Posts Tagged ‘Twitter’

For days now, social media has been abuzz over Kat Rosenfield’s recent Vulture essay, The Toxic Drama on YA Twitter, which focuses almost exclusively on reactions to Laurie Forest’s debut novel, The Black Witch. Overwhelmingly, the responses I’ve seen are binary: either Rosenfield is a terrible, malicious person who doesn’t know what she’s talking about, or she’s the only person brave enough to speak truth to power. Not having read The Black Witch, a book I can’t recall hearing about before this week, it was news to me that its reception was news at all. Now that I’m all caught up, however, I feel rather like the doomed bowl of petunias falling through space in The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy: oh no, not again.

The recent history of online SFF, fandom and genre discourse rejoices in an abundance of brilliant trashfires, but even in that context, there’s something about YA that routinely spurs the community to knock things up a notch with the Spice Weasel of Greater Fuckery, BAM! YA is so predictably riven with terrible arguments, in fact, that I made a Venn diagram of them. (In MS Paint, obviously. Because I am secretly nine thousand years old.) THUS:

YA fuckery venn diagram

Or, to put it another, slightly less tongue-in-cheek way: as with anything primarily intended for teenagers, it’s necessary to acknowledge that not all teens either need, want or can handle the same things at the same time, in the same way or to the same degree, while simultaneously accounting for the fact that both teens and adults are frequently unreliable narrators about where these boundaries lie. This creates a maelstrom of seemingly paradoxical, highly contextual arguments about what is or is not “appropriate” for a given audience: in the case of YA, the usual moral arguments about content are further complicated by both literary snobbery and a continual back-and-forth about whether YA authors have an obligation to “teach” their readers, whatever that means in context. Throw in the invariable clash between older, outsider commentators with only superficial genre knowledge and young, frequently inexperienced critic-readers making their first forays into public commentary, and it’s a recipe for disaster. Which isn’t to say that there’s never any insightful, engaging or otherwise fruitful YA discourse to be found online – far from it! It’s just that, when things do go wrong, the pattern of arguments tends to be as predictable as it is explosive.

Rosenfield starts her article by describing how early, glowing praise for The Black Witch was abruptly curtailed, thanks to a single negative review:

The hype train was derailed in mid-March, however, by Shauna Sinyard, a bookstore employee and blogger who writes primarily about YA and had a different take: “The Black Witch is the most dangerous, offensive book I have ever read,” she wrote in a nearly 9,000-word review that blasted the novel as an end-to-end mess of unadulterated bigotry. “It was ultimately written for white people. It was written for the type of white person who considers themselves to be not-racist and thinks that they deserve recognition and praise for treating POC like they are actually human.”

As Rosenfield notes, Sinyard’s review consists largely of quotes from the book, interspersed with reactive commentary. That being so, it’s striking that Rosenfield neither attempts to engage with the substance of Sinyard’s objections nor addresses the text itself. Her defence of the book, inasmuch as she bothers to mount one, consists entirely of pointing out that, well, other people liked it!, the better to malign Sinyard for daring to disagree. This approach irritates me for three reasons: one, obviously, because people disagreeing about the merit of books is the literal function of reviewing; two, because it situates as irrelevant the rather core matter of whether the original criticism was warranted, or at least reasonable; and three, because it ignores a critical aspect of how Sinyard’s piece was received.

Never having encountered Sinyard before now, I can’t say whether this particular review is representative of her usual writing style, nor can I speak to the breadth of her experience. What I will say, however, is that this particular review is easily mistaken for a conflation of depiction with endorsement. While Sinyard clearly and extensively references the text, and while the immediate reasons for her dislike are clearly stated, her overall argument is sloppy, not because she doesn’t know what she’s talking about, but because she assumes her readership can fill in the relevant blanks.

To me – and, I suspect, to anyone with a solid background in pro-diversity criticism – it’s clear that she’s angry, not at the mere presence of bigotry in the narrative, but at how Forest has chosen to handle it. With few exceptions, Sinyard is asserting a specific failure of depiction, not depiction-as-evil, full stop. This is, to put it mildly, a really important distinction for any critic to make, not least because it’s the difference between saying (for instance) “I hate that you wrote about drug use” and “I hate that you wrote about drug use badly.” One is a judgement of content; the other is a judgement of execution. Sinyard is so angry at the book as a whole – as, indeed, is her right – that she hasn’t much distinguished between elements which create the problem and those which, with the problem established, serve to compound it, such as the presence of toxic tropes. But then, she likely felt it unnecessary: to those in the know, additional explanations were superfluous.

 

Not having been involved in the initial furore, I can’t speak to which readers thought Sinyard was arguing that depiction equals endorsement, therefore The Black Witch is Bad; nor can I state how much agreement or disagreement with her review was forged on that basis, compared to the number of people who took her as critiquing the execution. Nonetheless, it’s clear that this misapprehension did circulate, and – I would argue – played a salient role in what happened next. When, as Rosenfield points out, the book was positively reviewed at Kirkus, the ensuing comment thread made multiple references to Sinyard’s conflation of depiction with endorsement, both from her supporters and from those who disagreed. This confusion is also apparent in editor Vicky Smith’s follow-up essay, which manages come within spitting distance of recognising Sinyard’s point while still missing it spectacularly. To quote:

Yep, it’s pretty repellent stuff, and readers are in narrator Elloren’s head almost all the way through all 608 pages. She expresses her thoughtless bigotry over and over. She is racist as all get out… And she is homophobic, telling her brother when he comes out to her, “You can’t be this way. You just can’t. You have to change.” While I’m not sure I’d say that Elloren is misogynistic, her culture certainly is, and she is not one of those standard-issue fantasy heroines who rejects her culture’s strictures from Page 1.

But over the course of those 608 pages, as she studies, works, eats, and sleeps alongside those she’s been taught to hate, fear, and revile, Elloren undergoes a monumental change. It’s a process much like that experienced by Derek Black, godson of David Duke and son of Don Black, white supremacist and creator of the white nationalist internet site Stormfront. Black walked in lockstep with his elders’ agenda until he went to college and got to know the sorts of people he had previously vilified, eventually publicly disavowing white nationalism.

Here’s the thing about the redemption of real-world extremists: as happy as we are when they cross the fence, their pre-enlightenment point of view is not something everyone either can or should be asked to sympathise with. For those of us on the receiving end of bigotry, knowing that a particular person has been indoctrinated against us since childhood doesn’t mean it stings any less when they go on the attack. In much the same way that an abuser’s past victimisation doesn’t exonerate their present sins, we understand that, yes, even if a vehement bigot was raised to bigotry, they are still hurting us now, and we are allowed to be angry. That being so, comparing the protagonist of The Black Witch to a real-life white supremacist does more to prove Sinyard’s point than Smith’s. If a reader belongs to one or more of the marginalised groups so profoundly and constantly reviled in the text by Elloren, why on Earth should they want to read six hundred pages about a fictional bigot struggling to view them, the actual living reader, as human? Why wouldn’t that be upsetting?

In real life, anyone might be curious to read up on Derek Black’s white supremacist transformation, because he’s a real person who actually exists, but even so, no black reader is going to come away from that narrative thinking, “Wow, I really do deserve to be treated like a person!” because they literally already knew that. Which is what Sinyard means when she says The Black Witch “holds no regard to the feelings of marginalised people” – the big emotional reveal is seemingly predicated on the reader either learning from, being surprised by or sympathising with Elloren’s transformation, which means caring enough about her – caring more about her than those she victimises – to feel invested in the first place. And if you, as a reader, are one of those she victimises, then that’s unlikely to be a fun experience.

Returning to Rosenfield’s piece, she writes:

In a tweet that would be retweeted nearly 500 times, Sinyard asked people to spread the word about The Black Witch by sharing her review — a clarion call for YA Twitter, which regularly identifies and denounces books for being problematic (an all-purpose umbrella term for describing texts that engage improperly with race, gender, sexual orientation, disability, and other marginalizations). Led by a group of influential authors who pull no punches when it comes to calling out their colleagues’ work, and amplified by tens of thousands of teen and young-adult followers for whom online activism is second nature, the campaigns to keep offensive books off shelves are a regular feature in a community that’s as passionate about social justice as it is about reading. And while not every callout escalates into a full-scale dragging, in the case of The Black Witch — a book by a newcomer with a minimal presence online — the backlash was immediate and intense.

