As a long-time wishy-washy people-pleasing nicey-nice female blogger, I have something to say about the tone argument.
Last week, the latest SF/F brouhaha began with an article by K. Tempest Bradford: “I Challenge You to Stop Reading White, Straight, Cis Male Authors for One Year.” The headline is the most incendiary thing about it, and honestly, it’s not all that shocking or offensive, especially in this age of clickbait headlines. In it, Miss Bradford discusses the value of conducting reading experiments to increase the diversity of what you read. She even includes some helpful lists of books to get you started.
Some people got upset about this article, and some of these upset people brought out the tone argument. Miss Bradford should have been nicer in her article (even though it is completely professional, mind you). Miss Bradford should have suggested reading some diverse authors, but should never have suggested reading all diverse authors (even for a limited period). Miss Bradford should have been helpful by giving the reading list but not suggested a reading challenge at all (even though the idea of a reading challenge is neither new nor particularly subversive at this point. At least theoretically.) Miss Bradford should not have been an asshole in talking about a diversity reading challenge (she is apparently an asshole because her reading challenge excludes a certain kind of writer, ie the most privileged, most published, and most well-read kind). And on and on.
There is a lot of misunderstanding about privilege and how it works at play here, as well as some confusion as to how widespread any adoption of such a reading challenge is likely to be. (The answer? Not very.) But what I want to talk about right now is the tone argument, because I feel particularly qualified to comment upon it.
When you are nice, when you bend over backwards to avoid offending every single person, when you water down your message, when you take on everyone else’s issues along with your own, when you speak quietly and mildly and sweetly…NOBODY LISTENS TO YOU.
Believe me, I know. People might say they respect you, but they certainly don’t act like they respect you. They probably won’t listen, and if they do, they’re less likely to remember. They dismiss you at the first opportunity. Not only that, but they tend to walk all over you. And if you’re trying to engender change, well, forget about it.
THIS IS NOT EFFECTIVE WRITING.
I wrote about my own PoC Reading Challenge last year. I did everything people said Miss Bradford should have done. I didn’t issue a challenge to my readers to follow my example. I gave a list of books written by people of color. My own personal challenge was less “extreme.” I was super nice about the whole thing.
And guess what? Nobody read that post. Nobody talked about that post. Really. I’ve looked at the stats. The post did quite badly. And while I bring up my experience with that reading challenge on a semi-regular basis in conversation, no one ever brings it up before I do, asking me about how it went or what I learned. Nobody read it, and the people who did read it don’t remember it. Why not? Because the post wasn’t effective and compelling.
Miss Bradford, on the other hand, wrote a highly effective post. She had a headline that meant people would both read and remember her post. She had a strong call-to-action, and she didn’t water down her message or try to avoid making people uncomfortable. Nor should she have, because the discrimination prevalent in the publishing industry today is, quite frankly, not comfortable. She maintained a professional attitude while discussing her own personal struggles and process.
This is what a good blog post looks like. This is a blog post that has a chance of making a small difference in the world.
Do I think it’s cool when people spew rage-filled rape and death threats at other people? No way! Am I on board with personal attacks and name-calling? Again, no. But this blog post is not that. Not at all.
Jaym Gates makes an excellent point in her response to all of this: “Wendig and Sykes have a loud, fun, wacky internet presence, and are loved for it, but a female, queer, or POC author who has *one* outburst, or makes a mildly incendiary post (like this one), gets piled on.” We are imposing a double standard of presentation and behavior here. I mean, seriously. Can you imagine someone saying, “Oh, Scalzi, you should have been nicer when you talked about that controversial subject?” Because I can’t.
The same kind of thinking that is behind the tone argument is what kept me silent and stifled and miserable for years. Don’t have opinions. Don’t have emotions. Don’t say what you think. Don’t take a seat at the table. Don’t demand the respect you deserve. Play it safe, and don’t take chances. Don’t be a voice for change, it’s too risky. Don’t be authentic. Don’t show people who you really are. Not ever. If you’re nice enough, and patient enough, and sweet enough, you’ll eventually get your chance and be treated with respect and have a voice.
For the record, I did not get my chance and be treated with respect and have a voice until I stopped being so nice.
Which is to say, the tone argument is complete bullshit. Be nice and no one will listen to you. Be courageous and loud and true, and they just might.