Posts Tagged ‘discourse’

As busy as I’ve been today, my attention has nonetheless been drawn to Robert Silverberg’s recent post on File 770, wherein he seeks to defend himself against charges of racism and sexism stemming from his reaction – made privately, but later reported publicly – to Nora Jemisin’s 2018 Hugo Award acceptance speech. In the spirit of full disclosure, I will say that I’m lucky enough to call Nora a friend, while Silverberg, both as man and author, is a virtual stranger to me. On the night of the Hugo Awards in question, I was briefly introduced to him by a third party as one of the nominees for the Best Fan Writer award, which category he was set to introduce. He looked at me in a way which, both at the time and on reflection, felt as if I was not so much being seen as looked through. I mention this, not to cast further aspersions on the man – Silverberg was not obliged to pay me any special attention, nor did I expect it from him – but to be honest about our limited interaction, which extended not much further than a hello and a brief period of standing in the same circle.

I do know, however, that Silverberg is a beloved figure to many fellow SFF writers, such that his original reaction to Jemisin’s speech and the things he’s written now are distressing on a personal level. Once upon a time, I might have sworn and shouted about Silverberg’s post, but 2018 has been a very long year, and I am tired. Yelling at Silverberg will not make me feel better about the state of the world, and so I will rather attempt to explain, for the sake of anyone who might want such an explanation, why Silverberg’s comments have produced such an upset reaction.

The problem, at base, stems from Silverberg’s misapprehension of four key points. Specifically:

  1. His evident failure to understand the relevance of Jemisin’s experience, and the experiences of those like her, to both the work for which she was being awarded and its context within the SFF world currently;
  2. His apparent belief that a Hugo speech should not be politicised;
  3. His mistaken belief that Jemisin was angry in the first place; and
  4. His confusion as to what, exactly, he’s being accused of.

To quote the File 770 piece:

At San Jose, the Best Novel Hugo went — for the third consecutive year — to a writer who used her acceptance speech to denounce those who had placed obstacles in her path stemming from her race and sex as she built her career, culminating in her brandishing her new Hugo as a weapon aimed at someone who had been particularly egregious in his attacks on her.  Soon after the convention, I commented, in a private chat group, that I felt that her angry acceptance speech had been a graceless one, because I believe that Hugo acceptance speeches should be occasions for gratitude and pleasure, not angry statements that politicize what should be a happy ceremony.  I said nothing about her race, her sex, or the quality of her books.  My comment was aimed entirely at her use of the Hugo stage to launch a statement of anger.

I would not presume to comment on her experience of having had racist and sexist obstacles placed in her career path.  I have no doubt that she did face such challenges, and I’m sure the pain created by them still lingers.  I in no way intended to add to that pain.  However, it seemed to me that this writer, after an unprecedented three-Hugo sweep and considerable career success otherwise, had triumphed over whatever obstacles were placed in her path and need not have used the Hugo platform to protest past mistreatment.

Beginning with my first point: by his own admission in his original comments, Silverberg has not read Jemisin’s Broken Earth trilogy, for which she won the unprecedented three consecutive Best Novel Hugo Awards. Both individually and as a series, the Broken Earth is about exactly the issues that Jemisin raised in her speech: bigotry, prejudice, institutional cruelty, and how goddamn difficult it is to overcome all these things in pursuit of change. To everyone who has read and understood her books, Jemisin’s speech is in clear conversation with them, and therefore makes perfect thematic sense.

But at another level – that of real-world SFF politics – the points she made were also deeply relevant, not just in a general sense, but to the actual goings-on at that convention. As I’ve previously recounted elsewhere, throughout the weekend of the 2018 Worldcon, right-wing protesters affiliated with the Sad Puppy movement showed up in front of the building with the aim of harassing congoers. Some chanted actual Nazi slogans; others carried pro-Trump signs. Antifa and police showed up in response, and while the original protesters were few and handily dealt with, their physical presence was just one manifestation of an increasingly ugly culture of far-right bigotry in the SFF community: one with which Silverberg himself, as he points out, has now become unwillingly associated, as his private comments were initially posted on website run by one of the more prominent Puppies. This same man is known for casting racist abuse at Jemisin, which event she alluded to in her speech.

Which brings us to the second point: Silverberg’s seeming objection to the political content of the speech. I say seeming, because I’m not entirely sure he means this particular comment in quite the way it reads – or at least, I have difficulty believing that he thought through the full implications. Because, dear God: has there ever been a time when Hugo speeches weren’t political? I’ve been on the SFF scene for nearly a decade – which, granted, is a pittance compared to Silverberg’s tenure – and in that time, I’m pretty sure that every single Hugo Awards ceremony has featured multiple speeches whose contents touch on politics in some way, sometimes because of events surrounding the con itself, as in the Sad Puppy era, or else just due to the political nature of the work that was being awarded. Even if that’s a new development in the history of the Hugos – and I’m inclined to think it isn’t – it’s still an ample precedent for Jemisin’s speech.

The alternative explanation here is that Silverberg is using the word “politicize,” not as a literal criticism of Jemisin’s decision to reference politics, but for daring to say something that could, potentially, split the room in terms of its reception. And I just, like. Not to be all glibly millennial, but it’s a fucking awards ceremony, Robert. By definition, the choice of winner is always a bit politicised, in that individual people have different tastes and different reasons for voting for particular candidates, and the overlapping discussion of pros and cons, merits and failings, has a tendency to get heated, not to say personally felt. Name me a major awards ceremony in which, in any given year, not a single person claims that the argument for Winner X was politicised, or that there were political reasons why Nominee Y missed out, and I will fall over backwards in astonishment.

