Diversity is Not a Selfie (or, Amazing Stories + Felicity Savage = Here We Go Again)

Apparently Amazing Stories has become a version of controversy bingo.  Attacks on liberals?  Check.  Attacks on subgenres?  Check.  Attacks on women?  Check.  Attacks on people of color?  And check...

I'm obviously not going to link to the story here.  Instead, I'll point you to "Diversity is not Narcissism:  A Response to Felicity Savage" at The Other Side of the Rain, "Mirror, Mirror:  Quien Soy?" by Silvia Moreno-Garcia, and "False Equivalence:  Selfies and Diversity in SFF" at Radish Reviews.  They've covered much of what I'm going to babble about here, though I'll try to add to that existing discussion.[1]

So here goes.

Savage begins her diatribe by discussing the validity of "selfies," an understandably amusing practice which has become the subject of much parodying.  Of course, Savage doesn't note that selfies have also been used for arts projects, such as the numerous videos on YouTube in which
the user takes a single picture of themselves everyday for a set period of time -- the purpose of these videos is not unlike a self-portrait, which Savage raises to "art" status, albeit in the form of a time capture.

You might wonder what selfies have to do with diversity in SF/F. You'd be right to wonder just that, as the analogy Savage wishes us to buy into is already fallacious from the outset, as the purpose of a selfie, as she  defines it, bears little resemblance to the purpose of diversity projects like Expanded Horizons or the various other magazines which have posted diversity policies.  In Savage's own words, a selfie is as follows:
The principle here is a familiar one. The harder you try to look good the worse you will actually look. The pictures on the left and right illustrate of the difference between a self-portrait and a selfie. Hint: the self-portrait is the one where the subject isn’t trying to look good. 
Selfies remove objectivity from the subject-artist loop of creation. Add in a professional photographer or portrait artist and beauty happens. Conversely, grotesquerie is inherent in the selfie creation process, this having been reduced to a mirror-gazing session.
What does this have to do with diversity in SF/F?  Well, Savage doesn't exactly say.  She throws out a random line about the community seeming like a hall of mirrors, and then conveniently changes topic, leaving the weak analogy in place, but without even the attempt at explication.  The only other line that references the several-paragraph description of selfies is a throwaway I'll come back to later.

The implication of these first paragraphs, however, is quite clear.  If we're to take the analogy as it is presented, then Savage believes seeking out diversity in SF/F is grotesque in the same way as a selfie:  it is without objectivity; it is without art; it is simply staring into a mirror.  We're off to a good start, no?

The central premise of Savage's argument is simply this:  attempting to create diversity by deliberately seeking out non-white and/or non-male writers is narcissism of the highest order:
But the call for diversity is usually interpreted with deadly literal-mindedness as a call for more characters who are female / black / Asian / what have you. Why are we all so keen to see ourselves on the page?
Never mind that people of all colors and genders (let alone orientations) are calling for diversity, and leave it to Savage to conveniently forget that these variations of self are merely variations of the human, let alone that the default subject has historically been white and male.  That we are seeing exceptions to that rule makes those variations no less valid or important than the stock standard white dude.  Savage, of course, seems remarkably oblivious to the impact of fiction or imagery on a population's view of different peoples.  There's a reason by the Romani people are still viewed so unfavorably, and it's not because there's something inherently wrong with them.  The public image of Romani people, as fed to us through the arts and other mediums, is rarely positive; culture undeniably functions via transmittal, and the most effective way to do so is through various forms of media.  The narratives of colonization were transmitted through written travelogues, art, advertising, and so on; these held, in many cases, for centuries.  In the U.S., the image of the "lazy negro" persisted well into the 20th Century, supported by plantation propaganda in the form of comical advertisements (look up "negro with watermelon" for an example) and so on.  The dominant class, whoever that may be, will always seek transmittal of their cultural values.[2]

The production of such diversity in admittedly artificial.  Savage, however, seems to believe diversification in such artificial terms destroys SF/F's image by reducing it to the literary equivalent of a drug-addicted celebrity:  "Just don’t stare into the mirror too long or your reflection may start to look like a trout-pouted minor celebrity with a cocaine hangover."  She likewise criticizes Expanded Horizons as a space for mixing and matching "your preferred ethnic / sexual identifiers to create your very own comfort zone."  The point, however, is quite clear:  diversity is actually a bad thing.  Either it is a form of tokenism -- a legitimate problem -- or it destroys the face of genre.

The latter of these two problems is an attack on diversification as a process, as it seems to suggest that a challenge against the status quo -- inserting people of color or women into roles which had previously been dominated by white men -- violates the sanctity of a pure space of difference.  This becomes more clear when Savage writes the following:
What speculative fiction does well is diversity on the species level. Our aliens, dragons, orcs, and even or especially our far-future selves ask us, in as many ways as there are books, what it means to be human.
The pure space of difference -- a largely white and male space -- is challenged by diversity only in situations when the purity can be preserved.  So long as difference is actualized through the inhuman other -- robots, dragons, aliens, etc. -- diversity is OK, but the moment you inject human questions that actualize difference within the species, suddenly you have violated what is the natural inflection of the very question.  The human question, in other words, is a question of the status quo; it is a question of whiteness and maleness, as the dominant representation -- the very representation diversity projects attempt to challenge by way of the pollination of human selves -- is and has been white and male[3].  That Savage thinks this means "we're all in this together" is merely a delusion of presence.  To imagine that human experience can be mediated only through the white male in opposition to inhuman beings is to suggest that diversity is an unnecessary project.  Why worry about diversity when we can all just imagine humanity through one representation of its myriad forms?  That we implicitly know this is a falsehood in relation to any other sort of physically differentiated species of animal seems forgotten.  Mind you, this is not explicitly Savage's argument, but it is the one that is implied throughout; she might disagree that the status quo is white and male, but that doesn't change the fact that it is and that its preservation is merely apologetics of the worst sort.

