Friday, September 14, 2012

Things Aren't Problematic, People Are

I found a lot of typos in this essay, but I fixed them. Stuff in bold I had to add. Man--editing, people--lost art.

I like things, and some - none of these things are problematic maybe some things I don't like are problematic, like Mein Kampf (allegedly nonfiction) or a rulebook for a game which casually assumes all the players are male (ditto nonfiction), but nothing here is about stuff like that. I like Lord of the Rings well, the movies even though it's pretty fucked up if you extrapolate -with regard to your views about women and race or anything else from a story about elves (any narrative person that believes says “this whole race is evil” because it's in a book or a movie is fucked up, okay ). I like A Song of Ice and Fire (well, the TV show, sort of sometimes) even though its portrayal of people of colour is would be problematic if the only thoughts I were capable of having about them were ones inspired by a story about how some fictional ones acted, and often I find that its in-text condemnation of patriarchy isn’t obvious enough to distract me from the scenes without the midget in them justify the and that the more-obvious-than-in-real-life sexism displayed by the characters is just one of many things repeatedly iterated ad nauseum to drive home the point that, hey, the fake-middle ages aren't like now, which I knew already. I don't like the movie Scott Pilgrim vs The World because I am not a whiny serial monogamist who's scared of life and so desperately wants to see my own worldview dramatized that I can put up with a mountain of twee bullshit. So I don't know why these people think even though it is racist in its portrayal of Matthew Patel, panders to stereotypes in its portrayal of Wallace, and trivialises queer female sexuality in its portrayal of Ramona and Roxy’s relationship. For fuck’s sake, who cares that Ramona even says “It was a phase”! What kind of person learns life lessons about other peoples' sexuality from movies and never questions them? How much more cliche and offensive is could real life to these people-- this movie be every time a woman says she used to date guys (or women) and now doesn't any more do these audiences think it's ok to assume that's true for every woman ever? What kind of bigoted lunacy is that ? Oh wait, remember how Scott defeats Roxy, his only female adversary, by making her orgasm? Why do dorks watch such boring, ill-conceived shit? Excuse me while I vomit…and then stop keep watching because I just got Face/Off and Encounters At The End of The World from Netflix. I still like the rest of the movie.

Liking what very misguided but well-meaning people call problematic things doesn’t make you an asshole, but finding those things "problematic" does. In fact, you can like what they think are really problematic things and still be not only a good person, but a good social justice activist (TM)! After all, all most texts have what they'd consider some problematic elements in them, because the y’re produced by humans, who are well-known to be imperfect idea that a fiction can be problematic is based on the notion that it's healthy and acceptable to generalize from an event that happened in a fiction, (or even in real life) to all of human existence--it isn't. But it can be surprisingly difficult for these self-styled activists to own up to the fact that these problematic things in the media you they like are only ever a problem when that media is encountered by a massively stupid and credulous person, particularly when you this requires realizing that the vast majority of people are massively stupid and credulous.

Often how this point of view ends up being articulated is the would-be-activists were, themselves, dumb enough to believe some lie they made up for themselves after experiencing some fiction (or real life experience--like getting mugged by a person of a different gender or color or sexual orientation), then (to their credit) realized that, but even now still feel strongly about not admitting that they were just letting their emotions get the upper hand over their brains it, as many fans and all racists do. We need to find a way to enjoy the media and existence we like while at all times and in every way being cognizant that this experience is not all of life and you have to examine every event in the world you encounter---fictional or otherwise--with a critical eye or else you are the problem.

This includes making sure you aren't unconsciously influenced by media (and real-life events) you experience by learning to re-examine your own activities after and during the fact to make sure you live your life without hurting other people. and Pretending popular and unpopular culture are major drivers of unequal treatment of marginalised groups is just one tactic self-righteous people use to avoid talking about the issues of class and economics that actually underly the oppression of any available Have-Nots in the service of Haves. The self-righteous are more comfortable criticizing other artists (a group they do not belong to) than the systems of money and educational privilege that paid for them, the problematizers, to have the computer and the DVD player that showed them the things they are so angry about. So with that in mind, here are my suggestions for things we should try our darnedest to do as self-confessed fans of problematic stuff.

Firstly, acknowledge that claiming the thing you like is problematic makes you an assfuck and that if you learned life lessons from a book or tv show without checking them against reality first as soon as you started calling yourself an adult you have done something mouthbreathingly moronic and do not attempt to make excuses for it. It is a unique irritation to encounter a person who point blank refuses to admit that even though they say something they like is problematic it obviously could only be a problem if the person encountering it used it as a guide to real-life behavior. Infuriatingly, people will often actually articulate some version of the argument “It can’t must be problematic because the problem I am worried about it exacerbating exists!" I like it, and I’m nice”. Alternatively, some fans may find it tempting to argue with the idea that “Well this media is a realistic portrayal of societies like X, Y, Z”. But when you say that sexism and racism and heterosexism and cissexism have to be in the narrative or the story won’t be realistic, what you are saying is that we humans literally cannot recognise describe our selves world accurately without acknowledging that there is systemic prejudice, nor can we go through life without thinking about how to deal with connect to characters who are not unrepentant bigots. Um, yikes. YIKES, you guys. Reality is scary and if fictions even have a social purpose it is to help us devise thought experiments about how to deal with it, not to offer a safe haven from it. Escape alone only serves the status quo..

And even if you think that’s true that fictions have a social purpose beyond pleasure (which may not be true and is certainly unnecessary scares the hell out of me ), I don’t see or need you arguing for an accurate portrayal of everything in your fiction all the time. For example, most people seem fine without accurate portrayal of what personal hygiene was really like in 1300 CE in their medieval fantasy media. (Newsflash: realistically, Robb Stark and Jon Snow rarely bathed or brushed their teeth or hair). In real life, people have to go to the bathroom. In movies and books, they don’t show that very much, because it’s boring and gross. Well, guess what: bigotry is also boring and gross. But everyone is just dying to keep that in the script. unlike shitting, we, as individuals and citizens, need to learn to develop new strategies for dealing with it, so it sure is a good thing fiction and thought experiments allow us to think about it without making it actually occur right there in our living room.

Especially do not ever just suggest that people not take media “so seriously”, or argue that it’s “just” a tv show. The narratives that we surround ourselves with can subtly, subconsciously influence how we think about ourselves and others if we're dumb . That’s why it is the lifelong job of all adults to struggling against being as dumb as society assumes we are. While creating imaginary fantasy and sci fi worlds that have more equal societies can be a powerful thing for marginalised people, we also need to realize that being a person who naively accepts the visions presented to us is pretty much the same thing as being illiterate or an alcoholic or being unable to do math or not exercising enough or being really bad at remembering to pay the bills; you need to recognize that as not a sin but a problem you have and either deal with it or acknowledge that you can't and don't blame the fictions or their authors for your problem. People who recognize their own limits rather than forcing everyone else to work around them are the kinda people who mainstream media rarely acknowledges as heroes but they fucking are.

