Friday, April 15, 2011

Deconstructing Sheri Tepper's 2008 Interview with Strange Horizons

So, someone asked me what was so offensive about Tepper's interview. After reading her comments, I'm convinced that it might actually be helpful to some people if I did a deconstruction. I don't usually fisk things because it's a format I usually find boring, but it seemed like the best way to come at this.

I'm not going to post the whole thing here, but I still think writing about racism in feminist science fiction is, you know, relevant to the whole Aqueduct Press thing, so I wanted to post some of it here. The rest is at my livejournal.

In sum: This is not a well-researched, annotated, considered response. This is off the cuff, based only on the information I have at hand to draw. I didn't fact even fact check myself. But even if some points are weak or badly stated (quite possible), I think this establishes the rudimentary foundations for why I found Tepper's argument so desperately offensive.

Any given one of these comments I'm criticizing may not be so bad. Certainly, some of them are much, much worse than others. Taken all together, they suggest a certain amount of authoritarianism and black and white thinking, ignorance of or willingness to ignore context & culture, and lots and lots of racism.


Was she ranting? I don't know? Maybe she was ranting? I get ranting and, you know, if what she said wasn't meant for a literal reading then yay?... but her books mirror these points of view and it's clearly something she's thought out so it's not like "she got on a tear and just went with it." If this is a recurring rant, even one not meant to be taken seriously, she should probably consider the ways in which ableism/etc are fundamentally integrated into it.

Mother Teresa would have done more for humanity by convincing the poor of India to use birth control than she did by being sainted.

So. Of course, this exists in a world in which the stuff Nicoll is talking about in the other thread (first comment) also exists. So, that's point one. Basically point two is that westerners are extremely keen on telling brown people especially, and poor people generally, how many babies they should have because OTHERWISE DOOM. People from those populations push back at the idea by, you know, pointing out that the kind of ecological impact from an Indian child is nowhere like the kind of ecological impact from the average American child. We do not need to prevent brown people from having children in order to save the world; given the history of A) colonialism generally and B) white people attempting to prevent brown people from having children, the fact that this is a popular talking point solution is very disturbing. Additionally, research indicates that birth rates lower when women are given economic resources and education. The idea that one should take away options from women, rather than giving them options--all in order to achieve the same effect--is not awesome. Also, at one point, IIRC, (I don't know if it's still true), India had a number of political seats reserved for women (good) but whether or not women could access them was dependent on how many kids they'd had (not good), and Tepper's comments exist in that world. (ETA: This is apparently incorrect--see also: apologies for the misinformation and for my misconception. Thanks to @jayaprakash) Tepper may not be aware of this shit, but at some point, if she's advocating policies that require taking over the bodies of poor brown people, it sort of becomes her obligation to be aware.

and, they are tribal. Tribal religions, languages, and cultures are bad news. No one with any sense would ever start a war with a tribal country because you would never have any way of knowing who the enemy is at any given time. It took Bill Clinton a few short weeks to figure this out. Bush will never figure it out if he lives to be a hundred. You can conquer and dominate a tribal country, as "the Raj" did in India, but you cannot "work with it" to instill democracy or any other "-cracy." And if you turn over a country to a tribal people, it turns overnight into a tyranny with one tribe dominant.

Ooooookay. So, religions that she detests have features in common. This could be not so racist; e.g. American Christianity could be one of those religions. But one of the features these religions share is being tribal, a word associated with brown people, and sure enough, they are immediately & directly put in contrast with white Americans. Then we have this interesting "you can't work with tribal people" thing which puts them in contrast to white people who apparently can be worked with? India is not a democracy because it is a tyranny with a single dominant tribe? By the rules set out here, America ISN'T a tyranny with a single dominant tribe? You can't "turn the country over" to brown people because they will run it wrong? Seriously?

Regarding the money quote:

Humans cannot purposefully injure others. They have to be capable, once adults, of controlling what they do. Persons who look human but who are uncontrollable or who habitually hurt other people will no longer be defined as human.

Okay. So. Humans who habitually hurt other people will no longer be defined as human. Someone said in your other thread that it must be very hard to see people as inherently good and realize, daily, that they aren't. Sometimes people are complex. Sometimes humans habitually hurt people in some ways and do other stuff, too. So, let's chalk this up to black and white thinking, but I'm going to basically give it to her with the assumption that if she was explicating, she would define what "habitually hurt" means (does colonialism count?)

Then there's the whole "controlling what they do" thing. This is where the ableism/crazy bit comes in, esp because she later uses the word crazy in what appears to be an explication of what "can't control yourself" means. A generous reading indicates that she means that she's declassifying people who HURT OTHERS because they can't control what they do, but that's not exactly what she said. She said OR. I hope OR wasn't what she meant. It probably wasn't. Right? But invoking crazy people and then talking about eugenics (via forced sterilization) also invokes this lovely history America has of forcibly sterilizing people in institutions. Have you read WOMAN ON THE EDGE OF TIME? I assume so? Classification of uncontrollable or crazy is influenced by cultural factors. See also: drapetomania. But more troubling is that the kind of walled city she later invokes reads like some of the abuses perpetuated (historically and contemporarily) by institutions. She's advocating for the kind of cruel treatment crazy people already sometimes get. Again, maybe all this is unintentional, but when you're making this argument, especially while taking on the mantle of advocating in the name of social justice, it's sort of incumbent on you not to stomp on the necks of already oppressed groups, yeah?

Every person born of human parents is not necessarily human. Those born to other parents might be, however. Probably the bonobos are human.