Savage's other points are no less valid in context.  Her contention that we should "spare a wee drop of compassion for the straight, white, able-bodied, cis-gendered male" because "he’s lectured on his lack of diversity, told to read more stories about and by people with diverse perspectives–and yet when he tries to approach them in real life, it all too often … doesn’t end well" is little more than a sort of crude anti-diversity apologetics.  And the paragraph in which it appears is essentially a giant hasty generalization of the problems diversity produces, as if attempts to create safe spaces for PoCs or the occasional flack white males might experience when walking themselves into a wall when they should have known better is representative of the entire experience of diversity.  Savage, out of necessity, must leave out any discussion of PoCs and women and QUILTBAG people who are quite happy to see people like themselves engaged in the adventures of SF/F.  Ignore the value this might produce for a culture or a group because it is inconvenient to one's argument.

True, one of SF/F's strengths is its ability to represent the other, but it is also strongest when it best represents humanity as it is.  When we account for the actual, we create new environments of engagement which offer a real challenge to the dominant paradigms of the human.  Diversity of this type is good for us.  It makes us better people.  It allows us to see how others experience the world or the fantastic.  It exposes the paradigms and questions that plague humanity in all its forms.  Savage is completely wrong when she suggests that "nothing is gained by mapping our fragmented ethnic and sexual identities onto our fiction with the fidelity of a cellphone camera photo."  Perhaps if she'd asked some people of color or gay people or women, she might have understood the value diversity brings with it.  Instead, she wrote an illogical, anti-diversity screed.  Color me immensely disappointed.

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[1]:  My assertions will be based off of what is written in Savage's post.  It is entirely possible the content of the post is not a reflection of the author's actual views, or at least not an accurate reflection of those views.  As such, I won't argue that Savage is racist or sexist, as these are charges for which I do not have enough information.

[2]:  Not all forms of cultural transmission are bad, mind you.  Right now, we are witnessing a positive form of that transmission in the gay rights movement; increasingly, young people are reaching voting age without the prejudices of their parents in tact, in no small part because their isolated teen/youth culture has discarded that older ideology in droves.

[3]:  In the West most of all.

Jim Carrey, Guns, and Kick-Ass 2 (Late Thoughts)

I said I would throw in my two-cents on this Jim Carrey story.  I realize I'm late to the party on this one, but I feel compelled to talk about the entire issue.  Instead of trying to summarize the whole damn situation, I'll just block quote something from the Guardian:

Carrey, who has been an outspoken proponent of increased gun control in the wake of the shootings by gunman Adam Lanza in December, tweeted on Sunday that he could no longer support the film. He wrote: "I did Kick-Ass 2 a month b4 Sandy Hook and now in all good conscience I cannot support that level of violence. My apologies to others involve[d] with the film. I am not ashamed of it but recent events have caused a change in my heart." 
Scottish comic-book writer and Kick-Ass 2 executive producer Mark Millar, whose original work forms the basis of the sequel, today responded on his own blog, pointing out that Carrey, who plays a character named Colonel Stars and Stripes, knew exactly what he was letting himself in for. 
"Like Jim, I'm horrified by real-life violence (even though I'm Scottish), but Kick-Ass 2 isn't a documentary. No actors were harmed in the making of this production! This is fiction and like Tarantino and Peckinpah, Scorsese and Eastwood, John Boorman, Oliver Stone and Chan-wook Park, Kick-Ass avoids the usual bloodless bodycount of most big summer pictures and focuses instead of the CONSEQUENCES of violence … Our job as storytellers is to entertain and our toolbox can't be sabotaged by curtailing the use of guns in an action movie."
While I understand Millar's frustration with Carrey, I do think he misses the point here.  From Carrey's perspective, film violence leads, at least in part, to real world violence.  I don't know how recent of a development these thoughts are for him, but it is quite clear that recent events (Newtown, etc.) have "inspired" him to take a more aggressive approach to the gun rights issue (see his comedy music video, "Cold Dead Hand").  The position is guided by a particular set of principles, which suggests that supporting gun violence in media begets violence in the real world.  Within that perspective, life is viewed a sacred, and any action which might lead to the death of others (at the hand of a gun) must be opposed.  I understand this position and even agree with Carrey on many counts.  The notion that guns are, on their own, innocuous entities is specious at best and a downright lie at worst.  There are cultures attached to them, and some of those cultures support or foment violence, whether directly or indirectly.  Some of those cultures, of course, do nothing of the sort.

Millar, however, takes the position that the film is pure fiction, and that nobody was actually hurt.  That information is a given.  You can't intentionally kill people on film without violating the law, so the issue isn't whether people are actually hurt, but what impact the violence might have on the general public.  Carrey seems to believe that film violence -- at least, in some forms -- contributes to the problem of violence in our culture.  Considering how fervently he has supported the gun-restriction side of the debate in the last year, it shouldn't surprise us that he might have problems with anything perceived as connected to that very issue.  Carrey had a change of heart.  So sue him.
That doesn't make Carrey correct, of course.  There are two positions he has taken:
  1. Guns and gun culture contributes to violence in the country
  2. Violent media contributes to violence in the country (already mentioned)
These are relatively extreme positions, of course, and ones that are not necessarily supported by reality.  While there are some studies that suggest violent media increases aggression and violence, there is no scientific consensus about the issue.  Likewise, while gun culture, in my opinion, does little to curb gun-related violence, and may actually contribute to it (however unintentionally), the argument that guns themselves, or the people who use them, are directly responsible for violence is specious.  The gun rights issue is about as grey as you can get.  Any time someone tosses out European statistics to support their position, they tend to ignore the different cultural conditions and all of the examples in Europe that contradict the argument in question.  The U.S. has a different culture, geography, and history from everyone else.  Carrey doesn't acknowledge that as often as he should, which makes it easy for people to look at him as a left-leaning soundbite machine.

