The Dream Café

Steven Brust: “A masterful storyteller of contagious glee and self-deprecating badassery” —Skyler White

On Art and Politics and Silencing

| 43 Comments

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.

 

skzb

Author: skzb

I play the drum.

43 Comments

  1. I don’t think anyone other than Fox News has fought for the right to lie. Free speech is about the right to say what you believe, so trying to stop liars from lying is hardly opposition to it. I can’t imagine a just world where libel or slander would be celebrated.

    I also think it’s useful to distinguish between social justice activists. Some think repression in the name of freedom is good. Some do not.

  2. Huh. I’ve been doing some googling, and I confess, I’m failing to find much support for free speech from people who’re associated with social justice, not when it began as a Catholic movement, not during what we might as well call its middle period of being adopted by other movements, or today. But I did find this by one of the folks I love and who identitarians respect: “We Negro writers, just by being black, have been on the blacklist all our lives. Censorship for us begins at the color line.”
    —Langston Hughes

    And this:

    “The only valid censorship of ideas is the right of people not to listen.” —Tommy Smothers

    And, for storytellers, ten thousand times this:

    “An attack upon our ability to tell stories is not just censorship – it is a crime against our nature as human beings.” —Salman Rushdie

  3. “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.”

    How about in a simple and clear way? Your recent comments about social-justice activists made me try to think of any examples in your fiction, and I couldn’t come up with any (though I might be missing something). I’m pretty sure there are none in Dragaera, although there are plenty of the downtrodden to engage their sympathy. Is the reason for this lack the obvious one?

  4. Will Shetterly: On fighting for the right to lie in America, see Susan B. Anthony List v. Driehaus and U.S. v. Alvarez. As far as I can tell, some statutes against lying have been invalidated as unconstitutional (but I await correction from people who understand the law).

  5. Laws against lying are bad because then almost any covered statement that isn’t broadly obvious becomes actionable. How willing would people be to speak out if anything debateable and unpopular was an invitation to an expensive lawsuit?

  6. Jerry Friedman, thanks. I agree with Black: “We do not want the government (i.e., the Ohio Elections Commission) deciding what is political truth — for fear that the government might persecute those who criticize it. Instead, in a democracy, the voters should decide.”

    To be clearer, I’m not arguing that there should be laws against lying. But I do think people should be able to seek redress for libel and slander.

  7. Jerry Friedman, If you want examples of social justice activists in Dragaera I think Cawti and her group of activists would count, since they want better rights for the Easterners and Teckla who are discriminated against

  8. skzb

    Jerry: We had a lovely dinner party here this evening, and there were cocktails, wine and whiskey. Thus, I must ask: what is the obvious reason?

  9. “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.”

    Brilliant. Both writers and readers are impoverished when conflicting ideas are not allowed in, whether by small-mindedness or by intimidation and censorship. The same is true in any art form — look to the blossoming of art after the Russian Revolution and the trite, stale, powerless art of “Socialist Realism” under Stalin. The interplay of conflicting ideas create the light and shadow of reality that gives life to an artists’ portrayal of life.

  10. skzb

    “The interplay of conflicting ideas create the light and shadow of reality that gives life to an artists’ portrayal of life.”

    Nice!

  11. Steve: The reason that seemed obvious to me was that you liked imagining a world without social-justice activists. Or to put it in a way that may be equivalent, social-justice activism isn’t Cool.

    james: Since people who know more haven’t commented, I’ll say that as I understand it, Cawti and her associates are not social-justice activists but revolutionaries. They don’t want to fight injustice by improving the Empire, but rather by destroying it and replacing it with something better.

  12. skzb

    Jerry: I see what you’re saying. Social-justice activism (in its narrow sense, as a facet of identity politics) emerged from a very specific combination of historical factors–it would make no more sense in that world than computers, whether I agreed with the politics or not.

  13. Because a surprising number of people who talk about social justice don’t know where the term is from: it was first promoted in the 1840s by Luigi Taparelli, a Jesuit who wanted to provide an alternative to those annoying people demanding democracy and, worse, socialism. Traditionally, social justice workers like Dorothy Day and Dom Helder Camara believed in ending poverty and treating everyone with respect. I kinda love them the way I love Wobblies. But as identitarianism grew, extreme identitarians appropriated the name and changed the focus.

    Trying to put that into Dragaera would be impossible, which may be why a fan should write a story about Vlad becoming obsessed with Dragaeran privilege and raging that the only thing wrong with the exploitation of the Teckla was that the exploitation wasn’t racially proportionate.