But even if you don’t think that media matters, there is still no reason to focus exclusively on unequal or problematic fictional worlds and narratives. Just watch whatever's fun to watch. And make any kind of thing you want if you can make it fun to watch. If it doesn’t matter, why don’t YOU stop taking your media so seriously and stop fighting us on this? You with your constant demands for your narrow idea of “realism” (which by the way often sounds a lot like “show me naked skinny ciswomen, and gore”). If in your framework tv shows aren’t serious business, why does realism matter? Why can’t you accept that it would be totally cool to have AT LEAST ONE BIG MEDIEVAL FANTASY EPIC WHERE WOMEN AND People Of Color WERE LIKE, EQUAL TO WHITE MEN AND STUFF if it was good, regardless of how many concern trolls will be dying to accuse you of doing it wrong. STOP TAKING IT SO SERIOUSLY.

Secondly, do not gloss over the issues or derail conversations about the allegedly problematic elements. Okay, so you can admit meet someone that thinks that Dune is problematic. But wait, you’re not done! You need to be willing to engage with people about it! It’s not enough to be like “Ok, I admit that you think it’s problematic that the major villain is a fat homosexual rapist, but come on, let’s focus on the giant sandworms!”. Shutting people down, ignoring or giving minimal treatment to their concerns, and refusing to fully engage with their issues is a form of oppression. coddling. Implicitly, you’re giving the message that this person’s feelings matter, when actually they don't, because if they accept media uncritically, their ideas and feelings are less important than your own and they need to be informed of that. The only exception is when you are dealing with someone who, for their own special reasons, is triggered by something. You have to just give them a pass and not talk about it (unless you do so in wholly therapeutic terms), otherwise In fact, in this case you’re saying that their pain is less important than your enjoyment of a book, movie or tv show. So when people who get triggered raise these concerns, listen respectfully and try to understand the views, realize they have some trauma that makes them have an exaggerated and irrational response they can do nothing about without therapy . Do not then change the topic.

Thirdly you must acknowledge mock other, even less favourable, interpretations of the media you like. Sometimes you still enjoy a movie or book because you read a certain, potentially problematic scene in a certain way – but others read it entirely differently, and found find it more problematic. For example, consider the scene in Game of Thrones where Drogo rapes Dany (which he does not do in the books). One of my friends feels that it was portrayed like rape fetish porn, sexualising the act and Dany’s pain. I pointed out that some people (including women) are into that--for reasons that are complex beyond your understanding--and some people (including me) aren't and some people are triggered by it and that's about all there is that you can say about the "discovery" of the fetish porn element here. Then I made fun of the naivete of that friend for knowing so little about the world they could bring it up like it's some kind of autofail one-sided issue. Which you can do with people who don't have trigger responses to those kinds of themes. But I feel that the scene whole series focuses on Dany’s hotness and general fuckability quotient pain and tears in a manner that is totally transparent and is one of the areas where the show seems so lazily written that I can't really get through a whole episode without talking to someone about something about it, so that conversation's kind of fun. Anyone who looks at Drogo, Snow, the sisterfucker, or Dany and thinks the director's not fetishising them in almost every scene is a hopeless thumbsucker (though even so the narrative story is still totally fucked up because Dany and her rapist then go on to have a good, sexyfuntimes relationship…uh, no, HBO, please stop rehashing Sergio Leone movies, we've seen them already. If you want to deal with weird sexuality, do it in a new and interesting way, not like "oh he raped her but it was a different time so now they're cool with it." It's unoriginal at best.). I don’t agree with with my friend’s interpretation but I recognise bringing it up it as an attempt by him to deal, on some level, with the sort of lazy conception and failure of the creators to engage in all the implications a totally valid reading of the scene. But, hey, not every director's David Lynch.

Also, as a fan of problematic media, you need to respect the fact that others may be so upset or angered by media you love that they don’t want to engage with it at all. In fact, one of my best friends won’t watch HBO’s Game of Thrones because of the personal reminders of real-life racism and misogyny that show triggers in her. That’s a completely legitimate and valid response to that or any tv show, and me trying to convince her to give it another shot would be disrespectful and hurtful. If you badger others to see what you see in something when they are telling you it’s not enjoyable for them, you’re being an entitled jerk. You’re showing yourself to be willing to hurt a real person over a television show. That really is a sign you’re taking things too seriously.

As fans, sometimes we need to remember that the things we like don’t define our value system. worth as people. So there’s no need to defend attack them from every single criticism time someone perceives some element in them they think might make some drooler more racist or sexist than they already are, or acknowledge the right of merely offended people to claim to be harmed or pretend those who do they are perfect.even remotely rational. Really loving something means seeing it as it really is--a fiction--not as you wish it were--an exhaustive description of reality. You can still be a good fan while acknowledging the fatuousness of people who claim there are problematic elements of the things you love. In fact, that’s the only way to be a good. fan of problematic things.


  1. Excellent job Zak. I think you have a real future as an editor.

    1. I certainly would not have been able to finish it without his editing, that much is certain.

  2. LMAO (in a very good way).
    Very well done.

  3. Blogger: Sometimes things we like are problematic as our group has come to define that word, but that's okay. You can still enjoy problematic things.

    Zak: Apparently, I feel the need to make fun of this person on my blog about DnD where I expect to get many pats on the back.

    1. Apparently it's unclear even after the essay, but the problems we have in society are caused by people who write things like the original essay. It's that type of refusal to take personal responsibility and blame "problematic media" that is the cancer infecting society.

    2. Um, that doesn't sound like a great idea. The lightest Pat is is Wes Welker who's like 185 lbs.

      Apologies to Zak if that's what he's looking for but I personally would not want even one Pat on my back.

    3. Maybe we read different original essays -C?

      See, the one I read had sentences like:

      "We need to find a way to enjoy the media we like without hurting other people and marginalised groups. So with that in mind, here are my suggestions for things we should try our darnedest to do as self-confessed fans of problematic stuff."

      That seems like a sentence about the bloggers take on what personal responsibility entails.

      I assume you're taking issue with the:

      "The narratives that we surround ourselves with can subtly, subconsciously influence how we think about ourselves and others."

      Even there, I think you're conflating justification with explanation. But, I could be wrong. Perhaps this blogger has a history of absolving people of personal responsibility. I am unaware of it if that is the case.

    4. That media sure is a jerk for not hireing Bob.

      The blog post isn't making fun of anyone. You don't have to make fun of people who are too stupid to think. You educate them.

    5. @duke
      1. Asserting these things are problematic makes you categorically an asshole.

      2. Teling the truth is good.

      If, Duke, you have a problem with either of these statements, assert what you believe to be true, then prove it.

  4. @Zak

    1.) Asserting what you believe to be problematic does not necessarily make you an asshole.

    As I see it, things are considered problematic in this context when they sustain certain parts of our society that are seen as undesirable (rape culture, sexism, racism).

    Someone pointing out why they see something as problematic can help people to recognize cultural blind spots that they might have.

    I'm not very eloquent, but let's see if I can come up with a mediocre example.

    The lack of Asian characters in Firefly is problematic. Especially since Firefly takes place in a future where Asian culture and language seems to dominate. This does not make Firefly something to be avoided and shunned. But it does bring up the question of why that occured, and can we work to change it?

    If we deny that Firefly has problematic elements based on the fact that Firefly is awesome, we are turning a blind eye to subtle racism. And, we stop before we get to the question of how we work to change it.

    And I would like to get to that question, which is why I don't think people are assholes when they say something is problematic.

    2.)Telling the truth is usually good.

