Criticism Does Not Equal Bullying (or, What Bullying Means to Me)

(Update regarding comments:  if you're here to leave a flippant comment about the issue in question, it is unlikely to get through.  Either engage or move on.  This is likely to become my comment policy from now on because I really don't have patience for people who want to treat my comments section as if my blog were an opinion piece on HuffPost.)

If you missed the events of the last 36 hours, you should probably catch up here.  I linked to that post earlier today; in short, Charles A. Tan takes an editor to task for their problematic anthology submission guidelines, among other related things.  Earlier today, that same editor, after declaring on Twitter that they felt persecuted by people like Tan, etc., decided to delete his Twitter account and make his FB profile inaccessible (I think the latter is true).  This came on the heels of this editor's belief that he was being bullied by the people who he had un-affectionately called "rotten meat" (you can see the Twitter exchange for part of that here).

I'm not here to talk about the editor's submission guidelines or any of the major criticisms offered by Tan or others regarding what this editor has said about Africa and other things.  Instead, I want to talk about the charge that Tan, myself, and others who have criticized the editor (Natalie Luhrs and Jim C. Hines, for example) are bullies.  In short, I will say this:  criticism is not the same as bullying.

First, bullying is not:
  • Being told why a position you took is racist
  • Being told why something you wrote could be misconstrued as X
  • Being told why your editorial decisions are contradictory and are not as inclusive as you think
  • Being told you got something wrong
  • Being told you offended someone
  • Being told you said something sexist
  • Being told you need to think about things and stop resorting to name-calling because you got criticized
These are not instances of bullying.  The nature of these "instances" are not, in principle, irrational, though they may be unwanted, and so they fall more clearly under the domain of "criticism," as they are, indeed, criticisms of a position.  One could be wrong about any one of these, but it's impossible to discover the truth of a given matter if one does not treat it as initially valid.  Indeed, I've been criticized for many things in the past and have disagreed (and agreed) with a variety of different positions.  Articulated properly, a disagreement about a position is far more useful than blanket condemnation of that position as "bullying."

Second, bullying is a far more pervasive and insidious practice than some who use its name seem willing to accept.  A good definition of bullying can be found on the U.S. government website, Stop Bullying.  I won't include the whole definition here, but here is a relevant excerpt:
Bullying is unwanted, aggressive behavior among school aged children that involves a real or perceived power imbalance. The behavior is repeated, or has the potential to be repeated, over time. Both kids who are bullied and who bully others may have serious, lasting problems. 
Let's toss aside the bit about children because I think most of us would agree that bullying can happen between adults, too.  The same page lists a number of behavior types which are defined as bullying, from taunting to unwanted sexual comments to name-calling (i.e., a variation of an ad hominem attack, to be honest) to exclusion , etc.  Notice that the definition makes clear that power is an essential feature.

If I could criticize this page, it would be that it doesn't make explicit the difference between normal social control (wherein a behavior is rationally excluded on the basis that it is bad -- i.e., someone who believes women shouldn't have any rights and belong to men) vs. coercive social violence (i.e., using ridicule, public shaming, and other tools to prevent someone with legitimate concerns from engaging in a community, such as a woman who speaks out about a sexual assault being repeatedly told by a community and the police that she should shut up -- see Steubenville).  I think these are valid distinctions.  The former is a normal consequence of a social culture (women wouldn't have the rights they have now without some variation of social control); the latter is abusive and can happen in a variety of situations and in a variety of communities, even sf/f (such as someone being blacklisted on the sole basis that other people don't like them).

None of what falls under the "bullying" category should be misconstrued as "criticism."

Here's what bullying means to me:

  • It means being afraid you'll get punched by someone with a spiked ring, but also so terrified to tell an adult because you don't think they'll do anything about it and because you're afraid the kid will follow you home and punch you when you're off school grounds.
  • It means feeling helpless to protect yourself and feeling like nobody else will help you even if you really need it.
  • It means being openly ridiculed for literally no viable reason (you're short; they just don't like you; they want someone to pick on; they don't like your glasses; they don't like your hair; you have freckles; you look different; you talk different; you wear the wrong clothes) and being unable to stop yourself form taking on the names and knock pegs off your self-esteem.
  • It means running home from the bus because you're afraid of what the other kids will do to you.
  • It means closing in on yourself because you can't reason with someone who hates you for no reason, who won't listen to adults, who looks for every opportunity to punish you, who follows you around, who abuses you physically and mentally, who reminds you that you're really just a worthless pile of shit.
  • It means starting to believe that you just might be worthless, or close enough to it.
For the record:  most of these happened to me throughout much of middle and high school.  I did get threatened with physical violence on a routine basis by a kid with a spiked ring.  I did get followed home (TWICE) by a kid (different each time) who wanted to beat the shit out of me (one actually did so).  I did get called all kinds of names because I was short or had asthma or was poor or didn't have the right clothes or was perceived as smart (something which resulted in severe depression throughout high school; my GPA dropped from a 3.25ish in my freshman year to a C-average in my sophomore year).  I got ridiculed constantly, so much so that I spent much of middle and high school trying to avoid the locker room so I didn't have to being pushed and called names and laughed at and so on when I changed (for years, I would wear sweatpants to school so I didn't have to change at all, and then my P.E. teacher said I wasn't allowed to do that anymore and would have to change in the locker room).

I know what it feels like to be bullied.  I also know what it feels like to be criticized for things I've said or written.  They are not even remotely the same thing.  Not fucking close at all.  You know what happened to me when I got criticized for something I wrote?  I felt like shit for a little while, and then I calmed down, thought about it, and realized either that I stood by what I had written (and could justify it) or I that needed to change my thinking on that topic.  Most of the people with whom I talk about social justice issues are fairly respectful of my positions, even if we disagree.

You know what bullying did to me?  It nearly fucking destroyed me.  I'm lucky I had good friends.  I'm lucky I moved from Washington to California and ended up in a high school where people didn't ridicule me or threaten me with physical violence every day, where teachers actually supported me in my studies and pushed me to do things I didn't have the confidence to do because of all the shit that had happened to me before.  I'm lucky I got to be closer to my family and could get a little bit of my confidence back.  Because before I moved, the bullies had destroyed my love of almost everything except those things I could escape to -- video games (and books).  I lost my love of music (I played trumpet throughout middle school and high school and used to be really good).  I lost my love of studying.  I got angry.  I got mean.  I was a horrendous teenager, because I could take it out on my family, because they wouldn't try to hurt me like the kids at school.  I live with that shit to this day and try to make up for it (even though my mother reminds me I don't have to).