Either way, this seems like a strange and incongruous complaint to make of Jemisin in particular, as though she were the lone culprit of something unprecedented. It strikes me as being the type of complaint you’d only raise if you were disquieted by her speech and looking to blame that reaction on her, sans personal introspection as to why that might be. What Jemisin accomplished with her win was unarguably historic – and, just as unarguably, took place within a political context where there was demonstrable, immediate overlap between the issues raised in her work, the issues raised in her speech, events at the con where she was being awarded, events within the wider SFF community, and the broader political reality of living in 2018. Which is a large part of why her win, in addition to being historic, was historically meaningful – which is why, in turn, her speech was so overwhelmingly well-received by people other than Silverberg.

Which brings us to the third point: his misapprehension of Jemisin’s anger. Because Jemisin, for all that she spoke with passion, was not angry: she was triumphant. The point of mentioning everything she’d overcome to win and how bad things have been in the world – just as things had been bad in the world of her books – was to speak with hope for the future: to say that, like her characters, we can endure and make things better. She talked about working her ass off to succeed because, over and over again, the accusation flung at minority authors within the SFF community, including Jemisin herself, is that any success we have is due wholly to insincere virtue-signalling on the part of others; that we’re not really talented and deserving, but are rather the creative equivalent of an unloved diversity hire, selected for tokenism and nothing else. Jemisin knew this, as did everyone who cheered during her speech. We recognised it for what it was: a powerful, happy celebration of triumph over adversity.

Triumph, as I should not have to tell a fellow writer, is not synonymous with anger – but when you have been socially conditioned to see an outspoken, passionate black woman as an inherently angry figure, the unconscious leap is an easy one to make. Which is where we come to the fourth point: Silverberg’s failure to understand exactly what he’s being accused of, and on what basis.

In penning his self-defence piece on File 770, Silverberg goes into detail about how he cannot possibly be sexist or racist, because he has black writer friends and has published women. There are many ways to respond to such a trite assertion, the majority of which are profane, but in this particular instance, I’m going to go with this one: Silverberg has confused conscious racism and sexism with unconscious (racist and sexist) bias. Specifically: as he does not actively think of women and people of colour as inferior – and is, indeed, opposed to the logic of those who do – he believes he cannot be rightly accused of committing racist or sexist acts.

Silverberg sincerely believes this to be true – and in another decade, such a statement might well have been viewed as self-evident by those who shared his political leanings. The problem is that we now know, quite conclusively, that this belief is wrong – a fact that has been repeatedly born out by academic research into unconscious bias and related fields of study. Whether we like it or not, we all unconsciously absorb information about the world which influences our actions and reactions, particularly about groups of people to which we don’t belong or with which we have little personal experience. This is why, for instance, dogwhistling in politics is an actual thing: a bigoted speaker need only reference the myth of “welfare queens,” for instance, and even though the majority of welfare recipients in the US are white, many of them seniors, using the system out of genuine need, the image we’re meant to picture is that of a young, unmarried black mother, deliberately bearing children just to sponge more from the state.

One of the most pernicious such myths is that of the angry black woman. This myth has been deeply embedded in the cultural and political narratives of Western nations, and particularly the US, for a long goddamn time; long enough and deeply enough to have wormed its way into the subconscious of even the most well-meaning white people. The salt in the wound of this myth, of course, is that black women, both presently and historically, have suffered a great deal of mistreatment about which to be legitimately angry – but a failure to smile and a slightly raised voice is enough to see anything they say, whether actually spoken in anger or not, dismissed as unreasonable hostility.

This is why Silverberg’s comments about Jemisin’s speech were seen as racist, and why his decision to counter that accusation by saying, in essence, “but I have black friends!” both misses the point and further cements the verity of the original complaint. (As, for that matter, does his decision to double down by using phrases like “brandishing her new Hugo as a weapon,” as though she did anything with a heavy, unwieldy statue other than hold it.) Racism isn’t exclusively defined as such by intent, but by the pattern to which it contributes and the impact it has on the affected party, just as a wound isn’t only a wound if it was delivered on purpose. If a careless hand-talker flings their arm out in conversation and knocks an unsuspecting passerby into a table, that person is still injured, and the correct response is to apologise for hurting them and figure out how to prevent a recurrence – not to claim that, since you didn’t mean to do it, it didn’t really happen.

Now: in saying all this, I have one tiny sliver of sympathy for Silverberg, and that comes from having his comments in a private forum made public without his knowledge or consent. I am sympathetic, not because I think this makes a meaningful difference to their content, but because nobody likes to be on the wrong side of a breech of digital etiquette, and because there’s a difference between speaking an opinion to a close group of friends and declaring it from a public pulpit. Had his original remarks not been made public, and had he instead been called upon to speak publicly before making them, he might well have spoken less candidly and with greater thought to the impact. But the fact remains that he meant what he said, regardless of the circumstances under which he said it – something he has now confirmed by way of his self-defence essay, which rather negates my feeling sorry for him in this instance.

Do I think that Robert Silverberg is, at the core of his being, in his most deliberate acts and comments, racist and sexist? No. But do his intentions make him immune from taking racist and sexist actions, or saying racist and sexist things, out of ignorance or privilege or sheer unconscious parroting? Not in the slightest. Because – and this is the hardest truth for a lot of people to swallow – no-one is completely morally perfect. While it might behove us at times to be generous with forgiveness, and while there’s certainly many valid criticisms of online callout culture to be made – let he who is without problematic behaviours cast the first stone of discourse, etc –  acknowledging our fallibility shouldn’t stop us from trying to do better.

Silverberg is in the doghouse, not because he’s being viewed as a monster, but because he made an ignorant, hurtful comment and elected to double down on it rather than show some humility and learn from those he impacted.

Here endeth the explanation.

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