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  • Donald J. Bingle, Writer on Demand

Plan Meets Need in Writing and Politics: Ender’s Game, Debate, and Other Ramblings

I was a debater in college and I coached debate when I was in law school, both at The University of Chicago. While UC was primarily on the Parliamentary Debate circuit, I also did a bit of national topic debate in my high school and college days and judged some national topic debates as a coach. You know national topic debate. It’s the style where you get a set resolution for the year, like “Resolved, that the federal government should provide a comprehensive program of [insert current political hot topic]” and then everyone goes out and researches for articles on the topic and puts them on index cards in two sets, pro and con, then takes turns debating the topic against others who have done the same thing over and over again for a year. Most debaters and judges flow chart the debate, making sure that each point made is recorded, so that they can decide whether the other side refutes, or at least responds to, every single point. There’s usually two sides to a flow chart, a “need” side (where the first proponent sets forth the problem with the status quo and the reasons that it should be changed) and a plan side (you flip over the page to keep track of the “plan,” as the second proponent sets forth the plan being argued as a solution to the problem). One key component to keep in mind, however, when assessing the plan, is whether the plan actually addresses the need in a rational, even cost-effective manner. Now, I’m not a big fan of national topic debate. It’s repetitive and promotes fast-talking and bullet point references over logic and persuasive speaking. It also relies almost entirely or regurgitating other people’s thoughts, rather than thinking for yourself. It also has its own silly conventions and terminology, like calling whether the plan solves the problem “solvency,” oversimplifying complicated issues, and arguing reductio absurdem. And while I am not a procedural planner (e.g., I don’t generally outline my books ahead of time, though I generally have a good grasp of the beginning, proposed ending, and a few stops along the way from A to B), I do believe in substantive planning for the important things you want to accomplish in life (financing school, saving for retirement, positioning yourself to seize opportunities, building a resume’, etc.) and I require the characters in the books I read (and write) to have motivations for what they do that make some sense, at least to them, which the reader can parse, whether through internalizations, exposition, or clues in dialogue and action. I dislike it when the protagonist and/or the antagonist have no thought-out plan, but instead just bumble about in a sea of fortunate or unfortunate events. I am bothered by actions which do not seem well-motivated (Rose dumping the necklace in the ocean in Titanic) or which work out well without ever having had a plan that would have created a probability of a favored result without a bunch of fortuitous events having occurred (Red October and pretty much every episode of Leverage). All of this brings us to Ender’s Game, which I read many, many years ago and saw as a movie this weekend. I think Ender’s Game is one of the best YA genre books out there. I also think that reading Ender’s Shadow, with the same events from another character’s perspective, is one of the best ways to teach point-of-view to aspiring genre writers. I thought the movie was solid and strong, hitting briefly the highlights of the book. More importantly, motivations of the main characters and even many lesser characters were clear and well-expressed from their point of view. You knew why it was so important for Ender to succeed in comparison to his siblings and so difficult. You knew why Ender was treated the way he was by the various military personnel, including why some of them wanted to treat him differently than others. You knew why the Formics needed to colonize, why one character was hidden from the public, and why information was hidden from Ender. You even knew why the Salamander Squadron commander wanted Ender to hang back. Heck, you knew why they used the old Dragon Squadron name despite its bad history (both superficially and as part of the training process). Of course, I am also aware that some people are boycotting the movie because of Orson Scott Card’s views on gay rights. I disagree with Orson Scott Card’s views on gay rights, too. I disagree with a lot of people about a lot of things, some of them trivial and some of them less trivial. As an example near and dear to the hearts and wallets of writers, I disagree with people who think stealing content (music, video, books) is okay or somehow harmless because it doesn’t impact revenues negatively as much as writers tend to believe. Stealing is stealing. I also have a friend who has strong opinions on right and wrong in the political sphere, yet routinely broadcasts every cop car location and speed trap he becomes aware of, which only gives me the impression that he encourages high-risk driving (not just by people he knows are skilled and alert, but by the anonymous public who may be impaired or lacking in skill), which makes me think less of my friend's judgment and morality. Mostly, I don’t write about my political views or my feelings on such matters on Facebook or Twitter or my blog because the