On the SFWA Bulletin Petition Thing Nonsense


(Note:  I’ve listed links to other posts on this topic at the end.)

I won’t have anything extensive to say on this “anti-political-correctness” petition thing.  That’s mostly because Radish Reviews has pretty well covered it…

That said, there are a few things I’ll address:
1) I’m utterly baffled by the difficulty certain members of this community have with understanding what the First Amendment means.  We went over this in depth in my senior year of high school (everyone had to take a semester of government), so it was never a confusion for me:  the First Amendment only applies to the government interfering with speech.  In any other instance in which speech is hindered, the crime isn’t in preventing one’s speech, but something else entirely.  Libel perhaps.  Or maybe someone tied you down and forced you to write something against your will (like in Misery).  All illegal because you’re committing other forms of crime.  But it’s not illegal for me to tell anyone they can’t write for my blog.  It’s my blog.  It’s my space.  If you were to ask me why I was censoring you by not letting you write for my blog, my only response would be:  fuck off.

And the SFWA is a private organization with its own rules, and one of those rules says the President handles publications.  So if the President wants to change the Bulletin to a fishing journal, he or she can do that.  Granted, I think it would be utterly stupid to do something like that, but so be it.  That wouldn’t be censorship either.  Even so, as C.C. Finlay has made clear all over the place, the changes coming to the Bulletin were requested by the majority of members, and one of those requests was basically “not publishing things that alienate segments of the community.”  You know, because the Bulletin is supposed to serve the members at large, not some subset of people who don’t particularly care if they offend other people with their words.  And if a good portion of people are offended by the content (legitimately offended, not “I’m offended because your offense means I can’t be offensive anymore,” which is total bullshit), then it makes sense to change things.

Imagine, if you will (because you are probably a fan of SF/F and are fully capable of using your imagination), a situation where the Bulletin published an article in which one of the authors said Mormons aren’t real Christians (in seriousness, not as a reference to a work or something).  Can you imagine how many Mormons would be offended by this?  I know a few.  I’m sure some Mormon members of this organization would be offended, too.  And wouldn’t it go without saying that maybe we shouldn’t publish something in a journal about writing advice and market tips and professionalism that basically shits on other people, or at least makes others feel like they’ve been shit on (since individual perspectives vary)?

Seems logical to me.

It’s about respect, which I’ve already talked about.

2) I’m likewise baffled that Robert Silverberg admitted to signing the offensive, early version of the petition, even while admitting that he didn’t like what was in it.  How am I to take this man’s judgment seriously?  I don’t sign a loan contract if line 57 says “once a month, you will submit for experimental radiation tests to grow an alien tumor out of your rectum” and then say, “Well, but you’re going to change that part, right?”  The petition isn’t legally binding, obviously, but I still don’t understand the defense.  Either you agree with it as it is, or you don’t.  And if you don’t…well, don’t sign it.

I should also note that the original version of the petition is precisely the problem with this whole conversation:  here’s the point <0>……………………………………….and here’s them <X>.

They don’t get it.  In case you missed that part.

3) The petition makes this strange claim that the Bulletin is becoming politicized (it’s politically correct, oh noes), but I fail to see how removing things that have nothing to do with the theme of the Bulletin and intentionally making the content more inclusive is anything but apolitical.  The Bulletin isn’t a place to voice your political opinions anyway, so why should it make any effort to become a sandbox for those opinions which piss off a huge portion of the electorate and the people who actually care about this field?  It doesn’t cost anyone anything not to be a rude dick in a professional journal (and, yes, that’s what this comes down to).  Why would you *need* to voice an opinion about gay marriage or whether you think some members are fascists when that’s not the point of the Bulletin anyway?

This isn’t about politics.  Well, OK, outside of the Bulletin, it’s about politics on some level, though I’m inclined as a crazy liberal raised by a lesbian mother ninja to think that inclusiveness is apolitical in nature.  But the Bulletin isn’t about politics.  That’s not it’s purpose.  That’s not what SFWA’s members want it to address.  So this is a non-issue.

4) I don’t know Resnick and Malzberg.  I’ve said my share on last year’s Bulletin fiasco already.  I will agree that some of the dialogue surrounding last year’s events reaches too far.

However, I also understand the frustration.  For me, the issue with Resnick/Malzberg’s column is no longer “there was sexism in there,” which, in my mind, is fairly weak tea in comparison to, say Theodore Beale (Vox Day, who has since been removed from the SFWA), but rather the behavior demonstrated in that final column.  To receive a lot of criticism from a wide body of individuals and to simply discount it is one thing, but to then use a professional organization’s professional publication to lob an attack on those people is callous at best, petty and horrendously unprofessional at worst.  This is not the kind of behavior one expects to find in the pages of a professional journal, nor is it the kind of thing I expect from two respected individuals in this field.

I think the sexism aspect is important, but what bothers me most, then and now, is the complete unwillingness to recognize and acknowledge that what we say and do has a real impact on other people, and that you should listen to those you’ve harmed so you can do better next time.  That, for me, is the root of all of the frustration.  It’s not that there’s soft sexism in the SFWA from time to time.  It’s not that Resnick and Malzberg said some boneheaded things.  It’s that they said them, were criticized for it, and showed not only that they didn’t give a shit, but also that they had no respect for any differing opinions on the matter and would rather double down than give ground.  This is why these fights keep happening.  It’s about, as I said the other day (see one of the links above), respect.  When it comes down to it, the respect a lot of people in this community are asking for costs us next to nothing to give.  It shouldn’t be this hard to get or give it…

And on that note, I think I’ll shut up now.


