The “Bully” That Therefore I Am: Final Thoughts on Fail-ty and Social Activism


The last week or so has been somewhat illuminating.  First, I stumbled upon Lavid Tidhar’s coverage of the Elizabeth Moon Islamaphobic rant (a.k.a. the Moon Fiasco, which sounds suspiciously like a silly children’s detective story); when I say I stumbled, I mean that with the utmost sincerity, as I had not been looking for it, nor had I known about the incident until said stumbling.  Then K. Tempest Bradford talked briefly about scare quotes and, as a subtitle of sorts, the distracting nature of others attempting to label social activists as some derivation of “fail” (fail fandom, fail community, fail Nazi, and so on), specifically in relation to the Manifesto of No-Consequence that I linked to here.

And then it happened:  I got called a bully by an anonymous individual in the comments located here.  Why?  Because apparently if you post something on your blog that offers a critical view of another viewpoint (or comment on another blog posting about an incident related to it, or both),
and then defend yourself in your comment thread against individuals who haven’t the courage to even say who they are, that makes you a bully.  Oh, and it gets worse.  If that something you’re pointing to happens to be a counter-boycott to a hardly-organized, but public cry for a boycott against an author who says something pretty much everyone agrees is deplorable, and you decide to take the counter-boycott-ers to task for what amounts to a hypocritical position (first briefly in a post, and then at length in the comments on your blog–the italics will become important at the end, hang in there), then that really makes you a bully.  At least, that’s the logic I’m being presented with.

And, of course, it gets worse, because what the pronouncement of the “bully” title amounts to is a deflection of what clearly are legitimate critiques of a position that contradicts itself in the saying (even before the saying).    Heaven forbid that one should actually address the hypocrisy or the contradictions inherent in one’s position.  But let’s get specific.

When I linked to S. F. Murphy’s post several days ago, I made the argument that I considered his counter-boycott hypocritical, intellectually vacuous, and fallacious.  Strong words?  You bet.  I also said that Murphy and I have agreed on things in the past (which isn’t a lie; I have).  Murphy isn’t alone, though, and it would be fair to say that I understand his frustration (and others like him) with the reactions that have occurred in the past with regards to seemingly less problematic issues.  But that’s not a logical basis for the counter-boycott.

Murphy certainly doesn’t agree with me, but what really acted as the catalyst for this post were the comments made by an anonymous individual who, similarly to Murphy, suggested I was a bully and, dissimilarly to Murphy, suggested that I was one of the individuals who “dog-piled” Moon’s blog, called for a boycott of her work, and tried to pressure the WisCon folks into revoking her Guest of Honor Status.  Why?  Frustration, on the one hand, and a general inability to see the fundamental contradiction that lies beneath the Manifesto of No-Consequence.  It’s also a very clever attempt at confirmation bias (reality check:  I didn’t post anything on Moon’s blog, I have only said that I won’t buy her work and that boycotts are reasonable and expected consequences for racist and ethnocentric behavior, and have no real opinion about WisCon except to say that it isn’t a convention I would likely go to anyway, so whether she is GoH or not is irrelevant to me personally–though I do have thoughts about it).  But maybe this would be a good time to tear down a few fundamental flaws that seem to sit within the Manifesto of No-Consequence (within the terms presented to me by said anonymous commenter).

The Manifesto of No-Consequence makes the following argument:

I think what X did is deplorable, but I dislike the individuals who are reacting against her, and so I will continue to buy X’s stuff.


When I ordered a copy of _The Deed of Paksenarrion_ a few minutes ago, it was because the *priority* of voting against this vilification was greater to me than the *priority* of disagreeing with her, which I feel too. (from my comment thread)


So if I see a disproportionate response, e.g. a boycott or thousands of drive-by comments or an effort to have the woman’s con invitation revoked, there’s no contradiction in paying that down in my own slight way to lessen the personal consequences to someone who excites my sympathies for reasons outside of her politics. (from my comment thread)

Notice that each one suggests that the speaker disagrees with X (or Moon)(in fact, one comment contained the following line about Moon’s position:  “[it’s] ignorant, condescending, disrespectful, and full of bad in-group/out-group thinking”).  But what it also suggests is a justification for the unwillingness to act.  These are ideas that negate themselves.  They enunciate disagreement while also suggesting that said disagreement is not strictly relevant, nor important enough to be valued equal to or greater than a presumably annoying, perhaps rude, social practice.