But I'm lucky.  I got to move away from the things that made me hate life.  I got to gain back a little of that music love.  I got to learn to love learning again.  I got to discover my passion for books and writing.  I made friendships that will last a lifetime.  I got a support group.  I got lucky.

Don't think this post is easy to write.  I don't talk about most of this very often with anyone, even my closest friends.  I don't talk about it because it hurts.  It drags up memories and feelings I wish I didn't have.  But I'm also tired of people trivializing bullying as though it applies to any situation where you might feel bad for a little bit.  I'm tired of hearing criticism get characterized as bullying.  I'm tired of bullying being used as an escape hatch from having to deal with criticism, as if one were above reproach.

Bullying is not a joke.  It's not an escape hatch.  It's not isolated to my unique experience.  But it is a serious ordeal that shouldn't be trivialized because someone doesn't want to deal with being told they're wrong.  That's bullshit, and it should stop.

Ethnic Heritage, Rejection, and Me

A few months back, Julia Rios and I recorded a whole bunch of interviews at the International Conference on the Fantastic in the Arts (ICFA).  One of those interviews involved a discussion about ethnic heritage and its various diversities with Mary Anne Mohanraj and Cecilia Tan, in which I lightly (and rightly) got called out for referring to my own heritage as "uninteresting" by dint of having descended from "old dead white people."  Having just edited the episode which contains this interview, I feel I should talk about this aspect in more depth, since I didn't actually explore my heritage in the podcast in question (me being the interviewer, not the interviewee).

I've been known to say two things about my ethnic heritage:
  1. It's not important (see above)
  2. I'm descended from Saxon Thanes (which I usually utter in an absurd, sarcastically prideful fashion)
Neither of these responses is actually fair to my history.  So I should probably say something about where I come from.  First, both of my biological parents were adopted.  I know very little about my father's side of the family, except that there is likely some Native American heritage there; I know considerably more about my mother's side, in part because she became obsessed with figuring out our family tree many years ago and has pages and pages of information.  On my mother's side, I'm supposedly descended from Saxon Thanes.  No joke.  She traced our lineage back to the 900s.  That's pretty cool.  Most of my mother's side is French or Anglo-Saxon (or mixtures therein).  There may be other European groups in there, but I haven't dug deep enough into it.  Supposedly, my family owned a huge portion of what is now Yorkshire; the Norman conquest of 1066 apparently put an end to that, but I'm not exactly sure how or why.

My heritage doesn't stop there, though.  In a weird way, being the son of two adopted parents means I have a connection to a lot of different pots.  For a long time, I didn't feel like I had a right to these pots, since I'm not biologically connected.  I'm not sure that's fair to my heritage or to myself, as heritage is also cultural.  My mother's adoptive parents (i.e., my grandparents) are an interesting bunch:  my grandfather was a would-be rancher / thoroughbred Yankee in the Western U.S.; my grandmother is a white South African.  My father's adoptive parents are equally interesting:  on that side, my grandfather is, as far as I know, a white American (heritage unknown), but my grandmother was a Native American (I don't know which group or the percentage, but I seem to recall she was very much rooted in her Native American heritage and was herself more NA than anything else).  I still have the leather wallet she gave me when I was a kid (no idea where she got it).  All of this is part of my family's history and is actually far more interesting than "descended from old dead white people."  The more I think about this, the more I actually want to know where I come from, biologically and otherwise.  There must be some interesting characters in my family's past.

I bring all of this up because I have started to wonder why I reject my heritage in such a flippant manner.  Why would I deem my history as less worthy than others'?  Why would I make fun of it when it, in some ways, defines who I am?

I can't put my finger on the reasons.    The truth is that I probably discount this heritage because of my own insecurities, which seem derived from my past and not from anything happening now.  And that's got to stop.  My history matters.  My family's history matters.


A Cereal Metaphor for the SFF Community

Imagine you have a bowl of cereal, and there are a bunch of other people with bowls of cereal, too.  Person A really likes Lucky Charms, which you think are OK, but you're much more into Cocoa Puffs.  Person B likes neither, but prefers Mini Wheats, while Person C enjoys Lucky Charms, but discovered Trix and hasn't turned back.  Along comes Person D.  They like Grape Nuts.  There's nothing necessarily wrong with Grape Nuts.  Sometime's it's OK.  Heck, sometimes it's even good if you're in the mood for it.  Other times, it's the thing you avoid in the morning because it's like chewing on rodent food.  But Person D likes Grape Nuts, not because it's good for them or tasty, per se, but because Grape Nuts is what their friends eat, and they like their friends a lot.

None of this would be a problem, of course, as one can like whatever they want.  Indeed, one should eat whatever they want in this metaphor because, well, it's a free country (or a mostly free world or something; this metaphor isn't perfect).  But unlike Person A or B or C or yourself, Person D believes you're all ignoring Grape Nuts because you hate people who eat them.  There might be some truth to that.  You're not overly fond of Grape Nuts eaters.  They make far too much noise when they chew and they're constantly going on about how good Grape Nuts are for you...if you'd only stop being stupid by eating all those Cocoa Puffs and Lucky Charms and Mini Wheats and Trix, you'd see the light.  So you may not eat Grape Nuts for that reason, or perhaps because you just really hate Grape Nuts (it's an acquired taste, after all).  So Person D says, "Fine.  I'm going to piss in your cereal so you can't enjoy any of it."

You're understandably shocked by this.  Why would someone piss in your cereal just to make a point?  Isn't that petty?  Isn't that rude?  Isn't that kind of the opposite of the purpose of eating cereal?  Isn't all this supposed to be about getting some breakfast?  More importantly, while you can understand some dislike the love you share for Cocoa Puffs, you at least poured it into your bowl solely because you liked it; indeed, the inventor of Cocoa Puffs shared their own favorite cereals so you could maybe enjoy some Pops or Cinnamon Toast Crunch or Froot Loops, and so on and so forth, because that's what we do in a community:  share cereals.  But Person D decided to piss in your cereal.

The question is this:  How do you get the piss out of your cereal?  Maybe you just pour another bowl.  Or try to ignore the piss taste in your mouth.  Or find a way to siphon out the piss and save your cereal before it's too late.  Either way, someone has pissed in your cereal.  How you react is up to you.

How to Destroy the SFWA…err, no, I’m not going to talk about that after all

This post began as a parody or a satire.  Whatever it began as, it was a scathing critique of someone else whose post I'm not going to link to because I just don't see a point in directly addressing anything said there or using my website as a link vehicle for what amounts to "people screaming about things they don't understand."  Phew.  Big sentence.

So, I've come to this point where I either shrug, shake my head, and walk away to other things, or I write parodies/satires because I don't want to repeat myself.  I'm going with the first route (except the walking away part).

