(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.