The Soapbox: On Political Correctness

[This post is a few days overdue. I've been furiously writing to finish and publish my books for the holiday schedule. I get that this is old news now, but it needs to be said.]

 

 

I’d suggest that one should be open-eyed about the facts that the categories with which we think and write and read, are not innocent, and that we should do our best not to use them to replicate the worst aspects of the cultural bumf that put them in our heads in the first place. Does that mean being politically correct? If that is deemed to mean being conscious of and careful about the political ramifications of our writing, then surely that’s the only decent way to proceed.

~ China Mieville, on RaceFail ’09

 

 

 

A few days ago, a couple of professionals in my field used really inflammatory and incorrect analogies to point out the willful ignorance in which some of the more intransigent people mired in the traditional publishing industry engage.

Barry Eisler made a guest post on J. A. Konrath’s blog, in which he made passing reference to how traditionally published authors have faith in publishers (and agents? I forget) that is comparable to Stockholm Syndrome or, as Michael Stackpole put it, a “house slave mentality.” The real backlash came after Eisler referred back to Stackpole’s post and The Passive Guy’s post in response to it.

My initial reaction was pretty much what the estimable Tobias Buckell said on Twitter. Courtney Milan responded in a blog post and voiced the problems many of us had with the language employed, not the crux of Eisler’s and Stackpole’s arguments. Milan used a less-than convincing political comparison in what was otherwise both an eloquent and a rational deconstruction of the motives behind the defensiveness and non-apologies for the use of extremely politically and culturally loaded terminology. She bolstered her argument by bringing up the use of the ‘rape or be raped’ monkey and frog cartoon upon which Korath and Eisler’s book about publishing is based.

Imperfect though her attempt to evoke a similar sense of hurt in Eisler was, the logic and ethics of her argument were spot-on.

Konrath and Eisler responded in a fashion that was both an utterly predictable and textbook case of derailing.

In short…

MILAN: The reason that people are upset is because you used a racially and historically loaded term to talk about business practices. This was unnecessary and will probably turn off many of the authors you are trying to reach. If you wanted to be inflammatory, all you had to do was use “indentured servants.”

KONRATH: I have the right to be an @$$hole on my blog.

EISLER: Why isn’t anyone arguing about the merits of my hypothesis? All of these haters have their heads stuck in the sand and don’t want to face reality, so they’re focusing on this language issue to avoid having to argue with my premise that traditionally published authors are like indentured servants.

MILAN and OTHERS: Actually, many of us think your premise makes sense. We’re saying you’re alienating people and distracting from your own message.

I thought the controversy had died down. Then I opened up my RSS reader today to find out that not only is Stackpole digging in deeper on this misguided slavery analogy, but he has at least two prominent defenders who I just added to my follow list because of their otherwise useful advice about publishing.

Being well-versed in exactly how painful the reaction and response to these heated diatribes go from my own experiences in studying social justice issues online and offline, and having lots and lots of work to finish before the holidays, I decided it wasn’t worth my time to appeal to the better side of human nature in random readers or to argue with privileged white men who write for a living about why words have power. What a silly concept, right?

After all, I expected to encounter a lot more conservative and libertarian views when I started reading about the business side of publishing. To presume other bloggers and business people would come from the same educational approach as I am accustomed to in the parts of online genre fandom would be the height of naivete.

For my part, I sympathize with some libertarian views on privacy and other Bill of Rights issues, and I oppose legislation that makes it harder to maintain privacy while running a business, even if it means there’s a chance some zealot will open a bank account somewhere. Modern society in general, and piracy and DRM in particular, should teach us that the harder we try to restrict choices, the more loopholes people will find and jump through. Security theater is a waste of taxpayer money.

What I cannot and will not agree to is the idea that the blogosphere is some kind of locker room bubble, in which people with great influence and followers can perpetuate the language of bigotry and other cultural biases and not expect their words to have some subtle impact on our world just like every other instance of those problems has had. Comparing self-publishers to Negro League Baseball Players is seriously Not Cool.

[ETA: This next paragraph originally misrepresented David Gaughan's post, as well as incorrectly linking STackpole and Jeter's opinions to his, so I have altered it and split it into two paragraphs to make the context clearer. Mea culpa, Mr. Gaughran.]

