Posts Tagged ‘discourse’

Twitter, Truth & Apologies

Posted: September 11, 2022 in Critical Hit, Life/Stuff
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The problem with being me – or one of the many problems, rather – is that I seldom if ever know what the fuck is going on in my brain. There’s ongoing roadworks in there, and the signs are all written in wingdings, and also stowed away in chests hidden within a series of cunning hedge-mazes, like bonus treasure in OG Spyro the Dragon levels. This means that, when my emotional-mental equilibrium takes a hit, it can be… difficult, let’s say, to figure out exactly what’s happened. Annoyingly, there also tends to be an inverse correspondence between the size of a setback and how difficult it is to pin down – meaning, I can generally figure out the inconsequential shit, but when something actually matters? Hoo-boy.

All of which is a way of saying: I’ve been kinda fucked up for months now in some extremely non-trivial ways, and it’s taken me ’till this point to get anything close to a handle on why. Oh, sure: I’ve known what the inciting incident was, but not helpfully so, in the same way that knowing you dropped your laptop in the bath doesn’t clue you in as to which parts of its delicate innards, precisely, are now malfunctioning, and to what extent. And unlike with a soaked laptop, I cannot simply take my brain to some sort of Geek Emporium, flourish my debit card and say, “Here are some money dollars. Please unfucken the thing,” even in an extremely laboured metaphor where the Geek Emporium is a therapist, because therapy cannot actually give you new thinkmeats to replaced the burned-out bits. Or waterlogged ones, in this case. Whatever.

The point being, it’s finally dawned on me that, actually, the kind of personal fuckedness I’ve been experiencing lately isn’t new, but rather an iteration of something I’ve dealt with before: being lied about, or at the least, being spoken of with a degree of hostility so steeped in bad faith as to be indistinguishable from lying, in such a way as to render me fearful of existing or speaking authentically, lest those parts of me, too, become subject to distortion. And you might think, but Foz, that’s silly! Anyone who would lie about you clearly isn’t worth your mental energy, and you’ve certainly been online long enough to know that, sooner or later, participating in discourse leaves you subject to hot takes. To which I reply: I know this, and intellectually I agree with you, but my subconscious brain absolutely refuses to be wrangled on certain points, and one of them is anything it parses as false accusation.

Which leaves me in a really shitty bind, coping-mechanism-wise; because online, the immortal wisdom re: dealing with a certain type of bullshit is to simply not engage. And I have tried this! I have! But in such particular instances as these, where the bullshit I’m not engaging with is someone lying about me, personally, my subconscious brain – fully without my consent! – parses that non-engagement as a species of abnegation. If I cannot assert the truth of who I am, however subjectively – if I am made to fear to do so – then a critical part of me functionally shuts down and fucks up everything else, like a sort of emotional power outage. I don’t know how else to explain it, except to say that, at a fundamental level, I am a person who processes my identity through writing, and if I don’t feel able to do that – if something fucks me up to the degree that it makes me fearful of being perceived – then I suffer for it.

If all this resulted in was me no longer wanting to blog or do social media, I could cope with that. Hell, I might even be healthier for it; at this point, I’ve been on the Cursed Bird App for goddamn thirteen years, accruing regular psychic damage as a result. But no: instead, it fucks with all of my writing – you know, the thing I do for a job – and with my ability to focus on other forms of narrative, while also rendering me socially paranoid to an unsustainable degree. While also, in this specific instance, causing me to self-harm, because my brain is garbage! It is a garbage brain, but it is mine, and as Raccoon-in-Chief of this particular psychic dumpster, it falls to me to try and sort my shit out. Annoyingly, on the basis of past experience, what this means is Talking Publicly About The Thing That Fucked Me Up, even and especially when I’m terrified of doing so, which is really just the worst.

Speaking of Twitter – and, spoiler alert: this whole thing pertains to Twitter – I’ve been thinking recently about what makes the Bird App so uniquely Cursed, and have tentatively concluded that the Cursedness derives from three separate factors: the lack of distinction between public and private speech; the structural incoherence of its conversations; and the lag between replies. The first point is something of a double-edged sword, as there are plenty of instances where eroding the public/private distinction has been not only significant, but culturally game-changing. When it comes to speaking collectively about systems and institutions whose deep-seated, widespread problems are overlooked within traditional channels, for instance – as per the #MeToo movement, or #BlackLivesMatter – Twitter’s ability to let private individuals speak publicly about their shared experiences has been an immensely powerful, positive thing. But in other contexts, there’s a reason to maintain the traditional barriers between public and private speech – because, put simply, not everything needs to be A Thing.

