The Right To Speak My Mind

In the comments of yesterday’s post, Kelly Barnhnhill crystallized something that come across all the time but don’t always remember how to explain to people:

…is it the veracity of the arguments themselves that you find “annoying”, or, perhaps, is it just that you disagree with the politics? I think it happens a lot that when an expressed point of view makes us uncomfortable we will often simply discount it as “annoying” as a way to alleviate the stress of actually confronting and questioning the source of our discomfort.

YES, exactly.

Several months ago during the William Sanders Helix wank, Tobias Buckell pointed out that I was taking a lot of heat from the opposition even though I was hardly the only voice raising a stink about the issue of Sanders’ bigotry. One of the reasons I am an easy target for the ire of just about anyone is that I am female and I am black.

In the minds of more people than you probably care to admit, that means I have less of a right to state my opinion decidedly, stridently, and as if I know what I’m talking about. This issue affects women and ethnic minorities, often under the guise of “I would listen to you except I don’t like your tone.”

This issue has been written about extensively elsewhere, so I won’t bother repeating it since you’ve got the Internet and the ability to click links.

Discourse on the Internet will always be fraught and imperfect and maddening. But we continue to engage in it because it can be enlightening, invigorating, and a spur to growth and better understanding. Perhaps not from my posts or blogs –- perhaps it’ll be a combination of many. And no matter how often I complain about the number of times I and others have to educate people on the web to bring them to a base understanding of how -isms affect the lives of minorities, a lot of good has come from those discussions, even if a large chunk of people just walk away muttering.

The next time you read some rant on the Internet about anything you know even a smidge about, I want you to try and examine your reaction to what was said and determine if you had that reaction because of who said it. It might reveal more about you than makes you comfortable. But in the end, you might end up being a more mindful person because of it.

And I think that will do for this week. Jeff, thank you so much for allowing me to squat here for a bit. Readers, thanks for your thoughtful commentary and willingness to have a discourse with me. I enjoyed every minute of it.

I hope some of you will drop by my writing blog (where I sometimes rant, but mostly don’t), my ABW blog (where I always rant), and read my story at Strange Horizons… because I’m a writer and I’m vain.


  1. says

    Wow, Tempest, I just read your excellent story “Until Forgiveness Comes.”
    Just a couple of days ago, I was reading S. T. Joshi’s “The Modern Weird Tale.” Joshi points out that in a mediocre “weird tale” the character development and/or human drama is just “tacked on” to the weird aspect, but in a good, literary “weird tale”, the human drama blends inseparably with the weird aspect. In that regard, your story is top notch!

    I’ve enjoyed your posts and I’ll definitely be dropping by your blog.

  2. Stephen says

    I recently had an online discussion very like this with a friend of a friend. To give a little context, I’m an atheist and he, a Christian friend and I were reacting to this story. I said that I much preferred the (relatively) non-combative “Why believe in God? Just be good for goodness sake.” campaign to the stolen sign. He took the position that since we are speaking the truth we shouldn’t be afraid to get into people’s faces about it.

    I disagreed. Apart from the obvious problem that everybody thinks their beliefs are true, I don’t think that being abrasive is actually productive. When you attack someone head on they will often get defensive or attack back, either of which means that they have effectively stopped listening to you and aren’t thinking about the subject anymore. Rants effectively just turn into preaching to the choir. They have their place; they can be cathartic for you and the choir, but they rarely convince, in my experience. My personal mantra is “Disagree without being disagreeable.” That’s the way I handle discussions of religion or politics. And I’ve found that when I keep it polite, I can sometimes get people to partly or fully agree with me. Even if they don’t though, I can still be relatively sure they’ve thought about it. In short, anger makes people stop thinking, so I try to be polite.

    Sorry for the length, but since you have encountered this sort of politeness reflex enough to have blogged about it, I figured I should explain a little about why I think the way I do instead of being just another reflexively pro-politeness commenter.

  3. Cora says

    I was honestly surprised by the vehement reaction of some commenters to your “Dear Genre Fiction Writers: Quite that sh*t” post, particularly as your complaints seemed quite reasonable to me. I don’t even read slush on a regular basis and I have noticed most of the problems you mention, even in works by authors I trusted. Besides, I certainly never read that post as a blanket prescription regarding what to do and not do in (genre) fiction, only an appeal to writers to think before reflexively using an overused trope such as “female character gets raped” or “female character is treated like a slut for daring to enjoy sex”.