However, despite how much I understand Carrey's position -- let alone agree with it -- I do think he has shot himself in the foot here.  His career likely won't suffer much, but he will piss off a lot of fans -- and for good reason.  He chose to take a role in Kick-Ass 2.  While I won't say he must support the film no matter what, I do think he should take into account that everyone else involved in the production, whether actors, directors, gaffers, or what have you, may actually suffer based on his actions.  If people do refuse to see the movie, that could affect other people's careers.  I understand the importance of one's principles; I have principles too, and I try to stick by them as often as possible.  But you also have to think about those around you.*  Carrey may not have anticipated his change of heart -- how could he? -- but he can anticipate how his actions will affect others.  In fact, since his argument against guns is largely a causal one, he should understand causality quite well.

Personally, I think he should shut up and donate his Kick-Ass 2 salary to an organization that represents his interests.  He can take a step back from publicity for the time being, too (if you're heart isn't in it, then there's no point trying to promote something anyway -- that would be a lie).  And then he should write a book about how he came to this worldview.  But he shouldn't piss on all the other people who were behind him when he made that film.  That's not fair to them, and it doesn't make Carrey look like the hero here.

What do you think?
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*This also explains why I was hesitant to boycott the film adaptation of Ender's Game.  I may not care for Card's politics, but there are a lot of people I love who are involved in the project (and many more besides who never appear on the screen).  Does boycotting the film mean I'm also screwing some of them over?  And if so, am I OK with that?  I still don't have an answer for that question.

P.S.:  I also take issue with Millar's claim that Kick-Ass is about the consequences of violence.  That might be true for the comics, which I haven't read, but the first film glorified pain and suffering.  It turned suffering into a comedy of blood.  I enjoyed the first film quite a bit, but at no point did I believe I was watching something about the consequences of violence.  The consequences are sort of there, but they are withdrawn or overshadowed by the glorification of violence in general.  Granted, I have not seen the new one (it's not out yet), so it's possible the sequel will fill in the gaps.  I doubt it, though...

Postcolonialism 101: Misery Tourism (or, How the Genre Community Still Essentializes Africa)

"What is misery tourism?" you might ask.  At its most basic, "misery tourism" refers to the ways peoples from wealthy, usually Western nations "tour" the "developing" or "undeveloped" world in order to "learn" something.  The process is almost always attached to an assumption of superiority, whether directly acknowledged or buried in the subconscious.  To partake in misery tourism is to justify the superior position of your culture by intentionally subjecting yourself to "lesser" cultures (as a means of justifying the bias embedded in the notion of "lesser" cultures).  To put it another way, misery tourism is what (mostly white) Westerners do to make themselves feel better about their own circumstances.

I bring this up because of the following, which is taken from Bryan Thomas Schmidt's blog post entitled "Broadening the Toolbox Through Cross-Cultural Encounters:  On Resnick, Africa, and Opportunity":

When I spent time volunteering in prisons, I came away telling people that everyone should go and experience that for themselves because “the inmates are a lot more like us than you’d imagine.” For me, it was a scary and yet sobering reminder that human beings no matter their backgrounds, etc. have more in common than different. The same held true of my experiences in other cultures. I tell everyone to visit a developing world country at least once. See for yourselves what you’ve only imagined from the pages of National Geographic or TV specials about starvation, etc. Go there and experience it and be forever changed. If you’re not changed, you’re doing something wrong. I don’t see how you couldn’t be. Don’t fear this kind of change. It’s the good kind–the kind that makes you smarter, wiser, more aware and more appreciative. It’s the kind that makes you a better person and inspires you to write better stories and live better lives. That kind of change can’t be a bad thing, can it?
This appears after Schmidt reminds us how important it is not to fall into the trap of stereotyping other peoples and cultures (by way of getting into their heads to push our boundaries).

Schmidt, unfortunately, falls prey to a number of common intellectual traps when it comes to the subject of the African continent.  For example, rather than trying to explore a particular African culture, he reduces them all to "Africans," as if talking about "Africans" actually means something.  He might have identified specific nations (Nigeria, Egypt, Morocco, South Africa, Mali, Chad, Sudan, etc.) or specific peoples (Igbo, Sua, Kikuyu, Tutsi, Oromo, Afrikaner, Egyptian, Bemba, Xhosa, Zulu, Swazi, Fulani, Yoruba, etc.), having spent so much time in Africa (says he).  But instead, he makes them all one.  They are Africans -- not in the sense that they are all "from Africa," but in the sense that they are all more or less the same, like Americans (except we're not all the same either).  Doing so allows him to make grand assumptions about what they are all like (they are communal and find joy in little things).  There are other traps, too, but this is, I think, the most obvious and most damaging.

What shocks me most about these statements is that Schmidt wants us to believe he has learned something both from his experiences as a traveler and from reading genre fiction written by people who are non-white, mostly non-Christian, and mostly non-American.  Yet in essentializing the plethora of African cultures, as so many people do, he exposes his own narrow view of the continent.  I suspect he does not believe this of himself, but most Westerners don't want to believe that their privilege blinds them to the narratives of neo-imperialism which control the discourse surrounding the African continent.  In fact, Schmidt obviously means well, and makes many valid points.  But this doesn't excuse the central problem, which Binyavanga Wainaina perhaps best explores in "How to Write About Africa."  His humorous-but-not-really "story" exposes many of the myths peddled about the African continent. Two quotes of relevance here include:
In your text, treat Africa as if it were one country. It is hot and dusty with rolling grasslands and huge herds of animals and tall, thin people who are starving. Or it is hot and steamy with very short people who eat primates. Don’t get bogged down with precise descriptions. Africa is big: fifty-four countries, 900 million people who are too busy starving and dying and warring and emigrating to read your book. The continent is full of deserts, jungles, highlands, savannahs and many other things, but your reader doesn’t care about all that, so keep your descriptions romantic and evocative and unparticular.
And:
Among your characters you must always include The Starving African, who wanders the refugee camp nearly naked, and waits for the benevolence of the West. Her children have flies on their eyelids and pot bellies, and her breasts are flat and empty. She must look utterly helpless. She can have no past, no history; such diversions ruin the dramatic moment. Moans are good. She must never say anything about herself in the dialogue except to speak of her (unspeakable) suffering.
That pretty much sums it up.  Becoming better writers is simply a justification for misery tourism.  Its only purpose is to validate ethnocentric views of the world and the perpetuation of stereotypes and myths still held by so many Westerners today.  I'm not sure there's a way to combat this behavior, as we're all guilty of it to a certain degree.  One would think education about the history of the various now-countries of the African continent would do it, but that requires people to take the wax out of their ears and actually listen.  In other words, so long as you see the African continent as little more than a monolithic culture of inferior peoples, you cannot possibly challenge the ethnocentric assumptions that pepper our cultural perceptions of the world.

