Cancel Culture – A Creator’s Point of View

#SFWAPRO

First off, Happy New Year! I hope 2020 brings much happiness and joy.

To kick off the new year, I wanted to write about something I’ve been seeing more and more talk about: cancel culture.

Now this is going to be on the long side, so:

TLDR: Don’t be an asshole. If you do become an asshole, don’t whine about people calling you an asshole, or try to make them out to be the ‘real’ asshole.

Now, for those unfamiliar with the term Cancel Culture, I envy you. While I don’t usually rely on Wikipedia as a source, in this case, the
definition is sufficient. But, like any sort of social reaction, there is nuance that is hard to easily quantify.

Call-out culture (also known as outrage culture) is a form of public shaming that aims to hold individuals and groups accountable for their actions by calling attention to behavior that is perceived to be problematic, usually on social
media. A variant of the term, cancel culture, describes a form of boycott in which someone (usually a celebrity) who has shared a questionable or unpopular opinion, or has had behavior in their past that is perceived to be either offensive or problematic called
out on social media is “canceled”; they are completely boycotted by many of their followers or supporters, often leading to massive declines in celebrities’ (almost always social media personalities) careers and fanbase.

Some examples of “cancel culture” include, but aren’t limited to: Louis C.K., Shane Gillis, Harvey Weinstein, R. Kelly, more recently J.K. Rowling, and many, many more.


CLARIFICATION VIA MINI-RANT:

What I’m going to go into from here on is about people who say or do offensive things, NOT people who are themselves offensive. Like, for example, people who use their positions of power to get others to do things against their will, and actively work to destroy those who don’t go along with your twisted little fantasies. Those people are predators who need to compensate their victims AND spend a long while behind bars.


As way too many of those on the receiving end of this digital public shaming often shout about censorship and first amendment rights, I’m going to briefly (I hope) digress to hammer that argument into the ground. Apologies to my non-American readers for this. The text of the first amendment reads:

Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the
Government for a redress of grievances.

The first five words are the key. Congress shall make no law. The first amendment’s purpose and protections extend only as far as the government. It offers no protections from private entities, or businesses, such as social media companies for example. If you work for me and I discover that you like to spend your off time posting about how awesome lynching was, I’m going to fire your ass. Possibly out of a cannon. Into the sun. Some could argue about the fairness of firing someone based on what they do when I’m not paying them, though in my example it would take some serious mental gymnastics. What there can be no argument about, however, is that my firing of the above-mentioned douche-canoe violates their first amendment rights. Congress passed no law preventing them from saying something despicable, I just decided that I don’t want that view point associated with my business. Neither does the first ammendment guarantee you a platform, i.e. social media. When you sign up for any social media account, there is a (often lengthy) terms of service agreement you must agree to. And yet, some insist those companies are somehow obligated to permit any and all speech. To which I can only assume they would have no issue to me sitting in their living room 24/7, shouting obscenities through a bullhorn, and refusing to leave. Free speech, right?

Another unwritten aspect a lot of the first speech enthusiasts seem to believe is that the first amendment also protects them from criticism or consequence. There is so much irony in this idea that I’m amazed they don’t drop dead from heavy metal poisoning. The truth of course is that it ensures the exact opposite. Detractors have the same free speech rights. It should be noted the Supreme Court has ruled that all rights—including free speech—are not absolute. Yelling fire in a crowded theater is the most common example, but it also includes incitement to violence. This is why death threats are illegal, and why you rarely hear direct calls to do violence to others. It’s often coded. Or its weasel worded so the person can say they never actually told anyone to do that, they just said that if it happened it wouldn’t be such a bad thing. This is why no social media is prevented from banning racists or bigots, but those same racists and bigots are allowed to organize protests and marches, so long as they don’t incite violence or put the public at risk.

Some like to include the “war on Christmas” in the cancel culture discussion, but that’s a false equivalency. Someone saying something other than “merry Christmas” does not intrude on your freedom of religion. However, insisting they do, does intrude on their freedom of speech. Also, it’s just a quick path to being an asshole.

Okay, so not so brief a digression. Sorry.

