How Not to Have a Conversation: A Case Study

Written by Natalie Luhrs

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

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June 19, 2013

Rabid Jungle Cat Just Wants Scritches

Rabid Jungle Cat Just Wants Scritches

Here’s a pro tip: if you’re going to call for “civility” (PDF of post at 10:42 PM last nightscreenshot of post at 8:00 AM this morning), don’t call those you feel are being uncivil “rabid jungle cats”–that’s a heck of a lot of racism and sexism to pack into three words. It would be impressive if it weren’t so nasty and the exact opposite of the stated goal.

Bryan Thomas Schmidt doesn’t understand why women and POC are so angry about the sexist opinion pieces in the SFWA Bulletin and the deliberate use of @SFWAauthors to disseminate a racist attack on one member by another.

In my experience, when someone is calling for “civility” they are doing so because they’re more interested in upholding the status quo than they are about actually listening to why people are angry or upset.

Schmidt’s post is a classic example of the tone argument. From his post:

If you can’t listen to someone else and respond without anger, you probably shouldn’t be having the dialogue. Everyone believes their worldview is right for a reason. Most have put a lot of thought into it and developed it over a long time through lots of experiences. To automatically assume that anyone who doesn’t share your views is both wrong and evil is the height of arrogance and assumptive stupidity.

I’m cutting the rest of the paragraph out because it’s derailing–it’s shifting the focus from one issue to another. In this case, discussion of the angry responses to sexism and racism to ageism, which is one that personally affects him. And I’m not saying it isn’t an issue (because intersectionality) but–it’s not what he lead with.  If Schmidt wants to start a conversation about ageism in SFF, I would be happy to talk about it with him.  But not in the context of the racism and sexism emanating from SFWA.

Back on track: telling people who are angry that they shouldn’t be talking about their anger is a  silencing tactic. It is simply not possible for anyone to ever be as calm and as civil as Schmidt would like them to be–when the tone argument and silencing are deployed together, there is no winning.  Schmidt is simply not willing to have the conversation and he’s  attempting to shut it down. Because it doesn’t meet his standards.

Then there’s this amazing section (and by amazing I mean “left me completely gobsmacked”):

Do young writers not realize the people they have attacked have many friends and admirers and are often hiring writers themselves? Are these young writers so sure they’re reputations and writing are solid enough to weather the possible repercussions for being asshats? If not, making their point with valid criticisms that don’t assume, mischaracterize or personally attack might be worth considering.

I noted the pros were far more measured and many, many of them stayed completely out of it. Why? Because they know that people say things without thinking them through and get slammed all the time. They also know the value of professionalism, reasoned response, and respect to success in this community. Those who don’t learn this will surely pay a price for it down the line. Sadly, most who read this will ignore that advice at their peril.

That sure sounds like a threat to me: “If you don’t play nice, girls and boys, you’ll never work in this town again.” There’s also an implication that the people complaining were not professional. Except a significant number of those angry women and POC actually are professional writers and editors and critics. And to assume that they–we–did not consider the potential to injure their–our–careers by speaking out is deliberately disingenuous: women and POC (and people who belong to other marginalized groups) nearly always consider the consequences of their speech. Because there are always consequences. Always.

You say you build community, Byron Thomas Schmidt. I call bullshit on that claim. Your refusal to link to N.K. Jemisin’s Continuum GOH speech (screenshot because it disappeared) proves that you have no interest in entering into community with people who say things which make you uncomfortable or with which you disagree. You’re blocking people who disagree with you–both from your website and on Facebook. And accusing people of throwing temper tantrums (screenshot in case it disappears) on Twitter is, well, not exactly the sort of thing one says when a conversation is desired.

The thing is this: your post is mostly about you and your discomfort. There are precious few suggestions around how you believe this conversation can be improved. You are holding yourself up as an example of someone who believes in positive and constructive dialogue and yet: you’re not allowing dissent in your comment–as is your right in spaces you control. I will admit that I’m a bit confused, though–how productive can this dialogue be if you are not willing to listen? If you believe that you are in a position to set the terms of engagement for this conversation which desperately needs to happen?