That's not to say genre fiction is hopeless.  Far from it.  But it's not enough to say "look, there are some brown people talking about different stuff over there" or "look, I went to Africa and learned stuff, which makes me culturally enlightened."  True respect of other cultures would look beyond the superficial; such a task may be difficult, however, once you realize that the linguistic, cultural, and political toolbox we have all been given in the West participates as much in the colonial project as colonialism in its most visible forms.  Perhaps this is why I have trouble finding Western aid, missionary work, and so on anything but suspicious.  These acts, like everything else, cannot be disentangled from the colonial project.  Just like language, ideology, and misery tourism.

The Weird Tales / Save the Pearls Fiasco: Preliminary Reactions

(Disclaimer:  This post is a preliminary reaction.  I have not read the novel in question and can only respond to what others have said about it.  As such, what follows will not be based on what I know about the book itself, but rather a series of curiosities and questions that I suspect will be answered later this week.  An educated reaction will follow.

Note:  I am collecting links to other responses at the bottom.

Note 2:  The original Weird Tales post has been taken down.  An apology has been put in its place.

Note 3:  Some new details have surfaced.  You can find my update here.)

Twitter was in a rage this morning about this Weird Tales announcement involving the publication of the first chapter of Victoria Foyt's Saving the Pearls:  Revealing Eden.  Authors/bloggers N. K. Jemisin, Celine Kiernan, Martha Wells, Nick Mamatas were among the most vocal hitters, decrying the selection as, at best, a phenomenally stupid choice of publication and, at worst, a throwback to the racism that might have made Lovecraft proud.

If you're not familiar with Saving the Pearls, then you're not alone.  I am writing this post from a position of profound ignorance, having only read reviews of Foyt's novel, and not the novel itself (such as this review or the numerous reviews on the Amazon page). What many seem most bothered by is Foyt's portrayal of a reverse-racist society which uses blackface to make its supposedly anti-racist point (a historically derogatory practice originally used by whites to stereotype and denigrate blacks -- the white-race-glorification film, Birth of a Nation, for example, used blackface in order to portray black males as sexual "beasts," which, as it turns out, is another stereotype that Foyt, according to reviews, unsuccessfully "turns on its head").  Coming from the outside, my first reactions were along these lines:

  1. Is it possible to reverse blackface without running into the problem of racist history?  In other words, can one take the history of making blacks feel inferior because they are "too dark" and reverse it so whites must now darken in order to "fit in"?  I'm thinking of a reversal of George Schuyler's Black No More (a novel I am teaching this semester).
  2. What is the narrative context for the use of "pearls" to refer to whites and "coals" to refer to blacks?  Since the novel is a dystopia, is it possible these terms actually mean something very different in that world?  I wonder if (one, again, coming from not having read the book) perhaps coal has become a scarce, important resource, thus providing an added value to something we traditionally think of as prevalent and cheap (dirty, etc.).
  3. Why is it that whenever we have discussions about these very issues, there are a sea of loud-mouthed people proclaiming that there is no such thing as racism against whites, followed by condescending ad hominem attacks against anyone who suggests otherwise?  (I'm not referring to anyone named in this post.)  Racism is not colorblind.  Some white people are targets of racism.  The difference, as I see it, is a matter of degree and a matter of institution.  That is that whites are rarely targeted by the institutions around them, and only uncommonly the target of racist ideas from other "racial" groups.  Perhaps it's a question of power dynamics?
  4. How many people coming into this discussion are screaming because they've already been tainted by other reactions?  Some folks who have chimed in seem to have read the book after reading or agreeing with people who hate it.  Is it possible that some of us are so emotionally driven against racism that we get trapped into knee-jerk-ism whenever something that appears to be racist shows its face?
Now, I could be wrong about all of these reactions.  We'll see.  I've said on Twitter that I will try to read the book, in part because I don't want to offer a proper opinion on all this without knowing what I'm talking about (something some people will do in typical knee-jerk fashion).  That doesn't mean, however, that the Weird Tales post deserves to be ignored.
The book in question...
I say all of this knowing that there are all kinds of red flags in the Weird Tales post.  Take, for example, the title:  "A Thoroughly Non-Racist Book."  If it's a thoroughly non-racist book, then why the insane overcompensation in the title?  Even my hackles were raised when I saw that title.  Or even Kaye's need to reject the negative reviews on Amazon by saying "this is America and they have the right to express their opinion(s)" makes you wonder at which point he would acknowledge a negative review as intellectually valid.  Or if you disagree with a review, does that immediately mean it is only valid as "free speech"?  

