On Ethics and Linking Policies (or, Yeah, DNL Doesn’t Work That Way)

The Internet is a wonderful place. The Internet is a terrible place. The Internet is where dreams go to live and die in a messy conglomeration of joy, hate, madness, rage, love, sadness, and bewilderment. We want this Internet place to be safe for everyone.[note]OK, so that's not exactly true. We don't want the Internet to be safe for the truly awful among us. The murderers and rapists and scummy butt blisters who are the subject-adjacent of this post. Though, in fairness, the meaning of "safe" in this instance means "safe from physical harm" rather than the more universal safe implied in this post. At least, I think I have the right of it here...[/note] Yet, so often it is not. Given the right prompting, Internet detectives can hunt down your information, reveal your identity, and really ruin your day. Hell, in some cases, these folks have ruined entire lives, making people feel unsafe in their actual homes.[note]How these jackasses make people feel unsafe is rather varied: rude tweets, doxxing, mailing knives and letters full of threats, or even showing up at someone's house.[/note] It's an obvious problem, and one that thus far we don't really have a solution for -- at least, not one that doesn't involve putting your entire online identity behind a firewall of private accounts. Even then, it doesn't necessarily work, since your private accounts can be infiltrated by especially motivated people. Read More

A Conversation with Josh Vogt About the Internet and Perverted Things

(Trigger warning for anyone bother STD analogies...)

SCENE:  In the minutes before Shaun's new editing website went live, an unsuspecting Josh Vogt is gifted an exchange of adolescent absurdity on Facebook.

SHAUN:  I want to announce this thing, but I can't do it if the stupid thing doesn't propagate.  Make Internet love and spread already!

JOSH:  You make it sound like an STD.

SHAUN:  It's kind of like one...It waits for an unsuspecting server to touch it in its delicate place, and then infects it with new information.  That's all STDs are.  New information.  We just perceive it as genital warts.

JOSH:  Ew.  Though that'd make an intriguing character POV.

SHAUN:  I'm actually laughing right now because that's funny shit right there.

JOSH:  Someone who worships disease because it's just information and information must be shared to have value.

SHAUN:  I'm going to tweet that...

JOSH:  No no! I'm stealing your idea.  You'll see it in a book someday.

SHAUN:  That's cool.  I just want to tweet the convo.  Because it's funny.  But I can save it.

JOSH:  Naw.

SHAUN:  I'll use it as blackmail when you sell the story.

JOSH:  Spread the love

SHAUN:  I will spread Internet genital warts. Yes.

JOSH:  So is Twitter an orgy then?

SHAUN:  Yes.  I can't tweet this.  Some of the sentences are too long.  Can I put it on my blog?

JOSH:  Sure nuff.


JOSH:  Heheh

SHAUN:  http://thedukeofediting.com/  My Internet genital warts virus has flowered!

JOSH:  I really hope this isn't anything I dream about tonight...Soon, websites will instead be known a webstds

SHAUN:  We're part of the future, Josh.  Part of the *FUTURE.*


Gender, Non-Binary, and Things (or, the Likelihood of Failure)

As you may have heard, I changed my review guidelines so I could join my podcast, The Skiffy and Fanty Show, in its 2015 "Women and Non-Binary in SFF" theme.  This post isn't really about that so much as the related subject of life and getting things right.

Or, rather, getting things wrong and hoping for forgiveness.

Already, I can tell that my efforts to provide representation for women and non-binary folks is going to an informative journey through no fault of the people involved.  Learning is, after all, partly experiential, and so it's unlikely I can go through a year with such a clear focus without picking up on my own failings or picking up new behaviors, habits, concerns, dreams, aspirations, and so on.  I'm the type of person who finds something they love or care about, and then I start dreaming about all the ways I can do that thing, often knowing deep down that I won't be able to paint the whole picture with the resources on hand.  Ambitious to a fault, if you will, about the things that matter to me, or that I find I'm most passionate about.  Podcasting and issues of representation happen to be two of the things from which I currently derive the most joy.  Partly, that's because I find podcasting to be a great deal of fun -- reading books, watching movies, and hanging out with friends; what's not to love?

And while issues of representation don't provide the same kind of joy, they are something about which I am deeply passionate (if my Twitter feed were not already an indication).  It's something I try to get right, not just in terms of science fiction and fantasy, but in terms of my everyday life.  Representation encompasses so much of the world we live in, and it informs so much of the life I now lead.  That's why I wanted this year's theme to be "Women and Non-Binary in SFF."  I wanted the thing I love doing to be part of the thing that I am deeply passionate about, but in an explicit, "out there" sense.  This is about doing what I think is important and right.

