A Few Thoughts on the Sad Puppies

“Don’t say that he’s hypocritical. Rather, say that he’s apolitical.” -Tom Lehrer

Let me start by saying: I don’t have any role in the Hugo Awards, other than as one of thousands of other voters. But I do have friends who are far more involved, including folks on the Sad Puppy and Rabid Puppy awards slates that dominated this year. I’m not going to summarize the controversy here; it’s pretty easy to find the news if you Google a bit. Thousands (or hundreds of thousands) of words have been written on the topic since the awards slates were announced– many written by folks far more eloquent than me. I suggest George R. R. Martin’s blog as a possible starting point.

But I did want to chime in on a few things I haven’t heard anywhere else, and hopefully by writing them out, to at least satisfy myself, even if no one else reads or cares.

If I look at the recent Hugo Awards from my limited perspective, I do actually think some of the Sad Puppies might have a point, in terms of desiring a wider list of names on the Hugo ballot. Several names show up over and over again, year after year, and I can’t help but wonder– is it because they’re writing the best fiction, or just established and popular in the community? Probably some of both. The Hugo Awards, like every other award, is very much a popularity contest, and I can sympathize with some of the Sad Puppies who may feel like they’re never part of that “in crowd” that gets consistently nominated for awards. It’s easy to feel excluded, and I even felt it on behalf of some of my friends, of all political stripes, who lost nominations (or lost the awards) in favor of the same familiar faces.

Personally, I’d love to see more diversity on the Hugo ballot, but I’d probably disagree with them on what nature that diversity should take. The Sad Puppies want more works that are entertaining, rollicking adventures, regardless of who wrote them or what their politics are, and I’m actually inclined to believe them on that– or, at least, I believe that they believe it. But where they see a conspiracy of SJWs keeping people out, I simply… don’t. I just see the basic tendency of folks to nominate well-known, popular names who are (through their own efforts, by virtue of their audience, or their general involvement in the community) good at getting some buzz going around their stories. And I’m all for getting some lesser-known names recognized amidst the buzz.

But I heartily disagree with the SPs on how and why that should be done. I am, likely, one of those dirty SJWs that Torgersen and his compatriots consider to have contaminated the Hugos, and apparently, society in general. (I never got my membership invite to the secret cabal meetings– maybe I just wasn’t important enough.) You can review my recent blog posts to see that social justice is something I think about a lot, both because it’s an intellectually interesting subject and because it directly affects a lot of people I care about.

So needless to say, I can’t help but take some personal umbrage when the Sad Puppies rant against the evil SJWs destroying the world… and for all that Torgersen claims to be apolitical, he’s sure willing to accept the help of the far right Rabid Puppies in getting his way. He even nominated some of their works himself. But hey, it’s all about being apolitical, right?

Torgersen has certainly claimed so. In his various posts on the subject, he yearns for a time in which science fiction wasn’t so darn political and full of messaging. Unfortunately, as has been pointed out by many people, that time didn’t really exist– the best works in the science fiction & fantasy field have usually had something to say about the state of the real world. For all its adventure-y talk about “where no man has gone before,” Star Trek was also quite progressive for its time– it portrayed a futuristic utopia in which humanity had largely solved its social problems and had united to explore the stars. It portrayed a mixed-race crew who treated each other as equals, and even occasionally kissed on-screen.

Those of us who view such messages and commentary as an important part of the genre are likely to reward and vote for works that we see as doing it well– which may be where some of the Sad Puppies’ beef comes in. For them, they don’t want messaging, but a lack of it (or a conservative message), and are disappointed to be in the minority. But even a lack of message is still a message– as I will get to shortly.

For all the SPs claim that they merely want a world where works are judged on merit, not the views of the author or what they say on society, there are a few major problems with that:

-For all of SF&F history, the merit of a work has been inextricably linked to whether or not it has anything to say about the reality of the human condition– be it social, cultural, political, historical, or otherwise.

-Even if we get past that, the ability to focus purely on the work and ignore the motivations of the author is undeniably a factor of privilege. Is a queer or trans person really supposed to read John C. Wright’s work and ignore the fact that he has called for their extermination? Is a black person supposed to read Vox Day’s work and ignore the fact that he clearly thinks of black people as subhuman? On a slightly milder level, should a gay man in a happy marriage read Orson Scott Card and not worry about his politics?

I don’t know– sometimes it’s a tough call. I will say that I’ve read several of Larry Correia’s books, including the first Monster Hunter novel and Hard Times, and enjoyed them both. But I think there’s a difference between someone whose politics you disagree with and someone who attacks your very identity, calls for your extermination, says you shouldn’t be educated, or actively works to deny your legal rights. That crosses the line from the political to the personal. I don’t have a problem with reading books by people whose politics I disagree with. I do have a problem reading books by people who actively hate my good friends– and yes, I would lump Vox Day, John C. Wright, and possibly even OSC in that category.

Brad Torgersen will never have to read anyone’s work who has called for the extermination of straight white males. Even if someone who’s seriously said such a thing is out there, I suspect he wouldn’t touch their work with a ten foot pole. In fact, even among people who’ve said much milder things about straight white males (like John Scalzi, who suggests they have a bit of privilege in life, or K. Tempest Bradford, who suggested not reading their books for a while) the reaction from the right-wing has been a huge amount of vitriol and reactionary screaming about SJWs. And I’ve seen countless comments and posts promising never to buy Scalzi’s books– just for a few relatively mild progressive politics. And then many of those same folks turn around and expect LGBT folk and their allies to give John C. Wright’s work a fair and impartial reading? What a fucking joke.

My biggest issue with the Sad Puppies (the moderate ones, anyway) is they have no ability or desire to see or understand the privileged positions they’re operating from, a position in which their cultural identity, and world view, and nostalgia, is very much the mainstream default. Note, I’m not saying their politics– that’s clearly far more contentious– I’m saying cultural identity. Brad Torgersen yearns for those good ol’ apolitical thrillers in which dashing heroes rescued beautiful damsels in distress– which seemingly NO CLUE AT ALL how much those books really do say, culturally and politically, to anyone with even the slightest bit of awareness about the effect of gender stereotypes in the real world.

