In this volume of the Wiscon Chronicles, we find ourselves considering what it means to live at the intersections of various identities, some of them more privileged than others. We ask how we can function as good allies to each other in often challenging situations. We’re living through an intense time of social change, and a variety of questions arise as we have these often difficult conversations about feminism, race, gender, sexual orientation, disability, and more. Among them are questions about what leads to positive social change and how best to effect such change in our communities.
During the past months of soliciting and reading and re-reading, I’ve often found myself in internal dialogue with the essays, stories, poetry — the issues the authors present here. I hope the following paragraphs offer a contextual framework for understanding the pieces to follow.
Here’s what’s not in this book: any direct discussion of the most controversial and contentious imbroglios that have plagued speculative fiction in the last few years. No piece directly addresses the specific harassment cases at WisCon, though some come at them sideways, obliquely. None address larger genre conflicts, such as the series of incidents involving the person who calls herself Requires Hate, or the Sad/Rabid Puppies and their effect on the Hugos. I asked various people if they’d be willing to discuss those topics, but in the end, they all refused. Some felt they didn’t have time to do the subjects justice, some felt like they didn’t understand events thoroughly enough, some were simply afraid — afraid of what would happen if they said something wrong.
A friend recently said in an online discussion, “Every WisCon I find out that something I was taught to say last WisCon is now an unforgivable slur.” (Elliott Mason) We are having a hard time with language these days — ironic, since our fandom’s main concern is talking about stories. We are having a hard time deciding which words are effective, which are hurtful and damaging. Some words, such as “queer,” have shifted from pejoratives to badges of pride and community identity; those who see a younger generation cheerfully using a word that was once hurled at them as a hateful epithet, like a brick to the head, may find it difficult to adapt. It’s not easy, having your natural language stripped away, or feeling like the culture has moved on, leaving you stranded.
Social justice terms have also become more difficult to use, words like “privilege” and “tone.” Recently Robin DeAngelo said:
“I think we get tired of certain terms. What I do used to be called “diversity training,” then “cultural competency” and now, “anti-racism.” These terms are really useful for periods of time, but then they get co-opted, and people build all this baggage around them, and you have to come up with new terms or else people won’t engage.
And I think “white privilege” has reached that point. It rocked my world when I first really got it, when I came across Peggy McIntosh. It’s a really powerful start for people. But unfortunately it’s been played so much now that it turns people off.”
Many people are “turned off” by social justice discussions today, to the extent that some of them use the term SJW, or social justice warrior, pejoratively. Some of my students have called those discussions “toxic” and see them as something to be avoided entirely. One might argue that much of the force behind some of the more reactionary movements, such as the Sad Puppies, is generated through resistance to what they see as jargon: exclusionary language that reflects an exclusionary liberal elite. Perhaps it’s unsurprising that science fiction and fantasy readers, many of whom, myself included, were something of outcasts in childhood and adolescence, find ourselves sensitive to exclusion.
Many of us are no longer excluded, if we ever were. Many of us are now in less precarious positions, and having finally landed in a position of some stability, we find ourselves reluctant to lose that newfound social status.
As the culture evolves, people who benefitted from the old ways invariably see themselves as victims of change. The world used to fit them like a glove, but it no longer does. Increasingly, they find themselves in unfamiliar situations that feel unfair or even unsafe. Their concerns used to take center stage, but now they must compete with the formerly invisible concerns of others.
The ways in which we have been disenfranchised (I am brown, female, queer) are always more obvious to us than the ways in which we are privileged (I am upper-middle-class, mostly able-bodied, young-ish, cisgendered). Even when we are trained in looking at the world through a social justice lens (and that training is long and ever-ongoing), keeping our various privileges in mind can be so hard. And for those of us who have been engaging in these conversations for twenty years or more, it’s tough to remember that there are always new people coming into the argument, people who have just walked in the door.
Even if you begin to suspect that your privileged background has led you to make an error in judgement, that you may, in fact, have hurt someone with your words (or actions), it’s particularly hard for most people to walk back from a publicly held position, especially if they originally stated it with some vigor. I’ve known a few people who have done it with grace, but it isn’t easy. And when you’re being called out in public, there’s such a temptation to dig in your heels.
