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Tuesday, March 10, 2009

On RaGoogle, don't index this as white people have authored the pages in the first goddamn seven hits of the relevant searchceFail '09

So there's this long internet conversation about race in speculative fiction and speculative fiction fandom, mostly on LiveJournal, that's been going on for months.

I've been dipping into and out of it now and then. It's way too much to read even for someone dilletantishly looking on from the outskirts: I shudder to think what it must be like to be one of the principals, in terms of the internet eating your life. Heroically, rydra_wong has been publishing lists of links to related posts -- kind of a bibliography of a massively multiperson online debate cum soul-searching cum failfest. (It's interesting, by the way, how this link-harvest methodology tends to level the playing field of the generally unegalitarian attention economy of the blogosphere).

A lot of wise things have been said (Niall has a list of them at the end of his summary; see also Tempest's roundup) and a lot of unfortunate things have been done (such as the outing of coffeandink, threats of retribution by the powerful, apparent threats of lawsuits and to people's ISPs and employers and whatnot).

You can refer to Susan and Dave to get a sense of my reaction as a white aims-to-be-ally and "professional" (in the charmingly loose way that term is used in science fiction) writer standing on the sidelines, unable to think of anything particularly clever to say, until it becomes evident that my not saying anything at all, clever or not, (in stoneself's phrasing in their comment on Dave's post) "maintains the inertia of things".

In other words: this is the week where it became clear that by not saying anything, I'm contributing to an atmosphere which is making some people (viz., people of color being vilified for complaining about racism) uncomfortable staying in science fiction. So this is me saying: yes, silencing you is uncool! Stay!

(By the same token, I am with Mary Anne on how knowing people inclines one to a charitable interpretation of their words and actions; but that that doesn't magically disappear the effect of those actions.)

So I still have nothing particularly clever to say, but a few thoughts after the cut:

  1. As thingswithwings states, it really is rather striking how much the people protesting racism in science fiction, and protesting the protesting against that protesting (the anti-racist or "anti-racist" side of the debate) document conversations extensively with links, quote in context, and scrupulously maintain their original entries in situ, while the people protesting the protesting against racism (the "people who put 'anti-racist' in quotes when describing the other side" side of the debate) so often make highly generalized assertions without referencing them, and have a habit of deleting, reposting, friendslocking, redirecting to spam sites, and otherwise playing hide-and-seek with their own posts.

    I think thingswithwings is correct that this is about privilege; but it's also, and relatedly, about the norms and conventions of different subgroups. (In particular, my theory is that academics reference scrupulously and see blogs and LJs as archival documents, while publishing-industry-types see blogs and LJs as an extension of the hotel bar, where you can blow off steam, make wild assertions, and impugn your enemies of the moment, and everyone understands that it's all in good fun and a distraction from your real work).

    And the irony of my making this assertion, without tracking down the linkificated evidence to support, it should be clear -- and is very much related to my privilege. Should I spend a half hour tracking down support for the thesis above? Nope -- I'm used to people taking my word for these things (and this is an extension of the hotel bar for me too).

  2. I was thinking about the causes of the trainwreck: what led many generally reasonable and fair-minded people, whom I usually respect, to act unacceptably in this instance? An easy answer to this, and probably on some level a correct one, is "privilege" -- that same voice in my head which says "what are you making such a big deal of? Why are you attacking people? Stop, you're making me uncomfortable!"

    But that perhaps obscures as much as it reveals. It seems to me that the spark that set of the conflagration was the inaccurate perception that people offering what were in fact useful critiques were trolling; and once the "troll flag" is set in the head of an experienced internet user, it is difficult to clear and leads to cascade of consequent behaviors.

    So that the behaviors that upset us so much -- from cavalier dismissals and insults, to disappearing or friendslocking entries, redirecting links, and even outing pseudonyms -- are behaviors that are often held to be acceptable when dealing with trolls. We are horrified at seeing them used at those who are clearly not trolls (people arguing methodically and intelligently, with links and references, with clear honest intent, being scrupulous about meaning, about talking from their own experience, and apologizing swiftly when they step over the line, questioning their own assumptions).

    So the specific way that privilege operated here to destroy goodwill and injure reputations was via a misdiagnosis of trolling.

    Trolls are the nonpersons of the internet: once you have identified someone as a troll, practically any measures are justified to silence them. That, perhaps, is one underlying problem here, a problem of internet culture. The other problem -- a problem of the broader culture, which has much to do with institutionalized racism -- is how such a misdiagnosis could happen.

