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Monday, August 16, 2010

Ruminations of an Old Goat

In last week's column, I mentioned a panel I attended about creative insults. One important the panelists discussed was knowing what was considered sacred and profane in your world. While it was discussed for only a few minutes, this is not a trivial subject.

Consider our current world. What is sacred and what is profane in our world? The answer to that question varies from culture to culture and even from person to person within a culture. Here's a brief list of things that are generally considered sacred within U.S. culture:
  • God
  • Life
  • Marriage
  • Children
  • Family
  • Fidelity
  • Liberty
These things may not be "sacred" by the traditional definition, but they are considered by many to the bedrock upon which our nation was formed. Things which threaten what we consider sacred become profane. Our worst curse words revolve around God, marriage, and things our culture says should be reserved for marriage. Yet I could find someone -- probably right here in my own neighborhood -- who holds only some or none of these things to be sacred. I might easily find someone whose list of the sacred includes:
  • The earth
  • Climate change
  • Over population
  • Eating vegan
  • All life on the planet
The variation between these two lists automatically leads to conflict; and our culture expends vast amounts of time and energy on this conflict.

Cross either the Atlantic or Pacific and you'll find yourself with different lists of the sacred and profane. There will almost always be similarities between the lists, but even those things that are similar can be totally different.

For example, Christians and Jews rarely mind telling jokes concerning God, Jesus, the prophets, or the saints provided the jokes do not cast the religious figure in a bad light. No matter how innocuous a joke about a religious figure may be, Islam views all such jokes as blasphemy. While Christians, Jews, and Muslims would all place God at the top of their "sacred" list, conflict can still arise over the subject.

Note the word I keep using when discussing the sacred; conflict. And what is necessary for a good story? Conflict.

Any time your story is set in a made-up culture, taking the time to choose what is sacred and what is profane to the people in that culture will time well spent. Not only will it increase your understanding of your made-up culture, it will add credence to the curses your characters utter and provide a potential source of secondary conflict between those characters.

One problem I had with science fiction from the supposed golden age was the assumption that science would unify everyone. Take Asimov's Foundation series as an example. The only religion found in the series is religion created by the Foundation among their less advanced, more superstitious neighbors. There are no great scientific debates nor any great scientific rifts that take on the tenor of religion. One need merely look at the conflict over climate change -- regardless of which side you take in the conflict -- to see how scientific arguments can take on the tinges of religion among those who are heavily vested in their position. Climate change is hardly the only example of this kind of behavior here on earth. What makes you think human nature will change simply because humans have spread to the stars?

The short answer is it won't change. What will change is what various human cultures consider to be sacred and profane.
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