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Saturday, November 30, 2013

Diversity is Not a Selfie (or, Amazing Stories + Felicity Savage = Here We Go Again)

Apparently Amazing Stories has become a version of controversy bingo.  Attacks on liberals?  Check.  Attacks on subgenres?  Check.  Attacks on women?  Check.  Attacks on people of color?  And check...

I'm obviously not going to link to the story here.  Instead, I'll point you to "Diversity is not Narcissism:  A Response to Felicity Savage" at The Other Side of the Rain, "Mirror, Mirror:  Quien Soy?" by Silvia Moreno-Garcia, and "False Equivalence:  Selfies and Diversity in SFF" at Radish Reviews.  They've covered much of what I'm going to babble about here, though I'll try to add to that existing discussion.[1]

So here goes.

Savage begins her diatribe by discussing the validity of "selfies," an understandably amusing practice which has become the subject of much parodying.  Of course, Savage doesn't note that selfies have also been used for arts projects, such as the numerous videos on YouTube in which
the user takes a single picture of themselves everyday for a set period of time -- the purpose of these videos is not unlike a self-portrait, which Savage raises to "art" status, albeit in the form of a time capture.

You might wonder what selfies have to do with diversity in SF/F. You'd be right to wonder just that, as the analogy Savage wishes us to buy into is already fallacious from the outset, as the purpose of a selfie, as she  defines it, bears little resemblance to the purpose of diversity projects like Expanded Horizons or the various other magazines which have posted diversity policies.  In Savage's own words, a selfie is as follows:
The principle here is a familiar one. The harder you try to look good the worse you will actually look. The pictures on the left and right illustrate of the difference between a self-portrait and a selfie. Hint: the self-portrait is the one where the subject isn’t trying to look good. 
Selfies remove objectivity from the subject-artist loop of creation. Add in a professional photographer or portrait artist and beauty happens. Conversely, grotesquerie is inherent in the selfie creation process, this having been reduced to a mirror-gazing session.
What does this have to do with diversity in SF/F?  Well, Savage doesn't exactly say.  She throws out a random line about the community seeming like a hall of mirrors, and then conveniently changes topic, leaving the weak analogy in place, but without even the attempt at explication.  The only other line that references the several-paragraph description of selfies is a throwaway I'll come back to later.

The implication of these first paragraphs, however, is quite clear.  If we're to take the analogy as it is presented, then Savage believes seeking out diversity in SF/F is grotesque in the same way as a selfie:  it is without objectivity; it is without art; it is simply staring into a mirror.  We're off to a good start, no?

The central premise of Savage's argument is simply this:  attempting to create diversity by deliberately seeking out non-white and/or non-male writers is narcissism of the highest order:
But the call for diversity is usually interpreted with deadly literal-mindedness as a call for more characters who are female / black / Asian / what have you. Why are we all so keen to see ourselves on the page?
Never mind that people of all colors and genders (let alone orientations) are calling for diversity, and leave it to Savage to conveniently forget that these variations of self are merely variations of the human, let alone that the default subject has historically been white and male.  That we are seeing exceptions to that rule makes those variations no less valid or important than the stock standard white dude.  Savage, of course, seems remarkably oblivious to the impact of fiction or imagery on a population's view of different peoples.  There's a reason by the Romani people are still viewed so unfavorably, and it's not because there's something inherently wrong with them.  The public image of Romani people, as fed to us through the arts and other mediums, is rarely positive; culture undeniably functions via transmittal, and the most effective way to do so is through various forms of media.  The narratives of colonization were transmitted through written travelogues, art, advertising, and so on; these held, in many cases, for centuries.  In the U.S., the image of the "lazy negro" persisted well into the 20th Century, supported by plantation propaganda in the form of comical advertisements (look up "negro with watermelon" for an example) and so on.  The dominant class, whoever that may be, will always seek transmittal of their cultural values.[2]

The production of such diversity in admittedly artificial.  Savage, however, seems to believe diversification in such artificial terms destroys SF/F's image by reducing it to the literary equivalent of a drug-addicted celebrity:  "Just don’t stare into the mirror too long or your reflection may start to look like a trout-pouted minor celebrity with a cocaine hangover."  She likewise criticizes Expanded Horizons as a space for mixing and matching "your preferred ethnic / sexual identifiers to create your very own comfort zone."  The point, however, is quite clear:  diversity is actually a bad thing.  Either it is a form of tokenism -- a legitimate problem -- or it destroys the face of genre.

