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23 October 2011 @ 01:16 am
How to Evaluate Fiction With Psi Characters or Themes -- 40 Questions (Draft)  
Inspired by How to Evaluate Children's Books for Racism and Sexism (adapted from the original brochure, which was published by the Council on Interracial Books for Children by the California State Department of Education, Bill Honig, Superintendent of Public Instruction Sacramento, 1998), Evaluating Children's Books for Bias (Day, F.A. (1999). Multicultural voices in contemporary literature: A resource for teachers (1st ed.). New Hampshire: Heinemann. Adapted from Guidelines for Selecting Bias Free Textbooks and Storybooks, Council on International Books for Children, New York, NY. Other resources consulted were: "Criteria for Analyzing Books on Asian Americans," unpublished paper by Florance H. Hongo (copyright pending); and How to Tell the Difference: A Guide to Evaluating Children's Books for Anti-Indian Bias), and similar lists cited by these lists, such as Oyate's How to Tell the Difference: A Guide to Evaluating Children's Books for Anti-Indian Bias (by Doris Seale, Beverly Slapin and Rosemary Gonzales (2000)), I have decided to begin the process of crafting and drafting my own criteria for evaluating fiction for its presentation of psi characters.

Some disclaimers apply: 1) this guideline is intended to apply only to fiction, and not to non-fiction (including personal narratives), nor to non-fiction which is presenting itself as fiction (because the author doesn't want to be that degree of "out"), 2) I am one person, I do not speak for all psi people, and all of this is just my opinion, 3) this is a work in progress, and 4) the point of this list is to help people begin to ask themselves the right questions.

I am sure that there are things I've left out here, and I'm sure there are better ways of formulating this list. This is posted here in order to get the conversation started, to provide a starting point for writers and readers to critically reflect on how psi characters are presented in their own work and/or in the work of others.

How To Evaluate Stories With Psi Characters 101

1. How is psi presented in the story? Is it presented realistically? Unrealistically? In a very exaggerated way?

2. What is the relationship between the psi character and his or her community? Is this character fully accepted by his or her community, or is this character feared, distrusted, shunned, persecuted, subjected to violence, harassed, or otherwise "othered"? Does this character's community consist of both psi and non-psi people, or are psi people segregated or self-segregated?

3. In the story, is psi presented as a normal human faculty? Is telepathy analogized to rape, trespass, theft, violence, sexual assault, invasion, or eavesdropping? Is psi presented as an allegory for the human need to "transcend" something or somehow? Is it presented as an allegory for a different human experience of difference or diversity (i.e. race, ethnicity, religion, politics, sexual orientation, socioeconomic class, disability)? Is psi presented as an "alien ability"? Are psi characters wholly or partly alien? If they are part alien, are they psi because of their alien (but not human) ancestry? Is psi something that a character can do, or only do to a "useful" degree, only if he or she has been "altered" or "modified" somehow first?

4. In the story, is psi something that people are born with, which they develop like any other human faculty, or does something foreign or "other" or disruptive happen to people to "make them psi"?

5. In the story, is there an "explanation" for why that particular character is or has become psi? If there is an explanation, is this explanation plausible, or is it "junk science"? If there is an explanation, how do the characters treat this explanation -- is it an explanation that all the characters (including the psi character) accept without question or debate, or which the audience is expected to accept without questioning? Is there a "plot gimmick" explanation (i.e. getting struck by lightening, getting hit by an alien energy beam, being electrocuted, alien abduction, etc.)? Is there an explanation which analogizes psi to a birth defect, a disability, or an illness (e.g. character's mom was on drugs, character has a brain tumor, character has a severe mental disability, etc.)?

6. How do other characters react to finding out someone is psi? Do they ignore it and move on? Do they respond positively and encouragingly? Do they want or expect the psi character to solve their problems, answer their questions, or to solve a "plot" problem? Do they react with fear, anger, negativity, jealousy, condemnation, ridicule, ostracism, violence, or other forms of "othering"? Do they accuse the character who is coming out of lying in order to "get attention"? How is the audience expected to react when they learn that this character is psi?

7. If the psi character is old enough to work, what sort of job does he or she hold? Do the psi characters hold a variety of jobs which do not have any connection to psi, or are they only (or predominantly) shown in jobs which directly relate to "using their psi powers" (e.g. helping the police, solving crimes, acting as negotiators, counselors, or therapists, locating missing people, "helping the dead", doing readings or seances, performing on stage as part of an act)?

