Recent events have made me think about the efforts of some to silence others within our community. I’ve been trying to organize my thoughts. Here’s what I’ve arrived at.
There is, within any social group, pressure to conform, at least in certain ways; that’s just the nature of the beast. If that social group is intensely political, that will include pressure to conform to the dominant political slant. In my milieu–the world of science fiction and fantasy literature–there is constant pressure to conform to identity politics and social justice activism–so much so, that I have often been silent about my own opinions, for fear of outraging or hurting friends and even family.
And you know something? So what. The pressure is there, my response is my own decision, and none of this pressure (in my case!) has been applied maliciously, or in an underhanded way, or with any sort of deliberate effort to shut me up. There is absolutely nothing wrong with people who believe in something fighting for what they believe in, and that fight will generate pressure to agree. If it doesn’t, you’re doing it wrong. I might–and do–disagree with much of what my friends, family, and loved ones support, but I in no way question their right to fight for it. So, yeah, I have sometimes chosen to remain silent; I have not been silenced.
Other people have. When death threats, bullying, doxxing, and career threats are used in an effort to either force someone to agree or to shut that person up, that is way, way out of line. At that point, you have lost the moral high ground.
I feel like I have to establish that I am not against silencing at all times under all circumstances. For example, when the Murdoch-owned New York Daily News was spreading slanders and lies about the NYC bus drivers, the News was quite properly protected by the First Ammendment. And if the bus drivers had gone down to those offices en mass and shut that paper down, I’d have cheered. I’m not a free speech absolutist; the interests of the working class take precedence over the rights of the bourgeoisie. (Yes, there are issues of when such actions can be turned against us; but that is a tactical question, and here I’m discussing the moral issue.)
But we are not talking, now, about a case where the vital interests of the working class are threatened by lies and distortions; we’re talking about a community built around the written word, in which our goal is–should be–the creation of moving and powerful stories. Everything the artist says, thinks, does, hears, goes into the image-constructed emotion-based cognition of life that we call “art.” Art can no more be separated from politics than can anything else that human beings do socially. But art cannot thrive in an environment where the free exchange of ideas is suppressed. The activity of battling against each other and the activity of working together can and should blend creatively in our effort to understand and improve both our craft and our goals–and above all, the understanding of our world that is at the heart of any story.
One would have to be incredibly naive to think that my conflicts with social justice activists do not–in complex, obscure, distorted, often contradictory ways–have an effect on the tales I tell. And that effect is a feature, not a bug. We are having conversations, both between stories and between writers, and these conversations inform the work we produce. And, obviously, this applies to criticism, whether public comments by a reviewer, or private remarks by a colleague, because just as art strives to reveal what is hidden in the world, criticism strives to reveal what is hidden in a work of art. It’s all part of the exchange. Any attempt to control or suppress this exchange by bullying, by intimidation, by shaming, by threats, hurts us all.