Insert Default Title Here… Or Better Yet, Don’t

I’d like to share with you a comic strip I saw on Facebook today. It’s worth a chuckle, and I suspect more than a few gamers will relate to it:

We all know analyzing humor supposedly ruins it, right? If that bothers you, I’d suggest you go read something else, because I’m about to spend a thousand words doing just that. More accurately, I’m going to analyze larger issues that the comic unintentionally brings up. If that bothers you– if you’d rather have your quick chuckle and move on, because Internet– you’re welcome to do so. But I hope you’re willing to stick around, because even the most innocuous comic, or story, or TV commercial, can be the springboard for some more interesting thoughts.

Still with me? Good.

On the Facebook thread, someone commented that the comic portrayed tired stereotypes– men with poor impulse control, women mothering their husbands– and expressed a desire that artists do more to quash that particular gender stereotype.

Hmm, my brain went, it’s just a comic, but y’know, she’s not wrong. Even if it sometimes reflects real life, it’s still a stereotype on display. Still, it’s just a comic. Worth a chuckle, a moment’s reflection, and time to move on, right?

I was prepared to let it go at that, get on with my day, when I noticed a reply from the person who posted the comic: “That’s odd, [name redacted]. I didn’t ‘see’ the gender aspect when I read this. Perhaps you’re reading too much into a joke.”

Oh, snap, my brain went. Oh, now it’s on. Because it’s one thing to disagree with someone, and it’s another to dismiss their argument out of hand.

You’re reading too much into it.

It’s just a joke. Lighten up.

Why are people such crybabies? Get a sense of humor.

Any of these responses (all of which were in the thread, at various points) will get my hackles up faster than a shitty call in a Seahawks playoff game. Every single one is just a way of saying, I don’t want to have this discussion, and I don’t want you to have it either. Go away. Occasionally (as in this case) there’s the bonus, not-subtle implication that the person who brought it up is really the sexist one, for pointing it out. Which is, of course, bullshit.

I’ve blogged about this before, but just because you personally didn’t find something offensive, doesn’t mean that other people are wrong for doing so. In this particular case, the commenter hadn’t even taken offense, just pointed out an old stereotype! The reactions I read were far more disturbing than the initial comic. Which is usually how these debates go, and how an innocuous comment ends up turning the Internet upside down.

It’s just a joke offers the suggestion that humor is not worthy of such discussion– that funny things should get a free pass, because hey, it’s just a joke, right? But that’s insulting in its own way– it belittles the incredible power that humor and satire have in this world. It’s just a joke, right? Tell that to Jonathan Swift. Tell that to critics (and fans) of George Carlin, Jon Stewart, and Stephen Colbert. It’s just a joke!

Bullshit. Jokes are powerful things, even when they’re not trying to be. As someone who’s written his fair share of humor stories, I wouldn’t want it any other way.

But what about this particular comic? It’s just a cheap Facebook laugh, right? Well, yes.. but maybe not, if you view it in the larger context of our culture.

You see, the artist’s intent was just to tell a lighthearted joke, so most other aspects of the comic got set to “default.” The default assumption in our society is that males are more obsessed with games (and more “childish”) than women are, so that’s what got portrayed.

We’re focusing on the “women in gaming” default, because that’s what the comic is about– but it’s the not the only way the comic portrays the standard cultural default. The woman herself is pretty and blonde, the Star Wars obsessed kid is a boy, and the family’s skin color is white. Basically, everything about this comic that isn’t directly relevant to the punchline is just society’s default assumption.

Switching everything to “default,” when it’s not relevant to what you’re trying to do (or the punchline you’re trying to tell), isn’t necessarily a problem. But a lot of people are sensitive to this particular default right now because it’s one that many people are trying to change. Even if it wasn’t the person’s intent, it’s a default that still subtly encourages the dismissal of women gamers, because it’s not “the norm.” Does the comic by itself do that? No. Is this comic strip one tiny, infinitesimal part of a larger culture that does? Yes.

Like I said, there’s nothing wrong with any of those defaults when viewed on their own– they became the defaults partly because they’re very common in our society, but they also became the defaults because the vast, vast, vast majority of people producing media and pulling the strings of the industry were white men with certain norms and expectations. What was their default became our default. Even in media that isn’t intentionally sexist, those defaults pervade.

Another example where this dynamic is even more obvious is TV and print advertising. It’s the default to have women cleaning the house and taking care of the kids, while men drive trucks, play games and drink beer. When an ad breaks the default, it usually makes the news– for example, the recent Cheerios ad that portrayed an interracial couple, or the Coca-Cola ad that sung America the Beautiful in languages besides English. Those things don’t, on the face of it, seem all that controversial (especially the interracial couple… this is 2014!). Yet it was newsworthy, because it wasn’t the norm.