8. What do psi characters succeed and excel in? Are psi characters are shown excelling at tasks which have nothing to do with psi, and are they valued by their peers and community for this work? Are psi characters only shown excelling at tasks which involve psi, and only valued for their skills at these tasks? When, and for what, are psi characters thanked by non-psi characters?

9. Does the psi character have a variety of interests, many of which have nothing to do with psi? Is the psi character shown as having no other interests, is he or she shown only having interests which are related to psi (and his or her psi "development")?

10. Does the psi character exhibit a variety of emotions, good and bad, and have a full emotional life? Is the psi character usually or always presented as depressed, tormented and miserable? Is this character depressed, tormented and miserable because he or she sees psi "as a curse"? Is his or her psi awareness/ability presented as so terrible in its own right as to actually be curse-like? If so, does anyone in the story challenge that belief? Is this person a "good" or "bad" character?

11. Why is there a psi character in this story? Is it because psi people exist, so why not include these people in the story? Is this a "what if" thought experiment? Is psi in the story to be an allegory for something else? (Sometimes authors have discussed this in interviews.) Is psi in the story as a wish-fulfillment fantasy? As a plot-device? Does an otherwise non-psi character become psi to "learn a lesson"?

12. Is psi presented as something which always works on command in the way the character wants, or as something less predictable or "perfect"?

13. In the story, do psi characters have the same rights and liberties as non-psi characters, or do they not have the same rights and liberties? If they do not have the same rights and liberties, what do you think is the author's purpose in singling out psi people for different treatment? Do the psi people in the story feel that this treatment is oppressive? Is different treatment presented as an "obvious" and "natural" result of psi people existing, as "the only way"? Are the psi characters used as an allegory for other human groups? Does the author have personal experience with social and/or governmental oppression (e.g. author a person of color), or is the author "making up" the experience of oppression and marginalization?

14. Is "othering" language invented or used in the story to refer to psi people (e.g. "espers"), and is derogatory language made up or used in the story to refer to psi people (e.g. "peepers")? Does the story realistically show the impact that derogatory terms and slurs have on impacted populations? Is the author from a marginalized group that is targeted with slurs?

15. Are psi characters numerically "rated" by their "power levels", and sorted into an employment hierarchy of different jobs based on these ratings? If so, does anyone challenge the validly and ethics of sorting human beings in this way?

16. How does the government treat the psi characters? Does the government treat psi people and non-psi people equally? Does the government use psi people for experiments against their will, kidnap psi people, hold them against their will, etc.? Do laws treat psi people and non-psi people equally? Are psi characters framed as trying to take over the government, or to oppress non-psi people? Do different psi characters have different political/social views?

17. Are any psi characters threatened, abused, or held in abusive conditions? Are these characters presented as "deserving" this treatment, either as punishment or as simply the only "reasonable" way these people can exist (e.g. they need to be confined "for their own good", they are too dangerous not to be confined, they cannot exist outside of confinement, etc.)? Is the abuse/confinement ever questioned in the story by any of the characters, psi or non-psi? If it is questioned, is it questioned by the psi characters themselves, or by non-psi characters and protagonists? If non-psi people question this confinement and/or abuse, what it their motivation? Do they question it on behalf of the psi characters themselves, or for their own convenience (e.g. rescuing a psi character to use him or her as a weapon, or so the psi character can otherwise do something for them)? If the psi characters question this abuse/confinement themselves, how is this questioning received by other characters?

18. In the story, are there "bad guys" (or "good guys") who are not working for the government, but who nonetheless kidnap psi people, experiment on them against their will, hold them captive, etc.? Are psi people presented as their own oppressors?

19. Is psi framed in an explicitly religious context? Is there room in the narrative for different characters (psi or non-psi) to have different religious contexts for psi (Christian, Buddhist, Hindu, Jewish, etc.) or for some characters to have a religious context for it while other characters have a secular context for it? Does the story use the existence of psi people to make a religious (or otherwise "moral") point? Is psi framed as "religiously transgressive", necessitating a form of divine smackdown, or the psi person's self-sacrifice? Is the audience supposed to be scared of the psi person or his or her abilities (psi as sin)? Is the psi person shown as having "divine gifts" for which he or she is persecuted, killed or banished (psi as Christ-like)? Is the audience supposed to pity the psi character and understand that he or she has died for the sins of the community (psi as Christ-like)?

