I reserve the right to be critical

That sounds like a simple statement, doesn’t it? When I was a teenager, much effort was expended by my instructors in school to encourage critical thinking: the ability to penetrate beneath the surface of a given subject, tease apart its subtleties, examine it from different angles, and reach a conclusion. As I observe the latest — and perhaps sadly predictable — iteration of genre “fail” that circles the fetid drain of the InterToob (ETA: Elizabeth Moon’s political incorrectness when expressing herself concerning Muslims and accomodation of same in America) it occurs to me that what’s often demanded of us in modern 21st century U.S. society, is not critical thinking. Rather, we are only expected to reach straight for conclusions. There are a pre-determined set of “correct” conclusions, and a pre-determined set of “incorrect” conclusions, and failure to reach a correct conclusion is automatically assumed to be an intellectual failure, a moral failure, an informational failure, or a combination of the three. (ETA: Moon has been accused of all three, in high-dudgeon, because she failed to reach a “correct” conclusion.)

As a fiction writer, I don’t expend a great deal of energy using story as social criticism. That’s a hallmark of literary pretension — that all fiction must serve as a vehicle for ‘message’ — and my fiction philosophy is that good fiction must entertain first. Everything else, to include criticism and message, is a very, very distant second priority. And in my case in particular, if there is ever any social criticism or relevant message in my stories, it’s often there by accident: a result of characters and situations assuming a life of their own, going in directions I often do not intend, and reacting to things the way my unconscious navigator believes they should react.

But I still reserve the right to be critical as an independently creative human being, especially when I am dealing with notions and ideologies in the real world. I do not buy into the pre-set list of “correct” and “incorrect” conclusions, doled by the self-styled Correctors of modern discourse. Or, at least, I don’t buy into them at a superficial level. If I adopt any of them, I adopt them because I have thought long and hard about the moral, ethical, and practical implications of a given conclusion, compared it with my own internal compass, and decided it has merit — for me in my view of the world. This does not mean I assume everyone will reach the same conclusion as myself, but it does mean if challenged or otherwise presented with an alterantive viewpoint, I will at least try to expound upon my own viewpoint, explaining the jelly bean trail of my thoughts and feelings from Point A through Point Z. Not everyone follows the same trail as I do, but this does not mean my trail is invalid or otherwise wrong, regardless of who sets the pre-determined list of permissable conclusions or how well intention those conclusions may be. (ETA: Elizabeth Moon’s attempts to explain herself were met with the poo-flinging tactics of the howling Correctness monkeys of LiveJournal — again, for the sin of failing to reach a pre-determined Correct conclusion.)

We live in a world run over with conflicting, competing political philosophy, moral philosophy, religious (and anti-religious) ideology, and at least here in the United States it is expected that every man or woman is entitled to his or her opinion. The problem is that there are active bodie(s) now at work — especially within Science Fiction and, to a lesser degree, Fantasy — who pursue marginilization and silencing of “incorrect” opinion as a matter of public activism (ergo, the LiveJournal poo monkeys.) No longer are writers, or fans, or editors, or agents, or anyone working in or consuming the genres, allowed to merely have an opinion. Offenders who fail to adopt correct conclusions (ETA: Ms. Moon) are flashmobbed and slandered, with the (so far as I can tell) goal of ejecting them entirely from the conversation — for the moral failure of having an alternative viewpoint. (ETA: Ms. Moon has been labeled Islamophobic and racist for her efforts, which I find patently ridiculous.)

