A Response to Yassmin Abdel-Magied

Cribbed from elsewhere on Facebook. This has been edited with the original author’s permission.

In your 10 September Guardian piece, you asked, “How is this happening?”

You were wondering how author Lionel Shriver could deliver “a poisoned package wrapped up in arrogance and delivered with condescension.” Specifically, you seemed puzzled that an author could cast scorn upon cultural appropriation, a governing principle – for you and others – that you consider to be of some import, obviously, because of “our histories,” although I question whom you speak for when you say “our.” You go on to say, “The history of colonisation, where everything was taken from a people, the world over. Land, wealth, dignity … and now identity is to be taken as well?”

Since you could not stay for the entire speech, I must also ask whether you heard this passage of Shriver’s speech, which, in my opinion, addressed your question clearly:

“If we embrace narrow group-based identities too fiercely, we cling to the very cages in which others would seek to trap us. We pigeonhole ourselves. We limit our own notion of who we are, and in presenting ourselves as one of a membership, a representative of our type, an ambassador of an amalgam, we ask not to be seen.”

I thought Shriver was also clear on the job of a fiction writer. Yet, you charge her as well as others thusly:

“It’s not always OK if a white guy writes the story of a Nigerian woman because the actual Nigerian woman can’t get published or reviewed to begin with. It’s not always OK if a straight white woman writes the story of a queer Indigenous man, because when was the last time you heard a queer Indigenous man tell his own story?”

Why is it not always OK?

What if the queer Indigenous man does not want to tell his own story?

Would you prevent him from approaching a straight white woman, or anyone else, really, to tell it for him?

If he approached you and asked you to tell his story, would you tell it as he wished it to be told, or would you indulge in the writer’s habit of embellishing it to your own satisfaction, until it was polished to the degree that a publishing house would accept it, until it was eloquent enough to stand on its own in a blog post, an article, an online essay or in an actual book?

If it was not accepted by any publisher, would you chalk it up as the publisher being racist or too privileged? Would you self-publish?

Would you profit from his story or be selfless enough to forward any profits to the true author?

I am also puzzled by your accusation that in her role as storyteller and fiction writer, Shriver steals another’s identity by virtue of including it in her prose. Specifically, you say that such actions “led to the normalization of imperialist, colonial rule,” because writers like her regard their characters as “less than human” if their experiences do not mirror the writer’s – as if, in the process of “stealing” a non-white person’s story, writers like Shriver essentially dehumanize this poor sod because his very essence is now imprisoned in the pages of her book. He, poor queer Indigenous man, is left to wander the earth, a ghostly shell of his former self.

I must confess that this does not compute with me.

You also say that Shriver’s speech reminded you of your place in the world, although you tolerated sitting through a lengthy amount of her keynote speech, and you were not prevented from leaving.

You also posit that “…if the world were equal, this discussion would be different. But alas, that utopia is far from realised.”

If Utopia reached us tomorrow, would you still be comfortable that a straight white woman could tell a queer Indigenous man’s story? What if Utopia did not exact the changes that you desire? How, then, could the world be made equal in your eyes?

Lastly, you say, “The fact Shriver was given such a prominent platform from which to spew such vitriol shows that we as a society still value this type of rhetoric enough to deem it worthy of a keynote address. The opening of a city’s writers festival could have been graced by any of the brilliant writers and thinkers who challenge us to be more. To be uncomfortable. To progress.”

I suppose you will not believe me when I say that Shriver’s speech did indeed discomfit certain individuals and groups, and you can count yourself among them. Nor did I consider her speech to be intentionally disrespectful towards you or others who believe in cultural appropriation. You call it a concept, but given the ways you would like to see its precepts implemented in Western society, I consider it to be one of your governing principles. This not only saddens me; this makes me pity you.

I pity you because the slippery slope down which you’re sliding unawares seems to have blinded you from the implications of what you desire. You ask for respect at the end of your essay. I think the question should be, “What form of respect do you expect?” In fiction writing, what kind of respect do you want while at the same time still respecting the distance between your view and Shriver’s? She did not request the festival organizers to censure you, suspend you or boot you for exiting her keynote early, or for publishing your public response to it, yet she is receiving an astonishing amount of backlash not just from the organizers but from fellow attendees for the content of her speech. Since it’s obvious that you do not respect her or her opinions, what kind of respect do you want?

What kind of respect do you deserve?

The world of fiction writing expands daily, with many more writers self-publishing and publishing through the mainstream publishing houses and small presses. While, in your view, it is not always okay for a certain percentage of these writers to tell their own stories because of their skin color, ethnicity or race, and because you consider their stories “exploitation” of other unfortunates who possibly do not realize they do have the means to share their stories, all writers will preserve this cognizant ability to tell stories regardless of your attempts to change this fact.