But when one’s pronouncement of “disagreement at the level of deplorability” sits alongside a pronouncement of “support in counteraction to another group,” we’re presented an absolute contradiction. One cannot say “I disagree with your racist position” while also paying that individual for their words and have that first part mean anything whatsoever; so long as one claims to care about the dissolution of racism, these two positions are in contradiction.  This is the same as saying that you do not support a company because it uses sweatshops, yet you continue to give money to that company.  The justification might be “because I don’t like the protesters outside your door,” but the end result is still a negation of the “I don’t support sweatshops” position.  This is what some people call “flapping your gums.”

And this is where I have problems with the Manifesto of No-Consequence.  It presumes that the consequences so far lobbed at individuals who speak in racist, sexist, or ethnocentric terms, particularly in a community where their words might actually have influence, are too great.  If all that was being lobbed at these individuals were ad hominem attacks and so forth, then I might agree, but a great quantity of the comments on Moon’s blog were attempts to explain where she was wrong (I’ve read the screen-capped comments).  This is too much, say those who support the Manifesto of No-Consequence.  One has gone too far if one comments in great numbers on a blog of a minor SF author, and one has really gone too far if one suggests that a boycott of that author’s works is in order.  What does that leave those who consider themselves social activists on the net?  Not much.  These social activist “bullies” would have to resort to holding it in, except to say “I disagree,” and then scamper off into the night (or is “I disagree too much?).

But supporters of the Manifesto of No-Consequence would say that the problem is that it’s the Internet, and that’s not how social change was won (the Internet, of course, didn’t exist back then, but we’ll ignore that for now).  To which I would say:  if one claims to know anything about Civil Rights Movement, or the Women’s Rights Movement, or even the various movements that preceded it that dealt, in some way, with those two issues, then one would be hard pressed to argue the individuals of that time out of the “bully” category.  Many of the great movers and shakers of those movements were also ones who did not pull punches.  Yes, they were willing to reach across the aisle, but they were also people who knew that being critical of the world around them, and of the individuals in it, was necessary.

And then there were the boycotts:  The Montgomery Bus Boycott, the Tallahassee Bus Boycott, Gandhi’s boycott of commercial salt, Chavez’s boycott to raise awareness for migrant workers, the various anti-Apartheid boycotts (South African Apartheid, to be clear), Coralnik’s attempts to boycott Nazi Germany, and many others.  In many of these cases, people lost their jobs in addition to being ostracized by the community around them.  I suppose we “bullies” should consider ourselves lucky that all we’re receiving are a few bitter words.  Yet to enact a boycott in a post-Civil-Rights-Movement era is somehow unacceptable.  Then again, the irony of a counter-boycott that specifically rails against the ethical implications of the anti-Moon boycott might have escaped a few people, particularly since Moon’s comments have a direct relation to the history of public discourse on race and ethnicity, against which boycotts have been organized (and, in some cases, have been effective in one way or another).

But when all is said and done, the accusation is there:  if one stands up for social justice, against racism, ethnocentrism, sexism, and so forth, one is a bully.  In my case, I find this particularly amusing, since my involvement in this incident has been largely isolated to this blog (though I have commented elsewhere)(this is where the your from earlier comes in).  I also find it amusing because most of what I have said on this issue, until now, has been in the comments section of blog posts that only reference the issue at hand.  This suggests something even more sinister:  that if I am to be considered a “bully,” then it would only be fair to consider those who have repeatedly come to argue against my various “bullying” remarks as masochists.  Accusing them of sadomasochism, however, might be going too far…

I could say more about this, but I’ll leave it at that for now.

About the Author:

Shaun Duke is an aspiring writer, a reviewer, and an academic. He is currently an Assistant Professor of Digital Rhetoric and Writing at Bemidji State University. He received his PhD in English from the University of Florida and studies science fiction, postcolonialism, digital fan cultures, and digital rhetoric.

9 thoughts on “The “Bully” That Therefore I Am: Final Thoughts on Fail-ty and Social Activism

  1. Anyone active enough on the internet discovers these things sooner or later and adjusts well, or doesn't…

    I say screw everyone else and continue to voice your opinion. By all means be polite. By all means try to be understanding. But by all means keep being honest and not afraid to talk.

    Maybe you do qualify as a bully sometimes. I'm sure I've been seen that way (some people think I'm a "Big Name" author throwing my weight around, which was shocking to discover). Screw them. If they shut you up, they're the bully.

    Sometimes the people shouting sexism are the sexists. Sometimes the people calling for a boycott, or anti-boycott, are overzealous. Sometimes the minorities are the bigots. Sometimes it's the white guys. Sometimes it's everyone.

    Stating your honest opinion, being polite (or at least not insulting), being open to being wrong, that's all we can do.

