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What I’ve learned in the last three hours of wrestling with this blog post and ultimately producing nothing I could use is that making a point effectively and concisely while maintaining and projecting empathy can be incredibly difficult.

Maybe this is part of the problem.

The troubles with internet culture are not new. From what I understand, Youtube has historically been a cesspit of bile and awfulness, which is why I never read any Youtube comments except when I’ve been unexpectedly hit by a train of stupid by my own brain. I’ve been aware of the death and rape threats routinely made via the internet for many years. And my corners of the internet have been quite troubled for the past several months, by Gamergate, by some controversy in the YA world that I speak about obliquely here and less obliquely here, by the Requires Hate reveal, and most recently by the Hugo award nomination fracas.

In short, the internet can be an ugly place to hang out. There is a cost associated with being here. There is a cost associated with being a thought leader and expressing your opinion here. It is a cost I have been aware of since I began this blog nearly five years ago.

A few friends of mine reached out to me after I published my piece on rocking the boat about #KeepYAKind. I listened to them carefully, and I’ve been thinking about what they said for the last few weeks. My main takeaway is, people are scared. People are scared to speak up. People are scared to share their opinions. People are afraid of the internet being dropped on their heads. People are afraid of the cost involved. They are afraid of the threats, the personal attacks, the harassment, the name-calling. And understandably so.

One of my friends told me, “Someday you’ll see this from the other side.” And it’s true, I know it can happen to me. Of course I’ve thought about it. Of course I’ve thought about what it will be like getting rape threats on the internet, because I’m a woman who sometimes talks about feminist issues, and no matter how careful I am, no matter how many times I read over each blog post and how thoroughly I consider my word choices, I will offend someone. And someday that someone might be a shitty person who thinks an appropriate way to respond is with a rape or death threat. And at some other point, I am bound to say something stupid. I’m sure I already have, and I’ll do it again. And the internet might fall on my head. It might be right about me, it might be wrong, but in that period of time, the rightness and wrongness will probably not be foremost in my mind.

I still disagree with the #KeepYAKind campaign. It showed an ignorance of the type of rhetoric and cultural training that have been used for decades to keep women quiet and “in their place” that I find quite troubling, especially given what it was in response to. And tactically, it was much more likely to silence the moderate and less privileged voices; the trolls weren’t going to be affected by it to anywhere near the same extent, if at all.

But I do agree that internet culture, and the harassment, bullying, and scare tactics that go along with it, are a huge problem, both for writers (my own tiny habitat in the pond) and for society in general. We can theorize about why internet culture is the way it is (the power of anonymity, the dehumanization and depersonalization of others that is perhaps an effect heightened by interaction over the internet, the attention economy, humanity’s history of only having to deal in relatively small social units, etc.). But all our theories will not change the reality.

Then we have Kameron Hurley’s recent inspirational piece about how the internet harassment she is subjected to is nothing compared to the difficulties faced by her grandmother in Nazi-occupied France. I will admit this gave me a severe case of mixed feelings. On the one hand, perspective is valuable, as is having the moxy to live loud on the internet and encourage others to do the same.

On the other hand, we’re looking at some problem comparing here. Of course internet harassment is not the same as living in Nazi-occupied France. But that doesn’t make the fear less real. That doesn’t mean anyone who is afraid or upset or angered by internet harassment should feel ashamed of those emotions. And shame is the danger that inevitably comes with problem comparing, even when such a comparison makes for a great rhetorical device.

Photo Credit: Roadside Guitars via Compfight cc

Photo Credit: Roadside Guitars via Compfight cc

Well, I am not ashamed. I’m a recovering people pleaser, for goodness sake. Of course I was afraid when I started this blog. If I hadn’t been afraid, I wouldn’t have needed any Backbone Project. I recognized the need for me to claim my voice in spite of the fear, and I’ve been working on that ever since. And I’m still afraid, sometimes. I still worry. It’s gotten a lot easier, but when I get the internet dropped on my head, I’m sure I’ll have a miserable time of it.

