I’m a Millennial, and I’m Not Interested in the Lie Anymore

In a recent article on Millennials and their perceived lack of effort in the job market, Brett Cenkus argues that our generation is not so much lazy as disinterested in the way things used to be. Abusive job environments, low pay, low stimulation -- these are all reasons he cites for this change in perspective. It's an interesting article, though I think Cenkus is a bit optimistic about how employers can change this dynamic. Why? Read More

Graduate Studies, Taxes, and the Gift of 2017 (Updated)

2017:  the gift that keeps on giving. Yesterday, the United States House of Representatives voted to approve the Republican budget for 2018 and beyond. There are all manner of terrible things in this bill, and you would do well to read about them and call your Senators in hopes we can shut this thing down before it screws a lot of people over. Today, I'd like to talk about the one feature of this bill that, if it passes the Senate, will end my graduate studies for good:  the proposal to tax tuition waivers as income. Read More

Teaching Against the Mainstream

I just turned in my book list for the courses I will be teaching in the Spring. Both are composition courses, so their default texts aren't particularly interesting outside of an academic interest, but one of those courses (ENC 1102) is a research writing course, which means I get to teach some literature! Every time I teach these courses, I try to make the readings accessible and relevant to the present day. Previous renditions looked at war (past, present, and imagined), social media and technology, and, most recently, etc.. Most of my ENC 1102 courses this year have been explicitly political. It's hard not to be. A lot of writers have talked about trying to be creative in the present political climate. As a teacher, I find that the best way I can deal with what is going on beyond screaming obscenities at my friend on Skype is to turn my courses into productive explorations of our present world. Over the summer, I explored fascism/totalitarianism in literature and the connection such ideas have to our present situation (it's complicated). Read More

The Neo-Nazis Are in Town, and They’re Playing Us

As I write this, Richard Spencer and his cronies have arrived in Gainesville, FL for an event at the University of Florida. He was not invited by anyone but himself. The student body overwhelmingly doesn't want him here. The city overwhelmingly doesn't want him here. But he's here nonetheless to share his message of hate, to manipulate young people to serve his needs, and to play all of us like a fiddle. This event isn't just about presenting his ideas. He'll use this as an opportunity to stage altercations, lie, and manipulate in order to legitimate his movement. This new breed of neo-Nazi/white nationalist[note]...or whatever stupid name you want to give these racist pisspots[/note] has a wide range of technological tools at their disposal that make disseminating lies and hatred easier than ever. Every reaction we give them is more fuel for his fire. They don't need us to discriminate against Spencer or his kind; they'll make it up if they have to. None of this means we shouldn't respond. What it means is we're sort of trapped between a rock and a hard place in all of this. If we react, it will be used against us. If we don't, it'll seem like silent consent. Either way, it seems like we are powerless against this stuff. The problem, however, isn't us. Read More

On Colin Kaepernick, Free Speech, and Bad Arguments

So, Colin Kaepernick. What's the deal? Over the past week, a lot of folks have had some pretty strong opinions about Colin Kaepernick's choice to refuse to stand for the national anthem -- and his reasons for doing so. If you don't know what's going on, I'll let you read a more detailed account here. My job, today, is to offer a few scattered thoughts about responses to Kaepernick's protest. Since I don't feel like writing a proper introduction, I'll just get right into it: 2. He has freedom of speech, duh! Read More

On Ridley Scott’s Exodus and Bannings

The Washington Post reports that Egypt has banned Ridley Scott's controversial Bible film, Exodus (starring Christian Bale, Joel Edgerton, and Ben Kingsley), due to "alleged historical inaccuracies and a 'Zionist' agenda."  You can read the article for more detail, though I would suggest extra care here given the region under discussion and the inevitable spin that will come out of U.S. news sources.  For the record:  the BBC has reported the same thing, more or less.

I should also note that I'm not going to defend Exodus from the charges that it is inaccurate in any direct sense.  Honestly, I don't think the movie should have been made.  Its white-washing of history and clear manipulation of Biblical narrative for "sensationalist imagery" -- not to mention Ridley Scott's absurd defense of the former -- have not endeared the film to me.  In fact, I'm perfectly content with never seeing Exodus, and I sincerely hope it does so poorly that Hollywood thinks again before letting Ridley Scott ruin anything else.  But none of this is a reason to ban the film.  They made it, and if theaters want to play it, then so be it.