    I just try to follow the Golden Rule. Rarely I do or say awful things (usually with some provocation), and then I do apologize usually. I try to understand that one word, sentence, or internet post does not tell me enough to know a person. Anyone who thinks otherwise has an agenda they're not acknowledging. Now, a series of postings over time…sure, that means something. Maybe.

    Once you realize someone isn't your cup of tea, and isn't drinking yours, disengage. There's no point, no meeting of the minds, no more making sweet beautiful internet love. The fundamentalist isn't going to get evolution, the atheist isn't going to get god, the political zealot isn't going to see their own hypocrisy.

    There's probably someplace else you can be happier, and this online tribalization isn't all bad, although it depresses me sometimes.

    There is an addiction to self-righteous anger I think we need to recognize and avoid feeding too much. Sometimes something does need to be called out. Sometimes it's piling on. Sometimes it's all a big misunderstanding.

    For those of us who should be writing fiction, every internet fight, and most of them quickly become stupid internet fights even if they don't start that way, should close the browser and open the word processor.

    I'll go do that now.

  2. A follow-up, maybe a bit more direct to the topic.

    I think the anti-boycotters are responding to the general horror of the internet amplification effect. Something problematic gets blown all out of proportion. In this case, Moon says some reasonable things and some less reasonable things in language suggesting unconscious bigotry. She's not yelling racial slurs, inciting violence, and making up stories to generate and fuel hatred — the way some do, but she gets treated like she has. We're products of our generations and local cultures, and maybe there's a better way to react to her that with a boycott, personal or organized. I understand the urge to boycott, but won't do it.

    Personally, I just don't let my consumption of art/entertainment be controlled by the politics of the creators. Myself, I read and even recommend ENDER'S GAME even though I generally deploy Orson Scott Card's views. A lot. I'd boycott him before Moon. But I think it's a book that should be read. Other people cannot separate the art from the artist, and I understand that. They will miss some great books and movies.

    I think the New Yorkers building the mosque are Americans with the freedom of religion and shouldn't have to put up with any BS at all about this. I don't agree with Moon's comments. If I get the urge to read one of her books because I see a good review, I may read it. I won't seek any out because of a boycott either — I do agree anti-boycotting is self-contradictory, but…

    I'm sympathetic to boycotters but think the internet amplification effect is tremendously powerful and overly destructive. I also think it's fear of that negative power that drives the anti-boycotters to act. They're trying to contain a genie they fear. They're trying to put a check on the runaway feedback.

  3. I'm of the camp that won't buy her books new, but will buy her books used. I don't want her getting my royalties, and I won't recommend her work, but I'm not opposed to reading it.

    The same is true of Card. I will never give him my money. Period. His public opinions and his use of his literary voice to spread hatred against my family (yes, it's personal for me) are things I cannot, in good conscience, support. Period. I'd rather die. I'll buy his books used and help a small business, but he'll never get another cent from me so long as he keeps spouting his hatred and doesn't take a second to rethink his position or understand why what he says is damaging to society.

    If Moon comes out and shows an effort on her part to understand where she misstepped, then I'm okay with that. I want her to see that what she said is wrong, even if she didn't mean it to be so. If she's willing to grow, then I'm willing to keep supporting her as an author. That's where I stand on that.

    And I get the fear of the amplification effect, but one cannot claim to feel that something is wrong, but then support it because one disagrees with another group. That's hypocrisy. Disagree with both groups and call for social activism in a new light. I'm in agreement that the Internet goes overboard sometimes. I agree that some people did so with Moon. But what they said doesn't make what Moon said better. She's still wrong. You either disagree with her, agree with her, or sit somewhere in the middle. I don't care where you stand, but at least be honest about it (rhetorical "you"). Right now, the "honesty" I'm seeing from the Manifesto of No-Consequence folks is that they completely disagree with Moon, but will still give her money. That's intellectual dishonesty hidden behind a rationalization that doesn't follow logically. They don't really disagree with Moon, but for whatever reason, they don't want to say so. They want to hide behind something else. That's where I have a problem.

    But we're in agreement, Mike. Sometimes the Internet is right. Sometimes it's not. All we can do is keep being honest and expressing our opinions :).

  4. I suspect we can find something deplorable about almost anyone if we look hard enough and/or raise our standards high enough. I try not to blame people too much for their various prejudices — it seems tribalism comes easy to humans and we don't get choices about where we're raised and how we're raised. And this works a whole lot of ways, and expresses itself in a lot of ways. Moon seems to be trying to be fair from her own prejudiced perspective, while Card just gets direct and nasty and knows he's willfully prejudiced. Some feminists are way more sexist than the men they attack. Some folks are prejudiced against themselves. Some people actually think they have no prejudices!

