Note: Since I had 10 weeks to think about SFWA’s potential decision re Mr. Beale, I wrote two reaction posts. The one I posted last week is, thankfully, the “if he’s expelled” version, and I followed it up by renewing my SFWA membership. Below is what I would’ve posted if he had not been expelled, and I would’ve preceded it with a membership cancellation. As you can see, both posts use some of the same elements and arguments, though I think there’s an emotional difference that makes posting this one worthwhile. I also think it’s worthwhile to continue the larger conversation about the future of SFFdom — so I will cautiously open comments on this one, though let me remind everyone of my informal comment policy. Comments are moderated, so there might be a delay between you replying and me approving; sorry, but I’m a busy girl.
Warning for profanity.
Steven Gould, SFWA’s new incoming president, is the first person who told me I was a good-enough writer to pursue a professional career. He was one of my mentors at Viable Paradise — a workshop I attended 10+ years ago in order to try and decide whether to turn the hobby I’d enjoyed since childhood into a real career. I went there with a partial novel, a little hope, and a lot of cynicism — because even as a newbie it was blatantly obvious to me that openly being who I am, writing the kind of stuff I wanted to write, meant facing a steeper uphill battle than most aspiring writers. Steven was one of the people who eased my cynicism, and encouraged my hope, such that I finally started submitting (and publishing). I will be forever grateful to him for that.
I’ve started with this so you will understand how hard it is for me to say the following: I have just cancelled my SFWA membership.
The sad fact is that Theodore Beale is right in one respect: this whole affair is really about the future of the SFF genre. He and I are ultimately irrelevant, just symbols of a bigger conflict — him gleefully so, while I have unfortunately been drafted into the role. Naturally I don’t agree with his particular gloss on the problem, which really just echoes all the stock white supremacist/misogynist/etc. rhetoric you could hear in Stormfront’s forums; he’s not really saying anything new. I’m not either. But in my view, what this boils down to is basically adaptation versus stagnation. Will SFF be an art form that evolves and grows with its audience, allowing it to survive the ages? Or will it go the way of Milesian tales and plantation tradition literature, becoming something studied in esoteric humanities courses but no longer relevant to modern life?
SFWA isn’t Ground Zero in this battle; that’s been raging for decades across movie and TV screens, game interfaces, and in the wallets of consumers worldwide. SFWA is a symbol too, however; a microcosm of this larger struggle — and frankly it’s the battleground that’s small enough for all of us to see and easily grasp. So this is why I feel driven to take this step: because if we as a genre are to choose adaptation over stagnation, we have no choice but to shed certain traits which are no longer compatible with our ability to survive. Put simply, we cannot embrace bigotry in any form and expect to appeal to the broad, diverse, international audience we’ll need to become the kind of literary form that lasts. And if SFWA is more concerned with protecting the paranoid, salacious interests of a few members over the best professional interests of all of its members, then I’d be shooting my own career in the face to support it.
But let me break this down to the personal level. Bigotry is inescapable in American society; I wish this weren’t true, but whether we admit it or not, it’s the foundation our country was built upon. I can deal with the usual cliché bigot — I did grow up in Alabama, after all. Mr. Beale is just a slightly more erudite version of the Klansmen’s kids I went to school with, and a significantly less genteel version of the Paula Deen-types I met everywhere else. But the KKK in Alabama was sued into bankruptcy, and Paula Deen lost her job, so I have come to reasonably expect that in public or professional spaces — in a civil society — blatant bigotry will be answered with blatantly severe consequences. Such consequences send a necessary message that bigotry will no longer be tolerated. By [censuring/temporarily suspending/retaining] rather than expelling Mr. Beale for promoting his hate speech via SFWA, SFWA has offered not a severe response, but a wishy-washy one. The message sent is that bigotry within SFWA won’t be tolerated for now. Much. But check back later.
I repeat: bigotry is incompatible with survival, for this genre. A tolerance for hate speech is incompatible with function, for an org that claims to welcome all pro writers regardless of their background. It’s definitely incompatible with my own ability to remain a member of said org.