But perhaps what most concerns me is the level of condescension Kaye lobs at detractors of Foyt's story.  Kaye says that it will be "very clear to anyone with an appreciation for irony" that the book is not racist, but an attack on racism itself.  Typically, one means satire, not irony; likewise, when one says "folks who are X will get it," you're essentially discounting the validity of contrary opinions.  The clincher, though, is this:
The blessing is to wish they acquire sufficient wit, wisdom and depth of literary analysis to understand what they read, and also the compassion not to attack others merely because they hold a different opinion. 
The curse is an integral part of the blessing…for if they do acquire those virtues, they will then necessarily look at their own behaviour, and be thoroughly ashamed.
You're right.  Because only people with insufficient wit, wisdom, and depth of literary analysis will not like Save the Pearls.  Only people without compassion could find something wrong with Foyt's novel.  Because only becoming "like you," oh Mr. Compassionate, Witty, Wisdom-filled, Literary Analysis Guru, can we fully comprehend the great wonders of the universe contained within Foyt's novel.  And then we can be ashamed.  Of what?  I don't know.  Ashamed that we weren't like Kaye?  Ashamed that we didn't get it?  Ashamed that we were totally mean to Foyt's novel and should have just hugged her?  [/snark]

That's more or less what I've got to say right now.  I'm going to set aside most of the reactions and (try to) read the book with my blinders on.  Afterwards, I will come back and let folks know what I think of this whole fiasco.

Feel free to leave a comment.  Anywho!

(Thanks to Bart Leib for some of the links in this post.)

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Other Responses (*** indicates posts linking to fiction work previously published by Weird Tales that the authors have now posted elsewhere):

"On Weird Tales" by Matthew Cheney (The Mumpsimus)***
"This is how you destroy something beautiful" by N. K. Jemisin***
"Racism, Revealing Eden and STGRB" by Foz Meadows (Shattersnipe:  Malcontent and Rainbows)
"Down with 'coals'; save the whites!  Revealing Eden pt 1" by acrackedmoon (Requires Only That You Hate)
"Fuck You, Weird Tales" by Carrie Cuinn (There's a Story in Everything)
"Special Offer:  Weird Tales Subscription Trade-In" by Weightless Books
"Weird Tales Magazine faces a boycott after endorsing a 'thoroughly non-racist book'" by Charlie Jane Anders (io9)
"Weird Tales Goes Back in Time" by Rose Fox (Genreville)
"Weird Things at Weird Tales" by Gav Reads
Apexology:  Science Fiction and Fantasy from Apex Publications (not a response so much as a reminder that J. M. McDermott's Weird Tales publication is re-published in this book)
"'The Good Old Days Were Anything But...'" by Josh Reynolds (Hunting Monsters)
"Book News:  Famous Authors Quit Weird Tales Over Racially Sensitive Novel" by Ed Fortune (Starburst Magazine)
"On Having Pride" by John P. Murphy (Murphy's Blog)
"Weird Tales backtracks on support of 'ridiculous and offensive' novel" by Charlie Jane Anders (io9)
"Response to Weird Tales -- Shimmer is now paying pro rates" by Mary Robinette Kowal
"A Thoroughly Non-Racist Kerfluffle" by Unknown (SpecTechnique)(Includes screenshots of the now-deleted original post)
"Weird Tales, Ann VanderMeer, and Utter Stupidity" by Jeff VanderMeer (Ecstatic Days)
"Umm. WTF? Weird Tales? Really?" by Christopher Fletcher (The Region Between)
"Thoroughly Non-Racist Nonsense" by Jim C. Hines
"Weird Fiction -- we love it, and not just when the internets explode" by Rose Lemberg (One Star called Out of Darkness)
"Racism row over SF novel about black 'Coals' and white 'Pearls'" by Alison Flood (The Guardian)
"Shimmer Pays Pro Rates" by Beth (Shimmer Magazine)
"Weird Tales Pulls Novel Excerpt Following Fan Uproar" by John O'Neill (Black Gate)
"Weird Tales" by Willalex (Graphy)
"Save the Pearls, Weird Tales, and Racism" by Hilary B. Bisenieks (Urban Phantasy)
"Scandal la Weird Tales" by Articole (Galileo Online)(Romanian language; use Google Translate)
"Weird Tales editor has insulted us all" by Damien G. Walter
"The Speculative Fiction Community and Save the Pearls" by Nicole M. Taylor (Writer, Girl Friday)

SF/F Rant of the Day: Privilege is Not Equal


You’re probably already familiar with the shitstorm that erupted on Peter Watts’ blog over acrackedmoon’s “review” of R. Scott Bakker’s novels.  If not, then you should glance through to see what has been going on (this is not the same as the other shitstorm which also involved acrackedmoon’s comments, though certainly the issues are related).

Here, I am interested in one particular issue:  the question of privilege.  But before I do that, I want to say a few quick things:

  1. I harbor no ill will towards Peter Watts, acrackedmoon, R. Scott Bakker, or any of the people involved in the comments.  I may not like some of the commentators, but that’s a separate issue.
  2. I think Watts makes some valid points.  I think acrackedmoon makes some valid points.  I think they both occasionally put their feet in their mouths and say things that are counterproductive to discussion and debate.  They are both human beings.
  3. I understand why acrackedmoon takes the approach that she does, and while I do not always agree with that approach (sometimes I think she shuts off debate by being overly aggressive when taking a step back might be more productive), I think many of the issues she attacks are ones we should be concerned about anyway.  I think it’s more pathetic that we don’t think about the problems she raises (such as the treatment of women in literature, racism, etc.) except when someone throws “a fit” and uses “bad words.”  For the record:  from what I know of Mr. Watts, he is concerned with many of the same issues and reflects that in his writing (this based on my friend’s obsession with him as a writer).
  4. I do not agree that the “tone argument” is invalid in all instances, as I’ve said before.  But I do not agree that responding to another’s “tone” with a similar “tone” makes you look any more “civilized” than the person you’re attempting to delegitimize.