20. How moral, or immoral, are the psi characters? Are they as moral (or immoral) as the other characters? Are they always moral, or always immoral/amoral? Is their morality, or immorality, "because" they are psi? Are they "corrupted" by psi? Are they "divine" because they are psi? Are they always plotting the overthrow of the government, and never to be trusted? Are they super, super good (in contrast to the evil or small-minded folk who want to persecute them)?

21. What activities are the psi characters shown engaging in? Do they engage in all the same activities as the other characters, without it becoming a comment on psi? Are they shown engaging in mundane activities? How often are they shown engaged in activities which are unrelated to psi compared to activities related to psi? Does every time a psi character engages in certain activities (i.e. gambling, taking an exam, etc.) result in a comment on psi, or on "fairness"?

22. Is psi shown on screen often, especially in contexts which are not "about" psi? Is psi only shown on screen when the scene (or episode) is "about" psi, or when psi is useful to the plot?

23. How is the audience supposed to react to seeing psi on screen? Are we supposed to laugh because it is silly? Are we supposed to be shocked or scared? Are we supposed to see it as crucial to the plot? Are we even supposed to notice?

24. What is the "social role" of psi characters in the story? Do psi characters have (or not have) special social roles or social obligations because they are psi? Do psi characters have clearly defined and limited social roles (e.g. healing, negotiations, assisting the police, etc.), or are they shown in a variety of roles? Do we see psi characters in stable romantic relationships, with or without children?

25. Are there psi characters in positions of command or authority? Do they have authority over only other psi people, or over psi people as well as non-psi people, or only over non-psi people? Are these characters "good" or "evil"? Is their command/authority real, or in name only? Are psi characters people with no authority: "under-dogs", children, child-like characters, weak and vulnerable characters (aside from psi)? When a "good" psi person exercises command or authority, does the story still make mention that they are psi? How/how not?

26. In the story, do "good" psi people have, and use, their full faculties at all times, like the other characters? Do they only use their abilities when it is socially acceptable or permissible to do so, and only in ways which the non-psi characters (or the audience) clearly approve of? Are they "ethically self-repressed", having internalized messages about when it is OK, versus not OK, to use their abilities? Think about the "bad" psi characters -- do they have, and use, their full faculties at all times, like the other characters? Are they nonetheless presented as evil, transgressive, dangerous, or violating of others? Are they presented as using their full faculties at all times, but usually to do evil?

27. In the story, are actions judged as "good" or "bad" independent of whether psi was used to do those actions? Are certain actions condemned, while it is stated or implied that it would have been OK had psi not been used to do the same thing? Does psi itself make certain actions "immoral"?

28. In the story, is the "fundamental disruption" in the community or the lives of the characters, which needs to be set right by the end, caused by or linked to the presence (or existence) of psi or psi characters? Is this fundamental disruption only resolved through the death or banishment of the psi characters, or by their becoming no longer psi?

29. How is psi treated in the narrative, as plot or as character development? Is it a plot device? If the psi characters were not psi, would the plot still work? Are psi experiences included in order to direct the plot in certain directions, without which the plot could not get there?

30. For stories about psi children, are that child's problems with his/her family or peers suddenly resolved when he/she uses psi to solve the problems of other people? Do that child's family or peers actually learn how to relate to psi people better by the end of the story?

31. At the end of the story, are the psi characters still psi? Are they still members of their community, or have they been banished or exiled? Are they still alive? If characters are no longer psi, is this loss presented as a good thing?

32. When psi characters die, do they die because psi literally killed them? Do they sacrifice their lives for non-psi characters? Do they want to die/welcome death because being psi was "such a burden"? Do non-psi characters expect them to risk their lives for them (the non-psi characters)? Do the psi characters question this expectation, or object? If they object, how is this objection received?

Intersectionality questions:

1. Does the story use racial or ethnic stereotypes (Gypsy Fortuneteller, "Magic Negro", Native Shaman Who Tells White Characters What Is Going On And Why, etc.)? Does the story use gender stereotypes ("sexy female empath", scary badass psi man, etc.)?

