Back in the early 50s, when fear of Communism was becoming pathological among broad layers of the middle class intelligentsia, science fiction was flooded with stories about the evils of group minds, or hive minds. Theodore Sturgeon had a response to this: it is called More Than Human and it is a brilliant work that is a delight as a story, fascinating in its examination of what it means to be human, and insightful in its response to the then-present paranoia.
Art exists for many purposes, and does many things. At the simplest level, it can give us a brain relaxation, the way a few minutes of rest can relax our bodies. At its most profound level, it can reveal to us important aspects of how life works, of what it means to be human. It can do none of those things when social pressure or puritanical moral outrage is permitted to decide who can say what.
Anyone who reads any story is free to express an opinion about it, and its moral or political aspect is at least as important and worth discussing as its craft. Where I have a problem is with the deep, profound sense of entitlement that accompanies certain forms and subjects of criticism, that carry the implication, “you must hear me.”
Let us be clear: If you are saying, “You shouldn’t create art that hurts me,” you are, for all practical purposes, saying, “you shouldn’t create art that might hurt me” which is but to say, “you shouldn’t create art that might hurt someone who is vulnerable,” which, given that nearly everyone is vulnerable in some way, becomes, “you shouldn’t create art that might hurt someone,” which in turn, reduces itself to, “You shouldn’t create art that deals with more than trivialities.”
No, I am not exaggerating. Based on five years of teaching at Viable Paradise writers workshop, and considerably more years helping to run craft-oriented conventions, I can testify that we live in an era in which a great deal of what defines writers—especially new writers—is fear. “What if someone says I shouldn’t have written about that kind of character? What if someone says I should have written about that kind of character? What if someone says I wrote about that sort of character in an objectionable way?” We have learned—we have had it amply demonstrated—that anyone who is determined enough to take offense can claim the moral high ground and generate enough internet outrage to crush the spirit of new writers, and in the process keep many in a state of terror lest they be the next victim. It should be obvious that the newer and more insecure the writer is, the greater effect this fear will have.
Even state-sponsored censorship by overt tyrannies rarely creates the sort of terror that the threat of the Internet Outrage Machine does. It is utterly toxic and destructive to art.
So, then, what is the answer? One cannot say, “You have no right to express your opinion of someone’s work if it might hurt the writers’ feelings.” In the long run, that is also destructive; criticism is a part of how we struggle to find our way from craft to art.
I don’t have an answer, I can only make a few points: first, when the Internet Outrage Machine is gearing up, stay out; if you’re part of the mob, you’re helping to make things worse. Second, insist on, demand the right of the artist to create freely, and without fear, especially if the creation is something you object to. Third, remember that criticizing a work of fiction based on its failures of technique, or on what you consider its moral or political failings, are identical in the sense that under no circumstances, whoever you are, do you have a special right to insist your voice be heard, especially by the author. Last, if the substance if your criticism is, “A story shouldn’t say such things,” then we will all be better served by you working to write something that enters into a dialog with it; “a story shouldn’t say such things” should sound a warning tocsin in your head.