In truth, I will fail at this -- sometimes miserably.  I will identify people by the wrong pronouns, even when I know it's incorrect; habit will often get the best of me.  I will also assume a gender or sex for someone because I don't know how to ask, or I may just get it wrong because I'm monumentally stupid sometimes.  In fact, I've already done some of these in the past (thankfully, to someone who is enormously gracious with their forgiveness).  I will fail in ways I can't even imagine right now, because there's so much I still don't know or understand about gender, sex, sexism, patriarchy, women, non-binary people, and all manner of related topics.  The things I don't know could fill the Grand Canyon.

In truth, I haven't been a good feminist for my whole life.  At times, I have been anything but.  I've done things I know now were wrong -- and probably knew were wrong then, but used all kinds of mental gymnastics to convince myself otherwise.  Things that sometimes haunt me when I realize I was one of "those" guys, even though I was also one of "those" guys, too (relentlessly bullied, depressed (still), insecure (yeah, still), hopeless).  But being one of "those" guys didn't make it okay for me to be one of "those" guys.  And I still feel a deep need to atone for the wrongs I have done, not just to women, but to all manner of people.  Not because any individual demands it, but because I want to be part of the solution, not the problem.

I want to be a better person tomorrow than I am today.  I want to be the best person that I can be, even though I know perfection is impossible and that I will always be just shy of the mark no matter what.  But striving to be something "more" in life is, I think, more important than succeeding and moving on.

So this is going to be a year where I try to be a good person, where I will fail, and where I will apologize.  By 2016, I hope I am a much better person than I was when this year began.  We shall see.

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 #GamerGate — Final Thoughts Before I Find Something Else to Do

If you have no idea what GamerGate is, the Wiki page gives a decent enough summary of the major events.  Additional details can be found at RationalWiki.

This is the only post I will write on this subject.  At this point, I'm basically "over it."  The whole thing is a monumental mess.  There's abuse on both sides, accusations flying everywhere, and, once more, a lot of hard divisions.  If GG had a purpose beyond its 4Chan origins, I think it's now over with, either because the well-meaning people within it could not control the narrative or because GG was always a hijacked movement whose membership, in part, was about attacking women (I lean more towards the latter).  For example, here's a rough statistical analysis of what GamerGaters have been talking about in the last month; hint:  ethics in journalism is pretty low on the list.

So this is all I'm saying on GamerGate.  I will not Tweet about it again.  I will not write more blog posts.  If someone decides to create an organized body of folks who are against corruption in games journalism, I'll support it, but I cannot in good conscience support GG.

These are my final thoughts:

  • I'm sympathetic to the underlying message of good GamerGaters, despite knowing very little about the ethical issues in games journalism.  Given that I find a great deal of what passes for journalism these days to be wildly unethical (if not straight up dishonest and worthless), I recognize the seriousness which such a topic can have within the field of gaming.

    However, I'm not a GG supporter for one simple reason:  it has always been hijacked by scum.  Scum who will try to destroy you for speaking out, especially if you're a woman.  We can sit around reporting accounts all we want, but the sad fact is that women who speak out against GG are being attacked, and since GG has no mechanism for purging this from its ranks -- except to play a distracting game of self-defense, which doesn't actually work -- there's no reason for me to associate myself with it.
  • As I've noted to some GamerGaters that I know, it's difficult to argue that the "trolls" who have turned/kept the face of GG as that of a terrorist organization are not actually part of that group.  Others have called this a No True Scotsman fallacy, which I think is somewhat unfair.  GG is not an organized body.  It has no defined membership with which to properly identify itself.  What it has are factions of people saying "this is what GG is or is not" in defense of what are obviously objectionable behaviors by those who are associating themselves with the tag.  Eventually, one has to admit that the tag has been tainted, and that trying to save it from its non-organized nature is pointless.  How exactly can you claim that the people issuing rape and death threats are not part of GG when there's no clear method for determining who is and isn't part of GG, especially since some of the people who are issuing threats and abuse are also part of the original message of "ethics in journalism"?
  • The previous point becomes complicated by the fact that the public face of GG is hardly that of the less public face.  There are people within GG who do stand against harassment and want to combat unethical behavior in games journalism.  But these same people will often RT or support people like Adam Baldwin (an anti-LGBT loon), Christina Sommers (who stands against Title IX for women in science, and certainly stands against the same for women in gaming/tech, despite the fact that clearly those industries need changing), Breitbart (an ironically unethical "journalistic" space), and so on.  Top that off with the fact that there's no clear way to remove or denounce people like Vox Day (an unabashed misogynist who now supports the movement and wants his followers to do the same) and you end up with a situation in which even the supposed "good face" looks like it's covered in pie.  These are not the droids you're looking for...

