Wednesday, February 29, 2012

How to Be Better

Updated November 2014: While I stand by the basic messages of this post about diversity and listening to criticism, its rhetoric is no longer part of how I would approach those issues. More importantly, recent developments have made it clear that the author of Requires Only That You Hate, also known in fandom circles as Winterfox and in professional SFF as the writer Benjanun Sriduangkaew, is a deeply unpleasant and manipulative personality whose interest in social justice, whether real or feigned, comes second to a vicious pleasure in attacking those she perceives as enemies.  The evidence for this is now publicly available; I just wanted to make it clear that I'm aware of it, and that I no longer endorse this individual on any level.

This post is a little outside the usual subject matter of the blog, but I think it's important.

A request for readers of this blog who are white, or male, or heterosexual, which I think includes most (but not necessarily all) who find their way here on a regular basis. Read this. Then read the posts it links to, both on that blog and elsewhere. Then read, or at least skim, other posts on Requires Only That You Hate. Try to find something that offends or upsets you. Unless you read only horror and no science fiction or fantasy, I doubt it will take very long.

So, my straight/white/male reader, what might you be thinking after all that reading? Here's one possibility. It's what I (a gay white man) have thought in the past when confronted with similar perspectives. "Well, I certainly support feminism/anti-racism/LGBT rights. And there are definitely some pieces of fantasy/science fiction/horror that show various biases or get into problematic territory. Bakker's defensiveness might be going a little too far. But this acrackedmoon is too extreme/too political/too blind to nuance/too angry. I can't take her seriously."

That sounds like a reasonable enough attitude, right? After all, we all decide every day whether particular opinions are worth our attention. We can't read every word of commentary from every perspective. And surely, just by the law of averages, there have to be anti-racists/feminists/GLBT activists somewhere who aren't worth taking seriously. Right?


Next, read this. What are you thinking now? Perhaps something similar? Maybe Sady Doyle goes on the list of feminists too die-hard to be taken seriously. Or are you beginning to see the problem?

Issues of representation and social justice tend to reach the mainstream of Internet genre fandom only when authors or other "important" bloggers respond negatively to being called out. Their responses get noticed, and much discussion and drama ensues. Now, let me be clear: although my opinion doesn't matter all that much, for reasons I'll get to, I think that's a good thing. These issues need to be discussed by any means necessary. But because such discussions only intermittently draw the attention of straight/white/male fans not already immersed in social justice debates, it's easy for those fans to see a sequence of individual critics, and reject them one by one without engaging the larger question of their own relationship to social justice commentary.

That question, simply put, is this: How can straight/white/men justify our claim to care about the concerns of oppressed groups while ignoring or dismissing any criticism coming from members of those groups that doesn't immediately strike us as valid? And the answer, simply put, is We can't.

*     *     *

One of the things acrackedmoon deals with in the post linked above is the white male fear of being labeled sexist or racist. As far as I can tell, that fear springs from an embarrassing inability to grasp the simple fact that saying, doing, or writing something sexist or racist is not an irremediable blot on one's soul. You don't become Theodore Bilbo by making a single mistake; that's a natural consequence of living in a world full of different kinds of privilege and bigotry. acrackedmoon was not suggesting that R. Scott Bakker is a monster in human form, that he secretly or subconsciously hates women, or that the only solution is for all decent-minded folk to gather pitchforks and torches and storm his castle. She was saying that she, as a woman and a feminist, found his response to criticisms regarding misogyny in his works severely lacking in several ways. Yes, she said it bluntly and mockingly. So what? Critics are not obligated to be nice. If you don't want your ideas and feelings abused, don't share them. Otherwise, accept that not everyone is going to like you and go from there.

Once straight/white/men have decided that the rhetoric or ideology of a particular blogger is over-the-top, we often perceive over-the-top demands as well, even when they plainly don't exist. For some reason discussions of racism and sexism in given books tend to generate unjustified fears of censorship, as though anyone is calling for authors to stop writing or for their works to be destroyed. This feeds the fear of admitting to, acknowledging the mere possibility of, racism or sexism; the white men in question seem to think that the only possible follow-up to such an admission would be to unplug their laptops and vow to write no more. Again, no.