But this is symptomatic of something else I see a lot from the sad puppies and their like– a steadfast, almost pathological refusal to deal with (or even acknowledge the existence of) any of the larger forces that still affect minorities in our culture and society. Someone can put together a concrete list of 15 Reasons We Still Need Feminism in 2015, but any talk about sexism in society or SF&F will be met by the Sad Puppies with fingers in the ears and a cry of “Stop calling me sexist!” It’s as if they cannot differentiate between conscious sexism/racism/homophobia in individual interactions, and sexism/racism/homophobia as larger (and often unconscious) forces at play in society (for examples of this re: sexism, see the link in the previous sentence, particularly items #5, 6, 9, 11, and 16).

So a nice pulpy novel in which the strong masculine hero rescues the beautiful damsel in distress may be seen as apolitical, or message-less, by folks like Torgersen, who see it as fluffy entertainment (largely because it fits their cultural norm), but for those of us for whom it doesn’t fit our cultural norm, it’s not message-less at all. Torgersen doesn’t yearn for the days of apolitical sci-fi; he yearns for fiction that fits his cultural worldview, that doesn’t challenge him. And while there’s certainly room for escapist fun, what is escapist fun to Torgersen may be deeply sexist to someone who’s fought against those gender roles all their life.

But wait, a Sad Puppy might cry, there are women and socialists on the slate, too! Yes there are… and they’re all either Torgersen’s friends, or people who wrote & edited stories that don’t challenge his cultural default. In Torgersen’s world, and the Sad Puppies’ world, there is of course room for stories by minorities! As long as they conform to a particular worldview or are at least “apolitical” (i.e. subscribe to Torgersen’s cultural default)– anything else would likely be considered too preachy or literary for his and his followers’ tastes.

In this affair, I feel sorriest for the innocent people Torgersen dragged into this– folks like Annie Bellet, who agreed to be on Torgersen’s slate, after accepting his word that Vox Day was not involved. Only wait– it turns out that Vox Day is very heavily involved, and I suspect Torgersen is happy to have the man’s help. After all, the presence of VD in both editing categories– and three John C. Wright stories in the Best Novella category– suggest it wasn’t the Sad Puppies at all, but their uber-right wing compatriots the Rabid Puppies, who provided the bulk of the numbers to make Sad Puppies such a successful campaign. Torgersen and Correia’s handling of the reactionary right wing reminds me of politicians trying to harness the strength of the Tea Party without being contaminated by them in the general elections– it’s morally dubious, insulting to the intelligence of everyone involved, and usually a failure.

The ringleaders are happy to drag in women and other minorities into their little Sad Puppies campaign, using them as human shields to insulate themselves from charges of bigotry while tapping the strength of the rabid reactionaries who are openly bigoted and proud of it– that, possibly more than anything else, is my biggest complaint about the Sad Puppies. It’s not just hypocritical, it insults our intelligence, and is deeply unfair to the people you claim to be supporting and certainly never asked to be human shields. You can’t just sweep politics under the rug by claiming that it doesn’t matter to your effort– clearly it matters to a major portion of your base.

The mere fact that Torgersen and Correia can even pretend to ignore the politics of people like Vox Day, John C. Wright, and their ilk is a factor of their own privilege– namely, that they’re not the target of those racist and homophobic rants. For those of us who are, or care deeply about those of our friends who are, it’s not just about their politics, it’s about their hatred of the people we love.

Maybe the Sad Puppies should have a new slogan, in the vein of Fox News on the Simpsons: “Not bigoted, but #1 with bigots.”

15 Reasons We Still Need Feminism in 2015

“Why do we still need feminism in 2015?” someone asked me on Twitter recently. “What has it done lately?”

I actually did a double-take at the question. To me, the answer was obvious—it addresses important issues that affect people I care about, and it takes on problems both subtle and glaring that persist even when legal equality has largely been achieved.

I’ve spent years listening and reading, and those experiences have created a lens through which I tend to view social issues. For me, social consciousness is a learning process I’m continually undergoing, as part of a general broader goal of having empathy for other people, and maybe in the end, understanding the human condition a little better.

I do this partly because I’m a writer—and the better you understand other people, the better characters you write. But I also want to do what I can to make the world a better place—and the better I understand other people’s thoughts and feelings, the better equipped I am to do that, regardless of whether I agree with them on all the details of how the world works or not.

But to try distill all this—both the concrete and abstract—into a few blurbs on Twitter seemed impossible. Naturally, my conversational adversary took my silence as an admission of defeat.

So I wrote this list—15 Reasons We Still Need Feminism in 2015. It’s not meant to be comprehensive, nor it is ranked in order of importance, nor does it necessarily even include the most important ones. What it’s meant to be is 15 real-life issues—social, political, economic, educational—that feminism still has a role in helping to address in the modern world. (This is directed at the Western world, particularly America; international women’s rights is a much bigger topic, but for this I particularly wanted to address things that Americans still encounter in daily life.)

Obviously, with 15 items, these aren’t comprehensive discussions—talking about these problems in depth, with side effects, solutions, and ramifications, would require far more than a few thousand words. Indeed, many stories, articles, and dissertations’ worth have already been written. But next time someone asks me (in good faith or not), why feminism is needed in 2015, well, here are a few reasons to start with. You may agree with some or all of them– or you may think I’ve left out some big ones– but it’s a start.

1) The United States is the Only Developed Country with No Paid Maternity Leave

Every developed country in the world— and many developing countries, too– mandate paid leave for new mothers. That is of course, except for the United States. In the U.S., only unpaid maternity leave is guaranteed by law, and there are several large exceptions to even that. For example, women in corporations with less than 50 employees, or who work part-time, are not guaranteed any paid leave at all by federal law.

Paid paternity leave is also a thing in many countries, to allow fathers to bond with their children and help support mothers as they recover from the physical ordeal of childbirth– but once again, not in the United States.

2) Too Many Clueless Men Still Try to Control Women’s Health Care

Just a few days ago, an Idaho lawmaker made the news when he asked if women could swallow a camera to perform a gynecological exam remotely. This man sits on the board of a crisis pregnancy center, and moreover, helps set the laws governing how and when women can receive health care for an entire state.

