“Deconstructed” Assimilation Plot
My wife and I were thinking of writing a near-future (2030) sci-fi novel with utopian/dystopian themes, revolving around an viral video (produced by a team of researchers) that causes a profound quasi-religious experience in a receptive viewer. As a result, people who have watched it are generally happier and have a sense of shared purpose and trust of others who have watched.
They also become more altruistic, tend to want to “convert” dissidents, and organize together to do so. Essentially an optimistic deconstruction of the Assimilation Plot, which maintains individuality, so most of the typical reasons why assimilation is bad aren’t such large factors. We thought this had some fascinating parallels with a lot of different issues about identity, religion and politics, as long as we present it as something not entirely good or bad. We figured that this would be a great opportunity to have a ethnically diverse cast of characters to discuss the moral issues posed by such a ideological group attempting to integrate/assimilate different communities and groups of people. Our main cast is fairly diverse, though we plan to use their families and friends to offer more varied viewpoints, and avoid tokenism.
Anyways, we’re concerned about crafting authentic and nuanced reactions to this event, particularly among our main characters, so if you have any suggestions about how their ethnic backgrounds might contribute to their viewpoints about the event (either as converts or dissidents), we’d love to hear them. Two of our characters we’re particularly concerned about are a 30 year old former Syrian refugee female software developer (non-practicing Muslim, married to a white agnostic ethicist), and a 23 year old Afro-Latino cyber-security expert/conspiracy theorist (middle child from a stable lower-middle class family).
[ask shortened due to exceeding length, reminder: aim for brevity, askers]
Deconstruction is not the word
I’m confused by this question. Let’s look at what a “deconstruction” in literature actually is. Quite literally, you take a common or established storyline and break it down into its component parts, then examine each of those parts closely and play them through to their (often painful) logical conclusions. In a deconstruction, if some action has a consequence, the deconstruction of that plot point is to to play that consequence cruelly straight without handwaving things away, seeing in gruesome detail what effects that conceit has on the characters.
In brief, when you deconstruct high fantasy, what you get is Game of Thrones. When you deconstruct space opera, what you get is Season 3 of Battlestar Galactica. Deconstruction is an intentional reading of an established formula with an eye counter to that which was originally intended. Deconstructing modernism gives you Kafka’s “The Metamorphosis” wherein the protagonist becomes a giant freaking bug for no god damn reason. When you consider that many of the things that often occur in narratives would actually be incredibly psychologically damaging in real life, balance and optimism are not really a thing in deconstruction.
What Deconstructed Assimilation Looks Like
So, with this knowledge, let’s look at what deconstructing assimilation would look like in this context.
Cultural assimilation is about subsuming the characteristics of one’s native culture to the larger society in which one lives. Wholesale assimilation requires you giving up your native food, your native dress, often your native name, because its “easier” or “cooler” or whatever. People actually do this a lot. Often we choose to do so because it kind of greases the wheels when we live in a place where people like us are the minority. But there’s a price. Even the most psychologically well-balanced individuals are going to be torn by the tightrope act required by assimilation.
I often give my name as “Nick” at Starbucks even against the twinges of feeling like I’m selling out my family, because it makes my afternoon proceed just a little bit easier. Sometimes I don’t. It’s basically a coin flip depending on how I’m feeling that very second. But each act is a choice that changes a person’s sense of being an individual in an culture that regard them as an outsider. If we deconstruct this notion we’re going to be playing the consequences through to the gory logical ends—every choice a person makes to assimilate or not assimilate is going to be affecting their sense of what being “an individual” means on a very basic level.
In this sense, I see the whole point of a deconstruction being that “individuality” isn’t a discrete, concrete concept. Deconstructing assimilation means deconstructing individuality, particularly cultural individuality, and a storyline that deconstructs the concept of assimilation can’t do so while maintaining “individuality” because the two concepts are inextricably and contradictorily linked.
Subverting Assimilation may be the word
If you mean subverting the concept, that’s different, but I have a very hard time seeing how deconstructing and closely examining the notion of assimilation can be done “optimistically” if you’re coming at it from the perspective that assimilation is a bad thing.
I’ve discussed people ‘deconstructing’ assimilation plots with a more positive twist here: [Pagan Scandinavians and Colonialism]. I’d suggest reading that post to get my full thoughts.
Risks of Adding Optimism to Assimilation
Broadly speaking, attempting to create a “positive” spin on assimilation runs an extremely high risk of sanitizing cultural genocide. The core rooted belief of converting others is that all other beliefs are wrong, your way of life is the best, and you should do whatever it takes to convince people to jump into your way of life because they’ll eventually see it’s the best thing ever.
This has huge problems. If you think it’s okay just because the doctrine will adapt to individual culture, allow me to point you to the sheer number of places Christianity got mixed with the local beliefs in order to convert more people. That’s what made it such an insidious religion; they were willing to adapt to whatever culture in order to get more converts (usually destroying parts of the Indigenous culture in the process, using the mix as a stepping stone to slowly assimilate them and have them lose touch with their original beliefs).
While some of the mixes have been taken back by their individual peoples, that doesn’t stop the mixed reaction many many many Indigenous people have with any religion that tries to take over. Trying to spin tactics that directly lead to cultural destruction as positive “this time” doesn’t hold up, because you haven’t created a situation that has addressed the problem. You’ve just draped it in new decoration, with a video instead of a metaphysical being. Otherwise, this mirrors colonialism.
This sort of scenario has happened all over the world, with dozens of faiths, hundreds of ethnicities, and it always follows the same method: a group of people believes everyone should be like them, and is willing to use whatever tactics to get there. I see nothing different, at its heart, with your plot.
If you want to try and avoid it, get rid of the need to convert others. You could still have some squicky parts, but at least without a need to convert others there is far less room for psychological manipulation and coercion.
~ Mod Lesya