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

Criticizing the Critics

| 19 Comments

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.

skzb

Author: skzb

I play the drum.

19 Comments

  1. Wow. Interesting. And a new word. Thanks.

    It never occurred to me to say that a particular story or work of art should not have been done. I wonder if dissing an author is simply a way for the critic to try to elevate themselves? The “I can do better than that” crowd.

    If the work of art is not wonderful, don’t be harsh on the artist. How is he/she going to get better unless they continue to work at their art. Some people have a low tolerance for accepting criticism, so they stop trying. Maybe that is how some critics were made.

    Life is hard enough on the artist without people trying to make it harder.

  2. I completely agree. The organized and lavishly funded efforts around identity politics in particular, and the violence done to our democratic institutions by the hordes of enraged upper-middle class and petty-bourgeois harpies which have been enlisted to do the damage, have demonstrated above all the fixity and the narrowness of their efforts, which in the end are serving the interests of the state in eroding democratic rights more than their stated purpose in protected the oppressed. This finds reflections in the attacks on art, in particular art that probes deeply into social relations, which by its very nature serves the revolutionary cause.

    One apropos quote actually arises from the other side of the political spectrum, the aristocratic, religious idealist and working class-loathing author C.S. Lewis, whose widely circulated lines still find purchase here:

    “Of all tyrannies, a tyranny exercised for the good of its victims may be the most oppressive. It may be better to live under robber barons than under omnipotent moral busybodies. The robber baron’s cruelty may sometimes sleep, his cupidity may at some point be satiated; but those who torment us for our own good will torment us without end for they do so with the approval of their own conscience.”

    (The irony being that Lewis was offering a right-wing criticism of what he calls the “humanitarian theory” of punishment and urges a return to “traditional or retributive theory” because — it serves the interests of the criminal! — the knots to which the religious tie themselves)

  3. skzb

    David: Yes, I’m sure sometimes it’s ego. I prefer that, however, to the times it’s coldly calculated to advance their careers. How much of which is going on, I can’t say, but I’m sure there’s some of each.

    Don: Yes, exactly. The thing about Lewis is, for all his flaws, was an honest writer; and honest writers by their very nature tend to be subversive, often against their will.

  4. At this exact moment, exactly the process that you warn about is taking place. The author of “American dirt”, Jeanine Cummins, is being cancelled by internet outrage and cancel culture. She was to appear at a bookstore in St Louis, but that was cancelled by activists. They claim that since she is not Mexican, she cannot write about Mexicans. Tell that to John Steinbeck. Or Vladimir Nabokov.

  5. As an artist who hopes to someday have his work read by more than 5 people I realize the internet makes criticisms easier and people feel like their voice matters more than it ever has before. Changing these peoples basic nature is not possible. It’s part of dangers we now have to navigate. Therefore you can’t create with the fear of offending someone because someone somewhere is going to be offended and soon others will jump on the bandwagon to feel include. If you create something you feel is true then that’s all that matters. Ignore the negative. Remember Scalzi’s Law. Be true to yoursel .

  6. Bob the Builder, smiling in the sun, puts the finishing touches on a house one day to find a few people outside watching and frowning. He asks, “Why the long faces?”

    They reply, “We don’t like your house.”

    Bob’s pleased expression flicks to pained. He pauses, then says, “Well, I guess thankfully you’re not the ones who paid me to design and build it. Were any of you planning on hiring me to build for you?”

    “No. We want to destroy your house.”

    Bob, cut to the quick but ever eager to please, says, “Oh. Well, here’s a few sledgehammers and a crowbar.”

  7. Oh, wow. Um. There are two very contradictory ideas here, warring with each other, so let’s flesh those out.

    So, stories are a way to convey ideas through narrative. I don’t think I’m going to run into much opposition here on that characterization. The idea conveyed may be the truth of an event; it may be an experience; it may be a philosophy; it may be a moral, a belief, or even just the notion that, “Hey, isn’t the idea of a laser sword cool?” It can explore those ideas from just one side, leaving the reader’s experience to form a contrast, or from any number of sides to grant a bigger picture. But a story is really just the sugar mixed in as the inactive ingredient in a dose of ideas, to make them more pleasant to swallow.