Byron Thomas Schmidt, let me tell you something: you don’t get to set the terms of engagement. You don’t get to tell POC and women that they shouldn’t be so angry and that they need to calm down.  You have, more than likely, gone through life with the implicit understanding that people will at least pretend to listen to you and you have also, more than likely, gone through life assuming that you are the intended audience.  You probably haven’t been told, over and over again, to sit down and shut up and wait your turn–except your turn never comes.

You know what? We are taking our turn.

As Australia’s Lieutenant-General David Morrison said just last week: “The standard you walk past is the standard you accept.”

Edited to add: As of right now (11:50 AM on June 19) Bryan Thomas Schmidt has removed his post and put up this one instead (screencap).  Got that? We just weren’t ready to hear his message and we are so, so broken.  And he’s above all that. Because he’s such a nice guy.  You go right on believing that, Bryan Thomas Schmidt. Your words say otherwise.

Second edit (6/20/13, 3:45 pm): Bryan Thomas Schmidt has put the original post back up but he’s changed the URL (screenshot) and added a  comment at the beginning that echoes his post from yesterday.  I am not sure why he thinks he gets to decide how people talk about sexism and racism in the SFF community. In fact, I would argue that it’s people like him–who are advocates for calm and reasoned debate and who perceive themselves as moderates–are more damaging to the long-term health of the community than someone like Theodore Beale: at least Beale is obviously a racist and sexist. I’m not sure what Bryan Thomas Schmidt’s deal is.

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  1. Merrian

    Standing ovation for your righteous anger and take down of this guy.

  2. E. Catherine Tobler


  3. Beth Bernobich

    If he didn’t want a discussion and only wanted to vent/rant/whatever, he might have made that clear. His blog, after all, even if I might strongly disagree with the contents of what he said.

    But there’s hypocrisy all over that man’s post: calling women and POC “rabid junglecats” is not civil, deleting all but one dissenting comment is not a dialog, and threatening writers with the mythical “blacklist” is hardly going to build a community. Unless by community, you mean women and minorities who remain silent while the men give their opinion.

  4. Jamie Todd Rubin

    I posted a comment over on Bryan’s blog yesterday with similar thoughts as you have above, and while he responded to me via email, my comment never made it out of moderation, alas.

  5. Jamie Todd Rubin

    And regarding those threatening paragraphs you cite, as a writer who has worked with Bryan as an editor, I was particularly dismayed and said so. Here is what I said in my comment to his post on this particular item:

    [Bryan] wrote: “it made me want to keep a list of assholes I never want to work with, some of whom used to be friends and writers I admired.”

    This seems to be the opposite of what your post wanted to do, as I understand it. And as someone who has worked with you in a writer-editor relationship, this disheartened me. Not because you might choose not to work with someone again, but because it seems to me you are digging your own grave as an editor. Writers will see that sentence and the few that follow and ask themselves, “Do I really want to even bother working with an editor who might snub me because we don’t see eye-to-eye?” You write, “Are these young writers so sure they’re reputations and writing are solid enough to weather the possible repercussions for being asshats?” The answer to this is probably yes, because a lot of these writers, young, old and in-between, are talented and in-demand, and those two things make it easy for them to send their manuscripts somewhere else without a second thought. In my mind, blacklists are not close to the civility you are calling for.

  6. Natalie

    @Jamie Todd Rubin: Thanks for commenting. I am really bothered by deletion of comments–exclusive of everything else, that right there is proof that he’s not interested in conversation.

    @Beth Bernobich: I agree. It’s his blog and he gets to run it as he sees fit. Just be honest about it–don’t say you want a conversation when you really don’t.

  7. Aishwarya

    I’m just curious to know what he *would* consider a productive conversation, since he rejects even that N.K. J speech for being too divisive. But we’ll never know, since his new post explains that the problem is the whole community is too unevolved to have the civil conversation he wants.

  8. Natalie

    @Aishwarya: And he’s a nice guy! Don’t forget that! Since he has shown himself to be arguing in bad faith, I’ve taken the liberty of screencapping that post as well (I’ve amended my original post at the end). Because I bet that one will eventually disappear, too.

