Fallout

Written by Natalie Luhrs

I'm a lifelong geek with a passion for books and social justice.
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February 19, 2014

Sure, taking a few seconds to be respectful toward someone about something they care about doesn't sound hard. But if you talk to hundreds of people every day and they all start expecting that same consideration, it could potentially add up to MINUTES wasted. And for WHAT?

A bit of pointed commentary from XKCD.

While I was at Boskone this past weekend, I was sent a link to excerpts from a public newsgroup at sff.net–I tweeted it out and then pretty much wandered off to do convention type stuff. It was a very fun convention. I mostly did bar con, which was definitely the right choice for me this time around.

Got on the train Sunday afternoon and discovered, well.  Discovered that the postings to the newsgroup were suddenly very, very public.  People were talking. Which is a good thing.

I know a lot of people have been reading through the sff.sfwa newsgroup over the past few days, specifically the “Culture Wars” thread started by William Barton.  People unfamiliar with the history of SFWA are noticing how clubby, condescending, and downright nasty the newsgroup can be.  This is what some long-time members–and former members–want. They don’t want a professional writers’ organization; they want a club for (a certain subset of) writers.

A lot of the commentary over the last week has been interesting, enlightening, and occasionally infuriating.  I’ve been thinking a lot about voices and who is allowed to have them.  Liz Bourke pointed me at this wonderful essay by Mary Beard in which she talks about classical ideas about whose voices are encouraged and listened to and how the emphasis on male voices persists to this day. This article about how young women use upspeak and baby talk is also quite interesting and relevant.

It’s fascinating to see how this entire conversation has progressed and how the rhetorical techniques Joanna Russ wrote about in How to Suppress Women’s Writing are still used today to suppress and erase women.

One thing that’s happened to me is the the intimation that since I am relatively unknown that I have no standing to speak about these issues. The thing is this: everyone has to start somewhere and the insistence on credentials is a way to suppress voices.  I haven’t been getting a lot of push back, but what I have gotten has centered on this fact and a fair bit of the overall commentary generally doesn’t even acknowledge that this is a site run by one person (those of you who have acknowledged that: thank you).

The thing is this: the whole conversation isn’t just about one disgruntled man’s long held grudge against Mary Robinette Kowal. It’s about a culture which has systematically privileged the voices of a subset of the population over all the other voices.

Putting the focus on a handful of high profile people in our community shifts the conversation from one about systemic issues to one about an individual’s grudge about something that happened years ago. It’s difficult to talk about systemic issues without using individual examples, and yet.

I know it’s easier to focus on individual examples instead of the big picture because trying to change those systems is so incredibly daunting.  As Beard pointed out in her essay, the idea that women shouldn’t speak in public goes back thousands of years. We have a lot of work to do.

So I’ve gone ahead and done something that I’ve been meaning to do for well over a year now: I’ve joined SFWA as an affiliate member. What can I do to help?

P.S. Jerry Pournelle, this is called sexual harassment.

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18 Comments

  1. Skiriki

    Oh wow, some people obviously haven’t heard the saying “when in a hole, stop digging!” Oh no, they have to break out the backhoes and dynamite and heavy drilling gear and get determined to dig all the way to the other side of the globe.

    I’m going to go and pop some popcorn. Who wants some and with what kind of spicing?

  2. Michele McCarthy

    GREAT blogpost. Thank you so much Natalie.

  3. Regina Small

    There was honestly so much “old man yells at cloud”-ing in those excerpts. Lots of “this generation is so entitled” with seemingly no sense of irony. It’s like the Dunning-Kruger effect, but with white male privilege. Jesus.

  4. GeekMelange

    One thing that’s happened to me is the the intimation that since I am relatively unknown that I have no standing to speak about these issues. The thing is this: everyone has to start somewhere and the insistence on credentials is a way to suppress voices. I haven’t been getting a lot of push back, but what I have gotten has centered on this fact and a fair bit of the overall commentary generally doesn’t even acknowledge that this is a site run by one person (those of you who have acknowledged that: thank you).

    Firstly: You do an amazing job and I’m still thrilled to bits that you’ve included some of what I’ve written in your link roundups, so thank you for that.

    Secondly: Yes, I’ve been finding that this characterizes the majority of what I’ve run into in terms of pushback as well. It’s frustrating to be dismissed in that way because one’s “street cred” or “name cache” doesn’t automatically have bearing on the validity of what you’re saying. And there’s a lot to be said, too, for having an “outsider” or “newbie” perspective that arguably provides a fresh set of eyes on a problem.

    The thing is this: the whole conversation isn’t just about one disgruntled man’s long held grudge against Mary Robinette Kowal. It’s about a culture which has systematically privileged the voices of a subset of the population over all the other voices.

    To take this further, it’s not just about fandom – the same conversation is taking place among librarians, in gaming, in comics, in skepticism/atheism, hell, I’ve even seen it start happening in the Burner circles I run in. Which is currently a topic I’m trying to pull together into a coherent essay, but the Muse is being finicky and demanding more caffeine. >.>

    In any case, even if I didn’t read your stuff more than some of these “Big Names,” what you’ve written has sounded far more credible, well-thought-out and worth considering than what I’ve been reading from some of that crowd. So thank you for the work you’ve been putting into it.

  5. Veronica Schanoes

    It’s frustrating to be dismissed in that way because one’s “street cred” or “name cache” doesn’t automatically have bearing on the validity of what you’re saying.

    It’s also a bullshit ad hominem used by people who can’t actually address the substance of what you’re saying. It’s tantamount to admitting that they can’t counter your arguments and don’t want to admit that they’ve been wrong, so instead they’re going to say “Anyway, you’re not famous!” When that doesn’t work, I suppose they’ll have to go to “You dress funny!”