    You’re essentially saying that conveying an idea through the medium of a story should privilege it above ideas conveyed in other ways. That doesn’t wash for me.

    I totally agree that people shouldn’t be subjected to behaviour that makes them fear. And I think that holds true regardless of the medium. Saying that, if I couch my threats in the form of narrative, they’re sacrosanct, but the reaction to them isn’t… That’s privileging the group with the power to buy ink by the barrel.

    An idea is an idea, however it’s conveyed.

    And saying that artists should be allowed to convey fear to the public, but heaven forbid the public should make the artists fearful in return!…

    … And that’s literally what you’re saying. I’ll quote you.

    Here’s your standard for how artists should engage with the public:
    ‘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.”’

    And here is your standard for how the public should engage with artists:
    ‘insist on, demand the right of the artist to create freely, and without fear, especially if the creation is something you object to.’

    Artists, feel free to make the public fearful. Public, demand that the artists be able to create fearful material, free from fear themselves.

    So saying that artists should be held to one standard, and the public should be held to another is, I think, completely hypocritical, and gives way too much power to people who have the time, energy, and leisure (read: money) to create art, or the resources (read: money) to hire someone to create art on their behalf.

  8. nimelennar:That is, I think, almost the opposite point skzb is making.
    He’s saying that it is a complex subject but that neither creator’s nor consumers should be fearful about expressing their thoughts.

    The “Internet Outrage Machine” makes it all to easy to create what can be essentially lynch mobs on demand. This can have devastating effects.
    On the other hand, attempts at regulating this slide all to easily into censorship.

    Solutions are hard; people have been working both sides of this forever.
    For example:
    “ Fulvia, Antony’s wife, who had been married to Clodius, Cicero’s implacable enemy, vented her hatred on the dead orator as well. Cassius Dio (XLVII.8.4) writes that, before the head and right hand of Cicero were exposed on the Rostra, she took the head in her hands and spat on it. Then, setting it on her knees, opened the mouth and, with pins from her hair, pierced the tongue that had argued so eloquently against her husband.”

  9. Steve Halter: I still get the impression that skzb is arguing against the same kind of mass protests that, for instance, the black community held against Birth of a Nation when it came out. I see very little difference between the Internet Outrage Machine and those protests, other than that one was online, and one was offline. And I think, given the content of that film, those protests were not just understandable, not just justifiable, but /necessary/.

    Outrage is a necessary tool to be wielded against the outrageous.

  10. nimelennar:I am absolutely certain skzb is not against mass protests in general.

    Misdirected outrage is a problem. Determining whether outrage is misdirected is a problem.

  11. skzb

    Thank you, nimelennar, for the thoughtful comment. These are important issues, and it’s good to see people engaging with them seriously.

    I would take issue with your premise, that a story is a means to convey ideas. This is (speaking only from the point of view of the creation of fiction) an idea that leads to bad art. What we take from a story, in general, are moods, images, feelings. We have frozen in our minds the image of the Hobbits watching Frodo leave on the ship at the end of Lord of the Rings; the wonder of going through the Wardrobe into Narnia, the image of Eddi on the stage of First Avenue in War For The Oaks, the awe of the star gate in 2001, the lump in our throats when we hear the summary of what became of Yama and Sam in Lord of Light, our growing, the deep emotional complexity of Rydra’s self-examination in Babel-17. All of these works also contain ideas: the natural hierarchy of LotR, the Christianity in Narnia, the importance of passion in War For The Oaks, the inability of Man to ascend on his own in 2001, the desire to make the world better in Lord of Light, the nature of treason and loyalty in Babel-17. But, bluntly, to concentrate on any of those is to miss the point of those works. And to imagine anyone being influenced by those ideas is to have no understanding of how reading and cognition work.

    This brings us to your example of Birth of a Nation. One cannot possibly see that film as anything but propaganda. Indeed, it is so much propaganda, that even in its time it was difficult to discuss the elements of craft that went into it–the propaganda was, in essence, all there was. I hope we are able to make distinctions between propaganda, that exists to propagate a particular ideology, and a work of art that perhaps brings worldview along with it like a carrier wave, but exists for a fundamentally different purpose, and in the end has a fundamentally different effect.. They are different, and need to be addressed differently.

