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.