I generally avoid blogging on certain topics, not because I don’t think they are important, but because I don’t feel qualified or knowledgeable enough to comment, or because I simply don’t feel I have any right to do so (cowardly of me? Perhaps. You know, I actually found writing this a bit scary*). But sometimes you read things, and they make you feel so sad or mad or depressed (or all of the above) that you simply must say something.
Amidst the furore created by Christopher Priest’s comments on the Arthur C. Clarke Awards were a number of excellent posts, one of which by Catherynne M. Valente really stood out for me, where she discussed how Mr Priest could get away with a lot more by virtue of being male. It is an excellent and thought provoking piece, and I suggest you read it, but it is actually her follow up post that really hit home for me and made me want to write this post.
You really should read the whole thing. But there are bits that leap out at you and grab you by the head and shake you.
The fact is, to be a woman online is to eventually be threatened with rape and death. On a long enough timeline, the chances of this not occurring drop to zero.
This is not exaggeration for the purposes of making a point. It is simply a fact. It’s one of the main reasons why I don’t read below the comment line on many blogs because the amount of hatred and vitriol make my stomach churn, and, while it gets directed at men too, it is undeniable that when it comes to women it goes up a whole other level.
Chris Priest can say what he says not only because he is a giant in his field (Sady Doyle is barely less prominent in hers, and while I do think that harsh criticism goes down better when it’s not the authors in the field at hand who do it, both Sady and Requires are not SF authors of any stripe) but because he is a man. And we respond to it with some anger, but mostly reasoned philosophical or humorous posts, macros, examining what it means, the value of juried awards, defending the authors and jurors but mostly accepting what he said as either a sad gesture by an old man, a hilarious and miserable rant, or valuing that at least someone cares that much–even wishing someone would go equally ballistic about a different award. There is a marked lack of viciousness–and what he said was every bit as bad as some of the stuff that gets Requires Only That You Hate a fever pitch of loathing and seething fury just about every time she posts.
I read ROTYH regularly, both for entertainment and because it forces me to think about things from an entirely different, and often uncomfortable perspective. I have to disagree with Ms Valente on one thing, I think ROTYH regularly goes way beyond anything Mr Priest said, some of her comments are incredibly vicious, and verge on sexist and racist (terms I do not bandy about lightly). But, and this is the thing I cannot stress enough, that does not in any way at all give people an excuse to make death threats, or rape threats, or use the fact she is a woman as to attack her. I can’t think of any situation where it is right to address another human being in that way. The rabid animals are the ones making those comments, not her.
And, please correct me if I am wrong but I haven’t found a single instance of someone threatening to rape Mr Priest because it’s obvious that all he needs to calm him down is to get laid.
Misogyny in the West is coming up and it’s a gross, miserable, chthonic thing swirling at our feet. It’s getting worse, not better. Sites that consider themselves evolved, liberal-leaning, and intellectual (hello Reddit! Hello Gawker!) have comments and whole sections full of such boiling hate for women that it knocks you back. I hear people say with a straight face that the younger generation isn’t sexist or racist anymore, and unpacking how woefully wrong that is would take another post entirely. And geek culture isn’t immune, not even close. Sometimes it’s worse, because it’s so convinced it doesn’t have the same work to do as the mainstream. And, I suspect, because a lot of guys were rejected by girls when they were young and see gender as the only thing all those girls had in common, and so as adults take it out on a whole gender by either outright hostility or by excluding what they see as the source of their troubles from their presence, their media, their art.
I think this is pretty spot on. A lot of people in geek culture do bear major scars from past rejections and feelings of victimisation, and may have huge chips on their shoulder. They respond to this by creating an “us vs them” mentality, building themselves up by feeling part of something bigger, of being included. And, sadly, sometimes that “them” is women. Isn’t it better to be the mocker rather than the mockee, the rejecter rather than the rejected, the hater rather than the hater? There is a mindset that says, “yes, it is”.
You know, my high school years were hell. I was bullied unmercifully, and I don’t mean the occasional wedgie, I had the crap beaten out of me on more than a few occasions. I was ostracised, the victim of nasty rumours. I would sit in Mum’s car outside of school every morning, crying, begging her not to make me go. I seriously considered suicide more than once. And, yes, I remember some terribly cruel things done to me by girls, things that I hate to think about even now.
But, and I am in no way claiming to perfect or better here, I like to think that those experiences have made me more compassionate towards people who are “outsiders” or “different”, because as much as a straight, white male can, I know what it is like to feel like that. You don’t leave those things behind, they stay with you, and even now I am socially inept and awkward. What I don’t understand, though, is how anyone who has ever felt like that or been treated like that can turn around and do it to others. It is no excuse.