There are several salient criticisms to be made of this paragraph. To begin with, it’s a staggering act of wilful bad faith on Rosenfield’s part to act as if Sinyard’s decision to tweet about her negative review was, in and of itself, a malicious decision. This is quite literally what book bloggers do: they opine about books, whether positively or negatively, then share those reviews with others. But Rosenfield, like Sinyard, is sloppy. In failing to acknowledge the necessity of criticism in any genre, she acts as if YA authors are uniquely entitled to good press. At the same time, by neglecting to mention the current ubiquity of pro-diversity criticism, not only within SFF, but across the board, she creates the false impression that the phenomenon is unique to YA.

Rosenfield’s further claim that YA Twitter is “led by a group of influential authors who pull no punches” is as nebulous as it is frustrating. Not that she names these supposed leaders, of course: how could she? There’s far too many “influential authors” on Twitter to sensibly imagine any of them forming some shady cabal with dominion over the others, and that’s before you attempt to define what “influential” means in context. Better to leave it unsourced, along with her “tens of thousands” figure for YA readers “for whom online activism is second nature”. I’m honestly fascinated to know where she got that number: has someone done a survey? If nothing else, “tens of thousands” stands in stark contrast to the stated nearly 500 retweets of Sinyard’s “clarion call” and the 6000 notes on a related tumblr post. The fact that the review itself apparently garnered some 20,000 views does not evidence make.

More salient than all these numbers, however, is the fact that, as of the time of this writing, The Black Witch has 2,266 ratings on Goodreads and roughly a third as many reviews: if Rosenfield is going to invoke the ugly spectre of “tens of thousands” of angry strangers damning the book to purgatory, she could at least have the decency to be consistent about it. Instead, we get this:

Based almost solely on Sinyard’s opinion, the novel became the object of sustained, aggressive opposition in the weeks leading up its release.

Allow me to nitpick Rosenfield’s word use, here: the reaction to the novel wasn’t based “solely on Sinyard’s opinion”, but on her review. Opinions, by definition, aren’t necessarily founded in reality: Sinyard’s review, however, was extensively sourced from the text. Whatever qualms I have about Sinyard’s commentary, her review demonstrably gained momentum on the basis of its quotes, which included several full screenshots of various pages. Those who shared her ire weren’t trusting blindly in a familiar voice, but were judging actual excerpts from the book, and whether or not those passages were ultimately representative of the whole, it’s not unreasonable to use them as a gauge for potential interest.

That being so, it’s important to note that much of the frustration expressed towards books like The Black Witch  is the product of a still largely homogeneous mainstream YA market. While progress has been and is being made to diversify the field, the front-and-centering of books which, as per Sinyard’s review, are written more for the privileged than the marginalised – and more, which are often either dismissive of marginalisation or laden with stereotypes – is still a very real problem. Indie authors, who are frequently stigmatised by simple virtue of their “failure” to achieve mainstream publication, but whose books often feature far greater diversity than their traditional counterparts, have to fight hard for readers and recognition both, which makes the seemingly effortless hype afforded books like The Black Witch a bitter pill to swallow. In that context, anger at this particular title isn’t just about the book itself, but the extent to which it represents a wider structural bias – one which, unless actively identified, has a tendency to pass as a silent default.

Its publisher, Harlequin Teen, was bombarded with angry emails demanding they pull the book. The Black Witch’s Goodreads rating dropped to an abysmal 1.71 thanks to a mass coordinated campaign of one-star reviews, mostly from people who admitted to not having read it.

And now we hit the crux of Rosenfield’s argument: the money quote, for all that she’s lacking in sources. After all, there’s a difference between Harlequin Teen receiving five emails and fifty, and in light of the fact that the majority of her selected links are now dead, in the absence of any confirming screenshots, we’ve only her word that there really was a “mass coordinated campaign,” as opposed to a smaller number of angry readers engaging in bad behaviour.

Even so, regardless of your thoughts on The Black Witch in particular, it should be a no-brainer that leaving 1-star reviews of a book you haven’t actually read is a terrible thing to do. It is, quite literally, a Sad Puppy tactic, and even if it wasn’t just plain bad manners, that fact alone is enough to make it verboten. Even on Goodreads, it’s entirely possible to discuss the failings of a book you don’t want to read without falsely claiming to have done so. Similarly, and as little faith in the novel as the quoted sections inspire, the idea that The Black Witch ought to be pulled for its sins is needlessly excessive. Bad books exist, which is why reviews exist: to tell us not to buy them.

Or rather, to suggest we don’t. Bad reviews are not mandates of Thou Shalt Not Read – they are, to quote Captain Barbossa, more like guidelines. While I agree that voting with your wallet plays an important part in shaping what the publishing industry sees as viable, making blanket declarations to the effect that Buying This Bad Book Makes You A Bad Person For Contributing To Harm is, frankly, both toxic and unhelpful, not least because there is no absolute, definitive line in the sand about what “bad” is. As I’ve had occasion to say before in a fandom context,  you can’t ban stories that feature “bad” elements uncritically without also banning a great deal of content you’d much rather keep – and besides which, it’s entirely possible to both criticise a story and enjoy it.

Not having read The Black Witch, I can’t speak to its other qualities, but then, as both Sinyard and Smith have made clear, it’s likely not a book for me. I was never the intended audience, and thanks to how widely circulated Sinyard’s review has been, it’s easier than it would otherwise be for readers who dislike its approach to avoid it. Which is – again! – exactly what reviews are for. And, look: I know this is a delicate point to make, but nobody who’s currently angry about The Black Witch came into the world, Athena-esque, possessed of their present wisdom. As a teenager, I absolutely adored the Axis trilogy and Wayfarer Redemption series by Sara Douglass: they were my first, formative foray into adult fantasy novels, and they made me consider a lot of things I never had before. As an adult, however, I find much of the material horrifying – there is so much gratuitous rape in those books, you guys! So many racist, ableist tropes! But as critical as I am of the books now, at the time, they helped me to start being critical: and everyone has to start somewhere.

Particularly in the present political moment, I can well understand why Harlequin Teen’s decision to release a novel whose protagonist is the fantasy equivalent of a white nationalist is being criticised. I can also understand why, given the same political context, those responsible for the book might have thought, “Here is a story which teens raised by bigots, who are still in the process of unlearning their own bigotry, might find meaningful.” Returning to the Derek Black example, while no African American reading about his break with white supremacy would learn anything new about their own humanity, the same isn’t true for a reader who shares his background – and if such a person can be converted, isn’t that ultimately a good thing?

There is, I feel, a tension on the left about bigots who cross the floor and recant: we want it to happen, but we don’t want to give people cookies for finally meeting the most basic standards of human decency, because – we argue – they should just be doing that anyway. But the difficult, prickly truth is this: if accepting the humanity of people you’ve been raised to hate, fear and devalue was really as simple as flicking a mental switch, the world would be a damn sight better than it is. Personal change is a messy, imperfect process. From an emotional remove, it’s easy to laugh at that guy who thinks he’s a hero for loving his wife’s curves, but for a lot of people, that’s exactly what their first forays into better personhood look like. I’m starting to feel like we need to apply that xkcd strip about not making fun of people not knowing basic things to the pro-diversity movement: yes, it’s often frustrating to have repeat runthroughs of Diversity 101, but without the basics, how is anyone going to progress?

ten_thousand

But then – and this is getting slightly away from The Black Witch, but bear with me – I also feel like this used to be what happened. The pace of internet discourse and the evolution of its various subcommunities moves so fast that the passage of a year is practically an epoch, such that patterns and behaviours which feel set in stone are objectively quite recent. Once upon a time, as memory serves, the etiquette was to respond politely to newbie queries about feminism, diversity and whathaveyou until or unless the questioner proved themselves hostile, the better to catch more flies with honey than vinegar. Less than a decade ago, it was still new and exciting to be building social media communities online, discussing books and politics and shared interests with people around the world. But what absolutely ruined that optimistic approach – the tactic that was developed and perpetuated with the direct intention of emotionally exhausting the opposition – was the nascent alt-right, MRA, 4-chan-and-reddit-sanctioned rise in trolling.

Offline, we talk about how the culture of particular communities – their character, language and rituals – can be shaped by traumatic events. I would argue that the same is also true of digital communities, and that a great deal of what is now held to be standard discursive practice in left-wing circles was drawn up to circumvent being trapped in bad faith arguments by trolls who deliberately used “polite” language in their initial exchanges as a bait-and-switch tactic. The term sealioning was coined in response to the practice of nicely, “cluelessly” importuning the target with requests for sources the questioner never intended to read, and that’s just one permutation of the phenomenon.