But, Bishop, I hear you ask, what does this have to do with being a creator? Well, I’m glad you asked.

I heard a clip from a podcast in which a group of comedians lamented how hard it was for them these days. They can’t perform at the venues they used to because they get booed/heckled, or just aren’t booked. The reason of course is because their material isn’t “politically correct.” I have several problems with this notion, as a person and an artist.

As a person, I’m sick of the PC boogeyman. No one seems able to agree on what exactly it means aside from: if you say something I don’t like (happy holidays) I can call you out for being rude or insensitive. But if you tell me I said something rude or impolite, it’s being PC. Generally, I try to start from a place of respect or politeness. If someone tells me something I said offended them, or the like, I generally apologize and make a mental note. It costs me little, and it helps me avoid being the asshole. Are there some people who go to extremes? Yes. As humans, that tends to be our default: “If one is good, then a thousand is awesome.” As I’ve noted in other posts, I’ll respect just about any viewpoint, up until it deems someone as less than, particularly if it’s something they have no control over (skin color, gender identity, sexual orientation, etc.). Even if it something they do have control over, so long as it doesn’t dehumanize, and all parties involved are consenting adults, I say, you do you.

At this point we come to the crux of the post, apologies for taking the long way around, but I couldn’t find any other way here. As an artist, I’m bothered whenever I hear another artist blame the audience for their failure.

“The audience is too uptight/PC to get my humor.”

“My book is too highbrow for most readers to appreciate.”

“People are too indoctrinated into mainstream music to get my style.”

“My work is just too edgy for most sheeple.”

Two words: Bull. Shit.

If you’re a creative, once you put your art out into the world, you no longer get a say. It belongs to the world and they will do with it what they will. If they dislike it (which isn’t the same as not liking it), it isn’t because of some failure on their part. It’s because of a failure on yours.

Wait! Don’t freak out!

This doesn’t mean you’re a failure as an artist, just that you failed to connect in that instance. That’s what art is about, creating a connection. Sometimes you do, sometimes you don’t, but you created it. For example, if you’re a comedian and people aren’t laughing at your material, the problem is the material, not the audience.

It’s not unlike when someone puts their foot in the mouth—or their head up their ass—and the defense is that they were taken out of context. In fairness, that can be a legitimate criticism. Using a single sentence from a ten-minute speech could leave out important information and change the tone of that sentence. But typically, “taken out of context” is code for “yes, I said that and meant it, but I refuse to accept the consequences.”

If you say something rude and/or offensive, and that wasn’t your intent, you stupendously failed in your attempt to communicate. And there’s no shame in that, we all roll a 1 sometimes (Dungeons & Dragon reference). Hell, it happens to me fairly regularly (thankfully, more often just saying something stupid rather than outright offensive) and it’s happened in every book I’ve written. Thank the merciful Gods my editors have been great in catching them and helping me do it less, but it still happens. When it does, there are three ways to proceed. Yes, there are more than three, but most are just some variation of these three.

  1. You can acknowledge that you messed up, apologize (sincerely, and no ‘I’m sorry if anyone was offended’ bullshit), and make the effort to do better next time. The last part requires listening to others about where you went wrong
  2. You can do nothing. Just ignore all the looks and comments and go about your day.
  3. You can stand firm, or even double down.

The last two—spoiler alert—are great short cuts to becoming a complete asshat in short order. If the idea of apologizing and “giving in” or “capitulating” makes you uneasy, well, tough. Your job as a creative, or anyone who communicates with others, is to get your message across and understood. It’s not easy, and you’ll fail a lot. Like a LOT. But you won’t improve (as either a creative or a person) if you never recognize your own failures, and certainly not if you blame the audience.

This is how I view my job as a creative anyway, and what I do when I fall short. Maybe something works better for you. Or maybe you don’t care and think that if people are offended, they should just get over it. If you’re the latter, and your goal was to be an asshole, congratulations on your stupendous success.

The Art of not being an Asshole: Representation, Stereotyping, Appropriation, and Erasure

#SFWAPRO

For those of you who don’t know, I’m white. In fact, I’m very, very white.