Now, to my thoughts:

As a general rule, I am against censorship, allowing for exceptions that might arise in which censorship might be necessary (no, I haven't a clue what those exceptions might look like).  Of course, when I say "censorship," I mean "from the government or its subsidiaries."  While I might be bothered by a theater refusing to play a film, my objections would be personal, not ethical or legal. Censorship from the government, however, moves beyond a personal level.  
One business entity making a quality judgement has little bearing on the public's perception of a work of art.  After all, there are theaters devoted entirely to independent films, and so they intentionally leave out all sorts of films that do not fit their criteria, in part because so many of those theaters are small and cannot play every indie film that gets released.  The Hippodrome Theater in Gainesville (where I live) does this.  They probably play 10% of the "significant" independent films released in a year because they do not have the space -- nor the funds -- of a company like Regal Cinemas, which receives, I imagine, 100 times the attendance of the Hipp.  And so the Hipp must make judgments on what it wants to play and for how long.  Those judgments might involve content, the assessment of the local audience, money, and so on and so forth.  All fair in the economics game.

But the government doesn't have the luxury of reflecting the voice of one entity, let alone a small collection of people working within that entity.  It is meant to reflect the voice of a nation.  In the case of the U.S., that voice is a protected voice, not just by our Constitution, but also by the individual laws we have put in place to protect artistic and everyday expression.  We have a history of that protection lapsing, and we still struggle with a culture of book banning.  Ever more the reason to discuss these rights and to continue fighting for them.

Egypt, however, is not the U.S. and is not bound by our rules and legal structures (as should be obvious).  Here, I think the principle of expression is paramount, and that's something that I find difficult to support beyond the confines of the U.S.  After all, it's not every day that I am asked to defend my perspective of human rights with someone who does not share my nation's history.  How do I justify a position which says that Egypt's banning of Exodus is wrong -- even somewhat fascistic -- when that position arrives from a growing up in a nation where such values are mostly upheld?  Even if I suggest that expression is a fundamental right, can I defend that without resorting to a Western view?

As it turns out, I can.  Sorta.  Egypt has been part of the United Nations since 1945 (Oct. 24).  In 1948, they adopted the U.N. Declaration of Human Rights, which contains a handy little section on expression:
Everyone has the right to freedom of opinion and expression; this right includes freedom to hold opinions without interference and to seek, receive and impart information and ideas through any media and regardless of frontiers.
In short, Egypt agreed to the same principles which protect artistic and everyday expression in the U.S. (though, I must admit that the U.N.'s language is a tad clearer on the implementation).  Egypt's decision to ban Exodus, in other words, is a clear violation of this right/principle.

We could certainly get into arguments about whether the U.N. has any authority or whether its Declaration is anything other than symbolic.  Regardless, that Egypt adopted the Declaration suggests that they agreed with the principles written within it -- or, rather, that a previous government did and no government afterwards saw fit to contradict that adoption.  A banning, in short, is fundamentally unethical, and it sets a precedent that allows for other moralistic decisions about art.  After all, that's what Egypt's banning is.  Exodus was not banned because it is obscene or can be shown to have any real impact on Egypt's population; it was banned because it does not represent history as Egypt's government would want it.
While it is probably true that Exodus is disgustingly wrong about its history (it certainly failed on the racial front), there is a suspiciously religious-moralistic flavor to this particular banning.  If it were not so marked, then one could look back through Egypt's history and find instances of other blatantly inaccurate films being banned.  But Egypt released Gladiator, 300, 300:  Rise of an Empire, The Patriot, and 10,000 B.C.  One might argue that some of these simply take creative license with historical periods, but you can't say that they are accurate films; given that at least two of these intended to be accurate, they have the same potential effect on a certain segment of the population as a historically-inaccurate Bible flick (huge emphasis on certain segment of the population).

A simple rejection of historical inaccuracy, while still violating the principles under discussion here, would seem less disturbing than what Egypt has actually presented.  Here, state-sponsored notions of morality, religiosity, and history have now determined which art is accessible to the Egyptian public.  Nothing good ever comes from such practices.  Unfortunately, given the turmoil in Egypt over the past few years, I'm not sure they'll notice.  That's unfortunate, but understandable.  But it goes to an underlying issue with so many governments:  so many of them, including my own, have deemed it fit to dictate the terms of expression to the rest of us, sometimes under the guise of "protecting us from harmful ideas."

