Hello! If you’ve been directed to this blog post, it’s because you just said something akin to “Damned If You Do, Damned If You Don’t” (DIYD2) in a discussion about bigotry, misrepresentation, or cultural misappropriation in fiction. I’ve written this blog post to save me time so that in the future I won’t have to write a unique comment on each of the endless occasions that I hear this fallacy repeated. As you can probably guess, it happens a lot. So let’s get started!
Here are some common conversation topics which might spur the DIYD2 response:
- White writers who write about PoC tend to get more attention than PoC who write about PoC.
- This story setting should contain a lot more women than it does.
- This queer character is a stereotype or suffers from overused bigoted tropes (e.g. Bury Your Gays [warning: TV Tropes]).
- There are some depictions of marginalized groups that readers are simply tired of seeing (e.g. women being sexually assaulted).
- Out-group writers shouldn’t pretend to be members of marginalized groups, for any reason.
Why is it a fallacy to respond to topics like these with DIYD2?
a. Because it’s not true, for one thing. You aren’t damned if you do; you’re damned if you do badly or in a way that hurts people. You won’t be damned if you don’t think and do research and do all the other things that good writers are supposed to do, but people will probably hesitate to apply the label “good writer” to you. You aren’t even damned — look, I like a hyperbole as much as the next storyteller, but what we’re talking about here is literary criticism, not the Spanish Inquisition. You will not be subjected to eternal hellfire, or even an internet “hate mob,” if you include a stereotype in your fiction. Have you ever really paid attention to how anti-bigotry shitstorms work? They don’t start simply because somebody fucked up; they start because the person who fucked up doubled down on it or got defensive rather than listening to the critique being offered.
b. Because it’s the wrong answer, to questions that haven’t been asked. See, you — the DIYD2-er — are making a number of assumptions that simply aren’t true. Such as:
- The conversation is about you. It isn’t. It’s really about becoming a better writer, period, by understanding how things like colonialism and representation affect literature as a whole, and gaining knowledge about how the media and unquestioned biases work. These are things that all writers, of whatever background, should understand — but especially re those subjects where you have privilege, because you’re working against societal pressure that discourages thought on these matters. It’s also about raising awareness of issues faced by marginalized groups so that, for half a minute, we can turn our attention toward that group, and bring its issues from the margins to the center for consideration. But if (you’re not part of that group and) your first thought is, “Well, how does this affect me?” then you have missed the point. You have airballed it. You have ridden a supersonic jet away while the point is still slowly proceeding on foot over arid, rocky terrain. Get your head out of your own navel and come back to the actual discussion at hand.
- This conversation is trying to put restraints on me, I mean, art! I have, very very occasionally, seen someone suggest that members of X group shouldn’t write about Y group, unequivocally and forever. That does happen, but it’s incredibly rare, and statements like that rarely go unchallenged by members of Y group so shouldn’t be taken as definitive or a consensus. That’s beside the point, though. What’s actually being said in these conversations is that art doesn’t exist in a vacuum, and good artists need to engage with the context in which their work exists. Are you taking opportunities away from underrepresented people and giving nothing back in return? Then your art is exploitative and probably inauthentic, and the people in question probably won’t think it’s good. Are you adding to a fallacy-laden Zeitgeist that is already harming real people in the real world? Then your art sucks because you’re not saying or doing anything new. (Also you suck at research.) And so on. Nobody’s trying to restrict art as a whole. They’re trying to minimize bad, harmful art. There’s a difference.
- This isn’t actually a complex topic, it’s just [insert simplistic knee-jerk rhetorical obfuscation of complex topic]. Take “white writers who write about PoC tend to get more attention than PoC who write about PoC.” This is a statement of context. A number of complex issues create this context: colonialism and history, lifelong societal discrimination that makes it harder for writers of color to get that crucial “room of one’s own”, underrepresentation of PoC in the publishing industry and retail, unexamined racial bias on the part of reviewers, fallacies of marketing which suggest that PoC are a greater financial risk when there’s no proof of that, plain old racism. A good way to respond to a statement of context is to acknowledge that context, and to consider ways of changing each part. (Yell at publishers so they’ll know you want fiction with PoC protagonists by PoC authors; ask why they don’t have any editors of color; post your own “best of” lists and reviews featuring PoC to counter all the media that ignores PoC; take the Tempest Challenge or otherwise consciously shake up your own reading habits…) To reduce the topic down to “Well, does that mean white writers should, or shouldn’t, write about PoC? DIYD2!” shows that the person asking that question fundamentally does not understand the issue. And maybe doesn’t want to understand, because it’s a lot easier to toss forth the strawman of “Those People ™ are always making unreasonable demands!” than it is to acknowledge that white writers get extra attention because of white privilege, or to think about the years’ worth of work it will take to fix the problem.
So when should I say DIYD2?
Whenever you aren’t interested in an actual conversation.
DIYD2 is just a garbage thing to say, really. It’s a bromide tossed forth in response to, often, someone’s expression of real pain or justified anger. It’s the kind of thing you say when you don’t actually give a shit, but you want to sound engaged and worldly-wise. Most people who actually care about these topics will see right through it, and either dismiss you as unworthy of engagement, or be annoyed by your callousness.
Yikes! But that’s not fair. I actually do care; I just can’t think of anything better to say!
Then say nothing. Not like you’re required to offer your $.02 on everything. Listen, and learn, and think. Do that for awhile, and eventually you will have something useful to say.
Okay! This has been a public service message from N. K. Jemisin. Hope it helps!