Across states and across the country, lawmakers (predominantly male) are ignoring science and setting destructive policies that hurt women’s access to health care solely in order to appeal to a reactionary part of their constituency. Government shouldn’t impose itself between a patient and a doctor– unless that patient is a woman, apparently.

Organizations like Planned Parenthood, which devote a huge chunk of their resources to providing health care of all kinds, are targetted by conservatives because they happen to also provide abortions.

Were “pro life” forces sincerely interested in decreasing abortions, you’d think they might educate teenagers on safe sex (see #10) or focus on the improving the plight of single parents (see #14). Instead, their entire focus is on preventing women from having access to safe, legal abortions, even allowing religious belief to trump factual science in the name of decreasing women’s access to health care. Could it perhaps because their concerns are motivated by base politics rather than any sort of sincere altruistic belief toward either woman or baby? Perish the thought, surely.

3) Women Still Make Less Money than Men at the Same Jobs

The reasons for this are many and complex, but the White House estimates that women make 77 cents on the dollar to men for comparable work. The Pew Research Center pegs that estimate higher– at 84 cents on the dollar— but the gender wage gap is nevertheless present. The statistics also vary by race– while Asian-American women make about 90 cents on the dollar, the figure is 64 cents for African-American women, and 56 cents for Latinas.

Some of the factors at play include that women are more likely to take time off or interrupt their careers for children (see #14). Women may also be more reluctant than men to negotiate hard for salary benefits, for fear of being seen as pushy (see #11; it’s worth noting that conflicts over salary are cited as part of the reason Jill Abramson was fired.) In addition,  not only are women often discouraged from asking for raises, but doing so is more likely to have negative repercussions for women.

4) There is Still an Unconscious Bias Against Women in Math and Science

From elementary school through college, there is an unconscious bias exhibited by both men and women against female students and job applicants, probably because these are thought of as traditionally “male” fields. When tests and applications are made anonymous, women score higher than they did if the reviewer knew their gender.

This is deeply embedded in our culture, too. How often, when a man does something particularly nerdy or geeky, whether it be something scientifically brilliant or something rooted in geek pop-culture, is the joke made that he doesn’t have a girlfriend, or is obviously a virgin? As though girls could never find those things interesting? I know plenty of geek girls who would say otherwise.

5) Women are Drastically Under-Represented in STEM Fields

Being discouraged from science and math in their early years often means that when I.T. firms (and other firms looking to fill high-paying jobs in STEM fields) go looking for applicants, there are far more male applicants than female. Moreover, the unconscious bias from #4 doesn’t just disappear as students enter the workforce– it continues to persist, not just in applications and hiring but in corporate culture as well.

This one hits home for me because I’ve seen it play out in my own experiences in the I.T. field. In my department doing software support at a Seattle-area company, our department had 18 people– 1 of whom was female. She was an incredibly skilled and dedicated worker, but often underappreciated– she was often hit on by tech workers and salespeople. Moreover, in meetings, she sometimes felt shunned by higher ups, who would ignore her and talk to her male co-workers even when she was the lead on the project being discussed.

Unfortunately, this bias in corporate culture also serves to drive women away from the field, so as a result this problem tends to be self-perpetuating. The only way to fix it is to be aware of it, and make conscious effort to overcome the unconscious problem.

6) Men’s Voices are for Everybody; Women’s Voices are for Women

Shannon Hale is a New York Times-bestselling author. She’s written over a dozen children’s book and young adult novels; she’s co-written several graphic novels, and one of her books has been turned into a motion picture starring Keri Russell.

Sometimes, when she visits a school, the girls are given permission to skip class to see her, but the boys are not. Why? Because apparently her books are seen “girly.” Boys can’t enjoy a book that has “Princess” in the title or is written by a woman, right?

See this Storify for the full story, as told by Hale herself, as well as some of the reactions from other authors.

When we police content by gender like this, we do a disservice both to the women authors who are excluded from a big chunk of their potential audience, as well as the boys who are told that they should only like certain kinds of stories. Girls get to read all kinds of stories, but boys only get to read stories that are judged “manly” enough by their parents, teachers, and peers.

This is a problem, not just because it marginalizes female authors, but because it contributes to the issue of toxic masculinity that I blogged about in my previous post. We need to do a better job raising and educating both boys and girls, and this shit isn’t helping.

7) Men Outnumber Women in Congress by over 4 to 1, and as CEOs by almost 20 to 1.

In the current Congress, there are 104 women out of 535 members, for a ratio of 18.5%. 26 women lead Fortune 500 companies, for an even lower rate of 5.2%. There has never been a woman president in the United States, though that may change in 2016.

There seem to be various reasons for this-– some of them are undoubtedly related to #11. But there is still a bias against women speaking up and taking leadership positions in the workplace, at least partially related to the fact that women who do so are breaking our preconceived unconscious notions of how women “typically” behave. As the linked article states, hopefully this will be overcome as we have more women role models.

8) Women are Still Seen as a Separate Niche Market, Rather than Half the Population

Instances like this are all too common, in which the default is assumed to be “male” while girls and women are seen as a special subcategory that must be catered to separately.

Toys like Legos have become increasingly gendered, apparently supported by marketing research, but even children have noticed and complainedPeggy Orenstein wrote an excellent NYT Op-Ed in which she acknowledges the differences in play that have been found between men and women, but goes on to warn about mixing up nature and nurture. Playing into gender stereotypes from such a young age can have long-term consequences (see #4, 5).

At issue, then, is not nature or nurture but how nurture becomes nature: the environment in which children play and grow can encourage a range of aptitudes or foreclose them. So blithely indulging — let alone exploiting — stereotypically gendered play patterns may have a more negative long-term impact on kids’ potential than parents imagine.

In other words, by shoehorning children into such specific and culturally constructed stereotypes right from an early age, we’re denying them agency, likely with lifelong repercussions. And this is just all the more likely to exacerbate #s 4, 5, 9, and 11. (And most of the others, too.)

9) In Reality and Media, Women are Still Seen as Prizes to be Won, rather than People.