Perhaps this was the inevitable result of science fiction and fantasy — as written fictional enterprises — being made progressively more literary. The days of the pulp tradition (ETA: when fiction writing was for fun expressly) are drifting farther and farther into the rear-view mirror, and fewer and fewer writers seem to give a damn if anyone is actually enjoying reading! I see and hear lots of writers aspiring to “challenge” and “confront” the reader, to make the reader uncomfortable, or, perhaps most specious of all, to “educate” the reader. (ETA: insert sounds of vomit!) I am of the mind that such desires, while common in political and activist circles, are unworthy of genres which — to me when I started consuming them — were all about entertainment. The over-used (but apt) phrase, “Sense of wonder,” had nothing at all to do with an author “challenging” or “confronting” me: it had to do with an author taking me on an enjoyable journey to places I’d never seen, nor could ever see in real life. Places both larger and more majestic than anything found here on good old mundane Earth. (ETA: I have bumped Ms. Moon to the top of my list of “must buy” authors, precisely because I’ve heard she’s wicked fun to read!)

I like to assume my readers are capable of making up their own minds about a given thing, and I try not to craft stories with the desire of shaping opinions or lecturing from a pulpit. I don’t enjoy this when I detect it in other peoples’ fiction, and I don’t try to do this with my own fiction.

More to the point, I flatly refuse the idea that I (or Ms. Moon) should be held to someone else’s arbitrary standard of what is and is not politically or morally permissable, in terms of how I critically examine contemporary culture, contemporary politics, and the contemporary religious landscape (ETA: like Islam.) When I am not writing fiction, I have the right to use my brain. I have the right to pick up this or that notion, and having examined it carefully, conclude it is valid, or conclude it’s rubbish — according to my own will. And I further believe that nobody has the right to evict me from the ongoing enterprise of science fiction — or any sort of fiction at all — because of supposed failure to attain “correctness” in the eyes of the self-selected Correctors. (ETA: proposed boycotts of Elizabeth Moon are a tool of eviction: starve the artist of his or her monetary gain, and he or she might be successfully silenced in the marketplace.)

Ya’ll who fall into the Corrector category — you poo-flinging denizens of LiveJournal — can go stuff it where the sun don’t shine, frankly. And you can quote me on that too.

FINAL ETA: I discussed this with Will Shetterly, so I want to put it here too. Part of the reason we in the U.S. have not had an honest conversation about Islam, is because most discussions which approach Islam critically, are greeted with cries of “ism” and “phobia.” It is not permitted to examine Islam’s fractures, warts, and contradictions, because there is very-strong political motivation in certain sectors to shut down this kind of examination. The motive is a good one — combatting prejudice against American citizens who may be painted with the same broad brush as al-Qaeda — but the typical reactions are counter-productive.

Because every major religion in America, including Catholicism, must endure the unyielding, unkind microscope of public scrutiny. I myself am a member of a church which has been subjected to almost two hundred years of some of the worst scrutiny — and yes, real bigotry — possible. Yet, there is nothing in the Constitution which says any given religion is “above” such scrutiny. People are free to howl objections to my faith at will, and seldom does anyone bat an eyelash. Because such objections are so common, and because my religious leaders do not typically issue death threats against our critics.

Yet Islam has been very much set above and apart from all the other religions, in this regard, because of a very active, near pathological fear on the part of many that to examine Islam critically is to engage in racism, Islamophobia, etc. This is why Elizabeth Moon was targetted: she is not permitted — we all are not permitted, by the Correctors — to utter even the slightest misgiving or hesitation about Islam. To express an Unkind Word against Islam or Muslims is to be guilty of moral mindcrime!

Until the stigma is removed — until it is accepted that Islam will endure all the same intellectual slings and arrows all the other faiths in America must endure — the dialogue over Islam will not be clean, and complaints against people like Elizabeth Moon will ring both hypocritical, and hollow.

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13 thoughts on “I reserve the right to be critical

  1. The storm front on this particular “fail” passed before I was even aware of what was going on. As per usual, an established author in science fiction was (virtually) tarred and feathered for the dreadful sin of having an opinion. I know, shocking. But seeing this author — Elizabeth Moon — get flashmobbed, reminded me again of how much I detest the Correctors and their tactics. This is not the behavior of rational adults. This is the behavior of children with nothing better to do.