2. Does the story have a disabled character who has psi to "compensate" for being disabled? (This is different from a psi character who also happens to be disabled.) Does the story use other disability stereotypes (Blind Seer/Prophet, Super Genius in a Wheelchair, etc.)?

3. Are there any psi characters of color in the story? What are their roles in the narrative? Do they have any lines? Do they appear in more than one scene or episode? Are they in positions of authority? Do they have authority over only other psi people, or over psi people as well as non-psi people, or only over non-psi people? Are they still alive by the end of the scene or episode? Are they "good guys" or "bad guys"?

4. Are there any psi women in positions of authority? Do they have authority over only psi people, or over psi people as well as non-psi people, or only over non-psi people? Are they still alive by the end of the scene or episode? Are they "good guys" or "bad guys"?

5. If there is mental illness in the story, is psi presented as the cause of mental illness? Is the psi character mentally ill and dangerous (e.g. "psi people as psychopaths")? Are characters who believe in psi (whether they are psi or not) presented as mentally ill or "crazy" because of that belief? Does the story include people who are psi and not mentally ill? Are they men? Women?

6. Are there queer psi characters? If so, is psi used as an allegory for sexual orientation discrimination? Do the queer psi characters have any romantic or sexual relationships on screen/in the story or book?

7. Are psi women hyper-sexualized? Are they passive? Are psi men presented as rapists? Are psi people presented as having no sexual (or privacy) boundaries?

8. Are psi characters subjected to racial, ethnic, gender or sexual orientation slurs in the story, in a way which targets them both as psi people and as women/PoC/queer people at once? Ex:

"His Esper secretary unobtrusively accompanied him like a trained dog.
'Trained bitch!' Reich thought. Then aloud: 'I'm sorry. Did you peep that?'
'Quite all right, Mr. Reich. I understand.'" (Demolished Man, Chapter 1)

Are psi people offended or unoffended by such remarks? Are such remarks presented as "natural" for people to think and say?
Current Mood: accomplished
FIERCENESSpolymexina on October 24th, 2011 12:34 am (UTC)
This is a really interesting list.

I was reading Bodies in Code today, and all the references to Merleau Ponty and phenomenology made me think of your blog. I haven't read him before, but he seems to talk a lot about technics and the range of sense a body can apprehend. It looked super theoretical, but really interesting.

Dashspacehawk on October 24th, 2011 01:51 am (UTC)
Thank you!

Thanks also for the info -- I'd never heard of this book or Maurice Merleau-Ponty. I confess not to knowing anything on the subject of phenomenology. It is a very interesting subject. I think it would be really cool if folks who know more about philosophy than I do worked on philosophical frameworks that incorporate/are consistent with psi experiences.
Dashspacehawk on October 24th, 2011 03:44 am (UTC)
Ah, yes, good intros! Thank you!

It extends beyond the scope of what I'm trying to do on this website, but one issue I encountered early on in trying to verbalize my experiences is that they do not always fit into not only the limited vocabulary English has for these sorts of things, but the grammatical structure as well. I have some posts about this on my personal LJ (spacehawk), although much of what I've written on this subject isn't on the internet. I think I haven't put in on the internet because I haven't found people interested in reading it!

There are even deeper problems as well. One is that words can only carry meaning if the speaker and the listener have a common referent, and when discussing psi experiences, unless I am talking to someone who has a similar enough experience, my words refer to nothing they have any experience with. So communication fails. Another is that there are some sensations that it is impossible to fully describe in words (say for example, flavors). Yet another is that fundamentally, words are symbols, not the experience of something itself, so words will never be the thing itself and so cannot ever express the experience of co-experiencing.

And all of this is be more than academic exercise -- wrestling with how to use language to communicate about psi is a huge part of finding our own voices, both for talking to other psi people and for communicating about it to people who are not psi (or who are psi in a very different way).

My personal experience with philosophy has been limited, and generally psi-negative: I had one philosophy of mind class in college, that never covered any of this stuff and focused only on "minds as machines" (and which started from the basic assumption that "one can never know the mental experience of another"), and less formally in structured discussions with acquaintances, who inevitably would say something which assumed me out of existence, and when I would try to protest, would turn the conversation into making me philosophically "prove" to them that what I was saying was possible. It was frustrating and unproductive.

I'm not completely sure what a psi-positive philosophy of mind would look like, but I think it would have to start from a very different picture of "self", not just of mind, perception and time.