SFWA, Sexism, and Progress (A Response to Jason Sanford)


(Note:  I originally intended this as a short comment on this recent post by Jason Sanford.  In his post, he basically suggests that the men in our field need to stand up and say “no” to sexism; his post is, I think quite obviously, a response to the SFWA Bulletin kerfluffle from this weekend, which he also wrote about here.  Both of his posts are worth reading.  In any case, my response will maintain its original format, so assume the “you” refers to Sanford.)

I’ve found it rather frustrating to hear people defend some of these sexists (or people engaging in sexist activity) against attack (I’m not using any particular individual in this comment, even though I think it’s obvious that your post is in response to the SFWA Bulletin thing).  They often say things like “attacking the person is wrong” or “they are really nice people” and so on and so forth.  I don’t doubt that a lot of people who say or do sexist things don’t realize that what they’re
doing is, in fact, sexist (not all, but some).  Some of them have always done these things and probably haven’t been formally challenged before; their responses, in many cases, are not unusual in that respect.  When you’ve done something your whole life, and have never been properly challenged for that behavior, a shift in the dialogue surrounding said behavior may seem like an attack on one’s person.  I am, of course, speaking from my own assumptions and from my own experiences as someone who considered himself a pro-women’s-rights-but-not-a-feminist man who subscribed to a number of sexist concepts/ideas/assumptions without realizing they were sexist.  Granted, I’ve never seriously suggested anything quite as batshit as we’ve seen among the radical contingent in SF/F (i.e., the Vox Days).

But there comes a point at which we have to demand change.  Just because you are a nice person and you do nice things for writers and what not is not an excuse for us to ignore other poor behavior.  Bad behavior is bad behavior.  Holding our tongues just because someone is a nice person or because it’s supposedly “civil” will not change that behavior.  People who defend the sexists in our midst sometimes don’t understand that leaving such behavior unchallenged actually validates it.  It reinforces the behavior.  While it’s a nice thought to suggest that women should have stood up for themselves back in the day, we have to remember that a lot of the ideas we’ve seen raised in official SF/F platforms are descended from a time when women didn’t have the political authority to change things from the inside — not if they wanted careers in SF/F.  In some respects, that’s still true (as you noted when you pointed to Ann Aguirre’s disheartening post about her treatment as a woman in our community — the hate mail is horrifying).  SF/F is getting better, but it is not helped by leaving sexism or any nasty ism unchecked.  And that means telling people off for shitty behavior.  I’m not sure how you do that without making those individuals realize that there is a social cost for said behavior, which is where I tend to disagree with some defenders who call foul on ad hominem attacks — if the statement is true, then the fallacious form does not arise.

Another thing that annoys me about this discussion is the odd, and sometimes occasional, double standard.  For some reason, we’re supposed to accept sexist behavior as “something you wave off,” whereas other isms are unacceptable.  If X spends an entire column saying anti-Semitic or clearly racist things, we are right to look down on that — you don’t talk about *insert racial slurs here* in our community without paying the social cost everyone else pays.  But if X say a bunch of sexist things, suddenly you can’t go after them.  We just have to realize they’re nice guys, and we should show them the same respect they…don’t show to women?  (See N.K. Jemisin’s comment below for why everything in this paragraph is bullcrap.)

I think that’s bullshit.  There isn’t an easy way to point out sexism without going after the person.  Behavior comes from within.  Good people look at criticism of their behavior and learn from it.  They don’t self-censor.  They learn.  I’ve learned a hell of a lot the last few years, despite having always been a feminist (sorta — see above).  And it has made me a better person, because I recognized my own failings, my own sexist inclinations (inherited from a still largely sexist culture), and I worked on them.  That’s not censorship.  That’s not thought-policing.  That’s what we do when we want to make for a better world.  We try to be better people.

I think it’s fair to say that you and I (or anybody) are not expecting perfection.*  We are expecting some semblance of growth, though.  It’s no longer acceptable to say “back in my day, we could do whatever we wanted and nobody said a thing.”  That kind of logic allows one to support all manner of poor behaviors.  Progress doesn’t happen when we are stuck in the past.  It happens when we learn from the past and try to move towards something better.  Humanity is an imperfect beast, and part of life, in my mind, is trying to reach the next step on the way to perfection.  It’s like a ladder to the stars:  each new rung brings us closer to the nearest star, until finally we reach it and realize there are other stars to reach, and so we continue putting up new rungs.