When David Gaughran went online and excused away Eisler and Konrath’s casual use of offensive analogies linked to Eisler’s post, saying “A lot of people got hot and bothered and seemed to miss the fact that [Stackpole] was referring to Roman times,” I was concerned that again, in my opinion, people were assuming that the criticism of the language used was merely a cover for an inability to rebut Eisler’s and Stackpole’s arguments, which is patently untrue.

Gaughran also provided links to two more blog posts. These made my head hurt: Michael Stackpole digging in on his house slave analogy with a  tl;dr post explaining how it’s all about economics and we should all completely ignore the social subtext, and followed that link with a link to When I saw K. W. Jeter defending Stackpole’s post (Oh, K. W. Jeter, no!), I had had enough.

Guys? I USUALLY AGREE WITH YOU. I AM A SELF-PUBLISHER. YOU’RE STILL WRONG.

I recommended your blogs to authors offline because I think you’re basically right about self-publishing and teaching writers to respect themselves as professionals and to approach writing with their best interests in the forefront every day.

But when someone as circumspect as Courtney Milan is calling you out for being unreasonably lazy in your uses of bad analogies, you can bet there are at least a thousand more who are just as angry as she is.

The reaction you saw had little to do with your arguments. It was about the poor choice of words you used to express them.

I don’t believe in the reclamation of words. Hatred and violence have made that task near impossible. It seems pointless to have women use the word “b*tch” against each other and for black people to use the word “n*gger” in casual conversation and try to convince men and white people that they simultaneously cannot say those things.

When I see a swastika, I do not immediately differentiate between the rotated one that hate groups use and the square one that has been an Indo-European symbol of good luck for hundreds of years. The revulsion comes first, the deconstruction second.

Mr. Stackpole, I am well-versed in early Greek and Roman history, and despite knowing what you were trying to do, my reaction was still to think of whites in the “New World” enslaving people of color and using skin color as a means to divide their loyalties and as a deciding factor in who was to be breeding stock.

All of you obviously haven’t considered that some of us don’t want to have to wade through hostile language to read about the publishing industry. If you had, you’d be trying to attract more readers, not continuing to alienate them by defending what could have been simple mistakes.

Perhaps we don’t have the luxury of extra emotional and physical energy needed in order to process information mixed with toxic words and continue our day unaffected. Maybe we’ve learned firsthand why insulting metaphors perpetuate rape culture and lead to piles of abusive comments, death threats, and lost hours spent just trying to type another word.

Words do have power. They do have meaning. They can heal or harm at will, and they unconsciously stay with us and shape how we perceive the world. Mr. Eisler, you can bet people in the Occupy Movement believe know this as well as I do. It does no good to propose social justice and tolerance through legislation if the people supposedly on your side don’t understand what social justice and tolerance actually mean in daily life. You can’t fix the personal bigotry unless you also try to fix the institutional bigotry at the same time, and vice-versa. Words have power. Words matter.

I want to repeat what China Mieville said in whole on the subject of “writing the other” and RaceFail here, not only because what he says about writing fiction can just as easily apply to non-fiction and our lives in general, but also because he highlights the way the term is so often misused as opposed to what it ought to mean.

GoodReads: In January 2009, the blogosphere erupted into a heated discussion about race, racism, and cultural appropriation in science fiction and fantasy (a flame war so vast it is now dubbed RaceFail ’09). Inevitably, a writer must create characters with identities and experiences different from his or her own. If writing within a fantasy world, should the writer maintain politically correct standards established by our real world? How do you address race (in relation to human or nonhuman sets of characters) in your work?

