The OF Blog: Interesting article on racism and sexism found in Tolkien's works

Sunday, January 29, 2012

Interesting article on racism and sexism found in Tolkien's works

Generally I don't say much about the racist, sexist, and classist attitudes found in much of J.R.R. Tolkien's fictions, as I would think by now that it should be apparent to 21st century readers, but Requires Only That You Hate (one of my new favorites to read because her takes on social/cultural issues in genre fiction and video gaming often makes me reassess my own views) has written a piece on those odious elements in Tolkien's work that is well worth reading.  In particular, her comments on Tolkien's analogy of his dwarves having "Semitic" qualities to their language and their wanderings is very well-argued.

Although I don't mind people leaving comments here, I think it'd be best to leave comments at her blog.

34 comments:

Harry Hopkirk said...

I have left comments on her site, but I must say that acrackedmoon seems like a hateful, unpleasant person who has repeatedly insulted me for no reason. I find your admiration for her bemusing.

Brett said...

That's pretty much her schtick, Harry - long, vitriol and ad hominem-ridden rants, plus a "yes, and" comment system where she deletes anything critical of her views.

There's a whole host of blogs with the same type of format (Tiger Beatdown is another prominent one). They occasionally come up with some interesting reading, but a lot of it is just tiresome. Especially since commenting critically over there is pointless - she just deletes the comment and makes a personal attack on the commenter.

Larry said...

I guess you've never read her review of Embassytown. Funny the extrapolations people make when they go on someone's blog and make clueless statements. I'm fairly polite about it, but no one has to be.

Brett said...

So you found one reasonably polite review . . . amidst plenty of the kind I described.

Larry said...

It wasn't hard to find. There are dozens similar to it if you'd just read her reviews list.

Grobstein said...

What to say? First, the linked article isn't a piece about racism and sexism in Tolkien. It offers almost no discussion of that subject. Instead, it is a list of quotations from Internet commenters defending Tolkien, cherry-picked to make them seem as clueless as possible. This means nothing! For any position on any subject, you can find Internet commenter adherents and mock them -- there are ridiculous people defending every position out there. It tells you nothing about the merits of the position.

I do not especially believe that publicly nominating hate objects is a good approach to appreciating fiction. Do you? The culture of adrenaline-addiction and punishing outsiders for norm violations that has grown up in a corner of SF fandom is really disheartening to me. And of course they think they're the vanguard of political right-think.

I normally deal with this by simply ignoring it. But here I find myself right in the middle of it after following a link that purported to be a discussion of Tolkien (albeit a critical one). Brett and Harry complain mildly and are hit with passive-aggressive attacks on their character.

Larry, there may be plenty of civil and well-argued reviews on this site, as you say (though that would make the title rather incongruous). So why did you instead link to this self-righteous shaming of the unenlightened?

Larry said...

There are quite a few quotes from his novels and from his letters to readers, so to argue that her post focuses solely on belittling Tolkienistas (as I pejoratively call the ardent defenders) is not a sound argument. As for the passive-agressive bit, I don't buy it. The comments are not mild at all and my responses are generally restrained by nature. But what I would prefer people to do is read her points carefully and not focus on how it triggers emotional responses. There is much food for thought there, which is why I linked to it.

Grobstein said...

Yes, there are some quotations from Tolkien, but if you don't think the main event is the 2-minute hate you're deceiving yourself. I don't find undirected anger conducive to reflection, and I hardly think I'm alone. Certainly the aim is not to understand Tolkien, but to pillory him. So we are invited to read Tolkien's remarks against Apartheid, delivered nearly 30 years before Apartheid became a campus cause celebre, as disingenuous -- someone who typecast dwarves couldn't be against Apartheid! Surely he was really in favor of Hitler too! Etc. How can you enjoy difficult books but be such a reductive and spiteful reader of humans?

Now, I agree that the Lord of the Rings is tinged with racism, and has almost no roles for women -- it's also deeply conservative. Does it somehow advance that discussion to obliterate all nuance, and reduce Tolkien to a caricature? No matter how much you call names, Tolkien was not a Nazi. He was a humanitarian who bequeathed us a tremendous artistic legacy. He was also a man of troubling retrograde views.

But the material you've linked reduces the whole complicated humanity of it to a set of loyalty tests, as though no person with prejudices and failings could produce anything good. Consider: there are beliefs we hold and practices we follow today that will look monstrous to our descendants, perhaps mass incarceration or meat-eating. And yet we are also each capable of good. A future reader who reviews your correspondence will find things that disgust him -- should you be dismissed entirely? The history of moral progress is good reason for all of us to practice humility in judgment.

