On -isms: But It Was a Different Time

By | Thursday, September 04, 2014 1 comment
OK, so you're going through some old comics and you pull out some stuff circa World War II. Lots of pro-America propaganda and jingoism and flag-waving and apple pie and all that. And you say to yourself how that's to be expected because of when those comics were made. And then you get to some horribly racist caricatures of Japanese soldiers and cringe. They're not just stereotypes; they're deliberately offensive and dehumanizing stereotypes. They're depicted specifically to show just how unlike the heroes these characters are. If you've never looked at these before, they really are cringe-worthy.


They were created a half-century ago. That doesn't excuse them, but they're relics of the past and reminders of how badly Asian-Americans -- and Japanese-Americans in particular -- were treated back then. They're not to be condoned, but they can still be studied. While those images can certainly anger people, it seems that most understand that they're not contemporary images and getting angry over something that's so long and done with it futile. As long as no one is celebrating the messages that type of display promoted.

Now, what about someone who grew up in that time period? In the US in the 1940s, Japanese-Americans (not just immigrants, but Japanese-Americans born in the United States) were rounded up and carted off to internment camps. Ostensibly for their own safety, but really so the government could keep an eye on everyone they suspected might be a foreign spy. There are then people who grew up in a time when it was considered perfectly acceptable to treat anyone of Japanese ethnicity this way. Their bigotry can still anger people, but is their anger futile here? Absolutely not. Because a person is not a static relic of the past; they are a constantly changing and evolving sentient being, and have the capacity to learn from mistakes. That old comic book can't change. That old man can; he can (and should!) learn that all human beings deserve a basic level of dignity and respect that those old comics didn't afford.

At Loncon 3 last month, there were some old timers who said some offensive things because, well, that's how they grew up. Is that acceptable now just because it was several decades ago? No, these people are members of society and a society that grows and changes over time. There is no excuse for not learning basic respect and dignity, regardless of what your background is. There is no excuse for thinking of someone as a stereotype because you don't know them personally yet. There is no excuse for being an asshole bigot because your parents didn't know any better.

A comic book from the 1940s features a lot of two-dimensional characters and art. For as powerful as some of the artists were, and despite claims of characters leaping off the page, they were never anything more than flat and static images. I have yet to meet a real human being who's two-dimensional and static, and that's precisely why what's depicted in a 50-year-old comic isn't nearly as upsetting as a 50-year-old person uttering the same out-dated ideas.
Newer Post Older Post Home