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How a Not-So-Realist Hero Rebuilt the Kingdom: On Privilege and Hubris

I think about privilege a lot. It’s something that I suspect a lot of children of immigrant parents have to think about, especially when they grow up listening to stories of their family’s poverty. “We worked so hard so that you could live well!” my mother has often told me. “Appreciate the sacrifices we made for you!”

As a result of these constant reminders, I’ve never doubted for a moment that I’m privileged for growing up in Australia. But it has been a lot harder for me to figure out exactly how my privilege affects my life, besides an abstract notion of “having more food and money”. The thing about privilege is that its hand is mostly invisible, and so even if we can detect some of the benefits, we often don’t notice how it seeps into our very way of thinking.

These days, I think of privilege like this: it’s a cushion that gives you less things to take individual responsibility for. Like how “male privilege” insulates men from having to think about protecting themselves from sexual harassment in public places, or how “white privilege” stops white people from having to worry about being arrested when they haven’t committed a crime, the privilege of growing up in a developed nation absolves us from making decisions about our health, education and finances that we’d struggle to navigate if left to our own devices. We benefit from society’s collective knowledge, even when we understand very little of it.

The worst thing a privileged person can do is pretend that the invisible cushion is the result of their own handiwork.

realist hero

That’s what I think about when I read How a Realist Hero Rebuilt the Kingdom. It’s the kind of story you’ve probably seen before, about a person from the modern world going back in time or into a fantasy world and advancing their societies using modern knowledge. Somehow, this average shmuck has all the specialist knowledge and administrative expertise to enact sweeping social and economic reforms to immediate success. We all know that things aren’t so simple, but it’s a thought experiment we like to entertain because a part of us thinks that we’re cleverer than the people of long ago.

In truth, we grossly overestimate the amount of knowledge about the modern world that the average person can have. Take medical knowledge, for instance. Even medical specialists would only consider themselves experts in a particular area of medicine, not the entire field. Most of us only have rudimentary knowledge at best. I can vaguely explain how antibiotics work, but I wouldn’t know where to begin if I were asked to make it. I trust doctors, not out of my own knowledge, but simply because of faith in the medical institute.

The knowledge of my society isn’t truly “mine” to claim. What right does a person like me have to lecture the people of the past about how ignorant they were?

Realist Hero is aware that nobody has all the world’s knowledge at their fingertips, but it doesn’t let that get in the way of its “what if a medieval fantasy society became exposed to modern ideas?” scenario. Kazuya represents the collective knowledge of humankind that no single person would probably possess. The level of general knowledge that he displays isn’t actually that unrealistic for a well-read history geek, but his insight far surpasses that of the average person. It is not a surprise that the audience surrogate character in the first volume is the princess Liscia, who reacts with awe whenever our protagonist spouts factoids.

Kazuya is smarter than the average person, but he makes us feel smart, because his explanations are so clear and simple that they tempt us into thinking that we know all of that knowledge off the top of our heads, too. Yet rather than his knowledge, it is narrative convenience that makes him appear smart. For instance, he has a remarkable level of confidence in his social and economic policies that people who actively work in those fields don’t have.

In Poor Economics, a book based on studies of various aid initiatives in developing countries, the authors Abhihit V. Banerjee and Esther Duflo note:

Economics (and other experts) seem to have very little useful to say about why some countries grow and others do not. Basket cases, such as Bangladesh or Cambodia, turn into small miracles. Poster children, such as Côte d’Ivoire, fall into the “bottom billion.” In retrospect, it is always possible to construct a rationale for what happened in each place. But the truth is, we are largely incapable of predicting where growth will happen, and we don’t understand very well why things suddenly fire up.

The same principle is at work in Realist Hero. Even when Kazuya’s policies are derived from cases where a similar policy did work in the real world, that doesn’t mean that you should draw the conclusion that it’s universally applicable.

