Saturday, May 13, 2017

Safe Spaces For Ideas or From Ideas? About Conventions and That 4th Street Panel


Harlan Ellison is infamous for failing to deliver The Last Dangerous Visions, the third volume of his Dangerous Visions anthologies. Many reasons have been offered, but I like this one: When the first was released in 1967, its visions seemed dangerous to conventional thinkers. Five years later, Again Dangerous Visions came out, every bit as inventive as its predecessor, but it didn't seem dangerous. By then, science fiction and fantasy had become a literature of dangerous visions, a genre without taboos, a field where ideas were expected to test the bounds of what might be done. Even the most radical vision seemed a bit status quo. So when it was time for the final book to appear in '73, no story could live up to the promise of being a dangerous vision. Rather than release an anthology that might now be titled The Usual Visions, Ellison set it aside.

The field's expectation of intellectual freedom was reflected at conventions. On panels, any thought could be explored so long as it was discussed amicably. People understood that exploring an idea was not the same as endorsing it. Those of us who grew up then assumed that spirit of tolerance would last.

Yesterday, on a Facebook post that I made comparing two related things, a self-styled "progressive" told me something that I used to only hear from militant conservatives: "It's not okay to even suggest that the situations are the same."

For most of human history, it has been "not okay to even suggest" many things. But sometimes, for the lucky, there have been safe spaces for ideas. Science fiction, especially during the New Wave of the '60s and '70s, was one. So were universities. So was "the left", whether you meant liberals or socialists. We were responding to the repressive '50s, to McCarthyites and prudes and racists and sexists and bigots who believed blacklists and censorship were proper tools to make the rest of us conform. In response, we rejected their tactics as well as their philosophy—we hoped to make a world where any idea could be examined with the faith that discussing ideas would test and improve them.

Then came the backlash. As the nation began to become a safer space for ideas in the '70s and '80s, Ivy Leaguers like Derrick Bell and KimberlĂ© Crenshaw began developing a theory of racism and sexism built on the religious concept of social justice. They had no interest in Malcolm X's and Martin Luther King's criticism of capitalism—that would undermine their privilege as part of America's upper class. Because their approach was attacked from the left and right as unscientific and ahistorical, they and their followers began demanding "safe spaces" where no criticism was allowed.

The desire for spaces free from critique crept into science fiction at the beginning of the 21st century as academics and computer professionals gentrified our field. They had no name for their ideology, a merger of Bell's Critical Race Theory and Crenshaw's intersectional feminism, so I'll follow Adolph Reed's lead and call them identitarians. Like most privileged people, they wanted to be validated, not challenged. I noticed them in 2007 during Blog Against Racism Week—their race-only discourse struck me as simplistic, so I began writing about the interplay of class and race, which they denounced as "derailing". Until then, I had never thought discussions should stay on rails. I've always believed ideas should be explored and conclusions should be discovered. But ideologues believe in staying on rails that lead to the destination they've chosen.

Over the next six years, fandom's identitarians gained influence. They doxxed and terrorized a young woman who had mocked them under the pseudonym of Zathlazip. They conducted a months-long race-reductionist flamewar that's remembered as Racefail. In acts of censorship of the sort the ACLU denounces, they prevented Elizabeth Moon from being a guest of honor at WisCon and William Sanders from being a Guest of Honor at ICFA. In both cases, the identitarians would have supported their targets if identity alone mattered, but Moon's politics were more conservative than the WisCon community liked, and Sanders, a Cherokee, had working-class manners that infuriated his more economically privileged critics—in colloquial terms, he didn't act white enough for them. It seemed every week brought a new reason for outrage and call-outs.

I realized my side had lost when I was on a panel prophetically titled "Journey's End" at the Fourth Street Fantasy Convention in 2013. I had worked on the con during the time I first lived in Minnesota. When I came back after fourteen years, I knew the convention would have changed, but I expected it would still be a place where no idea was taboo.

I was very wrong.

I thought "Journey's End" would focus on things like the Harrowing of the Shire and Odysseus's killing of Penelope's suitors, exploring what it means to finish a story by completing a character's journey through strange lands with the arrival at a place that had been home or would become home. But Fourth Street has single-track programming, so ideas from one panel often affect the next. In this case, the moderator decided to continue with the previous panel's concern, which had officially been "Syncretism, Real and Fantastic" but had turned into a discussion of cultural appropriation.

The term comes from anthropology. It refers to what all living cultures do: they take ideas from cultures around them and make them their own. It's natural and desirable—only xenophobic cultures try to prevent it—but identitarians appropriated the term to criticize people who make art that draws on other cultures than the one they were born into. The most extreme identitarians believe writers should only write about their own ethnic traditions.

So I came to "Journey's End" expecting to talk about the metaphor of the journey and found myself in a discussion of an idea I reject, the idea that writers should restrict their subject matter. My take for my entire career has been simple: "Write what you know" is shorthand for "if you don't know something, research it."

The panel's discussion of cultural appropriation grew passionate, and then an unprecedented thing happened. The moderator told me to drop the subject.

This croggled me as much as if she had slapped me. I had not insulted anyone. I had not threatened anyone. I was not saying anything that was not supported by history. I was not "derailing" because, until that point, the moderator and the panelists had chosen to explore the subject. As moderator, she could have set us in another direction at the beginning since "cultural appropriation" was not part of the panel description. But now she was stopping the discussion abruptly because the loudest members of the audience accepted the identitarian definition of cultural appropriation and were angry that I did not.

My first reaction to being told to stop was to insist we continue.

Then the loud members of the audience began shouting that the subject must be dropped.

So I did as the moderator requested and dropped it.

The panel fizzled out after that. That's usually what happens when a lively discussion is brought to an early end and someone without a clear plan tries to redirect it.

Rejecting taboos has consequences. In a blog post, one writer joked about things that didn't happen at Fourth Street, and one of the things was expressed as something like "Will Shetterly behaving well". I felt insulted until I realized that by his standards, he was right—I had behaved badly by acting as if we were using the old rules. I had thought I was in a safe space for ideas, not a safe space from them.

After the convention, I wrote the appropriation of "cultural appropriation", but I didn't completely understand then what had happened. Some things take time.

Now, four years later, I'm no longer sure I'm on the losing side. If you compare the identitarian revolution in fandom to the French Revolution, fandom's conflict peaked in 2014 when moderate identitarians turned on their Robespierre, a woman who used a name that fit their general approach, RequiresHate. In the wider world, the contest between Bernie Sanders and Hillary Clinton showed that millennials, who overwhelmingly supported Sanders, reject the identitarianism of those who preferred Clinton because of her gender. Sanders feminists know what identitarians don't care about: because women are disproportionately poor, Sanders' policies would help more women than Clinton's. Millennials grasp that deeds, not identity, ultimately matter.

If fandom's identitarians fail to keep millennials out of our genre, conventions will once again become safe spaces for ideas. If the identitarians succeed, fandom will stay safe for those who don't want their ideas challenged, and by staying safe, it will wither and die.

Ah, well. I am looking forward to Fourth Street this year, no matter which sort of convention it turns out to be. I can enjoy a space that's safe from ideas, so long as I know those are the rules in a place I'm visiting. I just can't live there.