It is very hard to take you seriously when you say you want readers to "read her points carefully and not focus on how it triggers emotional responses." The writing on that blog is not designed to be read carefully -- it is designed to trigger extreme emotional responses. It is designed to rally the beloved in-group with feelings of righteous superiority, and to lash out at the hated out-group. Ideally the out-group will be provoked into responding, so that they can then be singled out by the gang as butt-hurt neckbearded white virgins. A big part of this style is baiting people and taking joy in emotionally hurting them. It's ugly. When you send some poor earnest soul to that blog, you sentence them to a hounding if they offer even a peep of disagreement.

And you can link to this and piously intone that you hope people will get past their "emotional responses?" If you wanted careful engagement instead of emotional response, you wouldn't turn on the furnace blast of hate -- which, again, is right there in the title of the blog.

K.R. Smith said...

"How can you enjoy difficult books but be such a reductive and spiteful reader of humans?"

I think you just hit the nail on the head. Actually, she strikes me as a somewhat "reductive" reader even of books. For example, the "Embassytown" review Larry linked to lists a "couple of problems" with an earlier Mieville book that were mostly incidents of violence against women. She seems to think that any work that has any scenes of violence against women in any context are sexist/misogynistic.

I can't stand people who read books *only* for political context, so I can't stand this person even when I otherwise agree with her, as I largely do in her criticism of Tolkien.

Anonymous said...

I agree that she has some good points regarding Tolkien and others, especially given where she lives, and the perception of the the West she necessarily has (seeing the preponderance of western men in Thailand seeking young women to abuse would influence anyone's viewpoint). However, those point would be better served if they were not buried under several layers of vitriol. Many of her points are valid, but if she wants to convince someone who disagrees with her, an automatic "fuck you whitey, neckbeard asshole" is not going to foster any dialog.

Roland said...

Yeah, reading her response to that blogpost Grobstein linked to, gives the impression she needs to be on medication.
Her agenda seems to be to just provoke and insult people, to make herself feel better about herself.

The weird thing is that somewhere inside all that hatred and vicious lashing out, there are usually some points that would actually make sense, if she could just express them like a sober human being.

Larry said...

A few personal observations:

1) My maternal grandfather fought in World War II (Pacific Theater). Helped in the liberation of the Philippines. Couldn't watch/listen to University of Tennessee football for a while in the 1970s because "they started a nigger quarterback," Condredge Holloway. His views were of the time, yes, but they most certainly were racist. Does that mean all of him was bad? Of course not. But that element was very bad.

2) Have you ever walked into a restaurant with a friend in a city where neither one of you is the predominant ethnic group and watch him being addressed in his second language while you, who look much closer to the fairer-skinned among this group, are immediately addressed in your native language (which they do not speak well, despite you being able to speak theirs)? I have and I have never forgotten it.

3) Ever made casual quips about "being gypped" or "he Jewed me?" To my regret, I used to use those without realizing just how bad those were.

4) If you don't get the message by observing how others are treated or by someone who hints to you that what you are saying is wrong, after a while, some are going to tell you that you are sporting a huge shitstain on your shirt and it might be best for you to remove it.

5) If you take offense at someone pointing out this "shitstain" and complain about the "tone" in which they said it, you're still left with that shitstain on your shirt, only now you have made others aware of it.

So please, if you feel insulted or annoyed that someone is so strident in their "tone," try to remove that stain before belaboring the messenger. Or if you feel so passionate about the issue, direct it toward the person who is talking to you, not the person who linked to the conversation. I don't have all day to repeat myself here.

Nic said...

@ Harry:

I'm curious: how did your comments engage with the substance of her argument about Tolkien?

@ K.R. Smith:

I can't stand people who read books *only* for political context

And I find it hard to understand how people can read books *without* noticing "political context", as you call it. Each to their own, I suppose. But then, if I read a book in which - to pick an example entiiiirely at random - the tiny number of women who exist in the storyworld are silent, pedestal-inhabiting creatures, it's tricky for me to brush that off as 'political context'. That's not (just) political; it's personal, and I don't have the privilege of ignoring it.

Chris said...

Larry- That site is a sewer. Why on earth would you be surprised at the negative reaction to your link there?
People are getting pissed because you're giving a hysterical,abusive and in my opinion racist blog publicity which it doesn't deserve. People simply find that place unacceptable. She's an asshole plain and simple.

