Failures of Empathy
Ray of Hope, by J P. CC BY-NC

Written by Natalie Luhrs

I'm a lifelong geek with a passion for books and social justice.

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April 25, 2017

Recently, Seanan McGuire (1, 2, 3) and J.Y. Yang (thread) have talked on Twitter about copyeditors making changes which fundamentally alter the story, and not for the better. The change in question: redacting the use of the singular they—used by nonbinary characters—to whichever binary gender the copyeditor felt like substituting. This is an act of erasure and, as Yang points out in the linked thread, an act of violence.

Many nonbinary people use the singular they as their pronoun—while this is a relatively new usage, it is not incorrect (copyeditors of the world, take note). I have seen it become more widely used over the last few years and at this point anyone griping about it is basically using it as an opportunity to be a prescriptivist jerk.

In the context of publishing, complaining about copyedits is a time-honored tradition and certainly not anything new, apart from the medium of the complaining.

So it was with some surprise that I read this thread of tweets from Brian McClellan yesterday:

McClellan not only threatens blacklisting for those who dare speak out in public, but also reduces the reason for speaking out as “stupid disagreements” and assumes that there was no attempt to resolve the issue privately:

Many people have, quite eloquently, rebutted his assertion. I am particularly taken with Maria Dahvana Headley’s and Michael Damian Thomas’s—so much so that I’m not going to address McClellan’s ridiculous argument. (Also isn’t he doing what he’s telling others not to do? Complaining about a colleague in public? Unless he doesn’t consider the person he’s complaining about a colleague, which is a whole other issue.)

Instead, I’m just going to point out that I find it extremely interesting that McClellan only felt moved to talk about this after J.Y. Yang made their series of tweets which called the copyedit issue a symptom of a larger problem: systemic bias in publishing. He didn’t make this statement when Seanan McGuire talked about her bad copyedit using extremely hyperbolic language and while McGuire did get pushback from others on the grounds that she wasn’t being professional, as far as I know, no one told her she’d damage her career. Telling an established writer that their behavior is unprofessional is quite different from implying that a newer writer speaking out about systemic bias will irredeemably harm their career by doing so.

And even if McClellan isn’t talking about Yang, his timing is such that it’s suggestive as fuck and the optics are terrible. He should have walked it back, as many people advised him. He hasn’t and he probably won’t.

McClellan also refused to respond to people he doesn’t know or hasn’t heard of—I find that extremely interesting as well, and if his not-so-veiled threat of a non-existent blacklist weren’t enough to ensure I never read any of his books, that would do the trick. It speaks volumes about how he perceives other people–the reason may be that he needs to manage his time on social media, which is something I need to do myself, but there are ways to do it without telling others that they’re not important enough to engage in conversation.

And weirdly enough, this ties into something else I’ve been thinking about recently: empathy.

I got to thinking about empathy a few weeks ago while I was reading Daniel Goleman’s Focus. Midway through, he has a few sections on empathy and focus that I thought were interesting. Goleman defines three types of empathy:

  1. Cognitive – knowing what the other person feels and why they might be feeling it
  2. Emotional – when you feel physically along with the other person
  3. Empathic Concern – understanding a person’s predicament and being moved to assist

The way Goleman talks about cognitive empathy sounds a lot like emotional labor: paying close attention to other people’s emotions and managing our own emotions in response to those of others. We all do this to a certain degree, but there is an expectation that marginalized people will do it as a matter of course.

But even more interesting to me—and more germane to the first half of this essay—is the section where Goleman writes about studies done with wealthy people around empathy: the wealthier one person is in relation to another, the more indifferent the wealthy person is likely to be. When they’re in the presence of someone that they perceive as being wealthier than they are, they show increased levels of empathy. Wealth is an easy metric to use for these studies, but I rather suspect that this dynamic carries over into other types of power beyond simply financial.