I’m rambling.  The point is that I agree with the notion that we all need to speak out against this behavior (though some of us never will).  We need to support the people who have already spoken out, whether they are women or men.  Sexism is wrong (obvious statement is obvious).  No.  It’s bullshit.  We should call it out when we see it, no matter our genders.  And we should definitely make sure it no longer uses the voice of the various professional organizations in our field, because that’s the last place these kind of behaviors belong.

And I’ll shut up now…


*The original sentence did not include the “not.”  I’ve since corrected that.

About the Author:

Shaun Duke is an aspiring writer, a reviewer, and an academic. He is currently a graduate student at the University of Florida studying science fiction, postcolonialism, posthumanism, and fantasy.

8 thoughts on “SFWA, Sexism, and Progress (A Response to Jason Sanford)

  1. Agree with a lot of what you're saying here, but can you say it without oppression olympics? Other "isms" are allowed to stand in SFF without much social cost all the time. In this very same kerfuffle, not many people have made note of the racism in what Resnick said (a couple who have here and here and here). And note that Resnick was making this blanket statement about 97% of the ethnic groups in Africa — which are nothing alike — in order to defend himself against accusations of sexism; clearly he thought casual/ironic racism was more acceptable. And let us not forget that a self-avowed racist/sexist/anti-Semite/other-'ist' just ran for president of SFWA, and got 46 votes.

    These "isms" never occur in a vacuum. I haven't yet met a misogynist who didn't hate other groups of people for other reasons. You might just not be seeing the rest of it.

  2. Leaving any behavior unchallenged validates it, whether it's sexism or something as simple as noise pollution or driving gas guzzling too-big-for-most-actual-roads SUVs. And the problem in our culture, currently, with both racism and sexism and other "isms" I think has its roots in a broader issue: entitlement.

    No one has ever liked being told what to do, but the psychology of being a "free" person in the current first world cultures has begun to resemble theoretical anarchy. People say they shouldn't be oppressed even if this means never oppressing the oppressors, because oppressors should be "free", too, or some b.s like that. Laws are for OTHER people, those who aren't moral, or smart, or deserving. Regulation is for "others" as well, and if it ever does cross into our own, personal lives, it's obviously gone too far and should be reconsidered as the regulators obviously have become oppressors because, well, WE aren't the reason they exist, only OTHER people are…right?

    This mentality is exhausting to combat, and is the new core psychology that runs circles around any more eloquent arguments against the "isms". It's problematical because it's like debating someone on faith – the line that is drawn, around the individual you're arguing against and all their loved ones and friends, the line that separates them from any "other" that is truly worthy of being regulated/oppressed, is an arbitrary one but all the actual debate flows from that line's existence as the starting point. The foundation is faulty, but attacking the foundation is futile, because the argument immediately becomes abstract the moment you do, same as when debating any foundation of faith.

    P.S. I agree that calling this kind of social regulation "thought-policing" is not true, as the activity itself, the practice of the belief has a discernible and documented negative impact on the target root word group (race, sex, etc.). That's policing ACTIVITY, not thought. However I still disagree with your belief that "misery tourism" has any discernibly negative impact outside of the concept that the thought/motivation itself could be evolved and improved upon, becoming less about "us" and "them" and more freely inclusive between traveler and native persons. But until there is better evidence that "misery tourism" motivations do not lead many to this very evolution, or that without such evolution there is a discernibly negative impact on our world culture, it's more dangerously close to "thought-policing" (taking issue with the thoughts involved more than with the actions) rather than appropriate social regulation.

    • Just to clarify: I assume that when you use the word "regulation," you are referring to the social landscape, not the political one. This is where the difference between actual censorship/though-policing and the faux kind is found, I think. If I call you out for shitty behavior, you have a choice: accept the non-binding terms for social interaction, or reject them and face social consequences. Those consequences aren't legally binding, mind, but that's because there is no way to force people to act in one way or another. The social landscape is not controlled, generally speaking.