This has destructive effects on both men and women.

For women, it takes away their humanity and turns them into objects– not people to be interacted with, but prizes to be won– or perhaps even worse, prey to be duped and tricked into bed. The “pick up artist” industry doesn’t exist in a vacuum.

Men, in turn, are encouraged to weigh their self-esteem based on how many women they’ve been able to bed; how “virile” they are. For men who are late bloomers sexually, or who suffer from depression, or who are just natural loners, the effects can be incredibly toxic. I’ve blogged about more than once.

The alternative (treating women as people worthy of respect, rather than merely trying to get them into bed) is not only healthier for everyone involved in terms of self-esteem, it leads to healthier sexual attitudes, and happier people in general.

10) The Taboo on Sexual Education Means Kids Don’t Learn What They Need to About Sex—or Learn it From the Wrong Places.

In states across the country, schools are discouraged from teaching anything other than “abstinence only” sexual education. This is despite the fact that study after study shows that abstinence-only education does not lead to abstinent behavior, and that comprehensive sex ed is more effective at preventing teen pregnancy than abstinence alone.

In fact, the societal taboo about having open discussions about sex is so strong that even parents find it awkward, and so children and teenagers may instead learn about it from media, the Internet, and their peers.

Imagine if we had nationwide sexual education that included not just a comprehensive discussion on safe sex and contraceptives, but larger issues such as respect, consent, boundaries, and “no means no” (or even better, “yes means yes”). We could not only help decrease teen pregnancy but perhaps encourage healthier sexual attitudes among Americans of all ages.

This is an issue for both boys and girls, but it’s particularly a feminist issue because of the disparate impact that teen pregnancies have on girls. (See also: #1, 2, 14)

11) Strong Men are Seen as Assertive Leaders; Strong Women are Seen as Divisive and Bitchy.

Because strength, assertiveness, and decisiveness are often seen as “masculine” attributes, women who exhibit these tendencies are often seen as unfeminine at best, or stubborn, condescending, and bitchy at worst. When people break gender stereotypes, it makes people uncomfortable, consciously or not– and that has a detrimental effect on women entering all sorts of leadership and/or high-paying roles.

A very visible recent example of this was Jill Abramson’s tenure as managing editor of the New York Times. Her editorial decisions were praised, as were her skills and effectiveness (the paper won multiple Pulitzers during her tenure), but Politico published a piece extremely critical of her tenure, in which anonymous sources criticized her tone and her brusqueness. (The few non-anonymous sources actually contradicted the thrust of the article.) Here’s a brief sum-up of some of the reactions and problems with that piece.

Unfortunately, because we live in a world where women in leadership positions continues to be a rare thing (and often discouraged, both consciously and unconsciously), women who do make it to the top ranks may actually be more domineering and brusque than their male counterparts (or at least have that side to their personality), simply because they have to shout louder to be heard. But male leaders are given leeway in the personality department that women often do not have.

12) Sexual Harassment is Still Widespread, and too Often Excused with Some Form of “Boys will be Boys.”

There are so many different aspects to this problem it’s hard to know where to begin, For a start,witness the huge debate over the catcalling video that went viral last year. But the outcry was often less about the pervasive nature of street harassment and more about how supposedly men aren’t even allowed to say hi to women anymore.

These responses usually ignored the context of the comments. Even if some women are flattered by it, many more find it annoying or even frightening, and sometimes there’s an all-too-thin line between catcalling and physical harassment. In a world where men are taught to link their self-respect to their success with women (see #9), street harassment can turn to physical violence, or worse, all too easy. Too often men think they’re entitled to women’s attention, and react angrily when such attention is denied. Street harassment is a big issue– and while a small minority of men engage in it, a vast majority of women will experience it.

But catcalling is hardly the worst problem. According to some statistics, one in six American women will be the victim of a rape or attempted rape sometime during their lifetimes. And yet rape is still possibly the only crime in which the victim will suffer as much, if not more, scrutiny than the perpetrator; what was she wearing? How drunk was she?

In cases of burglary and robbery, it doesn’t matter how easy it was to break into the victim’s home or car; it’s still a crime. In cases of physical assault or mugging, it doesn’t matter if the victim was walking down a dark street at 1 am; it’s still a crime. Unfortunately, that same mindset doesn’t apply to prosecution of sexual harassment cases. Is it any wonder such crimes are still drastically underreported?

Part of the problem is that sexuality is still often portrayed in culture and media with some sort of predator/prey vibe, like one party is the hunter or pursuer, and the other is the prize or target that tries to get away, resulting in some delightful romantic chase and amusing hijinks… rather than, y’know, stalking charges. (Here’s a thoughtful video in which Hank Green expounds on this topic far better than me.) This dynamic hurts women by taking away their own sexual agency– by making them an object to be desired rather than a person with desires themselves– and it insults men by implying that they’re more or less animals who can’t actually control their own behavior. “Boys will be boys,” the refrain goes, or “that’s how just how men are.” I find this shirking of personal responsibility incredibly distasteful– own your own behavior, people.

It doesn’t help that we really don’t talk about these topics with kids and teenagers (see #10), thus making them have to infer proper behavior from popular media and their peers.

13) Because Facing Graphic, even Violent Gendered Harassment Online is Still Seen as “Normal.”

An increasing proportion of our lives are conducted in the online world. Social media and an online presence are vital for business and networking. And of course, an increasing number of our hobbies are online– video games, for example.

But for women who are outspoken online, graphic rape and death threats are all too common. And for every one person who actually posts horrible shit, there seem to be another ten who excuse it with “this is just what happens,” as though the fact that it happens is a valid excuse for it. And while both men and women can face harassment online, the harassment women face is often uber-violent, laced with physical or sexual violence, and especially designed to intimidate and threaten.

Like the line between catcalling and physical harassment, the line between online harassment and real world harassment is blurry, especially here in 2015, where the two worlds are increasingly interlinked– doubly so for women in tech. (See #5)

Even women who merely go online for entertainment, not business, face some appalling behavior. Another example arose just a few days ago, Curt Schilling’s daughter was the target of some abysmal harassment, and she didn’t even make the post that started it. Those people, at least, faced consequences, but not everyone is as visible or powerful as Curt Schilling, and most don’t have the power or ability to see their harassers brought to justice.