So when I see someone in a privileged position threaten a blacklist—that doesn’t even exist, for fuck’s sake—I think that they’re having a critical failure of empathy. I have a feeling that McClellan has never had to deal with a copyedit which felt like an assault on his identity–and he can’t even imagine what such a thing would feel like.

We have an empathy problem in the SFF community. These failures are more obvious when a convention dismisses the safety concerns of their female Guest of Honor in favor of their friend the serial harasser, but you can also see it at a smaller scale: World Fantasy’s initial decision to retain the H.P. Lovecraft pin and Brian McClellan suddenly deciding to tweet about how unprofessional it is to talk about your bad copyedit is when a person of color is the one talking. It’s an entire spectrum of failure, this lack of empathy.

And it’s not new:

  • The entire Sad-Rabid Puppy debacle is a lack of empathy writ large: a group of mostly white men who cannot—will not—entertain for even a single moment that there are people in this community who aren’t like them and who don’t want to read about Torgersen’s Nutty Nuggets every time they open a book.
  • Mike Resnick and Barry Malzberg’s column in the SFWA Bulletin in 2013, where they were unable to understand why their peers—not their readers, but their peers—were angry that they spent column inches talking about how good an editor looked in a bathing suit and not about her skill with words.
  • All the conventions who have provided cover to predators of all sorts, from Walter Breen to René Walling to Jim Frenkel and to the ones we don’t even know about yet because they get something from them. (NB: the first person who says what Breen did is in any way fundamentally different from what Walling or Frenkel did gets banned: the difference is in degree, not in type; they are all abusers.)
  • Then there’s the low-level static in the background: the history this community has of excusing ongoing and persistently abusive and predatory behaviors by people with a great deal of social capital: Isaac Asimov’s posterior pinching, Harlan Ellison’s groping, and Randall Garrett’s crude sexual come-ons. The pervasive racism–not only in the years-long refusal to change the WFA trophy, but also in the lower rates of publication for black writers in short story markets, in the whitewashing of book covers, and the mistaking of one writer of color for another on a pretty consistent basis.

As far as I can tell, the only way to counter these persistent failures of empathy is to speak out, when and where we can.

Let me be clear: speaking out isn’t going to make anyone suddenly get empathy where they had none before, but it will help to shine a little bit of light into the dark corners. And maybe, just maybe, speaking will help to make things a little bit easier for the next person who comes along.

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  1. SMD

    “And even if McClellan isn’t talking about Yang, his timing is such that it’s suggestive as fuck and the optics are terrible. He should have walked it back, as many people advised him. He hasn’t and he probably won’t.”

    And this is the part that leaves me thrown for a loop about his tweets. If he was responding to another situation that was perhaps far less controversial, he could have easily resolved the problem of his poorly timed tweets by saying “Ah, crap, y’all, I didn’t realize there was this other very important conversation happening, which means my tweets are poorly timed. I apologize. Also: go read what they have to say on this issue, cause it’s a different deal than what I’m talking about.” Easiest fix in the world. He loses almost nothing by doing this.

    So why wouldn’t he when having the issue pointed out to him by people “he knows?” If this really was a matter of poor timing, the solution is easy. Apologize, clarify, back up. That he won’t suggests very strongly that he does indeed count Yang, et. al., as part of his criticism, but he won’t admit it because he knows it will harm his image (or, I dunno, some other reason one could speculate on).

  2. Elizabeth Moon

    On the issue of copy editors (only some copy editors; don’t reach for the pitchfork yet) making substantive changes in the style and even meaning of a work: it happens and it should not happen. Ever. Some copy editors mark a ms. as if they were the actual book editor, attempting to make changes to plot and characterization (and at the same time missing things they should have caught. Whatever the reason is, and whatever level of writer (first publication to last) , copy editors should realize the limits of their authority and stick with it.

