Tuesday, February 18, 2014

The SFWA Kerfuffle and Why it Matters

I'm pretty oblivious of most mainstream current events. We don't take a newspaper or have a TV. I get my news and TV from the 'net, and I'm happy with that. My Twitter feed is like a little mini news ticker tailored exactly to my interests. It evolves over time, it's flexible, and it's far more up-to-the minute than mainstream news sources. I still miss a lot, but that's fine because I can only read so much in a day and still get anything done in my own life.

A few weeks ago, maybe months, I started to register recurring mentions of some kind of sexism flap in the science fiction and fantasy writing world. You'd think that this segment of society would be long past gender bias, but human nature is what it is. If you don't think there is raging sexism in the geek world, try to function as a female in the gaming community, especially online. For more on that, see Anita Sarkeesian's video series "Tropes vs. Women".

Anyway, there was talk of sexism rearing its ugly head again in the form of some person or persons involved with the Science Fiction and Fantasy Writers of America (SFWA). There was mention of some kind of backlash to complaints about an demonstration of antiquated sexist views of women in SFF writing. Re-read the previous sentence in case my clumsy writing confused you: backlash to a complaint about sexism. People, not just women, called the writers of an opinion piece on their condescending references to women and the internet exploded. This kind of thing happens, unfortunately even in this enlightened age.

I wondered what had happened and assumed it was of recent origin. No, this particular poop storm started nearly a year ago with issue #200 of the SFWA bulletin. It contained a paid article (not a letter to the editor) by two writers that reads like it fell out of the Time Tunnel from sometime in the Edwardian Era. It became the last straw in a series of eyebrow-raising choices on the part of the bulletin's editors, such as this cover art (Bikini babe barbarian? Is is meant to be ironic?) The response from the writers of the original dialogue is summed up nicely here by Kameron Hurley as "... if I punched you, and you said 'Gosh, that really hurt' and I said, 'YOU ARE FUCKING CENSORING ME YOU FUCKING COMMUNIST' you’d think I was insane." If you want the Reader's Digest version of the whole kerfuffle, this is a good start.

Why are people so upset? Why is this such a big deal? Everybody is going to have an opinion, and this is mine. I'm personally saddened by the fact that there is still so much condescension toward women in any professional field, but especially writing and especially SFF writing. In genres that look to alternate realities and often posit scenarios where gender biases are stable or non-existent (Gene Roddenberry, anybody?), it's frustrating that there are content creators who think that patronizing behavior toward women is ok or cute or funny. What's more, this is not just an "old white guy" problem, as some have suggested. There are plenty of younger creators who are just as bad.

Every generation, every new batch of children, have to be educated about morals and manners and what we've learned from the past. Just because there is no more (overt) slavery in the civilized world, and women have the vote, and segregation by race is over, and people of color have equal rights, it doesn't mean that kids are born with these ideas hard-wired in to them. Anybody who deals with little kids knows that they are born barbarians with only self-interest in mind. They have to be taught that ostracizing, taunting, or attacking somebody because they are "different" in some way is unacceptable. The difference can be body shape, color, or gender, it doesn't matter. It can be as innocuous as red hair; kids will find something to pick on somebody about.

This sandbox behavior is all over the internet. Just look at YouTube comments on literally anything. The hills are alive with trolls who sound like dimwitted teenage boys. No offense meant to all the intelligent, well-spoken teenage boys out there. Some of them could be older, but that's how they sound.

Which all brings me to why I'm writing this today. When a known adult comes across as an immature, misogynistic idiot it's really disappointing. When a group of writers struggle for decades to garner credibility for their genre and then a few throwbacks threaten that credibility for the sake of a few yuks, it's careless at best and outrageous at worst. For one thing, it's sending out the message that misogyny is acceptable, and it's not surprising that the majority of the members of the SFWA don't want to be a part of that message.

Thanks to the information superhighway, this uproar isn't just a private argument behind the closed doors of the SFWA. People have been blogging about it for the last year. Google "sfwa kerfuffle" and knock yourself out. The dust was just starting to settle when links to a conversation on the SFF.net listserv began to appear. Details here. Particularly excecrable were some comments by one Sean Fodera, directed at Mary Robinette Kowal (author and former VP of SFWA), which ammounted to childish ranting and name-calling. When Fodera noticed that links to the thread were cropping up he lost his cool and threatened all linkers with an illogical suit of libel. It's 2014, most sentient life forms have figured out that what is posted online in public forums is public. Fodera is doing his impression of the teenager caught posting drunk pics of themselves on Facebook and then moaning because "My parents saw! Oh noooooooes!"

I think the time of "ignore it and it will go away" is over. I am also fully against angry women with torches having hissy fits. There's a middle ground where people tell bullies and sexist ding dongs, "Wait a minute. What you just said/did is not OK by me." If that person reacts with venom and cries of "censorship!" or "communist!" or "crazy bitch feminist!" then it's time to say, "This conversation is over." I've done that a couple of times in my life, in person and on the 'net. Why waste your time with somebody who just wants to be hateful? Why waste your time with somebody who's looking to be offended by your being offended? Applying this to companies and clubs and organizations is more difficult, but not impossible. I was sorry to hear that a number of people have left SFWA because of all the hoo hah. Fortunately, a greater number have stayed in order to "be the change."

One of the more colorful comments on that SFF.net thread likened the folks warring against misogyny as a "vocal minority of insects" who "don’t scramble for the shadows when outside lights shines on them—they bare their pincers and go for the jugular." John Scalzi (former president of the SFWA and thoroughly caught in the middle of all the uproar) has decided to turn that insult into a rallying cry:
"Join John and Mary’s Insect Army! You must write! You must be fearless! You must stand your ground in the face of deeply silly insults, clacking your pincers derisively at them! And, if you believe that every person — writer, “insect” and otherwise — should be treated with the same dignity and honor that you would accord yourself, so much the better. Together we can swarm to make science fiction and fantasy awesome!"
This stuff won't go away. Go ahead and get angry, but don't just be angry, be the change. Call people on their nonsense. Don't get all huffy and pitch a fit or take your toys and go home, but please DO let people know when you think they've said or done something hurtful, whatever their age. I guess it's still baby steps for civilization on this planet.

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