Such harassment cannot merely become “the way things are online”, or too many important voices will be driven off the Internet, and possibly out of tech entirely.

14) Because Mothers Don’t Get Enough Respect and Support.

America’s social programs are in disrepair, thanks largely to the same clueless idiots responsible for #1 and #2. Single parents of all genders are affected by this, but women disproportionately so. The costs of daycare, education, etc. are all through the roof, with few options for people who are financially disadvantaged except to accrue staggering levels of debt.

Moreover, even outside government programs, there is sometimes a bias against mothers in the workplace. from both women and men. And the difficulties of being a mother in the workplace are often cited as one reason women are paid less than men (see #3)– even if those difficulties don’t affect the employee’s performance. Merely being a working mother is often enough for companies or employers to lower their offered salary.

15) Because Transgender Women Still Have a Long Way to Go.

Transgender women still lag far behind other women in terms of legal rights, as well as the conscious and unconscious biases they face in larger culture. In many places, someone can still be fired for merely being transgender. On top of the legal bias, transgender people face drastically increased rates of suicide and physical violence.

Additionally, they face a great deal of mockery from folks who seemingly refuse to recognize them as a class of people at all—probably none of whom have ever had a conversation with a transgender person in real life. (Either that, or they’re sociopaths, given the stunning lack of empathy required here. It’s much easier to dehumanize people who you have no experience with.) I hadn’t met any transgender folks more than briefly before I moved to Seattle, but now I am pleased to be friends with many folks occupying places all along the gender spectrum. To acknowledge the humanity of these people is not being “politically correct,” it’s just not being a complete asshole to other people. The fact that this is still in dispute, on its own, is enough to make me a strident feminist.

16 (BONUS): Because Equal Rights Does not Mean Equality.

Over the past century, women have increasingly gained legal rights—the right to vote, the right to not be fired for their gender (although the continued lack of paid maternity leave makes this questionable), and in 2009, the Lily Ledbetter Fair Pay Act was passed.

But even if equal legal rights are ensured, the idea that the legacy of economic and cultural oppression merely goes away with the signing of a pen is laughable. Regardless of whether you agree on the nature of that legacy or not, it is still something that needs to be considered and studied—and feminism plays an important role in that. Even if we could wave a hand and do away with blatant sexism, unconscious sexism—both on a cultural and a personal level—continues to exist.

Slavery ended 152 years ago, and segregation was outlawed 51 years ago, but the legacy of oppression is still very much real in the African-American community, as evidenced by the disproportionate number of African-American families still in poverty. This sort of damage is lasting, and doesn’t go away the minute legal equality is realized—and while it may not necessarily affect all members of the community (at least not in the same way), the effects are certainly noticeable in larger trends. And to simply ignore those trends with a wave of the hand and a “you’re on your own, figure your own shit out now” is not only callous, but ignores the reality that we all live in the same world.

It should be noted that equality improves society for everyone– almost all the problems I’ve talked about here, which women face, will help men too if we address them. Single fathers face many of the same issues as single mothers. Transgender men face many of the same issues as transgender women. Both boys and girls suffer from the consequences of growing up in a society where we rigidly enforce sexual taboos and gender stereotypes, and shutting women out of STEM careers means that the entire world is deprived of new voices, ideas, and solutions. Gendered career stereotypes hurts everyone– we could certainly use more men in the nursing and teaching fields, for example.

You’ll also notice how many of the reasons are linked, how some factors into and influence others, creating larger overall systems of bias and oppression that need to be dismantled. (That overall system, and the way it affects us both consciously and unconsciously, is often termed “Patriarchy”, despite the fact, as mentioned above, that it hurts both men and women.)

So that’s my list. 15 seems like a lot, but it’s barely beginning to scratch the surface. It took me about a week to write this, but merely by staying plugged into the news, every day I saw 2 or 3 new articles and incidents that could have been fodder for this article. (Some I added, some I didn’t.) What did I leave out? What do you think is the most important reason we still need feminism?

Dear Fellow Men, Your Masculinity is Not Under Attack.

I want to address something that I occasionally hear from men across the political and cultural spectrum: the belief that masculinity itself is under attack from modern feminism. Specifically, it suggests that the current wave of feminism is devaluing traditional “masculine” attributes like strength, and assertiveness. Even among people I know who support feminism (or think they do) there is often an undercurrent of fear that while ostensibly critiquing certain aspects of culture, feminism is actually attacking men– or if not actually all individual men, then the idea of masculinity.

This fear is reinforced by terminology like “toxic masculinity” (see, feminists do think masculinity is toxic!) or “patriarchy”, as if feminists believe there’s some secret cabal of men controlling the world. This is a fundamental misunderstanding of these terms– but the misinterpretations provide ready-made strawmen to knock down, which I suspect is why they continue to persist.

That said, I do think that feminism has major ramifications for masculinity that we, as men– particularly us regular ol’, cis heterosexual men– will have to come to terms with. But these ramifications are positive; it’s just that they represent a change.

That change is not about devaluing masculinity, but about expanding what the term means. It’s about giving men and boys the freedom to express their strength and masculinity in ways beyond the chest-thumping stereotypes– and giving them the tools to do that.

For a long time, masculinity and femininity were defined as opposites to each other– yin and yang. The feminine was delicate and beautiful, the masculine was rough and strong. Gender roles, too, were clearly defined; women took care of the family and raised the kids, men went out and made a living. The domains of industry, politics, media, business– they were all, with rare exceptions, a man’s world.

Over the past century, feminism has largely changed that. Women have broken through ceiling after ceiling, and enormously expanded their role in society. A woman is no longer just the delicate flower to be protected and provided for by her man, she is the strong, independent controller of her own destiny.

In that sense, feminism has allowed femininity to incorporate some of the positive aspects of masculinity. Which means it’s no longer enough to define the masculine by what the feminine isn’t— rather, masculinity needs its own positive definition, not defined in opposition to the feminine but by the values that we as a society want men to strive for.