...I expect this was just… a turn of phrase… but it does also suggest that she thinks of some humans (based on behavior) as lower than non-humans (who are not being judged by behavior). Race implications of saying humans one does not like are not people, particularly then going on to invoke ape imagery? And also in, as someone in your earlier thread said, the context of black men in prison populations like the proposed walled city? Like whoa. See also: PETA campaigns where slaves are compared to chickens; lynched men to hung meat; Jews to penned pigs.

The cities for nonhumans will not get overcrowded because the inhabitants will probably kill each other off fairly regularly.


Seriously, what the fuck? This is the logic that makes prison rape an ongoing nightmare. This is the logic that chains jailed women giving birth. This is the logic that feeds prisoners green meat. This is the logic that waterboards, that puts prisoners in stress positions, that pries off their fingernails, that presses them with weights, that carves out their organs before putting them in the fire.

And another thing. Look, if you're a radical, then police brutality is something you should be fucking aware of. State abuses are something you should be aware of! Police killing black people on a regular basis and not being punished for it is something you should be aware of. I don't know if I agree with the prison abolition argument, but it's there; it's this progressive idea that demands response when someone talking about social justice is making an argument about the awesomeness of deliberately violent prisons. Is the violence of the system really that much more awesome than the violence perpetuated by individuals?

Are all the arguments about the death penalty going out the window, too? The death penalty applies for everything? Really? Super really? And it's just okay? And I don't think judging fantasies by the real world is always awesome, but with all this other shit going on, too, I really have to ask--in this real world, wherein black people are imprisoned at enormous rates, wherein the apportionment of the death penalty is vastly influenced by race and class, wherein people who are determined to have significant cognitive impairments are killed… is it really a great idea to argue that whatever, it's fine for anyone who contravenes Tepper law to just die?

Walled cities will be built in the wastelands and all nonhuman persons will be sterilized and sent to live there, together, raising their own food

Yay forcible sterilization. This might be less disturbing if so many of her books did not have "yay eugenics" themes. Just ranting? Maybe? But she rants like this a lot. And it's somehow super easier for white, first world ladies to come back to the idea that "oh, eugenics could really work IF ONLY WE IMPLEMENTED IT CORRECTLY" than it is for people who, you know, MIGHT BE SUBJECTED TO IT.

There will be no chat about this sequestration being "inhumane," because the persons so confined are not human by definition… The cities for nonhumans will not get overcrowded because the inhabitants will probably kill each other off fairly regularly.

As Heron said on my blog, "I've yet to see an exception to the rule that anyone who is willing to definite some adults as not-human &/or inherently deserving of exclusion or limited civil rights is not worth listening to." And as Grace Annam said on Alas, "Every OTHER time in human history when we penned certain classes of people into concentration camps … excuse me, “walled cities”, it worked out so well. What could go wrong?"

Sorry, angry capital letters coming: IT IS NOT OKAY TO REDEFINE SOME PEOPLE AS NOT HUMAN AND THEN TAKE PLEASURE IN IMAGINING THEM SUBJECTED TO VIOLENCE. This is why the doctrine of hell is creepy as fuck! She says earlier in the interview that "We all see how the afterlife bit is playing out today"—well, what is this fantasy of walling people who hurt others off and letting them be tortured except what is, effectively, a veiled version of hell?

Just a rant? Maybe. Maybe just a rant. Certainly better if it's a rant! But a rant that supports eugenics from a woman who writes books where eugenics is a solution that works. A rant that supports authoritarianism from a woman that claims to hate it. A rant about how some people aren't really human from someone who claims to be interested in social justice. A rant that classifies addicts and the mentally ill as less than other people. A rant that, hey, revels in torture and pain because apparently Tepper finds imagining that satisfying.

Who's going choosing to go to hell so they can revel in describing the awful?


Josh said...

It's remarkable how one can try so hard to do charitable readings of such texts (mine was "Okay, I guess ehs's just making an ironic criticism of Mother Teresa's habit of going to the world's poorest countries and telling people not to use birth control and to obey their dictators") and then, at some point, it clicks that OMG HER BELIEFS ARE RILLY THIS EVIL! I guess that's what Engels meant by "the transformation of quantity into quality."

NM said...

Is it okay for me to post my comment here, as I did on your LJ? If so, here we go. (If not, please delete.)

Your post is more a close reading than a deconstruction :P

What's interesting is her use of the word equity, which implies both ownership—particularly an accounting of ownership—and in English law the ability to appeal to king to find a better remedy than available under common law. Even in the middle ages, common law and equity tempered one another—she seeks to throw the world into equity, which can eliminate all precedent and notion of rights thanks to arbitrary decisions. (Equity rulings in England were wildly diverse once the kings started delegating to chancellors.) So how can she side both with the strictest form of capitalism and the wildest form of law while claiming radicalism-well, equity is not just polysemic but at its root (aequus) means "fair"...or equal. So she's able to take the notion of equality and transform it into a strict accounting of who has the right to hold property—the property of the self—and then make arbitrary decisions based on some ultimately religious notion of justice and damn tons of people, including the mentally ill, to hell on earth and rape alleys.


Timmi Duchamp said...

Reading this post reminded me of the bits I heard of Tepper's GoH speech at WisCon 22. I came into it late, so I missed at least some of it. As it was going on, I & the friend I was with exchanged incredulous looks. It was really, truly creepy. Just now, trying (& failing) to find the speech online, I ran across a post that mentions its creepiness:

Since that was only the second WisCon I attended, it imbued me with a rather odd attitude that I eventually learned to discard: an indifference to hearing WisCon GoH speeches. Tepper's speech was, I soon discovered, far from representative of GoH speeches, in that when WisCon GoHs talk politics, they usually don't support such totally vile agendas.

Rachel Swirsky said...

Yeah, sure, no worries.

I think you have a really good point; I just wasn't sure I could add to it.