    Yes, if someone comes out with over, hateful propaganda, let us protest it; I’ll be on the front lines with you. The distinction between that and a story that can, with sufficient effort, be found to contain something someone can point to as objectionable, is not gray, and not thin.

    Your failure to make that distinction leads you to, in essence, justify the current toxic state where established writers, such as myself, are more or less free to follow our passions where they lead us, but new writers, fresh voices, are silenced by fear. Have you followed what happened to the trans woman who dared to explore her experience and issues in Clark’s World? Her voice has, effectively, been silenced; and so have the voices of anyone else who might have intense personal issues that might become generalized into images and moods for us, but now cannot be, because some people feel entitled to step on the weak, and others like the sense of inclusion that comes from being part of the mob.

    Can you kindly explain to me how making writers, especially new writers, afraid to try things will be of benefit to art? To society? What you are justifying is cruel suppression of the most vulnerable voices, those most easily hurt, those who most need encouragement, and those who, after I am long dead, could potentially have the most to tell us about what it means to be human.

    If artists do not feel free to take risks, art dies. If art dies, the finest expressions of what make us human die with it.

  12. Thank you for the respectful reply.

    I would take issue with your taking issue with my premise.

    The reason such images as Frodo leaving stick with us is not just because of the artistry inherent in the wordsmithing of Tolkien, but because of the meaning granted to that moment by ideas.

    To use an example from the world of photography, imagine an image of an older woman bidding a tearful farewell to a young family of four boarding a gangway. One might feel sympathy for the sadness the parting of these people, hope for the young family’s future, and a host of other complex emotions.

    Now, to this photo, at the foot of the gangway, add the name “RMS Titanic.” See how the emotions change? The photo hasn’t changed much, but the ideas have, and thus so have the emotions.

    Frodo leaving to go into the West only matters to us because we know who Frodo is, we know who he is to the other Hobbits and who they are to him, and what the journey into the West entails. The feelings stem from the ideas; without that context, it’s just a short, barefoot person on a boat sailing away from other short barefoot people, on a beautiful vessel with some tall, pretty people. A nice picture, sure, but not one that will remain “frozen in our minds.” The meaning fixes the image; the image doesn’t fix itself.

    I also take issue with idea-focused storytelling being “bad art.”

    David Simon, when making “The Wire,” had a very specific purpose in doing so: exploring all sides of the various ideas of why Baltimore cannot get their crime rate, and especially the gang crimes, under control. Is “The Wire” bad art?

    Ursula LeGuin wanted to explore how we perceive sexuality when she wrote “The Left Hand of Darkness.” Is that “bad art?”

    Terry Pratchett wrote “Jingo,” a story tearing apart the various stupid excuses countries use to go to war with each other. He and Neil Gaiman wrote “Good Omens,” a story casting a withering glance at those who are eager to bring the current, beautiful world to an end, in the name of promised, unearned perfection.

    George Orwell wrote “Nineteen Eighty-Four” to convey how horrible a world with constant government surveillance and censorship would be.

    And those are only the first few that come to mind as being self-conscious and deliberate about the message they are sending (i.e. “bad art”). Any story with a conflict — which, to borrow a phrase from you, is any art that deals with more than trivialities — has a theme, a difference of desired result between the protagonist and whatever forces they have to overcome to achieve their goal. A story where everyone is working together to make the protagonist’s goal a reality, with no real hardship encountered along the way, would be a nice story, but not, I think, an interesting one. Memorable, perhaps, but only in how unfulfilling it would be.

    So, intentionally or not, every good story is going to have a conflict between the world the protagonists want to bring into reality, and either the one that exists, or an opposing force’s own vision of a future world. And, intentionally or not, that conflict is going to lead to an exploration of the difference between those two (or more) worlds.

