Unexamined Metanarratives, or The Problem with Privilege

I’ve talked about the concept of metanarratives at length before in the general context of postmodernism and specifically when applied to superheroes and Star Wars. Today I want to highlight what I believe the positive impact of deconstructing metanarratives are through a metanarrative commonly employed in modern fiction. While postmodernism deconstructs metanarratives because it believes they are a power play – an attempt to control the thinking of others by forcing their minds into preconceived patterns – I believe most metanarratives arise out of a person’s general philosophy and, while fiction can reinforce these philosophical preconceptions, it can also be used as a way to measure these preconceptions and see what about them makes sense and what doesn’t.

Metanarratives are rarely – possibly never – without some foundation in reality. The mostly happy homes of Home Improvement or The Cosby Show do exist, for example, but the constraints of their fictional setting prevent them from being explored in depth, so a number of clichés and tropes built up around these fictional families until The Simpsons came along to deconstruct them. While The Simpsons is no longer particularly relevant to sitcom formulas; for years it was ascendant and its deconstruction of the prevailing metanarrative did open up new avenues of storytelling to explore. That didn’t invalidate the old metanarratives, even if many people acted like it did.

There are a lot of metanarratives in modern fiction that could use this treatment, like the “trade in your birth family for one you build yourself” metanarrative (conveniently ignoring that if you can’t make your birth family work the odds you can build a function one are pretty small) or the “sell guns to both sides and reap huge rewards” metanarrative (a good way to get shot and, as near as I can tell, never something that’s happened historically). And perhaps this will become a recurring spot as other post ideas have, there’s certainly fodder for it. But for now, I want to look at Privilege.

The concept of “Privilege” I want to talk about is not what we normally think of as a privilege. It’s not permission to use the computers at the school you attend – unlike a member of the general public who does not have that privilege – or the privilege of using motor vehicles on government owned roads – which is basically what your driver’s license grants you. In much of modern fiction there is the notion of unearned benefits conferred to you by circumstance, particularly circumstances that favor one group over another. And that notion is encapsulated in the term “privilege”.

Let’s start our deconstruction of this notion by mentioning that the ideas behind Privilege are not new. When circumstances convey benefits no one earned there have been a host of terms for it. “Luck” is one, suggesting that sometimes the world just seems to like you more than others. “Blessing” is another, conveying the way people or, among the religious and/or superstitious, supernatural forces will give something of value to another as an expression of affection or to cement some kind of personal bond. “Bias” is a third, denoting the preference of one group over another.

And here we come to the first major construct of Privilege that must be taken apart and examined. The very use of the term marries blessing and bias. Not all blessings imply a bias. For example, my sisters and I were blessed with a homeschooling education. My parents blessed me with a social study curriculum that emphasized understanding philosophy and ideas in ways that profoundly shaped the way I think and who I am today. But they didn’t choose to bless my sisters with the same curriculum. In many ways their social studies were easier or more engaging, but they did not develop the same perspectives. And, looking back on it from a distance of some years, I can see that the curriculum I studied did not suit their personalities and interests as it suited mine. Yes, my parents exercised their good judgement in making these choices, but good judgement is not the same as bias. Nor do I feel the different educational blessings my parents shared with their children were inferior or superior to each other. They were simply chosen to best fit those receiving them. The Privilege metanarrative leaves no room for this kind of nuance.

But perhaps you are thinking to yourself, “This is a bad example. The Privilege metanarrative applies to groups, rather than individuals. Of course an education as highly tailored to individuals as homeschooling would rule Privilege out.”

If you were thinking that, then you’re correct. The second construct the Privilege metanarrative brings to the table is group based evaluation. In the Privilege metanarrative my parents’ decisions must be understood through group identity. Thus, the choice to give me an education full of philosophy must have been a result of my male privilege, as the job of men is to run the world and make sure all the other people are unprivileged (the term for this is oppressed in the view of the typical postmodernist). The fact that my parents might have looked at each of their three children’s interests and temperament individually is not relevant to the metanarrative any more than Chicago style political dramas are relevant to a Home Improvement style sitcom metanarrative.

Which is to say, they can be made to blend but one aspect will bend to the other – either the corrupt politicians must be shown as fools by the sitcom crew or the sitcom cast will become unwitting tools of the corrupt politicians, either my parents must have been driven by unconscious bias towards the favored male gender or their decisions being what they are is just a result of my being in some way stereotypical. There’s nothing wrong with this blending on the surface, by the way, but culturally predominate metanarratives tend to win out in the blending and right now the Privilege metanarrative saturates our culture. The tendency to let it win out will be strong, but a good writer must still carefully evaluate whether that metanarrative blend is what’s best for your story.

Metanarratives that operate without question quickly run out of control. Humans tend to push ideas as far as they can, usually running right of the edge of a cliff in the process. The history of the Privilege metanarrative is an interesting expression of this. The basic pieces of the modern take on the metanarrative were put in place during the Civil Rights era, when Privilege was rampant in culture and law. Recognizing it was a very important step in human progress and resulted in good things for the nation as a whole and many ethnic minorities in particular. This fact is a big part of why the idea of Privilege is so widespread in culture today. However, the idea of Privilege has far outgrown its starting context.

We frequently hear of “white privilege” in culture today. In summation this is the idea that generations of cultural expansion, tight knit families, careful investments, inheritance, emphasis on education and ethnic loyalty have catapulted white people to the forefront of the world and given them a stranglehold on the wealth and power of the modern world. In turn we see the Privilege metanarrative used to justify any number of actions to disrupt this supposed deathgrip. This has been true in pulp and pop entertainment for a while and has crept into daily discourse as well.

Again, this metanarrative is not new. The clearest example in history is how, for over a thousand years, the inherited wealth, excellent education, ethnic loyalty and powerful family ties of Jews was used as an excuse to persecute them.

This is the final aspect of the Privilege metanarrative that must be deconstructed. Like all flawed, human concepts, metanarratives can drive great evil as easily as great good. The current Privilege metanarrative casts Privilege as an evil and those that oppose it as a force for good, a direct extension in its origins in the Civil Rights movement. While this can be true, and again has been true in recent memory, it is not always the case – again, in recent memory. By the same token, Privilege is viewed almost as a universal, underpinning every situation, when sometimes a blessing is without bias, or luck is just luck. There’s no reason to say my education was a privilege over that of my sisters, as we all turned out equally well and, some might say, they are doing somewhat better than I am.

I’ve been very hard on postmodernism in the past and I stand by my belief that its approach to metanarratives is silly and leads only to confusion. But I hope I’ve shown today that the process of deconstructing a metanarrative and looking at its component parts and how it’s played out across history can give us a deeper understanding of a metanarrative, what its strengths and weaknesses are, and how it might be used in innovative ways. At the least it lets us put aside popular metanarratives for a metanarrative with less cachet at the moment but better suited to your needs.

Metanarratives are just one of many tools in the writers arsenal. Use them wisely and you get good stories. Sometimes that means breaking them down and seeing what each part has done, is doing, and could do.

Now. The throughline of this blog has been nonfiction for far too long. Come back next week and we’ll kick off a new dose of fiction with a spicy double posting followed by an exciting (hopefully) new sci-fi tale from yours truly!

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