The SFWA nonsense shouldn't be so nonsensical.  It shouldn't be this difficult for some people to articulate a position that doesn't make them look like assholes.  It shouldn't be this difficult for those same people to understand what some people are saying.  It shouldn't be this difficult for those same people to acknowledge that their worldview isn't the only one or that it shouldn't be just because it makes them comfortable.  It shouldn't be this difficult for those same people to realize they're arguing over a straw man and to start actually addressing what really bothers them, or to understand that gender matters, race matters, that our field is not perfect, that there are real structural problems here, that how people feel matters even if you don't understand it because you're not like them, that the world and its sf/f traditions matter, that how you represent others in a professional venue matters...

It shouldn't be this difficult.

But it is.  And it's incredibly frustrating to see name after name after name argue "1st Amendment" this or "political correctness" that.  To see them argue about things that aren't happening, using definitions of words that make no sense (apparently "no politics" and "professionalism" means "say whatever you want in a professional venue without repercussions" -- who knew?).  To see other people explain why the views of this group is skewed by straw man arguments and misunderstanding, only to get ignored because...reasons?  To see perfectly intelligent people refuse to acknowledge that gender and sexuality matter, and that giving up something like a pronoun really doesn't cost any individual person anything worth hanging onto, or to see them hypocritically argue that the SFWA shouldn't have anything to do with gender/sexuality/etc. while supporting inappropriate behavior from a while male author or two in a professional venue.  To see a female author get pissed on by someone in a position of authority because she didn't dress conservative enough to qualify as a "feminist" (another redefined term).

To see discussions of diversity dismissed as "political correctness," which roughly translated means, "I used to be able to say offensive things to these people, but now I'm unhappy because I can't without getting called out for it."  To see a member of the community write a mini-manifesto on how to fix the SFWA, when really it would completely destroy the organization's ability to represent the interests of sf/f writers and prevent the organization from celebrating its diversity (of all sorts).  As if somehow this would make things better.  As if somehow the organization does nothing today, when it obviously does.

To see the complete inability of certain people to have the basic level of respect for others, even insofar as it might mean letting those others be represented in a journal designed for their profession.  Not as a political game.  Not as a manifesto for something.  But as an acknowledgement that people like them exist and are writing books or movies or whatever, and that there are particularities to the field that are relevant to them.

SF/F deserves better than this.

And that's all I'm going to say about that.

Censorship is what people say when they don’t want to address the actual issue…for reasons

The other day, I posted about the SFWA Bulletin Petition thing.  I'm not going to rehash that debate here, though you're welcome to read it (there are links at the bottom of that post to other discussions).  However, I do think it a good idea to take a moment to talk about the rhetoric surrounding this ordeal, because much of the anger and confusion is, if not deliberate, then certainly the product of a particular discourse which naturally stifles debate or discussion.  The centerpiece of this rhetorical game is "censorship," which many have already discussed at some length elsewhere.  Here, I'm interested in how "censorship" is used in the service of the agenda at the heart of the petition and the debates that followed:

I. Censorship is a Distortion
First, I think it is worth reminding everyone that in discussions that begin with censorship, the charge itself is almost always not reflective of reality.  The original version of Truesdale's petition argues, for example, that the SFWA is "about to institute a policy of censorship based on political correctness in the organization’s
public publication," followed closely by the following:
The search for a new Bulletin editor followed the Summer 2013 resignation (under pressure) of the then (lady) editor (for the use of an “inappropriate” cover among other alleged crimes), and the brouhaha involving two long-time and well respected Bulletin columnists whose use of the words “lady editors,” “beautiful,” and a few other innocuous descriptive words led, for the first time in the history of the Bulletin, to its suspension (as of this writing no editor has been selected and the Bulletin remains in limbo).[1]
As has already been pointed out by many people (see the links in my original post), this charge not only misrepresents what censorship is, but also the events which led the SFWA to make the changes that it did.  It is either a deliberate distortion, or a delusional one, but a distortion nonetheless.  Much of this relies on fuzzy terminology, such as the idea of "political correctness," which in one light might mean "respectful" and in another might mean "stifling," though the latter is definitively not the intent nor the purpose of the acts that frequently fall under "PC" (a distortion in and of itself).  After all, to ask someone not to call black people "niggers" in a professional publication is hardly "politically correct" (i.e., stifling of one's speech), but really a request for common courtesy at the very least.  "Politically correct," in other words, is just a buzzword for "I want to be able to say whatever I want without getting called out for it."  In a civilized culture, that's hardly a reasonable position to take.

Back to the subject of censorship as a distortion:  Truesdale himself lists the offensive aspects of SFWA's editorial job description, none of which fit within the definition he provides by implication.  Censorship, in his argument, must by necessity have a political agenda.  Yet, when he pressed Steven Gould for an answer to this "agenda," the response demonstrated the exact opposite.  As Gould wrote, "We don’t have guidelines for “acceptable” articles, art, and ads other than content needs to serve the needs of the organization. Chief among those are our 5 core mission areas: to inform, support, promote, defend and advocate for professional writers."  Simple right?  Since the job of an editor is quite literally to fulfill the mission of whatever publication they edit, and that editor is answerable to whoever pays to publish the works, it's hardly censorship to request that an editor have to do any of these things, particularly given the context in which the SFWA has made its claims.  So the argument that an editor doing what an editor does in the service of a publication with a specific purpose is "censorship" is merely a distortion of editorial duties, and one grounded in a perspective which neither acknowledges that mutual respect must fall on the grounds of language (because language matters), but also within the terms of a given space.  In this case, the SFWA's space has a specific purpose, and the SFWA, it appears, has taken steps to make sure the Bulletin is relevant only to that purpose.  There's no active attempt to prevent members within the SFWA's borders from saying what they like, just as there is no requirement for the Bulletin to publish whatever gets sent to it, as is completely reasonable.  That's just reality.

Ultimately, censorship is rarely used in situations where it actually applies in these debates, in large part because censorship almost never occurs in these debates.  Real censorship looks like this:
  • You're threatened with or put in prison because of what you say or write by the government or someone working for that government.
  • You're threatened with or a victim of violence because of what you say or write by the same.
  • You're preventing from accessing avenues of speech by the same.  For example:  if you run an online newspaper and the government shuts down your Internet or destroys your computers.
  • Or any other situation in which the government directly interferes with your ability to freely exercise your speech (setting aside, of course, cases of libel, etc.).
Not surprisingly, none of this applies in SFWA's case.