For an example of a comic strip that avoids defaults well, I’d point to Saturday Morning Breakfast Cereal, which portrays a wide variety of relationships and people, even when “the default” would be good enough to get the punchline across.

As a writer, I’m not saying you have to studiously avoid the default– I’m saying make your choices deliberately. Don’t create your characters in default mode just because you’re lazy. You’re taught to avoid cliches in your sentences, so why use cliches in your characters and their motivations?

And for those of you who think that this is a lot to pull from a single comic– well, yes it is. But it seems to me a discussion worth having, or at least, a discussion worth not shutting down.

Also, for the record, the comic itself is from (Yay for attribution– but that’s a whole other blog post.) It’s a long-running comic with a variety of characters, and seems to do a pretty good job of representing women in gaming overall, and does a fair amount of satirizing stereotypes. So perhaps it’s unfair to take this comic out of context– but that is how it was posted on Facebook (not by the artists, I should add). And I think it’s worse to try to shut down a worthy discussion by belittling people who bring it up, or dismissing their larger concerns with it’s just a joke.

Let’s be clear. It’s not just a joke. It’s never just a joke, even if that’s how it was intended. Context –cultural and personal– is everything. And just because someone does see a slight that you’re privileged enough to be able to ignore– please, try to put yourself in their shoes, if only for a moment. Maybe a day will come when we don’t have to talk about defaults, and when stereotypes aren’t so overused as to be worth noting– but until that day comes, don’t be surprised if you see these discussions crop up in places where you might not expect them to. When that happens, remember Wheaton’s Law.

And if you’re a content creator– be it a writer, artist, video producer, or otherwise– remember, don’t be lazy and pick the default, just because you can.

Free Speech in the Era of Political Correctness: A Helpful Guide

Over the past few weeks, the speculative fiction writing community (in particular, the writers’ organization SFWA) has been embroiled in a seemingly unending string of controversies as a series of dubious blog posts and magazine columns have garnered a huge amount of attention. Lots of people have called them out for seemingly sexist, racist, or just plain angry language. (I won’t recap the whole debate; it’s easy enough to Google.) There’s been a strong reaction against such speech, but amidst the reaction, there’s also been a counter-reaction: Many folks, while not necessarily agreeing with the original posts, have nevertheless expressed concern that free speech will be damaged in this rush to be “politically correct.”

Luckily, for these folks, I have good news. Political correctness does not actually infringe on free speech at all! So as a public service, I thought I would provide some helpful tips for any folks with such concerns. Rest assured, my friends, you can indeed continue to express your full and colorful free speech rights in this newfound era of rampant political correctness.

First, it’s helpful to define what “the right to free speech” actually is. The United States Constitution defines it thusly: Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the Government for a redress of grievances. I think it’s quite clear that the literal right to free speech is not being violated; no one is threatening to throw Theodore Beale in jail, and Mary Robinette Kowal’s jackbooted thugs have not yet (to my knowledge) kicked down the door of his house and dragged him off to a hard labor camp. Please leave a comment if that situation changes so I can update this post accordingly.

Nevertheless, when most people talk about the “Right to Free Speech” or the “Right to Free Expression” they are talking about something broader than the First Amendment. Rather, they are referring to a general belief that in any society, it is important to allow people to express themselves, to promote the exchange of ideas and rational dialogue. This is a noble idea and one I heartily endorse. Unfortunately, this can lead to the mistaken notion that there should be no consequences to speech; that someone should, for example, be able to be an asshole online and not have to deal with the inevitable reaction.

This, unfortunately, is a paradox, akin to going back in time for a little patricidal adventure. You see, if you don’t want to face consequences for your speech, you necessarily have to stifle the people who disagree with you, thus denying them their own freedom of speech. Freedom of speech must, by necessity, include consequences.

Which, ultimately, brings me to the point of this guide: in this era of political correctness, the right to free speech is, I am pleased to report, as intact and healthy as ever. What is relatively new is that people, all people, feel increasingly free to exercise that right.

What this leads to, however, is the reality that more people are having to take responsibility for their speech. This can unfortunately cause misunderstandings with folks who did not previously realize– or at least appreciate– that free speech applied to everybody, even previously marginalized groups who may have previously been reluctant to call out various flavors of bullshit when they saw it.

Let’s play out an example of this in action, shall we? Here’s one of Mike Resnick and Barry Malzberg’s columns in the Official SFWA Bulletin. Here they praise a female colleague, Bea Mahaffey, by relaying a secondhand story (source):

Another story is from nonagenarian Margaret Keiffer, who lives just a couple of miles from us. She’s the widow of super-fan Don Ford, who ran the 1949 Worldcon, and founded both Midwestcon and First Fandom. Don also created CFG (the Cincinnati Fantasy Group), the venerable local club to which Carol and I belong. According to Margaret, during its first few years of existence CFG was populated exclusively by men. Then Bea joined. Then the members’ wives got a look at Bea in her swimsuit at the 1950 Midwestcon. Then the club’s makeup changed to the 50% men and 50% women that has existed ever since.