Now that all of that is out of the way, I’d like to draw your attention to one problematic comment left on Peter Watts’ blog by someone calling himself Giorgio.
Who the hell do you think you are? Who the hell do _she_ think she is? What makes you think that she can arrogate herself any kind of representative role? Who the hell gave _you_ the right to decide who someone can or cannot represent? I’m _sure_ all those tormented people feel better now that someone finally can be obnoxious on the Internet in their place.
 Get down off your high horse, ACM is a privileged woman from a privileged background (a Thai Chinese!) who speaks a very good English and is completely steeped in North American culture in a country where only 10% of the population speaks any English at all, who has access to Internet in a country where only a quarter of the population has any kind of connection and apparently has a lot of free time she can spend reading fantasy books and maintaining a constant Internet presence.
 If _she_ can represent someone, I surely can decide that I’m the voice of billions of farmers and factory workers and as such I’m happy to tell her that she’s an obnoxious bourgeois and should start thinking about doing something productive and useful to make up for the history of prevarication and oppression who gave her her role in society.
There is one fundamental problem here:  the assumption that “shared privileges” are equal.  Let’s take as true that acrackedmoon is an upper class Thai woman and that a marker of that is the fact that she has apparently unfettered access to the Internet (the commenter’s statistic is wrong, by the way:  25.5% of Thais have Internet access, but another 66+ million and change use mobile phones – that’s practically the entire population of Thailand; determining how many of those mobile users also use their phones to access the Internet is a little difficult, but if Africa is any indication, phone-to-Internet access is likely more common than standard Internet in countries previously dubbed as “third world.”  You also have to take into account other forms of Internet access, such as cafes, etc. – basically, we need to seriously get beyond this “she’s got the Internet, so she must be totally privileged because Thailand is a backward bumfuck country where everyone lives in rice patties and huts” bullshit.  Backwards my ass.). 

What do these assumptions tell us about acrackedmoon?  That she has privilege within her country of residence.

One way to think of this is to use the Internet as an analogy:  if I have access to the Internet through broadband, but acrackedmoon only has dialup, could we reasonably suggest that our access is the same?  Are the privileges equal?  The answer:  no.  While we both benefit from having access, that does not mean we benefit in the same way, or that we have the same level of access.  The same is true if we think only in terms of nations.  A privileged woman in Thailand is certainly better off than lower class Thais, but is she better off than an American woman (or, as the comments seem to suggest, a white American male)?  If you think the answer to that question is “yes,” then you are naïve as best, or an utter idiot at worst.

Yes, acrackedmoon has privilege, but only within the context of her country of residence.  Compared to myself, a white, straight male living in Florida on a University stipend?  We might be more equal, but there are still things that I have which are not as easily accessible to her, and our relationships to our countries of residence are not the same.  I am not as privileged in America as acrackedmoon supposedly is privileged in Thailand, and yet in relating our positions it becomes clear that we are not equal from a socio-economic perspective.

I’m not saying this in order to speak down to acrackedmoon or Thais; rather, I’m bringing this up because it is important for all of us to understand where we are in relation to everyone else in the world.  This is why so much work went into fundraising for Charles Tan at Bibliophile Stalker so he could attend the 2011 WorldFantasy Convention.  Charles lives in the Philippines and writes on his blog about issues relevant to this post (currency conversions, book prices, flight costs, and how all these relate to on the-ground salaries).  I’m proud of my community for helping bring Charles to the States for WFA, and I hope we will do something like this for someone else in the future.

The point is this:  privilege is not equal.  It doesn’t matter that acrackedmoon has privilege in Thailand, because it does not mean that she is the same as privileged people elsewhere.  Using the privilege argument is little more than a delegitimizing tactic which only shows the impoverished state of one’s argument.  “She has privilege, so we don’t have to pay attention” is little more than a longwinded way of saying “whatever.”  Last time I checked, that was a rather childish way to get out of dealing with another’s argument.

Duke and Zink Do America — Where My Politics Go to Live

If you've been a reader of this blog for at least a year, you'll have noticed that I'm rather political.  I'm also hesitant to post about politics on this blog, in part because this is supposed to be a space about genre fiction, writing, and so on.  That doesn't mean I don't talk about things that are political, but it does mean that I try not to talk about things to do with actual politics (Presidential races, etc.).

And that's how it's going to be from now on, because I just started a political podcast/blog with my co-host at The Skiffy and Fanty Show.  What is this new show called?
We describe it as follows:

Duke and Zink Do America is a 3/5ths serious political commentary podcast from a progressive perspective. We cover news, relevant events, and whatever else comes our way, always on the lookout for the stupid arguments and the stupid people who make them. 
If you need a fix of progressive politics with a moderate dose of humor, then this is the show for you.
Our first episode recently went live.  The show will be bimonthly, but we expect to post a few columns a month alongside.  Essentially, this is where my political rants and nonsense will go to live, fulfilling my desire to keep my writing and political worlds separate.

Feel free to head on over there and subscribe if you are politically inclined.  There will be a post over there soon enough explaining our mission, history, and so on.  For now, you've got over an hour of political deliciousness to enjoy.  Go listen and leave a comment!

Anywho!

The West’s Third World Others (or, Hey, Thailand Has Prostitutes, What’s the Big Deal?)

The latest shitstorm in the SF/F community comes in response to acrackedmoon's criticism of Pat's (of Pat's Fantasy Hotlist) controversial perspectives on Thailand and travel (acrackedmoon offers a counter here).  The short version:
Pat reinforces some stereotypes about Thailand and non-Western culture, some of them through sexist and/or racist lenses, gets called out on it without the bells and whistles of mutual respect, and then posts a rebuttal under the threat that he "will monitor the comment section," which turns out to be code language for "I'll let anyone who wants to call acrackedmoon a dirty name, etc. post whatever they want, even if they're full of shit."
A part of me wants to bring in every postcolonial non-fiction book I have ever read in order to tear apart Pat's original post and his response, but the amount of effort needed to do that should probably be spent on more productive measures.  But I am going to say something here by way of an insufficient summary and an insufficient criticism of my own.

