Saturday, September 25, 2010

The Politics of Discourse (feminist and otherwise)

Anyone familiar with online discussion knows that it takes only one person in a particular venue to poison or stunt an interesting, thoughtful conversation among half a dozen or even two or three dozen people. It has happened a lot on the internet and is the reason most discussion groups have moderators and most bloggers moderate their comments. Arguably, the success of an online discussion depends heavily on the care and skill with which the discussion is moderated. This is often true for panels at science fiction conventions, too.*

Many individual moderators and bloggers may be savvy to the difficulties of creating and preserving a space for open, constructive conversation, but this is obviously not the case in the larger public sphere. Over the last nine years in the United States, extremist speech has proliferated throughout many areas of the internet as well as the public sphere, and the major "news" media have come to love extremist speech (as long as it's right-wing), especially when its racist or homophobic. There have always been right-wing extremists in the United States, but they've seldom been allowed to dominate public discourse as they do now.

One might argue that the reason right-wing extremists are now dominating public discourse is that the news media have decided that right-wing extremism serves the important functions of distorting our sense of the political spectrum and drowning out the conversations we would otherwise be having. Certainly that's how it's working for the larger political picture. How often, for instance, do journalists engage in consideration of the human rights issues that were so pressing in the run-up to the last presidential election-- issues that the Obama Administration have refused to confront? Or the dire environmental crisis that the extremists persist in denying? Or the chicanery in the financial sector that has thrown millions of people out of work and into poverty? Countering ridiculous disinformation is an endless treadmill of distraction.

My take on the politics of discourse in both the public and the blogosphere has shaped my sense of the impact the Elizabeth Moon controversy may have on WisCon 35. Over the years, WisCon's concom has helped to create and preserve a space for open, constructive conversation. Their success in doing this has made WisCon the unique event and place that it is. Creating and preserving a space for open, constructive conversation is not the concom's only role, but it is surely an important one. And so as a regular attendee of WisCon, I read with care the WisCon 35 co-chairs' statement to the WisCon Community, addressing the subject of Elizabeth Moon's post, in the latest issue of e-Cube e-Cube. They write:
We know that opinions are not changed by running away from them, but instead by engaging with them, challenging their assumptions, sharing knowledge, seeking understanding, and by lively and candid discourse. And we think that provides a pretty good short description of a typical WisCon.

One might say that WisCon excels at the difficult conversation -- and sometimes the hardest conversation is with an idol who turns out to be human. We have begun addressing our difference of views with Ms. Moon directly, and will continue to do so over the coming months and at the con itself. We hope you will join us in this difficult conversation.
Extremist speech like Elizabeth Moon's is threatening and harmful in itself to individuals, as the co-chairs acknowledge. But what the co-chairs do not acknowledge is that extremist speech is extremely detrimental when it is allowed into particular discourses. Many people at WisCon have over the last several years worked diligently to make WisCon inclusive not only of those who are othered in the larger culture but also in its discourse. Making WisCon's discourse more fully inclusive means finally beginning to move beyond the same-old bingo card exchanges that go on constantly in the culture at large, to a different sort of conversational framework that enables truly open conversation. I don't know Elizabeth Moon personally, and I don't know what she has said to the concom to make them believe that allowing WisCon discourse to be dominated by the issue of her ignorance will generate a conversation in any way worth the tax, but judging by her ignorant, extremist post (which is all we have to go on at the moment), it will be like trying to have a "conversation" with a Fox "News" pundit.

The fact that Elizabeth Moon summarily and indiscriminately erased every comment to her post, which she at the same time left standing, argues that even that limited form of conversation is unwelcome to her. On the basis of that act, the prospects for even "difficult conversation" are dim-- even if she does, belatedly, issue an apology (as Nisi Shawl hopes she will do).

Imagine if the concom had invited someone who had spouted off a Larry Summers-type remark about women being genetically handicapped at math and science. Would the concom then have decided to hold a fresh round of Feminism 101 panels to counter it-- thus reducing WisCon to being like all the other cons where the only feminist-interest panels one can find are of the Feminism 101 variety?