This is where I start thinking about what makes an effective community intervention. This is where I wish I knew some people well enough to pick up a phone. When John Scalzi discovered RaceFail ’09, he initially dismissed those discussions as a complete waste of time — until two people he knew and trusted (Justine Larbalestier and Tempest Bradford) contacted him directly and convinced him that he was wrong.
In 2010, I was on a convention panel where I said the n-word. This is not a word that comes naturally to me. I was trying to be academic as I defined different types of racism, perhaps trying a bit too hard, overcompensating for my own discomfort, and I said the word out loud, rather than using the euphemism. As soon as I said the word, in the midst of a definition of racism, I winced internally, and wished I’d chosen a different phrasing — I didn’t need to actually say it to make my point. And then an audience member, a black woman, raised her hand and said that she understood that I’d used it as an example, but the use of racial slurs made her deeply uncomfortable, regardless of the circumstances.
Ironically, the panel was called “The Language of Fail” and was about how we handle it when we say objectionable things in public. When she called me out, I agreed with her assessment, but I was also confused and embarrassed and defensive enough that my initial response was mostly incoherent. I think my brain was freaking out that “oh-my-god-a-black-woman-thinks-I’m-a-racist.” Which is actually not what she said at all — she was pointing out that something I’d said was problematic, but she wasn’t making any accusation against me as a person. It was hard to feel the truth of that in the moment, though.
The panel moderator thanked her and redirected to another commenter, which I appreciated — it helps having a moment to think when you’re under the spotlight and have screwed up. But a few minutes later I took back the mic, when I’d had the chance to blink back my humiliated tears and think about what I’d said. I said that I’d messed up, and I was really sorry.
Recently, I was hosting a political discussion on my Facebook wall. Someone wandered in, someone who has posted there before, but whom I don’t know in person. As an author, being in contact with my readers is important to me, so I use Facebook in a very public way; I accept most friend requests initially and only delete people who cause trouble. As the day went on, he posted and posted and posted a whole host of tired, reactionary, bingo-card comments, the kinds of comments that tend to show up over and over again when someone is new to social justice conversations.
A friend asked me, somewhat outraged, if we really had to have 101-level conversations on my Facebook wall. She is used to my hosting more advanced conversations around social justice issues, involving people who know what I mean when I refer to “bingo-card” comments, or “the tone argument,” people who have seen the standard reflexive comments over and over again. Many of them are, understandably, tired of having that conversation, tired of bearing the responsibility to educate. They frequently say, “being an ally means educating yourself.”
And I would agree that no one should bear the responsibility to educate (outside an academic or parental context) — certainly those who are already socially battered shouldn’t be expected to educate the more fortunate. But educating yourself isn’t easy, and the process is made infinitely easier if there is someone willing to hold your hand through the process. For that moment on my wall, I had both the energy and the time; I was willing to be a guide for that new-to-these-conversations individual. On another day, I might not be able to.
I’ve been involved in social justice conversations for a decade now, since the day in my late 20s when two new friends (one white, one black) sat me down and gently explained to me just why some of the things I’d been saying were a mite…problematic. It took years for what they were saying to really penetrate, even though I had no intent to be offensive. And today, though I would like to be an ally to trans folk, to people with disabilities, to working-class people, I still have so much to learn before I am even minimally educated on their issues. I try not to use the problematic words, the ones seen as pejoratives, because that is relatively simple (though even there, I forget, and of course, the problematic words keep changing). I try to use preferred pronouns (and again, I forget, over and over, hurting my friends). I have a stack of recommended reading to get through, books which sit on my shelf, along with all the other books. Someday.
I will misstep. I do and will make mistakes. And being called out on it is humiliating, but that is not sufficient reason to withdraw from the conversation. I shouldn’t have to — no one should have to. I’d like us all to think about what kind of conversations we want to have. What kind of conversations we demand. Cory Doctorow asked me recently about how we get to a better place in these discussions. We had been arguing politely but vehemently, and had gathered a small circle of listeners. When he asked, I said, “Like this.” Gesturing with my hands, inviting the others into the circle of conversation. We make change like this, by talking about the issues and talking about how we talk about the issues.
Many of us were raised to be polite, to be civil, to be so almost to the exclusion of everything else. Yet making headway in social change is incredibly difficult if one is only civil.
