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.






112 comments:

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

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

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

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  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.

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    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.

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    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.

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    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.

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    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.

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    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.

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  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.

    Note:
    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.

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    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.

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    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.

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    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.

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    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.

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    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.

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    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.

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    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."

      http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=MNmzegQUtFA

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    8. Re Heliograph, Inc.

      So you'e insinuating what?

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

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

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  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.")

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    1. I can never have enough Werner. Ever.

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  8. http://lareviewofbooks.org/article.php?id=883&fulltext=1

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  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?

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    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)
      or
      -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.)

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    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?

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    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.

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    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.

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    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.

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    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).

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    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.

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    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?

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    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?

      Yes.

      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.

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    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?"

      A HUGE DIFFERENCE!
      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)
      or
      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".

      Delete
    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.

      Delete
    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.

      Delete
    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"

      Delete
    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.

      Delete
    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.

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

      Delete
    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.

      Delete
    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?

      Delete
    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.

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

      I prioritize correcting the incorrect.

      Delete
    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.)

      Delete
    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.

      Delete
    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: http://isthisfeminist.tumblr.com/

      Delete
    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?

      Delete
    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.

      Delete
    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.

      Delete
    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.

      Delete
    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.

      Delete
    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.

      Delete
    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.

      Delete
    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.

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

      Delete
    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

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

      http://dndwithpornstars.blogspot.com/2012/02/another-utility-post.html

      Delete
    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!"

      Delete
    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.

      Delete
    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.

      Delete
    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.

      Delete
    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.

      Delete
    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.

      PLEASE ANSWER THE QUESTIONS YOU HAVE BROUGHT UP AND PLEASE DO NOT DODGE THEM:

      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.

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    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.)

      Delete
    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
      with
      -claims that racism should not be fought

      Do not do that.

      Delete
    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.

      Delete
    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.

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

      Delete
    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.

      Delete
    47. Y'know, Curt never did answer.

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

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  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.

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  12. Huh. I really like your blog, I find your insights about roleplaying fascinating & right on (the thing about distance was great, as was the discussion of focussed games), and I quite enjoyed this corrective to the somewhat ham-handed original post. However, I meet a lot of your criteria for likely asshole (Monsterhearts is my favorite game, I do concern myself with "problematic representation", etc.). This makes me sad.

    I like a lot of what you say here. The distinction between being offended and being triggered, for instance, is salutary. The idea that a crusade to sanitize away ugliness in art can actually the world less safe for those confronted with ugliness (which is not exactly what you said, but what I gleaned). The injunction on consumers of art to take responsibility for their readings and what effect they allow art to have on them. (I don't like "all kids are stupid" -- fuck you, my kids are not stupid, and they have called bullshit on lazy stereotypes in fiction since before elementary school -- but whatever, I know what you mean).

    And yet. I find myself unable to draw these bright lines: between the esthetic and the ethical, between smart people and stupid people, between triggering and offense, between rational and irrational. I can't really embrace a vision of the world in which there are smart people (a few) who are utter sovereigns of themselves, and stupid people (most) condemned to be pushed by art from one stupidity to the (morally equivalent) next. I'm not sure esthetic failures and moral ones aren't intertwined, since the root of both, often anyway, is a failure of honesty and willingness to truly see the other.

    A thing about the world today: you have a bunch of little self-selected communities of folks, drifted together, which by trial and error evolve their own codes of etiquette and communication, their own shorthands and things you can take for granted. Then these communities bump into each other at random on the internet and have low-bandwidth interactions.

    So: you don't know any actually marginalized people in real life who think "like this" about problematic representation. That's cool. I not only believe you, I can see vividly how precisely the people in your world who are targeted by real-world shit might bristle at bullshit attempts to police art and language disconnected from making real-world changes. I gotcha.

    However, in point of actual fact, when I have found myself sitting around a roleplaying game table with a bunch of actual, say, women of color, they do care about representation; they do regard some representation as problematic. (And we'll also be playing Monsterhearts or a Dream Askew hack).