After reading this, I came across another post in a similar vein by Kirstyn McDermott, where she says:
Because here’s the thing. In the offline world, I consider myself a smart, confident, capable woman. A proud feminist. A good feminist. And I’ve worked to get there. I constantly push past my innate introversion and insecurities to make sure I actually engage with people at social gatherings, at conferences, at conventions. I voice my opinions and listen to the opinions of others. I volunteer to be on discussion panels and committees, and I’ve helped run conventions. Hell, I’ve convened a huge — and hugely successful — convention. I have my own small business that I built from scratch. I don’t shy away from controversial discussions. I don’t retreat into the background when Men Are Speaking. I don’t mind expressing disagreement or opposition to what someone has said and I will point out — as diplomatically as the situation requires — if they’re possibly making a dick of themselves. Most of the time, I know how to pick my battles. I’ve verbally defended myself (and occasionally my female friends) in awkward or quasi-threatening situations. More than once, I’ve gotten myself out of an actually threatening physical situation. I get scared — a lot — but I get through it and I try not to let fear put too many barriers around my life and my ambitions. Particularly not that special icky kind of fear that tries to tell me I can’t possibly do something simply because I am female. Fuck that shit, for reals.
And yet. And yet. Here I am, putting aside and ultimately putting off writing blog posts about Feminist-Issues-Oh-My because … what? I’m scared? Surely not. Me? Really? Really. That put me into a mental tailspin yesterday. Why on earth should I be scared of saying something on my blog that I would be quite happy to say to someone in person? Why? Because it’s not the same. Not by a long shot. In person, the vast majority of us are actually quite civilised. We can have a discussion, even a heated argument, but that’s where it’s generally gonna end — with an exchange of words and both parties going their separate ways at worst believing the other to be an irredeemable moron. It’s not going to end with complete strangers bailing me up en masse and yelling at me for hours about how fucking stupid I am for saying what I said, not to mention how I’m so fat and ugly that no one will listen to me anyway, and making such a noise that passers by come over to yell at me some more and tell me how I have no idea what I’m talking about and I wouldn’t know what real inequality was and maybe I should go live in Afghanistan if I care so much about women’s rights, and how I’m just a frigid bitch and should just get myself laid, or better yet someone should teach me a lesson and rape me. Rape me to death.
Now, while I have only met Ms Valente once, I have had a bit to do with Kirstyn. Aside from Aussie Spec Fic being a very small place where everyone knows everyone, I am fortunate enough to be in a writers group with her. My impression of Kirstyn is of a very intelligent, capable and educated woman, and I have read enough of her writing to know that she is one of Australia’s best, really at the peak of her powers. She’s someone who I admire greatly, whose opinion I think is worth listening to and who I even find a bit intimidating. I was actually shocked to read her post because I can’t imagine her being scared of anything.
I have don’t have any issue with my opinion not counting for much in certain discussions because I am relatively new to the scene and still finding my way, that’s a merit thing. But, that someone who has earnt the right to be heard by dint of their achievements should be minimised simply because of their gender is a disgrace. And, even if I didn’t already know it, the fact that someone like Kirstyn could be scared of what will happen online tells me things are pretty bad out there. It’s an indictment of our community, and we should be ashamed.
It is a fact that people act different online than they would be in person. Part of it is that you don’t have to look into someone’s eyes and see the hurt as you spew bile, part of it is that you aren’t risking a punch to the nose. Part of it is that some people are only cowards who will only say something at a distance. But, there is also an undercurrent of, “Oh it’s only online so it doesn’t matter, he/she is actually quite nice in person, just ignore it, it’s only words”. What? Only words? The person who said “sticks and stones make may break my bones, but words will never hurt me,” was a moron, because words can hurt worse than any blow. As writers we should know better than anyone that words have power!
The idea that how people act online is somehow removed from who they are offline is, to me, a false one. The freedom of being online and feeling like you can say what you want without consequences simply magnifies already existing traits. We all know someone who gets drunk and does inappropriate things and tries to excuse it by saying it was just the alcohol, when really all the alcohol does is lower their inhibitions enough to allow them to do the things they secretly wanted to do. This is no different. How you treat people online is just as indicative of who you are as how you treat them face to face.
I read posts like this, hear about the things my female friends experience every day simply because they are women, and it makes me furious. I want to do something about it, but I just don’t know what I can do. I do try and not be part of the problem, I try and treat everyone I can they way I would be treated (there is a reason we call it the Golden Rule), but too often I fail. I know I am in some ways terrible feminist, I am very much a product of my country town conservative upbringing and fairly old fashioned in a lot of ways (just read my posts on New Who!). This is not self flagellation or self loathing, just self awareness.
There are basic things I have tried, like educating myself by reading up on the subject, or trying to write better female characters, or doing what I can in my work place to prevent inequity, or the social work I am part of. I am trying to step outside my white middle class male perspective and understand that people around me don’t have it as easy as me. But, it is still hard to see how I can make a difference. The following quote from Ms Valente’s post, though, sums up why I will keep trying.
And ultimately, it won’t matter. This post will still probably net me some ugly email and assumptions that I am in some fashion The Worst. Because there is no possible way to make myself as dulcet and charming and innocent and inoffensive as some people want women to be, most particularly women writers of children’s books, without killing some part of me, burning it out to replace it with a nice tea service and a demure smile.
I don’t want to live in world where the things that make people unique and different have been beaten out of them by a society obsessed with conformity. And, I certainly don’t want to live in a world where female voices have been silenced, where the parts of women that make some men feel threatened have been excised, burnt away and killed off. That would be a lesser world, a world with much of the light gone out of it.
*scary, yes. But the worst that will happen to me is that someone might think/say I am sexist or an idiot or something, or raise their voice to me. I’m not going to get threatened with rape or death.