As a writer, I have to keep asking myself: Am I willing to pay the price for lifting my voice? Even when the price is stupidly high? Even if I’m terrified or creatively blocked or otherwise emotionally compromised by the experience? And if the answer becomes no, then so be it. There is no shame in that. Ultimately my own welfare and safety trumps everything else.

But so far, the answer is still yes. And I hope it will continue to be yes for a long time to come.

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I really like stories. No surprise there. And as I collect my own stories about dating and hear other people’s stories, I’ve developed certain opinions. I don’t want to call them guidelines because your mileage may vary. But they are things that, based purely on anecdotal evidence, appear to be helpful or true or, at the very least, entertaining to think about.

I’ve decided to call this series the Dating Beat. So without further ado, here we go:

1. Have single friends.

I’m not saying you can’t also have non-single friends. Assumedly you would even if you were starting from scratch, since at some point some of your single friends will become not single anymore. I’m also not saying you shouldn’t talk to your non-single friends about dating or being single or whatever else.

But having some single friends is key. I don’t think their gender or orientation or age necessarily matter very much. It’s the singleness that is important. (Well, that, and ideally having more than one, so that when one of them finds a significant other, you still have single friends.)

Why? Because having single friends normalizes the experience of being single. There are a lot of single people in the world, but if you are constantly surrounded by people who are in romantic relationships, it can be easy to lose sight of that fact. And in a culture that often places pressure on single people, this normalization is especially important for maintaining a healthy outlook.

And it doesn’t hurt to have people who are dating right now with whom to swap stories, get advice, and share those moments of dating suckitude.

Photo Credit: sidehike via Compfight cc

Photo Credit: sidehike via Compfight cc

2. When someone you have recently started dating tells you something less than complimentary about themselves, believe them.

You know what I mean, right? There’s that moment when the guy says, “I’m trouble.” And guess what. He probably is! Or she says, “I’m not very good at relationships.” She probably isn’t!

Other statements that fall under this category:

  • I’m not very good with people.
  • I have trouble with commitment.
  • You’d be better off without me.
  • I tend to hurt the people I love.
  • I’m usually thinking about the next thing I’m going to say instead of listening.
  • I break a lot of hearts.

So, okay, yes, context matters. But usually when people say these kinds of things, they are telling the truth. Unfortunately, what happens next is often that the person they’re with doesn’t take the statement seriously, or feels badly for them, or takes it as a challenge, or thinks they will be different.

You’re probably not going to be different. And compassion is great and all, but not at your own expense. Yes, some of these things might be said because of low self-esteem or inexperience. And maybe some of them aren’t a big deal to you. But at the very least they give you an inkling of what you can expect in the future. It’s all data, and you get to decide what, if anything, to do with it. And if you don’t want to deal with it, there is absolutely no shame in not continuing to date the person.

And that is the dating beat for today, my friends.

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Don’t rock the boat, Amy.

That is the message with which I was raised. Lie low, don’t make trouble, stay quiet, pretend what’s happening isn’t really happening. At all costs, please people. Make them like you, or at least make them not notice you exist. Same difference.

Don’t rock the boat, Amy.

Which is perhaps why I find the implications behind the #KeepYAKind campaign so disturbing.

Quick recap: A critically acclaimed YA writer said a troubling and sexist thing in a public interview. Several critics have said that this writer’s portrayal of female characters leaves something to be desired. I have not read his work. (I was supposed to back in January, actually, as his latest critically acclaimed novel was a book club selection, but because I had heard of its problems, I decided to sit out that month. Life is too short, and I have way too many books to read.) As a result of this public interview, there was a public conversation about the problematic nature of this writer’s public comments and his work. There may or may not have been inappropriate behavior (aka harassment and bullying) towards this writer. I haven’t seen any evidence of it myself, but I didn’t spend a lot of time looking for it. #KeepYAKind was a Twitter campaign aimed at stopping the public criticism and conversation. The Booksmugglers write in more detail about it all.

Don’t rock the boat, Amy.

Photo Credit: Putneypics via Compfight cc

Photo Credit: Putneypics via Compfight cc

It is easy to imagine that whoever started #KeepYAKind had the best of intentions. We all like kindness, right? We don’t want to live and work in a community that supports bullying, do we? Of course we don’t.