    That doesn't mean we don't think, over here in my neck of the woods, that readers have to take responsibility for their readings. That doesn't mean that we want literature sanitized of Bad Stuff. It doesn't mean we don't want evils represented, and it doesn't even mean we only want them represented with easy answers or pat morals in which the good, or the underdog, or whatever, triumphs. No, far from it. We want reality depicted freshy and ferally in all its dangerous ugliness... (comment continues below)

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  13. ...in fact, from reading the above, I doubt we'd differ very much about *what* we'd want to see at all (even if we do play Monsterhearts); but we'd talk differently about why. You'd characterize fiction which is honest and complex and real and compassionate about the human condition and broad-minded as being esthetically-but-not-ethically superior to fiction which is lazy and fatuous and self-serving.

    You'd say (it seems to me) that, say, if all the Jews we read about in fiction are scheming and greedy, that has no ethical effect, because smart people will not have their opinion changed by this, and while dumb people may be made anti-semitic by it, that will be morally neutral because they will thereby be distracted from some other stupidity which will, all things being equal, be equally bad; stupid people will do harm by virtue of their stupidity regardless of inputs. So that all the greedy-Jews works of art out there will be esthetic failures but not ethical ones.

    But we over here are likely to say that everyone isn't purely smart or purely stupid, and that sometimes even if one is not technically triggered, one might be tired and discouraged by finding only crap representations of oneself, while other people get awesome representations, and that even if that doesn't overwhelm our intelligence and make us do bad things, it still sucks and sucks differentially, and that that has some moral weight; that in the aggregate, the same lazy bullshit representations over and over again rise beyond the level of mere esthetic crimes and become ethical bummers, and that freshly imagining things in a way which is heartening to those who get presented constantly with bullshit makes things better, esthetically of course, but, at the end of the day, also ethically.

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  14. "I have found myself sitting around a roleplaying game table with a bunch of actual, say, women of color, they do care about representation; they do regard some representation as problematic. (And we'll also be playing Monsterhearts or a Dream Askew hack)."

    Just because you know them doesnt make a rational case for them being correct. It isn't evidence.

    "But we over here are likely to say that everyone isn't purely smart or purely stupid, "

    Sure: but every moment of stupidity is _their fault_ . Just like every time you're weak it's your fault, even if you are not wholly weak.

    "sometimes even if one is not technically triggered, one might be tired and discouraged by finding only crap representations of oneself,"

    I agree: luckily this is why YOU THEN MAKE REPRESENTATIONS YOU WANT TO SEE. Not demand individual artists dealing with their own problems do it. You can demand corporations do it (like in ads or children's shows and mass media) but not that.

    "in the aggregate, the same lazy bullshit representations over and over again rise beyond the level of mere esthetic crimes and become ethical bummers"

    You've touched on a different problem: laziness. A poorly-made (not the artist trying as hard as possible) piece of art is ALWAYS ethically indefensible and a well-made thing (artist trying as hard as possible) is ALWAYS defensible, regardless of the representations therein.

    So: no laziness, ever. The artist has a moral imperative to never release lazy work into the world. Following this ensures that every negative depiction will be worth it because it has aesthetic worth or at least psychological honesty and that no lazy positive depiction will be worth it because it will be shallow or dishonest.

    So the negative depictions might be a _result_ of (the much worse artistic sin) of laziness, but they are never the only effect.

    If George RR Martin's terrible prose and depiction of women turn out to both have a common root in a willingness to release less-than-his-best into the world (a fact we can only know through acts of biographical journalism) he has committed an ethical error.

    If they are him trying as hard as possible and simply failing, he has not.

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    1. > Just because you know them doesnt make a rational case for them being correct. It isn't evidence.

      It wasn't offered as evidence of their correctness, only of their existence, in response to " 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."

      Nor in fact was I disagreeing with you: I was agreeing with your sociological portrait. You live over there, in social space, and haven't met Tempest The Angry Black Woman. I live over here, and I have. She's a coolster. Social space doesn't mean much for the absolute truth of propositions. It has something to do with how generously we read a text from a given community, though...




      Delete
  15. In other words, the arrogant_assumption_that a thing is lazy because you don't like it or don't like the representations is dumb.

    And lazy.