It’s human nature to react to the world around us, and when those reactions are private – which is to say, contained in some way, by virtue of happening in person or over email or in a closed group – we express our feelings without growing them in others: we speak, and the echoes die out. But when we share our feelings publicly, collectively, en masse, those reactions, no matter how poorly reasoned or irrelevant, become new things for others to react to, such that we then react to those reactions, and so on and so forth, until the hot take engine of the internet is steamrolling ceaselessly forwards like a darksided Katamari Damacy. Nobody wins when this happens – we know this, too! And yet we react, because engagement is human nature – and because, to my second point, we don’t always know the size of the discourse to which we’re contributing until after the fact.

This is what I mean by the structural incoherence of conversations: recommended tweets notwithstanding, our timelines are constructed on the basis of who we follow individually, and yet there’s invariably enough overlap between conversational/social circles that, a lot of the time, we might reasonably assume that certain people are seeing the same things we are. Except that, actually, this is a bad assumption to make, and worse still to rely on. Even if our friends are following many of the same people as us, those tweets aren’t appearing on their timelines in the same order as ours; and even if they were, that’s no guarantee our friends will see them when we do, or framed within the same context, on account of how parallel conversations – and, indeed, completely unrelated conversations that nonetheless touch on similar themes – are a thing.

We might, for instance, encounter a piece of discourse complaining that Movie X contains problematic themes, such that, when we see what looks like a subtweet about problematic narratives made by Person A, who we think would reasonably know about Movie X, we instinctively put the two things together and conclude: aha, Person A is tweeting about Movie X! When in fact, Person A is yet to encounter any discourse about Movie X on their own timeline, and was rather thinking about the wholly unrelated Book Y. An easy mistake to make! But if, in our zeal, we quote-tweet Person A in a way that expressly links their comment to Movie X, and our quote-tweet spreads, then suddenly Person A’s criticism of Movie X becomes a matter of record in a way that is maddeningly difficult to correct. Person A might reply to their original tweet with a clarifying remark, or make their own quote-tweet in turn, but if nobody clicks through to find the clarification, or if the QT spreads as a screenshot, then the truth remains invisible. Or, worse still: some people will see the clarification, but find the idea that Person A could have made such a comment about something other than Movie X while Movie X discourse was so visibly ongoing to be utterly implausible, and therefore claim that they’re lying to avoid taking responsibility for their comments.

In other words: Twitter provides its users with the illusion of a shared discursive context while in fact consisting of billions of diffuse, only somewhat overlapping contexts, in which there is no clear, easy, accessible way to identify a conversation’s origins, the timeline of its development, or which claims made in the course of it are true, false, or a matter of opinion, or which such opinions are well-researched vs spurious, and whether any of them were later clarified or retracted, or which were taken out of context in order to generate new, only tangentially related conversations. And this is all exacerbated by the fact that, unlike any other social media medium, Twitter’s post length is capped to significantly less than a paragraph. Brevity might be the soul of wit in Hamlet, but on Twitter, where the hot take engine is constantly looking for new reactions to generate, the inherent impossibility of encompassing and accounting for every possible interpretation of a single tweet within the tweet itself – no matter how bizarre or bad faith those interpretations might be – is frequently viewed as an intellectual failure on the part of the person writing it. Returning to the prior example, Person B might critique Movie X for its portrayal of a specific marginalisation, only to be disparagingly quote-tweeted by Person C for failing to mention how it also fucked up a completely different marginalisation, thereby contributing to the erasure of that type of fuckup in the public consciousness. Of such bad faith engagement is Twitter criticism frequently built, even when the participants ostensibly both want the same thing, in service of the same politics. Rationally, we all know that tweets are inherently short, and yet, time and again, something in us reacts to their length as if the only reason the person didn’t write more or bother with a thread is because fuck you, that’s why.