Right now I cannot trust that any SFWA communication I receive in my mailbox or inbox will not contain grotesque insults to my intelligence or humanity, or the intelligence and humanity of others who do not fit the most privileged moulds. I cannot trust that a person who voices such insults, or who threatens me in however veiled a manner, will be regarded as unprofessional (to say the least) and therefore unwelcome in this “professional” organization. I can trust that I will be vilified by fellow SFWA members for complaining about such treatment, because it’s already happening. Frankly, that’s what’s happened every time a woman of color, or some other member of a marginalized group, has dared to discuss incidents like these. (It happens to white guys who complain too, but do I wonder how often they get death and rape threats for doing so.*) I can also trust that more incidents of blatant bigotry will happen on SFWA’s watch, along with more vilifications of those who protest, because SFWA’s tepid response to this incident will encourage more. It’s not surprising; 10% of SFWA’s membership thinks hate speech, attempts to intimidate, and incitements to violence are OK. (I do not have the luxury, or privilege, of assuming that the people who voted for Mr. Beale did so out of ignorance or anything benign. Reminder: death threats.) And now I can trust that SFWA will remain a haven for many other bigoted embarrasments to the genre, because it cannot even manage to rid itself of the loudest and crudest of them.
And then there’s the bullshit. There have been calls to expel me from SFWA because of my Continuum GoH speech, and/or out of some people’s misguided sense of evenhandedness — because I guess calling for an end to bigotry is the same thing as calling for the disenfranchisement of women and people of color? I can’t really follow the reasoning on that argument, sorry. I have been called a racist for mentioning race and an ageist for mentioning age and “incivil” for airing the dirty laundry of this genre’s history and present, as if pretending hate doesn’t exist is somehow polite. I’ve been told that I provoked Mr. Beale’s attack; that I was “asking for it.” I have quietly seethed while a SFWA officer informed me that they’d sat for several days on a letter I’d asked to have forwarded to the Board — a letter stating that I would cancel my membership if Mr. Beale was not expelled, and why; basically a shorter version of what I’m saying in this blog post — because s/he felt that I had sent it thoughtlessly, in anger. They then urged me to change the “inflammatory” content of the letter, for fear of alienating Board members. I told this person about the threats of violence against me, and that I was fully aware of the potential consequences. Alienating SFWA Board members is the absolute least of them.**
The word “professional” becomes meaningless, past a certain point.
Now let’s get back to that speech which so offended Mr. Beale and his friends.
I’ve been reading about reconciliation processes, these past few weeks — not just Australian Reconciliation but other countries’ attempts to reform themselves after historical evils. The first step of any reconciliation is to acknowledge that a problem exists. SFWA has had repeated opportunities to do so, and failed on almost every occasion. I understand why. We’re a community of geeks, which is a good thing… but geeks are notoriously conflict-averse. Thing is, seeking to avoid conflict is the wrong response in all these situations. Supporting the status quo is not a neutral choice — not in an institution which carries the history of racism, sexism, etc., that SFWA has. There is no neutrality when bigotry is the status quo. By showing any tolerance for bigotry, and by choosing to retain Mr. Beale in any capacity as an organization member, SFWA has made a clear and firm choice… to stagnate. So.
I’m sorry that this hurts Steven Gould, John Scalzi, Rachel Swirsky, and all the other people who I know are working their asses off to save SFWA. I sincerely wish them luck in their efforts. And I am fully aware that my quitting SFWA plays into Mr. Beale’s hands to some degree — though please note that I am not the one who chose how SFWA would respond to his actions. On a purely selfish level I’m sorry that I’ll be losing the value SFWA provides to its members — but right now I’m forced to conclude that 10% is still too much shit for my tastes. Maybe I’ll come back when that percentage is down to 5%, or 1%. Those of you who’ve read this far will need to decide for yourselves how much you can put up with.
* If you’re wondering, I’ve been getting death threats since about the time I started publishing at a pro level. Only gotten the rape threats recently, tho’; progress! Not.
** Since I’ve gotten a lot of questions about this, an FYI: I’ve since had some conversations with folks on SFWA’s Board about this, and have been assured that this person — who is not elected; also, this was with last term’s Board — will be Spoken To and that this sort of gatekeeping won’t happen again. I’m content with that. Also, just a note: you can send a letter to any Board member, and it will get to all of them — or send it to all of them yourself. I wasn’t clear on that at the time.