    It's one thing to mistakenly tweet something from a controversial source.  Perhaps you didn't know.  Perhaps you misunderstood.  It happens.  But at some point, you have to face reality.  These aren't the faces you want in your movement, particularly if you actually care about the issues you espouse.  It's for the same reason that I don't think anyone should associate themselves with any anti-GGer who says we should stomp gamers back to irrelevancy (yes, this has been said).  If you RT these people, you damage yourself (this is actually the product of an association fallacy, but good luck trying to convince the world of that fact).
  • It occurs to me that very little discussion has been had about those within GG who have been abused or threatened as a result of being part of that movement.  Some of the claims are specious (Mike Cernovich claims to have been doxxed, but that's patently false, as his business address was publicly available on a legal website (link does not contain the address; just a detractor's take on Cernovich)), but others are far more serious.  The problem, as I see it, is that it's difficult to determine whether the people attacking on behalf of the anti-GG side are actually "real" in the sense of believing themselves to be part of that movement or just trolling everyone.  There is a high likelihood that the same people who have hijacked/created GG are also dispensing attacks in the opposite direction, which seems possible based on the number of fake Twitter accounts, etc. that have been used to discredit GG detractors.

    Regardless, some of these attacks must be real, if by "attacks" we mean actual threats, not people calling GGers stupid (which is weak tea as far as I'm concerned). The Internet contains a climate of abuse.  Raging, childish abuse.  The adult world doesn't make much room for straight up abuse because we're expected to behave like adults in public, etc.  But the Internet has no such restrictions.  And you see it everywhere.  Few have actually tried to address this problem.  I often wonder why.  Hell, you'd think GGers would have made this part of the agenda, if it had a defined agenda...

    The only problem with these claims of abuse is that while I believe they are happening (given the Internet), I cannot find a credible source to confirm it.  If anyone has one, drop it in the comments.  Most of the major news sites aren't discussing the issue, which means the only ones reporting the information are blogs and folks with Twitter accounts.  This is hardly a method for legitimating the attacks.
  • I tend to agree with Brianna Wu's assertion that the result of all of the data suggests that GamerGate (or, at least, it's face) is that of misogny and hate.  It's nice to argue the opposite if you are, indeed, not a misogynist, but I think it's naive at best for any GGer to keep the tag for the sake of preserving a movement.  At this point, that battle is over.  Unless something insane happens to put GGers in a positive light, it will be forever tainted by those within the movement who coordinate threats against women.  If GGers want their original idea to be taken seriously within the wider culture, it would do well to move beyond the nebulous GG tag and create a clear, defined "body" with specific goals and specific membership requirements (something even Anonymous has).  Otherwise, GGers will constantly have to defend themselves against completely valid charges (not personal charges, but group charges).

    Indeed, right now, GG is perceived by many major media sources as mostly negative (there's some good or neutral coverage, too, but it's fairly limited).  They can cry foul about that all they want, but that's what reporters and commentators see.  I've even heard some GGers make the amusing claim that this is a conspiracy to kill the movement, which would make sense only if one could prove that the media is deeply entrenched with feminist values or something.  It's not.

    GG is losing the PR battle.  Women who talk about GG in anything but a positive light are threatened attacked.  It happened to Felicia Day.  It's happened to many others.  You can recover from one instance; when there are many, it's infinitely harder.
  • Every time I see someone trot out the Social Justice Warrior phrase as an insult, I assume they are confused.  Because to take them seriously at this activity would require me to assume that a lot of people really don't stand for equality for women, LGBT folks, and so on.