Can you respect them, even if they’re not the right type of writers that you favor?

Perhaps you should ponder this question before demanding respect from them or anyone.

Regards,
Sarah (Clithero)

Take Back Your Privilege

The revocation of Dave Truesdale’s WorldCon membership has led to a rift amongst the members of the self-deprecating (heh) Social Justice Warrior clique over the principle of free speech and its importance to everyone, SJW and non-SJW alike. This rift is explicitly apparent on Moshe Feder’s Facebook wall, where he’s made plain his feelings on the matter (he’s pro-free speech). If you don’t know who Moshe Feder is, google “Tor Books” and “senior editor.” You’ll get the picture.

What has been especially enlightening for someone who’s technically a minority are the claims by some of Feder’s friends, who are zealous proponents of the SJW credo. You are familiar by now with the tenets of said credo, correct? The absolute necessity of safe spaces, the existence of white male privilege, and the importance of safeguarding the mental and physical safety of everyone from WrongThink, with the added insistence that such an issue overrides any protection of the offending party’s freedom to speak.

We will not discuss the difference between restricting the speech of public entities versus private parties, although it’s important, just not germane to this particular line of thought. What caught my eye was the mindset of these SJWs. The comment below to one of our own is in keeping with this mindset:

…Your objection is based on a faulty assumption of what a “safe space” is. The world is *already* a safe space for white males. It *fits* them. Their words and emotions and actions are given weight. They are given the benefit of the doubt and rule of law when they act bad.

They are given credit and monetary compensation when they act well. When they say “I prefer to go by X”, people apologize and call them X. They run >90% of the institutions that affect all of us. I want the space in the world to be shared. When I walk down a street, I don’t want to be the one who *always* gives way to a man, because he won’t. I want, when women and people of color and LGBTQ people say “this behavior is not acceptable and it harms us” for it to be *real* to people who are hearing the complaint.

I don’t want women with internalized misogyny always carefully weighing in “guys, please don’t make me not one of the guys, guys, I don’t agree with those people who want me to have an equal share of the world, guys” because it’s the safest way for them to proceed in the world, and hating other women is a small price to pay.

I don’t want male violence (against women and men) and white violence (against people of color and white people) to be embedded into our institutions and supported by otherwise good people who are willing to support abstract concepts that don’t actually apply to a situation over actual harm to actual people.

I don’t want *anyone* to be 3/5s of a human being. If that is “wrong”, I don’t want to be right.

Note that from the onset this SJW moved goalposts and Othered the person she was responding to by implying that the other individual had internalized misogyny, therefore said individual was betraying her own gender by disagreeing. Note also that the comment is heavily laden with a victim’s mentality that makes the world the SJW inhabits seem like There’s No Way Out because she’s too subjugated to the whims of the Patriarchy upon her person. So to translate her comment above, appropriately:

”I am not a self-possessed woman, even though I call myself a feminist. I am not strong enough to stand my ground against a man walking towards me, therefore I must remove myself from his path because I am the lesser sex.

I need safe spaces because I don’t know if men are going to harass me, undress me with their eyes, use the wrong words around me or even touch me to shake my hand, and OMG I FEEL SO VIOLATED.

I wish you hadn’t appeared in this comment thread, where I was happily flaunting my victimhood as a woman to everybody else until YOU showed up.

I really wish you’d shut up because you, a supposed ‘Woman of Color,’ are messing up my narrative and you can’t do that in public.”

Far be it from me to be patronizing, but I feel sorry for this poor soul. She, A Modern Woman, is addressing everyone using a public platform about how unsafe and oppressed she is. She is lecturing Feder about his stand for freedom of speech and not for the protection she requires from Unsafe Persons and Beliefs. The nerve! The horror of being forced to tolerate someone else’s opinion that she disagrees with! To the Fainting Couch!

Instead of dispensing with more ridicule and criticism that such creatures deserve, I will only say this to them:

Take back your privilege.

If the world is a safe space for white males, you’re already intruding upon their turf. Your own “safe spaces,” those little pockets that are supposed to shield you from the much larger male safe space, are flimsy and temporary shelters against an already existing force. You can’t extinguish it, and even though the force of the state is on your side, it is wielded by the very men you decry and despise. You crave its power but don’t understand it and underestimate it. You resent the other minorities who disagree with your stance and even oppose you, but you can’t form a coherent argument to persuade them of its virtues. You turn against your allies at the drop of a hat over an incorrectly phrased opinion or disagreement in general, and can’t understand why they abandon you in your most “desperate” hour.

The conundrum of the SJW credo thus boils down to the dichotomy of a common predicament in any movement: you’re finding support for your cause in many areas, but some of the support is unnecessary because it’s the wrong kind of support. It’s like the awkwardness of a Bernie Sanders rally disrupted by BLM activists who take over the stage because he’s a privileged male with a platform that they need more. Who’s the privileged one after you’ve wrested away the microphone? It’s not the Feared White Guy.