And then there’s the time lag in replies, which at best represents a problem of muddled discourse and broken threads – for instance, replying to an interlocutor’s first tweet without knowing they were still typing out a second, such that the first reply becomes redundant, or being asked by multiple people to clarify a point we’ve already explained upthread – and at worst becomes a form of psychic bombardment. When people are angry with us, it’s one thing to anticipate being shouted at; it’s quite another not to know when the shouting will come, or if the volume will suddenly increase, or when it might stop. On every other form of social media, interaction comes primarily in the form of reblogs, threaded replies and comments – meaning, what’s being said to us is overwhelmingly attached to a specific thing we’ve said, the better to keep it cordoned off from everything else. Other users might be able to tag us in particular posts or send us private messages, as on Tumblr or various forums, but not as a primary mode of engagement, and certainly not with the expectation of real-time conversational responses. On Twitter, however, the primary mode of engagement is your notifications, where the most you can do is separate your mentions – that is, tweets in which you’re tagged – from details of retweets and likes. You have to click through to see if your interlocutor is replying to a particular tweet, or if they’ve just tagged you in for whatever reason, and while it’s now mercifully possible to mute tweets or untag yourself from unwanted conversations, if multiple individuals choose to @ you directly in a hostile way, not only can’t they see how many others are doing likewise (which is often how dogpiles form), but unless you want to mute potentially friendly interlocutors also – which some people, understandably, do not want to do – your only recourse is to block or mute each new aggressor as they come.

What this means in practical terms is that, if any part of Twitter takes umbrage with us for whatever reason, it isn’t always obvious why. We only know that, suddenly, alongside the friendly engagement we were having with friends and mutuals, we’re now being yelled at by strangers who, aside from anything else, assume we know exactly why they’re pissed at us, and want an accounting of it – the same accounting, over and over, because none of them can see what the others are asking.

In June, my mother was visiting from Australia – the first time we’d seen each other in person in the four years since I moved to the US. Thanks to the pandemic, it was also the first time we’d seen each other since my father died in 2021, as Australia’s borders were closed at the time; I had to watch the funeral online. We were out to lunch together, and in an idle moment, I checked Twitter and found my mentions were full of strangers accusing me of, among other things, having defended the harassment of Isabel Fall; which was, as a trans person, terrifying. That particular discourse is a horrifically poisoned well, and the prospect of being subjected to it out of the blue was legitimately chilling. I’d tweeted about Fall before, but not recently, and not in the ways of which I was suddenly being accused; I didn’t know where the accusations were coming from, or why they were happening now. I replied to the first couple of strangers out of pure startlement, thinking it was just random happenstance, but when the engagement persisted, I realised there must be something driving it – I just didn’t know what.

By that point, my mother had realised something had upset me; not wanting to explain several different levels of extremely terrible internet discourse to her, I waved it off, put my phone away and waited until we were home again to deal with it, frantically asking friends in one of my groupchats whether they knew what the fuck was happening and why. Eventually, we were able to piece an answer together: I’d tweeted a thread about moral policing in SFF criticism, and Gretchen Felker-Martin, a trans writer, had taken issue with it, saying that, “I did not think I could feel more insane about the harassment of Isabel Fall, but that was before I saw one of the chief apologists for it make a gigantic stupid thread about how important it is not to make and police moral judgments of art.”

The idea that I am “one of the chief apologists” for what happened to Isabel Fall is… let’s go with both untrue and viscerally upsetting. However, now that I knew who’d brought it up and why, the origins this particular accusation were at least clear to me. Late in 2021, several months after the now-infamous Vox article detailing the horrific, harrowing impact the internet backlash to her writing had on Fall came out, Felker-Martin, who came armed with assertions but no actual receipts, claimed that Neon Yang, another trans author, was “one of the instigators of the wave of harassment and transmisogynist criticism of Isabel Fall’s short story I Sexually Identify as an Attack Helicopter.” The topic was raised because Yang was announced as a contributor to an anthology about queer mech fiction, and as Fall’s story had involved both machines and queerness, albeit in a military SF context rather than the mech genre specifically, Felker-Martin took issue with it. With the irony of the dogpiling of a trans writer being used to justify the dogpiling of a different trans writer evidently being lost on far too many people, and with the relevant people seemingly uncaring that Yang was not someone Fall had ever considered a ringleader, I made the stupid decision to engage.

