Standing in the Borderlands of Discourse

First of all, I want to thank Rochita Loenen-Ruiz for standing up in favor of my Hugo nomination. Rochita, I know that wasn’t easy. I am proud to know you, and humbled by your friendship and support.

The rest of this is a post I started when I heard about the nomination, after writing my acceptance post. A lot of other things have happened since then, and I had a set of links I’d been noodling around with, which isn’t complete yet, but let me get this up and I’ll deal with the rest later.

_________________________

I want to draw people people’s attention to a post Rochita wrote recently at her own blog. It’s a must-read, heartbreaking essay about her fear of attending Dysprosium, the 2015 national British SF convention. Her encounters with Requires Hate & Co. have wounded her spirit in a profound way. How can anyone read her account and say it doesn’t matter, that we shouldn’t say anything that might hurt RH’s feelings—that we should take RH at her word that her abuses are all in the past and anyway, I was just picking on her and being racist and mean?

And it’s not just Rochita. SFF writer Colum Paget’s pain, when RH went after him for winning the James White award in lieu of her friend Tori Truslow (which, WTF? His story hadn’t even been published yet, and RH was trashing it and calling for him to be decapitated, based on a short excerpt of his story on the awards website) was as real and profound as Rochita’s. The harm done to him lasts to this day. I fear we have lost his writer’s voice, and I’m deeply sad about that. I have a serious disagreement with his political views, but he obviously has real talent and I don’t believe that the way to win an argument with him is to crush his spirit and silence his voice. He has the right to contribute his own stories to our community bookshelves, to find his readership.

While researching RH’s abuses, I heard stories like theirs over and over, day after day. If you weren’t the right demographics—the right ideology—if you didn’t toe the line—if you even looked at RH crosswise—then you were in for it.

The truth is, I have also been afraid. I’ve feared an attack, online or yes, even a potential real-life attack. Most of all, I’ve feared that speaking publicly about all this again could ignite a conflagration that makes RaceFail09 look like BakeSale09.

Some people have told me that for them, RH calling for people to be murdered or assaulted or mobbed was just hyperbole—performance art, in essence, and not meant to be taken seriously.

[Trigger warning: racial violence; homophobia]

I had a friend in college, a fellow engineering student. She was from Baton Rouge, Louisiana, and her brother had been murdered in broad daylight in front of her eyes by a classmate of his, for dating the classmate’s sister. Because he was black and she was white. And the classmate was never even arrested, let alone prosecuted. I can’t even imagine what she and her family must have been through. How must they feel, to this day, wondering what her brother’s life might have been, had he lived?

And I have some close friends, a lesbian couple, who have been together for decades. When the marriage equality laws were passed in California they were finally able to marry, but I see them brace themselves, whenever I introduce them as a couple to others. They still feel that lingering fear, that need to be wary, because there are those who might attack them for openly wearing their sexual orientation in public.

In light of the severity and pervasiveness of these kinds of prejudice, it can be easy, I think, for activists to view social-media shaming campaigns, or political-purity checks at cons and publishers, as trivial in comparison, or as somehow worth the price. But the harm of online assaults is real and lasting. And unjust. Using your influence to have people barred from convention events or constrained from publishing their own works, as punishment for disagreeing with you, is both unethical and in some circumstances illegal.

_________________________

I have had numerous people say to me that as a result of what RH has done, concepts of social justice and intersectionality have been tainted for them. They have been used as a cudgel and thus devalued. This saddens me.

A lot of people already know what I’m about to say—many advocates have been writing about this since forever, and scientific studies back them up, time and again. But for those who doubt it, the science is in, and prejudice, stereotyping, bigotry, and unconscious bias are all very real. People are dying daily because of the color of their skin, their class/caste, their sexual orientation, or their gender identity. Women of equal capability have a harder time finding employment, and are paid less, than men for the same work—and for people of color here in the US, it’s harder still. People get erased from awareness due to their disability or differences in neurology. In other words, if you are straight, white, male, of middle or upper class, and able, then (on average) you’re playing life on an easier setting than others. (Mind you, it doesn’t necessarily mean things are easy for you; it just means it’s easi-er than it is for your peers whose demographics differ from yours.)

It’s a kind of cosmic cruelty that those who can most clearly see the damage done by prejudice and discrimination are the people who receive that damage, and that thus the primary burden falls on people experiencing oppression to speak out about it, if they want things to change. (And we have to do it over, and over, and over… which is deeply wearing.)

Because this fundamental unfairness is baked into our social structures, it’s much easier for people in a position of greater privilege to speak “reasonably” while denying the impacts of discrimination, to tune out or discredit the words of people who are speaking from a position of social disadvantage. I have always felt that because of this, it’s the responsibility of the person with the greater structural advantage to make room for the person who has been harmed or marginalized to speak.

It’s a kindness, in other words, to give people the benefit of the doubt when they speak about a form of discrimination or bias you have never experienced—to assume good intent, despite any exasperation or frustration they might express.

It’s as if you are inside the building and one of your colleagues has been locked out. Maybe you even accidentally locked them out. Maybe not, and it’s just a big misunderstanding. Either way, it’s the courteous thing to do, to open the door. To make room for them. Apologize for inconveniencing them, if you find you inadvertently made their life more stressful. (And avoid embarrassing or patronizing them, of course, or acting like you’re doing them a big favor. It’s their building, too.)