    You might think that works where the authors explore that difference intentionally, like the authors above, rather then implicitly, like Tolkien, are “bad art.” Which is fine. De gustibus non est disputandum and all that.
    There’s certainly enough examples of it being done badly to the point where where the preachiness is prioritized over even the story making basic sense (e.g. Terry Goodkind). I’d argue that’s more due to “90% of everything is crap” rather than to any particular correlation with idea-focused works.

    Personally, I prefer my Terry Pratchett and my Ursula LeGuin, and I enjoy being exposed to new ideas through the medium of story. And if you want to tell me that you know how reading and cognition work well enough to say that you can’t imagine that I could possibly been influenced by those ideas, well. I’ll be generous and say that perhaps you’re right in general, that I’m an outlier. But in a population of eight billion, what _I_ can’t imagine is that I’m the only outlier of the bunch.

    I agree, 100%, that BoaN is propaganda, and that the line between the people who made that film and the new artists you are trying to protect is quite distinct. The problem is that propaganda doesn’t look like propaganda to people who believe its message.

    Take the film “Iron Man,” for example. It got substantial support from the US military, on the condition that they could sign off on the script. The result is a film where the casualties in the Middle East are entirely because weapons intended for the US military were sold to “bad guys” (who happened to have brown skin) instead. And a lot of people went to see that film (and Captain America, Captain Marvel, etc.) and that propaganda went right over their head because America as the good-guy peacekeepers of the world is what they already believe.

    Is there a line between BoaN and “Iron Man?” Of course there is. But it’s far thinner and far greyer than the one between BoaN and “Clark’s World,” for all that it is part of that larger line. Another live could be drawn between “Iron Man” and “Doctor Strange,” which similarly was written to avoid any criticism of China (going so far as to re-cast the mostly-Tibetan Ancient One as a European woman), and one more line between that refusal to criticize China and Disney refusing to make homosexuality more than the tiniest, easily-excised part of its movies to similarly preserve its Chinese audience. Racist propaganda, to imperialist propaganda, to imperialist censorship, to outrage censorship, in three thin, grey lines.

    So, let’s get to your question.

    “Can you kindly explain to me how making writers, especially new writers, afraid to try things will be of benefit to art? To society?”

    To answer that, first I need to answer: “What is fear?” Fear is anticipation of an unpleasant (shameful, painful, deadly) result. In most cases, what you’re afraid of is some form of consequence to your action.

    If I were to define, in one idea, what the biggest problem of both America and the Internet is, it’s the disconnect between action and consequence. The current President of the United States can be accurately described by the single fact that he has never faced, nor has even expected to face, a meaningful consequence for any of his actions.

    When people (mostly poor people and people of color) get caught, the book is thrown at them. Law and order! Keep those criminals off the streets! Off with their heads! But, as a species, we react more strongly to the likelihood of a consequence, rather than to that consequence’s severity, to a certainty of mild shame than to a tiny possibility of death, so increasing the severity of the punishment rather than catching the criminals doesn’t fix the problem. Especially when the criminals who do the most damage to society, the rich, well-connected ones, face the least chance of any consequences whatsoever.

    Where am I going with this?

    I don’t think anyone should fear for their life or safety, under any circumstance. That’s too much of a consequence to impose on someone, and if a member of a mob makes such a threat, and certainly if they follow through with such action, the whole mob should turn on them.

    But I think party of the double-edged sword that is the anonymity granted by the Internet means that imposing any meaningful consequence on someone is difficult, and is far more difficult to impose on bad-faith actors like those who are willing to break rules to pierce that anonymity than normal, good-faith creators and consumers.

    So, to draw all of this to a close and tie it together, yes. I think creators should be cognizant of the implications of their work, and the consequences of releasing a work with those implications. And since any work dealing with more than trivialities is going to provoke negative consequences, yes, fear is going to be part of that cognizance.

    The benefit? People who write “bad art” stories like “The Wire” and “The Left Hand Of Darkness,” that step forward confidently with their ideas, having thought them through thoroughly. People who know, in advance, exactly who they intend on outraging with a given work. And people who have already battened down the hatches to weather the shitstorm from those people, because they knew it was coming and have prepared themselves accordingly before releasing their work anyway. People not caught unawares by the Internet Outrage Machine when it inevitably comes for them.