II. Censorship is a Distraction
Since this petition relies on casting not only its initial terminology (censorship), but also the events in question within a perspective which requires absolute adherence to the first and absolute rejection of the latter (on the terms of the author alone), there's little room for an actual debate here.  In fact, the distortion of censorship (applying it in a scenario where suddenly "editing" becomes "censorship") is a distraction.  In vociferously defending this notion of "free speech" in a context in which it definitely does not apply, those who hold this position betray not only their ignorance of the terms, but also a profound disinterest in debate about the actual issue.

As I noted to Paul Levinson in the comments section of my previous post, it's clear that "censorship" is merely a simple tool to get to a point without actually articulating the real issue.  In other words, it's a distraction.  By the definition of censorship I have already poked holes into in the previous section, it's patently absurd and false to use the term at all.  Yet, in doing so, those who tow the censorship line engage in an almost deliberate act of obfuscation:
By your definition, all publications which have any guidelines whatsoever are acts of censorship, which makes the definition meaningless, except that it reveals something which is at the heart of all of this:  this isn't about actual censorship, but rather about what certain individuals don't think should be removed from the discourse in a specific and focused institution. It's about the *what,* not the action itself. "Censorship" is just the smokescreen being used to make this sound bigger than it really is, because it's far more difficult to justify why the SFWA *must* print the kinds of things Truesdale would like to see published without it.
At best, censorship is just lazy argumentation here.  It's a way of saying "here's the answer" without providing the reasons.  It's the syllogism without sound premises.  In focusing one's discourse on support for a censorship accusation, you really succeed in keeping the rest of us focused on that, too.  And since it's utterly asinine as a claim, that means anything you might have said beneath it gets lost in the shuffle.

More importantly, arguing "censorship" stifles the ability to debate the issue at all.  Those who argue against this position are labeled accordingly as "thought police" or "censors" or "fascists," terms which have emotional and cultural meaning that varies from person to person.  There's almost no possibility of a reasoned debate when the terms of engagement have been so rigidly defined.  Either you disagree with censorship or you don't...and if you don't, you're bad.

"Censorship" is also serves as a painfully simple way to attack one side of a debate without providing an actual argument.

On that front...

III.  Censorship is a Fear Tactic
Why else bring up "censorship" in situations where it clearly does not apply except to scare other people into agreeing?  This is one of the oldest tricks in the book, but it is also a serious fallacy that has, unfortunately, been associated with the term in question precisely because "censorship" is used incorrectly at such a frequent rate.  But that's precisely the rhetoric at play here.  Truesdale's petition is utterly obsessed with this kind of rhetorical terror.  From the first paragraphs, he accuses the SFWA of censoring, but he also implies by way of a not-so-innocent question that Gould may see himself as an authoritarian thought police.[2]  He likewise claims that this is mostly about straight males, who are, he implies, the target of this oppression, and that because the SFWA believes itself diverse, it must necessarily represent straight male views on things like sexy magazine covers (I kid you not).

All of this is meant to scare us.  It is particularly meant to scare people who believe in 1) free speech, 2) freedom from discrimination, and 3) democratic government.  That the SFWA is 1) not the government, 2) not an institution whose goals seem to have anything to do with discrimination (except tangentially), and 3) not the government, it's alarmingly transparent how desperate Truesdale's petition is to terrify the SFWA and its members.  After all, he also says "This sounds far too much like a fascistic approach to freedom of speech couched in the usual language of 'for the good of the people.'"  I'll just point you back to the section on distortions.

And since all of this is part of the easy, lazy tactic of "censorship" accusations, it's no wonder it has been so soundly rejected by members of this community at large.

IV.  What is this all actually about?
In trying to dig my way through all of this, I was struck by how difficult it is to figure out exactly what Truesdale and the people supporting him want (aside from "the SFWA shouldn't do undefined X").  If censorship is not a legitimate claim, but rather a smokescreen for what are real issues (or issues which appear real), then it follows that there must be a point to all of this that is discernible.  There are attempts to articulate the position, mind you, but they are almost always couched in the rhetoric of censorship rather than self-contained.  Censorship is the main issue, not these other things; censorship is the charge, while everything else is tangential. This is precisely the problem with censorship claims, though.  It distorts and distracts us from what the accuser is actually upset about, as if in some kind of Lacanian schema wherein the subject verbally expresses discontent over X, but subconsciously is concerned with Y.  Getting from X to Y is understandably difficult.  In any case, here are the things I think are at the heart of this:

1) It's not about censorship, but about not being allowed to "say" what one wants to say.
Naturally, this is a slight distortion, as the SFWA is not obligated to give you a venue to say whatever you like.  Presumably, Truesdale and others aren't advocating an editorial policy where anything goes either, though the rhetoric seems to suggest otherwise.  The Bulletin is not a soapbox.  However, it seems to me that many of the voices on the "other side" of this debate are upset that their words have been deemed unacceptable within the Bulletin's pages.  This is obviously true, but the grounds on which that determination was made seems to have more to do with the Bulletin's purpose as a professional publication for professional writers than anything else.  Unless the SFWA allows itself to become the mouthpiece for the opposite side of the debate, rather than cutting all political discussions from its pages in order to meet the actual needs of its membership (writing advice / publication tips / etc.), this charge is difficult to imagine for me.  I see an organization deciding "this is not the place for this kind of discussion."  One could certainly disagree, but to do that, the whole censorship line has to be dropped so it isn't the focus.

2) It's not about censorship, but about the purpose of the SFWA as they see it
I think the main reason this point is not articulated has to do with an unwillingness on the part of the people involved in this discussion to articulate what they know will be ripped to shreds.  Even if you disagree that the covers and articles which caused the SFWA controversies last year are sexist, it's really hard to justify unprofessional behavior within the organization itself as necessary for a professional organization or its professional publications.  Then again, I could be wrong.

3) Mike Resnick and Barry Malzberg were unfairly pilloried
I'm sure this is at the heart of it because some have literally said as much.  I've covered this in the previous post, though, so I won't do that here.

That's really all I can think of, to be honest.  Maybe I'm missing something and readers can fill me in.

V.  Censored by the Advisory Committee of Dukedom (or, Conclusions)
In the end, I think it's time that everyone move away from censorship charges as a rhetorical tactic.  It does nothing to further debate.  If anything, it hinders it by making it more difficult to get to the real issue.  And that's a serious problem when it comes to our ability to engage on much of anything.

But I also think it's high time more people took more, well, time to actually understand what women, people of color, and, hell, even men, are concerned about in our community.  It's that lack of understanding, or, rather, the seeming refusal to understand, that produces so much turmoil in our community.  Some might call it "checking your privilege," but I see it as more universal:  it's just common courtesy to take criticism, when articulated as criticism rather than hate, to heart.  You don't have to agree with all criticisms, of course, but it's a good idea to think about where to give ground.  And as I keep saying, if it costs you nothing to give some ground, why not give it?  We do it in every other context anyway, after all...