    "Social Justice Warrior" is a badge of honor.  I wear it proudly.
Look.  GamerGate is complicated.  Deep down, it has good motives (well, not originally, but certainly that good element exists today).  On the outside, it seems completely infested by trolls, bigots, misogynists, and total assholes, not least of all because that's where it started.  The response to GamerGate has been equally as complicated.  There are very public, very big names criticizing the violence within GG, and then there are a bunch of assholes who have taken that as an excuse to be, well, assholes (some of them may also be popular).  As I suggested in a recent post, this is a problem with the way our rhetoric has developed:  there's a quality to entrenchment of ideologies that leads us to live in a black and white world, and the complete lack of real world repercussions for those who dox, harass, and threaten has made these activities a part of Internet culture.  The good people behind GamerGate are a victim of that just as much as the anti-GamerGate goodies are a victim.  And the less time we spend actually talking to the good people, the more time we give to the trolls and scum infesting the Internet.

But there is a solution.  It's simple.  Discard the nebulous title, create an organized body around a specific set of self-imposed rules, and focus on the real issue:  ethics in games journalism.  This is doable.  Why anyone has stuck with the GG moniker is beyond me, especially when the fix could take place overnight.

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.

On Robin Williams

You have probably already heard about the death of Robin Williams by (apparent) suicide.  Given the public nature of celebrity deaths, I have a feeling a lot of people are somewhat desensitized to the whole thing.  I, however, feel inclined to say a few words about Robin Williams.

I was born in 1983.  Basically, I was a 90s kid.  I grew up on 90s cartoons.  I grew up on 90s movies.[1]  Among my fondest memories are those films which featured Robin Williams.  Hook (1991), FernGully (1992), Aladdin (1992), Mrs. Doubtfire (1993), Jumanji (1995), Jack (1996), and Flubber (1997).  My siblings and I watched a number of these films many times over.  They brought us joy.  Robin Williams had a way of making us laugh -- his greatest gift.

In a small way, Williams helped make our lives better.  Those that know me are probably aware that my childhood was pretty crap.  I wrote about some of that here.  Movies and video games were some of the methods through which I survived that growing-up experience.  Robin Williams was a part of that.  And so, for me, his death had a personal feel to it.  The man who made us laugh.  Who brought joy and wonder.  He's gone.  Forever.

I'll never forget the laughs.  It's just sad that we won't have any new laughfests from Robin Williams.  We'll only have the memories.

On LonCon and Thanks

I'm currently in Bristol after a long, exciting weekend at LonCon, resting up, seeing some touristy stuff, and generally dropping the weight from my shoulders.  Overall, this trip abroad has been beautiful.  I'll talk about some of that here (warning:  this will be more rambly and random than usual).

I still have a few days to look forward to in the big magic city, but my experience at the convention was overwhelmingly positive.  First, the LonCon staff put together a fantastic convention.  Though I could not attend every item I wanted to for all sorts of reasons, there were so many incredible panels this year, including a whole sub-track on World SF.  Clearly, the con runners heard all of the complaints and concerns about San Antonio (and previous cons) and took it to heart.  The international presence was phenomenal, in part served by the location (LONDON!) and by the smart programming staff who wanted to highlight the contributions of non-US/non-UK authors and fans.

I also have to say an enormous THANK YOU to the con staff for helping me deal with technology issues.  For those that don't know, my portable recorder mysteriously stopped working at the start of the con.  It turns out that my device and my microSD card weren't communicating properly, which led me to the second problem:  I had already recorded a bunch of things with the device, all of which I did not want to lose.  The con staff helped me get the files off of the recorder and onto a flash drive.  For that, I am immensely grateful.  You saved me from an otherwise terrible situation.

Overall, the con was amazing.  I'm so glad I got to go, and equally happy about participating in programming.  Most of all, I'm glad I got to meet so many people I otherwise might never have met.  Hopefully, I'll get to travel abroad for a future con!

The Hugos Ceremony
Thank the heavens that it was short.  They really crushed it down to the basics so we wouldn't be stuck in those bloody chairs for all time.  It's not that I don't like sitting down for events, but previous ceremonies have been astronomically long (in the same way as the Oscars, which I tend to mostly ignore, except when the actual winners are announced).  Personally, I'd rather get the whole thing over with as quickly as possible so I can get to other things.  In this case, other things involved parties...Hugo Losers Parties.

On Losing a Hugo
Here's something that I think should be said about losing this award:  it's a first.  It was my first time being nominated.  It was my first time losing.  Maybe I'll have my first win one day.  Regardless, there are so many firsts to appreciate.  How many people get to say "I've been nominated for a Hugo" or "I lost a Hugo"?  Not that many.

