I’ve written two different posts about this issue. Circumstances decided that this one got posted first; good. I might post the other. Depends on how I feel over the next few days.
So, I’ve had a few weeks to think about the fallout from my Guest of Honor speech at Continuum. I’ve also had a few weeks in which to observe the SFWA controversy that was brewing before my speech, in response to the Malzberg & Resnick articles in the Bulletin. Lots of other things have happened during that time, on both the micro and macro scale: yet another incidence of sexual harassment at a con — or rather, someone finally naming names re a serial harasser about whom I’ve heard whispers and warnings for years. The US Supreme Court clearing the way for federal recognition of gay marriage. The Supreme Court also clearing the way for the return of modern-day poll taxes (complete with old-school grandfather clauses [PDF]!) in the form of voter ID laws. Queer people of color trying to figure out how the hell they’re supposed to feel in the wake of both. Some guy I never heard of mansplaining on how to (badly, in his case) write women. Julia Gillard getting booted as Australia’s Prime Minister. Penny Arcade offending a swath of the human race, again. And as always, everywhere, people fighting back.
I mention all these seemingly disparate things because they’re not disparate at all. These events are reflective of massive societal transformations taking place right now, all over the world. This transformation is more than just demographic. We’re seeing growing challenges to hierarchies, to orthodoxies, to every level of “the way it’s always been done”. I agree with Theodore Beale about one thing: this is about the future we want to see — for science fiction/fantasy, for American society, for human civilization. The future he apparently wants is one rooted in the past, during which a demographic minority of the human species constructed an ingenious system allowing it to dominate most of the planet. (Diabolical… but ingenious.) But things have changed, and with their system of control now falling apart, some members of that group seem to be doing everything in their power to extend its dwindling battery life. They’ll probably manage to keep it going for awhile. Systems are resilient like that… but no system is immortal, and some changes are inevitable. All that remains to be seen is how long this system takes to die, and how many people will be hurt by its flailing death throes.
But let’s narrow this down to the SFF field. In theory, we’re uniquely suited to analyze all this change; those of us from the fantasy end of the spectrum can consider it in the context of societal transformation in history and myth, while those of us in science fiction should already have been dipping a toe into futurism, if not the whole damn leg. But we’re all still products of the changing societies we’ve come from, so a lot of us fail to analyze in a cogent way — or rather, some of us can’t bring ourselves to, because the results of the analysis are too scary and ego-challenging. It’s simple, really. Straight white men have dominated the speculative literary field for the past few decades; their dominance is now going the way of the dinosaur; most are OK with that but a few (and their non-straight-white-guy supporters) are desperately trying to figure out how to bring things back to the way they were — because they’re terrified of being marginalized in turn.*
So these folks are trying to throw out new bigoted paradigms to shore up the old failing ones — reverse racism! PC Nazis! tolerate my intolerance! straight white guyz are the most discriminated-against group evars! — but it’s not working out so well, since their motives are painfully transparent. And naturally these people would see my call for managed change — a.k.a. a reconciliation — as a dire threat. I’m not really saying anything new, of course, just putting a label on something that’s already happening… but as we fantasy writers know, to name a thing is to gain power over it. And there are some in SFFdom who reeeeeeeeally don’t want to see that happen. If they cannot prevent society’s evolution, and if they cannot put things back the way they were, then they would prefer to see dissolution instead. If they can’t have power, no one can.
Which I guess is why I’ve recently had to add some new entries to the file of death and rape threats I’ve already gotten over the years (pretty much since around the time I started publishing professionally, if you’re wondering). Making oblique threats to shoot the messenger makes these people feel better, maybe.
Speaking of that. You may have noticed that I usually talk about bigotry only in the big-picture sense, rather than getting specific. There’s a reason for that. I don’t normally talk about the threats I receive, and the other aggressions I endure, for the same reason that other women don’t normally talk about every incidence of rape and harassment, and gay people don’t normally talk about every time they get attacked by homophobes, and so on — because there’s a lot more to my life than the shit I have to put up with.
So lately I haven’t talked about how infuriating it’s been to be told I was “asking for it” — “it” being Mr. Beale’s racist, sexist abuse and that of his commentariat. (What was I wearing? My skin.) I’ve watched ostensibly reasonable people ask whether it’s racist to call an entire group of people savages — no, really — and I haven’t talked about how nauseating that was. I’ve seen fellow SFWA members suggest that there must be room in the organization for white supremacy, misogyny, homophobia, and other forms of bigotry — because of course some members’ right to be assholes should trump all members’ right to operate in professional spaces free of harassment, intimidation, and abuse. I’ve said nothing while people who’ve never met me labeled me “an Omarosa” (because us
uppity uncivil black women are apparently all alike) or implied that I am difficult to work with (because of course you should blacklist anyone who demands to be treated like an equal). And I have sat seething, literally shaking with fury, while a SFWA officer tried to get me to change the wording of a letter I’d sent to some members of the Board, which stated that I intended to leave the organization if Mr. Beale was not expelled, and why. This person’s concern was that I had “sent it in anger” and was somehow unaware of the potential consequences — by which they meant alienating the Board and not, y’know, the death threats that concerned me. So since I plainly had no concept of the impact of my actions, this person had sat on my letter for five days without forwarding it to the rest of the Board per my request.