If I could pinpoint one area where the success of Kazuya’s policies are driven more by the author’s wishful thinking than reality, it would be in how receptive the people of the kingdom are towards Kazuya’s innovations. For example, in volume 1, Kazuya introduces new ingredients that were never regarded as palatable by the populace before. All of his food ideas, especially the noodles made out of slimes, are eagerly adopted overnight.

This is far from the only case where the characters living in a medieval society immediately overturn their lifelong ways of thinking. Realist Hero seems to take the general stance that if people are just given the knowledge and tools to succeed, then they will use it. But in reality, this doesn’t happen nearly as often as we would like (see: why people in Malaria-stricken countries don’t use the free mosquito nets they’re given). In that sense, Kazuya is more of an idealist hero than a “realist hero”.

In the end, Realist Hero is just a silly light novel about a guy and his harem of cute girls, and I doubt that anyone really thinks that all of Kazuya’s ideas are genius. But the premise of an “enlightened” modern person swooping in to save a less “civilised” society from their own collapse is not uncommon in fiction, and it reeks of the “White Man’s Burden” to boot.

maoyuu_maou_yuusha_05_4

Maoyu is like this, too; Draggle wrote an excellent blog post about it once.

I’m reminded of an occasion in university when a friend of mine told me his belief that monarchy is the ideal political system, but only if the monarch was enlightened and had the best interests of the people in mind. That way, they could enforce top-down measures quickly without being obstructed by the trappings of democracy. A benign tyrant, if you will.

That’s the kind of leader you see in Realist Hero. 

I can’t blame the novel for its appeal. For all the problems of the modern world, life is better now than it was for the people of the past. The idea that someone with today’s knowledge would be considered the wisest of kings seems like a comfort. But that way of thinking is rooted in privilege and the unfounded belief that the knowledge of our society is something we achieved for ourselves.

After all, it is privilege that deludes us into believing, even for a moment, that if only we were made into kings we could fix the problems of the world.

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Posted on July 10, 2018, in Anime Analysis and tagged . Bookmark the permalink. 14 Comments.

  1. I really enjoyed reading this post. I think this is why I really like Maoyu because the demon king there did try to introduce crop rotations and other ideas into human society and they met with fairly constant opposition to their new ideas and had to work really hard to win over key players to advance. Even then, there were people who understood the benefits of what they were doing and still wanted to stop them because the status quo suited them better. It was a much more realistic look at how societies advance (or don’t), even if they did have a little bit of narrative convenience along the way.

    • It’s been a while since I watched Maoyu. I remember it was the corrupt nobles and the people who benefited most from the status quo that opposed Maou’s reforms, which, yeah, is pretty plausible. Realist Hero has that as its main source of conflict too, so I think that they are pretty similar in that regard. I don’t want to give the impression that its protagonist faces no opposition at all!

      I’m glad you liked the post, by the way!

  2. My cousin actually experienced something similar: He was a part of a volunteer project whose aim was to spread the use of gas stoves in Malawi (using wood or charcoal fire could really wreak your lungs). Needless to say, people were resisted to the idea. It took him and the others months to go to each house to convince them. It finally went smoothly, though, after people starting to see how things had gotten better with the few families who adopted gas stoves first.

    And, Frog-kun, just for pure curiosity, how much exactly do you expect from a Light Novel? Isn’t it the equivalent of 1930s pulp fictions, with even less innovation?

    • I guess I’m the kind of person who generally sets expectations low so that I can be pleasantly surprised. I think that there are lots of good light novels out there, but also a lot of rubbish. I can’t say I have high expectations of this particular “isekai” subgenre, but I have been pleasantly surprised quite a few times before.

      I’m glad to hear that your cousin’s volunteer project went well, by the way. I don’t want people to get the impression that aid programs don’t work at all; it takes patience and open communication with the local people, but it can certainly be done.

  3. >Kazuya is smarter than the average person

    Thanks Frog. I feel good when someone says it.