Retrieve your agency and dignity from your ghostly oppressors. And once you have them, realize that the victim act is no longer authentic or believable. Speak in terms that other minorities will find grounded in the real world as opposed to a bubble where the same phrases are uttered by others of like mindset. It’s almost code, mind: “He took away her agency with one wrong word! TRIGGER WARNING!” Deciphered, it reads as, “How can this man with an offensive opinion be removed from my sight before I blow a gasket? Oh, I know! I’ll complain to the concom and have his membership revoked!”

Given the insular language employed, it’s no wonder that other minorities – you know, the right support – don’t find your cause to be worthy enough to join or even sympathize with. It’s true that many don’t become believers in a cause unless it affects them personally, somehow, and even then you can’t count on monopolizing them as symbols or tokens. People just don’t have time for that load of baloney, or they don’t trust the propped-up institutions where such tokens are required.

So in addition to taking back your privilege, don’t piss off potential allies by Othering them. The degree of separation between ally and enemy in a social cause is so slim that it’s dangerously easy to alienate another Woman of Color by dismissing her experiences because they’re dramatically different from your own. Been there, haven’t done that because I knew better. The t-shirt didn’t fit me.

It’s actually amusing to see the Othering going on, because in the process you’re acknowledging that I’ll never fit in with your clique. That’s right, honey, a clique. That’s what you’re playing at, only you’re doing it in Fandom and fandom while trying to claim that you represent “marginalized people” who are being silenced. Haha, funny. I don’t feel silenced, and matter of fact, neither does the SJW above.

If it’s a simple matter of avoiding broad strokes from a brush, put the brush down.

If it’s a matter of ignoring offenders of your sensibilities because their opinions are different, ignore them.

If it’s a matter of feeling taken aback at the beginning of a con panel because the moderator intentionally opens with controversial statements, surely there are better panels to attend where the atmosphere is less offensive. Surely there’s a corner at this con where you will feel Safe from your oppressors, yes?

Surely we can make better worlds, by being better than this.

Gun Control

Jay Peterson’s review on the state of current gun regulation and the ramifications of gun control in the United States is a wonderful read.

Larry Correia’s post, “Self Defense is a Human Right,” is also excellent.

I will go into this further on a future post, but I did want to note something: as is continuously pointed out by gun rights advocates, the right to self-defense predates the Second Amendment. Without it, the individual right to own property would not exist. Since a number of leftists and liberals are now blatantly calling for an outright ban on firearms and a repeal of the Second Amendment, one should remind these cretins that unless their arms are confiscated by force and they are enslaved at gunpoint by government agents, Americans would still retain the right to self-defense. It doesn’t vanish once the law codifying its legality is repealed.

One could wish all the day long that this basic truth did not exist. Of course, I also wish summer wasn’t a season, but we can’t have everything, can we?

Writing the Right Characters

Recently, a tiresome bit of pablum has circulated online in various articles by well-meaning individuals, whose main complaint seems to be that it’s not possible for white authors to write novels with “Person of Color” main characters.

The most recent reiteration of this complaint is a June 6 Tor/Forge post by one A.J. Hartley, titled “Writing POC While White,” in which Hartley tries and fails to explain why white writers do a poor job of writing non-white main characters, and why they should apparently avoid this trap whenever possible. To whit, he says:

Portraying disempowered Otherness on the page is still possible even if you don’t know it (in your gut) as lived experience. You can research it. You can talk to other people about it. Hell, you can see it in the news every day. But writing a POC character when you aren’t one yourself is not the same as writing a profession you know nothing about—plumbing, say—which you can fake your way through by watching a few How To videos on YouTube. In the end, all you can do is try to do it with sensitivity and respect, but—and this is more important—be ready to listen to those better qualified to assess what you’ve done when they tell you you’ve got it wrong. Again, meaning well isn’t enough, and the road to hell really is paved with good intentions.

Keep in mind that Hartley begins this article by explaining what countries’ histories and political systems he drew from in the course of the worldbuilding process for his own novel, “Steeplejack.” From there, he attempts to elucidate further on his reasoning, such as it is, with anecdotes about his run-ins with well-meaning folks who make some racist assumptions about his non-white wife and son.

Hartley fails to defend the premise of his article for the following reasons:

He assumes that white authors don’t already know how to write non-white characters. He says:

“Too often writers play upon stereotypes and white notions of what it means to be a POC” without providing evidence of this claim. He goes on to add, “Conversely, and almost as problematic to my mind, many writers assume that race/ethnicity is irrelevant, so characters can be written as white and then (like the awful colorizing of old movies) given a superficial tint.”