    People like Moon I think you should try to educate. People like Card you need to ostracize and ridicule.

    I was watching CNN last night and they were interviewing Roman Polanski's victim. That whole situation is screwed up, and he really should have been treated like any other guilty person decades ago and served his time. Now, as a consumer, do you really choose not to watch classics like Rosemary's Baby, Chinatown, or the Pianist? Or only ones after the crime? Movies are a lot more collaborative than books, but I find it hard to know where to draw the line, so I opt not to.

    Used bookstores — that's a good idea.

  5. I don't think Islamaphobia is acceptable. One needs to know that it isn't. And I think she knows, but she's taken steps to silence those who have tried to educate her. I don't know if she's particularly interested in trying to understand where she's wrong. Maybe she is. Maybe she understands, and if she comes out and tries to talk about it, I would be happy to take her on good faith. But as it stands, I can't in good conscience support her. I disagree that there are deplorable things about everyone. There are things people will always disagree on, certainly, but they won't always be deplorable, and many of us are at least willing to admit when we're wrong (I've been wrong…a lot).

    As for Polanski: I didn't know much about him (never seen any of his movies as far as I can tell) before you wrote your comment. Because movies are far more collaborative, it is a grey space. If I punish Polanski, then I'm, theoretically, punishing a lot of innocent people who have no control over him. I don't know. That's a tough one…

  6. I basically think most people are good and try to do good as they see it. Certainly some folks are rotten, but even the good people do things they later regret, or make tough choices that good-hearted people can disagree about (abortion, pulling the plug, statutory rape that would be legal in a different state, etc.). And even good people who reconsider their positions and change should not be expected to do it immediately. Self-change is hard and slow, with a lot of ego to set aside.

    And objectively, there are some horrible things about the way some people practice Islam, the way there are horrible things about parts of essentially all religions. We should be careful about not being too overly protective. A lot of Card's hate comes from his religious views. The Catholic church thinks their own image is more important than protecting kids from molesters. One set of extreme Muslims did carry off 9/11. We have to find a way of acknowledging those things without stereotyping too broadly, while at the same time understanding there are sympathetic believers who support the heinous actions. I was pretty shocked to hear the stories (got some first-hand from Dubai about school kids of all things) about some fraction of run-of-the-mill Muslims rejoicing in the aftermath of 9/11. They shouldn't get off free from criticism in order to pay tribute to the understandable desire to avoid prejudice against Muslims in general. (The mosque issue is a different and easier to understand beast, I acknowledge.)

    There are some religious laws/practices/beliefs that I have no respect for and they are outlawed here or should be. Honor killings, genital mutilation, abridgment of the rights of women, for starters.

    It's almost impossible to be totally black and white about this. Moon definitely used poor language that certainly betrays serious (if unconscious) prejudice, and has certainly been resistant to criticism…but I have a hard time being judge, jury, and boycotter here. I've written some hasty blog posts in my time and felt defensive when criticized.

    So I guess I'm being a bit of the Devil's advocate. Certainly the current Islamophobia over the "ground zero mosque" is full of ignorance, hate, and prejudice. It shouldn't be tolerated. Criticism of religion and the actions of religious people should be. How to do that fairly? Not on Fox News, certainly, but there should be criticism when appropriate without undue fear of the "Islamophobe" label.

    Movies are grayer than books, but books are gray, too. The publisher and its employees all are making money — or losing jobs — given the sales of their books. And the big sellers like Card, and even Moon, help support the midlist and give newer writers a chance. Less gray, but not perfectly black and white either.

    Damn, why am I so contrary and nuanced today? I agree with you on most of the basics!

    Interesting discussion, although I think I should have taken my first bit of advice and spent the time writing fiction!

  7. I'm kind of late to the discussion, but I'll throw in my two cents.

    Boycotting does not make you a bully. Far from it. Moon knew she was writing something controversial and I have no doubt she knows what the blow-back may be. Part of the price of being opinionated– and vocal– is paying the price for it.

    Generally though, I don't think boycotts end up being super effective. Moon is just as likely to attract like minded people who will buy her product in support of her. But, that said, there's no down side to following your conscience.

  8. Final word from me.

    If you're intentionally trying to hurt someone or make them feel bad, for any reason, you're not a social activist, you're a bully.

    If you're taking actions that you think will help someone do the right thing for the right reasons, you're being a social activist.

    There is certainly a blurry line there sometimes, and social activists may sometimes be bullies.

  9. Just a last word from me, since I'm coming late to it: I think the grey line between activist and bully is really huge in your view of things, Mike. It's interesting to think about, that's for sure.

    Thank you all for your comments!

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