Me:  I'd rather we lived in a world where we all have to parse through the good and the bad instead of having some entity serving as the ultimate parent.  Art, as I've mentioned before, must be controversial to force us to think about the world in which we live.  Sometimes, even shitty and/or inaccurate art can serve the same purpose.  After all, Exodus has got us thinking about ethnic identity in ancient Egypt.  Just 10 years ago, I'm almost certain we wouldn't be having this conversation at all -- at least, not in any very public way.  That, at least, is a good thing.

On The Interview, Terrorism, and the Artistic Expression

By now, you'll have heard that Sony had opted to cancel the release of Seth Rogen and Ethan Goldberg's The Interview (2014)(starring Rogen and James Franco) in response to threats against their employees and movie theaters (many of which have refused to show the film).  They have since announced that the film will play in select theaters on Christmas Day and that they are still trying to find places to play the film so it will have a proper release.  Now, it seems, the film's future is up to theaters.

Update:  On Christmas afternoon, Sony will also release The Interview via several streaming sites, including Google.  So at least we can all see it if we want to.

Chuck Wendig has already written an interesting post on the situation, and if it's not already obvious, I have a few thoughts.  But first, a quote from Wendig:

This proves that hackers, terrorists, and enemy nations now have a vote as to the media we make and the stories we see. That’s blood gone cold scary. This sounds like the plot of a Neal Stephenson or William Gibson novel, or worse, the plot of a novel by someone trying to emulate them. (“The sky was the color of a movie theater screen not carrying Sony’s THE INTERVIEW.”) 
Disagreeable and controversial art is an essential element of our cultural discourse.
These are the two points that I want to address here.

Precedents and Cowardice

The first is actually more terrifying than Wendig indicates.  It's not that hackers, terrorists, and enemy nations now have the vote, but that anyone perceived as representing the interests of such groups have the vote.  Sony and the theaters which pulled The Interview didn't need to know with 100% certainty that anyone would be attacked, nor that any 9/11-level events would occur; they only needed to believe that the threat was credible.  This gives far more power than I think Sony or anyone realizes.  Extremists of any stripe can dictate the terms upon which art is presented to the public based on perceived threats, rather than real ones, and corporations will listen.  Those threats needn't be credible beyond the scope of the corporation.  The U.S. government, after all, doesn't believe the threats are credible (and neither do a lot of Americans, apparently), and it's unclear to me whether anyone actually consulted the U.S. government in any capacity (or any government, for that matter) about the matter (though they certainly did not

Free speech isn't an issue here (well, it is, but not in any legally binding way).  We're not talking about whether a company has a right to withdraw its own artistic products, whether businesses can refuse to carry something, or whether criticism of any kind should be ignored simply because art is art.  This is about precedents.  Sony and theaters have now set that precedent.  North Korea, or any entity which has the means to present credible threats, can dictate terms and expect a response.

So, congratulations, Sony and every theater which pulled The Interview.  You've set the precedent.  Now Paramount Pictures has recalled its 10-year-old comedyTeam America:  World Police.  A Steve Carell vehicle entitled Pyongyang will never see the light of day, too, since its studio decided to can it.  And by doing so -- by responding -- North Korea has been granted power.  They now know that when something they don't like occurs somewhere else, they can issue a threat and be heard.  A nation which most of the world views with contempt or pity now has the validation of the international community, or at least a portion of it.

In the end, I agree with President Obama that Sony's decision to cancel the release of The Interview was a mistake, even more so because Sony never consulted the U.S. government about the matter.  This sets a terrible precedent, one which we all should find disturbing regardless of our political affiliations.  That art can so easily be stifled by the threat of violence should give us pause.  This is not the first time, and it won't be the last.  If this is the trend for the future, then we should all be deeply concerned.

There's hope, of course.  Sony has retracted its cancellation, and the community of viewers seems to have roundly rejected the notion that Sony should have caved at all.  Thus far, that's had an impact on Sony, but we'll see if the other studios and the theaters which pulled the film, cowards that they are, will do the same.  At least Sony listened.

Controversial Art

To the second part:  indeed, controversial art is not just essential, it is required in our cultural discourse if culture is to advance in any discernible way.  Controversial art challenges existing cultural patterns, not necessarily to uproot them but to introduce advanced thought about our traditions, our everyday lives, and our cultural vices.