The problem with #KeepYAKind is that, like many things on the internet, it lacks nuance. It distracts the focus from one problem–sexism in the publishing industry and YA fiction–and puts it on another problem. And it does so in a muddied way that, whether intentionally or not, works to shut down the conversation about sexism. In such a way it defends the status quo. It says, “Be quiet, women. You’re not allowed to talk about this problem because it isn’t nice.”

No, it isn’t nice. That is the entire point. Sexism isn’t nice. Being seen as a mysterious creature who is stranger and less fathomable than a giant alien insect isn’t nice. Being told not to discuss problematic things in fiction, even if you are a professional reviewer and THAT IS YOUR JOB, isn’t nice. (And, I mean, shouldn’t we all be allowed to discuss problematic things in fiction? I think so.)

But don’t rock the boat. Never mind that it’s sprung a leak or ten.

Whenever I see #KeepYAKind, I think #KeepYANice. Nice is don’t rock the boat. Nice is be a doormat, don’t stand up, don’t enforce your boundaries, don’t speak up when there’s a problem. Nice is not expressing an opinion that might be uncomfortable or difficult or controversial.

#KeepYAKind ignores the reality that sometimes the obvious act of kindness is not the best nor correct nor sustainable thing to do. Amy of a few years ago would have been shocked that I’m saying that, but I sincerely believe it to be true. Kindness is great, but sometimes you have to protect yourself. Sometimes you have to stand up for yourself. Sometimes you have to stand up for other people too.

Sometimes you have to point out things that are problematic. Sometimes it’s your job to review and analyze a novel or a play or a movie, in which case it is certainly not your job to be kind. It is your job to be insightful and to shed light. It is your job to tell us your opinion. And some people are going to think publicly discussing a negative opinion isn’t very kind either. That’s their prerogative. It doesn’t change the job of those of us who analyze culture and media and society. We aren’t here to sugarcoat. We are here to talk about the things that need to be talked about.

Don’t rock the boat, Amy.

Someone told me recently that acknowledging problematic stuff gives it power. I couldn’t disagree more. Because when we aren’t allowed to acknowledge that something is going on, then nothing will ever change. The problem remains invisible. The status quo is effortlessly maintained. And when everyone is working together to pretend the problem doesn’t exist, it makes us begin to question ourselves, spending our energy on feelings of confusion and isolation instead of on positive change. Keeping busy ignoring a problem DOES NOT MAKE IT GO AWAY. I know some people think it does. I tend to not get along very well with those people.

Now, maybe this writer truly is a very nice guy. From all accounts, he is. And I have compassion for him, because saying something stupid in a public interview and then having the internet fall on your head can’t be very pleasant. Having to really deeply think about the fact that you find giant grasshopper aliens to be less mysterious than women can’t be very pleasant either. And I’m sure some people made disparaging remarks and the like, and that sucks. The internet kind of sucks. Being a public figure kind of sucks.

But we are still accountable, as artists and writers and human beings, for the words we say and the work we create. And that sucks too. It is hard to hold yourself accountable and still be brave enough to create. It’s hard to be an artist knowing you’ll screw up and make mistakes and probably say something really stupid in public someday. It’s hard to admit that perfection is not achievable, and that all we can do is the best we can, and then try to keep learning. It’s hard to realize that our work can be part of the problem, even if we had the very best of intentions.

But that doesn’t mean we should stop talking about the problems in our literature and our pop culture and our society. That doesn’t mean we should stop thinking critically. That doesn’t mean we should look away when there’s a problem, burying our collective heads in the sand. It takes a lot of bravery to be an artist, and it also takes a lot of bravery to acknowledge a problem when it exists so we can work toward increased awareness and change. Both of these roles are important.

Don’t rock the boat? Whatever. I’ve already flipped the damn thing over.

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O Woman, you are so mysterious to me. Surely you are a mythical creature, or if not mythical, then at least exceedingly rare (and definitely not approximately half the population).