    I’ll close with a Wildism:
    “A gentleman is one who never hurts anyone’s feelings unintentionally.”

    I think that’s the kind of gentlepersons we, and especially storytellers, should all strive to be.

  13. skzb

    Going to answer this in pieces. First, “I also take issue with idea-focused storytelling being “bad art.”” Yeah, I oversimplified there; it would be more precise to say that if the point of your art is to propagate an idea, it is very, very difficult for it not to be bad art. Some have done it. However, I must also add that what the novelist had in mind, what the novelist intended, often has little or nothing to do with what is actually of value in the work.

  14. skzb

    “the double-edged sword that is the anonymity granted by the Internet means that imposing any meaningful consequence on someone is difficult,” Interesting. I’d have said the reverse. It is the anonymity that permits the infliction of terrible consequences for petty crimes, because mobbing can inflict brutal psychological damage by those who are anonymous.

    If you are familiar with the case I linked to in the original post, you should know that that is only one of the most egregious cases of someone doing massive harm to new writers by using the anonymous power of the internet to generate mobbing. It happens a lot, sometimes deliberately, sometimes by accident. It is, literally, impossible to write a story that someone cannot, with sufficient expenditure of time and effort, find an “objectionable” element in. If the internet culture was such that this person would point that out, others would consider it, agree or disagree, and then move on, that would be one thing. But instead, the internet culture is such that if this person can lay claim to being a member of a group that is privileged by upper middle-class neoliberalism, that person can cause untold damage with no consequences whatever; as happened in the Clark’s World case.

    And here I need to take a moment to emphasize that, in that case, I do not intend a hint of criticism at the individual who first objected to that story. It is the followup that brought the consequences for the writer from, “That is something I need to think about,” to, “I’m never going to write again.”

    And, with all due respect, that brings us to what is left out of your analysis: proportion. That is, unless I’m misreading you, you are observing that if a writer creates a story that is false and harmful, or has elements that are false and harmful, it should be pointed out and criticized. But I never questioned that; indeed, I said as much. But it isn’t the author of The Wire who is brutally harmed, it is the author of some little story that someone with the anonymous–or impersonal–power of the internet or of some degree of fame, has decided makes the author a bad person in need of crushing.

    To remind you: At no point did I suggest that any story be above criticism, I said that writers, especially new writers, ought not to be the victim of mobbing, and am thus urging my readers not to participate in it, and, further, to take a stand against it when they see it happening. If we create an atmosphere in which writers are afraid to experiment, we are killing art.

    I would suggest you take a look at history and identify those individuals and tendencies that have made artists afraid, and tell me if that is a group you wish to be included in.

  15. I’d no idea that these people had graduated from making criticism (both fair to maliciously and knowingly unfair) online to physically showing up to book signings, or I wouldn’t have made my allegory about author and publisher knuckling under so flippant. I apologize, though their bravery – and lack thereof – is even more important now.

    What is with these sorts of people? A pathological need to destroy, or do they not understand what they are doing? Is there some Pavlovian reward for going above pointed criticism or just not buying the book I don’t see? Speaking with one’s wallet isn’t de rigueur nowadays?

    I guess I just don’t understand what drives this. Getting pats on the back from random hacks on social media seems like a punishment, not a reward… certainly not enough of a reward to justify darkening even a single terrible artist’s spirit into shadow – it does not fade alone.

  16. First I’ll answer Nathan S., because it’s a point I can make shortly and sweetly and get out of the way.

    It is, ironically enough given that it’s the kind of accusation hate mobs employ against others, virtue signalling. For their own twisted definition of “virtue,” of course. And you can get quite a nice high from being told that you’re a good person because of the virtues you signal.

    Now, to the meat of it.

    ” It is the anonymity that permits the infliction of terrible consequences for petty crimes, because mobbing can inflict brutal psychological damage by those who are anonymous.”