    Uh. I’m wondering if I choose a good name, Kazuya seems to be a quite Bland LN hero name, I picked it for one of the names of the SMT 1 MC but given the context…

    • Don’t mention it lol.

      I think that with any common Japanese name it’s gonna get used on some generic anime/light novel character eventually. It’s probably harder to find a real Japanese name, especially a male one, that hasn’t been shared by a generic protagonist. So I wouldn’t stress about your name selection lol.

  4. Hah, I remember this post from Draggle. I got into a few heated debates with friends over disagreeing with this post, though I’m not sure if I ever actually talked to Draggle about it. I don’t think so… I have no hard feelings toward Draggle, just surprised to see it again after so long. I still think he’s wrong. Mayou Yusasha is a story of characters freely sharing knowledge and philosophy as a humanitarian effort. It’s not a justification for a violent imperialistic take over. They are empowering people, not justifying their own empowerment. Plus it blows up on them. The comparison is nonsense.

    I haven’t watched/read anything from How a Realist Hero Rebuilt the Kingdom so I won’t comment on it. I find it interesting how you think about privilege. Your parents use it much the same way my parents and their peers would use the concept of original sin, though the principles are very different. That helps me make sense of your perspective even though I don’t really buy in on the value of looking at things in terms of privilege. I have better reasons to better myself as a human. Even without religious authority original sin as a concept seems like a more useful analogy to me. You’ve given me something to think about at any rate. It’s a very foreign mode of thinking, but an interesting challenge none the less.

    I find stories that focus on economies to be a lot of fun. If someone is thinking reality is as simple as a light novel because the title plays with that idea… /shrug I’m tempted to think of the person who falls for that as incredibly naive. I don’t want to belittle the way you counter that naivety, but I question the value in shaming someone by telling them their knowledge isn’t theirs. If someone criticized me in that way I’d want to know why I’m supposed to care that my knowledge isn’t mine. On a surface level it comes across like being told the PC I’m typing up this comment with is powered on. I know that my PC’s capabilities aren’t an innate part of who I am. I’m still going to use them as if they were.

    • I think you should read Realist Hero! It is a lot of fun, and when you separate the narrative convenience from the general knowledge that the hero talks about, it is genuinely educational. I personally learned quite a bit from it.

      As I mentioned in the post itself, I doubt that anyone would really take the sweeping solutions Realist Hero offers too seriously. After all, it would be a boring story if all the reforms took years upon years to happen.

      So rather than the actual writing in the series, I got to thinking more about the core appeal, about why we like to see these hypothetical “modern knowledge meets medieval society” scenarios play out.

      A lot of the thoughts in my post were formed when I looked into why a lot of people trust traditional healers over doctors. It is tempting to think people are willfully ignorant for going to traditional healers even after they are told that their cures don’t actually work, but it made sense for me when I thought about it in terms of personal relationships and trust, rather than knowledge. It got me thinking about why I trust doctors to begin with. And the conclusion I came to was that because I grew up in a country with a robust medical institution, I’m instinctively inclined not to question their authority.

      So that’s why I think it is not good to think of people as ignorant for not acknowledging information that seems “obvious”. Even if you don’t take Realist Hero’s scenario seriously, I think it is still tempting in general to think of the people in the medieval society as short-sighted, maybe even incompetent. At least for me, it is something I have to actively remind myself not to do.

      I guess you equate privilege to original sin because it is something that you have no control over? It is something you have to deal with even though it is not actually your personal doing. Privilege isn’t sin, but the way people often talk about it, it does feel like something to apologise for. That’s certainly the way I felt a lot growing up.

      But on the other hand, if you don’t think about privilege at all, it becomes another good thing that you take for granted. So that’s why I think about my privilege a lot. I try to think about how it has shaped who I am, and take that into account when I interact with people who are different from me. It’s more like something to be grateful about, rather than guilty.