O Woman, your skin is so soft, your breath is so sweet, your eyes are so large (enhanced, as they are, by the cosmetics industry trying to make them soft and sweet and as much like a doe’s or an anime character’s as possible). And behold, you have breasts, wonder of all wonders, and therefore you must be aware of them constantly as you move through your life with them at the helm.

O Woman, I do not wish to pierce the veil of your Mystery. I do not wish to contemplate that you think as I think, that you feel as I feel, that you dream as I dream, and that you bleed as I bleed. It is your tantalizing Difference that attracts me, and therefore must we not be different in many respects?

A Mythical Creature

A Mythical Creature

Because, O Woman, haven’t you heard? The female brain is different, in the essentials, from the male brain. This is because of evolution. It has nothing to do with socialization and our society’s obsession with gender but is one hundred percent about biology.

When you get grumpy, O Woman, I will condescendingly explain that it is PMS. (Even though it could be that you’re hungry, or that you’re tired, or that I’m being a condescending ass.) When I don’t immediately understand your behavior, I will assume it is because of Mystery. (Even though I could instead use my words and attempt to communicate.) And when you are right about something, I will attribute your success to Feminine Intuition. (Even though intuition is a tool used by both men and women in both the Arts and the Sciences, and you may simply be right because of Intelligence.)

O Woman, you are so alluring. You make me do things. You make me lose control. It’s because of the clothes you wear, or maybe it’s the way you smell, or maybe it’s simply because you are mythical and therefore I must Possess you. You are so confusing that your no doesn’t mean no the same way my no means no. Of course not. Your no contains infinite meanings, all of which allow me to experience your Mystery exactly the way I want.

I deserve you, O Woman. You are my promised prize, my reward for existing in a world in which we all suffer. And when you lead, you are bossy, and when you raise your voice, you are strident and shrill. And when you cry, you prove that you are indeed the weaker sex because emotions, as we all know, equal fragility. A real man doesn’t cry, and an unreal man is even more mythical than you.

O Woman, you are so mysterious to me. Let me use your Mystery to make you disappear.

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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.

Photo Credit: Elodie R-S via Compfight cc

Photo Credit: Elodie R-S via Compfight cc

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.

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Lately I’ve been feeling like a bad feminist.

It kicked up a gear last month when my feminist book club read Feminism is for Everyone, by bell hooks. I learned a lot from the book, but the entire time I was reading it, I was thinking, “Wow, I feel like I’m really falling short, and I don’t even really understand how.” It talked about raising consciousness, and I’m pretty sure my consciousness is completely NOT raised. Whatever that means.

This month we’re reading Bad Feminist, by Roxane Gay, which is making for a nice change of pace. Roxane Gay is smart and insightful and funny, and she also seems like she isn’t perfect, which is reassuring since I am also far from perfect.

For example, I have this fascination with eye makeup. It all started when my friend was visiting this coast from Boston, and the friends he was staying with invited me to stay for dinner. It was a lovely evening of good food and even better company, but I kept being distracted by the woman’s eyelashes. She had AMAZING eyelashes. And I was sitting there at the table, wondering if she glued on fake eyelashes every morning or if she was able to work these wonders with mascara, and if so, why had I never been able to work similar wonders with mascara?

Thus began my fascination. It started with mascara experimentation, but after some months I branched out to an interest in eyeliner and different colors of eye shadow. And a few weeks ago I took a field trip to Sephora and obtained this fat eyeliner pencil that is a modern wonder of cosmetics.

Flawed Feminist

Flawed Feminist

And every time I play with eye makeup, I know I’m probably being a bad feminist. I’m propagating a certain ideal of feminine beauty, and I guess as a feminist I’m supposed to deliberately subvert that ideal, and I don’t. I get almost as annoyed when people imply I shouldn’t wear makeup as I do when people imply I must wear makeup. I want to look the way I want to look, and I want to wear what I want to wear, and I don’t want to care about the messages I’m sending or the subconscious misogynistic ideas I’ve no doubt internalized over the years. And so I wear makeup when I feel like wearing makeup.