In that respect, The Interview is a necessary feature of our artistic world, even if the film itself isn't all that great (I haven't seen it, so I cannot assess its merit).  That fact became apparent the moment North Korea responded to it with threats.  Any artistic work which is met with (threats of) violence is a work that deserves careful attention.  Communities which resort to such threats are ones which have insulated themselves from criticism, and by doing so, they have stagnated, as North Korea has.  The same thing has occurred in the science fiction community (albeit on a much smaller, perhaps less violent scale) and in gaming (regardless of what GamerGaters may think, there are people who identify with their group who have attacked women for criticizing gaming).

Insularity breeds violence, literal or figurative, and to the insular community, artistic expression, particularly of the satirical mode, is perceived as a threat.  For that reason, art must continue unabated.  It must be shared.  It must be free to satirize and mock.  It must be free to be controversial.  And that means it must have a place to be shared.  Without controversial art, insularity reigns supreme because it can reinforce its own values through the art around it.  Art needs to be able to challenge those values, to uproot them, to shine a light underneath them, or to simply show them as they are.

Otherwise, we create an environment in which violence dictates expression.  I would hope that nobody would think that a good thing.

And on that note, I'm done.  If you have any thoughts, the comment zone is all yours.

On Language and Reinforcing Bigotry

[Note:  statistics will vary considerably depending where you are in the world.  I'm using statistics and studies which are mostly relevant to the United States, and so this post will focus accordingly.  This is my comfort zone, but I encourage others to take a look at these same concerns as they relate to their cultural contexts.]

Language is our responsibility.  How we use it determines everything from our ability to communicate with one another to how we talk about other people to how we describe the world we all share.

Language is also one of the most effective ways by which we can share, distribute, and reinforce cultural values.  Among the most pervasive values is bigotry in its many forms.  If it were not already obvious, language and bigotry go hand in hand.  What we call other people, how we refer to them in the media or "polite" conversation, and how we deal with the narratives presented to us by others not only defines the character of our bigotries and the language we use to talk about and reinforce those bigotries in the future (or the opposite, as the case may be).  Language can do good, too, but when we are careless with it, it can do an almost immeasurable amount of damage to our cultural and individual identities, to our bodies, and so on.

One of the most obvious examples of this involves the rhetoric surrounding Muslims in the United States and abroad.  I can't speak to the European context, but as an American, I know all too well how easy it is to fall into the trap of using language which, perhaps unintentionally, denigrates an entire people.  Given that the majority of us get our information about Muslims from what we read, it is unsurprising that the majority of Americans have unfavorable views of Muslims or that a sizable portion of the population agrees with profiling Muslims/Arabs.

There are numerous studies which confirm this view.  For example, Christopher Bail's upcoming book, Terrified:  How Anti-Muslim Fringe Organizations Became Mainstream (2014; Princeton University Press), argues that representations of Muslims after 9/11 have tended to privilege narratives of fear by treating fringe (read:  "radical, violent Islam") Muslim groups with the same value as non-fringe (read:  "everyday Muslims") Muslim groups.  In essence, this practice "created a gravitational pull or 'fringe effect' that realigned inter-organizational networks and altered the contours of mainstream discourse itself."  Additionally, Evelyn Alsultany suggests in "Arabs and Muslims in the Media after 9/11:  Representations Strategies for a 'Postrace' Era" (2013; American Quarterly, Vol 65, No 1) that narrative television and news networks have engaged in a mode of discourse in which
[positive] representations of Arabs and Muslims have helped form a new kind of racism, one that projects antiracism and multiculturalism on the surface but simultaneously produces the logics and affects necessary to legitimize racist policies and practices. It is no longer the case that the other is explicitly demonized to justify war or injustice. Now the other is portrayed sympathetically in order to project the United States as an enlightened country that has entered a postrace era. (5)
These studies are not contradictory.  Rather, they suggest that the complicated portrayal of Muslims in the media (broadly speaking) has created a discourse surrounding Muslims that either confirms a fear-based narrative about "radical Islam" or a form of Orientalism which places U.S. culture in opposition to a "savage Islamic state."  Thus, what we have are two mainstream portrayals:  one which conforms to U.S. cultural desires and the other which conforms to U.S. cultural fears.  This fear narrative has been recently bolstered by the graphic and gruesome violence of ISIS, which has, in one account, provided fuel for the anti-Islamic fire which holds "Islam" as a threat (distinctions generally absent).