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  17. [deleted earlier draft of this one to fix typos]

    > Sure: but every moment of stupidity is _their fault_ . Just like every time you're weak it's your fault, even if you are not wholly weak.

    I'm not -- and I mean this honestly, in good faith -- sure why fault is relevant.

    > luckily this is why YOU THEN MAKE REPRESENTATIONS YOU WANT TO SEE. Not demand individual artists dealing with their own problems do it. You can demand corporations do it (like in ads or children's shows and mass media) but not that.

    There is a bit of a straw man lurking here in the word "demand", as opposed to, say, "challenge" or "enjoin".Which points to what I mean about reading generously. Let's say I'm a fierce advocate of artistic freedom -- and of critical freedom. Let's say I'll defend the right of any artist to make any art, just like you. And also that I'll call them to account for the art that they make -- esthetically and ethically. Let's say I'll point to what they make and say "you can do better than this" and in doing so I am certain I am not harming or limiting them, but making them better.

    When you say, "you don't get to demand that individual artists make the representations you want to see", it has everything to do with what you mean by "demand". I don't get to coercively force them to make the art I want? Of course not. I don't get to take the position that the art I want is morally desirable? Actually I do get to take that position; the burden of proof is then on me to argue the case. Even if I'm right and it would be a good thing to have more of art X, that doesn't create a moral obligation for any particular artist (but me) to make art X -- we agree about that. But I get to call for art X.

    As a first resort, "make the art you want to see" is of course a great idea. I'm all about that, yeah, right there with you. And certainly it's arrogant to think you can dictate to some other artist what they should make.

    On the other hand, I think responses to art are as vital a form of human expression as art is. I get to point to a piece of art and say, "that there is fucked up."

    Sure, if my argument that the work is fucked up is idiotic, I will be wrong. If I say "you have portrayed injustice, that's the same thing as perpetrating injustice!" I will be an idiot. If I say, "you have shown a person targeted by mean things being other than saintlike, you are a meanie" I will be an idiot. Sure. But those are straw-man examples. The fact that a thing can be done badly does not mean it should be forbidden.

    "Make the art you want to see" is a great and inspiring message for individual artists; it's less interesting if it's a way to try to shut critics up. No, artists get to make the art they want to see; critics and audiences get to call for the art they want to see. That's how it works.

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  18. > You've touched on a different problem: laziness. A poorly-made (not the artist trying as hard as possible) piece of art is ALWAYS ethically indefensible and a well-made thing (artist trying as hard as possible) is ALWAYS defensible, regardless of the representations therein.

    I'm not sure it's a different problem, nor that "trying as hard as possible" guarantees "a well made thing"

    I'm also not sure what "defensible" means here. "Defense" presupposes an attack -- as if, when I say, "here's where your work is problematic", I'm not trying to make your work better.

    People who are willing to tell me, straight up, how my work is fucked up -- *after* I've tried as hard as I can? Those people are gold, and I do everything in my power to keep them in my life. They aren't attacking me. They are helping me.

    I'm don't want my art to just be "defensible on the grounds that I tried my hardest". I want my art to fucking rock.

    > So: no laziness, ever. The artist has a moral imperative to never release lazy work into the world. Following this ensures that every negative depiction will be worth it because it has aesthetic worth or at least psychological honesty and that no lazy positive depiction will be worth it because it will be shallow or dishonest.

    I realize that my hypothetical example about "art uniformly portraying Jews as greedy" was an example of a "negative depiction", but I don't think "negative depiction" gets to the heart of the matter. Certainly I have no idea what would be good about "lazy positive depiction". Actually that's probably worse?

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  19. > In other words, the arrogant_assumption_that a thing is lazy because you don't like it or don't like the representations is dumb. And lazy.

    This is fair enough, if by "lazy" we're talking about impugning the hard work of some individual artists. In the aggregate, I'm not so sure. Let's say that, in a particular time period, in a particular genre, all blonde women are crafty seductive villainesses and all brunettes are good-hearted and naive. Can I accuse any particular Hollywood filmmaker of the 1950s of personal laziness for employing this trope? Of course not. Maybe it accurately reflected the hard-won harrowing truth of her experience, or maybe her employment of the trope was a knowing nod and winking homage to the genre's conventions, or maybe it was a requirement of getting a movie made.

