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. And I give absolutely no fucks.
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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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