[1]:  I am using the original version because it is the best reflection of Truesdale's agenda.

[2]:  I do think it's worth noting that Truesdale's original petition is confused on this front.  He implies authoritarian motives to the SFWA at the same time as he admits he just doesn't know what's actually going on.  That this became the basis for the petition in the first place is alarming.  One would think you'd have a properly formed opinion on the matter.  But, again, "censorship" is a lazy tactic, not one used in good faith.

On the SFWA Bulletin Petition Thing Nonsense

(Note:  I've listed links to other posts on this topic at the end.)

I won't have anything extensive to say on this "anti-political-correctness" petition thing.  That's mostly because Radish Reviews has pretty well covered it...

That said, there are a few things I'll address:
1) I'm utterly baffled by the difficulty certain members of this community have with understanding what the First Amendment means.  We went over this in depth in my senior year of high school (everyone had to take a semester of government), so it was never a confusion for me:  the First Amendment only applies to the government interfering with speech.  In any other instance in which speech is hindered, the crime isn't in preventing one's speech, but something else entirely.  Libel perhaps.  Or maybe someone tied you down and forced you to write something against your will (like in Misery).  All illegal because you're committing other forms of crime.  But it's not illegal for me to tell anyone they can't write for my blog.  It's my blog.  It's my space.  If you were to ask me why I was censoring you by not letting you write for my blog, my only response would be:  fuck off.

And the SFWA is a private organization with its own rules, and one of those rules says the President handles publications.  So if the President wants to change the Bulletin to a fishing journal, he or she can do that.  Granted, I think it would be utterly stupid to do something like that, but so be it.  That wouldn't be censorship either.  Even so, as C.C. Finlay has made clear all over the place, the changes coming to the Bulletin were requested by the majority of members, and one of those requests was basically "not publishing things that alienate segments of the community."  You know, because the Bulletin is supposed to serve the members at large, not some subset of people who don't particularly care if they offend other people with their words.  And if a good portion of people are offended by the content (legitimately offended, not "I'm offended because your offense means I can't be offensive anymore," which is total bullshit), then it makes sense to change things.

Imagine, if you will (because you are probably a fan of SF/F and are fully capable of using your imagination), a situation where the Bulletin published an article in which one of the authors said Mormons aren't real Christians (in seriousness, not as a reference to a work or something).  Can you imagine how many Mormons would be offended by this?  I know a few.  I'm sure some Mormon members of this organization would be offended, too.  And wouldn't it go without saying that maybe we shouldn't publish something in a journal about writing advice and market tips and professionalism that basically shits on other people, or at least makes others feel like they've been shit on (since individual perspectives vary)?

Seems logical to me.

It's about respect, which I've already talked about.

2) I'm likewise baffled that Robert Silverberg admitted to signing the offensive, early version of the petition, even while admitting that he didn't like what was in it.  How am I to take this man's judgment seriously?  I don't sign a loan contract if line 57 says "once a month, you will submit for experimental radiation tests to grow an alien tumor out of your rectum" and then say, "Well, but you're going to change that part, right?"  The petition isn't legally binding, obviously, but I still don't understand the defense.  Either you agree with it as it is, or you don't.  And if you don't...well, don't sign it.

I should also note that the original version of the petition is precisely the problem with this whole conversation:  here's the point <0>..............................................and here's them <X>.

They don't get it.  In case you missed that part.

3) The petition makes this strange claim that the Bulletin is becoming politicized (it's politically correct, oh noes), but I fail to see how removing things that have nothing to do with the theme of the Bulletin and intentionally making the content more inclusive is anything but apolitical.  The Bulletin isn't a place to voice your political opinions anyway, so why should it make any effort to become a sandbox for those opinions which piss off a huge portion of the electorate and the people who actually care about this field?  It doesn't cost anyone anything not to be a rude dick in a professional journal (and, yes, that's what this comes down to).  Why would you *need* to voice an opinion about gay marriage or whether you think some members are fascists when that's not the point of the Bulletin anyway?

This isn't about politics.  Well, OK, outside of the Bulletin, it's about politics on some level, though I'm inclined as a crazy liberal raised by a lesbian mother ninja to think that inclusiveness is apolitical in nature.  But the Bulletin isn't about politics.  That's not it's purpose.  That's not what SFWA's members want it to address.  So this is a non-issue.

4) I don't know Resnick and Malzberg.  I've said my share on last year's Bulletin fiasco already.  I will agree that some of the dialogue surrounding last year's events reaches too far.

However, I also understand the frustration.  For me, the issue with Resnick/Malzberg's column is no longer "there was sexism in there," which, in my mind, is fairly weak tea in comparison to, say Theodore Beale (Vox Day, who has since been removed from the SFWA), but rather the behavior demonstrated in that final column.  To receive a lot of criticism from a wide body of individuals and to simply discount it is one thing, but to then use a professional organization's professional publication to lob an attack on those people is callous at best, petty and horrendously unprofessional at worst.  This is not the kind of behavior one expects to find in the pages of a professional journal, nor is it the kind of thing I expect from two respected individuals in this field.

I think the sexism aspect is important, but what bothers me most, then and now, is the complete unwillingness to recognize and acknowledge that what we say and do has a real impact on other people, and that you should listen to those you've harmed so you can do better next time.  That, for me, is the root of all of the frustration.  It's not that there's soft sexism in the SFWA from time to time.  It's not that Resnick and Malzberg said some boneheaded things.  It's that they said them, were criticized for it, and showed not only that they didn't give a shit, but also that they had no respect for any differing opinions on the matter and would rather double down than give ground.  This is why these fights keep happening.  It's about, as I said the other day (see one of the links above), respect.  When it comes down to it, the respect a lot of people in this community are asking for costs us next to nothing to give.  It shouldn't be this hard to get or give it...

And on that note, I think I'll shut up now.


P.S.:  One last thing:  I realize this post is focused in one specific direction -- Resnick, Malzberg, Silverberg, etc.  On the subject of respect, etc., I think it is fair to say that there are lines that can be crossed on either side, and that some of those crossings on my side (or what I perceive to be my side) don't actually help further the discussion and can sometimes hinder what should otherwise be a simple movement towards respect.  I've thought a lot about this, but I've yet to put together a cogent argument about it.  Part of the reason I haven't has to do with my concern about tone arguments, which I can get to another time.


