as we express them. This is a task that is far from easy but it is central to being a writer of fiction, central to being a creator of characters and worlds. Within these multitude forces there are some human universals, I think (emotions certainly, basic needs – not only of a physical nature – as well, amongst others), and digging those out too is part and parcel of the exploration. As Nietzsche might have said, we need first and foremost to be psychologists. Perhaps the first subject to examine on the couch should be ourselves; what other patient is nearer to hand? If we can find out how our own minds work we might have all the keys we need to unlocking others. And then from that solid grounding our creativity will be able to soar. Let’s let it.

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