    However, if I'm tired of the trope, I'm entitled, as an audience member, not to care whether the filmmaker arrived their through great and admirable toil. I'm entitled to say "AGAIN? oh holy crap."

    I don't know how much the real-world lives of blondes and brunettes in the 1950s were impacted by the trope. By your logic, if most people were smart, they would have been impacted null, if most people were stupid, they would have been impacted plenty... and most people are stupid. So then in addition to the esthetic failure of being boring, maybe the adherence to the trope had some real social cost in the real world.

    So maybe "lazy" is the wrong accusation. But it's legitimate to point to the next movie telling the same stiff and lifeless canard AGAIN and to say, "dude, that's fucking weak."

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  20. One last comment in this particular barrage (and I apologize for filling your blog with my rant; I probably should have posted chez moi and sent a link).

    I think it's a legitimate position to say, "the artist can only dare concern herself with esthetic matters; the moment she attempts to consider the utilitarian impacts of her work, she risks falling into polemic, and, as an artist, she is lost. Her one ethical duty is to tell an inner truth; beyond that, she must leave ethical considerations of the *effects* of her work behind."

    Okay. But:

    1) That doesn't mean her work doesn't HAVE any real world effects, or that they aren't up for discussion. Saying "only stupid people are influenced by representation, and if they are stupid, it's their fault" is not really relevant, since the people at fault aren't necessarily the people harmed. Let's posit for a moment that perhaps George Zimmerman was stupid, and that the unremitting portrayal of young black men as criminals in media helped predispose him to pull the trigger. Then that would be his fault. Not sure how that helps Trayvon Martin though. He can be as smart as he likes, it won't make him bulletproof. Now you can say, "sure, but an artist can't think about that. Ice-T can't stop telling the truth of Crenshaw because George Zimmermann is an idiot". Okay. But that doesn't mean *other people* have to shut up about it.

    2) Let's say your one ethical duty is to tell an inner truth. Okay, but history seems to indicate that your ability to tell that inner truth will likely be compromised by all the bullshit around us. So it can actually be helpful, *in the service of that one duty*, to consider how you might fail, in predictable ways -- to consider which ways the world is always pushing you to lie. My friend That's a very relevant piece of "problematic representation."

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    1. (Whoops, "my friend" in that last post wasn't me being patronizing or overly familiar -- it's a leftover fragment from my beginning to say something about my friend Kameron Hurley's essay "We Have Always Fought", and then cutting it for space)

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    2. "I'm not -- and I mean this honestly, in good faith -- sure why fault is relevant. "

      Because that identifies the person in the audience as problematic, not the work or author.

      "Saying "only stupid people are influenced by representation, and if they are stupid, it's their fault" is not really relevant, since the people at fault aren't necessarily the people harmed."

      Incorrect: the stupid adult is going to do stupid things with ANY input you give them. They have, after all, managed to become an adult yet still are a sheep--the only thing representation can do is shift the genre of their stupidity, which doesn't matter. George Zimmerman would have done something fatally destructive to someone--racism was his genre this year, but it would have been antisemitism in another year or something else otherwise. Or media would have made his stupidity harmless but rendered some other stupid person's heretofore harmless stupidity fatal.

      Stupidity is the enemy: you fight that by presenting young people with complexity and teaching them to deal with it. Not with childish utopianisms, propaganda or Worthy Cautionary Tales.

      "I'm also not sure what "defensible" means here. "Defense" presupposes an attack -- as if, when I say, "here's where your work is problematic", I'm not trying to make your work better."

      "Let's say I'll point to what they make and say "you can do better than this"
      But they can't--at least not by doing what you want: as soon as they make work for an audience that isn't them, they are making a _worse and less honest work_ .A condescending and patronizing work. If someone looked at my art and said "Make gay pin-ups instead of naked women" they are asking me to make _worse_ art because I have not got the necessary nervous system to make good gay pin-ups. Ask Tom of Finland for that.
      "When you say, "you don't get to demand that individual artists make the representations you want to see", it has everything to do with what you mean by "demand". "
      I mean: pretend your "enjoinment" has an ethical or moral component. Like so...
      "I get to point to a piece of art and say, "that there is fucked up." "
      This is a lie: you do not get to do this. There is nor moral or ethical component to fiction presented as fiction to adults. Why? See the answer to your first question above.