This, I think, is where we run into problems. Boys are still taught to be manly, but “manly” doesn’t just mean being strong enough to pursue what you want (a good thing)– too often, it means a lack of empathy for others, because empathy and caring are seen as feminine attributes, and therefore not important (or even negative) for boys. This is largely an unconscious process– fathers raise their boys how they were raised themselves; and media and culture continue to be saturated with role models and protagonists who emphasize the more traditional aspects of masculinity while devaluing the feminine. “Good guy” men are often womanizers (James Bond, anyone?) who save the day through strength and violence. I’m not saying there isn’t a role for the action hero– just that they’re oversaturated in modern media. Most of us don’t grow up to be superspies (unfortunately).

Through their environment– both family and wider society in general– boys are taught to be self-reliant. This is a good thing, but it sometimes means they avoid seeking help they may need, whether for bullying, or depression, or simple loneliness, confusion, and self-doubt– the sorts of things that almost everyone encounters in considerable quantity growing up. Self-reliance is a good quality to teach, but we need to give boys the tools to face their problems without stigmatizing the act of seeking help. Seeking help from others is a vital tool with which to confront and overcome actual problems in adult life– whether you’re a strong person or not. Moreover, if boys are taught to look down on those who seek help, they may also avoid helping people themselves, particularly other males.

This video is a trailer for a longer documentary, but I think it does a good job of identifying the pitfalls of how we teach young boys about masculinity:

“Toxic masculinity” arises when it shuns positive values that are seen as traditionally feminine–compassion, empathy, constructive listening and discussion. Instead, boys place a priority on maintaining their illusion of strength– not just to the outside world, but to themselves. And if they feel trapped by their problems, they may lash out instead of seeking help.

There are other examples, too. Men are expected to lose their virginity as soon as possible; if they don’t, it’s seen as a slight on their manhood. “Virgin” is an emasculating insult, applied far and wide– especially in the world of geek culture. A man not strong enough to get laid? What kind of man is that?

In the wake of the Isla Vista shootings last year, I wrote a long blog post about the shooter’s motivations, and how scarily well I could understand them. The man is often portrayed simply as a boy who was mentally ill, and while that may be the case, he also posted a long rant blaming women and society for his problems. This is a particularly brutal example of that toxic masculinity I described above, which discourages things like self-reflection, or getting help, and stigmatizes anything seen as weak, from self-doubt to virginity. We see motivations like these all too often, not just in murders but domestic violence cases and sexual assault as well.

Luckily, the vast majority of boys and girls grow up to be fairly well-adjusted people. But my ultimate goal, and one generally shared by feminism as a whole, is that people should not be judged or made to feel inferior based on how well they follow some culturally constructed gender norm. Masculinity and femininity are ultimately things that people have to define for themselves, as part of the process of determining their own identity. And they deserve to be accepted by society and their family however they choose to define those terms.

ironside_quote_small2A key point here is that if someone wants to define their feminity or masculinity within “traditional” norms, that should be fine, too. If a Mom wants to quit her career and stay at home to raise her children, then that’s perfectly fine– it’s her decision. I want to see a society and a culture with room for both the stay-at-home Mom and the Mom who starts her own software company. I want there to be room for the stay-at-home Dad and the driven engineer who goes to work while his wife raises the kids– or the bachelor who never marries at all. I want people to have room to use the freedom so neatly summed up here by Michael Ironside– Starship Troopers is fiction, but that quote rings true even in our world.

I’ve heard it countered that to take such a wide-ranging view of masculine and feminine norms is to disregard biology; that as men and women, we have certain biological tendencies, and women are attracted to strong men– hence to downplay strength and aggressiveness in masculinity is to disregard certain base, monkey brain level tendencies.

But the goal here is not to criticize strength as an attribute, but rather to criticize the way it’s portrayed in our culture. Being an asshole and running roughshod over someone else, physically or emotionally, takes strength, but it’s a negative (toxic) strength. It takes more strength to achieve your goals (whether they be career, family, or romance-oriented) in a way that respects the people around you, as opposed to putting your own needs first and only helping others when it’s convenient or benefits you.

In other words, strength should be valued not just for how much you can apply to a given situation, but for how you control and direct that strength. tumblr_lw4ciws0Vn1qc1u27o1_500How we educate and raise young boys should reflect that, and I think media and entertainment that teaches those lessons should be encouraged. We put too much emphasize on the power; not enough on the responsibility that comes with it. (Thanks, Uncle Ben.)

Even if we do accept that different genders have certain biological tendencies, the idea that this norm should enjoy some privileged place in society at the expense of folks who don’t fit the norm, is silly. To argue otherwise is to put yourself on the same side of people who argue against gay marriage because they claim to support the “traditional family.” Heterosexual families will always be the norm, but to privilege that norm by denying rights to everyone else is to blatantly ignore the fact that there are plenty of non-traditional families out there that are every bit as healthy and loving as the traditional folks, and just because they’re in the minority, doesn’t mean they don’t deserve support.

My own personal view is that whatever little behavioral tendencies we may be born with– be they related to gender, or family history, or something else– are far outweighed by how we’re raised, the environment we grow up in, and the values we hold. To suggest anything less is to deny your responsibility for your own actions, and I don’t buy that at all.  As human beings, we are the one species equipped to engage in self-reflection and set values for ourselves, both as individuals and as a society. And I want everyone to have the freedom to do just that.

And it’s happening. One of the reasons we see a lot more “offense” taken over slights or insults that might have previously gone overlooked is that more people now feel empowered to speak out. People who don’t fit the traditional or majority mold– in terms of race, or sexual orientation, or gender, or beliefs– now feel like they have room to publicly discuss things that bother them, whereas previously they may have stayed silent. This, in turn, has made people on all levels of society more aware of such issues. The current plague of “SJWs” isn’t a backlash against free speech; it’s a result of more people feeling free to exercise their speech. I blogged about this a couple years ago during a SFWA kerfuffle, and I find it still holds true in the current “crisis.”