Almost every person I know who spends any time arguing about diversity and feminism on the internet, myself included, has experienced burnout at the hands of trolls who mimic sincere engagement with the express purpose of draining their interlocutor. The cumulative effect has been a bit like the Boy Who Cried Wolf: we’ve all encountered so many terrible assholes masquerading as Polite Bigots Who Are Genuinely Curious About Your Arguments that now, whenever an actual Diversity 101 student wanders in asking beginner-level questions or failing to recognise the higher-level ingroup shorthand or jargon for what it is, the default response is to either laugh or tear them a new one. And if I were a cynical person, I might be given to wonder if that was the real end-goal all along, the better to drive rebuffed fence-sitters back towards MRA forums. (But that’s another essay.)

The point being that, aside from every other valid personal and historical reason why those with limited emotional energy to expend on the induction of baby lefties are disinclined to focus on redeeming bigots, the recent digital past has pretty firmly entrenched that course as folly. So when a fictionalised account of that process comes along, all wrapped up in a fantasy setting for teenagers, and presents itself as a narrative both for and about the group we’re least invested in working to redeem or in viewing sympathetically before that point – well. We’re exhausted. Of course we are.

I say again: I haven’t read The Black Witch, and I came away from Sinyard’s review with a poor impression of it. I don’t think it’s for me, or for a lot of people like me, and without having attempted the text myself, I don’t feel qualified to speak about what value it might or might not have to others – and particularly teenagers – whose background more closely mimics that of the protagonist. But even if you hew firmly to the idea that the book is terrible, arguing that nobody else should be allowed to read it lest they do harm to strangers is completely absurd. Good values and intelligent opinions aren’t formed by simply reading the “right” books and putting a blind, uncritical trust in whoever sets those parameters, but by engaging critically and intelligently regardless of what you’re reading.

When the awful Otto objects, indignant and vehement, to Wanda calling him a stupid ape in A Fish Called Wanda, snapping, “Apes don’t read philosophy!”, Wanda shoots back at him, “Yes they do, Otto. They just don’t understand it.” More than once in the shamefully recent past, I’ve fallen into the trap of uncritically adopting an opinion just because people I thought were Good Guys had expressed it, and damned if that has ever led to anything but me, belatedly, realising I was an ass.

By the same token, I can think of plenty of equally recent instances where I’ve had a wildly different take on a given book or series to friends whose judgement and acumen I respect enormously. A huge number of people in my circle loved Uprooted; despite my affection for Naomi Novik’s Temeraire series, I ended up ragequitting when I’d barely started. Ditto my reaction to Saga, a wildly successful series beloved of many friends which, from what I’ve seen of the later issues, is doing a lot of great stuff: even so, I never made it past the first issue. The same thing happened with Seth Dickinson’s The Traitor Baru Cormorant, a polarising but popular book: I couldn’t get past chapter two, but plenty of others loved it.

One of my very first forays into online YA discourse happened back in 2011, a full six years ago: remember the blowup when Bitch Magazine put up a list of 100 feminist YA novels, then removed several of them after individual commenters objected to their inclusion, at which point all hell broke loose? Critics disagreeing about the feminist and/or diversity merits of various YA novels is not new. What is new is the rigid insistence in certain quarters on One True Interpretation, never to be questioned or gainsaid, such that 1-starring a book you haven’t read or asking the publisher to pull it is presented as a sensible course of action.

Back when Benjanun Sriduangkaew was still operating as Requires Hate, I remember tweeting a photo of a stack of newly-purchased SFF books and receiving an instant, scathing rebuke from her about the racism inherent in having bought something written by Libba Bray. While I don’t think we’re anywhere near her levels of toxicity in the current discourse overall, I’m as annoyed by the clear comparison between her stance then and certain reactions to The Black Witch now as I am by the identical decision of Sad Puppies and diversity advocates alike to suggest that 1-starring unread, “objectionable” books is a good idea.

Which brings me, once again, to Rosenfield’s article, the latter half of which is, by and large, more cogent than the start. That being so, I was surprised by the amount of anger I saw directed at her on social media for those sections in particular, deriding her decision to quote people “without consent”, or without warning them beforehand that she was going to link to their Twitter accounts.

To be clear: the fact that some of the people named in Rosenfield’s piece were subsequently subjected to new vitriol from strangers who disliked their opinions is awful. That sort of abuse helps no one, and I hate that it’s become so ubiquitous as to frequently be written off as just par for the course. But by the same token, when it comes to suggesting Rosenfield had no right to link anyone without permission – and to quote the formidable Roxanne Gay, who responded to the piece herself – that’s not how journalism works.

Tweets are part of the public record: both the APA and various university systems have established referencing protocols for their citation. The internet is a public space: what we say and do here, in writing, is always on the record. One tweet I saw objected to Rosenfield quoting minors without permission. I have no idea if that’s true – her one professedly teenage source is given a pseudonym – but even so, as best I can tell, the usual journalistic standards about requiring a minor’s guardians to sign off on their being interviewed doesn’t apply to quoting online content, which has – as stated – already been made public.

(I’m happy to be corrected on that point, by the way, but given how many widely-circulated BuzzFeed articles – to name just one outlet – consist almost entirely of screenshots of content from Twitter and tumblr, much of which is made by teens, it doesn’t seem like that sort of journalistic restriction exists in any meaningful way.)

As someone with Diagnosed Mental Health Issues (TM), I completely understand how finding something you said unexpectedly referenced in a prominent publication – especially when it results in a sudden influx of angry digital contact – can be not only upsetting, but actively stressful. But at the same time, strangers are not responsible for setting additional boundaries in anticipation of your unknown mental health needs. In making the decision to engage publicly online, either despite or because of our personal issues, all of us are consenting to being on record: to being quoted, and potentially contacted in response to those quotes, regardless of the convenience.

In those rare moments when we do consider potentially going viral, it tends to be the mental equivalent to clicking “agree” on yet another set of iTunes terms and conditions: yes, yes, risks and blah and whatever blah, just let me keep using the thing! But that doesn’t make the potential consequences any less real – and when we’re writing under our actual names, in our professional capacities as authors or critics, about literary issues, in a medium which is expressly designed to allow strangers to talk to us, being outraged that someone actually linked to what we said in a critical way makes as much sense as going for a long walk when the forecast is rain and crying foul when the clouds open. Someone disagreeing with your opinion and linking to what you said is not the same thing as a person deliberately encouraging their readers to engage in harassment: while the latter is certainly bullying, the former is merely a basic journalistic standard. That it can sometimes have the same effect when assholes show up to mouth off on their own volition is gross and angrifying, but that doesn’t mean the reporter has acted either badly or in bad faith.

That being said, I can’t let Rosenfield’s summation of other recent YA “controversies” pass without examination. Near the end of her piece, she says:

Twitter being Twitter, that outcome seems unlikely. In recent months, the community was bubbling with a dozen different controversies of varying reach — over Nicola Yoon’s Everything Everything (for ableism), Stephanie Elliot’s Sad Perfect (for being potentially triggering to ED survivors), A Court of Wings and Ruin by Sarah J. Maas (for heterocentrism), The Traitor’s Kiss by Erin Beaty (for misusing the story of Mulan), and All the Crooked Saints by Maggie Stiefvater (in a peculiar example of publishing pre-crime, people had decided that Stiefvater’s book was racist before she’d even finished the manuscript.)

Given the context of the article, these issues are presented as being similar in nature to what happened with The Black Witch – and again, I’m annoyed by the number of unsourced claims on offer (and, just as equally, by yet another person 1-starring an unreleased, unread novel). But as in her earlier arguments, what Rosenfield misses here, whether wilfully or in ignorance, is the vital distinction between critics actually doing their jobs – which is to say, pointing out the strengths and weaknesses of various books for the edification of potential readers – and an uglier sort of backlash. As previously mentioned, it’s entirely possible to find fault with one aspect of a book, or to make note of any potentially triggering content, while still endorsing it otherwise, and it’s to Rosenfield’s discredit that she’s happy eliding this distinction.