I can't say for certain if these images are deliberately curated to produce this effect, though it is unlikely that it is all accidental or subconscious.  Regardless, I hope it illustrates the point I'm trying to make here:  namely, that language (and, by extension, the images attached to it) has such a profound affect on our culture that to ignore it, especially when it produces an ill effect, reinforces a bigoted position.  Ignorance and "doing nothing," in other words, makes us unintentionally complicit in these discourses.

The same could be said of the term "feminism."  Polls suggest that most Americans do not identify as feminists, with some variation between the genders.  But when given a textbook definition of feminism (that it stands for the political, social, and economic equality of the sexes), as respondents were provided in this YouGov poll, the results swing drastically in the other direction.  Sadly, those numbers are still disgustingly low when you consider the clear moral question implied in that textbook definition, but the poll also suggests that Americans are horribly ill-informed about feminism at its most basic.

A lot of study has been done to determine why "feminism" has become less appreciated (and even actively disliked) in our contemporary culture.  In "The Framing of Feminists and Feminism in News and Public Affairs Programs in U.S. Electronic Media" (2002; Journal of Communication, Vol 52, Issue 1), Rebecca Ann Lind and Colleen Salo conclude from an analysis of 35,000 hours of network broadcasts that "feminists are demonized more often in the media than [women]," but also that feminists are less likely than women to be trivialized by for physical characteristics than general women (219)(this came as a surprise to Lind and Salo).  What becomes apparent in the study is not that feminists are necessarily treated worse than everyday women, but rather that they are discussed far less frequently than their non-identitarian counterparts (or, rather, those who are not identified as feminists in a given broadcast).  As they note in the conclusion, feminists "are indeed absent from the news and public affairs programs analyzed for this study" (224).  In effect, demonization and absence become cultural mechanisms in a narrative which, as Lind and Salo demonstrate in their linguistic study, continues to view women unfavorably.

The point I am trying to make here is similar to the point that Lind and Salo make in the conclusion of their study:
Feminism doesn’t seem, at least from what is presented in the media, to function within the private sphere—it is more often found in the public sphere (media and the arts, politics, religion). All told, this pattern may serve to reinforce the perception that feminism is neither relevant nor particularly applicable to the bulk of daily life for the majority of citizens.
[The] pattern of mediated representation of the site of feminist struggles may further implicitly show the audience that feminists are not quite “normal,” not quite “regular,” not quite “real.” (224)
What Lind and Salo recognize here is that the language we use to describe a given thing affects how that thing is perceived in the wider culture, particularly when the power of the media supports a specific perspective.  Given that American media has played a pivotal role not only in the marginalization and abuse of women, but also the tacit support for an anti-Muslim worldview and the abuse of power that follows that worldview, the idea that we should take care with the language we use to describe others would seem to be an obvious thing.

But it's not obvious to some, even in the science fiction and fantasy community, where language and meaning are essential elements to the genres.  Earlier this year, a member of the self-identified Sad Puppy brigade almost gleefully daydreamed about a Guardian critic committing suicide, apparently without any recognition that trivializing suicide can impact the way suicide is understood elsewhere (that link will download a PDF study on this very subject).  Someone else remarked, to roughly paraphrase, that one should be allowed to ignore preferred gender pronouns in favor of whatever best suited the user.  The way we use language, as such, affects people in a variety of ways, even in instances where something like "bullying" is applied to situations which are something else entirely.

In all of the above cases, language is being used as a weapon to produce psychological or social harm to an individual with no positive benefit to the user.  In the case of gender pronouns, we're dealing with an individual rejecting the agency of another for no apparent gain -- not a laughing matter, to be sure.  To have agency is, to take a basic definition, to act for oneself; identity is a part of that "act," and so to be able to identify oneself and to be identified by others in a social culture is to, in essence, attain a form of agency, however rudimentary it might be.  Since agency has been, from a historical perspective, denied to so many groups of people, the idea that one would linguistically deny one's agency by refusing preference is tantamount to rejecting civil culture itself.  Either we all deserve agency or we are admitting that some of us are less human than others.