It’s sadly ironic that when the shoe is on the other foot– for example, when a popular movie like Frozen portrays a situation different from the “default” male hero, conservative commentators immediately complain (even though Kristoff, while not the primary hero, still has a heroic role to play). These people are used to having their own situations, roles, and values portrayed as the norm– in popular media, they don’t often see people not like them, and certainly not on the scale of a Disney mega-movie.

These people are made so uncomfortable by this, they go on TV and complain about it, like a completely over-the-top parody of the “SJWs” and feminists they hate. Are they really not aware that there are large groups of society who almost never get to see someone like themselves as the hero, or have a relationship that reflects their own portrayed? Imagine the fuss if Disney portrayed a gay hero in one of their animated films! The horror!

Not to mention the hypocrisy. When feminists critique a movie that blindly follows the norm, or hews to certain lazy or even offensive stereotypes of the minority, the response is often “shut up and get over it;” “you’re too easily offended;” “it’s just a [movie/game/TV show].” Until a movie comes out in which a female protagonist saves herself through her own actions, and the male characters take on supporting roles… in which case, Freak Out!

When people complain about masculinity being under attack, what they usually mean is that the traditional view of masculinity is losing its privileged place in society– we are seeing more (and better) portrayals of people out there who don’t fit the norm, in one way or another, and are successful at life regardless. These were people who were often invisible to larger society and media, but that has changed. They are finding their voices, and in the end we will all be richer for it.

Alternatively, some people seem to confuse being a strong man with being an asshole. Being a strong and assertive man isn’t being villified– but being an asshole is. More people are willing to call out shitty behavior when they see it, and behavior that might have been seen as okay in the past is now increasingly seen as not okay, largely thanks to previously underpowered groups (like women) who now feel more free to speak out.

Those of us who typically have the power in society, who fit the “norms”– whether we be white, or male, or cis, or heterosexual, or Christian– may increasingly have our own norms challenged, but that doesn’t mean we’re under attack. It just means society is making room for everybody else, too. Us “norm-fitters” will have to give up some privilege, but society will be richer for it, with a larger and wider array of voices to educate us, inform us, and lead us– in classrooms, science labs, companies, in the halls of government. It’s an ongoing process, but it’s one we will all benefit from– even the strongest of men.

The Isla Vista Shootings, and Thoughts From a Former 22-Year-Old Virgin

There’s been a lot of debate in the wake of the latest mass shooting in Isla Vista, California. Prior to going on his rampage, the shooter posted a video on Youtube explaining his motivations. I won’t link it; it’s easy enough to find if you want. But to sum it up, the guy spends seven minutes whining about how he’s a 22 year old virgin. He complains that girls have ignored him– the perfect gentlemen– while throwing themselves at undeserving brutes instead, and therefore girls (and the guys luckier than him) deserve to die.

It’s the sort of rant that would sound self-absored, cliche and trite (indeed, it is all three of those things) except that was he armed, psychopathic, and actually killed people. But perhaps what’s most shocking about it is how well I can relate to the emotions he expressed. And I suspect a lot of men are in the same boat.

The vast majority of us don’t kill people, thankfully– but it’s worth taking a look at some of the common aspects of our culture that clearly had an influence on this guy. Like the killer, I was also a virgin when I was 22. A lot of people are– probably more than you realize, because society and culture have taught us that a man who is a virgin at age 22 is not much of a man.

Throughout our formative years, men are taught by popular media and culture to link their self-worth to how many times they’ve slept with someone. In almost any book or movie with a strong male protagonist, winning the girl is almost as important as accomplishing the objective. In this situation, girls cease to be people and become objects to be won… not just in stories, but in real life.

And if you’re a guy who can’t “win” a girl, well, then you’re emasculated. It’s particularly bad for geeks, because comic books, video games, and even reading and academic pursuits are often insultingly referred to as being “for people who can’t get laid.” Even people within the comic book industry regularly insult their audience with remarks like “How many people in the audience have heard of Martian Manhunter? Now, how many people that raised their hands have ever been laid?” For anyone in the audience who’s heard of Martian Manhunter and hasn’t been laid, it’s a brutally emasculating insult, making them feel bad about both their hobby and their love life. In reality, not only are the two unconnected, they have no reason to feel bad about either one.

Growing up, I received a lot of messages about what it meant to be “manly.” Real men are strong enough to overcome their problems on their own. Real men don’t cry, and they don’t show weakness. Real men don’t let other people disrespect them. Real men are always dominant and confident, and they always know what to do. And as stated before, real men win the girl. For those men who don’t fit the “real man” mold– who have self-esteem issues, or are physically weak, or shy, depressed, or have any range of mental health problems– seeking help from other people makes you feel worse, because now you’re even less of a man. Even admitting the problem exists can be emasculating.

This whole classic male attitude is super-toxic when it comes to dealing with women. If you’re a man who’s been taught that (1)you shouldn’t tolerate being disrespected, and (2)your self-worth should be measured by your sexual conquests, then it stands to reason that if a woman refuses your sexual advances, she’s disrespecting you. She’s making you less of a man. An attitude might develop that if you’re a worthy man, an alpha male, so to speak, that women should be throwing themselves at you. You may begin to feel entitled to sex– whether you’re getting it or not– because to admit that you’re not entitled to sex would be to doubt your manliness, and real men are confident. Real men definitely don’t doubt themselves.

Men’s need to boost their self-esteem by getting laid is so pervasive that an entire industry of “pickup artists” has risen up, teaching men supposedly surefire tricks to sexual conquest. In this game, women are nothing more than prizes, objects to be won, to be manipulated however is necessary in order to score the ultimate prize of sex. And for men who are self-absorbed, or just shy, or for any reason not so lucky in the world of love, it becomes easy to rationalize, to seek out causes other than yourself as to why that’s the case.

That’s where the old “women don’t go for nice guys” fallacy comes in. Or “women only sleep with jerks.” Rather than engage in self-examination (which is not manly), many men blame women– or other men– for having poor judgment, or being stupid. It’s not my fault, they just have poor taste.

I did this myself on occasion in my twenties. My lack of a love life depressed me, so as a shortcut to avoid depression, I would just think, “Eh, well, women don’t go for nice guys.” I was smart enough, generally, to know that it wasn’t true– sometimes I would blame women for not paying attention to the shy, quiet guys who are actually awesome– but that’s just as much of a copout as “women don’t go for nice guys.”