    *insert classic example where telling the truth would lead to a worse outcome*

    Well, that's probably the best "prove it" your going to get. I'm fairly certain we're not going to reach a consensus on this.

    Me pointing to media as a source of reinforcement for some of these ideas is not me absolving people of individual responsiblity for their actions.

    I am concerned from a sociological perspective, not from an individualistic perspective.

    If 85% of women have experienced street harassment, I might ask the question "What made these men think this was okay?"(yeah, that's a horrible way to word it. It definitely seems to presume that men are made to do things and unable to control their actions. I might even call that question...problematic :P)

    But, my goal would be to find the root causes of the problem to propose sociological solutions that will lower that figure for all of society. It is not to give individuals excuses for unacceptable actions, and I'd hope that someone would forgive the poor wording if the intent was made clear. And if I had actually put that question out there, I'd be happy to rephrase it if the problematic aspects were pointed out.

    1. If you think failing to include an Asian character in a TV show makes that show "subtly racist" you need to prove --prove, not assert--prove, with facts and evidence--that this lack of an Asian character will lead to a racist outcome int he real world or stems from a racist outlook.

      Otherwise you have no right to speak and are an asshole.

      Also, asserting I said something on my blog to "receive pats ont he back" makes you an asshole.

    2. Shows for children should include a diverse cast, because children are allowed to be stupid, and not be able to imagine themselves into a world unless they see people like themselves. If you are saying this is only because Firefly is largely for children, you might approach having a point. But I doubt you are making so careful a claim.

    3. As for the root causes of street harassment, they are pathetically simple: the men want to have sex with the women. They women are moving so fast the men have no time to get any game together and will never see the women again if they don't do something. So they do the first thing that comes into their head--which is stupid, since they are mostly stupid and the odds are stacked against them in that situation.

      Why do they think this is ok to do? They don't. But they think they can get away with it--because experience--real life experience, not some tv show they saw--has shown they can. The common assumption that people do things because they think they are morally acceptable is bullshit--these are people unconcerned with the right and wrong of their behavior.

    4. It's also worth pointing out that street harassment tends to happen in more in cultures where people meet and talk to strangers on the street regularly.

    5. Or, to put in a much simpler way:
      Men harass women on the street for exactly the same reason you said I wrote this to get "pats on the back"--you felt an emotion and shot your mouth off about it without really caring whether it was right or wrong because:
      1. You are an asshole, and
      2. There are no consequences for you.

    6. The fundamental problem with Duke's argument is the assertion that Firefly is awesome. It is not.

      The non-appearance of asians in a putatively half-asian culture is not indicative of racist undertones, but of the fact that Joss Whedon is a fuckup. We are told the culture is sort of asian. There is some vaguely asian spirituality. People curse in something that sounds like Mandarin. That's about it.

    7. Re: "The non-appearance of asians in a putatively half-asian culture is not indicative of racist undertones, but of the fact that Joss Whedon is a fuckup."

    8. Re Heliograph, Inc.

      So you'e insinuating what?

  5. @Duke: What problem, precisely, is created by Firefly's lack of Asian characters? Perhaps the word you want is 'symptomatic'.

  6. You have improved my mood immensely with this. Kudos.

  7. Encounters at the End of the World is awesome. Really really really.

    But, as with Grizzly Man, I could have done with a little less Werner ("To me, the cheese in a grilled cheese sandwich represents the nobility of the human spirit trapped in a futile struggle against bread.")

    1. I can never have enough Werner. Ever.


  9. Is there ever a level of racism in entertainment you find objectionable, Zak? Do you ever read, like, Horror at Red Hook by Lovecraft and go, damn, this shit's racist?

    1. I read about HP Lovecraft and go "Damn, he was racist--and he should not have been" but in judging stories I judge them on whether I enjoy reading them.

      Now a story can rely on believing ideas that are so distracting for a reader because the ideas they bring up are constantly unaddressed (like, for me, Atlas Shrugged or almost all romance novels) and woven into the fabric of the narrative that the story literally ceases to be enjoyable because of the presence of the distraction, but that is an _aesthetic_ failure.

      Or, it can be based on predictable ideas (cliches) of which stereotypes are a subset. That is also an aesthetic failure.

      The _ethical_ failure--the failure you condemn in terms of "harm" rather than _sigh_ one more lazy artist--can only be one of three things:
      -Does this work treat fiction as fact?
      -Is this work conclusive evidence that the author had racist ideas (a point made moot if we know for a fact the author was racist)
      -Is this work responsible for making stupid people _more stupid_ (which, I suspect, is never true. Works--like Mein Kampf--may change the genre of their stupidity, but not make them more stupid.)

    2. Don't you think fictional works can express or imply ethically objectionable beliefs, attitudes, or assumptions? If so, then why shouldn't the fact of such expression/implication count as an ethical failure in its own right? If I'm reading you correctly, it sounds like you're saying fiction could only be "problematic" if it caused other real-world consequences, like causing or reinforcing someone's racism. If a tv show set in present-day NYC almost never depicted African Americans, and only then as homeless people and/or criminals, I don't see why anyone would "need to prove --prove, not assert--prove, with facts and evidence--that this . . . will lead to a racist outcome int he real world" because the show's offensive stereotyping would itself be a racist outcome in the real world. I don't even see the need to prove, either, that it "stems from a racist outlook." Why? What would that add?

    3. @Curt
      1st: If one thinks a work implies racist beliefs on the part of the author, then check the author and then make a judgment of the author. An electrical cord fabricated by a skinhead merely functions as an electrical cord.

      2nd: While certain wholly imaginary images may be A Thing Caused By Racism that is only significant if it is a clue to the (undiscovered) racism in the real world or if it changes real outcomes for real people in the real world.

      I don't see how the content of a fiction--independent of either the real human who created it (author) being racist or real humans being affected by it (racist or harmed readers, etc) could even be *called* racist, much less be accused of being a "racist outcome in the real world".

      Is the skinhead-manufactured electrical cord a "racist" electrical cord? What would make it racist, if the author left no unequivocal trace of his/her beliefs legible in it and no-one who ever saw it changed their ideas because of it?

      Is, more to the point, a caricature of a Jew drawn by me ( a non-self-hating Jew) and seen only by people who didn't change their ideas or feelings one iota because of it "a racist outcome". Objects do not have a moral universe independent of people and outcomes and lives.

      A fiction is placed in the fiction section precisely because the author is claiming it *isn't* true. Therefore only the parts with a discoverable connection to truth--to facts on the ground-- have any ethical weight or meaning.

    4. I also think it is pretty easy to "prove, with facts and evidence" that showing african americans as criminals and homeless has or can help make stupid people into stupid and racist-against-black people.

      Much easier than proving that *one show* not having Asians (not even stereotyping them, just failing to have that group in the cast) on it has made stupid people into stupid and racist-against-asian people.

    5. Also, worth noting: Failure to equally employ people--all other considerations being equal---in a TV show or anything else, is obviously a sin and would constitute a racist outcome. But I don't thinkt hat;s what you're getting at.

    6. Or, more simply: your example confuses describing an industry as racist (which is easy in the kind of case you present) with describing an individual work as racist (which is more difficult in the kind of case described above).

    7. I'm confused here, Zak. For the purposes of my own very personal clarity, do you or do you not believe that art and entertainment can affect the beliefs and attitudes of people who aren't thick as living shit?