So, I lost.  Oh noes.  And while it kind of hurt at first -- especially when I looked at the numbers -- it really did become less a "oh noes" situation than a "holy crap, I got nominated and I'm in a room full of amazing people who also got nominated and lost and all this losing crap doesn't really matter all that much because George R. R. Martin is over there and he lost, too, and he's amazing, and then there are the Book Smugglers over there, who lost, and Justin Landon, who lost, and a bunch of amazing authors who lost" situation.  And I tacked on the "holy crap, two of my favorite authors this year, John Chu and Ann Leckie, won awards this year, and they're amazing and deserving and I shouldn't mope cause I didn't win because I wanted these two to win so bad, and they did, and OMG I'm filling up with amazing happy feelings."

That's kind of the evolution of the Hugo loser, I guess.

In any case, The Skiffy and Fanty Show will continue to do what it does to the best of our ability.  We're dedicated to spreading the love for World SF this year, and to our focus on women in 2015.

A Moment for Thanks
This is going to be long, and it will involve a whole lot of people.

First, I want to thank all the listeners of The Skiffy and Fanty Show for supporting the podcast all these years, for nominating us, and voting for us.  It really is an honor to be on the ballot, and the fact that the community of voters thought we were worthy of being on the list means a lot.

Second, I want to thank my family for their support throughout the years, not just for the podcast, but for my studies.  When times have been tough, they've been there for me, giving me money for rent, helping me fly home to spend time with family, and generally being supportive.  If I ever need something, I know I can go to my family for help.  I should also thank Julie and Scott Crawford, Erik and Hilary Vos, and Janel and Johannes (my aunt and uncle) for donating to my fundraiser; Kevin (my uncle) for basically buying my flight to England; my mom and my grandmother for their endless support; and everyone else, friends and so on, who have supported me all of these years doing whatever it is I do.  Thank you.

Third, I need to thank my various cohosts on the show:

  • To Adam Callaway:  thank you for starting The Skiffy and Fanty Show with me all those years ago.
  • To Jen Zink:  thank you for filling in for Adam and helping me make the show what it is today; without you, the show would have died before it could find its wings.  Additionally, I have to thank you from the deepest part of my heart for being my best friend, through thick and thin, for your advice and support, and for just being you.  Thank you.
  • To Paul Weimer:  thank you for proving to me that I could continue this show without Jen in every episode.  I was terrified of the prospect of Jen taking a less prominent role in podcasting duties, but you made it so comfortable.  You brought something to this show that we sorely needed:  an unabashed, enthusiastic geekery.  I am honored to count you among my good friends.
  • To Julia Rios:  thank you for all of the work you have done behind the scenes, for filling in when I was too overwhelmed to deal with scheduling.  You have brought so much to this show, whether in the form of your Bechdel Crusher superpowers or your glorious insight or your ability to reign me in when my ambitions get the best of me.  You rock, and I am so glad we have become friends.  And congratulations to you and Moss for your marriage!
  • To Mike Underwood:  thank you for your advice and friendship, for your glorious insights on film and literature, and for being plain old awesome.  I realize it's hard being wrong about comics all the time, but despite that profound disadvantage, we have become good friends.  To think this all began when we interviewed you about a random book... It's pretty much awesome.  I'm sure we will become a superhero duo soon!
  • To David Annandale:  thank you for donating your time to the show, for bringing your insight into film and your love of horror, and for being a good friend.  You have added something to this show that was sorely missing, and for that I am immensely grateful.  And it was fantastic meeting you for the first time at CONvergence!
  • To Stina Leicht:  thank you for your support and for bringing your charismatic Stina wit to the show.  You are a wonderful person and an equally wonderful writer.  Here's to a very interesting 2015, to which I'm sure you'll regularly contribute :)
  • To Keffy:  thanks for your friendship and for your help on blog duties.  You may not see yourself as part of the show proper, but you have contributed a lot to this show, whether through introducing us to new authors, helping behind the scenes, or letting me room with you at LonCon3.  And thanks for the laughs!
And, of course, thanks to anyone who has listened to the show, supported me in anything I do, and for just being awesome!

I may have more to say later about LonCon and my brief stint in England.  For now, I think this is good enough.

And on that note, I'm signing off!

In Response to a Bad Argument About SF/F, Racism, etc.