Language plays a pivotal role in this process, not least of all because language affects us whether we want it to or not.  To argue that referring to someone by the pronoun you think they are rather than the pronoun they would prefer will have no serious impacts on that individual is naive at best -- wicked at worst.  A study conducted in 2010 (released in 2012) by the Gay, Lesbian & Straight Education Network (and Harris Interactive) discovered that gender, LGBT, and other slurs remain common in elementary schools, not just within the student body, but also among teachers.  The study rightly suggests that the prevalence of this form of "name-calling" will have a significant impact on children as they grow up.  Indeed, as V. Paul Poteat and Dorothy L. Espelage reveal in "Predicting Psychosocial Consequences of Homophobic Victimization in Middle School Students," young people who are exposed to specific kinds of slurs and "name-calling" develop sever psychological problems over the course of a year, which certainly explains why so many LGBT teenagers have committed suicide over the years (2007; The Journal of Early Adolescence, Vol 27, No 2).  Thus, denying full personhood to others -- which mandates, I would argue, civility and respect at its most basic -- can have lasting impacts on all of us (even those of us who strip others of that personhood).

I would also extend this point to those on the apparent opposite end of the political perspective who are determined to identify criticism or disagreement with "racism" or "sexism" without any care for the value those words do and should hold in our culture.  Though I wouldn't go so far as to suggest that misusing these terms is bigoted, I do think that when we misuse something like "racism" to refer to disagreement or individual mistakes (especially when motivations are unclear), we cheapen its value.  This is not to suggest that these mistakes do not reinforce "racism" (or whatever -ism you wish to use here), nor that racism and sexism do not exist; rather, I'm attempting to articulate the position that there appears to be a tendency among some social justice warriors (and I use that term in the positive sense, as I consider myself to be an SJW) to leap to attack without recognizing how "racism" or "sexism" can become brands of social stigmatism within our community.

A great example of this can be found here.  I am well aware that Tommy Robinson (a.k.a. Stephen Yaxley-Lennon) was (or still is), in fact, at the very least, vehemently ethnocentric.  At worst, he was (or still is) a racist.  The video in question takes you to a talk show appearance in which he is repeatedly told by a panelist that he is a racist.  When Robinson (repeatedly) asks what he had said that was racist, the individual could not or would not articulate a position that could confirm that fact; instead, she dismissed Robinson as "a racist."  The problem I have with this three fold:
  1. Given the context in which Robinson has appeared, it's clear that he was meant to represent a position (an ethnocentric one at that, but a position nonetheless).  As such, to simply dismiss him without also articulating a position of any kind seems to fly in the face of the purpose of the program itself.  Some of this could be blamed on the program, which may be "in this" for shock value more than anything else.
  2. If Tommy Robinson is, in fact, a racist, it should be easy enough to demonstrate.  But what we receive is a rhetorical game of cat-and-mouse, wherein the term "racist" becomes a wall to hide behind.  No explanation is ever provided, and so anyone unfamiliar with the situation either has to accept the linguistic game for what it is OR perform their own research.  (Indeed, I came to that video knowing nothing about Tommy Robinson, and so my immediate gut reaction was "Why is answering the charge with evidence so hard?  Surely he must have said something blatantly racist, yes?)
  3. While it may be true that Robinson is a racist, that fact is not self-evident to anyone who is not familiar with Robinson.  Repetition does not establish the fact; rather, it reinforces a more troubling position in which one can be dismissed out of hand for being "a racist" without needing to articulate why.  And without articulating why, there's no possibility of redemption, which Robinson may or may not deserve, but also which our culture needs to see so that the possibility of change isn't sacrificed outright.  I don't believe racists or sexists are beyond redemption, though some of them are less redeemable than others, and so to close off redemption in our language seems like a brutal form of absolutism.  That doesn't mean criticism should not occur (I am NOT saying this), but it does mean that how we articulate that criticism should, more often than not, be specific rather than limited.
A more contemporary example would be Affleck's "that's racist" rant against Bill Maher and Sam Harris -- figures who have, in recent years, become part of a cast of "liberal" voices which often resort to the same absolutist language as his "conservative" counterparts.  In fact, Maher resorts to the absolute a number of times, referring to Islam as "the only religion that acts like the Mafia, that will fucking kill you if you say the wrong thing, draw the wrong picture, or write the wrong book."  Harris' position would be the more nuanced one if he were not suggesting that the 20% of Muslims he claims are Jihadists, radicals, or conservatives who want to uproot Western democracy from inside are significant enough to deem the entirety of the religion at fault.  He attempts to wave that away as "not his point," but that is what he said.

