Why I Try Not to Talk About Things I Know Nothing About


Update:  SF Signal has officially removed the post and issued an apology on their website.  To be honest, I think they handled it well.  They responded quickly to criticism, removed the post, and apologized basically in the same evening, which is not something you could say about other places in our community.  John DeNardo has accepted full responsibility, and Sarah Chorn, who runs the column, has said her apologies and apparently gone dark for a bit.  I know both a little bit (not as much as I would like, but we do live in different dimensions, so…), so I feel confident in saying their responses are sincere and that they both feel pretty awful about it all.  I hope that is the end of it and that we can use this moment to move things in a more constructive direction.


In 2014, I was on a panel about postcolonialism and science fiction at LonCon3.  It was a tough panel for me because as much as I should know what I’m talking about when it comes to the field I’ve spent the last 8 years studying, I’ve always had a bit of that impostor syndrome.  And that feeling is always enhanced by the fact that I know I come from the very group which made a field like postcolonialism necessary.  My ancestors probably enslaved people, stole land from others, destroyed entire cultures, colonized entire regions of the world and stole as many resources as they could.  What right do I have studying and writing about these things in the academic context?

A lot of that was in the back of my mind when I walked over to the panel location with my fellow panelists, and it stayed there even as I gave my thoughts on questions from the moderator and the audience.  What am I doing here?

But I do know something about this field.  I’ve studied it.  I’ve written papers.  I’ve published papers.  I’ve got a committee of mostly postcolonial scholars behind my dissertation project.  I can talk about postcolonialism and the long term impacts of colonization.  The impostor syndrome is always there, lingering in the background, and it probably always will be.  But I have to keep reminding myself that I don’t wade into postcolonial discussions blindly.  I know some stuff.

Which brings me to the actual subject of this post:

Twitter is abuzz about a recent Special Needs in Strange Needs post over at SF Signal:  “We Are All Disabled” by Amy Sterling Casil.  Jim C. Hines has already written a rather reserved critique on his blog, which I recommend you read.  The gist of the post is this:  Casil tries to argue that her strong ability to empathize with others makes her disabled, presumably in the same way as someone with autism or a condition that forces them to use a wheelchair.  Well, that would be the case if not for the fact that her post seems disturbingly without empathy and self-awareness when it comes to the autistic, wheelchair-bound, and other disabled people she mentions in her post.  She seems almost oblivious to just how offensive her post is at almost every level.  And others have already noticed.  As I write this, I’m in a conversation with folks who, quite frankly, know more about this subject than I probably know about Jamaica.  One of those folks has spent the last couple minutes telling us how their kid (who I assume has autism) responded to Casil’s post, which is about as awful as you can imagine.

There’s a reason the extent to which I have written about disabilities on this blog amounts to occasionally mentioning access issues at conventions (well, that’s mostly on Twitter, and usually via retweets) or, in one unfortunate and stupid incident, issuing an apology because I accidentally used a derogatory term for handicapped people during a podcast (a mistake I don’t think I’ve made since).  I don’t know enough about it to feel comfortable saying much more.

I’d like to think I can empathize and understand what it’s like to live with any number of visible and invisible disabilities.  And, I do, to the extent that I am able.  But given that aside from crappy vision and surviving cancer are the closest things I’ve experienced to a disability, I am forced to admit that I don’t know what it’s like to have autism or an anxiety disorder or any number of other possible conditions that affect one’s day-to-day activities.  I must always defer to those who do know, either because they experience the condition or because they’ve researched it.  They know how they feel, and when someone in that group says “hey, you’re failing on X,” I do my best to listen, because they know what they’re talking about.

That’s the case with a lot of subjects.  If I feel hesitant about my actual field, you can imagine how hesitant I am to wade into debates about disabilities, except in the most basic sense of it (calling someone out for being offensive, perhaps).

And even then, I’m not perfect.  I screw up.  I wade into conversations I shouldn’t, and I have to backtrack — or, sometimes, my pride gets in the way and I can’t move beyond it, and then I feel terrible about it later.  But I try not to do what Casil has done, because what that post amounts to is a kind of erasure of those with disabilities — one of the worst things you can do to someone, intentional or otherwise.  I never want to be that person, even when I sometimes am.

So, no, we’re not all disabled.  That’s OK.  But we should acknowledge that others are and that their experiences are varied and valid.  There’s no one autistic experience.  No one experience with a missing limb or severe depression.  We shouldn’t assume we know what all people with a disability are like; we shouldn’t pretend to empathize while unintentionally erasing disability altogether, either.  What we should do is acknowledge that those of us who aren’t in a particular group may be able to empathize with that group, but that empathy is a long way from understanding.