The latter of these two problems is an attack on diversification as a process, as it seems to suggest that a challenge against the status quo -- inserting people of color or women into roles which had previously been dominated by white men -- violates the sanctity of a pure space of difference.  This becomes more clear when Savage writes the following:
What speculative fiction does well is diversity on the species level. Our aliens, dragons, orcs, and even or especially our far-future selves ask us, in as many ways as there are books, what it means to be human.
The pure space of difference -- a largely white and male space -- is challenged by diversity only in situations when the purity can be preserved.  So long as difference is actualized through the inhuman other -- robots, dragons, aliens, etc. -- diversity is OK, but the moment you inject human questions that actualize difference within the species, suddenly you have violated what is the natural inflection of the very question.  The human question, in other words, is a question of the status quo; it is a question of whiteness and maleness, as the dominant representation -- the very representation diversity projects attempt to challenge by way of the pollination of human selves -- is and has been white and male[3].  That Savage thinks this means "we're all in this together" is merely a delusion of presence.  To imagine that human experience can be mediated only through the white male in opposition to inhuman beings is to suggest that diversity is an unnecessary project.  Why worry about diversity when we can all just imagine humanity through one representation of its myriad forms?  That we implicitly know this is a falsehood in relation to any other sort of physically differentiated species of animal seems forgotten.  Mind you, this is not explicitly Savage's argument, but it is the one that is implied throughout; she might disagree that the status quo is white and male, but that doesn't change the fact that it is and that its preservation is merely apologetics of the worst sort.

Savage's other points are no less valid in context.  Her contention that we should "spare a wee drop of compassion for the straight, white, able-bodied, cis-gendered male" because "he’s lectured on his lack of diversity, told to read more stories about and by people with diverse perspectives–and yet when he tries to approach them in real life, it all too often … doesn’t end well" is little more than a sort of crude anti-diversity apologetics.  And the paragraph in which it appears is essentially a giant hasty generalization of the problems diversity produces, as if attempts to create safe spaces for PoCs or the occasional flack white males might experience when walking themselves into a wall when they should have known better is representative of the entire experience of diversity.  Savage, out of necessity, must leave out any discussion of PoCs and women and QUILTBAG people who are quite happy to see people like themselves engaged in the adventures of SF/F.  Ignore the value this might produce for a culture or a group because it is inconvenient to one's argument.

True, one of SF/F's strengths is its ability to represent the other, but it is also strongest when it best represents humanity as it is.  When we account for the actual, we create new environments of engagement which offer a real challenge to the dominant paradigms of the human.  Diversity of this type is good for us.  It makes us better people.  It allows us to see how others experience the world or the fantastic.  It exposes the paradigms and questions that plague humanity in all its forms.  Savage is completely wrong when she suggests that "nothing is gained by mapping our fragmented ethnic and sexual identities onto our fiction with the fidelity of a cellphone camera photo."  Perhaps if she'd asked some people of color or gay people or women, she might have understood the value diversity brings with it.  Instead, she wrote an illogical, anti-diversity screed.  Color me immensely disappointed.


[1]:  My assertions will be based off of what is written in Savage's post.  It is entirely possible the content of the post is not a reflection of the author's actual views, or at least not an accurate reflection of those views.  As such, I won't argue that Savage is racist or sexist, as these are charges for which I do not have enough information.

[2]:  Not all forms of cultural transmission are bad, mind you.  Right now, we are witnessing a positive form of that transmission in the gay rights movement; increasingly, young people are reaching voting age without the prejudices of their parents in tact, in no small part because their isolated teen/youth culture has discarded that older ideology in droves.

[3]:  In the West most of all.

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