internet is filled with too many trolls and idiots and people who over-simplify things, and I don’t wish to spend my life arguing with strangers who are immune to subtlety and persuasion. Which is where we get to the plan on the Ender’s Game boycott. I completely understand why some people wish to avoid supporting Orson Scott Card. Heck, I’ve boycotted things in my time for both substantial and insubstantial reasons. I didn’t shop at Marshall Field for years after they revealed Darth Vader was Luke’s father in an ad airing the day after the revelation in the movie. And I won’t watch Nightline or allow others to watch Nightline in my home because the show got its start by over-hyping the Iranian hostage issue to, in my mind, the detriment of the country. But I didn’t publicize any of these boycotts and I didn’t for a minute think they would cause any significant damage to Marshall Field or Nightline. I did them for myself, realizing that it was a foolish and pointless exercise that might have some cost to me (my dad is news junkie and was confused when I wouldn’t let him watch Nightline when visiting), but made me feel better about myself. And, hey, if that’s your reason for skipping Ender’s Game at the movies, please do it and feel good about your moral integrity, but, you know, I don’t really need to hear about it, especially as a way of you trying to convince me of your moral superiority or political correctness (and certainly not to bully me or anyone else to also boycott). It seems to me that many boycotts, like prayer, are best done in private, not in public. I suspect that some will respond that only by rallying public support will things ever change¸ but here is where that pesky plan meets need issue arises again. Does anyone out there think that Orson Scott Card’s views are going to change because of this? Seems extremely unlikely. (Much less likely than, say Obama, changing his views on DOMA after initially voting for it, but, of course, his supporters didn’t boycott him for his earlier views.) Do they think that hurting the income of many people who worked on the movie that don’t share his views is a cost-effective way of pursuing that frighteningly small chance? Do they think that the scifi community (which I have found to be more tolerant and rational than the general population on this issue) needs to be made aware that intolerance is bad? If not, then what is the point? Just because there is a problem, like intolerance or poverty or environmental destruction, does not mean that all responses to such facts are of equal viability or worthiness or even useful. Awareness is, itself, only an interim goal toward change. Is further awareness needed on breast cancer at this point, or is putting the money toward research now the most important thing? People are aware of the issue of gay rights. If this is a boycott to raise awareness, it is to raise awareness that certain people think Orson Scott Card is a jerk. Trust me, I know plenty of people who are jerks. I don’t need an internet campaign to find more to add to the list. Take climate change. The earth’s been warming up since the little Ice Age, though it is not as warm as it has been during some periods of the Earth’s existence (of which human history is only a tiny fraction). It is a fact that people produce both heat and carbon dioxide by their existence and activities (duh!), though the earth’s ability to deal with excess carbon dioxide has been interesting so far (the amount in the atmosphere has not increased anywhere near as much as the amount being put into the atmosphere has increased). That humans impact the climate doesn’t mean that every proposal to regulate carbon dioxide or population or human activity is a good way to solve the particular problem of the impact back on humans of climate change. The sooner people start parsing the pros and cons of various proposed solutions in terms of cost-effectiveness, comprehensive coverage, enforceability, collateral impact, and practicality, the better. The plan needs to meet the need and not every plan will do that in a worthwhile, desirable way. Those who don’t consider the whether the plan meets the need tend to be unpersuasive, at best, and naive simpletons, at worst. Almost no one who posts about politics on the internet persuades me to change my views, not because I am not open-minded to other arguments about my politics, but because few people are making substantive, well-reasoned arguments—the essence of persuasive communication. Instead, they are name-calling or forwarding propaganda (much of it misleading) from one side or the other of a given issue. Many people who send me posts on both sides of many political issues persuade me of only one thing, that they are simple-minded zealots, not reasoned thinkers. I get enough of those people in real life. I prefer that in fiction, the characters are smarter and more rational, and have a better plan. I don’t like to read or watch movies about idiots, which is why I’ve passed on most of the gross-out comedies and Will Ferrell’s entire career. I like fiction that reflects that plans must be made to achieve goals and that those plans meet the need in a logical, practical way. If only more people would look ahead in real life, with a plan that actually meets the need they believe exists, the fewer problems we, as a collective, would need to solve. Enough ranting for today. Aloha. Don

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