Yes, I heard about RaceFail ’09 some time after the event, and rather regret not having been there while it was going on. The category of Political Correctness is so nebulous that it’s rarely very helpful, particularly because it is often used disgracefully as a stick with which to beat anti-racists or progressives. In the broader sense, I absolutely do think that the implicit politics of our narratives, whether we are consciously “meaning” them or not, matter, and that therefore we should be as thoughtful about them as possible. That doesn’t mean we’ll always succeed in political perspicacity—which doesn’t mean the same thing as tiptoeing —but we should try. So for example: If you have a world in which Orcs are evil, and you depict them as evil, I don’t know how that maps onto the question of “political correctness.” However, the point is not that you’re misrepresenting Orcs (if you invented this world, that’s how Orcs are), but that you have replicated the logic of racism, which is that large groups of people are “defined” by an abstract supposedly essential element called “race,” whatever else you were doing or intended. And that’s not an innocent thing to do. Maybe you have a race of female vampires who destroy men’s strength. They really do operate like that in your world. But I think you’re kidding yourself if you think that that idea just appeared ex nihilo in your head and has nothing to do with the incredibly strong, and incredibly patriarchal, anxiety about the destructive power of women’s sexuality in our very real world. These things are not reducible to our “intent”—we all inherit all kinds of bits and pieces of cultural bumf, plenty of them racist and sexist and homophobic, because that’s how our world works, so how could you avoid it?

So I’d suggest that one should be open-eyed about the facts that the categories with which we think and write and read, are not innocent, and that we should do our best not to use them to replicate the worst aspects of the cultural bumf that put them in our heads in the first place. Does that mean being politically correct? If that is deemed to mean being conscious of and careful about the political ramifications of our writing, then surely that’s the only decent way to proceed.

 

All actions are inherently educational. Only a few are entertaining.

You have the right to say what you want. We have the right not to listen.

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3 responses to The Soapbox: On Political Correctness


  1. Hi S.V.,

    I just read your post. I haven’t read all the posts you have referred to above, just the primary posts in question. If I’ve missed something, forgive me.

    Your post is a little misrepresentative. I never used any of the analogies that you describe above. I linked to the respective posts and very briefly paraphrased their contents with little comment of my own. My aim wasn’t to join that conversation, but to highlight it for my readers, and explain the genesis of the controversy. Also, the way the post is written incorrectly ascribes other views and positions to me – subjects, in fact, on which I’ve never commented.

    For the record, when I first read the original post in May, I wasn’t offended by the analogy, and it didn’t make me think of slavery in America. I got that he was speaking in economic terms the first time around and his subsequent post on the same topic just confirmed that.

    Perhaps someone growing up in America has a different perspective on this, perhaps the whole issue is more controversial over there – I don’t know. I can only look at it from my own perspective, but appreciate there are others.

    Dave

    • svrowle

      Thanks for commenting. When I go back and look at what you said, I think the post doesn’t take a judgmental view the way I thought it did, so I’ll change that. I was remembering what you said on Jeter’s post, which appeared, to me at least, to support Stackpole’s strawman — that no one wants to criticize the substance of the post. Criticizing Stackpole’s (and Eisler’s) choice of analogies does not mean people are capable or incapable of arguing about his conclusions; it means they see the analogy as flawed.

      You appeared to be ascribing an “emotional” response to the criticism of Eisler, Konrath, and Stackpole, from what I read:

      I find these arguments can attract very emotional responses and we rarely get to the issues – which is a pity.

      and also

      A lot of people got hot and bothered and seemed to miss the fact that he was referring to Roman times.

      both posit that their critics are reacting based on emotion, implying that a) emotional responses are inferior to intellectual responses, and b) that one side is being overly emotional and the other side is being overly rational.

      Considering that the most outspoken and widely read response to Eisler et al. has been from Courtney Milan, who also happens to be a romance writer, it struck me as patronizing.

      For my part, my goal was not to draw you into the conversation or argument, so I obviously failed on that front, but I didn’t want to be talking about you without allowing you to know I was linking to your post or allowing you to respond, thus the blog post ping. I really wanted to point out that if a large majority of traditionally oppressed groups take issue with the repeated framing of arguments in inflammatory language, there’s probably a good reason to check one’s privilege.

      • Hi S.V.,

        I haven’t read Courtney’s post (I didn’t know about it until I read your post), so anything I said was certainly not in reference to anything she had written.

        That aside, in hindsight, perhaps “emotional” wasn’t the best word choice – I accept that.

        I think there are a couple of things tied up here. There is the argument whether the analogy is accurate, then the argument about whether it is appropriate. I guess what I was trying to say that the argument about whether the analogy was appropriate was taking the place of whether the analogy was accurate, and thus, a discussion about the substance of the article.

        Personally, I steer clear of such analogies for that reason. The whole conversation becomes about the analogy, which rarely moves things forward or does anyone any favours.

        Dave