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Posts Tagged ‘tone argument’

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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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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