(I’m almost certain they didn’t mean to do something racist. But there’s a difference between me ironically embracing a term like angry black woman in order to discuss and puncture racial/gendered stereotypes, and a stranger actually impeding my goals because the stereotype is all they think of me. But we can talk about that later.)
I’ve held my tongue on all of this because, frankly, there’s nothing to say. You don’t negotiate with a certain kind of terrorist unless you want to encourage more of the same, and you don’t pay the compliment of reasoned, adult discourse to a certain kind of bigot for the same reason. Anyway, I have a career to think about now. If I devote the time and energy to these discussions that they deserve, I might never get another book written.
I’m talking now, though, because this is important.
This is not about me. I repeat: this is not about me. This is certainly not about Mr. Beale; he’s irrelevant in the grand scale. This is about SFF, and SFWA, and what these near-constant cycles of offense-and-outrage-and-offense-again really mean. If I may be melodramatic, all this anger and discussion reflects a struggle for the soul of the organization, which is in turn reflective of a greater struggle for the soul of the genre, and that overall struggle taking place globally. Remember what I said about managed change, a few paragraphs back. Reconciliation processes, in those parts of the world where they exist, are not meant to make privileged people feel bad, or wronged people feel better. This is not about feelings. Reconciliation is about safety. Processes like these are meant to minimize destruction and harm in reaction to (or in the continuance of) some tremendous systemic wrong — because only ideologues and extremists want to live through the chaos that is unmanaged change.
SFF is going to become more diverse, with women and people of color taking their place as equals within its hierarchies, whether the scared white manly men want it to or not.** Nothing can stop this now; it’s inevitable. The question is: will SFWA be a part of this change, or will the organization break upon it?
The battle-lines have been drawn. The “good” old days are gone. The world has changed, and professionalism is now incompatible with bigotry; there can be no peaceful coexistence between these two concepts. Where a conflict occurs, SFWA cannot remain neutral, because there is no neutrality when bigotry is the status quo. I repeat: there is no neutrality when bigotry is the status quo. Put simply, SFWA must now take action against bigots in order to prove itself worthy of being called a professional organization. SFWA’s leadership is going to have to choose which members it wants to lose: the minority of scared, angry people whose sense of self-worth is rooted in their ability to harm others without consequence… or everyone else.
If SFWA chooses in favor of the bigots, there won’t be blood in the streets. Everyone else will simply go off build their own, more inclusive, institutions — which is already happening, actually, and has been for awhile. This will make SFWA increasingly irrelevant, until it dies. If the SFF genre as a whole chooses in favor of the bigots, readers will go elsewhere and find more inclusive genres — that’s already happening too — and science fiction/fantasy will go the way of pulps and gothic romances: something fondly remembered in homage, but no longer relevant and thriving.
Instead of reconciliation, we will have revolution.
And maybe that’s what has to happen. I hope not, because I think it’s easier to use an existing institution to navigate change than it is to build something from scratch. And I also hope not because a lot of people I know and respect have tried their damnedest to rebuild SFWA into the kind of dynamic, supportive organization most professional writers need in the modern day. I’m pleased to see their efforts are having some effect. But sometimes organizations have to die so that something better can emerge from the ashes. Sometimes, ten percent shit is just too much to tolerate.
I’m still thinking about how much I’m willing to put up with, and for how much longer.
For the time being, though, I’ll remain a SFWA member. By expelling Mr. Beale, and making a clear choice to offend at least one bigot this one time, SFWA has done the bare minimum of what it must to retain relevance to the bulk of its membership. Much, much more needs to be done, and I suspect the organization will always be reactive to change rather than proactive in this area. Frankly I don’t expect better of a group that took 10 weeks to decide whether a member who spread hate speech in its name was deserving of the label “professional”. But at least for now SFWA might manage to stay relevant enough, to enough people, to last awhile longer. I guess we’ll have to see.
Comments off; I’ve spent enough time on this mess.
* Speaking from the margins — I don’t blame them. Nobody should be stuck here. But it’s kind of interesting how their ideology assumes somebody has to be marginalized. They simply cannot conceive of a reality in which everyone is equally welcome at the center. It’s a failure of the imagination that should be shameful for anyone who writes in this field.
** Or all the many other kinds of harassment that exist. Brown folks and women aren’t the only ones being stalked, threatened, intimidated, and excluded from our cons and other professional spaces.
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