      I get that you're sceptical about the ability of stuff taken in isolation - GoT for example - to affect changes in individuals. I'm sceptical about that too, although on the subject of genres of stupidity, it seems to me that some genres of stupidity are more dangerous than others.

      But when it comes to, say, things like women being consistently presented as passive in popular entertainment, I'm thinking it makes a difference, i.e. it feeds sexism. Maybe not more of a difference than all sorts of other things in the real world (socio-economic systems, people being pillocks, etc...), but it's part of the picture, part of a reciprocal process rather than purely symptomatic. Not sure how you'd go about measuring such a thing in any kind of scientific way (I don't have any control societies handy), but it feel intuitively true to me nonetheless.

      By the way, thanks for this blog. It got me playing D&D again after 16 years. Turns out that D&D is fun.

    8. The electrical cord metaphor doesn't make sense to me, because unless it's put to very unusual use, an electrical cord can't reflect attitudes, illustrate assumptions, or express meanings the way stories and their elements do. (Or are you denying that stories and fictional elements do any of those things?) An electrical cord can't instantiate an offensive stereotype. A fictional character can. What's the difference in meaning between someone saying explicitly, "I believe everyone of such-and-such race is [whatever racist stereotype]," and someone telling a story that depicts every character of that race according to that stereotype? Such a story would seem to me to be just as much an expression of racism as the straight-up statement, only in different form. And I would say it should be criticized as such.

      As for real-world consequences, the chief offense of something offensive is precisely that it offends. It can be insulting and even hurtful for someone to routinely see a major facet of themselves reduced to a small set of flat, unflattering traits. Whether anyone else is influenced to believe or keep believing in that stereotype is a secondary matter; the REAL real-world consequence is that insult and that hurt.

      As for creator intentions, I think it's more helpful and accurate to call out and explain objectionable elements in fiction than to play "pin the racism (or misogyny or whatever) on the creator." I think this video does a good job of explaining why.

      Your point about the Jewish caricature works not because the caricature wouldn't be offensive, but because it plays off our social convention of giving people a pass when they make fun of themselves, especially when they keep it "in the family." If you set the caricature down someplace public where you couldn't control who saw it or how they took it, wouldn't you expect it to offend someone eventually? And rightly so?

    9. @zom
      "For the purposes of my own very personal clarity, do you or do you not believe that art and entertainment can affect the beliefs and attitudes of people who aren't thick as living shit? "
      It can affect their beliefs easily: "I used to think Tommy couldn't act, now I think he can".

      Now: change someone smart's mind in an *ethically meaningful* way?


      FICTION (not all art, fiction) can change smart peoples' minds only if it presents something as *fact* (rare) or if it articulates a *meaningful argument*.

      Now: can fiction change someone smart's mind *for the worse* in an ethically meaningful way?

      Only if it alleges fiction is fact. (i.e. fabricates evidence) (LOTR and GOT do neither)..

      Smart people only change their minds in the presence of what they believe to be facts, or after arguments which are good and hold water.

      Therefore a smart person can *never* be persuaded to be racist by a work of art (unless it lies about facts) because *no fact supports racism* and *no good argument (in the context of this extant and observable 2012 world) supports racism*

      I do _not_ think some genres of stupidity are more dangerous than others. I think they are all equally dangerous. Some are easier to describe or corral than others (selection bias and logocentrism are harder to recognize than racism, for example) but most evil in the world is down to the stupid, and there are a million evils.

    10. @curt

      The word "express" means basically to "transmit" or, to "move".

      The word "instantiate" means basically to "provide an instance of".

      I am saying *if* neither the cause (author) nor effect (audience response) of an offensive object is racism, then it would be hard to use either of those words you used to describe what is going on there. The first seems inaccurate (no racism is being "moved" from one locale to another) and the second is basically tautological in the context of this discussion.

      "What's the difference in meaning between someone saying explicitly, "I believe everyone of such-and-such race is [whatever racist stereotype]," and someone telling a story that depicts every character of that race according to that stereotype?"

      The first is someone describing their personal belief system that guides their own real world actions and will affect people, the second is one of the million stories in the world that there are to tell and has no real world value unless believed.

      Watch: "My friend alex borrowed money from my uncle and my uncle charged an exorbitant interest rate"

      There. I just told a story where every Jewish character behaved according to a stereotype. If you don't see the difference between that and me openly espousing personal belief in antisemitism, you are hopeless.

      You have (as many people do) confused *offending* people with *harming* them.

      *Offense* is not a subset of *harm*. Offense may accompany harm--as when someone is triggered or when the offending object has policy effect in the real world (like Prop 8 was offensive and harmful).

      If offense were a species of harm, every christian "offended" by 2 guys kissing would be "harmed" by them. And they are not harmed, not at all. That is precisely why their being offended is good and progressive.

      Offending people is a corollary of *breathing*. All things offend someone and not all those people are right to claim they have been harmed by them.

      If my drawing of a Jewish caricature--once anonymized--offended someone? Maybe, sure, they are offended.

      But it cannot *harm* them outside the presence of:

      1. A stupid person who believes it (note: all children are stupid)
      2. Special triggering

      We, however cannot build any useful or interesting culture if we avoid *anything* that stupid people might use the wrong way (all cultural products ever--stupid people can ruin lives based on what they saw on the Weather Channel) or anything potentially triggering (I know a girl who is--understandably in her case--triggered by snowmen).

      You put a warning on it saying, essentially "Warning: This bottle is full of alcohol. Don't drink it if you're an alcoholic".

    11. Well, you're forcing me to refine my thinking on the subject, I'll give you that (and thank you for it). My intuition continues to be that a fictional text can be "problematic" in the ways you're saying it can't, and that it can be so apart from whether a creator has racist intentions, or whether someone mistakes the fictional text for fact and adopts or continues to hold racist beliefs because of it.

      To come at it from a different direction, I think what can make a fictional element (such as a character type or plot device) racist apart from the possible causes and effects you specify, is this: within whatever context is relevant, it fits into a history or pattern of reductive and demeaning usage with specific reference to people of that race.

      Just like I can't decide within the privacy of my personal motives what meaning it will have if I, a white guy, use the word "nigger," because the history and pattern of its reductive and demeaning usage by white people toward African Americans is so firmly established, so it's really not up to me in the privacy of my personal motives, either, what meaning it will have if I depict an African American character enjoying watermelon in a story. If I were to post a story with such a scene online, anyone who criticized it as racist would be well within their rights, regardless of my motives. Let's even say I was totally clueless and innocent; people who knew that about me could still say, "Hey, you may not realize how racist that is, but it is. Just do a google image search and you'll get some idea of the ugly tradition that exists, in which that imagery has been used to denigrate black people." Anyone who said that to me would be doing me a favor, because they would be filling me in on a meaning my scene would have whether I wanted it to or not, and even whether I was aware of it or not. If I wanted to present that scene but have it not be racist, just intending for it not to be racist would not suffice. I would have to craft a context that would neutralize or subvert the racist associations of African Americans eating watermelon—and if I did try that, whether I succeeded at it or not would almost certainly be debatable.