Affleck, however, never articulates the "racist" position in any way that actually addresses what is being said.  Harris even identifies Christian religion as "white" -- by implication, Muslim culture must be the opposite.  Even the term "Muslim world" has come to reflect a particular section of the globe; whether Harris meant to use the term as it is applied among more deliberately ethnocentric/racist anti-Muslims is unclear, but since he doesn't clarify the position to include Western, mostly-white Muslims in that term, I think it's safe to assume he meant "Muslim world" in the context of the "Middle East" and "parts of Africa," thereby condemning an entire non-white, but ethnically-diverse portion of the world to a worldview which deems them a threat.  But in not articulating this point, Affleck can only resort to saying "that's racist," the exact same tactic that Harris and Maher point to:  that people use "that's racist" in response to criticisms of Islam/Muslims as a method for shutting down debate on the issue.  (I'm not convinced that Harris intends his position to be racist here, but it's impossible for him to argue that what he said was not, at the very least, blatantly ethnocentric.)

In essence, their narrative is fulfilled, and the real problem in what is being said is left unsaid, even by Michael Steele, who tries desperately to work them in (Steele even notes that there are Muslims who publicly speak out against radical Islam, but Maher and Harris don't seem particularly interested in addressing that at length).  To be fair to Affleck, he does make a point about not condemning a region when you're interested in the ideas of a select few, but even this falls short of clarifying the more famous line -- "that's racist."

I selected these two instances because they relate to an earlier portion of this essay on American perceptions of Muslims.  What I hope they demonstrate is that both sides of this argument (even Robinson, who follows the absolutist logic, too) are using language in a way that is unproductive.  It is no more productive to identify critics of Islam as "racists" by default than it is to default to the Orientalist narrative which perceives the whole of the Muslim world (i.e., the Middle East and parts of Africa) as a threat.  Using reductive language damages the whole:  first, by stifling debate or the possibility of nuance, and second, by reinforcing negative values which have legitimately harmed real people.  In the case of Muslims, the rhetoric of the post-9/11 world led to a significant increase in violence committed against them withing the United States (and one could certainly make a case for further horrors).

And each of these individuals are responsible for the words that they use, especially when they are in a position to clarify a position.  People like Harris, Affleck, Maher, and so on, I would argue, are doubly responsible for their words, since everything they say has a much wider reach.  In the same way that teachers are often careful about expressing personal belief in the context of a political topic (quite frequent in literature courses, actually) are in a similar boat, since there is a power relation at work.  You can imagine how easy it would be to indoctrinate students with bigotry if teachers feel no ethical responsibility to their students.

But we're all individually responsible, too.  When we resort to language which denigrates a whole or denies agency to another, we create cultural narratives which reverberate throughout, reinforcing already-held values, bolstering bigotry, and making our world a more dangerous place for those who have a less power than others.  Those who contribute to this knowing that an already fraught discourse surrounds a topic sacrifice ethical behavior when they ignore the words that populate their arguments.

We all suffer this at some point, I suspect.  I know from personal experience how easy it is to be inculcated into an existing narrative of bigotry.  Phrases like "that's gay" or words like "faggot" were so much a part of my adolescence that it took me years of correcting myself to weed them out of my natural linguistic patterns (I still struggle with "retarded," which appears on rare occasion in conversation).  It's also easy to fall back into these patterns when among certain company, which I think indicates a kind of "muscle memory" associated with language -- the idea that the patterns of thought repeat themselves when refreshed by some interaction or another.

But we can do better.  There's no such thing as perfection, but bettering oneself and trying to be better towards others is a noble goal.  And that requires us to be aware of what we say, how we participate in the creation and dissemination of cultural narratives (good and bad), and so on.  It's not about censorship or anything of the sort; it's about respecting others as human beings wherever reasonable.  And when it comes to avoiding bigotry and slurs, it's really a no-brainer in my book:  if you're capable of respecting others, then you're just as capable of referring to them without rejected agency or personhood.

I may have more to say about this at another time.  For now, I think I've rambled enough.  The comments are yours.

Gender Essentialism, Genre, and Me

I'm late to the party.  The first major SF/F controversy party.  And while this post won't be about Kemp's argument specifically, it does come out of the discussions about his post -- most particularly the criticisms.[1]

Part of the problem I have with traditional gender roles is the way they assume what manhood (or womanhood) is based on behaviors which are definitively not gendered.  There's nothing explicitly masculine about aggression or nobility.  There's nothing explicitly feminine about child rearing, except insofar as it is currently required for women to be the carriers of unborn children.  Gender essentalism, however, assumes there are definitely gendered behaviors, such that chivalry is read as "male/masculine" and cowardice is read as "female/feminine."  If this association sounds negative, that's because the construction of male/female or masculine/feminine is frequently a negative.  These associations are also oriented around agency, where masculine behaviors are active and feminine behaviors are passive.  There are all manner of gendered constructions, and each is based on arbitrary, culturally-determined factors.