All of which is a very long-winded way of saying that, as pissed off as I am at the sneering, editorialised, biased way in which Rosenfield addresses criticism of The Black Witch in particular, her remarks about the pitfalls of online YA discourse in general have some merit. Writing this blog, I don’t expect that everyone who reads it will agree with me. I don’t have some masochistic urge to be yelled at on Twitter,  and nor – for the record – do I think I’ve gotten everything here right. There are times when writing an essay comes naturally, the whole thing flowing onto the page in a single, cogent burst. Writing this piece has been harder, more fragmented, the process full of deletions and revisions. Whenever I act as a critic, I always feel achingly aware of the potential for an argument to twist out from under me: for a single elision or botched turn of phrase to derail my intent into error. Which is why shoddy criticism, bad arguments and poor reasoning invariably raise my hackles: online, there’s a frequent and terrible conflation of opinion with analysis, and while both can be equally valuable – and while they can certainly overlap – we give them different names for a reason.

The objections of marginalised people to narratives which take a “we’re talking about you, not to you” approach to their lived experiences are, and always will be, valid. Likewise, it’s important to consider the impact of particular tropes, not just within an individual work, but as legacies of a wider cultural history and movement. No book, no reader, no author and no critic is an island, and while we’re still individually entitled to our personal preferences, our tastes are nonetheless informed by the world around us, which means that we, in turn, can potentially influence others. Discussing a book you haven’t read or stating your reasons for not doing so is perfectly acceptable practice, and always has been, and always will be – indeed, as I’ve said multiple times already, this is what reviews are for.

The question of what makes good YA is never going to have a consistent answer, no matter how finely you parse the politics of moral purity. That being so, I’d far rather encourage readers to form their own opinions on the basis of the evidence – even if they end up drawing an existing conclusion; even if they’d rather assess reviews than the book itself, or vice versa – than to simply trust whatever they’re told implicitly. Because sooner or later, everyone disagrees about something, and if your only response to a conflict between two trusted authorities is to wait for one of them to make your mind up for you – well. I’d say I’d be frightened to live in that world, but truthfully, I think we already are.

The real trick, then, is to change it.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Yesterday, after tangentially mentioning Baen Publishing in a Twitter conversation about queer representation in SFF, several Baen aficionados took this as an invitation to harangue both myself and the person to whom I was was speaking about the evils of left-wing politics, both in genre and more generally. Mostly, this involved yelling about how socialism is evil and feminism is cancer, which was equal parts hilarious and horrifying, with a bonus discussion of Christianity in the context of various political systems. My personal highlight: the unironic claim, made by a Christian participant, that Christ was apolitical, which. Um. Yeah. About that:

You Keep Using That Word

Anyway.

While the thread eventually devolved in much the way you’d expect, the actual opening salvo by Patrick Richardson – made in response to the observation that Lois McMaster Bujold’s work, politically speaking, is somewhat at variance with the bulk of Baen’s catalogue – was as follows: “It seems to be only the lefties that care about politics before story.” Which view was quickly seconded by the same woman who later claimed that Christ was apolitical: “Of course! If the story is crap but the author is a nifty socialist, that’s totes awesome!”

Twitter, as anyone who routinely uses it can tell you, is good for many things, but nuanced, lengthy dialogue is seldom one of them. And so, in addition to yesterday’s back and forth, I’m commenting here  – because for all their brevity, these two statements perfectly encapsulate the fundamental misunderstanding at the heart of most anti-diversity arguments.

I’ll deal with the second claim first, as it’s always struck me as being the most wilfully obtuse permutation of the stance. The idea that pro-diversity voices are wasting time, money and effort promoting books we don’t actually like is almost cartoonishly absurd; as though diversity is a naked emperor and we the masters of his empty wardrobe. Listen: I have a toddler, a husband, an active social life, a packed writing schedule, multiple online streaming accounts and a TBR pile that stretches into infinity. If you really think I’m going to waste valuable energy advocating for stories that don’t give me pleasure, then either you’re projecting – which, given the willingness of certain Puppies to thusly waste their own time, is a disturbingly real possibility – or you’re grossly overestimating your knowledge of human nature.

Having already discussed, at length, the dissonance between how recommendations made on the basis of diversity can appear to others and what they actually mean, I won’t revisit the details here. The salient point, however, is this: once you acknowledge that a book recommended on whatever basis is, by virtue of being recommended, a book enjoyed, then it’s virtually impossible to claim that diversity advocates are wilfully dismissive of quality. Nor is the intention to treat “diverse books” as a distinct subgenre, one elevated above its fellows without any regard for category or content otherwise. This is, in fact, exactly the kind of ghettoisation the pro-diversity camp is actively trying to avoid – all the diverse books on one niche shelf at the back, instead of being a normal, integrated part of genre. This accusation likewise ignores the fact that, actually, it’s quite common to group and recommend narratives on the basis of their tropes (friends to lovers, the Chosen One) or thematic elements (classic quest, mythological underpinnings), particularly when we’re speaking to personal preference.

The problem is that, when talking to someone who doesn’t value diversity in narrative – often because they’ve simply never considered it to be a noteworthy factor in their enjoyment of a book, and not because they inherently object to its presence – it can be difficult to explain why it matters at all. Taste is always a murky thing to navigate in such arguments, but it’s an inescapable factor: popularity and obscurity are both unreliable yardsticks where quality is concerned, and given the breadth of the human experience, there’s always going to be entrenched disagreement about what a good story is or should be; whether reading should challenge our comfort zones or confirm them; whether it’s better to read a book that shows us our own experience or a different one. Nobody wants to be told what to like or how to like it, just as we all reserve the right to entertain ourselves on our own terms, and yet, to borrow a phrase, no man is an island. Taken collectively, our individual preferences can and do have an impact at the macro/cultural level that transcends their micro/personal origins, even though the one is invariably a product of the other.

This is why the promotion of diversity is often discussed in moral/representational terms, particularly in connection with children: stories are our first and greatest window into the possible, and if those early adventures consistently exclude a large portion of their audience, or if certain groups are portrayed more complexly than others, then not everyone is learning the same lesson. Even so, the idea is never that diversity should take precedence over quality, as some seem to fear, but rather, that we should aim to create stories – stories in the plural, not the singular, though still bearing in mind the interrelationship between the individual and the collective – which are both diverse and good.

So what, then, of stories that are good, but not diverse? Where do they fit in? Because, on the basis of everything I’ve said here, there’s an argument to be made – and some, indeed, have made it – that you cannot have quality without diversity at all.

While this is a useful shorthand claim to make when looking at the collective end of things as they currently stand – which is to say, when acknowledging the historical lack of diversity and the ongoing need to remedy the imbalance – as a dictum removed from context, it not only ignores the rights of the individual, both as audience and creator, but opens up the question of whether a diverse story is diverse enough. It’s a difficult problem to navigate, and one that gives me a frequent headache. On the one hand, it’s undeniable that white liberal feminism (for instance) has a long and ugly history of ignoring the various racial and homophobic aspects of misogyny as experienced by women of colour and the queer community – that there is, as Kimberle Crenshaw said, an intersectional component to oppression.  As such, praising a novel for its diversity doesn’t mean those aspects of the story are automatically exempt from criticism; far from it, in fact, which is one more reason why I find the accusation that pro-diversity equals anti-quality so laughable. The advocates of diversity are simultaneously its sharpest critics, and always have been, because we’re the ones who care about getting it, by whatever definition, right.

But on the other hand, it’s an inescapable fact that stories are finite: no matter how much detail a given setting might contain, the author can’t focus on everything, or they’ll have no focus at all. By the same token, nothing and no one is perfect, least of all because ‘perfect’ means something different to everyone: the fact that an author drops the ball in one area doesn’t preclude them succeeding in another, and while the function of criticism is to discuss such contrasts – and while every individual reader is perfectly entitled to decide for themselves how such lines are drawn; to make their own decisions about content and execution – declaring imperfection the antithesis of success does all creative efforts a disservice.

Which brings me back to that mercurial element, taste, and the fear, as expressed by Richardson, that even acknowledging diversity as a factor means putting “politics before story”. It’s a telling phrase: by its very construction, it implies that politics are external to stories, instead of being a material component and/or a relevant lens through which to view them. Which, I would contend, they are. It’s not just that the personal is political: it’s that the political is seldom anything else. The only impersonal politics are those which affect other people; which is to say, they’re only ever impersonal to some, not objectively so. The conflation of political questions with abstract concerns can only occur when the decision-makers don’t meaningfully overlap with those their decisions impact. Political apathy is the sole province of the ignorant and the unaffected: everyone else, of necessity, is invested.