I should note that I don't know Pat.  He may very well be a nice fellow.  But people these days aren't judged by the selves we don't get to see, but by the selves presented to the public.  Any claim that "Pat is a nice guy in real life" seems to miss the point entirely:  if you're not a racist, sexist, or whatever-ist in your personal life, then why would you use your public persona for non-satirical, non-parodic opinions about other people's cultures?  acrackedmoon is right in more ways than one, but the accuracy of her (?) criticisms seems to have fallen victim to the "you could have said this without being a bitch" argument (and the "bitch" is not implied, but spoken -- see the comments on Pat's blog).

Is Pat a racist/sexist/etc.?  Yes.  But so am I, so are you, and so is everybody (don't bother suggesting otherwise; you are and you have to deal with that, and not because you're white or a man -- everyone is racist, sexist, etc.).  Perhaps not to the same degree, but enough to reasonably say that none of us are "pure."  Does Pat know he has racist/sexist/etc. opinions?  No idea.  I know I have them, but because I am aware, I try to challenge them when they spring up, to varying degrees of success.  Is Pat challenging his?  It doesn't seem so.  His response is all defense and no (or few) admissions.

One rather interesting response to this comes from of a literary discussion of Forrest Gander's Core Samples of the World from OF Blog of the Fallen (a.k.a. Larry, the Book Eater):
Recently, there was a post that took another blogger to task for his depiction of her native Thailand (and his views on Islam and near-slavering over this "Girls of Geek" calendar).  When reading Gander's prose-poem and the passage I quote above, I could not help but note the complete difference of approach between him and Pat.  Where Gander notes the discomfort and explicitly states how "the foreigner can't control his situation; mastery eludes him," Pat in his response to the Requires Hate posts does anything but acknowledge his obliviousness to how his words showed a callous disregard for a complex situation.  No, the narrative there is that he was just pointing out an uncomfortable "truth" about the sex tourism industry over there (while neglecting to point out or being very unaware that sex trafficking is a very serious problem in both the United States and his native Canada).  Of course, the way he put it was taken as very condescending at the very least, not just by acrackedmoon, but by several others who read it.  But what happened is that there was no communication to hint that hey, ya know, maybe a native's perspective might just be more valuable in this case than someone who, like the people in the Holiday Inn commercials, think that they "know" a culture or society just because they visited a few places over a period of days, weeks, or months.
Problem is that it takes several years at least for an outsider to become acutely aware of an insider's perspective.  Lord knows that in 2012 there are still all sorts of Mississippi Burning or Deliverance jokes told about my native American South region.  Oh, sometimes there'll be that bright, enlightened person who wants to sound all sympathetic and say "I am impressed by how much you've changed since the KKK days," in that grating tone that seems to accompany an elderly adult patting the head of a young child who is tempted to kick that oldster's shins but has to refrain from doing so because s/he'll be in big trouble.  It is understandable that after a while of being talked down to, as if an adult from another society/culture were a gifted child, you grow tired of being polite and being deferential to the irritating dumbfucks who can't bother themselves to learn more than the most superficial aspects of your culture/society.
(Read his full post if you want to see what else he has to say.) 
That's a fairly long quote, but one that, I think, gets to heart of the matter without running the risk of that evil "tone argument."  Those of us who live in the West, who benefit from its inherent privileges, must be willing to interrogate that very position in order to get beyond, or at least to work through, our biases about elsewhere.*  Issues of degree don't seem terribly relevant to me when it comes to generalized opinions of a foreign land.  Does it matter that prostitution is less visible in the West than it is in Thailand?  No, especially in light of the West's involvement in the development of prostitution in Southeast Asia (do some research on Vietnam and South Korea if you want to see how America essentially turned a nominal, fairly normal human occurrence into a disturbingly common practice).**

That, to me, seems to be the underlying problem with all that is Pat.  Someone criticizes his position, challenges his biases and privileges, and his response isn't to think about the implications of his words -- how they might affect someone from the place in question -- but to launch a defense which, far from refuting acrackedmoon's criticisms, seems only to reinforce the stereotypes and biases one should be willing to break down and think through.  This is all damned even further by the quality of comments approved on Pat's rebuttal, the majority of which seem to appeal only to the project of soothing Pat's damaged ego by way of distortions, false arguments, more racism and sexism, and so on.***

Events like the one above, the one recently begun at Tor.com (and continued here), and every RaceFail or GenderFail, real or imagined, should make us really think about what we want out of our community, and whether we're willing to challenge the darkness attached to genre's back.  Is this the face of science fiction and fantasy that we want to revere?  Or do we want a more sensible future?

That's up to the fans.  My money's on decades more of this stuff...

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*And, for those of us who believe we live in some version of a "melting pot," we should interrogate those biases/privileges at home.
**I want to be clear that I know very little about Thailand.  I use it here only because it is central to the discussion.  You're free to correct me for historical accuracy, but I make no claim here that I am an expert.  I defer to people who live there and people who have studied the country, not to people who happened to have travel there for a few weeks.
***I don't subscribe to the opinion that the "tone argument" is necessarily invalid.  I only think it's invalid when made by someone missing critical levels of knowledge.  Mutual respect, for me, comes from mutual understanding, even if that understanding comes with disagreements.  In the case of this event, I think the "tone argument" is invalid-because-of-ignorance.  If you can't admit that you might have said something sexist or racist or problematic, then you can't presume to speak to reasonable discussion.  To be reasonable is to be willing to interrogate yourself when your behavior is called out.  That doesn't mean you have to agree, but it does mean that you have to at least try to understand where another is coming from.  If you can't do that, then you can't argue "tone" in my opinion.

Crying “Censorship”: Why Getting Banned Isn’t Censorship

You'll probably have noticed that a lot of crazy nonsense took place here and then migrated over here when Jen and I put our feet in piranha-infested waters.  This isn't the first time Jen and I have played emotional bees and frolicked in the convoluted mess of gender politics.  But that's not really the point of this post.  Rather, I'd like to use the aforementioned links as illustrative examples of my central point:
Deleting a comment or banning a commenter on a private website is not censorship.
Since Liz Bourke's original post, a number of people have almost joyously proclaimed they have been censored when they were banned from Tor.com (or would be banned from The Skiffy and Fanty Show -- one individual on Baen assumed we would delete anything he wrote simply because he would disagree with us; the comment is still there).

