So, the SFWA Bulletin thing. I’ve been following it quite closely since it spilled out onto Twitter on Friday night. As it happened right on the heels of a week of the Eddie McGuire racism “gaffe”, I was immediately interested not in the issues themselves (in the SFWA Bulletin case, the Feminism 101 stuff is not really interesting here, the sexism is so awful it almost reads better as a parody but for a truly awesome takedown, Foz Meadows cannot be missed on the issue – “Old Men Yelling at Clouds” btw should become the actual term for this stuff) but in the conversations that do and do not happen around them.
A couple of aspects of the whole situation really interest me:
1. The way people react to negative feedback
I’m not an affiliate member (which is all I can be) of SFWA so I am not a reader of the Bulletin. I have, though, read excerpts from the last several issues and I did see the … I could say controversial, but it’s just ridiculous and offensive and outdated … cover of issue 200. There is some very problematic material published in these issues. And this has occurred over (at least) 3 consecutive issues, so, over the course of the last nine months. On reading all this material on Friday night, I really felt that I would be annoyed if my membership money was being used to pay for it to be published and to represent me, as part of that professional organisation. I wouldn’t want my business to be affiliated with that kind of material – that women should be quiet like Barbie, that lady editors should be remembered not just for how competent they were but also how good looking (in a piece intended to discuss the role of women in the industry) and so on. I protect my brand very carefully, and I thought long and hard about whether I would want it associated in any way with this kind of material. (I do not). So I understood why some members felt they needed to leave SFWA after their complaints about this material had seemed to be falling on deaf ears (since the offensive material just kept coming). At the same time, I also understand that change happens from within, and that it’s just as important to speak up as a member of an organisation to push for change. So I also understood people who began joining or stated they would remain members.
Ultimately, that people complained, even for a publication that is clearly not respected or widely read (many people claim they put it straight in the bin or skim read it) is important. That they kept complaining when things didn’t seem to improve is also important – it’s so easy to give up when you feel you aren’t being heard or that things aren’t being addressed. That there has been very little material that I have seen online defending the material (I’ve seen two posts on blogs only) might say more about me and where I hang out on the web but also was uplifting to me – that there was so little discussion about whether it was inappropriate and more that because it was inappropriate it needed to be dealt with. In many ways, it felt that at least the conversation at large has moved beyond Feminism 101.
And I say that quite lightly. See Ann Aguirre’s post (or a bunch of other posts by women speaking out and their experiences to show that, no, sexism in SF still alive and well, alas).
Still, the explaining seemed mostly to be at the authors of this material. And this is what interests me – the most current opinion column by Mike Resnick and Barry Malzberg was to address complaints about previous offensive material in their column. And, um, this is what they came up with. Yeah. Frankly, it’s so over the line and so over the top offensive that it’s hard to get angry at it. It’s like someone telling you the world is flat. It’s also a good practice at feminist bingo if you like, tracking through all the usual ways to defend themselves and attack the dissenters.
It’s kinda boring. I mean, a couple of old men, whose work is not really my thing (I’ve only read Resnick, I doubt I’ll feel like getting round to reading Malzberg ever), don’t get that the world has moved on since the 60s. They genuinely do not understand the complaints. This is plainly clear in the piece they have written. They do not get it. And I don’t think they will ever get it. I don’t think explaining it to them, or trying to educate them, is going to get anyone anywhere. I also don’t think that the editor understands the issues at hand either. So for me, the issue is not about addressing them or how they behaved, it’s about deciding whether that kind of material should appear in a professional industry magazine representing (and being paid for) by professional writers. Does this material represent the values of that organisation? If not, it seems obvious to me what should happen. But, that’s process related and takes time.
Meanwhile. I’m totally fascinated by the calls by Resnick and Malzberg that they are being censored and subject to the thought police. It’s such a huge and dramatic, and dare I say it? *emotional* reaction to complaints about being offended by them. I’m completed fascinated by people who claim that our genre is about ideas, and about thinking about the future, (and about how women aren’t capable of either of those things) but who cannot cope with or engage with opposing ideas to their own. SF writers who are stuck, culturally, in the past. It’s such a complete dichotomy that it deeply intrigues me. Well, and amuses me.
How does someone say with a straight face that their freedom of speech is being denied as what they write is being published, and paid for? Since when did the publishing of what you actually wrote in a publication become censorship? How does actually getting to voice your (offensive) thoughts become being censored by the thought police? Like, how does that actually work. I can’t even type this paragraph without laughing.
But here’s what really gets me annoyed. How does freedom of speech, the concept, mean that it only applies to you? I don’t understand people who think that only they get to express whatever it is that they want to say, and no one else is likewise allowed to express their own freedom of speech by telling you they disagree with you? (bearing in mind that the entire concept of freedom of speech is different in Australia to the US anyhow). I mean, that’s actual thought policing or censorship, isn’t it? And since when did someone telling you they disagree with you become the OMG most horrible thing that ever happened to anyone, anywhere in the world, OMG the sky is falling? If you’re a fan of ideas, which I am, don’t you enjoy the cut and thrust of debating them? Isn’t engaging in alternative views and ideas …. thrilling? Isn’t that the fun? Isn’t that, OMG, the point of writing? Or, the point of writing anything worthwhile of being read, in any case?
I find people who react the way they did in that article boring – intellectually immature and selfish and lacking self reflection as well as respect and empathy for others – but mostly boring. Their column, in response to being asked to address the concerns, was predictable. It’s how we expect Old White Men (their words) to react to such things. Imagine if they had gone another way. Now that would have been cool.
But seriously. We know that this kind of reaction is the desperate attempt to maintain the status quo, the one where they have power, and others do not. But what gets me is, what would happen, really, to them, and the world as they know it, if they didn’t objectify women in their opinion columns and deliberately differentiate to segregate female professionals in their field? What would happen, really? How does not pointing out that an editor is female affect them? How does it change what presumably incisive and revealing ideas and concepts they have to offer about the world, the SF field and the future? What skin would it be off their nose to not mention how beautiful a particular writer’s wife was, back in 1942? After all, how many of us really care? Why do they?