    That’s exactly my point. Anonymity prevents consequences TO those who are anonymous, e.g. the Internet Outrage Machine. Of course it wouldn’t prevent consequences being delivered BY the anonymous. And, of course, those who are part of an anonymous rage mob feel little compunction against piercing other people’s anonymity and subjecting their targets to the consequences that they would rather avoid.

    “But instead, the internet culture is such that if this person can lay claim to being a member of a group that is privileged by upper middle-class neoliberalism, that person can cause untold damage with no consequences whatever; as happened in the Clark’s World case.”

    Indeed. And how do you change that?

    I’m going to make a characteristically long-winded analogy using a subject that is overused for analogies, so bear with me; I don’t mean to compare the two traumas, so much as the pattern of behaviour behind them.

    So, rape.

    There is a distasteful tendency, seemingly global in scope, to blame women for being raped. To say that it’s their fault because of what they wore, because of how they behaved, because they drank, or didn’t stay with their friends, or went to a frat party, or whatever reason is conveniently present in the story of how they were sexually assaulted.

    To my eyes, there are two clear reasons why rape is so prevalent. First, how we raise boys to treat women. Second, how we inflict (or, rather, don’t inflict) consequences on rapists. We can do everything else in our power to fix things, but until we fix those two things, men are going to believe they are entitled to rape women, because they were raised to think that a man’s desire is a woman’s fault, and because they have faced no meaningful consequence for what they have done to women based on that attitude.

    And we, as a society, are working on that. The area where I live has incorporated consent into the educational system, and the #MeToo movement is actually starting to inflict consequences on people publicly enough to start changing people’s perceptions about whether this type of crime gets punished. I think we need about another dozen #MeToo-scaled shifts in societal tendencies before the consequences for rape make it untenable for any but those who are most protected from or least mindful of consequences, but we’re on the slow, the achingly, agonizingly slow path there.

    Until we reach that point, without any hint of blame towards the women… women should be taking precautions. Because even though getting raped is 0% the fault of the victim, there are ways to make it less likely. Traveling in groups. Self-defense classes. Pepper spray. Not leaving drinks unattended. And acknowledging that isn’t victim-blaming, it’s realism. Necessary realism, until society shifts to a better place.

    Now that I’ve made the analogy, let’s tie back into our original point. The first part of the solution to the Internet Outrage Mob problem is to train people to be more tolerant of differences of opinion and viewpoint. I don’t disagree with you there. The second is to inflict consequences on people who go past a proportionate criticism to the ideas, enough so that, as you say, things are limited to pointing out and criticizing false and harmful elements. Fine and dandy. Needs some fleshing out, but that’s a great solution.

    But while I see a /start/ (albeit an agonizingly slow one) to a trend against the pedagogical attitudes and lack of consequences that underlie the rape problem in global culture, I don’t see that happening with respect to the Internet Outrage Machine problem. At all. If anything, the increasing political polarization is making it worse, so that everyone is being labelled an acceptable target. If you don’t constantly signal the right virtues, you’re obviously not “one of us.” The tendency is much more apparent on the American right than the centre (the actual left is too small, in influence if not in number, to analyse), but it exists across the political spectrum. And it’s an issue that no one with any political power has any desire to fix, as division is useful to maintaining their power.

    So, what can be done as a workaround, until the underlying problem is fixed, if it ever is? As with my analogy, there are precautions someone could take. And, by recommending that people take these precautions, I am in no way endorsing the idea that people are to blame for the reactions of their critics, but again, necessary realism. And some of those precautions are to try to figure out what the reactions are likely to be before they happen, and to protect yourself from those people (whoever “those people” are) by either having people ready and willing to protect you from what your write, or by obscuring your identity so thoroughly that even the Outrage Machine is left stymied.

    Because saying, “Don’t get outraged” isn’t a solution, when there are so many outrageous things happening in the world. We can see clearly the consequence of the failure to get righteously outraged, in the complete lack of moral integrity of the Republican Party over Donald Trump’s attempted extortion of Ukraine. If you fail to get outraged by the outrageous, the outrageous becomes acceptable, and then virtuous.