  14. skzb

    Good points, Will, but let’s not get too far afield, okay? This conversation is not about the social justice movement, but about efforts to silence people. It is true that some in that movement have done this (or, at least, used the rhetoric of identity politics to do so), as well as many racist, bigoted assholes. But for now, I want to concentrate on something more narrow: to wit, the importance of free expression in the creation of art.

    I recognize that, since I think we all agree on this, there will probably be little to say, but I’m all right with that.

  15. Well, the young Marx certainly thought that was important. Alas, thanks to capitalism, the full translations of those writings are no longer available at Marxist.org, but there’s a good summary at Marx hated press freedom? Er, I don’t think so. He was its most passionate champion – Telegraph Blogs.

  16. skzb

    Oh, nice. Thanks for the link.

  17. Steve, you’ve put your finger on why I didn’t say anything about the main point of your post. I don’t mind feeling some pressure not to talk about the subject I brought up, since this is your blog, and in fact I’ll bring the subject up on the mailing list.

    Thanks to both Steve and Will for clarifications on what you mean by “social justice”.

  18. Possibly relevant: Heckler’s veto – Wikipedia. Lest anyone say that’s a rightwing concern, the tactic’s been used to silence Muslims, gay folk, and anti-Zionists too.

  19. This is the well tempered silence of a man who has nothing of value to say. As represented by a tea cup without a handle…

  20. This thing doesn’t let me do emoji’s. 🙁

  21. skzb

    Jeff: Yet, somehow, you must find a way to go on.

  22. No emoji? (╯°□°)╯︵ ┻━┻

  23. “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.”

    I’ve been wondering about this. It almost sounds as if someone’s fiction did, in fact, threaten the vital interests of the working class, then you’d be willing to silence her. For instance, if a book with the impact of The Jungle were to be published, but it aroused public anger against unions, impelled Congress to re-examine labor & safety laws etc., would you have a problem with the author being somehow silenced by the writing community as a whole?

  24. skzb

    L. Raymond: I cannot imagine that happening. If it did, it would all depend on circumstances–that is, what stage the class struggle is at. If it were to happen at a critical moment, in the middle of a revolution, and the book served to gather and organize fascist gangs to beat and kill workers, though I cannot conceive of this happening, if it did, I would be quite comfortable with seeing it suppressed by the working class. By the writing community? I simply cannot imagine it.

  25. “It almost sounds as if someone’s fiction did, in fact, threaten the vital interests of the working class, then you’d be willing to silence her.”

    Have any leftish groups tried to ban or boycott Ayn Rand?

  26. “I would be quite comfortable with seeing it suppressed by the working class. By the writing community? I simply cannot imagine it.”

    That’s an important distinction, and I admit I’m glad that’s the sort of line you were drawing.

    Will Shetterly: “Have any leftish groups tried to ban or boycott Ayn Rand?”

    Beats me, but I’m sure Google knows.

  27. L. Raymond, it looks like it’d take more googling than I care to spend on a hypothetical question. There was a time when I would’ve said the left doesn’t ban, but obviously, that’s not true now, and it might not’ve been true then.

    I was kinda pleased by this at the Banned and/or Challenged Books from the Radcliffe Publishing Course Top 100 Novels of the 20th Century: 1984 was challenged because it was “pro-communist and contained explicit sexual matter.” Regarding Animal Farm: “A Wisconsin survey revealed in 1963 that the John Birch Society had challenged the novel’s use; it objected to the words “masses will revolt.” In 1968, the New York State English Council’s Committee on Defense Against Censorship conducted a comparable study in New York State English classrooms. Its findings identified the novel on its list of “problem books”; the reason cited was that “Orwell was a communist.””

    Ayn Rand is on the list, but unfortunately, they don’t go into whether it was for sex or politics. (Why don’t people ban for style? But I digress.)

  28. The Fountainhead was challenged for the rape scene, and her estate actually permitted censored versions to be printed in foreign languages. She addresses the rape in her one of Objectivist newsletters, probably in the mid-60’s, saying it was just rough sex and shouldn’t be held against her.

    But of course, this is a tangent. The OP wasn’t about banning in general, nor slapping the correct labels on people who challenge books, but about whether or not those who create for a living should in turn harm the livings of others who create. Ayn Rand was in favor of blacklisting Communists, so she, at least, is pertinent.