    I also agree that many people – usually not maliciously – don’t tend to notice problems that do not affect them. I can’t recall the number of times that I have complained about e.g. being treated badly when going to a restaurant on my own in certain places or female customers being treated like idiots in certain stores and a man says, “I never noticed that.” Well yeah, he wouldn’t.

    As for the politeness issue, it certainly sometimes seems that women are penalized for not being polite enough while men would not be (I’m not addressing the race issue, because I can’t say anything about that). One recent example: In my country, two prominent literary critics publicly complained (legitimately) about the low quality of television programming. The man was rewarded for his complaints by being given an hour of TV time on one of the networks he had criticized to elaborate on his complaints. The woman was fired from her job, because she had supposedly insulted her employer (the same TV network), her show was canceled and is supposedly going to be replaced by a show featuring the male critic.

  4. says

    Whenever I hear anybody say “I would listen to you but I don’t like your tone”, I have to force myself not to call them a liar. Because the fact is, that person has no intention AT ALL to listen to anyone but themselves. What they really mean is either, “I would listen to you but you are saying things that conflict with my assumptions and it takes too damn long for me to actually have to think them through,” or it means this: “I have already decided that you have nothing of value to say.”

    In either case, it’s offensive.

    In either case, it denies any possibility of useful dialogue. If you don’t like the tone, honey, change the tone. That people do not bother to change the tone is an indicator that the tone had nothing to do with it. Only the content made him uncomfortable. Poor, poor, misguided dear.

    Now, when someone says such a thing to me, since my children are always within about thirty feet of wherever I am, it limits certain, well, vocabularic explorations of exactly WHAT I thought of that comment. So, given that limitation, I simply take a deep breath and say this, “I can see that this subject is making you feel a little hysterical, so maybe we should talk about something else,” at which point I launch into a labor-and-delivery anecdote (which invariably makes men cross their legs without noticing and I find that high-larious) and then I offer cookies (because i’m a mother and I always have cookies on hand).

    Maybe that’s what makes internet discussions so tough and people get so mad and take things the wrong way and say thing that they NEVER would have said if they were looking at you in the eye: No cookie.

    Or, similarly, no beer. I’m sure everyone would have been on their best behavior with a nice pint of Bell’s Two Hearted in their hot little hands.


  5. Bryan Russell says

    May I play devil’s advocate? Saying tone is pointless, to me, is a dangerous path to take. Tone is part of the content of communication. What is the difference between self-deprecating humour and self-pity? Tone, usually. If you want to communicate clearly I don’t think tone can be ignored. When I read the Genre post, I enjoyed it, though somewhat at a distance, as the tone was very aggressive. I also generally agreed with the points being made. However, I could easily see how it might seem to many readers like an attack, a sort of verbal assault on these writers. It could easily be seen as a moral recrimination of the choices made. The tone was aggressive, and had a sort of “Fuck you for doing this, you wankers, as it’s a stupid thing to do and just wrong…” attittude to it. Now, at the time, I didn’t know the author was either black or a woman (I didn’t know anything about her, except that she was guest-posting and assumedly a writer). It was just the words and the tone. Again, I generally agreed with the points and enjoyed the post… but it was a sort of guilty enjoyment, as with my enjoyment of many rants, as at the bottom of the pile of words there is usually a person getting the boot put to them. In some cases, deservedly so, but in others that person is being judged without knowledge of their intent.

    I suppose the stories themselves offer a sort of evidence, so it’s fair to make certain remarks on them. But that doesn’t negate responsibility for one’s own words, and the effects they might have on others. If the constant narrative portrayal of women as being part of a victim arc is dangerous, can’t an attack on such writers be equally so? And, if someone reacts negatively to the post, is it not also dangerous to blame that person’s problems on their own inability to accept viewpoints from certain kinds of people? It seems like a bit of an out clause to contend that dissenting opinions are not do to what you say, or how you say it, but rather a simple inability to accept the truth from this particular source, for reasons of unconscious (or conscious) sexism or bigotry.