Larry said...

Re-read what I said above in the comments.

Eddie C said...

@ Chris: wait what... you just called that blog "racist"? Seriously? There are many things one could say about it, but racist isn't one. Christ, get over yourself. There are worse things in the world than white nerds being made uncomfortable about their own assumptions (I include myself in that description).

Anonymous said...

Wow, a lot of cherry picking and flawed argumentation going on that piece. No mention of Tolkien’s letter in which he tells a German publisher in 1938 to go hang after being asked if he was of Aryan blood. “But if I am to understand that you are enquiring whether I am of Jewish origin, I can only reply with regret that I appear to have no ancestors of that gifted people.” Or this one: “There was a solemn article in the local paper seriously advocating systematic exterminating of the entire German nation as the only proper course after military victory: because, if you please, they are rattlesnakes, and don't know the difference between good and evil! (What of the writer?) The Germans have just as much right to declare the Poles and Jews exterminable vermin, subhuman, as we have to select the Germans: in other words, no right, whatever they have done."

I find it interesting how the author cites some quotes as damning evidence of Tolkien’s racism/Jewish bias, then dismisses any authorial quotes that don’t support her opinion as an “I have many Jewish friends” clause, or “wonky mental gymnastics.” Others might call it, I don’t know, evidence to the contrary.

Also, she contradicts her own central thesis of “authorial intent doesn’t matter” by using quotes from Tolkien’s letters to support her argument. By her reasoning nothing Tolkien wrote outside of LOTR matters; so why rely on (carefully selected) letters to make a point?

Is the author dead, or not? Not at all clear from this “essay,” unfortunately.

Larry said...

Not buying it. I'm a guy; I can easily see that the women are either "exceptional" (which serves to reinforce the narrative norm) or are on pedestals and are there just to look pretty. When the actions of all of the described non-white groups are in support of the main evil and the lily-whites are on the side of good, I pause and wonder some more. Then I read during the last book descriptions of the "black men of Far Harad" that are like trolls? Umm...yeah.

Sorry, but it's hard to read that text and not get a vibe that's only slightly better than H.P. Lovecraft's racist rantings.

Harry said...

@Nic:
I didn't say anything about Tolkien, because I felt the article she linked to succintly talked pros for him and her dscussion highlighted cons. I think she did this in a fine way. I object to her dismissal, mocking, belittling and hatred for the hundreds of millions of straight white males in the world, automatically doing so to people who like Tolkien in general, and also to me, with whom she excanged 6 paragraghs of text. I am a flawed person, but I can only call that racism, sexism and outright prejudice. And her angry rhetoric makes it hateful prejudice, and I do object to that on a moral ground. I also have the belief that f someone has wronged you, hate them, but if not you should show them courtesy until they show you otherwise. To do anything else is setting yourself to fail in relationships with people and with society. Anger solve specific problems, anger at people in abstraction doesn't solve anything.

Maybe it wasn't the right post to remark on that since the discusion was about Tolkien, but that wasn't what her criticisms of me founded on. They rested on the fact that I was a straight white male who didn't warrant being told what so offended her. I can call that nothing more than prejudice.

Harry said...

Sorry, I forgot to add that when I wrote in my comment on her blog, "why the hell do you care [so much about Tolkien's possibly racist and sexist views]?", what I meant was why do you care so much as to denigrate and insult anyone who enjoys his work or wishes to argue the other side. I realise now that that wasn't clear.

Anonymous said...

Morality is determined in Tolkien (except for the orcs, which were a non-human creation of Melkor) by free will, which is clearly spelled out as a property that all men possess in The Silmarillion.

There is evidence that the Southrons and Easterlings were fighting wars against Sauron in the East and South; two of the Maiar (the blue wizards) were dispatched there to aid them, just like Gandalf and Saruman in the north. If Tolkien was “guilty” of anything it was training the lens of his story on the north to the exclusion of other peoples; there is simply no evidence that all the Southrons and Easterlings behaved evilly, in unison, because of some inherent property of their race. Obviously they did not, because a) the force sent to Minas Tirith was very small in comparison to the enormous size of these lands, and 2) Aragorn pardoned their forces after the battle, hardly a sound tactical way to treat iredeemable races.

We're also of course dealing with an incredibly small sample here; you can't project the behavior of the Southron and Easterling peoples with the miniscule evidence we get in LOTR. And of course, Sam puts them on equal footing with any other men caught up in a war, in a quote dismissed in the original post.