Here's what we need to do, as white/straight/men confronting claims of bigotry against groups of which we're not members, in works we've written or works we like: acknowledge the validity of the interpretation. Even if you're not versed in the academic language on which it draws, accept that that language exists for very good reasons. The little voice that says "But it isn't, but it doesn't..."? Tell that voice to shut up. Part of being open-minded is accepting that you might not be right, even when it really, really feels like you are. You know how, when a friend expresses a firm dislike of some author you really admire, you don't spend the next six months trying to convince that friend he's wrong? Instead, you say "OK," and try to accept that his reading experiences have shaped different criteria by which your favorite author sucks. Maybe you secretly tell yourself that he's wrong and foolish and blind, but I really hope not, and in any case you only say that secretly. You don't throw it in his face. Well, when it comes to sexism, racism, and homophobia, the issues are more important but the principle is the same.

Women, people of color, and non-heterosexuals know more about bigotry than you, white/straight/men. They just do. They know it by bitter personal experience, and by the informed study that often follows such experience. They know more in the same way that Ph.D's in a given field know more than excitable amateurs with a little reading and some crazy theories. Yes, you can construct some wild hypothetical in which the Ph.D's are wrong and the crackpot is right, but if you're deciding that the crackpot is brilliant every single time, something is wrong with your intellectual system. It's ridiculous to regard oneself as open-minded if one constantly rejects the uncomfortable but well-informed radical argument over the safe, deeply ignorant status quo.

The thing about acknowledging the validity of such criticism is that it's not only, and even not primarily, about you. It's about respecting the right of women/POC/LGBT people to be uncomfortable with how they are portrayed (or not portrayed) in fiction, and to voice that discomfort. It's about not seeming (and even if this isn't what's intended, it's how such behavior comes across) more interested in shutting down criticism of something you like than in allowing all members of those groups to contribute to and shape the movements that act on their behalf. It's about not privileging your own progressive self-image above the concerns of those you profess to care about. Feminism belongs to women, anti-racism to POC, and so on. That doesn't mean that straight/white/male allies can't contribute to those movements; it does mean that we need to allow them to be what they are: spaces where, in contrast to the wider society and virtually every sub-culture, the beliefs, needs, and desires of oppressed groups come first. That includes all members of those groups, not just the ones who tell you what you want to hear. (Oh, and that perspective you have, the one you're worried won't be aired if your white/male/straight voice isn't heard? There's a woman, or a person of color, or a lesbian who shares it. Minority discourses are richer than the individual blogs you come across during the latest cycle of drama. They don't need you. Sometimes it's all right to say nothing at all.)

And here's the good news: not only does such an acknowledgement make you a better, more genuinely progressive person, it's also the only thing you have to do. (If you're the writer of the work in question, you might also want to apologize for any frustration or offense you caused, even if you didn't mean to cause any. That's just good manners.) Despite the grim daydreams some white men indulge, you won't be ordered to drop your books onto a pyre and watch them burn. You won't be asked to stop reading them or stop enjoying them, or pledge your absolute agreement with every word of every criticism. What you can do, when reading or writing such works in the future, is remember those criticisms and ask yourself how to avoid perpetuating hurtful ideas while still liking what you like. Or, as another blogger, whose comments are both briefer and sharper than mine, put it, "The best defence is to forget about defence. Just listen and think about it and try to be better."


  1. Great post on your always great blog but one nitpick...

    "Women, people of color, and non-heterosexuals know more about bigotry than you, white/straight/men. They just do. They know it by bitter personal experience, and by the informed study that often follows such experience."
    ...I assume you are talking specifically about the white men who never went to a place where they could be a minority or those who never study biogtry or work with victims of bigotry?

  2. And also straight men who might have been mistaken for gay and had abuse because of it?

  3. Those kinds of experiences are likely to provide a degree of insight into bigotry that the average white (or) straight (or) man doesn't have (although I don't know that there are many places where whites are in the minority that would even come close to replicating the experience of being non-white in a white majority society). And of course genuine attempts by privileged people to understand bigotry are laudable-- that's why I'm encouraging thoughtful engagement with this type of literary criticism, after all. But I don't think that that sort of thing is going to provide knowledge of or familiarity with bigotry comparable to what members of those oppressed groups acquire simply by being who they are every hour of every day. So even for that type of straight/white/man, I would say that as a strong general rule minorities will continue to know more about bigotry, and (not that you were suggesting this) I'd certainly reject using such experience as a credential in dismissing a given critique.