      I'd like to say this is what I was groping toward when I asked what the difference is between baldly stating belief in a racist stereotype and telling a story that makes extensive use of that stereotype. The connection in my mind was that both examples, as I imagined them, fit the kind of history and pattern I describe above. Your counterexample highlights the need for the qualification, "within whatever context is relevant." Within the context of this discussion, both your Jewish identity and the fact that you're telling the story for non-anti-Semitically rhetorical purposes seem very relevant, and effectively neutralize the fact that, as you point out, "every Jewish character behaved according to a stereotype." Maybe intention carries more weight in some contexts than others. If that sounds unsatisfying or even self-serving, well . . . by the nature of the problem, defining relevant contexts and assessing what matters how much in them is bound to be controversial.

      You're right that I fell into confusion when I focused on the offense that people can take when they encounter racist tropes or stereotypes in fiction. But I still think, for the reasons given above, that fiction can include racist tropes and stereotypes, and that when it does, that in itself is a kind of real-world consequence of racism, and deserves to be criticized as such. I also think the offense it gives is another real-world consequence that should lend urgency to such criticism. Your point is well-taken, that people get offended for all kinds of reasons, but I'd rather say those reasons are debatable, some worthy and some spurious, than dismiss as irrelevant this important trained response to perceived ethical breaches.

    12. @Zak: Speaking as a devil's advocate, if popular culture as a whole regularly portrays attitudes and imagery that suggest racism on the part of the creators or which are commonly associated with racism (such as racial caricatures), that could be argued to cause suffering in the same way that a lifetime of experiencing casual racism causes suffering (i.e. humans become very unhappy when they feel immersed in a culture of hostility). An individual work could be argued to be at fault for contributing to that.

    13. @John
      I don't play with devils' advocates. Either you believe what you;re saying or you don't, and if you don't I don't want to waste time with it.

      The short, redundant, and obvious answer to your question is "see 'triggering'" above"

    14. @curt
      1. It is good that you are refining your thinking

      2. Intuition doesn't matter unless you can back it up.

      3. Your friends warning you about the use of the word are warning you *in order to avoid negative outcomes* . No outcomes=no foul. Shooting a gun in a sealed environment in a range with no targets is not "dangerous".

      4. Our forbears, brothers and sisters are idiots and assholes who have formed all kinds of overlapping "patterns" to promulgate their idiocy. You cannot live *independently* of their idiocy if everything you do is simply calculated to avoid resembling their idiocy--then you are as much a slave to their received ideas as them. You have to move directly toward the best thing at all times. If my Uncle lends money at an exorbitant rate, he does. That is all. Letting morons control the content of your messages--via prescription OR anti-prescription, is to let tradition and dumbness and stereotype defeat reason.

      5. Your 4th paragraph just seems like an attempt to create a zone of uncertainty that doesn't exist. Prejudicial speech is a wholly unacceptable ethical *crime*. You do not leave a "zone of uncertainty" around it. You define what it would mean, then eradicate it, rather than saying each college English major has the right to denounce the authors of his or her choice on vague grounds of "context".

      6.The context is: Harm or no harm. Which, I understand, conflicts with peoples' deep-seated desire to see stereotypes they feel really smart for having recognized in books and complain about them on *ethical* (this is racist) rather than merely aesthetic (this is lazy writing) terms.

      Ethical condemnation carries more weight in society than condemnation of lack of thought or talent. So people turn their distaste about the second thing into a guess that lazy writing is going to somehow make the world worse, then they get attention and since the real-world problem of prejudice is so serious, it is nearly impossible to refute that without stirring up powerful emotions in people.

      If you would like to make the argument that "all lazy cliched writing is harmful because it promotes less thought" then I might even be with you. But in that case, everyone who writes "she rummaged in her purse" is doing as much evil as anyone who writes an ethnically cliche character.

      7. Your final paragraph is merely a sum-up and repetition and contains no argument so I'm ignoring it.

      8. With your assertion--essentially--that everything is "context" (the same conclusion the worst of contemporary art has come to) then basically artists in our society are totally blameless. The context is: people are assholes and will believe anything if it is on TV. They will believe your main character's views are your own, they will take any random character's position and adopt it as their own, even if you don't control it. So, 2 choices:
      -don't say anything or do anything ever on TV or in a mass market book because people ARE stupid enough to read messages that hurt people into them, OR
      -say whatever you want in a fiction (and many will take it the wrong way) and you are blameless because the context is ubiquitous idiocy and you can't do anything about that.

      Personally, I want to live in a world where the people who wrote The Wire can be accused of doing nothing more than sitting down and writing the story that The Wire was meant to tell and no-one can level the phenomenally horrible charge of racism against them or their work without *actual reference to some actual criteria outside the English major's own head* and their interpretation of what 'context' the show is in.

    15. @curt

      If you would like to say "x concept/character is a cliche or a stereotype" that is inherent to the thing.

      To say it is "racist" or "sexist" or "homphobic", you are talking about a real world ethical problem. This is much more serious.

      A stereotype is "racist" only if it is *believed* by someone. If nobody believes it, it's just a cliche.

      An action in writing is only "racist" if it can reasonably be expected to be *proceeding from or contributing to* such belief.

    16. @Zak: I consider that to be a nonsensical attitude, but that's your business. I don't, so I won't press it.

    17. @ john I'm sure lots of people *would* agree with any position you care to devilishly advocate, but I don't have time for arguing with everyone in the world. Just people who are smart and might plausibly say something interesting back.

    18. @curt

      And riddle me this:

      Every time you illustrate something using a stick figure are you being ableist--that is, committing a crime tantamount to racism against my girlfriend in her wheelchair--by contributing to a pattern of depicting everyone as having 4 working limbs?

      If not, why not?

    19. @zak The purpose of a devil's advocate argument is not to put forward an argument that some hypothetical other people somewhere might agree with. It's to argue contrary to a position that you agree with in whole or in part, either because you think there's a part of the original argument that requires further exploration (and subsequent reaffirmation, refinement or change), or just to elicit the exchange/examination of ideas (in this case it was the former). It's totally cool that you don't want to argue with me, you're not made of time, save it for the people who actually disagree with you on the main subject. Go ahead and ignore me. But ignoring devil's advocacy on principle is dumb.

    20. @john I'm not ignoring on principle, I'm ignoring it because I'm not made of time.

      I prioritize correcting the incorrect.

    21. As a matter of fact, your stick figure example is a textbook case of ableist privilege—the fact that able-bodied people enjoy default status in pretty much any representation of "people in general," from stick figures to stock photos. Does it rise to the level of hate speech? No. But it does perpetuate a pervasive disparity that favors able-bodied people over people with disabilities. (Here's the discussion of privilege I see linked most often, and here's another I like, for anyone who'd like to read further on the subject.)

    22. @Curt
      1. Don't dodge *every other issue brought up in the previous response*. If you do you're not having a conversation (1-8), you're sniping.

      2. So basically, in your world *everyone is racist* (or ablist, which is just as bad).

      Now the guilty English majors of the world may be comfortable with this as it protects their ability to write papers about how (say ) James Joyce is racist, but:

      _Actual members of communities that suffer from prejudice aren't because it trivializes real prejudice--which is a serious evil and a huge ethical problem that has solutions and need to be fixed "Oh we're all guilty". Racism isn't chocolate or beer--some little bad thing you're allowed to indulge in because it's human. It's a totally fucked thing that needs to be destroyed whenever its encountered.