Neither of these things, however, constitute censorship, in part because private spaces have specialized rules which determine what can and cannot be said.  If someone waltzes into your house and starts babbling at you about why Obama is a bad choice for President or Gingrich will repeal child labor laws, you have every right to remove that person from your home and prevent them from entering again.  This act is defended by the U.S. Constitution, by our laws, and by our social codes.  Few would call that censorship.  A house is a private space, inside which you make the rules for interaction (provided they follow the rules from the outside -- no murdering in your house).

The same concept applies to websites that are privately owned or run.*  Much like the privacy guaranteed in your home, you equally are guaranteed privacy on your website.  That means that you are able to determine who can and cannot see your posts, who can and cannot comment, and so on.  In fact, Google does much of this on its own by snagging spam comments from the aether and casting them to the dark abyss (the same with Wordpress, etc.).  None of these acts are censorship, since nothing has been done to prevent you from being able to speak on the Internet.  Provided you still have a place to speak, your rights have not been violated.  You are entitled to your opinion and your voice, but not to a listening audience.

Censorship on the web, thus, is rather tricky.  At what point does the removal of content become censorship?  I'm not sure there are any easy answers to this question.  Because the Internet is vast, if not nearly infinite, there are few boundaries to free speech in the U.S.  The tables turn when you go to a place like China, where hackers serve as police officers against online dissent, where content from main sources are removed from Google's search database, and so on.  Is that censorship?

I would argue that the distinction between personal space and censorship seems to follow this logic:  so long as the avenues of discussion remain open, your rights have not been infringed; so long as websites themselves are subject to removal without reasonable cause,** you're looking at censorship.

This seems like a relatively simple concept to understand, but plenty of people cry "censorship" anyway.  Perhaps they do so as an emotional reaction, or because they really believe that the 1st Amendment means you can say whatever you want wherever you want.  The truth is that private spaces come with limitations and rules, many of them unspoken.  Many websites don't have comment policies, running instead on the tolerance levels of the owners.  Those tolerance levels will vary considerably.

In other words, think of your website as a digital house.  If you have no problem letting anyone come in and say whatever they want, then good for you.  But if you want to limit discussions or focus them, doing so in your own space means you're simply taking control of your house.  And if we're being honest, most of us have house rules that we expect others to follow (and house rules we set for ourselves when we visit other people's homes).  The difference between a house and the Internet, however, is that the Internet guarantees anonymity and/or distance.  Bravery is necessarily an attending element.

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*I don't know whether censorship applies to government websites, though there aren't many government websites with comment threads, as far as I can remember.

**For example, I wouldn't consider the removal of a website that shares pirated files (not links, but files) as censorship, since free speech does not extend to violating the law.

SOPA and Piracy: A Brief and Random Afterthought

Google, Wikipedia, and all manner of folks have taken up the protest gauntlet against SOPA (Stop Online Piracy Act), a bill that, if passed, would hand over an extraordinary amount of power to the Federal government, restrict freedom of expression (the 1st Amendment), and make life for website creators and owners difficult at best.  As the co-owner of a website for young writers, these things concern me greatly, as SOPA would make me responsible for what a member posts.  That's not to say that Young Writers Online is a haven for plagiarized material, but it is an open website and things sneak through.  The idea that the entire site should be taken down because I didn't find out soon enough is absurd.  But SOPA makes that possible.

I won't proclaim to be an expert in this area.  If you're looking for an expert, Cory Doctorow is probably the best choice.  But I do find the direction the media empires behind laws like SOPA are trying to take us worrisome.  I don't doubt that piracy is a financial problem, but I'm not convinced that the figures thrown at us by SOPA supporters are accurate or necessarily relevant.

What doesn't make sense to me is this:  if piracy really is a problem to the extent that we're told (i.e., that if we don't stop it, the creative industry will go belly up), then clearly the pirates are doing something really well.  Maybe instead of wasting millions trying to create and pass abusive laws like SOPA or crack down on pirates and websites, the media empires could take that money to do the following:
  1. Create better content (let's be honest:  most movies, TV shows, music, and books suck, and not necessarily because of personal taste)
  2. Make that content easy to access, affordable, and unrestricted to a reasonable degree (i.e., if I buy a digital movie, I should be able to put it on anything I own within reason -- say 10 devices at a time or something).
  3. Change the way copyright is enacted and enforced.  In particular, I think we should move from region-specific copyrights, to a generalized "world" copyright for most forms of media.  If not that, then at least all English-language materials should be accessible to everyone in English-language countries at the same time -- in every format.  There's a lot more that could be said here, but I'll leave it at that.
  4. Think of piracy as competition.  You can't beat it by trying to stop it.  You can only beat it by doing better.
I think #4 is the biggest issue here.  The majority of the media empires haven't had any real competition in decades.  Few of us can tell the difference between 20th Century Fox and Warner Bros. based on what they produce (though certainly there are obvious differences between Disney and other studios), so it's not as if any of these companies can reasonably assert that they make a better product.  Movie studios aren't like different brands of chocolate.  And while these empires have been battling against one another in a futile battle of "who can make the better selling movie/book/etc.," pirates have been coming up with unique ways to share things.  In the process, they've left a lot of tools behind, which indie creators, software companies, and so on have used to create entire new industries, forms, and so on.

That's competition.  Just because it's not based in profits (with rare exception) doesn't mean it's not competition.  The only way to deal with competitors is beat them at their own game.  Sadly, most of the media empires aren't doing that.  They're trying to find an easy way around the problem.  Easy ways out always produce unexpected results, and damaging the Constitution is not a worthwhile unexpected result.

Ever.