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Thursday, February 06, 2014

Moderating the Community and the Cost of Respect

In a recent blog post, Alastair Reynolds took on what he perceives to be the instantaneous vitriol that peppers (or, perhaps, consumes) the SF/F community on a regular basis.  Hence the title:  "Does it have to be this way?"  It's essentially an argument for moderation by way of a questioning of the current state of discussion in this community, and it's an interesting question to ask.

Does it have to be this way?  No.  That's kind of the point.  Most of these discussions don't have to begin and end with vitriol, though I think some of them require a certain firmness and uncompromising language (some).  In fact, it's entirely reasonable to expect two people from different camps to have a reasonable discussion about a hot topic and come out having actually learned something (I do this on G+ all the time).  I've certainly been guilty of jumping without much care to where I land, and it's something that I've tried to rectify to avoid the trap of attack over substance (it's an ongoing process).  I'm certainly not successful on all counts, and it has taken some degree of effort to hone my pouncing instincts so I'm not pouncing when I should be doing something else.  Even then, I try to pick my battles with some degree of care.

I'm sympathetic, then, to Reynold's question and implied argument:  there is some need for, if not value in, moderating the community, especially in situations when the benefit of the doubt is actually necessary.  This is something I've started to consider further in my own case, as even I have had a tendency to leap into things, believing I'm in the right, when I may be doing more harm than good.  After all, it is possible I've misread situations, seeing what is obviously offensive to me, but missing what was the intention.  That's not to suggest that intention gets one out of doing something boneheaded, mind you, but I do think intention should be taken into account more often than it is within our community.  If our community did more of that, perhaps we'd have more dialogue between various groups.

For example, there's the response to Paul Kemp's original masculinity argument (which I sort of responded to here).  I think there are serious issues with what he claimed, particularly in the assumptions he raised and reinforced in order to get to his point, but I also went into that discussion realizing Kemp's intentions were not malignant.  I understood the point he was trying to make, and so I tried to address that point without actually dealing with the individual (in part because I've talked with Kemp in the past and can't see Kemp as deliberately "starting shit," though his most recent post on this subject has thrown me for a loop).  Even Alex MacFarlane's post on non-binary SF (which I responded to here) contains arguments I think are stretching; but the intention behind that post was, overall, a good one.  The responses to MacFarlane's post, however, have been, at least where the "opposition" is concerned, hardly measured.  In some cases, they have been downright mean and accusatory, as if their authors were personally offended by the content of MacFarlane's argument.  I'll admit that it's probably easy to find the patience for intention when it comes from someone with whom you're likely to already agree, but every time I read MacFarlane's post, I cannot fathom why some of the responses have been so vitriolic.

Except now.  Now, I'm starting to understand.  Now, I recognize part of the trend in so many ragefests in our community (from any side).  Sometimes moderation doesn't work because the parties involved have sacrificed respect for the other in the service of whatever point they want to make.  And in the face of that, it is impossible to take a moderate position (in the loosest sense -- discussion over attack) when the thing to which you are responding has already committed offense without consideration of its impact.  In Reynolds' post, for example, one commenter basically implied that they should be able to identify a transgender person by their biologically defined sex and attending gender without push back by others. Reynolds rightly called this person out for the comment, and it is still there as of the writing of this post.

These sorts of arguments are almost explicit in their rejection of empathy and respect for another individual.  The opinion isn't the concern; rather, it is the complete disinterest in the personal desires of the individual.  In this argument, it doesn't matter what a transgender person feels or prefers; what matters is what is "the majority opinion" or "whatever suits my personal opinion of the matter."  That's problematic on its own.  Yet, this same argument either implies or explicitly states that refusing the empathic or respectful position deserves absolute respect and compromise for itself.  It's an argument for consequence-free social action, which itself is a justification not for moderation, but the extreme.  Yet, when this is pointed out to people who reject en mass the entirety of gender as a fluid social construct, they refuse, even on grounds of empathy, to give way, and become further entrenched.  It is as if the very idea of a transgender person being offended by being ignored and rejected out of hand is an offense in and of itself.

For me, much of this comes down to the cost.  It is one thing to demand respect for a position which directly affects others in a negative sense.  If, for example, I were to demand respect for my position that we should boot all libertarians from the SFWA because I think they're fascist pig monkeys (note:  I do not actually believe this), you would be right in giving me no ground whatsoever, especially if you are a libertarian.  But what exactly is lost by calling someone by the gender they believe they are?  I mean that question seriously:  what is lost by compromising on this point?  It costs us nothing to say "well, you want me to use the female pronoun, so I shall do so."  It costs us nothing to acknowledge that individuals are different from ourselves and, in most cases, deserve respect on that front alone.

But it does cost us something to ignore our natural empathic responses and reduce people to our own personal representations.  It's a social cost, and one everyone has to pay when they screw up.  We all pay those costs, but the point of paying a cost for bad or harmful social action (generally speaking) is to learn from it.  Those who don't shouldn't be surprised if others feel disrespected by what they say.  And if they're not surprised, you have to wonder why they won't give even that little bit of ground when it costs them absolutely nothing.

Moderation, in other words, requires reasoned respect.

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  1. An attempt to answer your question: "But what exactly is lost by calling someone by the gender they believe they are? I mean that question seriously: what is lost by compromising on this point?"

    I think what those who reject gender fluidity in principle THINK that they're sacrificing by compromising here - and please note I don't believe this myself, but I'm confident this is a primary motivator for the objections of the other side - is what they perceive and common sense observations of reality. Also the simplicity of direct communication and identification.

    For example, in the opposition's minds this is possibly comparable (if not really equitable) to authors demanding the ability to define the categorization of their own work. Margaret Atwood wants to refuse that Oryx and Crake is Science Fiction, no it's not, because she doesn't write that and she doesn't feel that or think that or whichever. On the one hand, an author is certainly free to express what they personally think something is, but it becomes a question of why anyone should be able to self-define for everyone else what something should be labeled, addressed as, and how it's proper to talk about it and communicate about it, especially when many others look at the thing and think "Well, it walks like a duck, and talks like a duck...". I think for many people, anything that smacks of this smacks of a sort of censorship driven by pure selfishness or self-interest that tries to bypass common sense expressions that people use to share reality with each other.

    Now an author's work is still not the author themselves, and when you begin to talk about a person as an individual person, that personal quality changes a lot of the equation, and this is where those of us who believe that gender fluidity is not in conflict with anything else tend to feel personal happiness and well-being trump mildly irritating side effects like reality not being as simple as previously accepted. The resistance, though, I think stems not from a dislike of complexity, per se, but from the perception that the world isn't more complex, we're simply allowing too many individual whims to whimsically dictate how complex our perception of the world must be. And whine and give us crap when we think they're just being selfish whiny snots for changing reality just because they "feel" like it. (Again, not what I personally believe, but this is the sense I get, and what I've culled from previous arguments about this topic)

    1. You hit the nail on the head here:

      "Now an author's work is still not the author themselves, and when you begin to talk about a person as an individual person, that personal quality changes a lot of the equation, and this is where those of us who believe that gender fluidity is not in conflict with anything else tend to feel personal happiness and well-being trump mildly irritating side effects like reality not being as simple as previously accepted."

      And I think that mentality comes from a profound lack of respect or empathy for individual happiness, especially in situations where giving that respect is better for everyone anyway.