If you haven't seen Damien Walter's piece on diversity and vocal opposition to it in SF/F, you'll probably want to read it for context.  One of the loudest voices in the comments section is a fellow who calls himself Fail Burton (I assume he's a he, but I could be wrong -- looked on his profile; he says he's a he).  He's made a remarkable number of absurd claims.  I'd like to respond to one of those here:

There is no proof SFF needs any conversation of the sort. Innuendos about a "narrow set of authors" without documentation or any sort or definition of what "narrow" means in the first place are just that, innuendos. There is also no "compared to what?" If SFF needs this conversation then so does women's romance novels, the NBA, rap music and Indian cricket. Surprise - the politically correct have no interest in that, and the reason is obvious. This is not being offended by a neutral principle everyone can benefit from. This is specifically and only targeting anything too white, too male, and too heterosexual because it's an auto-KKK. Everything else gets a pass. The PC do the same with history - there is only ever British or European colonialism. Mughals, Aztecs, Incans, Arabs, Ottomans and Mameluks all disappear in their complaints, as if by magic. There has never been institutional white or male supremacy in SFF. The idea is as ridiculous as race, sex, gay = interesting literature.
1) That there are no conversations about biases in other fields does not invalidate discussions about such things in sf/f.  This assumes nobody is having those conversations, but I gather you, like me, are not an expert in Indian cricket or romance novels, or the NBA, or rap music (though, I'll accept that you might be an expert in one of those).  This means the point is irrelevant.  At best, it's a faulty comparison fallacy.

There's also the assumption here that fans of sf/f who are critical of its representation of people are obligated to talk about representation issues in other fields.  This would be like telling the Financial Times it is now obligated to cover Seattle Seahawks games or Nature to cover horse racing or a Congressman to represent the interests of people in another state.  These things may be connected on some sort of common ground, but they are not contextually relevant to the declared interests of each thing.  At best, this is absurd.

2) Context matters for what we discuss.  People talk about European slavery in the West because it is the most relevant, immediate history of slavery *for the West.*  Whether Aztecs had slaves isn't relevant to the immediate history of slavery here, nor to the structural racism that followed the end of the slave trade in Europe and, eventually, in the United States.  This applies to colonialism as well.  If we were discussing a cultural context in which another form of colonialism or slavery were relevant, it would certainly be important to acknowledge such things.

Indeed, even within discussions of U.S. slavery (and colonialism), there are long debates and discussions about, for example, black people buying and trading other black people as slaves (a fact which makes sense only if you put it in the context of the slave trade in the U.S., which was primarily run by and in service to white people -- crazy, I know).  These topics *are* discussed regularly in academic circles, but considering that most Americans couldn't tell you much about a random African, Middle Eastern, or, hell, even European country (except, perhaps, random stereotypes (not necessarily negative ones) and little tidbits of info), this seems a moot point.  I can no more control what people don't know than you can.  Yeah, all those other places (as far as I know) had slavery.  Did the Aztecs have slaves during colonial times in America?  No.  So why would a conversation about slavery in America or England need to discuss these other issues?  You seem to have a problem with the fact that people aren't raising irrelevant issues in specific cultural contexts where that would be bizarre at best.  If you want to hear about Aztec slavery, there are books on tlacotins.

3) Your claim that diversity arguments are exclusively an attack on white, heterosexual males is not quite a straw man, but close enough that I'll call it one.  Considering that there are women who have been criticized for their positions on various things (Elizabeth Moon and Sarah Hoyt, for example -- not necessarily on the same scale) and plenty of folks who are white, hetero males have been part of the call for diversity, I can easily conclude that your statement is nonsense.

Next, the argument that there has never been an institution of white supremacy in sf/f is laughable.  Considering what Samuel R. Delany says here, and the fact that publishing in general was in fact structurally racist throughout much of the 20th century (earlier too, but that's obvious), any claim to the effect that sf/f has not been affected by racism or white supremacy (this is the wrong term, but given your loose use for it, I'll let it slide) is woefully ignorant of actual history.  One would have to have read a lot about the Harlem Renaissance and learned about decades of sf/f history, and then one would have to pretend all of that never happened.  That's the only way this claim works.  Blind, willful ignorance (or, technically, just ignorance).

4) Just because you don't find certain kinds of literature interesting does not mean others do not.  I don't much care for a lot of things, but I'm happy to recognize that a lot of people do like those things.  Good for them.

5) This whole thing is about you playing victim, not because you're actually a victim, but because being one is convenient for your "cause."  And that's sad.

And that's probably all I'll ever say about this individual.  Laters.