Understanding a particular point of view—experiences, histories, prejudices—well enough to create believable, three-dimensional, real characters is one of the greatest challenges in writing fiction. Problems arise when a character’s worldview drastically differs from or is in opposition to the writer’s. For me, the most challenging viewpoints are those based on “traditional values” that excuse characters from questioning their actions or personal beliefs. The characters, instead, cling to ignorance and prejudice, no matter who they hurt. In the short story “Contrition,” for example, an aging WWII Japanese veteran refuses to renounce the “traditional value” of racial/ethnic superiority that has led him during the war to torture, maim, and murder. In another story called “Responsibility,” an old man resides in a retirement medical facility, unable to die, miserable in senescent seclusion due to “traditional values” that have caused him to disown his gay son, an act that has driven the boy to suicide.
In the early-to-mid-1960s, southern schools were finally forced by law to integrate racially. It was a volatile time, with opposing sides vehemently asserting their points of view, destroying friendships and family ties, with violence always a breath away. Returning home one summer night before mandated integration, my father, mother, and I came upon a rural traffic jam just south of Montgomery, Alabama. My father pulled into the drive of a gas station bordering a field where hundreds of people surrounded a stage, the night ablaze with a giant flaming cross. My parents left me in the car as they joined the crowd in its hateful hysteria, fired by the litany of racial epithets streaming from onstage speakers.
Shortly before I entered fourth grade that fall, my father warned me not to talk to or associate with any African American students. But when I met those students, I began to question the traditional values I was being taught, values that enabled such hatred in the people I knew, values that were supposedly sacred but based only on personal religious beliefs and social prejudices. Other groups, I soon discovered, had their own traditional values. Every country. Every region. Every culture. Every ethnicity. Every race. Every religion. Every denomination within a religion. Traditional. Hallowed. Superior.
A local newspaper recently ran an article with the headline, “County Residents Reaffirm Traditional Values.” The story extolled local support of a corporate CEO’s decision to funnel company funds to anti-homosexual initiatives and organizations. Campaigns to deny rights to various groups is nothing new. Every year, every decade, every century has its societal targets, from Jews to Palestinians to women to Native Americans to African Americans to immigrants to homosexuals, and on and on. And everyone—from company CEOs to performers like Ry Cooder, with his Election Special CD, to average persons concerned enough to pay attention—everyone has the right to support any particular political or social initiative, just as everyone has the right to oppose those initiatives by boycotting the businesses or individuals who support them.
Only recently has it become acceptable and legal in most parts of the country for interracial couples to marry, a move that still irks the preachers of the traditional values I endured as a child. As acceptance of interracial marriage has spread, the values bandwagon has turned toward gay couples. The torchbearers of traditional values who once railed against interracial marriage now rail against same-gender marriage, justifying arguments on selective passages and interpretations of whatever holy book they believe in, as though their religion, their beliefs, their values are superior to all others and should rule everyone.
As a child, I listened to elders discuss “better” times when African Americans “knew their place” in society. They lamented the passing of days when even lynching was justified by the traditional values of good, God fearing folks. Today, that same kind of hatred continues to thrive, targeting various groups, from homosexuals, Muslims, Jews, and different Christian denominations, to immigrants and, increasingly, women. The rants are consistent and vitriolic, filling the airwaves 24/7, inciting action among the lunatic fringe of political pawns, action that results in assassination attempts, buildings bombed, planes flown into IRS offices, treasonous plots among radical military members, and so much more. Those values can even translate into acts of law that prohibit basic rights of targeted groups, from denial of healthcare or marriage to the return of Jim Crow initiatives.
One of the most striking and disappointing aspects of traditional values is the corruption of religious belief—the same technique used to vindicate everything from slavery, genocide, and separation of races, to attacks on members of other faiths such as Muslims by Christians and Christians by Muslims, laws that ban interracial and homosexual marriage, and forced submission of women—to name only a few. Many maintain that if everyone were governed by some supposedly god-ordained list of rules such as the Christian ten commandments or the Muslim religion’s equivalent list, then all would be fine. But do we truly understand exactly what we’re promoting?
The Christian commandments are pretty self-explanatory. Shout at your mother, argue with your father, commit murder, create “graven images” such as an artist’s rendering of Jesus or Yahweh, work on the Sabbath, utter “oh my god,” divorce, wish you had someone else’s car or money or whatever, have an affair, lie, steal—all these acts are strictly forbidden. What most promoters of commandment adherence do not mention is the punishment prescribed for violation—for good reason. It ranges from genocide for violating the graven images commandment to death for goofing on most of the others. (For a more comprehensive list of punishments of specific commandments, please refer to http://www.evilbible.com/ten_commandments.htm.)
Based on our personal values, we believe we can dictate what’s best for everyone else until we’re affected directly by one of those things we’ve previously opposed. For example, Dick Cheney opposed gay marriage until his gay daughter announced her intention to marry her partner. James Brady opposed laws limiting gun use until he was shot during the assassination attempt on Ronald Reagan. But some of us don’t change even when we excuse ourselves from adhering to the same values we’d force others to live by. Author Ayn Rand vehemently opposed programs such as social security, yet reaped their benefits even as she campaigned to outlaw them. Politician Rick Santorum and his wife Karen made the heart-wrenching decision to have a second-trimester abortion to end a pregnancy that threatened Karen’s health. Yet the couple continue to advocate for passage of draconian laws that would deny other women and families the same right they exercised.
Politics is one of the cruelest monsters to cloak itself in traditional values. To vote responsibly and humanely for the common good, it is critical to consult a variety of sources that present not only supporting and opposing viewpoints, but also unbiased accounts, facts unaltered by vested interests. Anyone desiring to be informed cannot rely on accounts from one broadcast network or newspaper to understand events, especially if that paper or network is a political tool, as many of today’s media are. I recently engaged in a political argument with a relative who employs his chosen party’s platform and a strictly personal interpretation of biblical texts to justify a racist, homophobic, misogynistic agenda. Certainly, he is entitled to his opinions, but he is not entitled to exert those opinions on others by forcing them to live as he would have them live. Our debate ended in a shouting match as we failed to respect one another as individuals, damaging the relationship beyond repair.
Because of that argument, however, I realized that my viewpoint is based on certain values that I’ve made “traditional” to myself, affording me better understanding of why characters I create, such as those in “Responsibility” and “Contrition,” choose such disparate paths. In “Responsibility,” the old man finally reassesses his values and their effects on others, and accepts responsibility for the rejection of his son that led to the young man’s suicide. In “Contrition,” on the other hand, the Japanese veteran refuses to abandon his traditional values, clinging blindly to his prejudice, rejecting responsibility for the evil he’s perpetrated, condemning himself to an eternity of suffering in arrogant ignorance.
The good thing about the characters in my stories is that they’re fictional. They usually reap the benefits or punishments of their personal karma. Some even come to understand and adopt the one “golden” value traditional to most religions and cultures: Treat others as you would have them treat you. In other words, live and let live.
Life, however, isn’t fiction. And live and let live is sadly the biggest fantasy of all.