      _Actual works of art can't be made under those conditions. By your logic, every representation is a failure to represent *something else* equivalent to racism. Every book has to be Gwyn Barry's "Amelior" under that regime. If it's not a utopian fantasy devoid of detail, you're racist or sexist.


      Crying "racism" without actual racist outcomes just reduces the whole thing to abstraction and absurdity.

      And *do not* _ever_ link to condescending kindergarten-level discussions of common concepts on my blog again. You are being disagreed with because you have made several errors (some of which you yourself have pointed out) not because I haven't read the same things you have.

    23. If we're playing "link to shit everyone already knows about as if it proves your point"...

      Saying using stick figures for illustration is as bad as actual racism makes you these people:

    24. And Curt, how *dare you* come on here and write in grammatically correct English wen yoo cd just as eezily right funettikally? Don't you know that this falls into a pattern of discrimination against dyslexic people? It sends the message "Real ideas are communicated in standard written english, not phonetically".

      Why are you creating prejudice on my blog?

    25. Yeah, sorry about the English.

      And I wasn't "sniping," but I'm not made of time any more than you are. You tossed out some clever little conversation-stopper of a challenge; I just figured I could swat it down quickly and come back to the more substantive points when I had more time. Even though my answer was pretty elementary and you characterize it as "shit everyone already knows about," you seem not to have understood it, so let's go over it again.

      Specifically, let's deal with this: "Saying using stick figures for illustration is as bad as actual racism . . ." Did I say that? No. What I said was that able-bodied people are afforded various privileges (such as always seeing people like themselves, in the sense of also being able-bodied, whenever some generic "person" is represented in any mainstream media) that are usually not available to people with disabilities, and that this disparity in privilege is maintained and perpetuated by a lot of little things we do every day, like drawing stick figures with four working limbs when we want to illustrate something with a generic "person." How do you get from that to the words you put in my mouth, huh? I even said explicitly, "Does it rise to the level of hate speech? No."

      You know, if you really did read and understand those links that you characterize as "condescending kindergarten-level discussions of common concepts," you would know that the point of privilege as a concept here is to describe a lot of stuff that derives from systemic disparities but doesn't seem to merit the label of actual racism or misogyny or whatever in individual instances. It's not racist of me to buy bandaids that pretty closely match my skin tone. It doesn't seem quite right to call it racist, either, that it's much easier for me to do that, in more places and with many more options, than it is for African Americans. And yet that's a real disparity along racial lines that makes my life just a little smoother and easier and the lives of African Americans correspondingly less smooth or easy. What it is, is white privilege, which derives from the fact that I belong to a racial majority. I'm not trying to be condescending by breaking it down like that, but if it's still not clear, maybe I can link to a Wikipedia page or something.

    26. Okay, so on to your other points.

      You know what the problem is with your account of what makes something racist or not? You say stuff like this: "Crying "racism" without actual racist outcomes just reduces the whole thing to abstraction and absurdity." But when you get around to spelling out what you mean by "racist outcomes," you always seem to mean stuff like this: "An action in writing is only "racist" if it can reasonably be expected to be *proceeding from or contributing to* such belief." In other words, you define it only in terms of the racists, with no reference at all to the people actually affected by racism, African Americans, or their experience of it. My discussion of "offense" didn't quite get it right, as I admitted, but at least it was a stab at defining racism in terms of the people who actually suffer from it. The reason I backed off from it had nothing to do with your dismissal of the notion, but because a) "offense" doesn't quite seem adequate to capture the harm done to African Americans by racism, even if we restrict that to just racism experienced through popular culture, and b) I think just the potential for that harm to happen is enough to qualify something as racist.

      To stick with my formulation from an earlier comment, what gives any "unit of culture" (from a word like a racial slur, to a fictional element like a character stereotype or plot device or imagery, to a whole story or story type) this potential to harm is the racist meaning that has become attached to it by a history or pattern of reductive and demeaning usage with specific reference to people of a particular race. Also to reiterate, context matters; context can sometimes neutralize or subvert such a racist meaning, so that the "unit of culture" may be deployed in that context without racist effect.

      Now, you've made a few objections to this formulation, and I'll go ahead and answer them.

      First, I take this to be an objection to the idea of rooting a definition of racism in histories and patterns of usage, and specifically an objection to an unwarranted conclusion you seem to draw about that idea's implications for art: "Our forbears, brothers and sisters are idiots and assholes who have formed all kinds of overlapping "patterns" to promulgate their idiocy. You cannot live *independently* of their idiocy if everything you do is simply calculated to avoid resembling their idiocy--then you are as much a slave to their received ideas as them." I got news for you, Zak—you cannot live independently of the cultural bequest of our forebears, period. The meanings we have to work with come down to us from them. We can try to transform those meanings through our own usage, but we have to deal with them one way or another. That doesn't make us a slave to them, any more than architects are "slaves" to physics. Architects have to take physics into account, of course, but doing so is part of their work and part of their achievement.

    27. Going back to my example about posting a story online that includes a scene of an African American eating a watermelon, that imagery was suffused with racism probably a century or more before I was even born. The racist meaning of that imagery is part of my cultural inheritance, whether I got the memo or not. So even if I'm oblivious to the racism of that image, the purity of my intentions doesn't stop it from having that meaning. If well-meaning friends informed me, "Hey, that's racist," they'd be right. You object, "Your friends warning you about the use of the word are warning you *in order to avoid negative outcomes*," and I can agree with that, but not when you go on to say, "No outcomes=no foul. Shooting a gun in a sealed environment in a range with no targets is not "dangerous"." For one thing, the example involved posting a story to the internet, which is more like waving a gun around in a crowd than shooting on a closed range. More importantly, though, the image in the story remains racist even if I take the story down before anyone encounters it and is harmed by it. No outcomes is nice, but the potential to harm is still there in the imagery's racist meaning.

      As for the harm it could do if encountered? It could be experienced as a hostile stimulus by African Americans and sympathetic people of other races, and thereby provoke any number of negative reactions they really shouldn't have to go through, including but by no means limited to offense. Here's a video of African American men discussing their varying levels of (dis)comfort about eating foods like watermelon and fried chicken in the presence of white people. It's sad and disgraceful that racist imagery like that which we're discussing here could make anyone so self-conscious about eating certain kinds of food.

      You press the objection: "Letting morons control the content of your messages--via prescription OR anti-prescription, is to let tradition and dumbness and stereotype defeat reason." By which I take you to mean that if my story needs an African-American-eating-watermelon scene, I shouldn't let either racists or the possibility of giving offense stop me. Well, if my story REALLY needs that scene, and it REALLY is a story I need to tell, things aren't necessarily hopeless for me. But if I don't want to put something out there that's straight-up racist, then I need to address the racist meaning of the imagery. And that would probably mean crafting a context within or around the scene that would neutralize or subvert the racist meaning.

    28. It's in your objections to my discussion of context that I think you get silliest. You accuse me, for example, of "attempt[ing] to create a zone of uncertainty that doesn't exist," and then go on this rant: "With your assertion--essentially--that everything is "context" (the same conclusion the worst of contemporary art has come to) then basically artists in our society are totally blameless. The context is: people are assholes and will believe anything if it is on TV. They will believe your main character's views are your own, they will take any random character's position and adopt it as their own, even if you don't control it. So, 2 choices:
      -don't say anything or do anything ever on TV or in a mass market book because people ARE stupid enough to read messages that hurt people into them, OR
      -say whatever you want in a fiction (and many will take it the wrong way) and you are blameless because the context is ubiquitous idiocy and you can't do anything about that."