I may study colonization in the Caribbean; I may be able to empathize with the postcolonial condition.  And I can certainly talk about the literature and the history within that field.  But whether I can actually understand in the fullest sense, well, I don’t know.  Maybe not.  Maybe never.  There’s a reason my field puts so much attention on the writings of those who lived under colonial rule (or who tried to pick up the pieces after colonization supposedly ended).  Maybe the only road to understanding is listening to what others who have lived it have to say.

And that’s that.


Update:  SF Signal has said it will issue an apology.  The article is no longer available (it went down as I was writing this, actually).

Good on them for taking swift action on this.

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.

6 thoughts on “Why I Try Not to Talk About Things I Know Nothing About

  1. Congratulations on your successful suppression of another person’s expressed thoughts. Down with opinions with which I do not agree! Better that a million voices be silenced that one offensive idea be spoken! Proud of all, y’all. Damn proud.

    • 1) I don’t control the Internet. Anyone can start a blog and say whatever they want.
      2) Because I don’t control the Internet, I am in no position to suppress anyone’s expression whatsoever. I *am* in a position to talk about stuff, which, weirdly enough, is the very type of thing you apparently think shouldn’t be suppressed.
      3) If I’m suppressing someone else’s free expression by talking about them via analogy, then surely you’re suppressing my free expression by throwing a hissy fit on my blog. Hypocrisy much?
      4) Congratulations, you’ve become the first person I’ve seen to play the “free speech” card, even though free speech doesn’t actually apply.

  2. You got me wrong Shaun. I’m high fivin’ you here.

    And you’re spot on – the mob doesn’t censor when we mau-mau somebody into ‘doing the right thing’ and self-censoring, right? Hey, SFSignal has the right to keep that post up. They’re the ones with the delete key.

    Us? We’re just the mob howling outside their doors. All we can do is threaten to marginalize them in the SF&F community, refuse to invite them to participate in projects and media events and make them feel unwelcome at cons. Not like we’re making editorial decisions for them.

    Oh, and I’m absolutely positive Amy didn’t feel in anyway abused or intimidated by the illiberal shit storm we set loose on her doorstep. And hey, if she does, I’m sure she understands that she’s responsible for any emotional pain she suffered for writing words with which we strongly disagree. Am I Right?

    So, yaaaay! Another victory for thoughtful debate! You da man, Shaun. Walk tall. Be proud. Go, go mob-think!

    • 1) There was no mob. There were a bunch of people talking about this on the Internet. And, to nobody’s surprise, some people were upset enough that they didn’t want to have anything to do with SF Signal again. That’s the risk you run by posting anything on the Internet. But a lot of other people were, surprise surprise, just talking about it. If this constitutes a mob, then the foundation of American democracy must not sit well with you.

      2) Even if there was a mob, I wasn’t part of it. I never threatened to ban anyone involved from any conventions, nor did I support anything of that sort. I never said I would quit reading SF Signal. I never sent hatemail to anyone. I wrote a blog post and a few tweets where I criticized what was written. By your own definition, this is free expression. Either I have as much write to expression in my own space as anyone else in theirs or I don’t. You seem to not understand the word “hypocrite.”

      3) I can’t speak for Amy, so I won’t. That she offended a lot of people is not in question. That she may be feeling terrible about it may also not be in question (I don’t know, since I’m not following everything she writes). I also don’t support anything beyond criticism of her words. I don’t agree with sending hatemail, as certain people involved have done. I don’t agree with sending threats of any sort. You seem to be under the illusion that I’m someone else. You’re arguing against a strawman while trying to be clever, and it’s not really working out for you here.

      4) You also seem to be obliviously unaware of all the interesting posts written about this subject. Debates, surprise surprise, are happening.

      5) If you leave another comment on my blog that flippantly compares someone you disagree with to any person or ideology which literally imprisoned and/or murdered thousands for free expression or just murdered people en mass for any reason, you will have overstayed your welcome. I don’t take kindly to what amounts to variations of the Hitler fallacy on my blog.

      6) The same can be said about flippant references to censorship, which do not apply in this case, since SF Signal is not the government and has full control over its own space, just as I do of mine. I don’t see treating “self-censorship” on the same level as government censorship as anything but absurdity.

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