Here is a more general question: is treating an outburst of extremism as an attempt at dialogue a moderate response? Where, I would ask the "moderate," does one draw the line? What if Elizabeth Moon had said that she agreed with the Obama Administration's decision to assassinate a US citizen currently living abroad? Or that, building on her claim that what Muslims believe "unfits them for citizenship," she had announced that she agreed with the extremists who favor taking citizenship away from Muslim citizens of the US? Or if she had said she thought all citizens and residents who practice Islam ought to be expelled from the US or put into camps, as Japanese Americans were after the bombing of Pearl Harbor?

I raise the hypothetical question of where the line should be drawn because it strikes me that part of the difficulty here is that the WisCon concom apparently lacks a policy for dealing with extremist speech. In such a situation, the co-chairs, who speak for the concom and whose job tends more toward putting out fires rather than preventing them, seemingly have little recourse but to "disavow" the objectionable "elements of Ms. Moon's post." The primary definition of "disavow" is "to deny responsibility."** And denying responsibility for Elizabeth Moon's extremist speech is all, apparently, that they feel empowered to do in this situation-- that and putting the best face on the dissension, hurt, and distrust that will likely result from Elizabeth Moon's appearance at the con. Granted, they are in a tough spot. But perhaps the lack of an organizational policy giving the co-chairs other options in this situation would not be so limiting if US culture at large had a clearer notion of the stakes involved with legitimizing extremist speech. I'm sure that like most people, they believe that meeting extremism "half way"-- that engaging with it-- is a constructive, moderate, and even "objective" response. This attitude goes a long way in explaining how it happens that we in the US are steeped in a culture that allows the farthest reaches of the right-wing to determine both the center (which is far to the right of what it was in the 1970s largely because people on even the moderate left of the political spectrum are not allowed to be audible in the public sphere ) as well as the issues of public discourse. An ad hoc response to extremism-- which is what the co-chairs found themselves making in this situation-- mirrors the practice of the mainstream media-- viz., to allow such extremists to dominate discourse and dictate which issues are discussed.

I'll confess I had high hopes for this WisCon. I was tremendously excited that Nisi Shawl would be a GoH. It's hard for me to look forward to Nisi's speech now, though, without wondering how the protest against Elizabeth Moon's speech will affect what should be a joyous occasion. Will there be anyone left in the ballroom to celebrate the 20th anniversary of the Tiptree Awards? Just how will all of these disruptions play out? Without question, Elizabeth Moon's presence will cast a shadow over WisCon 35.
*For more about panels, see my article in the second volume of the WisCon Chronicles, "Whose romance? Whose revolution? The operations of race and gender in panel discourse at WisCon.")

**"Disavow" is an unfortunate word choice. I can't help but think of Freud's use of the word in theorizing the etiology of sexual fetish. It generally conveys the sense of having it both ways.And I really don't think that's what the co-chairs see themselves as doing.


Josh said...

Thanks for this. It's good to see that some longtime bigots are feeling the heat. I wonder why, in the case of Peretz, the public outrage seems to have emerged only when he broke the Islamophobia barrier with his recent remarks on Muslims being unfit for civil liberties, rather than during his long career of race-baiting? Probably it's just the speed at which remarks get promulgated through the Intertubes nowadays.

Anonymous said...

Beautifully said, Timmi. Thank you for bringing such a perceptive analysis to the conversation.

Josh said...

I found a couple more responses to Moongate that I think work well alongside Timmi's: springheel jack on foundations of discourse and yeloson on institutionalized power.

Timmi Duchamp said...

Thanks, Josh & Karen. It's certainly a difficult & painful conversation to be having. But, obviously, necessary.

Josh said...

Harvard's Elizabeth Moon seems to have met with some shaming and boundary-drawing in his own milieu

Nalo said...

Thanks, Timi. My instinct is to prefer that Elizabeth not be disinvited from being GoH at Wiscon, but I'm listening hard to the analysis of people who think otherwise. I might reconsider.