Speaking personally, then, and setting aside any other salient, stylistic factors, the point at which my preference for diversity will likely see me jolted from an otherwise good book, such that I may well question its claim to goodness, is the point at which the narrative becomes complicit in dehumanisation, particularly my own. What this means is always going to shift according to context, but broadly speaking, if an author leans on  offensive, simple stereotyping in lieu of characterisation, or if groups that might be realistically present or active within a given context are mysteriously absent, then I’m going to count that a negative. Note that a story which is, in some active sense, about dehumanisation – a misogynist culture; a slave-owning family – is not automatically the same as being complicit in that dehumanisation. This is an important distinction to make: whereas a story about dehumanisation will, by virtue of the attempt, acknowledge what’s going on, even if the characters never question the setting – say, by portraying complex female characters within a restrictive patriarchal system – a complicit story will render these elements as wallpaper: a meaningless background detail, like the number of moons or the price of fish, without ever acknowledging the implications.

It’s not just that, overwhelmingly, complicit stories tend to be dismissive of people like me, though that certainly doesn’t help; it’s that, at the level of worldbuilding and construction, I find them boring. One of my favourite things about genre novels is learning the rules of a new time and place – the customs, language, history and traditions that make up the setting – and as such, I don’t enjoy seeing them treated as irrelevant. For instance: if I’m told that the army of Fictional Country A has always accepted female soldiers, but that women are the legal subjects of their husbands, with no effort made to reconcile the apparent contradiction, then I’m going to consider that a faulty piece of worldbuilding and be jerked out of the story. Doubly so if this is just one of a number of similar elisions, all of which centre on women in a narrative whose complexities are otherwise lovingly considered; triply so if there are no central female characters, or if the ones that do appear are stereotyped in turn. (And yes, I can think of multiple books offhand to which this particular criticism applies.)

Call it the Sex/Hexchequer Test: if an elaborate, invented system of magic or governance is portrayed with greater internal consistency than the gender roles, then the story is probably sexist. Which doesn’t, I hasten to add, mean that it has nothing else to offer and should be shunned at all costs – imperfection, as stated above, is not the antithesis of success. But if someone wants to avoid the book on those grounds, then that’s entirely their business, and at the very least, I’ll likely be cranky about it.

And thus my preference for good diverse stories, which tend not to have this problem. It’s not a question of putting politics ahead of the story: it’s about acknowledging that all stories, regardless of authorial intention, contain politics, because people are political, and people wrote them. In real life, politics only ever seem impersonal if they impact someone else; in fiction, however, that’s what makes them visible. Stories aren’t apolitical just because we happen to agree with them or find them unobjectionable: it just means we’re confusing our own moral, cultural and political preferences with a neutral default. Which doesn’t mean we’re obliged to seek out stories that take us out of our comfort zone this way, or like them if we do: it just means that we can’t gauge their quality on the sole basis that this has, in fact, happened.

And yet, far too often, this is exactly what diversity advocates are criticised for doing: as though acknowledging the political dimensions of narrative and exploring them, in whatever way, deliberately, is somehow intrinsically bad; as though nobody sympathetic to certain dominant groups or ideologies has ever done likewise. Well, they have: you just didn’t think it mattered overmuch, because you agreed.

It’s not about quality, Mr Richardson; it never was. It’s about visibility – who lives, who dies, who tells your story – and whether or not you noticed.

In the past two days, I’ve ended up in two different arguments with two different men – both of them strangers – in two different forums, about two (ostensibly) different issues; and yet their methods of argument, even their language, have proven eerily similar. The first argument happened on Facebook, when a friend posted a joke about MRAs (“How many Men’s Rights Activists does it take to change a lightbulb? Not all of them!”) and one of her friends chimed in to assert that, as feminists, we were hypocrites for finding it funny, because if the joke were being told about women, we’d be outraged. The second argument happened on Twitter, when, in response to my tweeting Mallory Ortberg’s recent deconstruction of a sexist book review, an unknown man asked both of us, plus another woman, whether we’d have been just as outraged if the targeted reviewer had been female (the implication being that we were, once again, hypocrites).

Both disputes began with a single man challenging two or more feminist women to defend their beliefs on the basis of a hypothetical genderflip from male to female which, in both cases, completely missed the point of the conversation. In the first argument, changing the subject’s gender would obviously have an impact on how the joke was received, because the joke is explicitly contextualised by our awareness of gender inequality, the punchline a verbatim reference to the cry of “Not ALL men!” with which MRAs so frequently – and aggressively – attempt to derail feminist discourse about sexism and misogyny. To suggest, therefore, that such a joke is offensive on the grounds that a genderflipped version would be even moreso is to fundamentally misunderstand that this is the actual point of the joke: namely, that even though women are still being  disenfranchised by an entrenched culture of sexism, the first response of too many men is to act as though their hurt feelings at being accused of sexism, however tangentially, is the greater evil.

By contrast, the proposed genderflip  in the second argument was ineffective for the opposite reason: though Ortberg’s piece certainly made mention, not only of the reviewer’s gender, but of the fact that she’d yet to see the book in question reviewed by a woman, the ultimate point was simply that the review itself was written in a sexist manner; that this was not a helpful way for anyone to review women’s writing. Had a female reviewer written the exact same piece, replete with the exact same biases and problematic turns of phrase, Ortberg might certainly have worded her response differently, if only in the sense of attributing the reviewer’s attitude to internalised sexism rather than male privilege, but the source material would still have been sexist, and therefore deserving of the exact same level of outrage. For our interlocutor to have based his opening rhetorical sally on the idea that female feminists will be naturally more inclined to excuse sexism if it comes from other women – and worse, to phrase this 101-level question as though we had never once considered it before – was not only deeply oblivious, but actively insulting.

To be clear: genderflipping can be – and frequently is – a useful rhetorical device in conversations about both sexism generally and the more specific issues facing persons of all genders. But its usefulness is always going to be contextually dependant on the user’s understanding, not only of what sexism is, but how and why it functions. Because sexism is fundamentally a problem of inequality, the subversive impact of a well-executed genderflip rests in its ability to switch the (im)balance of power in unexpected ways, thereby highlighting the fact that it exists to be subverted in the first place. Genderflipping an argument to support or restore the status quo, however – whether by asking us to sympathise with those already deemed sympathetic, or to approve the power of those already powerful, at the expense of those already viewed as unsympathetic or powerless – is not only a wrongheaded misuse of the technique, but a catastrophic failure of comprehension. The same is true of other subversive flips, like racebending (which is why, for instance, Victoria Foyt’s Revealing Eden: Save the Pearls was such an all-out disaster).

The fact that these two men deployed the exact same tactic for the same, poor reason was notable. That their subsequent responses also aligned was downright creepy – and I mean that in the fullest sense of the word. In response to their condescending language, I referred to each man in tern as patronising, half in anger, half in the hope that they might rethink their approaches. Here is how they responded:

On Facebook: Being patronizing is so much fun you are welcome for it… You may be right but your anger clouds your point and makes it seem far to emotional and not logical. Now before you go off your rocker that I just equated your style of rhetoric with classic feminine traits, I will say that I have done this very thing to men on facebook and gotten the same overly emotional reaction… I always am deliberately patronizing because it would be a waste of the day to do it by accident.    

On TwitterMy pathetic faux-humour patronizes men and women in equal measure. Men find me every bit as exhausting.

In other words, both men accepted that, yes, they were indeed being deliberately patronising, but that I had no grounds for finding their approach sexist, because they were just as rude to men – as though, once again, completely ignoring both the context and the content of the conversation was sufficient to make the accusation go away. Nor is this curious tactic of attempting to deny sexism by claiming misanthropy, or some version of it – as though an admission of being rude to everyone completely rules out the possibility of being rude to certain types of person in specific, culturally coded ways – a two-man anomaly. To quote from Lindy West’s How to Make a Rape Joke:

This fetishization of not censoring yourself, of being an “equal-opportunity offender,” is bizarre and bad for comedy. When did “not censoring yourself” become a good thing? We censor ourselves all the time, because we are not entitled, sociopathic fucks… And being an “equal opportunity offender”—as in, “It’s okay, because Daniel Tosh makes fun of ALL people: women, men, AIDS victims, dead babies, gay guys, blah blah blah”—falls apart when you remember (as so many of us are forced to all the time) that all people are not in equal positions of power. “Oh, don’t worry—I punch everyone in the face! People, baby ducks, a lion, this Easter Island statue, the ocean…” Okay, well that baby duck is dead now. And you’re a duck-murderer. It’s really easy to believe that “nothing is sacred” when the sanctity of your body and your freedom are never legitimately threatened.