  9. Ann Aguirre

    I can’t imagine that the vitriol he had to deal with was worse than what I got. My post is still up, and all the comments are still posted, even the ones I think are wrongheaded.

  10. Natalie

    @Ann Aguirre: I just keep thinking that it must be lovely to be able to step away from these kind of discussions when they become uncomfortable. POC and women (and others) don’t have that privilege.

  11. SL Huang

    This post is fabulous.

    I’m so glad someone else is talking about this — I wrote a reaction myself but most of the other outrage about it seems to be happening on Twitter. Gah, his post made me so angry. Maybe even more so than the Resnick/Malzberg column and the Beale thing, because in Schmidt’s case, I have a much easier time believing there are so many more like him, or who would listen to him.

    Thanks for this.

  12. Sunny Moraine

    It’s absolutely a threat. He may not see it that way – he probably DOESN’T see it that way – but that’s what it is, and my sweet lord it’s such an old one.

    He needs to read Martin Luther King’s “Letter From a Birmingham Jail”. Because it was written to people like him, the “moderates”, the people who claim to be supportive while defending a repressive system by urging the people fighting against it to quiet down.

  13. jennygadget

    So much love for this post.

    I find it really interesting that Schmidt lists the venues where he’s seeing this “vitrol” (one of which includes a private forum) but gives his readers absolutely no examples.

    “Byron Thomas Schmidt, let me tell you something: you don’t get to set the terms of engagement.”


    He has a habit of doing this, too. If you look at the posts he lists (as proof that he’s the nice guy he says he is) he does this routinely. In both his essays about harassment and stereotypes of women in sff he builds on work women have done (and he does this badly, oh so badly), gives no credit to them at all, and then at the end turns around and magnanimously allows women to enter into the conversation.


    It’s a very weird stance to take considering the venues he’s talking about too.

    One assumes those posting to the SFWA forums are members like Schmidt, and therefore have a stake in the outcome of the “dialogue” – no matter what it ends up being – by virtue of paying for the privilege of being represented by SFWA and their publications. Schmidt seems to disagree on this point. Or else why would he frame the “dialogue” as he being the one that needs to be convinced? As if, unless he agrees to it, the conversation itself is invalid? His wording very much implies that he has a greater right to have an opinion on what SFWA does than all the people disagreeing with him do; it’s certainly not a persuasive essay meant to sway equals.

  14. Adam (@sensawunda)

    Brilliant rhetorical takedown. Wonderful. I join the standing ovation.

  15. hawkwinglb

    This, this, a thousand times this.

  16. Natalie

    @SL Huang: That’s the rub, isn’t it? He just sounds so reasonable. Ptui. Thanks for writing your post, too. The more voices, the better.

    @Sunny Moraine: I’m not sure he sees it as a threat. And yes–I wanted to try to work in King’s “Letter from a Birmingham Jail” but couldn’t find a way to do so gracefully. It is a good thing to revisit every so often.

    @jennygadget: I suspect that he thinks that providing examples of the vitriol would just be giving folks too much attention. He clearly feels that he is some sort of authority–his rhetoric constantly emphasizes his authority and does so in every single post I read and not particularly subtly, either. He wants to make pronouncements from on high and be admired for them. He doesn’t actually want to engage with people–because then he might have to re-evaluate his positions and admit he’s wrong.

    @Adam (@sensawunda): You are entirely too kind. Thank you.

  17. SL Huang

    “He clearly feels that he is some sort of authority–his rhetoric constantly emphasizes his authority and does so in every single post I read and not particularly subtly, either. He wants to make pronouncements from on high and be admired for them.”

    This! I was trying to put my finger on exactly this and I wasn’t able to until you said it.

  18. Alex Dally MacFarlane

    Bryan Thomas Schmidt, let me tell you something: you don’t get to set the terms of engagement. You don’t get to tell POC and women that they shouldn’t be so angry and that they need to calm down.

    Yes. This. A thousand times over.

    Thank you for writing this post.

  19. Rose Lemberg

    This. Thank you for saying it.

  20. Paul Weimer (@PrinceJvstin)

    Thanks, Natalie. This entire business is making me more than wince, since Bryan considers me a friend (although we’ve had differences on a number of issues)


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