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Thursday, February 02, 2012

The West's Third World Others (or, Hey, Thailand Has Prostitutes, What's the Big Deal?)

The latest shitstorm in the SF/F community comes in response to acrackedmoon's criticism of Pat's (of Pat's Fantasy Hotlist) controversial perspectives on Thailand and travel (acrackedmoon offers a counter here).  The short version:
Pat reinforces some stereotypes about Thailand and non-Western culture, some of them through sexist and/or racist lenses, gets called out on it without the bells and whistles of mutual respect, and then posts a rebuttal under the threat that he "will monitor the comment section," which turns out to be code language for "I'll let anyone who wants to call acrackedmoon a dirty name, etc. post whatever they want, even if they're full of shit."
A part of me wants to bring in every postcolonial non-fiction book I have ever read in order to tear apart Pat's original post and his response, but the amount of effort needed to do that should probably be spent on more productive measures.  But I am going to say something here by way of an insufficient summary and an insufficient criticism of my own.

I should note that I don't know Pat.  He may very well be a nice fellow.  But people these days aren't judged by the selves we don't get to see, but by the selves presented to the public.  Any claim that "Pat is a nice guy in real life" seems to miss the point entirely:  if you're not a racist, sexist, or whatever-ist in your personal life, then why would you use your public persona for non-satirical, non-parodic opinions about other people's cultures?  acrackedmoon is right in more ways than one, but the accuracy of her (?) criticisms seems to have fallen victim to the "you could have said this without being a bitch" argument (and the "bitch" is not implied, but spoken -- see the comments on Pat's blog).

Is Pat a racist/sexist/etc.?  Yes.  But so am I, so are you, and so is everybody (don't bother suggesting otherwise; you are and you have to deal with that, and not because you're white or a man -- everyone is racist, sexist, etc.).  Perhaps not to the same degree, but enough to reasonably say that none of us are "pure."  Does Pat know he has racist/sexist/etc. opinions?  No idea.  I know I have them, but because I am aware, I try to challenge them when they spring up, to varying degrees of success.  Is Pat challenging his?  It doesn't seem so.  His response is all defense and no (or few) admissions.

One rather interesting response to this comes from of a literary discussion of Forrest Gander's Core Samples of the World from OF Blog of the Fallen (a.k.a. Larry, the Book Eater):
Recently, there was a post that took another blogger to task for his depiction of her native Thailand (and his views on Islam and near-slavering over this "Girls of Geek" calendar).  When reading Gander's prose-poem and the passage I quote above, I could not help but note the complete difference of approach between him and Pat.  Where Gander notes the discomfort and explicitly states how "the foreigner can't control his situation; mastery eludes him," Pat in his response to the Requires Hate posts does anything but acknowledge his obliviousness to how his words showed a callous disregard for a complex situation.  No, the narrative there is that he was just pointing out an uncomfortable "truth" about the sex tourism industry over there (while neglecting to point out or being very unaware that sex trafficking is a very serious problem in both the United States and his native Canada).  Of course, the way he put it was taken as very condescending at the very least, not just by acrackedmoon, but by several others who read it.  But what happened is that there was no communication to hint that hey, ya know, maybe a native's perspective might just be more valuable in this case than someone who, like the people in the Holiday Inn commercials, think that they "know" a culture or society just because they visited a few places over a period of days, weeks, or months.
Problem is that it takes several years at least for an outsider to become acutely aware of an insider's perspective.  Lord knows that in 2012 there are still all sorts of Mississippi Burning or Deliverance jokes told about my native American South region.  Oh, sometimes there'll be that bright, enlightened person who wants to sound all sympathetic and say "I am impressed by how much you've changed since the KKK days," in that grating tone that seems to accompany an elderly adult patting the head of a young child who is tempted to kick that oldster's shins but has to refrain from doing so because s/he'll be in big trouble.  It is understandable that after a while of being talked down to, as if an adult from another society/culture were a gifted child, you grow tired of being polite and being deferential to the irritating dumbfucks who can't bother themselves to learn more than the most superficial aspects of your culture/society.
(Read his full post if you want to see what else he has to say.) 
That's a fairly long quote, but one that, I think, gets to heart of the matter without running the risk of that evil "tone argument."  Those of us who live in the West, who benefit from its inherent privileges, must be willing to interrogate that very position in order to get beyond, or at least to work through, our biases about elsewhere.*  Issues of degree don't seem terribly relevant to me when it comes to generalized opinions of a foreign land.  Does it matter that prostitution is less visible in the West than it is in Thailand?  No, especially in light of the West's involvement in the development of prostitution in Southeast Asia (do some research on Vietnam and South Korea if you want to see how America essentially turned a nominal, fairly normal human occurrence into a disturbingly common practice).**

That, to me, seems to be the underlying problem with all that is Pat.  Someone criticizes his position, challenges his biases and privileges, and his response isn't to think about the implications of his words -- how they might affect someone from the place in question -- but to launch a defense which, far from refuting acrackedmoon's criticisms, seems only to reinforce the stereotypes and biases one should be willing to break down and think through.  This is all damned even further by the quality of comments approved on Pat's rebuttal, the majority of which seem to appeal only to the project of soothing Pat's damaged ego by way of distortions, false arguments, more racism and sexism, and so on.***

Events like the one above, the one recently begun at (and continued here), and every RaceFail or GenderFail, real or imagined, should make us really think about what we want out of our community, and whether we're willing to challenge the darkness attached to genre's back.  Is this the face of science fiction and fantasy that we want to revere?  Or do we want a more sensible future?

That's up to the fans.  My money's on decades more of this stuff...


*And, for those of us who believe we live in some version of a "melting pot," we should interrogate those biases/privileges at home.
**I want to be clear that I know very little about Thailand.  I use it here only because it is central to the discussion.  You're free to correct me for historical accuracy, but I make no claim here that I am an expert.  I defer to people who live there and people who have studied the country, not to people who happened to have travel there for a few weeks.
***I don't subscribe to the opinion that the "tone argument" is necessarily invalid.  I only think it's invalid when made by someone missing critical levels of knowledge.  Mutual respect, for me, comes from mutual understanding, even if that understanding comes with disagreements.  In the case of this event, I think the "tone argument" is invalid-because-of-ignorance.  If you can't admit that you might have said something sexist or racist or problematic, then you can't presume to speak to reasonable discussion.  To be reasonable is to be willing to interrogate yourself when your behavior is called out.  That doesn't mean you have to agree, but it does mean that you have to at least try to understand where another is coming from.  If you can't do that, then you can't argue "tone" in my opinion.

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