  29. If we’re going to take a narrow approach to this discussion, what anyone should do is irrelevant. Some of those who create for a living will harm the livings of others who create for a living because those who believe the ends justify the means and those who need to hurt someone are always allies.

  30. Silencing is about terrorism. the state is the only one that will ever terrorize you.

  31. Seriously you make the point wit vlad multiple times, mafia is not the state.l

    It’s not, we all know it.

  32. Just to encourage you all that free speech has value for non-communist leftists, I was having a conversation at a party with a book reviewer who definitely considered herself a feminist. She was firmly making the point that alternative voices have to be encouraged as long as the work had artistic merit.

    I mentioned John C. Wright, who I think I have recommended here for his science fiction writing. I have long enjoyed the archly clever style of his prose, and his deftly crafted characters, as well as the extreme inventiveness of his post singularity speculations.I told her that I actually felt betrayed when, during a Amazon (not a corporate plug!) search, I stumbled across a link to his essay work. He is an extremely conservative, born again Catholic, possibly to the right of Vox Day. As I read through one of his essays condemning the “unfeminine” portrayal of women in science fiction, bemoaning that the only true role of a female hero is to support and nurture a man, I was forced to re-examine everything that I had enjoyed in his work. I suddenly realized that the ironic tone was either much less nuanced or much more layered than I had thought, if you can follow that fuzzy analysis.

    She surprised me by saying that she loved the idea of of a reactionary Sci Fi writer, and looked forward to reading his work. For her, the richness of the marketplace of ideas was only diminished by orthodoxy to a common set of values. A plethora of soloists was always better than a chorus.

  33. skzb

    Well, if you want to bring up right-wing, Roman Catholic writers, there’s Tim Powers. I am in awe of his skill. Also, interestingly, I consider him one of the most subversive SF writers working today.

  34. Expiration Date is one of my favorites!

  35. Gene Wolfe is Catholic too, isn’t he? Between him and Powers you have all kinds of retrogressive tendencies, but also beautiful, masterful and pretty much guaranteed-to-be-entertaining prose. Couldn’t get past the first couple of chapters of Count to a Trillion, though, so I don’t put Wright in the same class.

  36. >Seriously you make the point wit vlad multiple times, mafia is not the state.l

    Sometimes there can be a merger – parts of Mexico today where a violent Neoliberal government that depends on assassination, torture, and extra-legal violence finds it convenient to merge with drug cartels, to the point where organized crime is just another branch of government – at the municipal level, in some Mexican States, the senior branch. The Empire actually does have an official place for organized crime, though not as large a role as it actually plays in large parts of Mexico today.

    The role of organized crime can vary widely even under the same government. During the reign of Mussolini, the fascist government originally cracked down on the Mafia in Sicily – because it would not tolerate the competition. Once the Mafia was sufficiently humbled though, and understood they had no veto power over fascist policy, the fascist government admitted them as junior partners in Sicily, took large payoffs from them and used them as one among many instruments of terror.

  37. And of course in Russia the FSB and the bratvas are so intertwined they might as well be one loose organization, making them a literal kleptocracy as well as a metaphorical one.

    The Dragaerans have a more coherent government and society than Russia, despite the periodic upheavals of various kinds when the wheel turns. And so the Jhereg are only tolerated and are not usually permitted into the higher reaches of society. It would certainly be interesting to read an account of a Jhereg reign, though. I wonder how the Dzur and Dragons and other haughty houses manage during those times.

  38. When the Jhereg reign, do they outlaw everything they can?

  39. I keep thinking the Jhereg reign must be libertarian heaven. But I suppose that depends on whether libertarians pay the most.

  40. skzb

    Will: I am going to file the serial numbers off that and tweet it. We can negotiate for percentages of the profit.

  41. 🙂

  42. Lafferty was a brilliant (I think reactionary) Catholic. At least deeply anti-communist. Also, moving beyond Catholics, Bradbury became pretty reactionary politically at some point without ever ceasing to be a brilliant writer. Also, one of the most brilliant writers of contemporary TV horror, Sci-fi and fantasy Tim Minear is deeply reactionary. For that matter Marx was an admirer of Balzac, and said he learned more from Balzac than from many philosophers.

  43. “The bourgeoisie is many times stronger than we. To give it the weapon of freedom of the press is to ease the enemy’s cause, to help the class enemy. We do not desire to end in suicide, so we will not do this.”

    This is taken out of context, and I haven’t read it the original context, even in translation.

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