    And “only get outraged when things are clearly worthy of outrage” isn’t a solution, either, as no two people will ever have a matching list of outrageous things. Sure, I think that Birth of a Nation is outrageous enough to warrant a complete ban on that movie being shown for any purpose other than criticism. Others, though, see it not even as propaganda, but as the unvarnished truth. And no, I don’t think the writer of the next Birth of a Nation should have protection from that outrage, no matter how new they are to writing. Certain ideas should be, MUST be, smacked down with force whenever they surface, and the idea that certain people are “lesser” by their very nature, is one of them. If those ideas aren’t forcefully denounced, if people aren’t made afraid of the social consequences of expressing them, well. Look around.

    If I’m not willing to say “Don’t be outraged” and not willing to say “Only be appropriately outraged,” then what philosophy might I espouse that would protect those who don’t deserve an outrage mob crawling down their throat? I think that “Be slower to outrage, and be kinder and more willing to listen to all points of view before deploying it” is a fantastic attitude that would solve your issues and mine, but, again, I see little sign of that taking hold anywhere, and very few of any political stripe preaching it.

    So. To wrap up.

    I agree that we need a societal change, both in the consequences that people harassing other people feel, and their willingness to perform that harassment in the first place. I don’t think that instilling an attitude of “protect artists from fear of the consequences of what they create” is a viable option for that societal change. And, even if it is, it’s a long-term solution to a problem which needs a fix, or at least a workaround, sooner than that.

  17. skzb

    First of all, sorry for misunderstanding you; I guess we’re closer than I thought on this. Second, as I said, I don’t have a solution, all I have is the request for whoever is listening to be careful about making the problem worse.

  18. Hmmm…. 1950s “Hive Mind” sf stories… Interesting. I suppose that everybody is afraid of losing their identity and individuality, no?

    And of course Star Trek Next Generation had the Borg…. I suppose Trotskyists would see them as a sideswipe against communism, too?

    I tell you what though: I just wanted to say that on the neopagan and heathen livejournal sites I was on mainly about 10 years ago or more – pop culturally aware people on there (and lots of funny comments were made concerning comparisons between sf ideas and old religions and mythology!)…. Well we thought the Borg represented born again Christians: because they want everybody to be the same, think the same… whereas pagans, particularly modern ones, don’t. 🙂

    Maybe there are indeed some parallels between that sort of religion, and actually existing/existed Marxist societies… Sorry skzb; much as I really like you and your books, I had to say it! 🙂

    But no, of course I don’t believe in the modern PC fad/fallacy that writers should feel fear about writing about a particular sort of character (more than topic?) in case someone says “you shouldn’t”. Hmm. Can’t imagine them saying that in the uk; but I may be out of date….

    Of course, there were many societies in the past when you couldn’t say various things… And everything is basically dependent upon cultural norms. So is the IOM worse than Stalinism?? Worse than totalitarian monotheism?? I do think it’s a bit hysterical; and I am very resistant to it!

  19. Anyway. This Thai woman with the weird name in the attached article sounds like a mentally ill, hysterical psychopath to me. I was not impressed by such in the school playground. I shall not be now. I can flyte better than them; and the master flyter puts all such to flight!:) Of course, there are gaggles of such people online… but I’m not even scared by that! Sticks and stones. Just keep calling them out!!

    Don Barry, who commented quite a bit above, can I ask you something? You say above that C S Lewis “hated the working class” – can I ask you what evidence you have of that? In book, article, or deed? (I know pretty much all of Lewis’ writing, the non-fiction as well.) As for him being “aristocratic” – well he was of a solid middle-class Irish Protestant family. He was the son of a solicitor, not even a barrister. That won’t even get you into the upper middle class, I’m afraid.

    I bet I know all sorts of things about CSL that you don’t! 🙂 But yeah; he was a very good logical, often libertarian thinker, actually. He is quite often quoted by modern American libertarians.

    I know what you mean about using those arguments to argue against the “humanitarian theory of punishment” – shades of the (proto) anti-psychiatry movement there??

    But I know what novel most of those quotes come from. They come from That Hideous Strength, which is all about a sort of a – (post?) modern Institute: a sinister body seeking political power, whose aims, for animal and human alike, are FAR from humane!!

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