P.S.:  One last thing:  I realize this post is focused in one specific direction — Resnick, Malzberg, Silverberg, etc.  On the subject of respect, etc., I think it is fair to say that there are lines that can be crossed on either side, and that some of those crossings on my side (or what I perceive to be my side) don’t actually help further the discussion and can sometimes hinder what should otherwise be a simple movement towards respect.  I’ve thought a lot about this, but I’ve yet to put together a cogent argument about it.  Part of the reason I haven’t has to do with my concern about tone arguments, which I can get to another time.

Here are the other responses:

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.

5 thoughts on “On the SFWA Bulletin Petition Thing Nonsense

  1. Obviously this is not literally a First Amendment issue, because no Federal or local state government (First Amendment via Fourteenth Amendment) possible censorship is involved. But a board created for the express purpose of making sure an editor does not violate some moral or whatever standards is not only an affront to and weakening of the editor, but a violation o the spirit of First Amendment, in the same way that CBS's censorship of language at the Grammys, or a university censoring of a student newspaper, violates freedom of expression, not legally but culturally.

    • That's what editors *do.* They have a set "vision" or a set list of "standards" that must be met. In this case, that standard was set by the SFWA and determined both by the committee (and elsewhere) that the Bulletin was definitively *not* fulfilling the "vision" or the "standards" it was set up for. So, no, this has nothing whatsoever to do with censorship of any kind. This has everything to do with what the committee set up by SFWA's president (within his power to do) and the president himself decided to do with the Bulletin to meet the demands of the public and the demands dictated by a professional organization.

      By your definition, all publications which have any guidelines whatsoever are acts of censorship, which makes the definition meaningless, except that it reveals something which is at the heart of all of this: this isn't about actual censorship, but rather about what certain individuals don't think should be removed from the discourse in a specific and focused institution. It's about the *what,* not the action itself. "Censorship" is just the smokescreen being used to make this sound bigger than it really is, because it's far more difficult to justify why the SFWA *must* print the kinds of things Truesdale would like to see published without it.

      Not to mention that all of this is meaningless, since the SFWA has done no such thing as set "moral edicts" or whatever. It has simply said "this organization is diverse and publishing material which belittles members of that organization is contrary to our purposes." In other words: it's doing what any publisher does — making sure its standards are met. Why should the publication for professionals that is published *by* a professional publication publish anything that is clearly not professional (as with Resnick's/Malzberg's final column) and offensive to many members of that community? Why are they obligated to publish any of this?

      If this is a little all over the place, it's because my upstairs neighbor has been screaming at his Xbox for the last hour, which means I can't concentrate. Hopefully, you can still make sense of it if it is, in fact, all over the place.

  2. I'm afraid we disagree completely. An editor makes all kinds of decisions, including what to publish and what not to publish, what the published work should like, etc. None is censorship – it's all part of the editing and publishing process. Censorship occurs when a person, group, or whatever, not part of the editing process, dictates to the editor what can and can't be published. The Bulletin currently has no group or committee which passes muster on what should be published, and in what form. It currently has no editor, either, but, when it did, and throughout SFWA's history, the editor made these decisions. Appointing a board to regulate what the editor does – especially in these circumstances, where the contemplated board is an outgrowth of what happened with the Bulletin last year – undermines the editor and the editorial process. By the way, I was Editor of The Journal of Social and Evolutionary Systems for 10 years. As Editor, I appointed an advisory board for whatever help I deemed necessary. Had the publisher imposed such a board on me, I would have likely resigned. Because a board looking over an editor's shoulder – as opposed to being used solely at the editor's discretion – is indeed a vehicle of censorship.

    • Except that doesn't apply here, since the SFWA rules clearly state that the President is in charge of publications; therefore, the amount of involvement said president has is up to their individual discretion, and is clearly delineated in the editing process by those same rules. So…no censorship.

      Regardless, the very process of publication mandates restrictions. The idea that the Bulletin's editor should have no oversight at all, even when said editor may have failed to do his or her job in meeting the demands of the publication in question, is absurd. If you had published pictures of cards instead of doing your job as editor of JSES, you would have been fired or reprimanded by the publisher…because undoubtedly, JSES shouldn't be publishing pictures of cars (and if I'm wrong about the cars thing, just stick something else that isn't relevant into the analogy, like cross beams). None of this is censorship. This is an organization making decisions on what its publications are meant to do and determining what qualifies to be published within its pages on those grounds. There's no indication it has any intention of silencing anyone, unless you want to argue that saying "things about Y don't fit what we're looking for" is censorship.

      Even so, none of this really matters, because the censorship charge is a distraction from what is really at issue here. And I'm done with it, to be honest. If it were actually happening, I'd certainly be concerned, but since it's not, I'd rather the focus be on the actual problem. And that, unfortunately, seems to be that some people believe the Bulletin should be a mouthpiece for their particular views, *even if those views having nothing whatsoever to do with the purpose of the Bulletin.* I've yet to hear a valid justification for this. I don't think we will, because to articulate that is far more difficult than just crying "censorship" like the scare tactic that it is.

    • Another point: even if we were to agree that this *is* censorship, I would wonder why it matters, since in defining *this* as censorship, we're providing such an extraordinarily low bar that the power of the word, the intention for which it is used, is essentially neutered. So why should I care if the SFWA or any organization decides it will not print X and will provide oversight for its publications on specific subjects (and for specific purposes)?

      I mean that seriously. Truesdale didn't trot this word out because he thought it didn't mean something. He used it explicitly for the purpose of eliciting the emotions censorship is bound to elicit, because it has a history that is, at times, incredibly dark. But we're not talking about some horribly, violent, terrible use of censorship here (accepting the premise for the sake of argument). So short of a fallacious slippery slope argument…why should I care about this on the censorship grounds alone?

      And if there isn't a good answer for that, then wouldn't it make sense to just move on to what is actually at issue?

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