Larry, the problem with all this is that the writer either deletes these type of responses or replies with childish insults and leet-speak, then bans the poster. I'm not "buying" poorly argued, hate-filled rants as evidence of Tolkien's racism; if you do, more power to you, but I guess we have differing standards of criticism.

Larry said...

Good Lord, the rationalizing, the defensiveness! You quote from extraneous material that was not included in the LotR text. That text is, to me at least, guilty as charged. Just like Conrad's Heart of Darkness, which on the whole is a brilliant psychological novel, is racist as all get out. Why is it so hard for some people to just admit that works that they enjoy have problematic textual issues on occasion?

As for complaining to me about acrackedmoon's approach to editing asinine or condescending comments, I'm not your daddy.

James said...

"I'm not your daddy."

What if they want you to be their daddy? Maybe they want a spanking.

I am so sorry, but I had to.

Anonymous said...

Larry: Her post uses letters, which are of course not in the text of LOTR, and also uses Nienor from Unfinished Tales and Luthien from The Silmarillion to make her points about Tolkien's sexism. Surely that's a bit hypocritical to allow her to use "extraneous material" to make her points, but not allow me to do the same?

At this point I'm not really interested in getting in a pissing match over Tolkien; you're pretty clear in your position and I'm very comfortable in mine, so I'll leave it at that.

Anonymous said...

Providing a ping back for Scott:

http://rsbakker.wordpress.com/2012/02/01/misanthropology-101/

Admittedly I am more than curious for you to share your views, given all the tears spilled over your "betrayal" of Pat.

-Sciborg aka Saajan

Anonymous said...

There is a lot of misinformation about the true origin of the word "gypped". It comes from the Greek word "gyp" for vulture, not from the word "gypsy".

Gyp (Jip, Gip, Gypsy, Gippo, Gypper, Gypster)

A person who cheats or swindles people. A trickster. A person who is not quite honest. Gyp is the Greek word for vulture. In the 19th century, the Universities of Cambridge and Durham in England provided servants, who attended one or more undergraduates. Students called the servants “gyps” because the gyps found many ways of obtaining ale and tips from them and preyed upon the students like vultures. Gyps made beds, ran errands, helped their young masters over the college walls late at night, and provided other services. Sometimes they ran away with everything they could lay their hands on.

Jordan Almond, Dictionary of Word Origins: A History of the Words, Expressions, and Clichés We Use, Citadel Press, New York, 1985, page 113.

Read more: Is the term "gypped" offensive to those of Romanian descent? | Answerbag http://www.answerbag.com/q_view/576962#ixzz1lBtAKGRK

Callan S. said...

Larry, you already say the works contain "racist, sexist, and classist attitudes".

What does it matter if she argues well - you already think that stuff is there? If you already think the sky is blue, what does it matter if someone makes a great argument for it?

Does she make you rethink your views, or did she just make you rethink your view to hold it even more so than before?

Nic said...

@Harry:

I didn't say anything about Tolkien, [...] I object to her dismissal, mocking, belittling and hatred for the hundreds of millions of straight white males in the world, automatically doing so to people who like Tolkien in general, and also to me, with whom she excanged 6 paragraghs of text.

And this is the issue. You were derailing, not engaging, and the exchange you had with acrackedmoon demonstrated perfectly the limitations of what is often called the 'tone argument'. You invoked this most succinctly in your final comment there:

why are you so hateful? [...] Especially since I believe I have been polite?

Politeness is a red herring. You see, your *tone* was polite, but the *content* of what you had to say was not: it was rude and aggressive in the extreme. From the very first comment you left on the post, you belittled her argument and dismissed her experiences, and demanded that she focus on you instead. What you were saying to her was: "Why are you wasting your time talking about something as trivial and boring as whether one of the core works of genre fantasy, beloved by millions and imitated by genre writers for decades, contains insidious racist assumptions that don't affect me? Why are you bothered about a silly thing like whether fans of these books dismiss and attack anyone attempting to point this out, and thus dismiss and attack your right to participate in discussion about the genre? Why don't you talk about something much more important instead, like how you're being really mean to me?" The fact that you didn't swear and use allcaps is irrelevant.

And for the record, no: mocking of (many) white people('s ignorance on certain matters) is absolutely not equivalent to culturally-embedded, institutionalised racism against non-white people. It is not a level playing field, and context matters. Words carry different weight according to who says them, and to whom.

Furthermore, it's not even clear to me where she is blanket 'anti-white' in the original post, or what it was that caused such kneejerk defensiveness on your part; she said this:

Unfortunately, straight white males are not usually very self-aware.