    Making an angry ad hominem attack is one of the things that can flip the troll flag. If someone you don't know shows up on your blog -- or posts about you on their blog -- calling you a f*ckwad, when you haven't done anything to them, you generally regard them as a troll.

    The other underlying problem, then, is the tendency of white people to see any discussion of racism as an ad hominem attack. (I'm talking about American white people here, of course. Swiss white people generally see discussions of American racism as important steps toward improving the world, while they see discussions of Swiss racism as quirky silliness on the part of their American guests who don't know any better). Thus, saying "your friend's novel has some racist aspects" is easily seen as "your friend is a f*ckwad", hence: troll. Or at the least: enemy.

    As a momentary misidentification maybe that's excusable: its persistence after months of evidence that your opponents are not, in fact, trolls, by people who really should know better, is very depressing, and has, I expect, plenty to do with that "circle-the-wagons" internet tribalism of avenging slights to friends, as well as people's deep unease with people being upset -- and, very specifically, white people's unease with people being upset about racism; American white folks of my generation and class are constantly waiting to be accused of it, and, on some level, ready to lash out if we are.

  3. For me, as I said in commenting on Susan's post, the most chilling and disturbing thing has been hearing readers and writers of color saying repeatedly that this conversation is not making things better -- that, indeed, they are feeling newly excluded from this community. That they are giving up.

    I read that again and again, and boy, does that suck.

  4. Personally and selfishly (because it's all about me), in addition to the dejection I feel about people abandoning SF/F, I'm very annoyed at the fact that RaGoogle, don't index this as white people are in the first goddamn seven hits of the relevant searchceFail '09 seems to have made it less likely that people will tell me when my fiction is racist.

    Because I would like to know, you know?

  5. I have heard a lot of calls for shunning, by many people I am sympathetic to. I am not so much with the shunning.

    I have somewhat mixed feelings, because I understand, theoretically, that shunning is a relatively nonviolent way for a community to police itself. I grudgingly concede that in some abstract sense it might be necessary. And I can easily see the connection between my squeamishness and my privilege: I expect that if I'd personally been stalked, say, or felt as regularly defenseless to control the discourse around me as a lot of the people making these calls must feel, I might warm to shunning.

    Nonetheless, my bar for shunning is very high. Despite my anger about Harlangate, I wouldn't shun Harlan. I might have wanted to punch him in the nose, the night after the Hugo ceremony; but I never wanted him run out of science fiction. I understand why Wiscon needs to exclude Rachel-the-something-awful-poster this year, and I think it's a wise decision; but personally, I would talk to Rachel-the-something-awful-poster if I met her (the conversation might begin "so, that was pretty dumb of you last year, huh?").

    I also suspect shunning, as a frequent practice, may make a community more fragile -- more prone to fragmentation, less likely to learn from its mistakes. (Here I'm not just talking about avoiding someone you're pissed off at, but an organize attempt to exclude).

    And in this case, some the people who I have the impression have behaved quite badly in this, are people who've behaved very well in other contexts. Kathryn Cramer appears to have participated in the outing of coffeandink, and certainly now seems to have a bee in her bonnet about pseudonymity that I find very perplexing: but this is the same person I admired greatly when she spent tireless unpaid hours using her blog -- and some very ingenious online maps engineering -- as a resource during Hurricane Katrina both to help the hurricane's victims, to ferret out what was happening there, and to do citizen journalism to criticize the sloth and callousness of the powerful. One piece of behavior doesn't excuse the other, any more than Harlan's fighting for the ERA back in the day allows him to grab his colleague's bosoms. Insofar as we're talking about criticizing behavior we can treat the behaviors as atomic, and rightly regard mention of offsetting positive behaviors as illegitimate distractions. Once we talk about excluding someone from our social world, we must somehow add up our incomplete set of known behaviors and draw some balance: "that's it, enough with you." And this I am unwilling to do.

    I think Obama should sit down and talk to Hamas, and Hamas has made it pretty clear they want me dead. So I'm definitely not going to shun anybody over RaGoogle, don't index this as white people have authored the pages in the first goddamn seven hits of the relevant searchceFail '09.

    That this is, of course, a convenient attitude for someone in my position to have, gives me some unease: I think I have both a principled stand here, and a white-guy nervousness that says "c'mon, it's all in good fun, we're all still friends, right?", and I'm finding it hard to separate them.