Also, when I’m on a date with a guy, I allow him to pay. I’m pretty sure a good feminist would not do this. My rule is never assume, but accept graciously. I cannot pretend that this is motivated by anything but self-interest. I don’t want to get into an argument about who’s paying for dinner (conflict adverse, me?), and also, it’s really nice when someone buys you dinner. The allure of free food and being fed, which to all rights should have died down after college, remains strong. The allure of being treated remains strong. It’s also super unfair, and I know this, and yet. I accept graciously.

Even my language is suspect, and for a writer, this is inexcusable. I like to say and write “you guys.” I like to say, “Man.” I know a good feminist would never say or write these things. And I do try to avoid this gendered language sometimes, especially in tweets. But there aren’t any good alternatives! I’ve tried “you all,” but I’m not from Texas and I’ll never be from Texas. “You people” is horrible. “Friends” sometimes works, but not always. And the best substitutes for “Man” are all profanity. So I have to choose between saying “Man” and swearing a lot.

I imagine if I had my consciousness raised, I wouldn’t do any of these things. I’d effortlessly never say “you guys” and I wouldn’t wear any makeup EVER EVER and I’d insist on going Dutch every single time. So where does this leave me?

I guess it leaves me far from perfect. But that doesn’t mean feminism isn’t important to me. That doesn’t mean being a feminist isn’t part of my identity. I think what it really means is that I’m human and flawed and complicated, and aren’t we all?

You guys, I’m a bad feminist. But even so, I’d rather be a bad feminist grappling with these issues than not be a feminist at all.

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I have a lot of books on my coffee table. I used to try to clean it off before anyone came over, but over time, I have become lax. Also, I have an excuse: I’m a writer. Of course I have books on my coffee table!

My friend was over the other night, and he asked about the book on top: Stiff, by Mary Roach. “Oh yeah,” I said. “I’m supposed to read that for research for my book. I should actually do that.” And then I was struck by an idea. “Ooh! I wonder if Mary Roach is a person of color.”

A quick flip to the back of the book and the author photo nixed that idea. “No. White, white, white. Gah!” I threw the book back on the coffee table in disappointment. (Okay, I didn’t actually throw it. I am physically incapable of throwing a book. But I set it down with gusto.)

My friend laughed at me, but it’s true. Since I started my POC authors reading challenge last year, this is my reaction upon finding out a book isn’t written by a person of color

The reason? Because almost all the books I have just lying around, or that I’ve heard buzz about, or that I pick up and want to read at the bookstore, or that I’ve selected to read for research are by white people. The number isn’t a hundred percent, but it’s close enough to be really freaking appalling.

The most important thing I learned from my POC reading project last year is that reading books written by authors of color takes real effort and mindfulness. This is because of the way publishing works right now, and let’s not beat around the bush, because of racism.

Fewer authors of colors are published than white authors. A LOT fewer. Books by authors of color are not given the same publicity campaigns. They are not reviewed as often. They are sometimes shelved in the wrong category, making it difficult for readers to find. They are not put on as many lists. When they are talked about at all, authors of color are often talked about for being authors of color instead of because of the merits of their work. They are placed on panels about race instead of panels on other subjects on which they are experts, which means they don’t reach as large an audience at conventions. And this is just a scratch on the surface of what’s going on here.

All of this means that when we don’t read mindfully, we’re a lot more likely to not read very diversely. And when we don’t read diversely, publishing can continue to tell the same old story about how diversity doesn’t sell, and nothing will change.

My reading project wasn’t really about setting a quota for myself. It was about challenging myself and stretching myself outside of my reading comfort zone. It was about trying different authors and different books to see if I would enjoy them (and the answer in many cases was a resounding yes). It was about reading more diversely so my reading experience would be more reflective of the world around me. It was about choosing new experiences for myself. It was about building my own awareness of how institutionalized bias was affecting me personally.

So every time I metaphorically throw a book down because it’s by yet another white author, that’s a victory. Not because there’s anything wrong with reading books by white authors. I do it all the time. But because now I’m aware of the imbalance. I’m aware of the problem.

And it is through awareness that change becomes possible.

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