Here are the other responses:

Moderating the Community and the Cost of Respect

In a recent blog post, Alastair Reynolds took on what he perceives to be the instantaneous vitriol that peppers (or, perhaps, consumes) the SF/F community on a regular basis.  Hence the title:  "Does it have to be this way?"  It's essentially an argument for moderation by way of a questioning of the current state of discussion in this community, and it's an interesting question to ask.

Does it have to be this way?  No.  That's kind of the point.  Most of these discussions don't have to begin and end with vitriol, though I think some of them require a certain firmness and uncompromising language (some).  In fact, it's entirely reasonable to expect two people from different camps to have a reasonable discussion about a hot topic and come out having actually learned something (I do this on G+ all the time).  I've certainly been guilty of jumping without much care to where I land, and it's something that I've tried to rectify to avoid the trap of attack over substance (it's an ongoing process).  I'm certainly not successful on all counts, and it has taken some degree of effort to hone my pouncing instincts so I'm not pouncing when I should be doing something else.  Even then, I try to pick my battles with some degree of care.

I'm sympathetic, then, to Reynold's question and implied argument:  there is some need for, if not value in, moderating the community, especially in situations when the benefit of the doubt is actually necessary.  This is something I've started to consider further in my own case, as even I have had a tendency to leap into things, believing I'm in the right, when I may be doing more harm than good.  After all, it is possible I've misread situations, seeing what is obviously offensive to me, but missing what was the intention.  That's not to suggest that intention gets one out of doing something boneheaded, mind you, but I do think intention should be taken into account more often than it is within our community.  If our community did more of that, perhaps we'd have more dialogue between various groups.

For example, there's the response to Paul Kemp's original masculinity argument (which I sort of responded to here).  I think there are serious issues with what he claimed, particularly in the assumptions he raised and reinforced in order to get to his point, but I also went into that discussion realizing Kemp's intentions were not malignant.  I understood the point he was trying to make, and so I tried to address that point without actually dealing with the individual (in part because I've talked with Kemp in the past and can't see Kemp as deliberately "starting shit," though his most recent post on this subject has thrown me for a loop).  Even Alex MacFarlane's post on non-binary SF (which I responded to here) contains arguments I think are stretching; but the intention behind that post was, overall, a good one.  The responses to MacFarlane's post, however, have been, at least where the "opposition" is concerned, hardly measured.  In some cases, they have been downright mean and accusatory, as if their authors were personally offended by the content of MacFarlane's argument.  I'll admit that it's probably easy to find the patience for intention when it comes from someone with whom you're likely to already agree, but every time I read MacFarlane's post, I cannot fathom why some of the responses have been so vitriolic.

Except now.  Now, I'm starting to understand.  Now, I recognize part of the trend in so many ragefests in our community (from any side).  Sometimes moderation doesn't work because the parties involved have sacrificed respect for the other in the service of whatever point they want to make.  And in the face of that, it is impossible to take a moderate position (in the loosest sense -- discussion over attack) when the thing to which you are responding has already committed offense without consideration of its impact.  In Reynolds' post, for example, one commenter basically implied that they should be able to identify a transgender person by their biologically defined sex and attending gender without push back by others. Reynolds rightly called this person out for the comment, and it is still there as of the writing of this post.

These sorts of arguments are almost explicit in their rejection of empathy and respect for another individual.  The opinion isn't the concern; rather, it is the complete disinterest in the personal desires of the individual.  In this argument, it doesn't matter what a transgender person feels or prefers; what matters is what is "the majority opinion" or "whatever suits my personal opinion of the matter."  That's problematic on its own.  Yet, this same argument either implies or explicitly states that refusing the empathic or respectful position deserves absolute respect and compromise for itself.  It's an argument for consequence-free social action, which itself is a justification not for moderation, but the extreme.  Yet, when this is pointed out to people who reject en mass the entirety of gender as a fluid social construct, they refuse, even on grounds of empathy, to give way, and become further entrenched.  It is as if the very idea of a transgender person being offended by being ignored and rejected out of hand is an offense in and of itself.

For me, much of this comes down to the cost.  It is one thing to demand respect for a position which directly affects others in a negative sense.  If, for example, I were to demand respect for my position that we should boot all libertarians from the SFWA because I think they're fascist pig monkeys (note:  I do not actually believe this), you would be right in giving me no ground whatsoever, especially if you are a libertarian.  But what exactly is lost by calling someone by the gender they believe they are?  I mean that question seriously:  what is lost by compromising on this point?  It costs us nothing to say "well, you want me to use the female pronoun, so I shall do so."  It costs us nothing to acknowledge that individuals are different from ourselves and, in most cases, deserve respect on that front alone.

But it does cost us something to ignore our natural empathic responses and reduce people to our own personal representations.  It's a social cost, and one everyone has to pay when they screw up.  We all pay those costs, but the point of paying a cost for bad or harmful social action (generally speaking) is to learn from it.  Those who don't shouldn't be surprised if others feel disrespected by what they say.  And if they're not surprised, you have to wonder why they won't give even that little bit of ground when it costs them absolutely nothing.

Moderation, in other words, requires reasoned respect.

Non-Binary SF/F and Message Fiction (or, “I don’t know what that is or why non-binary SF/F fits”)

(Note:  comments will be monitored on this post due to the nature of the debate surrounding this topic.  I hope I won't have to remove anything, but I have a low tolerance for rude behavior right now.  If you can't make your point without being a jackass, even if that point agrees with my own, then take it elsewhere.)

You might have seen the response to Alex MacFarlane's post, "Post-Binary Gender in SF:  Introduction."  If not, you can read the words of Jim C. Hines and Justin Landon, who both have things to say of their own.  I'm not going to address content of the primary response to MacFarlane (well, not the whole of it, anyway) or offer a line-by-line critique a la Hines.  Rather, I want to talk about a specific issue within this debate:  message fiction.  I would also be remiss to neglect to mention my post entitled "Gender Essentialism, Genre, and Me," which is amusingly relevant to the larger discussion being had in the community right now.