  6. hapax

    @GeekMelange: Yeah, the whole “credentials” issues baffles me greatly — especially when a great deal of the original mess was about the *systematic denial of credentials* of usually marginalized people who manage to nonetheless earn authority (e.g., the “lady editors look hot” “Kowal wears a swimsuit so is a hypocrite”).

    Personally, I find the resume linked on this here very page much more authoritative than those trumpeted by some SFWA elephants. I’m a professional reviewer and semi-pro editor, and I’ve published original fic (not for pro rates, so no SFWA for me!) and I can tell you which is … not “harder”, because who can quantify that? but which calls for more conscientious analysis and consideration of my sainted mother’s dictum that Words Have Meaning.

    I’m reminded of a semi-joking chart I’ve seen (http://brunching.com/images/geekchartbig.gif) of the “geek hierarchy” that also implicitly ranks the value of different types in SFF fandom. There is a weird reverence towards “published authors” that I haven’t seen in many other interest groups — I mean, hapaxspouse is a scientist, and he doesn’t talk about Nobel Prize winners the way that SFF fans talk about anyone who’s been listed in Locus!

    And I get that, because I used to be the same way, until I actually started to hang out with writers, and realized (gasp!) that they were just people — people with at least one amazing talent, sure, but that didn’t necessarily translate into competence, let alone wisdom, in other areas of life.

    And (alas!) some of them turned into people I didn’t want to hear talking in my head anymore, no matter how entertaining their conversation. Thanks to Truesdale, that company has been expanded.

    If that makes me a “bad-thinking advocate of censorship”, I guess I can live with that.

    /wow, that turned out to be quite a rant. Sorry. Maybe I should go post about this on my own space, rather than gabbing on in other people’s…

  7. Kari Sperring

    I, for one, am always interested to read what you have to say about these issues. You are always interesting, thoughtful, and well-informed.

  8. Cora

    Ah yes, the infamous “You don’t count, cause you’re not a writer/don’t sell enough/not famous/a nobody” manoeuvre. It’s almost always men and often older men who do it and those on the receiving end are mostly women, though I’ve also seen some macho dude pull that same stunt on a man. And yes, it happens in discussions everywhere.

    Coincidentally, I’d never heard of Sean Fodera or William Barton before the recent unpleasantness either. Yet for some reason, no one tells them they’re nobodies who have no right to speak.

    Anyway, hugs for all the ugliness. The trolls really seem to be out in force this week.

  9. Mary Robinette Kowal

    This –> “The thing is this: the whole conversation isn’t just about one disgruntled man’s long held grudge against Mary Robinette Kowal. It’s about a culture which has systematically privileged the voices of a subset of the population over all the other voices.”

    This. This. This.

    The ONLY reason my particular case is important is because I can be a useful example of an endemic problem. This kind of bullshit happens all the time in every field.

  10. UrsulaV

    Oh sweet Jesus, the dread name Randall Garret was invoked. Again. *upends the bottle*

  11. Michael

    So what do you think about the fact that many of the participants on the thread you object to are women?

    Do you think they are traitors, dupes, suck-ups or what?

    • GeekMelange

      @Natalie – Gee, it’s like they expect you’ve never seen a leading question before.

  12. Polenth

    Honestly, I don’t think joining SFWA does more than add stress for the person joining. The credentials pull there is how long you’ve been a member and whether you’ve ever held office. If you try to tackle things on the forum, you’ll get posts deleted by the moderators, because it might upset Jerry Pournelle. Not that he’s the only one against things changing, but he’s the one who’ll consistently attack anyone and everyone who tries to talk about the issues. He tries to close threads down by being the one who speaks the most. Rather classically, this gets dismissed as just being what he’s like, so everyone should put up with it.

    The root issue is that the majority of SFWA doesn’t want change, so there simply isn’t the support for it. I’m sure apathy is a bigger cause than actively campaigning against change, but the result is still the same.

    So really, unless you’re planning to shoot for the moon and become president, I don’t think there’s anything you can do that will actually mean things change. I’ve seen others try, and all that ends up happening is they feel drained and demoralised, with nothing to show for it.

  13. Ann Somerville

    @Polenth:
    ” I don’t think joining SFWA does more than add stress for the person joining.”

    I wish I didn’t agree with your comment so very completely 🙁

    I mean, I *want* Natalie and the others to win by drowning out the miserable, anally retentive farts. But my experiences of too many organisations this mired in their own historical webbing is that the best thing to do is walk away or scrap the thing, and start cleanly from scratch.

    I’m sure a new SF writers organisation that wasn’t conceived from the start as a private elite club, would be highly attractive to many very good, talented and successful writers (I had to put that in because apparently some people think “successful” requires being a sexist, racist arseknuckle.)

  14. Veronica Schanoes

    @Michael: I think they’re wrong.

    You see, women are human beings, and human beings often disagree with one another. If this is the kind of question that you consider to be a stumper, I suspect that you won’t be able to follow the rest of the conversation about this issue.

  15. Merrian

    I’ve been following your posts about the petition and SFWA. As a reader I am a bystander but a sad and frustrated one because it has been ugly-fascinating to watch privileged people claim victimhood. They intend that no status or space is left in the conversation for other people to stand or to speak the reality of how actions by people and organisations are loaded and discriminatory; of course that is their aim even as they claim differently.

    I appreciate the careful and clear way you have brought these things into the light Natalie.

  16. Tasha Turner

    Throughout my life I’ve ended up doing things without the “right” credentials. Every time someone calls me on it I give a baffled look as I’ve either forgotten I’m not credentialed or I’m unclear why it matters.

    I don’t comment here much but you are a major source of information for me. To “be credentialed” to have an opinion on issues related to women or minorities you simply need to be one or to take time really listening to them and supporting what they are saying… I think your qualified. 😀

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