    Again, I tend to agree with Bradford’s points, and might search out more of her blog posts, as I found her quite interesting. There are issues that need to be discussed, and I’m always interested in those people who are willing to bring them up. I am, however, a little uncomfortable with how someone’s dissenting opinion is silenced, and then, without any evidence, psychoanalyzed, from which comes an implicit critique that “they don’t want to hear the truth”, largely on account of their own unrealized socio-cultural biases. I think there’s some merit to the argument that, say, rape is part of our society, and considering its dramatic nature and the psychological ramifications of the act it’s only normal for writers to choose to write about this in greater proportion than certain other things. Now, whether they do it well is another issue. If they do it poorly, and it comes across as a cheap plot device, then that’s a specific critique that can be levelled at a piece of writing. And while I agree there are many more, and perhaps better, avenues for a writer to explore (and which writers should be exploring), I don’t necessarily think a writer should be condemned for the attempt. And I do think there’s an element in the post that could be interpreted as a condemnation of such an attempt. Yes, there is also a strong element of trying to show writers that there’s another way, a less lazy way, to write about women in fiction, but there’s also an aggressive slant that criticizes the attempts. To me, the piece read as a sort of statement, a “don’t be like these idiots over here”, a warning for writers to stay away from doing this. But what if a reader was already trying (or had in the past tried) to write about this subject? It would be very easy for them to see this post as an insult, as it could be seen to invalidate what might be an honest attempt to deal with something important… particularly when subsequent posts and comments question their right to question these opinions.

    It doesn’t seem the best way to open a dialogue on the issue (which I’m glad someone did, as it’s both interesting and important). Anyway, I quite enjoyed Bradford’s guest posts, and am looking forward to hearing more from her in the future. And hopefully more from those who might disagree… :) Ain’t democracy grand? I’ll shut up now.

  6. says

    Bryan, on the subject of tone, please click the link I provided for the words “I would listen to you except I don’t like your tone.” You may find it illuminating.

  7. Bryan Russell says

    Hi Ms. Bradford.

    I read the post from the link, and found it quite interesting. I’ve heard similar argumetns before, and tend to agree with them. No exception here. Frankly, it was a wonderful bit of writing. However, I’m still not convinced that’s what’s at stake here (or, at least, the only thing at stake here). Let’s posit this: you write a post about story arcs in genre fiction. People read this. Let’s say half of the people who react poorly to it do so because they’re unconsciously reacting against the gender and race of the person who wrote it, put off by the aggressive nature. I think, in this case, that everything you’ve said is entirely valid. You shouldn’t be required to be polite in the face of veiled racism or sexism. You have a right to your belief, and a right to hold to it fiercely, and to voice it just as fiercely.

    However, what if the other half of the people put off by your post dond’t know that a) you’re a woman, and b) you’re black. The post is merely words on a page, an argument concerning an unrelated topic. Now, let’s say they feel they have a valid point to make, and decide to voice it. And instead of responding to the content of what they feel is a valid point, they are derided as being unconsciously unable to accept the facts? And then subsequently it’s suggested that people who don’t agree with the “truth” (a subjective opinion) from this source are subconsciously upset by the agressive tone coming from a minority figure (a black woman, in this case). Now, yes, in the first half of the examples this would be correct, and perhaps a valid point to make if it could somehow be proved (which is probably difficult), but in the latter it might not be. Which way are the labels now flowing?

    The second group, wishing to engage in a discussion, is being lumped in with the first group and generalized. How do they respond? They can claim “Hey, I’m not racist or sexist”, but it’s hard to escape the label once painted with that brush. It’s hard to prove innocence in that sense, because guilt can’t really be proved either, which makes it a sadly effective condemnation. “Oh, subconscoiusly you’re responding to this and this…” Yes, this might be true. But it might not. And how can you mount a conscioius defense against such claims on your own unconscious? It’s a statement that basically negates a person’s autonomy. Their actions are no longer their own, and thus indefensible.

    It moves the discussion away from a differing of views on a topic towards a judgment of immeasurable and unattainable personal motivations. And I recognize that it wasn’t you who started the conversation down this avenue (a topic broached in the post thread), but I do think it’s important. While I agreed with all the points you made in the original post, I do think people can argue against them for rational (non-personal, non-subconscious) reasons. I think there’s some validity in the counterpoint. It seems unfortunate to undercut what might be valid arguments, and a valid discussion, not with logical arguments on the topic at hand but rather by implying certain things about the conscious or unconscious attitudes of the protesters. Yes, perhaps the implications are valid. I don’t know this one way or the other. But neither does anyone else. And so to generalize and label those who disagree in such a way seems unfair. It seems inaccurate for people to make assumptions on personal character and motivation without any proof. It carries an implicit sense that people are guilty until proven innocent… while leaving no way for people to prove their innocence.

    Again, I love the posts, and I’m definitely going to check out more of your stuff. Too often people tend to gloss over and ignore these issues, so it’s rockin’ that you’re bringing them up. I love hearing interesting voices in the spec fic world, and you definitely have that. I’m hoping to get ahold of some of your fiction, too, as I’m intrigued. And I hope this post helps clarify my point.

    My best, as always,