Both encounters were frustrating and draining; both left me feeling like I’d wasted time, effort and emotional energy engaging with someone who viewed my exhaustion and distress as a personal victory.  It is disputes like this, in fact – not so much for their content, but for their frequency and duration – which so often prompt people to say, Don’t feed the trolls. Don’t engage. Just ignore them, and they’ll go away. But as I’ve said elsewhere, and as much as even such minor encounters increasingly threaten to burn me out, this isn’t advice I’m willing to take. Like playground bullies, trolls don’t go away when ignored: quite the opposite. They take silence to mean they’ve won, or as assent, or as a challenge to try harder: either way, it invariably emboldens them. I’m not for an instant suggesting that people should engage above and beyond their coping level, or that we should all die on every half-assed rhetorical hill that drops into our blog comments with a virtual smirk and the suggestion that lol maybe ur overreacting??? – I just don’t believe that silence is the answer. This sort of behaviour isn’t anomalous; it’s part of a pattern, and one which needs to be identified before it can ever hope to be changed.

As has been well-documented by now, subconscious bias is a tricky thing. With the best will in the world, it’s still entirely possible to be blindsided by privilege; to make linguistic, social or narrative choices that reinforce negative stereotypes or which disenfranchise others. This is why it’s so important to think critically about the media we consume and the stories we tell, and to listen when others point out patterns in our behaviour – whether culturally or individually – that are indicative of a deeper, more subtle prejudice. Despite the irrevocable fact that humans are creatures of culture, it can be difficult to determine the origins of our default settings, if only because it disquiets us to think that hidden elements might be influencing our decisions. What does free will mean, if our actions are ultimately informed by beliefs we never knew we held? As tempting as it is to think of subconscious bias as a sort of Jedi mind-trick (something that only works on the stupid or weak-willed; which is to say, other people), that’s only a comforting lie. Our brains get up to all sorts of mischief without our conscious supervision – everything from catching a ball to regulating our hormones – so why should our thoughts be sacrosanct?

The intersection of the collective and the personal, therefore, is a fascinating place: the junction at which we as individuals both shape the culture around us and are shaped by it in turn – a symbiotic ecosystem whose halves have merged, oroborous-like, into a whole. Our actions, no matter how unique to us in terms of motivation, don’t happen in a vacuum; but despite its ubiquity, culture as a concept is amorphous. Trying to convince someone that their behaviour has been influenced by external social pressures – particularly if the end result undermines their good intentions – is like nailing smoke to the wall. I know what I meant, people say, and it had nothing to do with that. And if you don’t know what I was thinking, then how can you possibly judge me?

Let me tell you a story. As a child, I was deeply, innately contrary, but in a very specific way: I couldn’t bear to be told, “You’ll like this!” Even at the age of five, it seemed like such a wholly offensive assumption  – the very cheek of it, adults daring to lecture me on my preferences! – that I would instantly resolve, with the stubborn, bodily determination of children, to hate on principle anything that was thusly recommended. By contrast, anything I was told I wouldn’t like because it was too old for me, or that I wouldn’t understand, I made a perverse effort to enjoy: I simply couldn’t bear the idea that anyone else might know me as well as – or better than – I did. Had my parents ever thought to deploy it, reverse psychology doubtless would’ve worked a treat; instead, I ended up fleeing the room with my hands clapped over my ears when my father first tried to read me The Hobbit, so adamant was my refusal to meet his expectations. I’ve grown much less contrary with age, of course, but even so, it’s still an active process: I have to constantly watch myself, and a big part of that is acknowledging that other people’s opinions don’t magically become invalid just because they’re assessing my thought process.

The point being, external criticism is just as important as internal certainty. The two perspectives are a necessary balance, and while being firmly mired in my own brain is a viewpoint unique to me, that doesn’t mean other people can’t make relevant observations about my behaviour – or, more importantly, about my place in a pattern to which my privilege has rendered me oblivious.

Which brings me to the current explosion of websites, memes, Twitter feeds and tumblrs dedicating to crowdsourcing proof of the ubiquity of prejudice. Once upon a time, for instance, if a colleague or acquaintance made a disturbing remark at the pub – such real-world locales being the default point of comparison whenever we start worrying about being held accountable for the things we say online – then there’d be no record of the comment beyond the level of individual memory. At best, we might have written it down as close to verbatim as possible, but then what would happen? Nothing, as there was nowhere to put such information and no reasonable means of distributing it. More likely, we’d vent our outrage by retelling the story to others, but with each iteration, the tale would weaken, eventually becoming little more than an anecdote whose relevance our audience could deny, or whose truthfulness they could question, on the basis of a lack of solid evidence. ‘It was just a one-off,’ they might say – but without the testimony of others to support our claim that the remark was representative of a bigger problem, how could we possibly prove otherwise?

Now, though, people’s prejudicial comments are anything but ephemeral. Everything from status updates to dating profiles is a matter of public record, and even if we go back and try to edit or delete our words, the simple magic of screencapping means that an original copy may still exist. When that sort of data is passed along, there can be no uncertainty as to what was really said, because nothing is being degraded in the transmission. Even in instances where sites are collecting, not screencaps, but personal stories of bias and discrimination, the cumulative effect of seeing so many similar incidents ranged together serves to undermine the suggestion that any one victim was simply overreacting. Thanks to the interconnectedness of the internet, disparate individuals are now uniting to prove that the prejudice they experience is neither all in their heads nor the result of isolated bigotry, but rather part of a wider, more pervasive cultural problem. And where such data is collected en masse, it becomes progressively harder to deny the truth of their experiences: because if our whole reason for doubting specific accounts of prejudice is based on the assumption of an unreliable narrator, then how are we to justify our dismissal of hundreds – perhaps even thousands – of similar cases?

Frustrated by constantly encountering the same sort of sexist abuse online and then being told that the problem was a minor one perpetrated solely by idiot teenage boys, female gamers responded by setting up Fat, Ugly or Slutty and Not In The Kitchen Anymore, two hefty databases of audiofiles, screenshots and in-game videos that stand as collective testament to the scope of their routine harassment. Sick of being told that their experiences of condescension and exclusion from sexist, racist colleagues was only so much thin-skinned paranoia, academics have begun documenting their experiences at sites like Mansplained and What Is It Like To Be A Woman In Philosophy?, the better to highlight the prevalence of such bias. Tired of seeing female characters drawn in objectifying postures that are, quite literally, anatomically impossible, discerning fans have set up sites like Boobs Don’t Work That Way and Escher Girls to document the problem. In recent days, when Twitter has been inundated with racism in response to topics as varied as the US election results and the recent Red Dawn movie, angry netizens have collectively banded together to take screenshots, collate the data and then name and shame those responsible, as per the modus operandi of sites like Hello There, Racists and Hunger Games Tweets. For street harassment, there’s any number of tumblrs to choose from – which is itself a depressing reflection on just how common a problem it is – along with sites like Hollaback and Catcalled that are trying to combat the issue directly.

There are collective resources for day to day instances of sexism, like About Male Privilege, Everyday Media Sexism and Everyday Sexism; resources for sexual harassment and abuse, like Got Stared At; and Twitter feeds dedicated to weeding out some of the more disturbing quotes from sites like Reddit and various PUA (Pick-Up Artist) message boards. There’s also the utterly heartbreaking Project Unbreakable, which consists of pictures of rape survivors holding up signs bearing chilling quotes from their rapists. From the LGBTQ side of things, there are tumblrs like I’m Not Homophobic, But (two of them, actually); Dear Cis People, which is a collective of messages from trans individuals trying to counter prejudice; and Things My Transphobic Mother Says, which does what it says on the tin. And then, of course, there’s seemingly endless bingo cards: arguments that various communities have heard so many times as to render them both offensively unoriginal and predictive of the ignorance of their interlocutors. Examples include Anti-Comics Feminist BingoSexism In Games Bingo, Racism In SF Bingo, Political Racism Bingo, MRA Bingo, Homo/Biphobic Bingo and GLBT Fiction Bingo – and that’s just for starters.

