Dealing with values dissonance
A while ago (actually several years ago; my, how time flies) I ran across a lengthy article on Robert E. Howard, Conan, and racism. Here it is
Much of the commentary degenerated into discussing the level of racism and sexism in the Conan stories, but I think that misses the point. Howard’s stories are unquestionably racist to a modern audience. The problem arises that the article makes the leap of logic that since Howard was racist, we should shun his stories. And that’s what I have the difficulty with – the implicit assumption that anyone who produces work that doesn’t accord with my values is somehow not worth reading.
Don’t get me wrong: there are bits in the original Conan stories that jolt me out of the narrative and remind me that this was not written in 2016 (the black cannibals with the sharpened teeth being one; Conan rescuing a woman solely because she’s white being another). But why on earth should I expect an author who has been dead for eighty years to share the same “enlightened values” as we expect today? If we are truly secure in the knowledge that racism is wrong (and it is), what harm is there in reading a story where the author has a different viewpoint? I like to think we read stuff to be entertained and/or challenged (preferably both at the same time); limiting ourselves to “ideologically safe” material may occasionally leave us entertained, but it doesn’t challenge us. It also causes difficulties the further back you go, because, well, social attitudes change and no-one can quite escape the influence of their time and place.
The article makes the point that there were people who were anti-racist and anti-sexist in the early 1930s, so the temporal argument doesn’t wash with Howard. I think this rather overlooks the fact that if you’re looking for a rural Texan in the early 20th century (which Howard was), you aren’t going to find much material that isn’t imbued with a racist worldview to some degree. You’re asking too much of someone to look ahead eighty years and think “what will their value system be then?”. In fact, you would not only be demanding some very enlightened views from Howard, but also from the editors who bought his work, and from the audience who bought and read his stories. In short, you’d be demanding that the society of 1936 should operate like the society of 2016. Howard also wrote to make money, first and foremost, to the point where had he lived, I think he might well have toned the racist stuff down in later life (when even H.P. Lovecraft, who had eccentric views even by 1920s standards, starts to tone it down towards the end, I think you have to acknowledge that people change along with society).
If I might make a hypothetical analogy: suppose in the year 2300 the world has become completely vegetarian, and eating meat is an unthinkable crime. Where does that leave those of us in the early 21st century who both eat meat and produce material on the assumption that meat eating is socially acceptable? I mean, there are people out there today who simply don’t eat meat, and regard it as wrong, so by the article’s reasoning, we should all be culpable in the eyes of the future. I think you can see the problem with this: it is a bit too Whig History (“we are the pinnacle of everything and history is one big long progression towards our enlightened state”) and a bit too arrogant an assumption.
In reading someone like Howard, I think it’s only fair to allow that if the racism truly gets in the way of your enjoyment of the text, you’re quite within your rights to go and read something else. Recognising Howard for what he was is something anyone who encounters Conan these days has to do. My issue is more that every time you sit down with a book, you shouldn’t expect the author to simply confirm the moral righteousness of your own personal value system. That way lies stunted thinking.