Foxessa said...

To confuse surviving boot camp and or other sorts of abuse with earning citizenship is a very, very, very dangerous idea.

Love, c.

Josh said...

But Foxessa, military service confers authority!

(I'm warming to Nick's mode of expressing outrage and the conversations it's generating)

Nisi said...

Timmi, this is a wonderful post that really gets to the heart of my disinterest in turning WisCon 35 into an "anti-fail teach-in." I've heard that the concom is experiencing internal difficulties because of MoonFail and their attempts to respond. I hope your cogent analysis of the structural problems that are causing these difficulties is helpful to them.

I'm on record as not giving "a freeze-dried rat's ass" about descending to 101-level programming addressing the evils of bigotry as evinced by what Elizabeth Moon wrote. However, I do think that programming addressing ways we can respond to hate speech is valuable, and this is a good opportunity for it. In fact, any programming stemming from what has happened that is addressed to clueful participants in the WisCon community rather than to bigots, would be wonderful and apt.

A number of folks have mentioned the unfortunateness of Elizabeth Moon deleting all the comments on her post, which at my last count numbered over 500, while leaving the original essay up. My take (I haven't asked her if this is correct) is that this is an error of ignorance. It's not quite a generational thing--she's not much older than me, and I believe it's wrong, as do others even closer to her in age. But less net-savvy people I've talked to about this issue don't understand why I see it as wrong.

Elizabeth Moon deleted comments both pro and con her points; she even deleted her own comments. There was some beautiful, thoughtful writing that went into those comments, and a lot of it is gone. The time those commenters spent on crafting their responses is gone without recompense. Deleting the comments was a bad thing to do. I hope to discuss this with her down the road. I'm glad the original post is still there, as this makes it easier to think about it. Deleting the original post might easily have been construed as yet deeper revisionism.

At the end of this probably-too-long comment I want to invite anyone who hasn't read my initial public response to MoonFail to visit my Live Journal (I blog as nisi-la) and read the post titled "What I want."

Timmi Duchamp said...

I like your idea, Nisi, about programming "addressed to clueful participants" about "ways we can respond to hate speech." It is a curious thing, reading the ongoing contributions to the conversation: some of them sort into creating projected narratives for WisCon 35. I think the most tempting one-- because it offers the possibility of turning an ugly, deeply upsetting story into one with the potential to be heartwarming-- is the Redemption Narrative. You know the one, in which WisCon is the figurative shepherd determined to save that one lost sheep that's gone astray. The Tale of Redemption is one of the most popular narratives in our culture, after all-- the story of the Self-destructing Man Who's Saved by the Love of a Good Woman (or, less commonly, the Fallen Woman Saved by the Love of a Good Man). In this case, we'd have a Bechdelian-plus version, Saved by the Love of Many Good Woman-- all 999 (or so). But to adopt such a narrative requires casting all of the rest of us-- including the other GoH, which is you, Nisi-- into mere supporting actresses.

(WisCon as Intervention?)

As for whether the Redemption Narrative would actually play out correctly... There are always those extremely rare exceptions, of course. But most people don't use the rational parts of their brains to formulate their ideological givens. Facts that contradict their beliefs mean little to people who aren't ashamed of their bigotry. I have relatives in Louisiana who share Elizabeth Moon's (mis)understanding of race, immigration, & citizenship. Although they have a high opinion of my general intelligence, they just think my brain's been polluted with mushy liberal thinking & clouded my judgment, and so they don't hear a thing I say when I attempt to have a reasoned conversation with them.

Anonymous said...

This is one of the many truly awesome posts I have seen on this issue. thank you. I hope it is read as widely as it should be.

also, regarding the deleted comment threads, many/most of them have been capped, so those beautiful responses to her post are not lost. I've got a bunch collated disorganizedly in a post on my lj, and know there are other sources as well.

Anonymous said...

Thank you for seeing Moon's post as part of a larger issue, and for your analysis of why groups committed to understanding and discourse as a solution to problems tend to have such a problem when it comes to coping with hateful and extremist positions.