First, though I'm going to try to tease out the definition of message fiction in general by the end of this post, I should note that I'm not altogether clear on what certain individuals mean when they revile message fiction, except insofar as the politics are concerned.  Of the many references some in this debate have made to "the message", none of them properly defines the term and most engage with a strawman version of MacFarlan'es argument.  MacFarlane's column concerns the tendency to marginalize works which feature non-binary genders by exceptionalizing them.  Her primary example is The Left Hand of Darkness by Ursula K. Le Guin, which she says has been held up as the pinnacle of post-binary SF, while other equally important works have fallen away, such that we are constantly "re-discovering" them:
It seems to me that there’s a similar process for post-binary texts: they exist, but each reader must discover them anew amid a narrative that says they are unusual, they are rare, they sit outside the standard set of stories. This, at least, has been my experience. I want to dismantle the sediment—to not only talk about post-binary texts and bring them to attention of more readers, but to do away with the default narrative.
MacFarlane, in other words, is interested in this narrative, not quotas or checklists -- the narrative which says "these texts about non-binary genders are not normal precisely because they are unusual."  The problem with this narrative is in its ability to provide a rationale for ignorance, not on some political territory where these works must be ignored because they violate some central tenet of an "ism" -- though this is true to an extent -- but rather on the simple basis of cultural amnesia.  If we are not talking about works of a particular form, we are submitting to the possibility that those works will be forgotten, and along with them, the value they produce for the communities to which they might belong.  It is for this reason, I think, that she begins the post with the following:  "I want an end to the default of binary gender in science fiction stories" (emphasis mine).  The word "default" is not insignificant in the context of the entire post.[1]  The post isn't calling for fiction to deliberately include non-binary genders for the sake of doing so (i.e., for an agenda); rather, it calls for SF/F to remove the default assumptions about gender in order to open up wider possibilities for inclusion (who does the including isn't exactly relevant, since nobody has to do anything here).  I think this is a far too lofty goal, and deeply hyperbolic, but it seems like some have missed that careful nuance for one reason or another.  The idea that all SF/F must, by necessity, court the content of MacFarlane's argument isn't a notion supported by the argument itself. 

In all of this, the question for me becomes:  do the works MacFarlane wishes to discuss in this series deserve to be remembered?  Personally, I think they do for various reasons, though the most relevant here, I think, is the fact that these works, even in their most obscure forms, are an example of SF/F's remarkable imaginative, extrapolative, and critical potential.  And that potential is not isolated to "stuffy" works; rather, it is found in a whole sea of exceptional and memorable texts from before the codification of the genres to the present.  This is what SF/F does best!  Most of the time, it's a lot of fun (in my entirely subjective opinion).

All of this brings me back to the point about "message fiction."  The entirety of discussion about this topic concerns a term which has no defined criteria by which we can discern message fiction from just fiction.  The only criteria, as far as I can tell, is that message fiction isn't fun, but since "fun" is entirely subjective, it's impossible to apply that in any significant way.  Some who attack message fiction provide an explanation for one of message fiction's functions, which is to subvert the natural drive of a narrative by bogging down the whole with an agenda, but the best explanation on offer boils down to "here are some works which have messages."  Even upon a deeper search into certain individuals' posts revealed little useful material for understanding, at the very least, how they define the term.  There are numerous claims about liberals taking over Worldcon, making it impossible for conservative message stories (or books by conservatives, by extension) to appear on the ballots[3] and people avoiding SF because of messages.  At what point does fiction with political issues in them become "preachy" or "message-y"?  No idea.  The argument is never made; we're simply supposed to accept it as accurate on the basis of someone's word, which you'll notice is quite difficult when so much of the discussion centers around political affiliations (liberals this, liberals that).  The claims are weirdly paranoid, like the Illuminati itself has taken over SF and only these folks have figured it out.  If you replaced every iteration of "liberal" with "human-skin-wearing lizard people," it would surely bring its own kind of entertainment.  Perhaps this is what one means by "the message"?[4]  At best, the term has a nebulous casing, with possible good and bad examples of "message fiction," but no clear sense for how they connect or disconnect from one another.

In the end, I was left with a question:  what is message fiction and why is non-binary SF/F naturally lumped within its borders?  Strangely, the post that (sort of) helped me most had nothing to do with the original conversation behind all of this or any specific discussion in SF/F:  Mike Duran's 2011 post entitled "The Problem with 'Message-Driven' Fiction."[6]  Duran's post concerns Christian publishing and the divided camps within it:  those who subscribe to nuance and subtlety and those who believe Christian literature should be driven by a specific message.  What it comes down to is agenda or intent.  Duran argues that many Christian writers believe fiction's purpose is to send along a specifically Christian message (presumably it's a more fundamentalist message, but it's not strictly relevant to Duran, and neither is it for me in this instance).  In the process of supporting this argument, he wonders, as do I, when writing a theme, idea, concept, and so on becomes an actual problem (i.e., a message in the form of fiction rather than a fiction with a message):
When an author’s “message” subjugates the story, co-opts characters for the purpose of delivering that message, and uses the novel as a platform for that message, at that point something’s out of whack.
Duran provides a specific example to support his claim:  the Christian view of hope.  Granted, it's a softball choice, since "hope" is hardly the sort of thing to spark debates, but if you translate "hope" to any other value that is associated with Christianity (good or bad), you can get the idea.  In Duran's view, Christian fiction in its rigid, monolithic form focuses on the message at the expense of the narrative, such that the fiction itself is tangential to the message:  if you pull the story and world away, the message would remain intact.  But like others, he doesn't provide all of the necessary criteria to concretize the concept. As I've already said, it, at best, comes down to intent:  message fiction serves a purpose that is clearly defined by the creator and which is meant to foist individual values through a fictional medium to the public; in so doing, the narrative ceases to matter, except to conclude or complete the image of the message.  In the case of Christian fiction, this seems to serve two clear purposes:  1) to represent the narrow interests of a specific religious affiliation, and 2) to reinforce values for those who already agree with the message, which Duran notes may explain why many Christian authors don't see an issue with jamming messages into the work to fulfill the dictates of an agenda.

Though I think this post helped me grasp the mechanisms of message fiction, Duran's post still leaves a lot of unanswered questions.  For one, his post concerns Christian fiction, which has its own thematic milieu and agendas, many of which do not translate into other arenas; how might these same ideas apply to other formats?  Duran is, at least, careful not to say that all messages are inherently bad, just that focusing primarily on message is detrimental overall because it limits perspective (for the writer and the reader).  But, again, the criteria remain fuzzy.  And by this point, all I've got is intent and "not fun."  Neither of those are particularly useful.[7][8]

Regardless, I'd like to take a moment to talk about one of the key questions I raised in the title:  why does non-binary SF/F automatically fall into the domain of message fiction?  As far as I can tell, the rationale is political.  Because those who typically discuss non-traditional genders are overwhelmingly liberal, the desire to include such things in SF/F can only be read as "a message."  But since "message fiction" is neither concrete nor particularly useful for assessing anything, especially since one cannot escape messages and produce "pure fiction," the political demarcation seems absurdly partisan.  These things are liberal ideas; therefore, their inclusion is bad.  What seems apparent to me is the way "message fiction" is used within certain communities:  as a method for dismissing fiction on the basis of its content, but with the added bonus of making a political statement.  It's an attempt at the apolitical or non-political which is itself political.