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    3. "I'm not sure it's a different problem, nor that "trying as hard as possible" guarantees "a well made thing""
      It doesn't--but you can only_morally_attack an artist for not having tried as hard as possible to do a well-made thing.
      "However, if I'm tired of the trope, I'm entitled, as an audience member, not to care whether the filmmaker arrived their through great and admirable toil. I'm entitled to say "AGAIN? oh holy crap." "
      And this is where you are shockingly naive and wrong: no, you CANNOT complain abotu the filmmaker. What you can complain about is the LACK of the other thing--and you blame the GATEKEEPERS OF ART (producers in this case) for not letting the people with the nonblonde crafty scripts ALSO make their movies.
      This is a huge distinction: I get to paint as many naked women as I want and nobody can ever complain about that as if its a moral issue. Not even a little, not even once. What you get to do is go to the magazine editors and the curators and the other critics and lambast THEM for their lack of attention to all the other people who paint things besides naked women.
      I cannot do better than total honesty and integrity. They--having long given up honesty to become moneypeople who profit off others' work--have no integrity to defend, and need to bend to your whims.
      "Let's say your one ethical duty is to tell an inner truth. Okay, but history seems to indicate that your ability to tell that inner truth will likely be compromised by all the bullshit around us. So it can actually be helpful, *in the service of that one duty*, to consider how you might fail, in predictable ways -- to consider which ways the world is always pushing you to lie. My friend That's a very relevant piece of "problematic representation." "
      If they do that: they are representing something true. If they DON'T do that: they are representing a different true thing (how much of a sheep they are). Either way: the work has relevant and useful information in it. The artist can only make that information more or less entertaining and powerful.
      "I apologize for filling your blog with my rant; I probably should have posted chez moi and sent a link). "
      No, stay here, it keeps the conversation coherent.

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    4. Exceptions to the lack of moral or ethical content in art (for clarity's sake):
      -When (biographically) we know the artist is a bigot
      -When the work is presented to children
      -When the work is presented as fact
      -When the work is a work of mass media and is produced without integrity (i.e. already compromised in its essentials by the desire for money)

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    5. > "They have, after all, managed to become an adult yet still are a sheep--the only thing representation can do is shift the genre of their stupidity, which doesn't matter. George Zimmerman would have done something fatally destructive to someone--racism was his genre this year, but it would have been antisemitism in another year or something else otherwise."

      This is an interesting, nontrivial, and -- at least potentially -- empirically investigable claim. It doesn't follow from first principles as a matter of course. Maybe stupid people will do bad things regardless of input. Or maybe the input matters: maybe they might kill bugs, or kill people, depending on whether bugs or people are in fashion as objects of rage, and as I like people better than bugs, the input would matter.

      You certainly get to present data in defense of this assertion. Currently, it's just an assertion -- it falls in the category of "interesting hypothesis". Used as an operating assumption, it might be useful. Used as a way to silence debate -- "there's no point in talking about media portrayal's effects on Zimmermann, I have proved a priori such a thing cannot be" -- it's silly.

      An empirical investigation might be difficult -- lots of variables to control for. That doesn't really shift the burden of proof, though; it doesn't mean people should stop investigating such causes and effects.

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    6. The main evidence I can present is that education moves the needle on how many people do something categorizable as "dumb, bigoted, violent shit without direct and obvious economic motive" far more than media representation.
      There have been lots of tests: media changes peoples' minds in labs for an hour. It doesn't change the behavior of countries for decades nearly as much as just giving them a fucking education and access to all the media we have.

      Openness beats propaganda.

      But more importantly: _influenceability is a crime in itself_ . If a person is basing moral and ethical decisions that affect other people on something other than fact (i.e. on fictions) _they are already dong something terrible every day to all the people around them_ even before they shoot someone.