      Look, any time you're dealing with meaning, context is going to be a factor. And it's not some mysterious, nebulous "zone of uncertainty" in which anything goes and everyone is blameless. In most cases, it's analyzable into features or elements that are relevant for determining the meaning of whatever is in question. And in most cases, those features and elements will be units of culture in their own right, with their own meanings established by histories and patterns of usage. When I explained why the context of our discussion made it okay for you to tell a story that would be anti-Semitic if I told it, I pointed to two specific features and articulated what effect they had on the meaning of your story. How is that a "zone of uncertainty"? Because meanings tend to be fluid and complex, analyzing a context and explaining how it works can require interpretive work and be subject to debate, but that hardly implies the relativistic, almost nihilistic free-for-all you seem to be ranting about above. If I really need that watermelon scene but don't want it to be racist, I just have to be (very!) careful about accompanying it with features and elements that will neutralize or subvert the racism. That's art. That's craft.

      All right, I'm into TLDR territory here. Over to you, if you want to keep on.

    29. @curt
      "just the potential for that harm to happen is enough to qualify something as racist. "

      1. Define harm in terms of feelings--how sad or mad or ashamed does an image have to make someone before it's "harm"? Exactly. Say the exact amount.

      2. Why then is the Christian who sees 2 men kissing "harmed"?

      3.Does anyone who has ever been discriminated against becoming sad count as harm?

      "what gives any "unit of culture"... this potential to harm is... has become attached to it by a history or pattern of reductive and demeaning usage with specific reference to people of a particular race."

      4. So: all culture has been used at least once in a pattern of harm. All culture should should stop?

      5. All things trigger *someone*. Where do you draw the line?

      "For one thing, the example involved posting a story to the internet, which is more like waving a gun around in a crowd than shooting on a closed range."

      6. So, stupid people's opinions matter?

      7. Why do they matter?

      "In most cases, it's analyzable into features or elements that are relevant for determining the meaning of whatever is in question."

      8. By whom? People like you?

      "Because meanings tend to be fluid and complex, analyzing a context and explaining how it works can require interpretive work and be subject to debate"

      Seriously every "analysis" is trumped by another days later. I have worked with academic analyzers my whole life and they have NEVER come to a conclusion they agree on about ANYTHING. Not ever. Not once. Each biography is trumped by the next, each analysis is argued the opposite way around by the guy in the next room.

      This is so common it's a cliche at this point that no 2 academics _ever_ agree on a literary analysis. It;s such a cliche that I'm stunned that you are actually typing that

      The practice tries to make ethics more complex than it is, in order to place the academic on top of a food chain where only they have done enough *analysis* to know simple right from wrong.

      Examining academic analysis rather than *outcomes* is just a way to give people who want to find problems with things power. You can't "object" to analysis without an endless controversy but you can find facts that are true or false.

      Shying away from the "reality test" is just a way to protect the egos of people who *thought* they found racism in whatever they read that day.

      The world you are proposing is one where racism is a *property of objects* rather than of people and actions. It's as if you don't even care about real people and preventing bad things from happening to them (the only point to all this) but rather you care about the right of academics to score points by turning a literary analysis into an ethical one.

      9. What does an artist do, exactly, in a world where they are committing a crime that has *no* victim and that *only people like you* can detect every time they put pen to paper? Submit a work to you before every exhibition, publication or broadcast?

      That *isn't* art. That *isn't* craft.

      Art and craft are not limiting things to squeeze them past the hypersensitive and stupid. Art and craft are doing whatever it takes to make sure what you put out there added enough pleasure and newness to the world that it was worth the trees that burned, the babies that got fed later, the silver halide that got dumped into the stream or the morons who took it the wrong way.

      I understand that for some people, pulling apart the whys and hows of a text is fun and some people associate it with feeling smart because someone once gave them good grades for doing it, but pretending analysis is the same as ethics or the same as art or the same as craft is an insult to people who put real work into those things.

    30. @curt
      Also, I'm belatedly realizing you seemed to have missed an obvious point about watermelons:

      No-one would feel bad about them if it weren't for the existence of *actual racists* who believe those stereotypes.

      Again: without actual racist humans and actions, there are no racist objects.

    31. 1. The "exact amount," huh? Sure. In the case of someone subjected to racism, on a scale of 1-10, anything above a zero is unacceptable, because why should they have to suffer any harm, sadness, anger, or shame whatsoever just because they're black? What's relevant here isn't so much the magnitude of the feelings as the injustice of having to feel them at all. Think about this, too—even .01's can add up to 10.

      2. I think you're using "offense" too loosely here. In the case of racism, the "offended" person is being directly insulted, demeaned, negated. In the case of a Christian taking "offense" at gay men kissing, what we're talking about is more like disapproval. Two completely different things. The former is much more reasonably recognizable as "harm" than the latter. So basically, I reject this as a false equivalence.

      3. I would say anyone who has been discriminated against has been harmed, period, almost by definition. If it made them sad, too, so much the worse.

      Now here's a question for you. Where do African Americans and their experience of racism fit into your understanding of it? Nowhere, so far as I can tell from anything you've said. In fact, the three questions I've just answered seem like an aggressive attempt to dismiss African American experience, feelings, reactions, etc. from consideration. Why is that? You seem awfully concerned with insulating (predominantly white and privileged) creators from criticism from some dreaded hypothetical "English major." But insulating African Americans from racism, or even taking their point of view into account? Not so much. Sorry if I'm wrong, but that's how it looks at this point in the discussion.

    32. And jumping ahead to 8, if you're THAT pessimistic about dialogue and discussion, then what the fuck are we doing here?

    33. @curt

      So what does one do in a double-bind? (Almost the only ethical dilemma one EVER encounters in art)

      A black creator creates a fiction (or nonfiction) representing their real experience. A black person in the audience feels anger/sadness/shame upon seeing this part of experience represented, then says it. This saying it causes a anger/sadness/shame in the artist.

      By your lights both *the object* is racist, but then *the person saying how they feel* is ALSO racist.

      This, btw, is a common experience for African American artists, Kara Walker being the first one who ever described it to me.

      This is the *real* situation being discussed here. If an object responsible for *any* negative feelings is racist then All Objects Are Racist.

      How do you explain that away?

      Also, your answer to #2 is really vague. What is the difference between "being demeaned" and "experiencing realities one associates with other people demeaning them"?

      Your questions about african americans is just pure rhetoric so far as I can tell. An

    34. "And jumping ahead to 8, if you're THAT pessimistic about dialogue and discussion, then what the fuck are we doing here?"

    35. As for the basic ad hominem argument you're implying: my life, gaming group and family are a laughably Benettonish rainbow of races, handicaps, sexual orientations, nationalities, etc. None of us have ever had any serious disagreement about issues of representation. I have never heard the viewpoint you are espousing ever enunciated by anyone in real life, only on the web, and not ever from anyone black.
      We even have a joke about it here at D&D With Porn Stars: A Jew, A Persian, 8 bisexuals, an asian girl, a mexican girl, a black girl, two immigrants, and two handicapped people walk into a Con. White guy in the corner yells: "You're ruining the hobby!"