Honestly, does anyone find this claim to be even remotely true? Hartley makes assumptions about other authors that reflects poorly on how he views their writing processes versus his own. How can he know or even imagine that the next writer, whomever that may be, will not invest time and effort to construct a believable protagonist that his or her audience will not equate to, oh, let’s see, Empress Teresa? (Here I will interject to add a disclaimer of “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell.” Oh, and proceed at your own risk regarding this can of worms.) Hartley might find this difficult to believe, but accomplished authors who know how to create characters their audiences can relate to do exist. And some of those characters are black! Cue the smelling salts, Henrietta!

Next, Hartley confuses the fictional universe within a work with the real world. He says,

Race is a real and meaningful part of who we are, so writing a racially-neutral character and then giving them dark skin or an “ethnic-sounding” name doesn’t allow that character to reflect upon the social realities that shaped their sense of self, particularly how they have been treated by the greater, imperfect world.

Let us note that every fictional universe is exclusive to its creator, who shapes it to reflect whatever he or she wants it to be. It might or might not contain shades of realism, it might or might not be populated by humans, it might or might not be a believable universe. This, however, doesn’t change the fact that it’s fiction.

The main reason why I continually find the complaint that white writers cannot realistically write “POC” main characters is this – hopefully – temporary amnesia on the part of the complainees. When reading fiction, who expects any reasonable creator of a fictional universe to mirror our world country to country, culture to culture, species to species? Why do people agitate for more representation of diversity in fiction when fiction’s main job is to serve as escapism from the current stresses of the real world? Do these folks want us to become stressed by the fiction we read? Heaven forbid this is their goal!

Finally, and most importantly, it’s the height of arrogance to claim certain writers cannot write certain characters because of the characters’ skin color. We would like to think that, in our acclaimed post-racial America, this object lesson would have already been imparted and ingrained into our collective psyche. Everyday there’s a poor schlob being judged because he, a white man, dared to slip into the persona of a fictional person who may have been created with tentacles, extra appendages, or lavender-colored scales to speak with another fictional person who’s human. How dare he! How does he know what xir’s had to deal with in xir’s society? How dare he force xir to converse with a human! What’s this universe coming to?

It is in this vein that some of the feverish condemnation of JK Rowling for writing about Native American wizard culture can be found, because she didn’t consult experts of historically-sourced Native American culture before recently creating the fictional version in the Harry Potter universe for her fans to discover. Some of the aggrieved even went so far to say that Rowling should not have bothered to write on the fictional Native American wizards, because their society and culture was portrayed inaccurately by its creator.

Consider the implications of this accusation, please: some arrogant “POC” experts on Native American culture essentially told one of the bestselling authors of our time to stick to writing non-POC characters in the fictional universe she’d created. Never mind that some of the characters that already inhabited the Harry Potter universe were non-white and had existed long before these pea-brained, brown-tinted glass-wearing individuals could write a coherent sentence.

We might laugh and consider the entire situation to be ludicrous. We might shake our heads and wonder aloud how people like the aforementioned aggrieved parties exist.

But exist they do, and their influence on writing fiction is pervasive and ever present.

To say that I disagree with Hartley’s assertions in his article is an understatement. They’re ill-conceived and there’s scant evidence to back them. The premise is poorly developed and easily dissected by a “POC” who finds it distasteful and irrational to use race and skin color as attempts to dissuade a writer from creating characters utterly different from himself. I would even say that the term “Person of Color” is unnecessary in discussing character development for its racist connotations. Which makes Hartley’s conclusion all the more amusing:

But I also think that writing about race (and all the other “isms”) is important because all people have a stake in these conversations, and we need to find ways to discuss such things which break down that sense of our culture as fundamentally siloed, divided, and fractious.

Indeed, Mr. Hartley. My first suggestion is to ditch this “POC” verbiage. You do yourself and your loved ones a disservice by including it here. It is by itself divisive in the worst way and not at all constructive to the discussion of character creation and development.

My second suggestion is to continue improving your writing so that “characters can be written as white and then…given a superficial tint” gives way to “write the right character for your story,” which becomes your primary focus so far as your characters are concerned. You do yourself no favors by assuming that a character is written as white by default. You can’t confirm that this is true for other writers, nor can you know what their writing processes are that could possibly lead you to this flawed conclusion, so why keep assuming this?

My third suggestion is to read between the lines in your fiction. Other writers incorporate non-white characters in their fiction as necessary on a regular basis. This doesn’t require an agonizingly presumptuous article telling white writers that this is a new required tool in their box of writing tips and tricks. Does that olive-skinned character serve a purpose to advance your plot? Does that Schlebian (a lobster-looking species I just made up) function in a useful way as a foil or antagonist opposite your main character, whatever skin color she may be?

The treatment by this “greater, imperfect world” may inform your life’s experiences and ultimately affect your worldview, but don’t let it taint your fiction.