      It's people like that who are responsible for 90% of the bullshit in the world. We can't build a meaningful culture that pursues or achieves sophisticated ideas around these sheep. We won't have a culture any more, just morality plays.
      At some point you have to switch from shepherding to:
      -using education to reduce the number of sheep
      -butcher the remaining sheep
      and
      -feeding the humans with the dead sheep.

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    7. As noted, I'm an enemy of propaganda.

      You seem to be interpreting my call for "more and deeper and better art" as a call for "not showing some art to some people, because they might be influenced."

      No. Don't do that. Show all art to all people. Educate all the people. Educate them by showing them all our stuff (and educate us by showing us all theirs). Then make more and better and deeper stuff.

      I don't know that we disagree about that.

      I am not buying, however, that you can divide us into sheep and nonsheep, that education is a permanent toggle that flips people into nonsheep and after that they are not influenceable, they have become "adults". You said, above, that we are all sometimes stupid, and that it is then our fault. I buy that. I think we are all sometimes sheep, and we get to struggle against that. Together. Pointing things out to each other.

      I am not fully following your extended metaphor about shepherding, butchering, and cannibalism. We butcher and eat the sheeplike parts of ourselves through education? Okay, sure.

      More openness. Better art.

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    8. "You said, above, that we are all sometimes stupid, and that it is then our fault. I buy that. I think we are all sometimes sheep, and we get to struggle against that. Together. Pointing things out to each other."

      And calling a piece of ART problematic is usually NOT the way to do that.

      "Better art."

      Incorrect: the critique in the OP doesn't call for GRR Martin to make "better art" it calls for him to keep making the _same shitty art he made before_ only with a more helpful message.

      Messages don't make art good or bad. It just makes their effect on the gullible better or worse.

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  21. "Stupidity is the enemy: you fight that by presenting young people with complexity and teaching them to deal with it. Not with childish utopianisms, propaganda or Worthy Cautionary Tales."

    I can assure you that I despise these things every bit as much as you do.

    Let's say you wanted to dispute this. Let's say you went and perused my body of published work and you were able to point things out -- you were able to say "hey, look here, Ben, this here is a childish utopianism, and this over here is propaganda."

    Let's say you did that, and I went "oh shit, you're right!" Then guess what?

    You would have pointed out a problematic representation in my work, and I'd be the better for it.

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    1. No, I'd be criticizing the content, which doesn't make it better or worse, just more helpful to children.
      You'd only be better if I criticized the style and construction.

      Do you grasp the difference?

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    2. I would not be able to make an _ethical_ critique if your work is fiction presented as fiction to adults.

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    3. > "No, I'd be criticizing the content, which doesn't make it better or worse, just more helpful to children.
      You'd only be better if I criticized the style and construction.

      Do you grasp the difference?"

      I'm not sure that I do. A childish utopianism seems to me to be not as good as a sophisticated utopianism -- at least, if we mean "childish" in the negative, "puerile and ill-conceived" sense (a childlike, Alice in Wonderland utopia could be cool, I guess, but that's not where you were going with the phrase).

      So if I was writing childish utopianisms and you pointed it out and I started writing sophisticated utopianisms, I'd be writing better stuff. I would be a better artist.

      Some writers write some really cool stuff, and then sometimes they allow their politics to take over, veer into propaganda and end up with forced scenes, unbelievable characters, and wince-inducing lapses of logic. Their work (even if they are "trying their best") ceases to be honest, to engage with the world. This is worse. I am allowed to call them to account and say, "hey, artist friend, this is worse than your other stuff, on account of it being propaganda." I am not required to restrict myself to criticizing only the construction of their scenes and the rhythms of their sentences. I get to engage with what their art is actually doing.

      I get that there may be a culture gap here between visual and written art, but I find the idea of a strict separation of content from style and construction dubious.

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    4. "So if I was writing childish utopianisms and you pointed it out and I started writing sophisticated utopianisms, I'd be writing better stuff. I would be a better artist."

      It's not very important either way. The critique would be about something unimportant: The message your work sends to children. Unless its FOR children you need not worry about that.

      Improving the ethical or didactic content doesn't make you a better writer at all. It just makes the message to children ( a small thing, unrelated to quality) less harmful.

      "I get that there may be a culture gap here between visual and written art, but I find the idea of a strict separation of content from style and construction dubious."