From memory – which I’m reliant on here in terms of knowing what to look for, as Twitter does not have anything so handy as a ‘search your own archive’ function – I tweeted two threads: one, the shorter, was pointing out the existence of multiple evidence-based threads showing that, counter to Felker-Martin’s claims, Yang didn’t spearhead anything, and in fact barely commented on Fall’s story, with their tweets coming after the bulk of the discourse and damage had already been done. The other was long, a stream of consciousness attempt to process what I was feeling in the moment around queerness, art and criticism, as well as the cyclical nature of the abuse directed first at Fall, and then Yang. Parts of the thread, which was mostly about queer reactions to queer art and the weaponisation of Own Voices as a movement, I think had some merit; where I specifically fucked up – and I know I fucked up now, though at the time it took me a few days to properly understand how and why, at which point I apologised for it – was in attempting to describe one aspect of what had happened to Fall, beyond the general horror of it all, which had hit me personally. Spread over multiple tweets, what I said – which I now profoundly regret saying – was this:

For me, the most heartbreaking aspect of what happened with Isabel Fall is that, in publishing her story, she decided to make its public acceptance or rejection the yardstick by which to validate (or not) her transition. She didn’t need a yardstick. She was already trans. But precisely because the world is so hostile to trans people, and especially trans women; because transition is so hard – because we as queer artists throw our work into the world in hope of the mortifying ordeal of being known, perceived, validated – Fall wanted a yardstick. But when her story entered the world, it did not do so with a label attached saying, “how you react to this will determine the future of my transition.” And so the world did not know to consider this aspect of how their criticism would impact the author.

Now: we could have an entire separate conversation about the extent to which the life and hopes of the artist should influence public discussion of their work, and I have no doubt that it would be meaty, relevant and fascinating. But that’s not the point here. The point is, rather, that because we know now what the story’s reception meant to Fall before anyone ever read it, certain parties have developed a post-hoc belief that those who criticised the story must have, from the outset, been committed to harming Fall’s transition. And this is not true. At the outset, nobody reacting to the story had any idea who Fall was – but because the story riffed on an anti-trans meme, and because we have collectively warped the importance of Own Voices writing into something sharp and painful, people wanted to know. Which means that the speculation about Fall’s identity can be split firmly into two categories: those who wondered who she was at all, the better to asses if, in their view, she was qualified to write such a piece; and those who, after hearing she was trans, thought it a lie.

It would be easy, convenient even, to claim that everyone in the first group gets a pass, while only those in the latter did something wrong. But this would mean accepting that the weaponisation of Own Voices as a means to force writers to out themselves or their trauma is valid. Which, to be brutally clear, it isn’t. It wasn’t OK when Yoon-Ha Lee felt pressured to come out as trans so as to not be included on lists of female SFF writers, or when people demanded authors prove their trauma credentials re: rape, DV & CSA, and it’s not okay now. Which is why, to circle back to the point I’m trying to make, it’s so very, very important that we acknowledge the plurality of queer experiences and perspectives, not just in making art, but in reacting to it. We contain multitudes, and always have, and always will. Because when our first impulse, on reading a story about queerness that makes us flinch, is to demand to know if the author is one of us? The unspoken rider is that, if they are, they should’ve known better than to present a version of queerness that we, personally, didn’t like.

With the power of hindsight, I know exactly why people were deeply upset by this: my shitty wording comes across as saying that the worst of what happened to Fall isn’t what others did to her, but something she did to herself; as though I’m victim-blaming Fall for being somehow complicit in her own dehumanisation. It reads as if I’m saying that there was no salient distinction to be made between the people who reacted critically to the work itself, and those who questioned her transness, her gender and her morality in the grossest, most fucked-up possible ways; as though there was no way for anyone wondering about her identity to have known not to speculate, attack and otherwise behave horrifically towards her on that basis.