This drew a great deal of outrage from people due to the non-subtle implication that the only reason women joined the fan group was that they were jealous of Bea… and, of course, the focus on Bea’s looks as opposed to, say, her editing. Note that it doesn’t actually matter whether the story originated with a women (Margaret Keiffer) or with one of the authors– the source of the outrage was in the story itself, not the person who told it.

A few decades ago, such a tale would have probably been elicited more chuckles than controversy– but today, it’s seen as emblematic of an outdated “Old Boys’ Club” view of SFF. Is this just because people are more easily offended? Or do more people just have the temerity to speak out against sexism in this day and age, whereas previously it was just par for the course?

Here’s a pro-tip, if you find yourself in Resnick/Malzberg’s shoes: it doesn’t matter whether your audience is easily offended or not. Being angry is an emotional reaction, and someone cannot be wrong in their reaction to something. To deny someone their outrage is to deny them their freedom of speech– and that is exactly what we’re trying to avoid.

This is where “taking responsibility for your speech” comes in. To help folks with this, I’ve outlined Andrew’s Helpful Three-Step Process:

1) Take a deep breath. Acknowledge that the person you offended is indeed a human being, with all the thoughts, desires, and emotions thereof. This is crucial. Say it aloud to yourself if needed: “I am dealing with a human being.”

2) Ask yourself: why were they offended?
-Is it because they misunderstood something you said?
-Did they see an insult you did not intend?
-Is it because you accidentally marginalized them in some way?
-Do they simply disagree with one of your opinions?

Any of these are legitimate and can be addressed or followed up on.

3) If you experience an urge to post a rant about how their outrage is actually victimizing you, slam your laptop closed on your fingers. (Repeat this step as needed until urge passes.)

The reason Step 3 is so vital is it prevents you from shirking the responsibility incurred upon you by free speech. And that, more than anything else, is what marks this era of “political correctness” as different from the past– at least, for certain groups of people.

Most people have always had to face consequences for their speech, particularly if you were a less powerful person who offended a more powerful person. Now, as society pushes for equality, the playing field grows more level. Previously privileged people, who were once able to be cavalier with their speech, or say things (even just supposedly funny stories) without fully considering the possible reaction, may now find themselves facing consequences they did not expect– even if their intention was benign.

But, I have more good news! Dealing with unforeseen consequences is not actually all that scary, if you know how. First, sticking with the helpful three-step process outlined above is an important start. Barry Malzberg and Mike Resnick neglected to follow Step 3: rather than slamming their hands in their laptops, they published a vitriolic response accusing their critics of fascism. Whoops! They shirked responsibility!

For another example, let’s look back at Hugh Howey, who once posted a sexist rant on his blog. He described an encounter with a disagreeable person at WorldCon, who argued with him over various aspects of writing, and who happened to be female. His post was perhaps best summarized in its ending sentence: “Suck it, bitch.”

That sentence can be seen as carrying numerous problematic aspects– it denigrates her as a woman, and it’s suggestive of sexual violence: a command, given from a man to a woman, to suck it.

In the initial response, he argued that he had been misinterpreted. His goal had been to express the sentiment: “Ha ha, I’m a successful real-life counterexample to your negative opinion of self-publishing.” Which may very well have been true, however, the people angered by his language weren’t satisfied: their problem wasn’t with his opinion, it was with his graphic usage of sexual language to denigrate a woman he disagreed with. Finally, he issued a mea culpa and apologized. Hugh Howey has largely been forgiven, and his successful career continues.

This brings up a few things we can learn from:

1) Even if you didn’t personally find Hugh Howey’s post offensive, the people who did were not wrong. As stated earlier, it is literally impossible for someone to be wrong in their reaction to something– they can lie about what their reaction is, but their reaction is their reaction, and how they feel is how they feel. If you belittle someone’s reaction, you are unavoidably belittling them as a person.

Moreover, by doing so, you are actually less likely to win the argument. To quote The Art of War, which talks about enemies but could apply equally well to critics:

If you know the enemy and know yourself, you need not fear the result of a hundred battles.
If you know yourself but not the enemy, for every victory gained you will also suffer a defeat.
If you know neither the enemy nor yourself, you will succumb in every battle.

When you dismiss your critics by ascribing false motivations (i.e. “they’re fascists who hate free speech”, or “they just love causing drama”), you are willfully failing to know them. If you can truthfully understand why they’re outraged, you’ll be in a much better position, even if you still disagree with them.