    It is *always* a form of silencing to change anything but an obvious typo (“teh”) in the text. I can understand (empathize with, even) a copy editor having to work on a book they would never read if they weren’t paid to, but preferring a terse style to a languid one (or vice versa) does not entitle the copy editor to try to “improve” anything but the details they were asked to handle. Mark “teh” and ignore the “emerald tresses dripping down her back like algae” . (Something I saw at a workshop once, decades ago.) Writers who don’t have clout yet (or don’t know they have clout yet) are most vulnerable to these changes (been there, unsure of how much I could push back.) A writer should have to deal with only one person who can insist on substantive changes (and those are unfairly dealt out, too, but at least a writer is more likely to know, and have a working relationship with, their acquisitions editor than a freelance copy editor.)

    As for blacklisting people for griping about the copy editing…that’s a ridiculous claim. Every publisher knows that some freelance copy editors are better/worse than others; every publisher knows that bad (*really* bad) copy edits happen. Some copy editors do not pay attention to the guidelines (if any) they’re given by the publisher and assume that Word’s grammar checker is the One Rule of publishing. Writers have complained about copy editing for a long time, and with reason (just as copy editors have complained about writers for a long time, also–sometimes–with reason.)

    Empathy’s a fascinating topic. Our son is autistic, and early on I was told that autistic people had no empathy. Yet, as an infant and young toddler, he showed empathy–“feeling with”–as infants and young children often do. A crying baby nearby upset him; a happy baby nearby started him grinning. He was nonverbal for years, but he clearly knew when people were upset or in pain. This suggested to me that the then-current idea that autists did not have “Theory of Mind” was wrong…or that Theory of Mind was itself a spectrum, because supposedly socially competent adults constantly misunderstand others, misjudge their motives for their actions…if it were true that neurotypicals all had good Theory of Mind, then why were there quarrels and wars?

    Certainly it’s always been true in hierarchical groups (and most are, at least partly–including all social animals) that the lower down the hierarchy, the more social cues you have to recognize and respond to, for survival. Those on top don’t need to “understand” those below…whatever determines their dominance (speed, strength, fighting ability, verbal ability) lessens their need to figure out what the others mean, as long as a direct challenge to rank isn’t involved. They may have leadership stress (if tasked with additional work) but they’re free of having to adapt to a variety of individuals who have power over them. Their underlings have to adapt to them…and thus have additional social stress and less time/energy to devote to their own growth. Those lower gain advantage by learning to intuit how the ones on top think and feel–because then they may be able to manipulate the “boss” to gain rewards, those on their own level who compete for the boss’s attention and favor, and those below (by keeping them from effective competition. We think of empathy often as a pure positive trait–but the difference between what I like to think of as empathy (in which knowing another’s feelings leads to both desire and ability to be nurturing) and the honed awareness of the sociopath (in which knowing another’s feelings leads to harmful manipulation of the other) can be hard to define.

    But this has wandered. Sorry.

    • Natalie Luhrs

      Goleman actually briefly addresses the intersection of empathy and sociopathy and comes to a similar conclusion. (Lots of good stuff in this comment!)

  3. Crystal Sarakas

    I think you have beautifully covered the issue relating to erasure and how damaging this kind of “feedback” is. Thank you for writing this.

    But something else I’m seeing, with some of the same players, is a demand that people be publicly credited when they have done good, or their artwork is used, or any number of other interactions where you want people to be recognized. And I agree with this! But we have some weird forbidden area where we’re not supposed to speak up when someone has done wrong. None of the threads I read were personal, were calling for violence, or even name-calling. The majority were about how these actions made someone else feel, or were an attack. To tell them to shut up is itself an attempt at erasure.

    Social media is part of our world now, for better or worse, and sometimes that includes reflecting out loud on things that are uncomfortable. And if being honest and saying these things out loud make those who are not marginalized uncomfortable? In the words of my beloved grandmother, suck it the fuck up, muffin.

  4. Happy

    I feel angry that I once purchased a book by McClellan. I think pre-ordering Yang’s novellas will make me feel better about that. I’m always looking for a new author, and their novellas look intriguing.


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