Ravyn Rants: Exceptionalism

There was a conversation I once had with one of my regular patrons, a civvie who worked the electronics store, whose daughter was one of our regulars. I’d run into him at the trolley station, on the way to one of my Sunday shifts, and he asked me what I was reading. “Clausewitz’s On War,” I said. I started going into my peculiar history with Clausewitz—how I’d run into him twice when working my way through the Commandant’s Reading List, my first run-in being the references in Guns of August to the Germans’ use of some points in On War to justify burning libraries (you can guess how I responded, I’m sure), my second being the regular references in Supreme Command to use of war as an extension of politics when politics fails (its references to the man’s ideal of a wartime statesman came amazingly close to how I’d played Tuyet, who couldn’t extricate politics from war if her life depended on it—though I didn’t tell him about that part). So, I explained, here I was, wanting to read the thing for myself rather than try to reconcile conflicting opinions from two different sources, and since we had the Playaway….

I’m not sure what I was expecting from this. He seemed decently knowledgeable—I can’t recall, but I think he might be retired military as well as a civilian employee—so maybe a discussion about the relation of politics to warfare and what the appropriate level of interference of a political leader was. The response I got was more along the lines of commenting on how rare it was to find people of the female persuasion who were so into military history. It wasn’t disapproval, really—more a sort of pleasant surprise. Elevation, maybe. When I was young, this wouldn’t have bothered me; I took a certain amount of pride in how I wasn’t like those Other Girls with their… insert a whole list of pink frilly stereotypes here. I was energetic; I climbed rocks; I could cream any boy in the class at academic subjects or Tetris with equal panache. Sort of the anti-stereotype, if you will. But now it rather bugged me. The fact that I was A Girl, who Could Enjoy Military History and Soldiery Stuff, seemed to be more important than the fact that I was, you know, reading military history. Who cares how unusual this is, I wanted to talk about Clausewitz!

The term for this is exceptionalism. It ties firmly into stereotyping, but instead of punishing a person for being a stereotype-breaker, it’s extolling them for breaking said stereotypes, putting them on a pedestal even. In the real world, it can be a pain in the neck both by lessening people who do still exhibit behaviors that fit to some degree with the stereotypes expected of them, and by making the stereotype-breaking actions of people who break stereotypes more about the breaking than about what they’re actually doing. But it shows up a lot in fiction, when a main character is of a group that’s prone to those sorts of stereotypes, and is elevated simply by not following them. Sometimes it’s the kind of stereotypes we’d expect—racial, gender, what have you. Sometimes it’s professional: The Whore with a Heart of Gold, the Assassin with a Heart of Much of Anything Really, the Honest Politician. Or it might be more things that are expected of the setting, particularly if most of it is pretty morally gray: an upstanding noble in a Byzantine nest of backstabbers, for instance, or that one person who has Objections to whatever the thing du jour (you know the type, abhorrent by today’s standards but perfectly normal for the culture in question) happens to be.

The point? It’s kind of annoying. When it’s used on people, it’s its own brand of bias, benevolent though it may be. When it’s used to characterize a fictional character, particularly a main character, it’s a bit of a sloppy shortcut. Keep an eye out for it; it’s a sneaky little piece of work.

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