What I was trying to articulate here, and manifestly failed at articulating, was that, in addition to the utter horror of what happened to Fall, I felt a profound sense of grief at how the fundamental disconnect between an artist’s hopes for their work and the critical reception of that work functioned, in this instance, as a tragedy within a tragedy; that Fall had put her whole heart into a work, and had that heart not only dismissed, but brutally misunderstood. I thought it went without saying that what Fall was subjected to was horrific, which was a deeply irresponsible thing to assume, as it came across as treating her abuse as irrelevant. I quoted Fall in defense of a point I should never have tried to make, and if I could go back in time, punch myself in the face and knock my goddamn laptop out of my hands, I would do so, but. Well. Here we are.

So: do I understand why Felker-Martin thinks of me as she does? Yes. She’s not obliged to like me or to accept my apology; nobody is. But when a fuckup to which I’ve admitted and for which I’ve apologised is thrown back at me, repeatedly, by strangers told that my evils are ongoing, as if I not only acted in malice towards Fall, but continue to uphold an actively malicious position, then I am left squeezed between a rock and a hard place. Because, yes: I caused harm. I regret that deeply. I’m not defending it, I’m not proud of it – but if I try to explain this, I’m called a liar and an apologist, as though malice is the only possible explanation for anything I might say or do on the subject. And if Felker-Martin was the only one involved in this instance, then we could leave the post here, and gladly. But when people started to show up in my mentions, they’d also taken their cue from R.S. Benedict, who was tweeting in concert with Felker-Martin – and it is Benedict’s tweets that have most profoundly fucked with me.

Seemingly inspired by Felker-Martin, Benedict proceeded to tweet a call-out thread about me, featuring three different accusations. One, naturally, was the aforementioned long thread about Yang and Fall, which she categorised as “a 47-tweet (!) thread defending the harassment mob that misgendered Isabel Fall and called her a Nazi based only on the title of her story,” which… look. On the one hand, me saying “only some of those tweets were extremely bad, and I apologised for them” comes across as downplaying a real, genuine fuckup, which I do not want to do; on the other hand, given that the bulk of the thread was about needing a plurality of queer perspectives, the weaponisation of Own Voices and problems of mob justice online, it feels like purposeful bad faith to claim, inaccurately, that the entire thread was nothing but cruelty and malice. But, again: the fuckup was mine, and I did indeed say those things – I can only reiterate that they were badly worded, that I’m sorry, and that I understand saying sorry doesn’t magically entitle me to forgiveness.

This does not, however, explain or justify why Benedict has also chosen to straight-up fucking lie about me.

Her two other claims are, firstly, that I “forced a gay man out of the closet by accusing him of homophobia in a review of his book written after hastily reading only the first two sample chapters.”

This tweet, as you can see, is accompanied by a screenshot of a blogpost I wrote seven years ago, with both the name of the book in question and the title of the post conveniently redacted, presumably because including them would immediately reveal this claim for a lie. Why? Because the book was The Traitor Baru Cormorant by Seth Dickinson, who – and I cannot emphasise this enough – is not a gay man and has never come out as such, least of all because of my review. I cannot begin to fathom why Benedict felt the need to lie about this – or, if she didn’t deliberately spin the lie out of whole cloth, where she got it from – but she made the claim so definitively that I actually emailed Dickinson to double-check whether it had actually happened and I’d somehow forgotten. (It hadn’t.)

Here’s the thing, though: that review, that seven-year-old review where I angrily professed my feelings about the first two chapters of Baru Cormorant? That review haunts me, because it’s something I’d never write now, but which I’ve thought about regularly in the intervening years. At the time, I was some few weeks or months away from realising that I wasn’t cis, still struggling with postpartum depression plus several other issues and experiencing some extremely painful feelings around being perceived as female. The visceral reaction I had to those first two chapters, whose emotional throughline centers heavily on the evils of homophobia, disgust at female queerness and forced feminisation (to a particular, narrow set of feminine standards) was triggering in a way I didn’t yet know to process as triggering, and as such, I reactively mistook my own visceral upset for an objective measure of the story’s skill in handling those topics. In other words, I did exactly the thing I decried elsewhere in the Yang/Fall thread, assuming that a depiction of queerness which unsettled me must therefore be a bad depiction of queerness, and for this, too, I apologise, however belatedly.