Watching the killer’s video, it’s easy for me to see how all of this played into the killer’s thought processes. After being fed a toxic diet of how men should behave and act, he decided to prove his alpha maleness by asserting his dominance in an incredibly visible, violent way… by taking the lives of other people. If you want to prove your dominance over others, it’s hard to do it any more thoroughly than by killing them.

As far as my own story, I eventually realized that as much as I felt unlucky in love, the fact was, I’d barely ever been rejected. Almost every dating relationship I had, had been broken off by me, usually through neglect. The problem wasn’t other people; the problem was me. It was two-fold: (1)I was scared of relationships, because it meant being emotionally vulnerable to someone else (men shouldn’t be emotionally vulnerable, and I wasn’t confident enough to risk it); and (2)I just wasn’t putting myself in a position to grow and meet new people. I hung out with the same people every weekend, and I rarely tried doing new things.

I solved number 2 by moving to Seattle. And by solving number 2, I solved number 1. It’s hard to get any more emotionally vulnerable than moving to a new city and surrounding yourself with new people; I sought support and friendship as a side effect of moving, and within three months, I was in a sexual relationship.

In retrospect, I suspect I was also just a late bloomer. Almost every sexual and relationship-type milestone you can think of– first kiss, first girlfriend, etc.– I did about ten years after what society would consider “normal.” Except for Senior Prom in high school, I didn’t even ask a girl out on my own initiative until I was 24. But because I’d been conditioned by society to feel bad for not being sexually active, I got deeply depressed as a result of just being myself. It’s a clinical depression I still fight to this day, despite having long since lost my virginity, and currently being in a happy, six month long (so far) relationship with a wonderful woman.

Overall, I’m happy with how things worked out. While I regret some of those missed opportunities in my twenties, I know that it doesn’t make a bad person, or any less of a man, or indeed, any less of a human being. Being a good person is independent of how many people you sleep with. And I know, for 100% beyond any shadow of a doubt, that if I have to choose being a kind and considerate person, or trying to sleep with as many as people as possible… well, I will never for a single moment regret being a kind and considerate person.

The day I felt most like a man was not the day I lost my virginity. The day I felt most like a man was the day I realized that being a man means ignoring bullshit cultural standards about what it means to be a man. That I can seek help for my depression and not feel bad about it. That I can be a good, kind, and emotionally available person without doubting my masculinity. That I should worry less about whether other people “disrespect” me and more about how I treat other people. That empathy is something to be proud of, not shy away from.

As a man, I want to be brave enough to put others’ needs before my own. I want to support my loved ones and my friends, to help those around me succeed, even if there is no immediate obvious benefit to myself. I aim to make the world a better place. I am strong enough to be the change I want to see in the world, and in the end, that is the only definition of manliness I give a shit about.

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 direman.com (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.

GeekGirlCon: Fandom, The Next Generation

I spent Saturday hanging out at the Washington State Convention Center, enjoying GeekGirlCon. This was my first time attending GGC since its debut year in 2011, and I was blown away by how much it’s grown. In 2011, it was in a tiny suite of rooms in the northwest corner of the Seattle Center; this year, it took up most of the Conference Center at the WSCC.

I loved the atmosphere at GeekGirlCon. The place was busy without being jam-packed, and there were wide-open lobby spaces for easy photography, meeting friends, and even concerts, courtesy of Molly Lewis and The Doubleclicks.

But of course, “atmosphere” means more than the physical surroundings. I got the distinct but hard-to-define sense that GeekGirlCon was a much safer space than usual cons. Maybe it was the prevalence of gender-bending cosplay, and people taking risks with their cosplay that they might not at a usual con. I don’t mean risque cosplay– although there was some of that, too– I mean cosplay that involves stepping out of your comfort zone, to play someone who’s not like you, either in gender, or body shape, or personality. People seemed more willing to open up, try something different, even potentially embarrassing, because of the friendly atmosphere that permeated the con. I suspect that just the name and theme of the con attracted a more open, welcoming, and socially aware crowd, and that was reflected in people’s comfort, and also in the overall atmosphere.

The crowd at GeekGirlCon was an all-ages crowd, but trended toward the young side. It felt like most of the adults I saw were in their 20s and 30s, and there were also a lot of families with young kids. That second part in particular was nice to see– I truly did feel like I was seeing a lot of next-generation fans. And kids at GGC got a chance not just to indulge in the typical range of media properties that are classified as “geek,” but also to kindle the love of creativity and science that to me, more than anything, defines what is at the heart of geekdom.

One of the coolest features at the con was the DIY Science Zone, where panelists and volunteers helped kids do various science experiments. Apparently one of the panelists even brought a small piece of the Chelyabinsk meteor for show-and-tell. I think one of the bigger challenges facing not just geekdom but society in general is how to bring more inclusiveness and diversity to the Science and Technology fields, not just for this generation’s sake but for the next, and so I’m always glad to see GGC maintain such a strong focus on real-life science and tech.

The exhibition hall, meanwhile, was full of local artists and small craft folk; most dealer’s rooms generally are, but I got the sense at GeekGirlCon that there was a much larger portion of artists just starting out, maybe even folks operating a booth for the first time. And I don’t mean that in a bad way; there was a charming, almost homespun feel about the exhibition/dealer area that I liked a lot.

But ultimately, the number one reason I say that GGC felt like the next generation of fandom is because of how open, diverse, and inclusive it felt. To me, it felt like how fandom and geekdom could be, once we get past the misogyny and homophobia and various market-driven forces that seem determined to tell us how to be a geek in present times, how certain pursuits and books and games are “boy” or “girl”. I was only at GGC for one day, but I still felt that in some sense GeekGirlCon represents the potential for what geek culture could become; hopefully it really is a window into the next generation.

Occasionally during and after cons, I hear people fretting about how fandom is aging, or dying out, or withering away, but having been to GGC I’m quite confident in saying it’s doing just fine. Sure, it’s changing, but all in all, I’m pretty sure that’s a good thing.

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!