Trigger warning: slurs, ableism, racism, sexism, transmisogyny, homophobia, xenophobia, anti-semitism, colonialism.
I know I can afford very little of the grief that people who read this post will give me. I know it will probably come from both sides. And from other sides I’m not even suspecting, as has happened in the past during these kinds of situations (I’m looking at you, RaceFail ’09). But I’m writing this anyways, because this particular matter is important enough to me and mine.
There’s a situation, you see. Some of the more toxic elements of SFF (Science Fiction & Fantasy genre) instigated a sort of voting coup on the Hugo Awards, resulting in a number of works being nominated that were written by these godawful folks. These folks are basically the KKK of SFF, and they have not an insignificant number of followers.
That, by itself, has resulted in an unusual Hugo ballot. To say that it’s a slate like any other year is naive at best, disingenuous at worst. We remark on things like the number of women or people of color getting nominated; why should we not remark upon a slate where two of the works are from people who are reportedly among the most disavowed in the field? Were they virtuous, we would be praising the ballot as most beneficially unusual; but now that we know they are the foulest of the foul, suddenly the ballot is nothing special?
Well, whether or not it gives the KKK of SFF their due, I am willing to say: this is an unusual ballot and exposes a weakness in the Hugo Awards. Whether this should be fixed or not is, surprisingly, another topic entirely.
No, what I want to talk about is the idea that, in order to undermine the awful spirit of the nominations, we should read and judge solely on artistic merits.
John Scalzi says:
If work was shunted onto the list to make a political point and without regard to its quality, and it is crap, you’re going to know it when you read that work, and you should judge it accordingly. And if a work was shunted onto the list to make a political point and without regard to the quality, and it’s pretty good, you’re going to know that too — and you should judge it accordingly. If you believe that these fellows pushed their way onto the list to make a political point, nothing will annoy them more than for their work to be considered fairly. It undermines their entire point.
What struck me about statements like these is that they are made from a very privileged position: the position of someone who knows they will not be harmed by reading the works in question.
Why should words hurt? Because words are powerful; because words create the world we live in; because words have been used in the past to disenfranchise, discriminate, disempower. Here are just a few of those words: Slut. Nigger. Chink. Gypsy. Tranny. They have horrible power over those to whom they apply—and, conversely, little to no power over those who are outside of their definitions.
If single words can hurt, then ideas, which are expressed in multiple words, indeed, are expressed through essay and story, exactly what is being judged on the ballot—ideas can be downright harmful to a person even if they aren’t true. “Blacks commit crime and are thugs.” “Homosexuals are pedophiles.” “Asians are the enemy among us.” “Transwomen are crazy men.” “Autistics never lead fulfilling lives.” Again, terrible power over those to whom they apply, little to none over those outside of it all.
You may ask, “Well, what’s the cost of that harm through words?” Well, the pen is mightier than the sword; the pen is what yields works from stories to TV shows to movies to music. If a book has never moved you, if music has never caused you to shed tears, if a TV show has never given you grief, you don’t know the power of words.
And words can get into your head. As a Vietnamese girl growing up in post-Vietnam-War America, I was raised in a soup that said, “Vietnamese are savages in the jungle, the men will always be the enemy and the women will always need to be rescued, they are victims and combat casualties and nothing more.” And yes, while it affected the small child that was me, it continues to affect the adult that I am now. I am still unraveling the internalized racism and self-hatred that rotted the inside of me into a hollow thing.
Do you think I have any tolerance for a work that has a good chance of espousing such sentiments? Do you not think that it makes me physically ill to even contemplate such shit?
So hopefully we’ve established that words are powerful, and further that words can hurt marginalized people. Hopefully we can draw the conclusion that there will be works whose words were meant to hurt marginalized people. Hell, we get hurt enough when the arrows slung our way are mistakes.
And do you think for a second that marginalized people are in any way obliged to give such works a “fair shake”? Would you tell someone whose family was killed in the Holocaust that really, they should read Sawyer and Dahl because those are awesome authors that deserve fair shakes?
Well, ok, I’ve seen that happen, but I hope you can see what an incredibly harmful thing it is to suggest that in the first place?
The marginalized are not obliged to give these folks “fair shakes”. The world isn’t fair to start with. Judge these works “fairly”? That ship has sailed. It sailed when the first Native Americans died from plagues brought to the land by the pilgrims. It sailed when white men chained the first black slaves to their ships. It is gone. And it’s not coming back.
This ballot is here, and it’s not going away; this much is true. But the marginalized don’t have to read those works. Both the marginalized and those who aren’t can all choose to not read those works.
It’s the great opt-out; when the world turns its back on you and ignores you, even when you manage to get on the ballot of one of the most prestigious—or at least, one of the most infamous—awards in the field….
I gotta say, that’s gonna leave a mark.