      Good style always results in good content

      Bad style always results in bad content (dishonest)

      The ethical MESSAGE your work sends is unrelated to either and only matters (as I said before):
      When (biographically) we know the artist is a bigot
      -When the work is presented to children
      -When the work is presented as fact
      -When the work is a work of mass media and is produced without integrity (i.e. already compromised in its essentials by the desire for money)

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    5. What you mean by content seems to me to be a very narrow part of what I mean by content. God forbid my work ever have an ethical message in the sense you mean! If how much a book actually takes on with and engages with life and tells its artistic truth is "style", while only "whether nice things happen to the nice people in the end" is content, then okay -- everything interesting is style. But then "simplistic utopias" (shallow ill-conceived ones) differ from "sophisticated utopias" stylistically, and ethical failure in fiction is a matter of style -- as are "problematic aspects".

      Talking about a certain sort of thing -- including some aspect of life, and portraying it -- any aspect of life at all -- this, I agree, this narrow sense of "content", can never be an ethical failure. You cannot make an ethical critique of a work by saying "it contains thing X", whatever thing X might be.

      So in this sense, no, there is no "problematic content".

      Talking about a thing, whatever it is, without integrity, compromised in your essentials (by any desire, not just money -- conformity, timidity, fashion, complacency, defensiveness, arrogance, groupthink...), so that your work is dishonest: problematic. If you like, stylistically problematic. I'm happy to adopt your terms.

      So, having a protagonist who is an unrepentant mass rapist and lives happily ever after (like, say, in Delany's Hogg): if done with integrity, not an ethical failure

      Writing about butterflies and sunshine and happy niceness in a way that is a lie: an ethical failure

      Most (all?) art contains some ethical failure, in predictable ways: precisely in those places where the artist, sheeplike, fails to challenge their culture's (or subculture's) truisms. Not where they look deep into their own artistic soul and discover that they like drawing naked ladies or whatever, no. Where they balk from their artistic soul.

      People outside, going "ow! this fiction poked me!" can be helpful in finding your artistic soul's true path. Sometimes you get to say "sorry, poking you there is the way it's gotta be." Other times you get to say "oh heck -- that pokes the fuck out of me too and i didn't even realize I was doing it, hell, I didnt' even realize you could NOT do it. sweet, new possibilities!"

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    6. "Most (all?) art contains some ethical failure, in predictable ways: precisely in those places where the artist, sheeplike, fails to challenge their culture's (or subculture's) truisms"

      Incorrect.

      Fiction for adults only ethically fails when the artist didn't make the book as stylish (engaging, interesting) as possible.

      Truly good books are never didactic and simple enough for anyone to agree whether they are "challenging truisms" or not. One critic will claim a book does, the next critic will claim it does not. In truth: it's fiction, so it can only intrigue people to look into themselves or not.

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  22. > "If someone looked at my art and said "Make gay pin-ups instead of naked women" they are asking me to make _worse_ art because I have not got the necessary nervous system to make good gay pin-ups. Ask Tom of Finland for that."

    Honestly, I think we may just be talking about different things.

    ACT 1
    Zak: I have drawn some naked ladies!
    Passerby: There are too many naked ladies and not enough naked men! Draw naked men!
    Zak: (peers into core of artistic being) Nope.
    The Nine Muses: Hurrah!

    ACT TWO
    Zak: I have drawn some naked ladies!
    Passerby: There are too many naked ladies and not enough naked men! Hey gatekeepers of art! Sell us naked men too!
    Gatekeepers of art: Oh, fine
    Zak, and The Nine Muses: Hurrah!

    ACT THREE

    Ben: I am going to write a novel which makes us reimagine gender! I am going to create new genders which are orthogonal in ideology to our own! That will mess with the readers' heads like fuck!
    Meghan: Actually, Ben, you have just assigned to what are effectively women the parts of being a man you don't like.
    Ben: Fuck! You're right (goes off and makes better art)
    The Nine Muses: Hurrah!