But Benedict didn’t know about any of that, nor was that why she was holding me to account. Instead, she was accusing me of a lie. Likewise her third and final accusation: that I “forced a gay literary critic to take his account private by stirring up a big ugly dogpile on him by accusing him of queerphobia because he had the temerity to suggest that it’s nice to read older books sometimes.”

Benedict included no link to this claim, also presumably because doing so would immediately also prove her false. The thread in question was – brace yourselves – a QT of a QT of a QT of a QT, where the original conversation was begun by fantasy author Alan Baxter. Baxter was writing about how and why, in his opinion, it isn’t necessary to read the classics of the genre. “The same applies to fantasy,” he said, mid-thread. “You don’t have to read Tolkien. Want to write SF? Great! And you don’t have to read Heinlein or Aldous Huxley. You can if you want, but a lot has been written in the almost one CENTURY between that stuff and now. Read what YOU want to read. Consume books like food. Like fuel. Power your mind with stuff you love. Then write what’s in your soul.”

These two tweets were then screenshot and shared – rather derisively – by the SFF Audio Twitter account, saying, “Don’t want to read Heinlein? No worries, “just read Scalzi!” Brave New World? Pish posh, don’t bother, just drink Soma™ Books are food. Here, eat this new book, it’s fine. No, don’t look at the ingredients. Just eat it, you fuck.” This take was then QT’d by SF critic Paul Weimer – whose account has been locked for some time due to his being persistently targeted by trolls – who said, “I disagree with Jesse. There is a FUCKTONN of good SF out there, and recent SF at that. If that’s what you want to read. If you don’t want to read Heinlein or Huxley, you don’t have to. Reading SFF for pleasure should NEVER be an exercise in homework.”

Weimer was then screenshot – presumably due to his locked account – by Chris at The Bookish Cauldron, the person I’m accused of dogpiling, who replied with: “I hate how these conversations get so obviously twisted. Yes of course read what you want. You have a finite amount of money and time. Spend it how you please. But if you want a full understanding of a particular genre, you do have to read the roots. Like, I’m so sorry but it’s just true. Classics are classics for a reason. Equally there are plenty of fantastic older books out there that have never reached “classic” status due to a myriad of reasons that are also worthy of consideration. So yes – read what you want. But also, if you truly want to have a certain deep understanding of a field of literature, it will require you to, on brief occasion, step boldly outside of your comfort zone. And no one talking about the importance of reading classics and older books is trying to police them reading populace en masse.”

It was the first of these tweets that I quote-tweeted, and you can read my take for yourself, as well as a follow-up thread I wrote that referenced the first without linking to it. But here’s the thing: at no point do I accuse Chris of queerphobia, or homophobia, or anything of the sort. In fact, I say nothing about Chris-the-person at all – I only address his argument, which was already part of a lively back-and-forth involving multiple people across SFF twitter, and to which various other people were already responding before I weighed in. This is, in fact, how I came across his post in the first place: because the conversation was ongoing. I can’t recall if he ever took his account on private or just blocked a lot of people; he certainly blocked me – as is his right! – but as far as I can tell, his account is now open again. Either way, the idea that I accused a gay man of homophobia so badly that he retreated from public twitter is a blatant fucking falsehood, as is the claim that I led a dogpile against him on that basis.

Benedict QT’d my thread on criticism and then blocked me immediately, while Felker-Martin referenced my thread without linking to it; hence my initial inability to understand where the criticism was coming from. In combination, this very much did result in strangers showing up in my mentions for the express purpose of accusing me of several things I’d never done, mixed in with accusations about one thing I did do, but for which I’d apologised. Benedict also retweeted a random QT accusing me of having “clutched my pearls” about Fall’s story, implying that I’d been one of the people to originally critique her work – another signal-boosted lie.

