Wednesday, March 20, 2013

Justice and Humanity

There are a number of things that have popped up lately that really have me thinking about modern society (well, to be honest, human society in general, but the modern American one in particular). Something is missing, something important. In general, our society does not let each individual be equally human. Instead, they are defined by their actions or even how others perceive them. Some of the stories tend to get people riled up, so I'll avoid any real examples.

I don't know if the society we currently live in is any more or less callous than others around the world or through time. I know there have been times and places where it has been pretty bad. In fact bad is more the norm. And this is something all the great religions of the world (when you get beyond the nitpicking of extremists) have lots to say against. Things like the many references of "judge not, lest ye be judged" in the Christian Bible. Still, we do it. And we do it all the time. It takes away people's humanity and robs us of true justice.

A lot of these things can best be seen in my favorite story, Les Miserables. Before the movie, or the musical, there was the book (an epic tome of 500,000 words). Victor Hugo spent a lot of time explaining certain thing to his readers, things that give the impression that mid nineteenth century France was a pretty bad place for justice and humanity. In it Hugo tells us about many characters, their motivations, actions, history, and how society has failed them. Jean Valjean broke into a bakery and stole bread to feed his sister's family. He was sentenced to five years of hard labor. Subsequent escape attempts led to it being extended to 19 years. When he was released, he was forced to register at each town and was then treated as a pariah. If it wasn't for one man, the Bishop of Dinge (and by the time we even meet Valjean, we know that this Bishop lives by the best parts of Biblical teachings) who ignores his past and treats him as a human being. It changes Valjean and he reforms. But in the eyes of Inspector Javert, he will always be a convict, a convicted violent felon. There is not forgiveness in Javert. When he at last is confronted by the man Vanjean has become, he can't accept it and kills himself.

We have too many Javert's in this world. Too many people who will not forgive, who see a person only by what they have done. We can never have enough people like the Bishop of Dinge. People who see a person as a person, no matter what they have done.

Now don't get me wrong, we have evil people in this world who consciously do evil things and see nothing wrong with their actions. We have lots of people who commit crimes who are hardened criminals who will not benefit from any kindness we might offer. But we can't let them take the humanity away from all who have been found guilty (whether it be in court or by public opinion). Every person is entitled to being treated justly and with humanity. Everyone was once a fetus growing in the womb. Everyone was once an infant, dependent on others to survive. Everyone was once a child, too young to see the world as we adults do. Everyone was once a son or daughter. Why do we lose that just because of something they did? We shouldn't, but we do. Where is the justice in that?

There are too many people in this world who live in anger. Too many who jump to conclusions or rush to judgment. Too many people who don't weigh the facts before they condemn someone. Our news media feeds this. The more sensational the story the more people rush to label someone guilty. We never wait for both sides. And in the same case you can have different groups rushing to opposite and opposing judgements. We do this in politics, scandal, crime, with our celebrities, or even common people caught up in something. When we forget that each person is human, no matter what they have done, then we become inhuman. When we label an entire group as monsters without bothering to consider what was behind each individual's actions, it is we who are the real monsters. When we dehumanize any group, we dehumanize ourselves.

Justice often means horrible punishments for horrible crimes. Charles Manson remains locked up for his crimes and no sane person wants to see him released. But when there is more to a crime, reasons behind it that led to something horrible done by someone who is not horrible at heart, there should be room for mercy and forgiveness.

The saddest thing in all this is not how we dehumanize people who are seen to have done something wrong (not every horrible thing is a crime), but that in doing so we harm ourselves. Too many people fill their lives with anger and hatred. Those things eat at people and wither the soul. There is a reason our religions are big on forgiveness, because at their heart, religions are all about the health of our soul and to not forgive is to have a sick soul.

So for the best of justice and humanity, we need to not judge anyone based on what we are told of them, only what they prove to us. We need to be like the Bishop of Dinge and treat anyone who comes across our path as we would a brother, sister, son, daughter, mother, or father. We need to give them their humanity so we keep ours.

Thursday, March 7, 2013

History And Competing Theories Applied to World Building

I'm a long time student of history. Could have something to do with my grandmother being a historian and it could also have something to do with all the history books I had as a kid. The reasons don't really matter, just that I like history. But the thing I've always knows about it is is that there are always secrets to uncover. Another family member is working on a biography of an illustrious family member from the past and keeps uncovering the wildest things. So I always keep in mind that history is just what we know at a given point in time.

It seems not all historians share that opinion. Some get rather miffed when some new data comes along to upset the apple cart. More often than not, the new information make history richer and fuller. Rarely are such revelations dull. The History Channel just started a new series this year called American Unearthed. The host, Scott Wolter, is a geologist and his study of stones has given him a different perspective on some of the previously ignored finds of past centuries. Many of his views are intriguing, but I've also come to realize that he has fallen prey to the same tendency to set one's beliefs in stone. Many of his finds are quite incredible, but some get obscured by his fascination with the 'hooked X' and the Knights Templar.

Now, as a writer of fantasy and creator of worlds in which I set my stories, many of Scott Wolter's theories are intriguing. He paints a picture of many generations of adventurers traveling from Europe and the Middle East to North America. He provides some compelling evidence that someone came, though I sometimes question who he settles on. Still, it creates many story possibilities. Worlds are big places and you can't always delve deep into every corner. Often it is more that enough for fantasy writers to create just a single continent or region. George. R.R. Martin has barely explored a quarter of his world in his series (probably better known as the HBO series Game of Thrones). Tolkien didn't even give us a hint of the size of his world.

The one thing that is common is to take pieces of history and build them up and change them around to create a unique fantasy setting. Scott Wolter, whatever you think of his historical accuracy, provides a new aspect, a new tool, to fantasy world building. You could have an exploratory team venturing into the unknown, only to discover that someone had been there before. Maybe even a lot colony that is now intermingled with the natives. Or you could have a character who tells fantastic tales of a far off land that sounds like fables, until something happens to reveal that it is the truth. And when you talk of mixing societies, imagine a Japanese Colony in Spain or Egypt. Mix things up and come up with knew and unusual situations, places, cultures... it's fantasy, anything is possible.