  2. I would certainly not call Jim C. Hines a “Corrector”, and I think labeling him as such trivializes his very cogent argument.

    Moon is flat out wrong in this situation. The Mosque is neither at Ground Zero, nor is it even a Mosque. I think that whenever an author starts to sound like Fox News, it’s up to the internet to gently correct her.

  3. If you’d seen the incoherent, knee-jerk howling in the comments thread on Moon’s original post — before she deleted it in understandable frustration — you’d have a better picture on what I found so ridiculous. Alas, the thread is gone, and I have nothing to link to. There are fragments preserved here and there, but they’ve been cherry picked and it’s not fair to Moon to present them as a whole-picture example of what was going on. Suffice to say, Jim Hines is not the problem. It’s the (typical) LiveJournal bandwagon of screaming Correctness monkeys who drop into an author’s thread, hurling poo.

  4. Jordan, I agree with you completely. Alas, Brad’s right when he says the correction was not gentle. This isn’t to say it was all “OMG, Elizabeth Moon’s an evil racist!” But there’s a great deal of railing, including calls for her to be uninvited as Wiscon’s GoH next year.

  5. Well, gents, I suppose I will stand in the minority on this, as a defender of Moon and what she said. But I do respect your right, and the right of Mr. Hines, to pose reasoned, sensibly stated opinions as to why you think Moon is in the wrong. What makes me angry — very, truly angry — are the hordes of character assassins who can’t bring themselves to make a reasoned statement. They just hurl insults. Because that’s all they know how to do. They are the poo-flingers, and they have poisoned numerous discussion in the last few years.

  6. Will,

    I didn’t get to the party in time to see what kind of reaction was engendered. All I saw were the reasoned responses like Jim’s.

    However, if I were Moon, I might uninvite myself. Knowing what kind of vitriol is present at Wiscon in an average year, I certainly wouldn’t want to be a target at that con.

  7. I find it ironic that Moon would be disinvited from a convention that prides itself on its intellectual grounds. I hope Wiscon invites her, and I hope she goes. Disinviting her at this point would be proof that Wiscon has no back bone: the anger of the mob is all that’s necessary to push the con in a given direction. And yes, I know, easy for me to say. I’m a small-time SF writer who is also a small-c conservative. Any invitation on the part of Wiscon towards someone like me, would probably me made in the form of a cold cup of coffee with a cigarette butt in it.

  8. Wiscon’s vitriol is a fairly recent development. I keep hoping it’ll pass. Yes, I can be astonishingly optimistic.

  9. Brad,

    I’ve seen a lot of people expressing anger and disagreement with what Moon wrote. Can you show me anywhere that anyone said she wasn’t permitted to think or believe those things? You write about how people are no longer allowed to have an opinion that doesn’t conform to what you describe as Politically Correct.

    If you want the right to hold forth your opinions without disagreement, that’s one thing. If you want to be able to say things without fear of others arguing or even getting angry, then you’re probably in the wrong country. But to claim that:

    “…we all are not permitted, by the Correctors — to utter even the slightest misgiving or hesitation about Islam. To express an Unkind Word against Islam or Muslims is to be guilty of moral mindcrime!”

    is just over-the-top silliness. People are going to argue. Some will argue loudly. That’s not the same as revoking your permission to hold opinions any more than calling people “poo-flinging monkeys” takes away their permission to express their opposing opinions.

  10. Hi Jim,

    For the last two years, several authors in SF have been “mobbed” by a combination of fans, other writers, even one minor editor, for what are essentially infractions of opinion. Elizabeth Bear, for example, has come in for an enormous ration of grief on several occasions, and many of the people giving Bear grief, are the same people who flocked to give Moon grief, and L. Jagi Lamplighter, and John C. Wright, and who also flocked to give the re-launched Realms of Fantasy grief. These people seem to have made it a public policy to seek out and swarm over SF writers and publications which do not conform to a certain progressive sensibility. Always on these occasions, the #1 threat has been: we’re going to stop buying you, and we’re going to bitch up enough of a storm so that others stop buying you too — including editors! And we’re going to get you banned from cons! Because you’re not wanted in the SF community anymore! NYAH!