As demonstrated by the mixed public reaction to the recently established Nice Guys of OK Cupid tumblr (to say nothing of the outrage its existence has provoked among detractors), this new breed of public shaming, whereby ordinary people are publicly mocked for saying bigoted, offensive, or downright creepy things on the internet, tends to be viewed with a combination of schadenfreude, resentful worry and outright rubbernecking – and yet, at the same time, it undeniably fills a relevant need. Because, as demonstrated by the recent exposure of Redditor Michael Brutsch, aka Violentacrez and the concurrent discovery of actual criminal behaviour within his subreddits, there can be a disturbing correlation – though not necessarily causation – between saying horrendous things online about women, POC and LGBTQ persons, and actually threatening, endangering or actively harming such persons through hate speech, stalking or other criminal behaviour. Legally, however, there’s almost no way to take such behaviour as a warning sign and initiative useful preventative strategies: until or unless someone actually ends up hurt – thought of course, psychological suffering is seldom counted – the justice system is useless. Employers and schools, on the other hand, have proven themselves more than willing to sack or discipline staff and students whose online hijinks attract the wrong kind of attention – or, more worryingly, who simply dare to be critical of the institutions to which they belong; while some have even been fired for defending themselves from overt discrimination.

This is hardly an ideal situation, not least because it places the burden of extrajudicial justice into the hands of individuals whose only available form of reprimand – the withdrawal of money or education – is arguably the worst possible reaction to such offenses. Aside from doing nothing to address the root cause of the problem and everything to exacerbate a sense of entitled resentment that the mighty forces of Politically Correct Censorship are reaching out to ruin the lives of ordinary, hard-working people, this sort of trial by media – or rather, trial by institutional response to trial by media – sets a dangerous precedent in allowing organisations unparalleled scope to punish employees, not for their on-job actions, but for who they are as people. And yet, by the same token, we as humans don’t just switch off our bigotry the minute we clock on at work or enter school grounds. If an employee’s online behaviour is saturated with undeniable racism and misogyny – and if that person is employed alongside women and POC – then how can their beliefs in the one sphere not be demonstrably relevant to their actions in the other? If subconscious bias is enough to measurably affect the decisions of even the most well-intentioned people, then how much more damaging might the influence of conscious bias be?

More and more, it seems, we’re crowdsourcing our stories of prejudice – and, as a consequence, policing ourselves and others – out of a sense of desperation. Despite technically being on our side, in the sense that most forms of discrimination on the basis of race, gender and sexual orientation are illegal, the legal and judiciary systems are years away from being able to effectively intervene in instances of online harassment, while even the concept of a dedicated mechanism, agency or other such authoritative body designed to step in and address the problem in lieu of random mob justice feels improbable. Eventually, it’s inevitable that both our cultural assumptions and our standard response to online bigotry will evolve, but progress towards that point will be slow and haphazard, and in the mean time, there’s still an obvious problem to be addressed.

Writing several years ago on the decline of traditional print media, technological commentator Clay Shirky drew a comparison between our current state of change and the turmoil that was first produced by the introduction of the printing press. To quote:

During the wrenching transition to print, experiments were only revealed in retrospect to be turning points. Aldus Manutius, the Venetian printer and publisher, invented the smaller octavo volume along with italic type. What seemed like a minor change — take a book and shrink it — was in retrospect a key innovation in the democratization of the printed word. As books became cheaper, more portable, and therefore more desirable, they expanded the market for all publishers, heightening the value of literacy still further.

That is what real revolutions are like. The old stuff gets broken faster than the new stuff is put in its place. The importance of any given experiment isn’t apparent at the moment it appears; big changes stall, small changes spread. Even the revolutionaries can’t predict what will happen. Agreements on all sides that core institutions must be protected are rendered meaningless by the very people doing the agreeing. (Luther and the Church both insisted, for years, that whatever else happened, no one was talking about a schism.) Ancient social bargains, once disrupted, can neither be mended nor quickly replaced, since any such bargain takes decades to solidify.

And so it is today. When someone demands to know how we are going to replace newspapers, they are really demanding to be told that we are not living through a revolution. They are demanding to be told that old systems won’t break before new systems are in place. They are demanding to be told that ancient social bargains aren’t in peril, that core institutions will be spared, that new methods of spreading information will improve previous practice rather than upending it. They are demanding to be lied to.

There are fewer and fewer people who can convincingly tell such a lie.

And so it is, I suspect, with the rules that previously governed the separation of our personal, public and working lives. All three spheres overlap in ways they previously didn’t simply because our physical presence in a given space is no longer the most pertinent factor in determining when and how we inhabit it, and under whose aegis. Intuitively, it makes sense to assume that someone who believes women to be inherently submissive will shrink from promoting female employees to positions of dominance, because even were such a person inclined to try and act against their instincts for the sake of corporate equality, we as people aren’t so compartmentalised that the attempt would always meet with success. And yet, what else can we do but try? Nobody is perfect, and the solution to deep-seated bigotry isn’t simply to fire or expel everyone who dares to express the least bit of prejudice; all that does is encourage the use of subtle discrimination, while the underlying problems still remain. In the mean time, though, we have shaming tumblrs and bingo cards and angry, public discussions about the cognitive dissonance necessary to claim that one is a gentleman while simultaneously asserting that sometimes, other people are obliged to have sex with you, because society is yet to construct a viable alternative.

It’s by no means a perfect solution – or even, in fact, a solution at all. Rather, it’s a response to the widespread assumption that there isn’t even a problem to be solved, or which can be solved, or which is demonstrably worth solving. And until we’ve debunked that assumption, there’s nothing else to be done but to keep on amassing data, calling out bigotry and using such tools as are available to us to see what happens next. As Shirky says, it’s a revolution, and until we’ve come out on the other side, there’s simply no way of knowing what will happen. All we can do is watch and wait and learn – and keep on tumblring.

 

OK, so a deeply problematic thing just happened on Twitter.

Here’s the basic jist:

Evidently riled up by information on the Stop the GR Bullies website (which I’ve blogged about here), author James Austen took to Twitter to call blogger Kat Kennedy a loser and a retard. Not unsurprisingly, Kat and several other Twitter users, myself included, confronted Austen about his ableist language, throughout which exchange he repeatedly stated that not only had Kat called him a headcase on Goodreads, but had attacked him on a blog post where he’d revealed his own childhood sexual abuse. Kat, meanwhile, was baffled, having no idea at all who Austen was.

When asked to show evidence of the incidents in question, Austen linked first to the Stop the GR Bullies main page, and then to this Goodreads thread – neither of which show any connection whatever between himself and Kat Kennedy. It then became apparent that Austen had confused Kat with two other Goodreads users, Ridley and The Holy Terror – an extremely bizarre mistake to make, not only because even the STGRB website states clearly that these are three completely different women, but because Austen has actually been in Twitter contact with Ridley before. By this point, he’d called Kat a retard or retarded eight times by my count, including a comment where, even AFTER his error had been pointed out, he claimed to be applying the term with “laser-like precision”.

Austen then made some motions towards apology (though not for his ableist language), but also added that Kat “could win good pr now by playing this right” – meaning, presumably, that it was in her best interests not to tell people about his mistake. Now, even though we’d established that Kat wasn’t at fault, I was still concerned about Austen’s claim that someone – whoever they were – had attacked him on Goodreads for talking about his own childhood sexual abuse, because, dude, that is NOT COOL, and if someone has actually done that, they deserve to be called to account. With this in mind, I asked if he could link to that incident; he told me it had happened on one of three Goodreads blogs.

Now: possibly, this attack did take place, and for whatever reason, evidence of it has been removed from the site. But having checked the comments for every single one of Austen’s Goodreads blogposts – and further checked the comment threads attached to all the reviews/discussions about his novels – I can’t find anything which even vaguely resembles such an attack. What I can see is that in January this year, Austen blogged about his abuse, and in March, Ridley left a status update (the one linked above) mentioning that Austen had sent her an abusive private message, and that the two were arguing on Twitter. Whatever occurred in the body of that argument, I can’t find any record of it, but at this point, it does seem fairly clear that, at the very least, nobody – least of all Kat Kennedy – has attacked Austen in the comments section of his GR blogs.

As soon as this was pointed out, Austen not only quit the conversation, but locked his Twitter account. The progression of the argument as detailed below is as correct as I could manage by reconstructed it from screengrabs, though doubtless some tweets and responses are out of immediate chronological order (it being extremely difficult to follow the exact chronology of a multi-branching Twitter conversation, even after the fact). Given the length of the conversation, I’ve tried to include only relevant tweets, but for those who are interested in seeing a wider range of responses, they can be found by looking at the individual steams of the other participants, including mine. I’m aware that one tweet of Austen’s appears twice, which is unfortunate, but I couldn’t figure out how to easily remove it, and so it’s still there as a duplicate: any other errors are my fault, but hopefully don’t detract from the overall coherence (such as it is).