I’m also a man, and straight. Basically, I hit the privilege lottery. It doesn’t mean my life has been easy, or that I haven’t worked hard to get where I am. What it does mean is that there are a lot of challenges and obstacles that I never had to face. However difficult my life was, it would’ve been more so if I were a woman, or black, or trans, or all of the above.

If you’re someone who struggles to understand the idea of privilege, and you’re still reading this, here is a great video that explains it.

As a general rule, I try to avoid being an asshole. Having privilege doesn’t make me an asshole, but it does make it easier to be one, and it means I suffer fewer (if any) consequences from it. It doesn’t even have to be intentional. For example, dismissing or diminishing the struggles of those who don’t look like me because I’ve never had to face them.

What does this have to do with writing? Quite a bit actually. I wrote a couple of blog posts about it here and here, if you’re interested in reading them. If you aren’t, here is the tldr: as a writer, I have a certain amount of power. My stories and characters can reinforce stereotypes and tropes. They can dehumanize or reduce a group of people to a caricature, or their culture, beliefs, and history to a plot point or set piece. They can even erase entire groups of people entirely. They don’t have to, but they can. What’s more, the blind spots I have that are born from privilege make it super easy; stomping around, blithely unaware of what I’m stepping on. That, to me, is a good example of an asshole.

So, if I don’t want to be an asshole, which I don’t, I have to be mindful of my figurative surroundings. It takes effort and requires a willingness to recognize and acknowledge when, despite my best efforts, I still wind up being the asshole. And when that happens, apologizing sincerely, accepting the consequences, and striving to do better in the future.

This isn’t easy to do. In fact, this blog post was spurred by a recent conversation with an author friend. This person is one of the kindest, selfless, most thoughtful people I know. In fact, they are so averse to causing anyone harm that they feel paralyzed at times. They want their writing to be diverse and inclusive, but they fear screwing it up and how that will impact others. Some will use this as example of PC culture run amok. To those people, I cordially invite them to fuck off. This author wants to do the right thing, to be a good person, but they’re not sure how. I know my friend isn’t the only person who worries about this, so I’m going to share some lessons I’ve learned from the mistakes I’ve made.

In case you didn’t know this, representation is important. Everyone should get to read stories with characters like them in it. However, you need to do it correctly. If the only black character in a story is the magical negro, the only Asian is a ninja assassin good at math, or the only LGBTQ character is a super effeminate man with a lisp and limp wrists, you’re not doing it correctly. Proper representation is why #ownvoices is so important. When members of marginalized groups tell their own stories, it gives them representation and the world some cool new stories. Additionally, it also shows those of us not in that group what positive representation looks like.

So, does this mean non-marginalized people should never write about marginalized groups? No of course not, and for a couple of reasons. First, the current lack of diversity in the writing world means the only way to get broader representation is if non-marginalized people include marginalized characters. Second, and for the same reason as above, this will result in the erasure of marginalized people from literature. Obviously the ultimate goal should be increasing diversity of creators, and while it is improving, like all social changes, it’s a long slow march. In the meantime, I think those of us with privilege owe it to readers to provide them with positive, accurate representation. BUT when someone who isn’t marginalized creates characters that are, they owe it to those groups, their readers, the story, and themselves, to do it right. That means avoiding stereotypes and negative tropes.

First, let’s be clear; all stereotypes are bad. Yes, even positive stereotypes. No group is a monolith, and stereotypes deprive them of individualism, internal diversity, and complexity. In order to avoid stereotypes, you need to be aware of them. Some stereotypes are so old and have been repeated for so long that people forget the origins, or that they are stereotypes at all. As such, when writing about a group that you don’t belong to, never assume what you know is accurate or correct. Do research! And I don’t mean just Googling a list of common stereotypes (though that’s a start). Read articles by members of that group; multiple articles (again, no culture is a monolith). Find colleges/universities that have classes or departments dedicated to that group and ask to talk to someone there. If you reach out to individuals, always be respectful. Remember, no one owes you their time and attention, and it’s not the responsibility of a marginalized person to educate you. If they do give you some of their time and attention, recognize they’re doing you a favor, not the other way around.

