The Politicization of the SFWA? (A Mini-response to Michael Z. Williamson)

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I had intended to post the following as a response to this post by Michael Z. Williamson on the politicization of the SFWA.  I don’t know much about Mr. Williamson, nor his politics (frankly, I don’t care as long as those politics don’t involve shitting in my yard — reference!), but I do think he raises several interesting points.  Granted, he uses as examples people who, for the most part, couldn’t identify sexism, racism, or downright poor behavior if it bit them on the nose.  So it goes.  In any case, you should read his post to get a sense of what he’s talking about before you read farther.

And here is my comment:

While I agree with you that the SFWA should be as politics free as possible, this is a two way street.  It cannot remain politically neutral at the same time as members within it see fit to thrust their politics into the dialogue within the organization, and vice versa.  Many of the most recent “turf wars” are responses to behaviors from members who have used official SFWA channels to share their politically-charged opinions (even Reznick and Malzberg were anything but politically neutral, as their most recent column in the Bulletin was practically a petty screed against people who criticized them primarily *outside of official SFWA channels*).  So in order to cut all of this stuff out, that means everyone gets cut out, and all those “turf wars” will have to occur in entirely different arenas. 

There’s probably something really good about doing this, but it won’t prevent attacks against the organization or between or against its members.  Understandably, you don’t have many methods for stopping such behavior, but you can remove such behaviors from the SFWA’s official channels.  In rare circumstances, you can (and should) remove members (and I honestly believe this should be for those circumstances when a member’s presence within the organization causes notable harm to the reputation to that organization — i.e., quite rare indeed).  I just don’t think that’s possible given the type of rhetoric being used in the most recent “turf war.”  Vox Day seems hell bent on pissing on the organization and the members within it (for which he holds a personal grudge).  He doesn’t really care to have a dialogue, in part because he is motivated by a supremacist’s mindset.  It would be lovely if we could ignore him, but he has intentionally used SFWA channels as a soapbox for his ideology.  And he likewise doesn’t seem to care if he breaks any rules doing it.  At some point, you pull the plug, I suppose.  It’s up to the SFWA board to figure that out.

The other problem here is that the organization is supposed to represent as many people as it possibly can.  That means women, people of color, liberals, conservatives, mad scientists, and regular old doctors (provided they write genre, of course).  The official voice of the organization must therefore present a unified, reasonable, and respectful narrative.  To depoliticize the SFWA in the manner you seem to desire, you would have to excise anything that could reasonably offend or disrespect members of the organization (here I use “offend” in its malignant form; lots of people get offended for stupid reasons).  And that means something like the recent Reznick/Malzberg column shouldn’t have happened.  It was not a positive examination or discussion of something relevant to members; it was an irrational attack on people who didn’t like the direction of the Bulletin in the past couple of issues.  There’s nothing rational about crying censorship or what have you in an official document, particularly when no such action had occurred.  And that also means something like Scalzi’s post on race/gender difficulty settings, even if retooled for the writing market, wouldn’t belong either.  

But I think we have to accept that the Bulletin cannot entirely avoid political issues (it can’t); it can remain neutral, but sometimes neutrality prevents action.  You can’t truly de-politicize the SFWA.  There are too many issues within the SF/F writing world that are political issues.  If the SFWA represents the writing interests of its members, that means addressing things like race or gender, which are factors that have and sometimes still do affect publishing and publicity prospects for members.  It also means addressing abuses against members within the writing world.  If Brad Torgersen really was denied the award by official staff of the organization (or if they tried to influence his nominations or wins so he wouldn’t receive either), then the SFWA must address that (I don’t know anything about this, so I will assume it’s false until I see otherwise).  Point is:  the politics aren’t going anywhere; the best we can hope for is lessening the hurt.  De-politicizing the SFWA is part of the process to make it a safe environment for everyone, but it doesn’t work, in my mind, by allowing some things, but refusing others.  Either it must become absolutely neutral, or it has to tread carefully and deliberately.  Lately, it simply hasn’t done that.  And that’s the real problem.


About the Author:

Shaun Duke is an aspiring writer, a reviewer, and an academic. He is currently an Assistant Professor of Digital Rhetoric and Writing at Bemidji State University. He received his PhD in English from the University of Florida and studies science fiction, postcolonialism, digital fan cultures, and digital rhetoric.

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