...which isn't about every single one of the "hundreds of millions" of straight white men in the world. It's about the ones who won't listen, and don't see why they even need to listen, because of the cushion of privilege their straight white maleness gives them. She's not saying it's deliberate or malicious on their part (although in individual cases it may well be); simply that they are not 'self-aware'.

As a (bi) white woman, I share some of this lack of awareness; when I read LotR at the age of 19, you can be absolutely certain that I noticed, and was alienated by, the silent pedestal women characters; but it wasn't until a few years later that I recognised the book's disturbing racial assumptions, because I was living in my bubble of whiteness. But I have been listening, and examining my own assumptions, and bit-by-bit becoming more aware of how my unthinking responses partake in and contribute to the culturally-embedded, institutionalised racism I mentioned above. And frankly, people like acrackedmoon have every right to be angry about the intellectual laziness of anyone who can't be bothered to do the same.

Harry said...

@Nic:
Your post was very interesting and enlightening. I still don't think derailing it was my intention, but I can see where you got that impression. I just wish acrackedmoon could have explained that to me, since I did ask, but she just mocked/insulted me for being a clueless white man.

I feel that my tone argument wasn't to stop the conversation, but to convince her to be less insulting in the future, because as I said before, I feel it to be counter-productive. I now regret how clumsy that attempt was and I feel foolish that I got sucked into a bit of a flamewar with her because of her response, which perplexed, offended and hurt me.

Thank you for actually explaining what happened.

Nic said...

@Harry:

Your post was very interesting and enlightening.

Evidently not enlightening enough, however.

I still don't think derailing it was my intention, but I can see where you got that impression. I just wish acrackedmoon could have explained that to me, since I did ask, but she just mocked/insulted me for being a clueless white man.

1) It is not her job to divert her energy into explaining to you why your comments were out of line.

2) It doesn't matter what your *intent* was; the *effect* was to derail (or it would have been, had she started to discuss your comments in detail). The topic was racism in Lord of the Rings, not how she hurt your feelings by the way she wrote about it.

2a) "I'm sorry you were offended because you misunderstood what I wrote" is a non-apology.

I feel that my tone argument wasn't to stop the conversation, but to convince her to be less insulting in the future, because as I said before, I feel it to be counter-productive.

So derailing was not your intention, but yet you wanted to "convince" her of something utterly tangential to her topic? Clue: if your response, when a person of colour starts discussing racist things that affect them, is to say "Could you be a bit nicer about it?", you're doing it wrong.

I now regret how clumsy that attempt was and I feel foolish that I got sucked into a bit of a flamewar with her because of her response, which perplexed, offended and hurt me.

And this is where I know that my previous comment was not enlightening to you in the slightest, because you've completely missed the point of what I was saying to you. The fault lay not in any "clumsiness" of how you expressed yourself, but in *what you were saying*. You went into that thread, ignored the content of the post, and upbraided acrackedmoon for making *you* feel uncomfortable. You were trying to make it into a discussion of how racism against people of colour hurt the feelings of you, a white person. There is no possible way that you could have expressed that differently to make it not offensive.

Thank you for actually explaining what happened.

Your passive-aggressive gratitude is noted; might I suggest you take some time to think about what I've said, rather than using a response to me as an attempt to score points against acrackedmoon?

Harry said...

@Nic:

You have made some very valid points. I do realise now that I was derailing the conversation. I do have a usually unconscious urge to make things about me, and, when I do notice it, I find it repugnant. Hell, I didn't even notice the passive aggression in my thanks until you pointed it out.

You aren't friendly to me, you aren't nice to me, but I am inclined to listen to you because the way you are writing is rational and straight to the point. Acrackedmoon's insults and emotionally charged language did not do that for me. What she says, because it is couched in terms of insult, does not encourage me to listen to her fair-mindedly. I think your style is more condusive to changing opinions and making people learn. I think her style is counter-productive. This is the heart of what I am saying, devoid of my ugly emotional response, and now with hindsight, this is the better blog to post it on, because I did end up temporarily derailing her comments.

requireshate said...

Hey, Hophop: you're still a tool.

Anonymous said...

@requireshate

Please stop name-calling the guy, it's not going to help the situation.

Jack Oz said...

Tolkien's work was clearly racist. He based orcs of explicitly racist depictions of Chinese people during the medieval times. White people will never get it unless they know what it's like to experience it first-hand. Tolkien wasn't perfect.

 
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