The impact of gender essentialism in this particular context is often unintended, but, by the nature of a culture's ability to transmit its behavioral modes, it is also pervasive.  We are all coded by our
gender without ever having a say in the matter.  My culture tells me I should behave in certain ways because that is what men do; it tells me there is a true form of manhood; and it tells me that I am deviant, even in an innocuous sense, if I do not conform to these standards.  It's that absence of agency which should make all of us pause.  In effect, I am, as Louis Althusser might argue, interpellated by/into my culture's gender paradigms as it codes my identify for me and I, as all children do, react by internalizing these values.[2]  As I grew older, it became clear how pervasive and abusive these standards and values were.  When I was told as a young man that I was not masculine (i.e., male enough) because I did not engage in feats of strength, it was implied that I must acquire that masculine behavior to properly assert my manhood.  If I wasn't into sports, I was naturally feminine.  If I shared my emotions, I was more woman than man.  In other words, my youth was a process of cultural assault, by which my behaviors had to be coded along gender lines, interpreted, and then rejected if they did not conform to the norm.  This is not exactly a unique experience, either, though my examples above are certainly reductive.

Women are told all manner of similar things, too, so I imagine I'm not wrong in asserting that the psychological impact of gender essentialism is rarely positive for any gender.  It reinforces gender roles as fixed, when in fact they are anything but, and it shames those who do not conform by implicitly stripping them of their gender and assigning a new one.  Thus, women who are aggressive are "manly."  A great genre example is Grace Jones' performance of Zula in Conan the Destroyer (1984).
Here, we're presented with a woman who is every bit as aggressive and noble (or not) as Conan (Schwarzenegger).  She wields spears and screams warcries as she cuts into enemies.  She doesn't shy from battle or give in to injury or the intimacy of others.[3]  But she is definitively a woman, and expresses that behavior in ways particular to herself, not to her gender.[4]  That she is the female opposite of Conan is not insignificant:  she isn't an enigma, but the embodiment of an anti-essentialist stance on gender (incomplete though that stance may be).  Women can be warriors without becoming "men."  Women can be brutal and limited in their emotional expression without sacrificing their gender association.

In other words, this idea that there are "gendered behaviors" in any pure or stable sense should seem absurd to all of us.  We can easily point to examples whereat someone behaves contrary to their assigned gender, and yet in doing so, they do not cease to be whatever gender they so choose.[5]  That's the point I think more of us need to grasp in the SF/F/H community.  If you want to write characters who behave like chivalrous knights, then do so.  But there's no reason to assume those characters must be male, or that their behaviors are masculine by nature.  We can do without thinking in those terms.  We'd certainly be better without it...


[1]:  Based on my interactions with Mr. Kemp, I think I am correct in saying that his post was ill-considered in certain respects.  I understand what he is trying to say, but his methods for making that point were unintentionally sexist.  Instead of saying "I like writing masculine stories because men," he might have said "I like writing stories that feature these virtues and behaviors."  He might even have said he is most comfortable writing men, which is hardly an offense in my opinion.  I, for example, am only semi-comfortable writing men, which might explain why many of my protagonists (in written, not published fiction) are women (or sometimes something other than straight white guys); whether my writing is good is a whole different question.  In any case, it's the fact that his post reinforces traditional gender roles and applies certain virtuous actions specifically to male behavior which poses the problem for most.

[2]:  This is a horrible reduction of Althusser's work.  I hope you'll forgive me.

[3]:  In all fairness, she is perhaps naturally distrustful of others because she is treated quite poorly by the people of her world.  I wish she had appeared in more Conan films, though.  Zula is such a fascinating character, and easily one of my favorites.

[4]:  I should note that Zula was actually a man in the comic books.  She may not be the best example to make my point, but I love her, so I'm sticking to it...

[5]:  I realize that there is some slipperiness in the terminology here.  I am absolutely not talking about biological sex in the main, but gender as an assignment of identity.  I just don't buy into the idea that there are behaviors that are gender coded outside of those particular to one's sex.  Obviously, these gender assignments are based on sex to some degree in our culture.