  6. I am going to have to tackle the original issues of cultural appropriation and Writing the Other some other time, but it does occur to me to say, from the one position where I can most plausibly speak as a subaltern: Jews like it when you write about us. I swear. We write about ourselves so much that practically no one else bothers (it's actually hard to come up with that many examples of Gentiles writing Jews; Michener and Le Carré come to mind). But it's nice when they do. As long as they, you know, pull it off.

    So, goyim, if you're smarting from being told everything you're doing wrong in writing other subalterns? Go write some Jews! It might end up a little antisemitic, but that's okay! Cookies for trying! I promise! I've got 'em right here.

    I'm not even being sarcastic, sadly.

Posted by benrosen at March 10, 2009 02:11 PM | Up to blog

I think, and this is my very limited point of view talking, that the response to Writing The Other, or just Writing POC In General, is: research what you write, know what you're talking about, think long and hard about the character roles you give your POC when they have had a history to being relegated to only a handful of very specific character roles/identities. And don't be a douche when someone tries to suggest that your portrayal might have been flawed.

I mean, you wouldn't write a book about medieval England if you didn't know a castle from a monkey's behind. Nor would you write a story about a roadtrip across America if you thought it was a half-day drive from Washington to Tennessee. Obviously, writing about POC is somewhat more complex in that you DO have to consider how you are falling into tropes or common characterizations. But a lot of it just has to do with NOT talking out of your ass.

Anyway, this is a fantastic, articulate entry. Thank you! : ) It has been really heartening to see SF/F pros speak up about this.

Posted by: smaur at March 10, 2009 10:57 PM

Dude. The Power Laws thing blew.

My freakin'.



Posted by: Matt at March 11, 2009 04:16 AM

The giving up is incredibly sad, but based on the two posts below, I believe there is hope that the discussion is having a positive effect for some.

Stones on My Chest by Isilya
Sees Fire by BossyMarmalade

Posted by: naiad at March 11, 2009 06:36 AM

I'm not sure I entirely buy the "blowing off steam at the bar" theory: While there is certainly a culture gap in evidence--see for example various parties' attitudes regarding pseudonyms--the folks engaging in the re-linking and reposting games have traditionally been associated with scrupulous referencing and documenting etc. (Observe my complete lack of reference and documenting to back up this statement!) Not to mention, their claim that pseudonymity necessarily implies a lack of integrity and accountability seems strangely at odds with their own hide-and-seek behaviors. (And note how the tug of war between privacy and transparency is at the heart of both arguments?)

3. Really, "suck" seems too much of an understatement.

5. I don't like shunning either. Partly because, as I think you're saying, it doesn't differentiate between a discrete action on the part of the individual and the individual as a whole. But also because, well, dammit, when somebody screws up as badly as this, I want an apology. I want empathy; I want them to know what they've done and understand how it hurt; and I want a heartfelt, genuine apology. And I'm not gonna get it if we never communicate again.

Posted by: Jackie M. at March 12, 2009 06:32 AM

I have to say that there are behaviors where a limited form of shunning - ignoring - is the only cure. Trolling, for instance. Engaging a troll gives the troll something to troll about. Ignoring the troll makes it look elsewhere.

Posted by: Matt at March 12, 2009 12:31 PM

Good post.

On the subject of gentiles writing Jews: Updike's Bech books.

Posted by: Adam Roberts at March 16, 2009 06:18 PM

Aha, Adam -- thanks for the pointer, I haven't read the Bech books.

Posted by: Benjamin Rosenbaum at March 19, 2009 12:31 PM


Posted by: Razi at March 25, 2009 10:58 AM

Interesting thoughts. And calmly, thoughtfully, expressed. That's a good thing, I think.

My impression is that people not inured to the level of thermonuclear flame war unfortunately common on the internet are taking away from this largely the rule "do not engage on questions of race". And I don't think that's a good thing for them; but I'm deeply sympathetic to the impulse.

Posted by: David Dyer-Bennet at June 1, 2009 03:07 AM

I got here via (lj-user) netmouse. Lots to agree with here.

Is it OK if I link to this post from my LJ? (And if so, would you prefer it open, or flocked to minimise the risk of troll influx?)

Posted by: Paul B. =:o} at June 15, 2009 09:35 PM

Unfortunately I wandered off many months ago and thus never answered the last few posts.

Link away, Paul B!

David, right, many people did walk away with that, and it's tragic that they did so, because it perpetuates the problem.

Posted by: Benjamin Rosenbaum at November 23, 2009 01:06 PM
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