Unlike stereotypes, not all tropes are bad. Some are neutral, and some are just overdone. Others though are truly offensive, hostile, and/or bigoted. The white savior, magical negro, noble savage, fridging, bury your gays/dead lesbian syndrome, and manic pixie dream girl are just a few examples. There are many, many more, so again, do your research.

Another, all too common, problem area is cultural appropriation. If you’re unsure what exactly that means, it’s the seizure of aspects from a marginalized culture by a non-marginalized people, with no regard for those whose culture is being seized. Some dismiss the idea of appropriation. They say it’s an homage or celebration of the culture they helped themselves to. Make no mistake, that’s utter bullshit. In most cases, the person doing the appropriating is part of a group that at one time actively tried, or succeeded, in destroying that culture. Black culture is the result of successful destruction. Enslaved people were often punished for practicing their native religions, or speaking their native languages. Over the course of centuries, any memory of where they’d come from was lost. As such, they were forced to creature a new culture of their own. American Indian boarding schools represent a real effort by the US Government to destroy Native American culture in the name of assimilation and “civilizing savages”. As such, avoid including any ceremonies, rituals, or religious beliefs of marginalized groups in your stories. Even if you’ve done a mountain of research, if you’re not a member of that culture, it’s unlikely you’ll have a deep enough understanding to do it justice. Some groups (understandably) actively work to keep aspects of their culture, or all of it, from outsiders. Respect that choice. This doesn’t mean you can’t have a character from that culture in your story, but don’t include any rites or ceremonies. Also, avoid using a thinly veiled stand-in for a group or culture. You won’t fool anyone.

Another invaluable tool is hiring a sensitivity reader. This is an invaluable service that not enough people use. Keep in mind that a sensitivity reader will provide feedback on problem areas. They don’t give you a seal of approval, and you should never, ever use them as a shield from criticism. As has been mentioned (repeatedly) no culture is a monolith. The idea of sensitivity readers has gotten a raw deal lately. Part of that is a knee jerk reaction to “PC culture” but it’s also a result of less than scrupulous people taking advantage of the need. So, again, do your research. Make sure the person you’re hiring belongs to the group you need help with. I know from personal experience how hard this can be. My current project, Two-Gun Witch, is set in the years just after the civil war. A concern was raised that one of my characters, an elf, seemed to be a stand in for Native Americans. While I made a concerted effort to avoid this, and included Native American characters (Lakota specifically), I recognized this as a legitimate concern. It took time, and help from a friend, but I found a Lakota sensitivity reader.

When the reader gets back to you, don’t argue with them. You hired them for their feedback, so use it. You should also be prepared that you might need to scrap the project. If your reader says the story is just too problematic, listen to them. It’ll hurt, and it will suck, but it’s the right thing to do. If you feel strongly about it, hire another sensitivity reader. If you do, however, be honest with them from the start. Explain that you had a reader look it over, what they said, and that you’re looking for a second opinion. Lying or holding back is just setting yourself up to be the asshole.

If this sounds over the top, or too much work, disabuse yourself of that idea. Writers do research. I don’t know of any who haven’t spent hours researching some minute detail that will only show up once. The characters and, more importantly, the readers who will connect with that character, deserve the same consideration.

Now, here’s the downside. You’re almost certainly going to offend and upset people, even if you do put in the time and effort. For some people, the minority in my experience, there won’t be anything you can do to not offend them. In other cases, you will have legitimately missed something. Regardless of which it is, do the right thing. Don’t make excuses, or dismiss the offense. Acknowledge that you came up short and that you’ll strive to do better next time (and actually strive to do better).

My (admittedly privileged) view is that I’d rather screw up trying to make a more diverse story than play it safe and not include any character who don’t look like me. I know I’m going to get it wrong, and I’ll accept the consequences of that. It’s just part of not being an asshole.


Note: Please feel free to comment, especially if you think I’m off base on something, or got something wrong. I don’t claim to be an expert or to know it all, and I’m always looking to improve.