Monday, June 3, 2013

This Feminist's thoughts on SFWA and cultural change

Outrage and change are happening in the SFWA. You are probably already aware of this by now.

My attention was first brought to the problem of three sexist articles in the SFWA Bulletin by an article from Jason Sanford called Feeling heat for your ideas is not censorship or thought control.  An indirect way to be introduced to the problem, but I immediately investigated further, and the next article I came upon was E. Catherine Tobler's declaration that she would leave SFWA. Thereafter, I found Kameron Hurley's very incisive article entitled Dear SFWA Writers: Let's Chat about Censorship & Bullying. Jim C. Hines has an ongoing (if incomplete) list of people's responses to the incident in question.

I have many thoughts on this.

The authors who wrote those sexist articles did wrong. First of all, they were performing a culture that is sorely out of date, and I'm sure they realize that because they are defending their right to do so. Fine (though the context was inappropriate, and I'll address that below), but they deserve the heat they are getting in response to those ideas. This is what free speech is about - we are free to say what we believe. Nobody is threatening them or their careers on the basis of who they are, though the sexist views they espouse have done that to others for so many years. It is ridiculous to characterize people protesting sexism as engaging in censorship or bullying. A bully is a person in a position of power, and that is the position that the sexists have been occupying, not the people who object to them. Kameron Hurley's article summed that up in excellent fashion, as did Jason Sanford's.

Someone should have realized that the views expressed in that article were expressed inappropriately, and did not belong in the Bulletin. The Bulletin is not a private blog. Though the members of SFWA are aware that it does not serve as the "voice of SFWA" per se, it is nevertheless representative of our organization on some level. SFWA is a professional organization and should be represented in a professional manner. This is one reason why I'm pleased that SFWA has set up a task force to address this issue.

Political correctness is not what the objectors are asking for. We don't want anyone to feel that we are asking them to hide their beliefs. We are asking them to engage, and to question their beliefs in the face of overwhelming evidence. Sexism is wrong, and damages societies and organizations. It does not belong in the modern world (despite its persistence) and certainly does not belong in the professional voice of SFWA.

Leaving SFWA is not what will change its culture; joining it and speaking up will. Of course, whether you leave SFWA or not is up to you, and if you feel that you just need to get out of the discussion because you are exhausted by it, or simply because the discussion distracts from your writing, that's your choice. But I worked hard to be able to join, and I won't be leaving. And neither will a whole lot of really great people who have made an enormous difference to the culture of SFWA in recent years - because believe it or not, the hard work has already been going on for some time. 

To criticize SFWA as a sexist organization right now means erasing the hard work of too many people. Think about it. We think sexism is inappropriate, and its expression is a symptom of the misuse of power by a few who hold those views. We speak up and object when two authors out of the many SFWA members try to present their views as representative of the organization. If indeed we do not believe they should represent SFWA, then we should treat SFWA as the organization it is, and not deride all of its members for the behavior of two. Doing so is equivalent to letting those two authors represent the organization. They do not. In fact, Jim C. Hines had an important, feminist article in that very same issue of the Bulletin. And Mary Robinette Kowal, Rachel Swirsky, John Scalzi, and many other members have done enormous amounts of work and brought some really welcome changes to the organization. I think it's a mistake to ignore that, so I encourage you to read Mary's thoughts on the issue here.

I've always enjoyed Gandhi's summation of the fight for social justice:

First they ignore you, then they laugh at you, then they fight you, then you win.

I'm still in.


  1. I've been keeping an eye on this situation from afar (literally), and while so many and overt instances of sexism in the US seem really really medieval and mind-boggling to me, the fact that the SFWA (of all things) is not progressive in this respect was a shock.

    In many ways, SF writers lead cultural development through their visionary ideas, and their challenging of established social and scientific norms. The fact that a genre which regularly questions the human condition, also propagates damaging elitist values and questionable morals at the same time (and it has done so for decades), is a big glaring shame.

    I am sincerely disappointed every time I hear of a SF writer who entertains blatant prejudices and intolerance side by side with inspiring ideas.

  2. Veronica,

    I can't help but agree on this point. There are a lot of futures to be imagined, but it seems to me that prejudice would narrow that view in unfortunate ways.

  3. Hi Juliette,

    I found this article through a Tweet by Veronica. I hadn't heard about this matter before now and I'm glad I found out about it.

    Sexism and misogyny, particularly in fiction, infuriates me and I admit to be shocked to hear that SFWA members not only have such attitudes, but cry "censorship" when challenged on them. Such behaviour speaks to a sense of entitlement and pure ignorance. They ought to check out some history books on Kim Jong Il or Josef Stalin to see what real censorship looks like.

    I'm not a member of the SWFA myself (my publisher doesn't qualify to apply as it's quite small), but I've always regarded the organisation very highly. I'm pleased that the issue is being taken seriously.

    1. Paul, thanks for coming by. You probably already know this, but I think it's important to note, that we're talking about *some* SFWA members. A few, in fact, since SFWA as a whole numbers over 2000 people. It's worth taking seriously because of the general high regard that these people are held in for their work, and the fact that a few voices with a lot of clout can diminish the work of many who have been bringing the organization to a new level. I'm also pleased at the way the situation is being handled by SFWA. I appreciate your comment.

    2. Oh, of course. That's essential to point out, because it's all too often the vocal minority who give the reasonable majority a bad name.