Double Vision: Our Conflicting Nerdish Legacies

“At its best, activism is not merely opposition to what is, it is also constructive of what will be.”

—Katherine Cross, Words, Words, Words: On Toxicity and Abuse in Online Activism, 2014.


Stained glass bird designI’ve heard from a couple of people regarding my “Yes, But” post, which addressed criticisms of my report on Requires Hate/ Benjanun Sriduangkaew/ Winterfox last fall.

They’ve told me I missed the point of the objections people have raised to my Hugo nomination, due to the support of people from the wrong side of RaceFail. I’m grateful to them for opening their hearts to speak to me. Talking about all this can be very stressful.

I wasn’t around for RaceFail, and I have consistently underestimated the trauma caused by that rift. People have told me that they were “RaceFail babies” who entered the field around that time, and that the blowup shaped their entire perception of the field. To paraphrase something Rochita Loenen-Ruiz[1] has said to me, RaceFail has cast a long and deep shadow over SFF. Little trust or hope has been able to grow in its shadow, between many people of color and many in the white community.

RaceFail and other –Fails have become embedded in our history. They’re a deeply rooted, painful part of our SFF legacy. And perhaps we can’t heal those rifts right now. Perhaps some of those scars will never fully heal. What I am hoping for is that we can grow new connective tissue beginning in the here and now. New bridges to healing the rifts between us… recognizing that all of this will take time.

In the meantime, to be honest, what I’m looking for is not an award—as cool as Hugos are! If people feel in good conscience that they can’t vote for me, I respect that. What I am seeking is discussion—and I hope some eventual rough consensus—around a few key concepts.

Here is what I believe.

On discourse:

  • Threats of harm, stalking, blackmail, and other acts of bullying—online or off—are out of bounds, no matter who does it, nor to whom. This I consider a moral imperative. What Requires Hate did was wrong.
  • It’s equally important that we not use her actions, or activist critiques of toxic online activism, as an excuse to ignore the problems of inequity that remain in our communities, nor allow ourselves to be manipulated as social-justice clickbait. Activists put their hearts and bodies on the line, every day, to fight for equality and justice for marginalized peoples and ecosystems. We wouldn’t have open and democratic societies, worker and environmental and indigenous population protections, nor civil rights, nor the seeds of marriage equality, without their sacrifices.
  • No one view or voice can reflect the huge variety of opinions and feelings on any important topic. And no one person or group can be the sole or final arbiter of opinion. Discussion by many viewpoints is needed, from across the spectrum: center, margins, all around.
  • Criticism—while it can make us uncomfortable—is not harassment. It’s one of the few means of redress for people whose voices have been silenced.
  • People need to be able to express themselves without fear of retribution or harm. That’s why it’s so important that—while not denying our own truths—we take care with each other, and show each other kindness, as we process this. Otherwise, we end up in a downward spiral of pain and tit-for-tat abuse that creates the frozen, blasted wasteland of a hostile status quo.

On our SFF heritage:

  • Nerd culture, at its best, is all about belonging and welcoming—about excluded others finding a community of fellow travelers with a shared passion. For us in SFF, we celebrate stories centering the strange, the wondrous, the weird, the fantastic.
  • Our SFF history is rich and complex, with many works and traditions we treasure, contributed by writers and fans we hold dear. It’s not a perfect legacy; it’s not without its flaws. But it’s still precious. That heritage belongs to us all.
  • Whether intentionally or not, some works and words by writers who have shaped our legacy, and some of our community’s fannish spaces and practices, have harmed people of marginalized status, such as women, non-white people, non-straight/non-binary/transgendered people, people with mental or physical differences or disabilities, and/or those from non-Anglophone and/or non-Western countries. That harm can be invisible to people not belonging to those groups, and it can be devastating. The pain of finding ourselves further marginalized—misrepresented, maligned, or erased—within a nerdish community that belongs to us, too, is almost indescribable.
  • For those near the center of the field, it can cut deep when people criticize elements of the field’s core: the writers, voices, and fannish traditions that form our SFF legacy. This is not just venality or selfishness. Many near the center are at there precisely because they have spent their life toiling on that legacy, building it from scratch, and have often devoted years of their lives and buckets of sweat and heart’s blood to make it what it is. It’s understandable that they cherish what they’ve built, and want to protect it.
  • It can be hard for us to hear our friends and idols criticized. They are and have been mentors; their words and actions have comforted and succored us in our own time of need. This is true on all sides of the debate.
  • For all of us, sharp words can take us back to those times we were isolated in our pasts—shamed and excluded by non-nerds for our weird passions and ideas.
  • These complex and contradictory truths force a kind of double vision on us all. A cognitive dissonance. They form the heart of the conflict we need to bring into focus to resolve.
  • If we can find ways to hear each other and see each other’s visions of what might be, we can harmonize that fractured vision into a mosaic.

Summing it up:

  • Times change. Awareness grows. Challenging with a clear eye the attitudes and structures in our SFF legacy that have harmed people or outgrown their usefulness will renew our community. Resolving these conflicts will help keep SFF vital, relevant, and flourishing well into the 21st century.
  • I believe in us, as a nerdish community of storytellers and story-lovers. We are smart and resilient. I believe we can find a path, and come to a new understanding and sustained appreciation of our SFF history. We can find enough rooms in our house for all people of good will to belong as equal beneficiaries of our SFF legacy.

Building the foundations of trust, stone by stone, can be an important part of resolving some of these conflicts. We can pitch in to grow new, more inclusive communities and paths to publication. There have already been many terrific efforts along these lines, by many people. Check out the numerous diverse/ diversity-in-SFF hashtags on Twitter, as well as the Women/ Queers/ Et al.-Destroy-SFF anthologies, and The Other Half of the Sky.

Looking ahead, I know Rochita is working with some folks on ideas that will expand access and inclusion for and by people from marginalized communities, and I plan to wholeheartedly support those efforts. I hope you will, too. I’m noodling around with one or two possibilities, myself, that I think might intrigue people, once they’re ready to go public. More on that soon.

Si, se puede.


[1] Who has been a fucking hero in all this and deserves her own Hugo nomination for her passion, patience, courage, and voice.

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