    Now, people are within their rights to buy or not buy as they see fit, but having been the personal victim of this sort of mob tactic — even before I was published — I’ve grown extremely tired of it. And I am alarmed that the trend seems to be worsening, not lessening. We do indeed have a very vocal, very activist bunch of self-assigned Correctors who have made it their job to try and drive out authors — and anyone else — whom they see as being Incorrect. I use the words Correct and Incorrect because this has nothing to do with actual right and wrong, as much as it has to do with the abitrary decision by a group of ‘police’ within the genre to decide what is and is not acceptable — be it behavior, blogging, writing, etc. Nobody asked for this. It’s been foisted upon us.

    When I flip my middle finger at the Correctors, I flip my middle finger at people who — through making themselves generally annoying — want to ‘purify’ Science Fiction & Fantasy; get rid of the Incorrect authors and fans and others who fail to meet any number of political and moral litmus tests. Again, it’s arbitrary.

    It’s not that I fear being argued with. I can handle being argued with, and depending on the type, I may even enjoy the argument. What I find truly, stupidly abominable is that there is a body of noisy writers, fans, even editors, who want to erect a wall around the genre. People with Incorrect ideas ascribed to them, must be cast outside the wall. People with Correct ideas ascribed to them, will be permitted to remain. I find this to be an affront to creative freedom, as a writer and published author, and I speak vehemently against it because I consider it to be little better than PC McCarthyism.

  11. “…we’re going to stop buying you, and we’re going to bitch up enough of a storm so that others stop buying you too — including editors! And we’re going to get you banned from cons! Because you’re not wanted in the SF community anymore!”

    And yet the people you name still appear to have thriving careers. They still seem to get invited to cons. They still seem to be very much a part of the SF community.

    It’s not about permission. You describe “these people” as police, but police have the authority to enforce rules. All these people have the ability to do is express their displeasure. Sure, some of them are much louder than others. And sure, they can try to persuade others … just like you do here here, presumably hoping to persuade others to your viewpoint.

    PC McCarthyism? Seriously? When you show me how this “mob” is getting people arrested, how authors are required to pass loyalty checks or else be dismissed by their publishers, how people are ending up in jail for expressing these opinions, then I’ll agree with your use of the term. Otherwise, it’s just another example of overblown rhetoric undercutting what you’re trying to say.

  12. Jim,

    It remains to be seen how much damage this group of self-assigned Correctors can do to their targets. My hope is that nothing lasting comes of it, but then again accusing someone of racism isn’t much better than accusing them of child molestation. And some of these Correctors have significant coteries of fans, who are more than willing to hop on the bandwagon of righteous chastisement, and begin doling out lashes to the guilty.

    If the word McCarthyism is too hyperbolic for you, then what word would you use to describe people who routinely make trumped up, baseless accusations without any evidence? Accusations which are 100% political in motivation? If there is a synonym for McCarthyism that suits your tastes better, I’d be happy to apply it. Because baseless politically-motivated accusation is all this crowd seems capable of.

    Moon is just the latest target for serial slagging. I am sure the Correctors will pick a new target soon. Some unfortunate writer will have his or her blog post parsed and cherry picked, a controversy will be manufactured, and the targeted author will be character assassinated. That’s the MO.

    If it were just nameless fans doing it, I’d probably not care so much. My blood gets hot because other authors are slagging other authors. And at least one editor is slagging authors too, from what I have seen — people who should know better, yet have somehow convinced themselves that it’s their place to police the rest of us on what we can and cannot say.

    Disagreement is one thing. Being convicted in the kangaroo court of public opinion is another.

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