“Privileged people claim that if only marginalized people would ask politely for social change, it would be granted, [yet even] the most measured, dispassionate request for social change to benefit marginalized people is by definition uncivil, transgressive, and impolite, because it’s asking to subvert the bounds of ‘polite’ interaction.” (Kat Tanaka Okopnik)
I would add that even polite requests for social change are often perceived to be much more aggressive than the words actually reflect.
Note that the word “civil” is connected to “civilized,” and both of those are put in opposition to “barbaric” — as someone who teaches post-colonial literature, I’d be careful of whom we call barbaric, and why. Words like barbaric and childish are used to reduce the Other, to strip people of their humanity — it is easier to justify continuing to abuse people who don’t have full human status, or at least continuing to overlook (or even enforce) their subordinate social situation. It becomes easier to claim that their disenfranchisement doesn’t matter that much, that they shouldn’t disturb the social order, shouldn’t rock the boat.
Sometimes, you need to get angry. You get angry for yourself, because bottling that earned anger up can be poisonous, a cancer eating you from the inside out. You express yourself loudly and angrily in order to get people’s attention, to break them out of their socialized ruts.
“There’s a distinction between an atmosphere where people who disagree can still be pleasant toward each other and even be friends and an atmosphere in which you ignore things a person does or says that are actively hurtful to you or the people you know in order to get along/not rock the boat/are scared that speaking up will get you ostracized personally or professionally/would put you in real physical danger.” (K. Tempest Bradford)
People often reference Dr. Martin Luther King or Mahatma Gandhi as examples of non-violent protest — but both men were clearly angry, even furious, as you can see in their speeches and actions. When Gandhi sat on a rooftop, starving himself to death in full sight of the city, in protest of the erupting ethnic conflict, that was not some polite gesture. When he took his people on the Salt March, to fall under British fire and be dragged out of the street so that others could keep marching to the sea, that was a deliberately angry, visible move, meant to be seen on the world stage, meant to shame the British into leaving India. Those were intensely provoking actions, and as much a “calling out” as any angry social justice warrior might invoke today.
A subset of people seem to genuinely feel that anti-oppression work around language, depictions, etc., is, in itself, a form of censorship, ideological policing to be fought at all costs. They deny that racist/sexist/etc. language is part of the same system as more overt racism/sexism (such as separate lunch counters, or paying women lower wages). So even folks who were and are ardent progressives on overt social justice issues — to the extent of putting themselves and their careers at risk to fight such battles in the past — don’t see the language aspects as being important. Or even if they do think language matters, they think the danger of groupthink (etc.) is more significant.
Some people see what’s happened in the last several years regarding RaceFail, Elizabeth Moon and the WisCon GOH situation, and other such incidents as something of a “witch hunt” — a small group of extremist leftists who are very loud, who are shouting down the moderate and reasonable center. They see it as leading to a climate of fear, where regular, reasonable people are now afraid to speak freely for fear of being labelled as sexist or racist or some other-ist, with the consequence of the internet falling on their heads.
An internet pile-on is a terrible thing, and can escalate very quickly. If even a single critical comment (however accurate) stings, brings tears to the eyes, how much worse must it be to have hundreds, thousands of critical comments hurled at you? If we are committed to social justice, it is only fair, only just, that when we stand in the role of critic, we try to manage our reactions, to keep our responses proportionate. The internet magnifies criticism, often quickly escalating it beyond all reason. Death threats and doxxing are never okay.
Yet it is not just those extreme responses that we fear — we fear any criticism at all. If we say something that someone calls out as racist, for example, we tend to respond emotionally as if we’ve been accused of joining the KKK, of burning crosses on the lawn and being one step away from lynching. We need to de-escalate our own reactions if we’re to have these conversations at all. We need to learn how to accept the criticism, experience the emotion of embarrassment or even shame, and then move on from it. If you can see and agree that you’ve done something hurtful, then apologize for it. It’s not easy to apologize for a misstep — but it is possible. It gets easier every time. And if you can’t see that you’ve been hurtful, that you’ve done damage, but people are insisting that you have — at least consider the possibility that they may be right, and that you may want to take some time to think about it.