I’m posting this for three reasons:

  1. To establish on record that Kat Kennedy didn’t start the exchange with Austen, and has in fact never spoken to him before today;
  2. To point out that information posted on Stop the GR Bullies has directly contributed to a public instance of vile and abusive behaviour; and
  3. To stand as an example of exactly how fucked up ableism is, and why using the word retard as a pejorative is never, ever acceptable.

As for Austen: I’d ask of readers to please refrain from contacting him on Goodreads, messaging him on Twitter, or otherwise sending him negative, aggressive or abusive messages that detail his mistakes. Yes, he’s behaved appallingly, and that should definitely be noted, but further aggro isn’t going to help anyone – and if another Goodreads user really did attack him for sharing his own experiences of sexual abuse, then that needs to be brought to light and dealt with separately. Otherwise, let’s just acknowledge and learn from the fail, and move on with our lives.

Another flarf poem, this one dedicated to and inspired by the #YASaves conversation on Twitter.

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I Believe In Stories

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I believe in stories.

Sometimes I am asked

if telling a story is really any different

to sharing a book with a child.

.

As a child I heard many stories.

I believe in stories in a live-and-die kind of way,

to keep the living alive, and the dead.

Stories that live and breathe.

Stories that are fruitful and multiply. That create stories

within stories.

.

I trust in stories. Storytelling is hardwired into our brains:

it dictates how we think,

how we understand the world,

and how we make people free.

.

I believe

that Rapunzel let down her beautiful hair.

I believe in stories, because they reach

to something realer than real.

.

I still don’t know whether I believe

in saints, angels, or a God, but I believe in stories.

The world has enough dogma.

.

I believe that you can’t hate humankind

no matter how vile it’s become –

and, you know, I believe in stories. Many of us

would be a fool without them.

It started at about ten o’clock this morning. My husband, Toby, laid low by a bout of Man Flu, was lying on the lounge, snuffling piteously while I checked my email.

“Where’s my cake?” he lamented. “Will you make me a cake? I’d like one! CAKE!”

Of course, I refused this request with the asperity and hauteur it so obviously deserved. (As anyone experienced with Man Flu knows, indulging the sufferer’s whims only serves to reinforce the belief that they are, in fact, dying of bubonic plague, or possibly Ebola, rather than experiencing mild hayfever, the common cold, or – as is most usual – a hangover.) I am many things, but an on-demand cake wizard is not among them. Moaning his disappointment, my beloved reconciled himself to a cakeless existence and instead began reading China Mieville’s Embassytown, thereby redeeming himself.

Some hours passed. We had salad for lunch. I finished my editing and answered some outstanding emails. I was mooching about on Twitter in a guiltless sort of way when, all of a sudden, it struck me: banana and ginger cake, possibly with some sort of vanilla/cream involvement. Not only that, I already had most of the ingredients – some of them desperately needing to be used prior to rapidly approaching expiry dates – such that the cost of the missing elements would be negligible. I began to Tweet my enthusiasm for the project, and received only enthusiasm in return. I could do this.

By this time, Toby had relocated to the bedroom. I walked in and poked my head around the door – slyly, in the way of one proffering an unexpected treat.

“How serious were you about wanting cake?” I asked. “Because I’m totally making one. Banana and ginger.” I will admit to having emphasised these last words with a certain zealous relish.

“Can it be chocolate?” Toby asked. “Chocolate goes well with ginger and banana. I like chocolate cakes.”

I frowned. Chocolate had not been on the agenda, but perhaps compromise was possible. “We’ll see,” I said. With this established, I began the fifteen-minute trek to Morrisons, a franchise which, despite their aggravating stance on ID and alcohol purchases, nonetheless retains a good range of items. I purchased my sundries, walked back home, did the washing up, and began to arrange my ingredients on the far bench. My plan was simple: take my existing banana cake recipe, then add ginger, cinnamon and – in keeping with Toby’s request, albeit filtered through my own preferences – white chocolate. Midway through this process, however, it became wretchedly apparent that, contrary to what I’d thought, we had no vanilla essence in the cupboard.

“Rats,” I said (or some other expletive that may or may not have been stronger) – and set out again, this time barefoot and at a run, to the slightly closer corner shop at the end of our street. They had vanilla essence; I ran home, added it to my pile, turned the oven to 180 degrees, and began mixing.

In went the eggs, sugar, vanilla and butter. In went the flour, cinnamon, ginger and milk. I’d just got to the bananas when it occurred to me that the oven was being unusually silent. Given that I don’t bake regularly enough to trust that I know how to work the oven, my first reaction, on opening the door and discovering a cold, decidedly un-heated interior, was to ask Toby whether I’d turned it on properly. He poked at the door, turned the dial on and off a few times, removed and replaced the knob, tried the switch, crouched down to peer masterfully at its innards, and declared that my best bet was to leave it be and hope it started to get warm.

Given my significant doubts as to whether this would work, and refusing, after so much effort, to be thwarted by broken technology, I continued mashing my bananas, stirring the mixture, and finally dropping in most of the white chocolate drops. The oven, stubbornly, remained cold.

I formulated a plan. By which I mean, I rang my friend Sarah, who had just got home from Amsterdam, and asked if I could come round and borrow her oven. She said yes.

I informed my husband, packed my things, and started to walk.

There’s a certain sort of stare that members of the general public reserve for girls in weird t-shirts carrying clear plastic mixing bowls full of miscellaneous goop with wooden spoons poking out the end at 3:30 on a Saturday afternoon – which is to say, I was stared at as though I might, in fact, be a crazy person. Possibly if the spoon had been less obvious, or the bowl more opaque, the reaction could have been different, but as things stood, even little old ladies were giving me weird glances. I ignored them, head held high, and rang the bell to Sarah’s house.

It should be mentioned at this point that Sarah lives in a student sharehouse with approximately eight other people, only half of whom I know. The slender, surprised-looking youth who answered the door belonged to the other half. Confronted by the sight of a strange woman holding a clingwrapped mixing bowl and a plastic bag full of cooking paraphernalia, he nonetheless waved me cheerfully into the house at the mention of Sarah’s name.

Moment later, Sarah herself emerged and joined me in the kitchen. As the oven preheated, we talked about Amsterdam while she chopped onions for an early dinner and I got out the icing sugar, vanilla, butter, cream and white chocolate drops and started to mix my icing. (Clearly, the overwhelming virtue of having salad for lunch three days in a row had manifested as cathartic desire to balance the calorie scales.) The cake went into the oven; the icing went into the fridge. This left me with a problem, vis-a-vis the leftover cream: there was no easy way to transport it back home, and it seemed like a waste to leave it be. For reasons unknown, this translated into my trying to change it – first with a whisk, and then with a fork – from runny to whipped.

Thus it was that when four of Sarah’s housemates (who I did know) and a friend of theirs (who I didn’t) came home, they found me sitting at their kitchen table, morosely churning a bowl of cream while Sarah cooked bolognese. It is either a testament to the nature of student sharehouses in general or these friends in particular that not a single one of them asked what I was doing there or why it involved cream, all completely unsurprised when I explained that my oven had broken and so I was using theirs, of course, as though interloping cakes were a common occurrence everywhere.

And so we talked. After forty minutes, the cake was done: I bundled it onto a borrowed plate, packed up my utensils, determined that yes, I could carry both the cake-plate and the icing bowl at the same time without endangering either of them, and prepared to go. Except that I needed to gladwrap the cake for safety. Sod’s law being what it is, all I needed on the home stretch was for some obnoxious passerby to bump me and send the fruit of my labours sprawling into the gutter. Unfortunately, this meant wrestling with a de-boxed roll of clingwrap that had twisted and torn into a sort of cylindrical Rubik’s cube. That took another five minutes – until, just as I unraveled the last thread, Sarah remembered that there was, in fact, an in-tact roll in the next drawer down I could’ve used. (In the end, I used a piece from each one, just in case.)

And then I walked home: bag over my shoulder, plastic bag on my right arm, icing bowl with spoon in my right hand, gladwrapped cake plate in my left. Again with the stares, though this time, at least, they were fewer.

Midway home I realised I’d left my favourite black jacket hung over Sarah’s kitchen chair. Of course. 

But in the end, nothing could dull my triumph. I chilled the still-warm cake enough that the icing couldn’t immediately dissolve. I summoned my husband (who grumbled at having to put down Embassytown) and served the cake.

Who says persistence doesn’t pay?