I think that if you don’t feel a little uncomfortable holding forth on social justice topics from a position of privilege, you’re probably doing something wrong. And even if you do feel uncomfortable, there is always the danger of a hurtful misstep. So I enter into this topic with sincere intent and apologize in advance for any stumbles I might make.
The Internet lit up this last week over an article in the Science Fiction Writers of America (SFWA) official publication that provided a platform for some pretty sexist views. Fantasy writer and all-around awesome guy Jim Hines has done a good job creating a portal page to the reactions of the community. The Ferrett, a blogger I’ve been reading for more than a decade is on that list and has written what I feel is an erudite exploration of how yesterday’s allies can become part of today’s problem (he also provides a link to the offending article, which is near the bottom of this page).
There is a commonly-held Internet fallacy that any negative response to your opinions is a form of censorship, and this article is thick with it. Let’s be clear. Censorship means the government prevents your voice from being heard by altering or eliminating your written or spoken words. A 1-star review of your book from a customer on Amazon? Not censorship. The moderator of a privately-maintained web forum banning you for spamming your books, trolling, or otherwise bringing more trouble to the community than useful discussion? Also not censorship. So the idea that the science fiction and fantasy community responding with outrage to a brazenly sexist article is somehow censorship? Utterly ludicrous.
Ferrett’s essay is a good one and definitely worth a read. Too often, people who come from backgrounds of privilege and act as allies for women or minorities use that act of speaking out against social injustice in the past as proof that they’re “okay” and no longer need to engage in self-examination on the subject. Having “unlocked the achievement” of “civil rights demonstrator” or “marriage equality proponent” or “women’s rights defender” they allow themselves to become complacent.
That isn’t how it works, though, and it is a mark of privilege to be able rest on the laurels of your youthful pursuit of social justice, to pretend you have done your part and that nothing further is required of you. I have often said that certain battles are not won in a single lifetime but are fought from generation to generation. As a person of privilege, some of that is convincing people of your generation to dial back their -isms and force them to face their sexism or racism or homophobia (or countless other issues). A fair chunk of that is preventing toxic values from poisoning the next generations. But a key part of that is recognizing that you will go through your entire life fighting your own prejudices and will never truly defeat them. You can only quarantine them and attempt to do as little harm as possible (and as much good as you can manage), hopefully leaving the next generation better equipped to carry the torch into a more just society.
Women’s suffrage was a victory, certainly, but it was not the end of sexism. The Civil Rights Movement advanced the cause of African Americans in this country, but it didn’t end racism (neither did electing a black President, by the way). The fact that gay and lesbian couples are commonplace on network TV is great news for the LGBT community, and the flurry of marriage equality laws is encouraging (go Minnesota!), but those Ts have a long fight ahead of them before they have anything like equal rights under the law even compared to cissexual (i.e. not trans*) gays and lesbians (who still face strong opposition to their mere existence).
Having once been considered an ally does not give you a pass to ignore the battle you must fight with yourself. No matter how instrumental you might have been in advancing a social justice cause, you must still live with and work against your own prejudices and not apologize for the prejudices of others who share your privilege.
We can always do more. We can always be better people. We are never, ever washed clean.
First off, I am the definition of the privileged class in this country – white, male, straight, well-educated, not poor. I grew up in an area with “socially conservative values,” which means that until I was in college I had never met an openly gay or lesbian person. My position on the topic quickly evolved into “these folks are just folks,” and I just kept making more LGBT friends (and straight ones, too) as life went on. Two women very close to my wife and me happen to be a lesbian couple. They’re awesome, and we ultimately asked them to be our son’s godparents. When the marriage equality bill in Minnesota finally gave them the right to marry under the law, I can’t tell you how happy I was for them.
But it doesn’t change the fact that when I was growing up “gay” was thrown at me and others as a derogatory term. I have in my memory from childhood a dozen or more jokes the punchlines of which are, in essence, “it’s funny because he’s gay.” There’s some awful, toxic stuff floating around in my brain that I absorbed because I was a kid, and that’s what kids do. I can say it doesn’t change the way I behave, but I can’t say it doesn’t change the way my internal monologue runs even if I choose not to act on its lies.
I think that as soon as you lose sight of that, as soon as you convince yourself that you’ve paid your dues and “solved” sexism/racism/homophobia you are lost as an ally. I don’t want the government to engage in censorship because it introduces so many problems, but there are good reasons to call people on the bullshit they picked up along the way and don’t realize is a symptom of the underlying problem. Because even if you can’t cure the disease it is worthwhile to prevent it from spreading to others.
And it’s a whole lot simpler to call yourself on your own bullshit rather than wait until the community you think owes you its gratitude wastes its time and energy trying to explain to you why what you said was not helpful.