Saladin Ahmed said...

I don't *think* we've met(?). But I really want to thank you for this post, which is the best I've seen on this whole fiasco. Thank you *especially* for acknowledging the necessary and yet ignored contexts of mainstream(-ish) discourse talking about citizenship revocation, the Obama administration's IRL targeting of US citizens (whom, gee, just happen to be Muslim) for extrajudicial assassination, etc. This is one of the few posts that I've seen that seems to fully understand the stakes re: Islamophobic diatribes right now. It's appreciated.

Hey look! I can express gratitude! It's almost like I have all the signs of a civilized person!

Eleanor said...

A very good post, Timmi. Thanks.

Muccamukk said...

Here from Elf's link.

Since apparently she's going to be there whether we like it or not, is Operation: Ignore the Fuck out of E. Moon a choice?

Engaging her is just going to turn into reporting on that crazy dude from Florida, or any other Islamophobic extremest who gets way too much press time, can we just ignore her? Like, turn our backs during her speech, maybe where "Nisi Shawl: GoH" shirts, but otherwise continue with con as normal, maybe with a few hate speech panels and selling the hell out of that Apex magazine.

I'm a fan of shunning.

Timmi Duchamp said...

@Saladin Ahmed: I'm pretty sure we haven't met. I couldn't help but think of the larger issues when thinking about the Elizabeth Moon's extremist speech because just about every day over the last nine years I've read of at least one new attack on Muslims in the US. Only a few hours after making my post, for instance, I read the Washington Post's report that U.S. District Judge John Bates dismissed a lawsuit over its targeting a US citizen--Anwar al-Aulaqi-- for extrajudicial murder, brought by the target's father. The lawsuit was dismissed without even a hearing of its merits. As the ACLU commented, "The idea that courts should have no role whatsoever in determining the criteria by which the executive branch can kill its own citizens is unacceptable in a democracy."

As for "gratitude"... Irony duly noted & appreciated!

Timmi Duchamp said...

@Eleanor: & I've been reading your series of posts, too, thanks. I especially like your noting the US elite's need for a new powerful enemy after the fall of the USSR & subsequent decline of Russia in the 1990s, & their realization after 9/11 that rather than focus on a small group of criminals, they could generalize the enemy to include millions of people instead-- people from a variety of ethnic groups all over the world. Remember Clinton's early talk about the "Peace Dividend," which was to be delivered after he eliminated the huge deficits Reagan/Bush ran up?

Timmi Duchamp said...

@ Muccamukk: This is what Eleanor Arnason is suggesting in a post on her blog.

I like the idea, myself.

sunhawk said...

Very thoughtful take on the issue, bringing up some things I hadn't considered, thanks for writing it out!

Kafryn said...

Thank you so much for your thoughtful essay. I especially appreciate your points about the detrimental nature of extremist speech, and the importance of developing a policy of how to deal with extremist speech. Nisi's suggestion of having programming that addresses how to respond to hate speech really appeals to me, too, in part because I rarely have what I consider a "good" response to extremist speech.

Farah Mendlesohn said...

Very well articulated.

Haddayr said...

Oh, Timmi thank you so much. Thank you thank you. This post is SO clear and so smart and SO needed.

Anonymous said...

Thank you for this excellent essay. I think it's not so much the hate speech that is difficult to respond to--it's engaging those who would tolerate such speech, and how to best counter their impulse to defend the speaker of the original attacking language against those countering it. Those who tolerate the hate speech react as if there is no violent use of language occurring until a second party counters it, and then dubs that second party the aggressor, instead of as the recipient of the originating abusive language.

Anton Sherwood said...

Imagine if the concom had invited someone who had spouted off a Larry Summers-type remark about women being genetically handicapped at math and science.

How about a genuinely Summers-like remark that women are merely less likely to be at either extreme of the range of talent (because Nature takes more chances with males)?

(By the way, CAPTCHA appears to be semi-broken.)