      But the legal landscape can be controlled. So when we talk about regulation there, we're talking about laws that impose binding terms and punishments on people regarding behavior. There, censorship lives.

      P.S.: Not to dig up old conversations, but I think you'll find that the people living in countries where misery tourism is often a focus are not particularly pleased by their treatment. See Binyavanga Wainaina on Western aid in Africa, which I would attach to misery tourism on the ideological plane — Africa is "that place where misery lives," so we must go there to lift them up from nothing, etc. etc. etc. etc. etc. (mission trips are complicit in this, which is partly why I disagree with mission trips in general — not simply because they are part of the legacy of colonialism). But I doubt I'm going to convince you of any of this. Maybe it's a product of the things I've read. I dunno. Still, not exactly related to this whole thing šŸ˜›

    • Yes, there isn't really a word for "social regulation" so the best I could come up with was sticking "social" in front of "regulation". But the political connotation of the word "regulation" is the core of the problem – any regulation is considered "oppressive" because we relate it back to oppressive government actions. When people try to heap SOCIAL consequences on us for a SOCIAL action, we still tend to cry "oppression!" a la conservatives constantly crying foul that the "liberal media" and "self-righteous liberals" are trying to quash their free speech and libel/slander them and oppress them.

      The concept of being "free" we've put at odds with natural cause and effect – if I say it, it's my right to say it, but if you try to say something yourself that is a directly response to what I said, and it's socially censorious, you're just being oppressive. Somehow, we're begun to equate "freedom" with freedom from consequences period.

      I think it's case in point that you address that laws themselves are where censorship lives. That's true, but more to the point that's where all freedoms live as well. We are only "free" because someone bothered to write down and specify such freedoms and rights and put them into law. Without these regulations/laws, we have absolutely zero freedoms from any other person or group. They can do anything to us, at any time, in any way, and we have zero recourse. Laws keep us from oppressing one another, by oppressing the ability to oppress, intimidate, and violate (though "violate" suggests there has to be a law/right already in place to be violated).

      P.S. We actually do agree that tourism/mission trips, etc. are far from ideal and are not the solution to anything, or even much in the way of truly helpful to other cultures, especially compared to the kinds of dynamics we could be establishing. I do need to read more about this, but generally I still feel when you object to the mindset more than the action, it's almost by definition thought-policing. Though that said, the mindset does need to change/evolve, if we ever want our relations with other countries to evolve as well.

      And I disagree – the understanding of what constitutes "thought-policing" is core to this whole thing. Trying to address the embedded practices and mindsets of any of the "isms" in any part of culture requires being able to argue the difference between being oppressive and being the natural social response to any individual's freely chosen behavior.

    • "The concept of being "free" we've put at odds with natural cause and effect – if I say it, it's my right to say it, but if you try to say something yourself that is a directly response to what I said, and it's socially censorious, you're just being oppressive. Somehow, we're begun to equate "freedom" with freedom from consequences period."

      I agree, just as I agree that the legal framework of a given space determines the boundaries of freedom (i.e., the State). Ultimately, we just really agree here, and I will extend what you say by adding that crying about fascism where it doesn't exist devalues the experiences of those who have actually lived under fascism. Some people in this country come from other countries where people who spoke out were locked up in prison and/or executed all the time. We should be thankful that we live in a country where we can actually bitch and argue about stuff…

  3. As a hint and general rule: when anything political comes up, would you consider any rhetorical tactic you're using legitimate if the other guy was in a position to do it to you, and did so?

    Because if you'd cry foul in those circumstances, then he or she has a perfect right to do so right backatcha. The "But it's different because I'm Right and Good and they're Bad and Wrong" defense is sorta… sad.

    Anyone who's experienced small-town public opinion (or been stranded among any other group of the like-minded) knows that control comes in many packages.

    John Stuart Mill pointed this out in "On Liberty"; you can't be really free, whatever the theoretical legal parameters, unless you can piss off people around you — say things and hold beliefs that profoundly offend them — and get away with it.

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