2) Apologies do not diminish you. This seems to be a problem that men in particular struggle with, as though an apology weakens their manhood. I assure you, this is not the case. Apologies are merely suggestive of empathy, that you are capable of understanding another person’s viewpoint. This is something people of both genders should be learning to do by the time their age hits double digits, and the fact that many otherwise-functional adults apparently cannot– or refuse to do so– never ceases to be a source of amazement for me.

Another pro-tip: it is possible to apologize without conceding your argument. Many people are apparently unaware of this, perhaps having stayed home sick during that day in kindergarten when they explained how apologies worked. An apology does require that you treat your critic like an actual human being, but– and I suspect this will also come as a surprise to some– it is possible to disagree with someone and treat them like a human being at the same time.

Take Hugh Howey’s situation, for example. In his situation, it was entirely possible to apologize for using crass and offensive language without apologizing for his opinion on self-publishing, which I suspect was the part of the argument that he actually cared about. (And I suspect if he had focused his point on self-publishing without suggesting that she suck his dick, he may have been even better off in the first place. More on this in a moment.)

One of the best apologies ever was from Matthew Inman of The Oatmeal, who once posted a comic poking fun at girl gamers. In the wake of that, he didn’t whine about how he was being victimized and shouted down. He seriously made an attempt to understand his critics’ perspective, and acknowledged that (1)his personal experience did not appear to be representative; (2)his critics’ own stories and experiences and feelings were also valid (as pointed out earlier, such is the nature of human emotion); and (3)made a substantial gesture of a $1,000 donation to the Women Against Abuse foundation. Apologizing did not make Matthew Inman any less of a man. If anything, it made him a better human being, and elevated his stature in many people’s eyes.

You see, folks, we’re in an era where Macho Bullshit no longer rules. People are judged by the respect they show for their fellow human beings, not by the size of their cojones. Actually, the latter isn’t quite true– if you want to interpret size of their cojones metaphorically, I would humbly suggest that someone who steps up and takes responsibility for their words and their actions has far, far bigger cojones than someone who runs around screaming “fascist!” or “PC police!” when other people call them out. (For further reading on this subject, I suggest the Wikipedia entry on Ad Hominem.)

3) Target your language. The biggest problem with Hugh Howey’s post was not his opinion, but the collateral damage his language caused. If you want to avoid offending an entire gender, avoid using historically loaded or broad terms (no pun intended). This may require you to be more creative in your language, but as creative writers, you should welcome the challenge, not cower from it. Hugh Howey used a lot of sexist language, and overly dwelt on his opponent’s gender, for no reason.

As a starting point, I suggest the term “asshole.” It’s nice and generic– everyone has one, after all, and any human being, regardless of class, gender, race, or sexuality, can sometimes be a gigantic raging asshole. Think of it as a way of insulting someone who deserves it while also celebrating this unifying aspect of humanity.

Try to avoid using gender-specific terms– bitch, pussy, dick— unless the person’s gender is somehow relevant to the argument. (Pro-tip: it isn’t.) For similar reasons, avoid using the words faggot, nigger, kike, and so on. Identity-based slurs do not aid your argument, ever.* (*One would think, in 2013, that this wouldn’t need to be explicity stated, but as mentioned, it’s a new era, and this Helpful Guide is for folks who are having difficulties adapting.)

4) When you’re going to be a jerk, do it on purpose. Hey, sometimes you’re angry and you feel like being an asshole. It happens to everyone, and sometimes a little righteous profanity-laden smackdown is a good thing. But, in correlation with number 3, go in with both eyes open. If you want to, for example, call someone a humongous turdmunch with the brain of a half-rotten baked potato (which happens to roughly coincidence with my opinion of Theodore Beale), be aware of how folks may react, and what you might need to take responsibility for. Luckily, as described earlier, taking responsibility isn’t actually all that hard. And if you feel like you’re in the right, by all means, defend yourself– but be sure to follow my Helpful Three-Step Process outlined above.

One Final Note: Sometimes it is possible to say something that is so uncivil, and so out of bounds, that consequences go beyond getting yelled at and actually verge into things like getting banned from a professional organization (i.e. SFWA), or being socially ostracized. That is, unfortunately, also a consequence of free speech, and I’d suggest that it happened not so much because of your viewpoint, but because you failed to treat your critics/opponents like actual human beings. Please see the parts above where I talked about apologizing, and also about slamming your fingers into your laptop– I suspect you may have missed a piece of advice in there somewhere.

But if you do follow my advice, it turns out you can still say pretty much anything you want! If not in an officially-sanctioned SFWA bulletin, then on your blog, or your Twitter, or by yelling on a street corner. As long as you aren’t facing punishment from the government, you do still have your free speech rights– and if you’re upset that everyone thinks you’re a raging douchebag, well, I would once again refer you to my Helpful Three Step Process.

Hopefully this post helps you continue your free speechifying in an age of rampant “political correctness,” aka “treating other people like actual human beings.” Good luck!