    36. @curt

      I'd honestly reconsider if I'd ever heard anyone I knew in real life who'd been a victim of prejudice echo your sentiments. But I never have. And I do ask.

    37. Wow, you know Kara Walker personally? I recently read NARRATIVES OF A NEGRESS. Powerful stuff! I'll come back to it in a moment.

      About that "ad hominem argument." I'm not a regular reader here, but I've stopped by enough times to know you hang with a pretty diverse crowd. Repeatedly on this thread, you've expressed a revulsion for racism, and I believe you. That's why it rings discordantly to me when you get so bent out of shape that nitpicky English majors are nitpicking The Wire, but then turn around and pursue a whole line of questioning and argumentation that seems to say, essentially, "Who cares if a gratuitously derogatory stereotype of a black character ruins an otherwise good story for an African American reader who might otherwise have enjoyed it? Christians have a sad, too, when they see gay men kissing."

      I get the point of you bringing up Kara Walker. She's an African American artist whose work involves incendiary racial imagery, and she's been attacked over it by other African Americans. You're right, too, that this is very common for African American artists. Other black people scrutinize their work with a very critical eye toward how they're representing the race, and can be very quick to attack if they don't like what they see. Such expectations of "representing" one's minority are a truly regrettable burden that falls on minority artists, that majority artists are privileged not to have to deal with. I don't explain that away, and don't know what to do or say about it except that I wish it weren't so.

    38. One other thing I will say: none of the above makes it okay that, when African Americans try to enjoy popular culture, which is overwhelmingly white-dominated, they find themselves routinely and systematically depicted either not at all, or poorly and/or negatively. Is this situation tantamount to lynchings or discriminatory hiring practices? No. But it is one more way they get the short end of the stick, and I don't see why they should have to. It's an improvable situation. Not the only way to improve it, by any means, but still an important one would be for white creators to do better. Not the only way for that to happen, by any means, but still an important one is for critics, reviewers, bloggers, and yes—even English majors--to call out where, why, and how when they really get it wrong.

    39. You've said, "You have to move directly toward the best thing at all times." The problem with that is, most creators are going to be at their best when they're on familiar ground. I'm working on a novel set in Savannah, where I'm living right now. If I wanted to be on my A-game as much as possible, my cast of characters would be straight, white, cis, able, and mostly male. But that would be entirely at odds with my day-to-day, not-at-all-exceptional experience of living here. That would be a fundamental misimagining of my story-world. And the answer would not be to shoe-horn flat, stereotypical minority characters into token supporting roles. The answer is to imagine a story-world that reflects the diversity of my experience right from the beginning. That's what I'm trying to do. It's really hard, trying to educate myself in so many different directions outside my privileged perspective. I'm sure the story will suffer some awkwardness as a result, and I'll get a lot wrong. If I should be so lucky, some day sniffy English majors will write blog posts blasting my depiction of this trans or that Asian character as "problematic." Hopefully, I'll learn and improve with practice and criticism. And I think if more white creators would just sack up and take this approach and do the hard work and take their lumps, it would eventually get collectively easier for everyone to do better, and would probably open more doors for nonwhite creators, too. A raised bar can eventually become the norm. I know, I know—people are assholes and idiots. That doesn't mean I shouldn't try.

    40. @curt

      You are dodging the only real questions or points of disagreement here by stating the obvious repeatedly. Please do not do that. I am glad you are trying to write a good book and not a lazy book, but we are talking about When Do You Get To Call Something Racist.


      1. You say something is "racist" if it falls into a "pattern" that has been used previously by racists to justify or implement their racism.

      Yet, by this definition _all culture is racist_ .

      2. You say as soon as something has the "potential to cause harm" (how much harm? even a single drop of anger according to you) to someone who has experienced prejudice then it is "racist".

      Yet, by this definition, again, _all culture is racist.

      3. You say "context" is key to sorting this out, Yet you say intentions do not matter. Well where is the algorithm?

      4. You say "analysis" is key to sorting this out, yet I have asserted (and you have not addressed this assertion to agree or disagree) that analysts never seem to agree and the only people who even assay the analysis are a rarified and privileged group--what then is to be done with those TWO facts?

      5. Is Kara Walker's art racist? Why or why not? Explain it. Do not dodge it.

    41. @curt

      Clarification on 3--"intentions don't matter": you stated above several times an object can be racist even if its author isn't and did not intend to promote racism. (also, incidentally, you say, effects don't matter, only potential.)

    42. @curt
      I hesitate to include the following note as it seems you will take any opportunity to avoid a direct question and go off on a tangent but I think it needs to be said.

      You confuse:

      -claims that your proposed _method for fighting racism_ does more harm than good
      -claims that racism should not be fought

      Do not do that.

    43. Not to "snipe," but I can only get to 1. right now. I'll come back for the others when I can.

      Not all culture is racist, and the parts of it that are, aren't all racist to the same degree. The strength of the patterns matters, and also whether any given unit of culture is part of other patterns, and to what strength or degree.

      So let's say some white guy says to an African American, "You are a nigger." Okay, you could try to argue, "The words 'you,' 'are,' and 'a' have been used in a racist statement. They belong now to a racist pattern. By your [i.e. my] logic, you have to say they're racist." But no, I really don't. They have their own meanings, based on their own histories and patterns of usage, and those patterns are so broad and strong that even if they are occasionally used in racist statements, their meanings don't change to take on racist associations. In order for that to happen, they would have to be used a lot more than they are in racist statements, and a lot less than they are in statements having nothing whatsoever to do with racism. The racial slur itself, on the other hand, is almost paradigmatically tied into racist patterns of usage, especially when spoken by a white person to or about a black one.

      I should also say a little more about intentions. They do need to be there in the first place, when patterns are being established, but they aren't enough in themselves to give something broad, shared meaning—the patterns still have to be established. And once a pattern has been established, intentions by themselves usually are not enough to get free of them. And not everyone's intentions will count equally. Some people will have more authority and latitude to use a word differently, establish new patterns, and play with its meaning than others.

    44. @curt

      You need to be more specific about the rules of these distinctions.

      Not necessarily because everyone should follow your rules but to prove *a reasonable set of rules can actually be described*.

      If it can't, everything is accidentally racist _all the time_ according to your current rules and you risk trivializing the subject and you've made racism like jaywalking.

      Anyway again: please do not let this response stop you from answering the questions up there.

    45. Haha--all right, you axed for it! Might take me a day or two . . .

    46. ...or more, apparently.

      If you can't answer the very obvious questions engendered by your beliefs, that may explain why you think things that aren't true.

    47. Y'know, Curt never did answer.

  10. As for me, I refuse to participate in real life until it meets its quota of orcs and elves.

  11. Very stridently put, but the general thrust of your argument was put home to me by the way tabloids and other idiots have used the paralympics here as a means of attacking disabled people "they can play volleyball, why can't you get a job" and so on. At some point you just have to ask what the endgame is, and how much it would cost: to create a media environment which can't foster bigotry?

    "Problematic" always strikes me as a weasel word, as someone said upthread it usually glosses to "symptomatic", and at it's strongest "harmless in isolation but part of a harmful phenomenon" and the trick of the word is to project these qualities onto the individual object, allowing a general sociological statement to be passed off as a critique of a piece of art.