      • “Even if you don’t take Realist Hero’s scenario seriously, I think it is still tempting in general to think of the people in the medieval society as short-sighted, maybe even incompetent. At least for me, it is something I have to actively remind myself not to do.” I agree with you on the importance 100%. I’m trying to think of a not rude way to admit that I’m surprised to see such a mature view accompanying comments about privilege. It was enough to make me stop and think.

        For my own part I don’t tend to think very highly of modern society. My natural inclination is to take an outsiders perspective. Instead of needing to remind myself that people in the past weren’t incompetent I find myself more needing to remind myself that the aspects of fantasies and idealism that come out of fictional stories from the past or otherwise came out of the same human pool of potential the modern world was built by. It’s the same balancing act I think, I’m just pushing the other way.

        I certainly don’t think privilege and original sin are the same thing, but I made the connection to the positive side of what you get out of thinking that way by recognizing what, at least in a simplistic surface way, is a similar moral role with something from my own life experience.

        When people talk about sin most people think of guilt and judgement, right? When I see 99% of people mention privilege they are passing judgement on someone else. I actually don’t think I’ve seen someone use it on themselves in an open sort of way before this blog post.

        The interesting thing to note about sin is that Christians value the concept of sin, at least, as it applies to them, as an object of their wrong doings and burdens for a positive reason. It has value because coming clean and being redeemed is the goal, not judgement and guilt. I see you using privilege in a similar way(it at least seems similar to me) to be mindful of your own advantages in life. It’s not as if that’s a completely original thought for me, but it’s like… How to explain. I tend to disregard people’s opinions pretty quickly when they don’t apply their own values to themselves first and foremost. When I see the term privilege it’s typically being used by one of two types of people. Someone who hates me or would hate me if they knew enough about me. (and to recognize my own bias I certainly don’t trust those people.)

        It’s hard to imagine a purpose for thinking in terms of privilege when I basically already have a different solution/process for similar things that I don’t want to take for granted, as you put it. So I guess ultimately what you’ve helped me realize is why I typically don’t think in terms of privilege. Which is helpful for understanding why you and potentially others value it. I realize that might be a bit counter intuitive. Basically I was missing the positive side of the equation. I’d even say I knew I was missing it long before this blog post, but my imagination was having a hard time bridging the gap so to speak.

        On a related note, if the authority that brings medicine and tech to a community that didn’t have them are trusted or introduced by a trusted insider the speed it can potentially be adopted is amazing. One privilege of my own has been growing up and working in a place where I get to hear those types of stories on a regular basis so it’s not a new concept for me. I just typically avoid talking about details relating to my family and my job. Long term success seems to come down to empowerment more so than authority.

        On an even more related note… I’ve preordered vol 1.

      • I think the danger of this privilege talk is that it incentivises a race where people try to present themselves as less privileged ironically to get more privileges. A sort one-down-up-manship if that makes any sense.

  5. Lee Kuan Yew, the first prime minister in Singapore is considered to be a sort of a “realist hero” for having turned a backward nation into modernity with some might say slightly authoritarian methods. Deng Xiaoping may also kind of fall into such a category though he was even more authoritarian. I think that the best example other than Lee Kuan Yew of Singapore would be Sir John James Cowperthwaite, a British civil servant who was the financial secretary of Hong Kong in the 1960s and early 70s whose policies turned Hong Kong from one of the poorest places to one of the richest places on earth. Obviously, he was also not democratically elected as he was appointed by British authorities. I guess unlike Lee Kuan Yew and Deng Xiaoping you could also accuse Cowperthwaite of the “white man’s burden” since he was white and acting on behalf of British imperialistic authorities. All that said none of these men literally turned a medieval world into a developed one – I mean all they did is enact some obvious economic reforms not literally invent every modern technology from the beginning.

    If you are more interested in that sort of more limited(i.e. realistic) “realist hero” I would recommend “Architect of Prosperity: Sir John Cowperthwaite and the Making of Hong Kong” by Neil Monnery.

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