(With my students, I’ve compared it to having a booger hanging from your nose — if you did, wouldn’t you want a friend to point it out, so you could clean yourself up? Embarrassing in the moment, but far worse to walk around with that hanging off your face. On the same theme, Jay Smooth has a great short video, “How to Tell Someone That Something They Said Sounds Racist,” which he expanded into an even better TED talk. It’s not the end of the world if someone tells you you’ve said something racist; Smooth wants you to internalize the understanding that saying something racist doesn’t mean you are a racist.)
Many of us have found second homes in various communities — science fiction, queer activism, etc. Sometimes our entire social network is based on those communities, and the thought of being cast out is, understandably, terrifying. No one should need to fear that a single public gaffe will result in a witchhunt.
One thing we can do to make these conversations easier for our communities, to make progress easier, is to lower the stakes. To build (and re-build, as needed) communities that trust each other, that give people second and yes, third chances, if they are willing to actually engage with the issues and to apologize when they get things wrong. We will all get things wrong. We need to de-escalate in both directions — learning to admit our mistakes and apologize, but also learning how to call people out appropriately, without demonizing them or diminishing their humanity. We are all in this mess together.
In the end, I don’t want to say that this or that is the correct way to talk about these issues. When I spoke with Cory at the convention, we managed to find a productive place to disagree, one that might lead to agreement in the end. The conversation could easily have gone differently, could have ended in anger and frustration and walking away. And that might have been productive too, eventually.
In the end, we’ll need a diversity of tactics to enact lasting change; each tactic will successfully speak to some people (some of the time) and not to others. Sometimes “civil” discourse, i.e., calm and rational argument demonstrating the worth of our position, will prevail. Sometimes anger will shock the reader into openness and out of entrenched, unconsidered positions. Sometimes personal stories will move the listener to tears, will let them understand the Other’s pain with their hearts. Sometimes listening and not talking is the tactic that matters most.
“The spear in the Other’s heart is the spear in your Own: You are He.” (Surak of Vulcan)
The poet Leah Lakshmi Piepzna-Samarasinha talks about how making space physically accessible is an act of love for our communities. That applies to our words as well; when we can, when we have the mental fortitude and the energy for it, we should try to be gentle with each other, to advocate for social change from a space of respect and affection and even love. Note that I am not asking for “civil” discourse, or even politeness. Sometimes it is necessary to say things that are uncomfortable, to actively provoke discomfort, and even to do so loudly and angrily. But speaking out of love makes a difference.
“‘Civility’ — in the sense of an avoidance of discomfort — is pretense, is the enemy of love; choosing lack of fuss over connection with each other is a failure of love, and fully going after connection with each other, fully believing in each other, may look sometimes gentle and sometimes playful and sometimes furious, but never loses sight of the Other’s humanity — no, not even that Other, the one whose humanity you’re most justified in denying.” (Benjamin Rosenbaum)
When I look at my colleagues’ work in a writing workshop, I try to be generous in my interpretations, even if I can’t immediately see anything worthwhile in the work. By initially assuming value, treating the writing seriously (and treating them seriously as writers), I often find the worth they intended, the ideas that might not have made it onto the page. Similarly, by acting and speaking as if I’m addressing an honored opponent who might someday be a friend (or who may be one already, in fact), I have a better chance at building bridges across chasms of misunderstanding.
That’s what I hope the pieces in this book offer. Some are more academic, some more personal. Some are, seemingly, at odds with one another. Some approach their subject matter through poetry or fiction. A few are angry. What I think they all have in common is that they are honest, and open, and the authors are doing their best to reach out with their truth, hopeful for an open, respectful reading on the other side.
I hope they speak to you.
“Hello babies. Welcome to Earth. It’s hot in the summer and cold in the winter. It’s round and wet and crowded. On the outside, babies, you’ve got a hundred years here. There’s only one rule that I know of, babies — ‘God damn it, you’ve got to be kind.’” (Kurt Vonnegut)
 My blog entry from that day, where I discuss that word and appropriate usage in more detail: http://maryannemohanraj.com/2010/06/08/do-you-remember-that-i/
 Interesting piece re: diversity of tactics, in the context of the WTO protests in Seattle: (http://amorystarr.com/this-is-what-democracy-looks-like-letter-to-the-editor/)
This piece was originally published in WisCon Chronicles 9: Intersections and Alliances, Aqueduct Press.