I said before, at the start of this post, that my brain does not do well with false accusation. This is, perhaps, an understatement. To be lied about is bad enough; to have multiple lies spread, claiming that I’d accused gay men of being homophobic – of silencing them, of outing them – and to have those lies taken as truth by virtue of being propped up by an actual fuckup, which was to this purpose being cast as an act of ongoing malice rather than a thing for which I’d apologised – broke me in a way I didn’t know I was capable of breaking. I self-harmed as a direct result of it, something I haven’t done since I was a teenager. Worse, it left me with a profound and crippling paranoia that any friends I had who I wasn’t actively talking to must now hate me, because if I could be lied about so easily, the lies made digestible by a seed of truth, then who would care to hear my side of things? If I was believed to be that sort of person, then why would anyone bother? It didn’t feel possible to explain that I’d been lied about without coming across as downplaying the very real harm I’d caused at the heart of it all; to say, yes, I said this one bad thing, but in hubris and ignorance, not the malice that’s being claimed, and I know that nobody is obliged to accept my apology or talk to me ever again regardless, but don’t the lies matter, too?

In the same thread where she liedabout me, Benedict said, “People make mistakes. People can change and grow and learn. But you have to own up to your misdeeds, and apologize, and attempt to atone. You can’t build a career out of viciously, dishonestly attacking others and then cry for civility like the fucking GOP.” And I just.

Reading this now, I don’t know whether to laugh or cry, because at the time she was writing, I already had apologised. I’d spent seven years reflecting on how I fucked up with my review of Baru Cormorant, working to be a better queer critic, a better person, but even if I’d specifically made clear the relationship between my personal growth and particular at some point, I have no faith that Benedict would’ve cared, or cited it, or done anything other than what she did, because with the best will in the world, I cannot find a better explanation for her lies about me than a malice which is at best lazy and at worst deliberate. Regardless of where she got her ideas about me, it would’ve taken all of three seconds to Google Seth Dickinson to see if he’d ever come out as a gay man, and to learn that he has not; she didn’t bother, and instead took steps to redact his name, so as to make it harder for others to fact-check her accusation. A simple glance at the thread she claimed was a dogpile in the name of queerphobia would’ve easily shown that nothing of the sort took place; she didn’t bother. The most charitable reading of her actions is that, unaware of my apology and genuinely convinced that I’d acted with malice in the first place, she half-remembered some things I’d said, interpreted them through the lens of Foz Is Clearly Terrible, and posted in a fit of passion. Which would be deeply ironic if true, because I, of all people, can understand tweeting a fuckup thread, unaware of the harm it caused until after the fact – it is, after all, exactly why Benedict took issue with me in the first place.

Which brings us back to the problems of Twitter, and dogpiling, and callouts, and the persistent nature of this bullshit. Because no good will come of people showing up in Benedict or Felker-Martin’s mentions yelling on my behalf, which is one reason why it’s taken me months to write this all down in the first place: the whole thing is a cycle of hurt, and I have no wish to perpetuate it. But the hurt has already happened: my silence won’t make it go away, and I’ve been fucked up enough by the consequences that not talking about it has started to exacerbate the problem. Recently, a friend sent me a playfully-worded DM asking whether I was open to criticism of my takes re: something I’d tweeted about a K-drama, and when they didn’t reply right away, I had a panic attack, convinced that I’d said something horrific that I was too stupid to realise was horrific. I spent half of Worldcon braced for old friends to refuse to speak to me or call me out in public because they surely must’ve seen the lies, they must’ve believed them, and that’s an anxiety which, on top of everything else, plays badly with my existing mental health issuse.

The problem is that growth, real growth, isn’t performative. We can express it publicly, sure – that’s often an important step – but our actual, innermost selves are not what’s displayed on social media. And all too often, even when social media professes to want growth from those it accuses of wrongdoing, what it really wants is a new culprit to feel vindicated about shaming, because that’s easier than weighing up whether you think so-and-so deserves another chance, and whether all your mutuals will agree with you, and if saying so is worth the chance of being called an apologist in the event that they don’t. Being reactive is simpler, easier, but at some point, we have to accept that not all takes require responses, and that if they do, they don’t necessarily have to be ours. If there’s one positive thing I’ve taken out of all this, it’s a desire to be more judicious about how I speak online: to be less knee-jerk, to give less space to opinions that don’t merit discussion, and to try for kinder readings of the works and people around me. Who knows if I’ll succeed – I am, after all, only human – but at least for now, it’s a start. I just… had to talk about this, in my stupid, rambling way, and once again: I’m sorry for the hurt I caused. I am trying to be better.

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.