It’s this very sense of courtesy, of social obligation, that RH has exploited.

_________________________

Since social-justice concepts are true, they are a form of power. As with any sort of power, they need to be wielded ethically, or they can do a great deal of harm. People don’t control how much privilege, how many unearned advantages or disadvantages we are born with. What we can control is how we use the power we do have. For every one of us in this community, I would be willing to bet you that I could find someone who has greater systemic privilege than you, and I could find someone with less. (And you know? A person can be as oppressed as hell, and still be an asshole.)

It becomes much harder to talk about bias or prejudice, after what RH has done. We’re all too easily accused of hypocrisy, or assumed to be tainted by political association. Yet the injustices persist, regardless of whether we speak of them. Distrust and disbelief put locks on our mouths, our minds, and our hearts. We can’t build a community together unless we can speak honestly to each other.

And how do we distinguish RH’s actions from words spoken by people who are simply angry and hurt, in the heat of the moment? Or who use humor—snark and exaggeration—to make their point? Sometimes, sarcasm and gallows humor are all people have to keep them from falling into despair. Sometimes people need to put their foot down and say irritated or angry things. Because they have their own lived experience, that others can’t know, unless they speak, and anger is an appropriate response to abuse.

What are good rules of the road for how negative or sharp criticism can be, without going over the cliff edge? How can we preserve the good in our SFF legacy, without clinging to the aspects that have caused harm?

_________________________

In short, this is an awful situation we’re in. It sucks, that our community has been hacked in this way. It sucks, that someone who could have been an important voice for positive change has turned out to be someone very different.

And it’s not just RH. The Sad and Rabid Puppies’ attempt to sweep the ballots comes across to me as a blatant backlash against efforts to expand our field and increase diverse voices. Their poison-pill attack on this year’s Hugo ballot reveals contempt for the very spirit of our community. However flawed and clumsy its implementation might be at times, the Hugo awards process seeks to receive and amplify the relationship that each reader has for their favorite writer, their favorite artist, their favorite editor or work, in order to sum things up: to encapsulate the field’s zeitgeist for that moment in time. SFF as a form seeks room for different voices, for the Other. For tolerance and diversity. It’s part of our tradition. It’s in our DNA.

As I mentioned in a recent follow-up post to my report, internet trolls are by-and-large sadistic, manipulative, narcissistic sociopaths, who torment people because they like it. They enjoy the feeling of power it gives them to make others suffer. That fear and isolation many of us feel, that associated anger, even rage, at those we disagree with? The trolls among us stoke it. They feed on it. It’s what gives them their power over us. Are we going to allow that pattern to continue? Are we going to keep dancing to their tune?

What RH and the Sad/ Rabid Puppies have in common, in other words, is not their politics, but their hate.

_________________________

We in SFF have an obligation as a community not to collude in bullying through our silence. Cyber-bullying, like its real-life equivalent, knows no gender; no class; no race nor ethnicity nor culture; no political nor religious affiliation; no sexual orientation nor dis/ability status. A community can’t thrive if it allows abuses of its members to continue unimpeded.

I haven’t missed the painful fact that RH is not the only one who abuses others, some of whom are of greater status in our field. Even if we discount those who have miscast people’s efforts to expand SFF readers’ access to new, diverse voices as attempts to chase them, the self-styled successors of the old guard, out—oppression itself is a form of abuse that bears down on people of marginalized status. We live in a poisoned pool of unfair bias. The fact that RH wields as her weapon the prejudice people from marginalized groups face, when they are accused of being abusive for speaking uncomfortable truths, simply makes her own abuses that much more cruel.

I’ve spoken to an expert in the matter who has studied our case, who tells me that RH’s abuses (like Vox Day’s) are highly unlikely to stop by themselves, if she follows the trajectory of other people who act as she has. Over and over, for more than a decade, she has blown up communities by positioning herself as a victim and finding people to cover for her, who either feel they don’t have a right to criticize her, or are willing to overlook her behavior for the sake of other concerns.

That’s why I accepted the nomination, and why I continue to speak. The community is still at risk. I believe we need to find a way to send a clear signal* that the community stands firm on this basic principle: that our politics can’t outweigh our humanity. That everyone has a fundamental right to be here, to engage in online and in-person discourse without being threatened with annihilation. We have to find a way—not to deny our own beliefs and experiences—but to talk across the divides.

I don’t have good answers for how we can help the center hold, but I do believe we need to rally as a community around a set of norms. A covenant of sorts. An agreement that, whatever the fractures in our community—whatever our disagreements—whatever personal circumstances brought us to this genre in the first place—at its heart, SFF has room for all of us.

Every era has its defining challenge. Ours is to do the messy, difficult work of giving birth to that reality, by not giving in to the voices of hate, from without or within.

_________________________

*22 May 2015 Update: The original words were”A vote for me sends a clear signal….” I’ve edited them to acknowledge the concerns of those who have criticized me for campaigning. That’s not what this is about for me, and I’m on board with however people need to vote. What I’m looking for is for acknowledgment of the harm of abusive practices, and the importance of recognizing everyone’s right to be heard. #RequiresLove

Comments Off on Standing in the Borderlands of Discourse

Filed under Fandom, Fiction

Comments are closed.