There is also the more disturbing matter, which goes to the heart of MacFarlane's post:  for reasons I don't quite understand, inclusion in and of itself is not necessarily "message fiction," but calling for that inclusion is.  Some have essentially argued this point without a hint of irony; it seems suspect that the overwhelming response from one side of this debate (one which I won't attribute to a universal political subject) is along these lines.  It's fine if an author puts some transgender characters in a book all on their own, but to challenge the fact that such characters are almost never seen and to argue that this should be rectified is suddenly a problem.  Since MacFarlane's post is a challenge to the default (i.e., these are the two genders deserving of representation), it should go without saying that the intent is not to arbitrarily insert characters as challenges (i.e., to make a point on this issue), but rather to open the gates so inclusion is no longer seen as an issue.  It's about normalizing what isn't perceive as normal, even though it is.[9]  Part of the project demands giving attention to works which have already done this.  But the other part of that project means opening the discussion to the issue of gender at large to rectify what is the marginalization by the dominant cultural narrative of binaries.  The fact that male/female is perceived as the default is the real problem.  And if that isn't the message so many writers are sending the people who read their work when they refuse to represent non-binary genders or treat those genders poorly, then neither is the desire for inclusion.

On a final note, I'd also like to point to a recent post by S.L. Huang, who argues against the politicizing of existence:
People with non-binary genders aren’t an agenda. They exist. They’re reality. Same with people of nonwhite races and non-Western ethnicities and queer orientations. I don’t consider my existence to be part of some “liberal agenda”—in fact, my personal political ideology might be considered quite conservative in many respects, but my existence is neither conservative nor liberal.  And neither is anyone else’s. (emphasis theirs)
And on that note, I leave it to the Internet.


[1]:  It's possible this argument is nuanced further in the comments somewhere, but I am concerned primarily with the rhetoric of MacFarlane's original post.

[2]:  Very little of the arguments against MacFarlane seem to have anything to do with the content of her; the point seems to be to construct an annoying strawman (in both senses here) so one can easily topple it, but in doing so, they miss the actual argument.  The phrase "man screaming at the clouds" has been thrown around already.  In this case, I don't think the image is inaccurate.

[3]:  Global warming, racism, sexism, etc. has also been defined as definitely liberal concerns, which I find offensive not because I'm a conservative, but because this binary seems utterly facile.  Presumably, one can find conservatives who agree with some of the above these issues, or are such people merely RHINOs (I suppose CHINO would make more sense, but WTF is a CHINO anyway)?

[4]:  I'd also like to note that some have routinely claimed that message fiction is the direct result of lower sales in SF/F.  I can't find the statistical evidence for the conclusion, as anecdotes (readers say X, for example) seems to be the foundation of the claim.  It's a matter of causality vs. correlation.  There might be a correlation, assuming one can define message fiction in any stable sense, but proving a causal link requires considerably more rigor.

[5]:  One of commenters in this debate (who is also an author) has written a post trying to elucidate the "problem," but since this individual finds it appropriate to joke about the mass extermination of people based on political affiliation (har har har), I'm just going to ignore them from here on out.  And before anyone says "well, liberals do that to," you can take a giant Fuck Off pill.  I don't care if some liberals do the same thing.  One person's bad behavior is not a valid reason to do the same thing yourself.  Anyone who does this is a jackass.

[6]:  Duran has the benefit of having written a post specifically about the issue at hand, which means I don't have to piece together references from multiple blog posts and hundreds of comments.

[7]:  At this point, I hope it's clear that I'm not looking for subjective standards of review.  If there is such a thing as "message fiction," the criteria should be specific and clear enough that just about anyone can assess whether a work of fiction falls within the category.  Objectivity vs. subjectivity.

[8]:  I have to tell my students to ignore intent when it comes literary works, since it is often difficult to find out what people actually meant to do when they wrote something.  Even if the intent is clear, the work itself may not provide an accurate reflection of that intent.  Short of extremely obvious examples (Oliver Bolokitten's "A Sojourn in the City of Amalgamation, in the Year of Our Lord 18--," perhaps), it's just not a feasible criterion.

(Bolokitten was the pseudonym for Jerome B. Holgate; he wrote the story as a screed against abolitionists and then self-published it.  It's a hilarious work, to be honest, but only because we live in 2014.  I suspect it was horrendously offensive in its some.)

[9]:  There's nothing inherently abnormal about the various genders, though I'll admit that I'm not an expert in the field.

Gender Essentialism, Genre, and Me

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

A Plea for Universal Free Wireless (in airports, at least)

I am currently sitting in Houston's magnificent airport after leg two of my four-leg flight to Sacramento.  The things I do for family...

Anyway.  A few hours before, I was in Tampa, FL, whose airport not only has a pretty impressive view of the skyscrapers in a gorgeous dawning sun (I have a picture that I can't share right now for reasons that will become apparently shortly), but they also had wireless.  Gorgeous wireless.  It was relatively swift, allowed all of my normal functions (blogging, Twitter, Facebook, general searches, etc.), and was all around just good.  Before that, I was in Gainesville, FL, whose airport barely deserves the title, but also includes at least usable wireless -- it's not all that quick, but compared to the public wireless at the community college where I am employed, it is like night and day.

Houston, however, has none of these things.  Right now, I'm snatching wireless off one of the airline desks nearby; they apparently have never heard of passwords.  This service only allows me to access Blogger and general search, but Twitter and all of my apps (even the ones that have nothing to do with social media, but require Internet to function) are blocked.  I can't even search for ebooks on this thing...

The only other public option around here is one run by one of the hotspot companies.  It costs $4.95 for an hour, which is the only time I can use anyway (your only other option is $7.95 a month, but since I don't fly all that much, let alone to or from or around Houston, it's really not worth it).  I think this price is basically extortion.  In other words, there is no viable Internet option here.

This is not the first time I've been trapped in an airport without free wireless.  You'll forgive me for demonstrating my privilege, but I think all airports should have free wireless by default.  There are a lot of good reasons for this, from simple convenience and customer satisfaction to the fact that social networks allow information to move quickly within airport terminals (just in case something has happened inside and you don't know what's going on -- Tweeting, after all, is quiet; then again, maybe this is a stretch).  Ultimately, I think customer satisfaction is the one that will matter most, as giving us access helps us pass the time doing something we apparently enjoy, whether it's chatting with friends online, reading online newspaper articles, searching for an ebook to read, or something else.

So this is my plea for universal wireless in airports.  I'd love it if Internet access were universal in general, but I think this is a good place to start.

Go wireless, go wireless, go, go, go wireless!