    "How to like problematic things" is not directed at artists: it is not "an open letter to GRRM". It is directed at readers. If I point to a work of art and say "that there (or that we have so much of that there) is fucked up", from where are you drawing the assumption that I'm talking to the art's creator, and trying to push them away from their artistic destiny? There are two other, obvious possibilities -- that I am indeed talking to the gatekeepers (I never said I wasn't, and if HTLPT is addressed to anyone other than readers, it's more likely to be addressed to HBO than to GRRM), and that my critique might move the artist TOWARDS their artistic destiny.

    If that's not your thing: if your art is only produced in the crucible of individual imagination, and any input from the outside risks messing with it -- that's cool. But that isn't necessarily the general case for all artists. I love input from the outside -- particularly where it pushes me to be fresh and real and myself as opposed to repeating the lazy lies I was trained to repeat.

    As you say, our stupidity is our own fault; we must be ever-vigilant against it. Why not have allies in doing so? If we are in fact sometimes going to lapse and be stupid, why not treasure people who point our stupidity out to us? I mean, if that's not helpful to your process, that's cool. But that doesn't generalize to the idea that no one should criticize artists for ending up producing (whatever their intention) bullshit lies (examples of which would include propaganda and lazy utopianisms, for instance)

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    1. You have failed grotesquely:
      "How to like problematic things" claims that GRR Martin's work is problematic.
      It asserts that--and gives reasons.
      This is a lie. It is not problematic for those reasons.
      So, no. Not at all. Not even a little. No matter who it's directed at, the assertion that these various fictions "are problematic" is a lie. And in public: so therefore disgusting.

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    2. An ethical critique of a released work is, by its very nature, never just "helpful (or optional) advice". It's saying "This critque is a nonfiction assertion that the Good will be served if you consider what I say" and the fact is: The Good will NOT be served if people believe what this essay is saying.
      It lies, it presents itself as non-fiction, and is therefore evil and deleterious to The Good.

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    3. I'm not a huge fan of the essay: I totally agree with you, for instance, that its "rape fetish porn = advocacy of rape" is superficial and silly -- indeed, I'd say it's an ethically bad thing to say, as it marginalizes and tells a lie about a vulnerable community... but I guess then we'd be back where we started, so never mind. It's not really my intention to defend the essay in general.

      However, you aren't responding to what I'm saying. "Problematic" means "is a problem". You say above "if the lack of X is a problem, talk to the gatekeepers, it's not the artists' fault."

      Right, but saying "Y is problematic" does not mean "Y is a problem -- and it's the artists' fault!" It only means the first part of that sentence.

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    4. "saying "Y is problematic" does not mean "Y is a problem -- and it's the artists' fault!" It only means the first part of that sentence."

      The first part being the work is a problem. And the work is NOT a problem. The audience is a problem and the _LACK OF GATEKEEPER INTEREST IN OTHER WORK_ is a problem.

      The work is not problematic at all. So this is a lie.

      Saying "racism is problematic" sure: fine.
      Saying "the fact that there are many schlocky books published like GRR Martins while schlocky books about people of color go unpublished is problematic" is ok.
      Saying "GRR Martin's book is problematic". No. Not even a little.

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    5. >"It lies, it presents itself as non-fiction, and is therefore evil and deleterious to The Good."

      The constant, interesting theme of this conversation is your willingness to divide things into strict categories -- child/adult, stupid/smart, sheep/independent thinker, content/construction, and here, fiction/nonfiction -- that are utterly disjoint... and my reluctance to do so.

      You say elsewhere that it is the duty of the artist to tell the truth. I firmly believe this (hence, I hate propaganda; apparently, actually, a good deal more than you do, since I think propaganda can be ethically bad, while you -- since propaganda represents itself as fiction -- apparently don't).

      It seems to me too simple to say "a nonfiction essay can be evil if it lies, but fiction is known not to be true, so matter what it says it cannot be evil." Fiction's job is still to tell the truth -- even if it does so in the form of a lie. Fiction can fail at that job. If a fiction writer has an ethical imperative to tell the truth -- in fiction -- then a failure to do so has ethical consequences.

      That doesn't mean they are personally to blame and are to be pilloried. They may well have been trying their best (the author of a nonfiction essay which sows confusion and does harm may also have been trying their best).

      I think it's probably pretty useless to say a book as a whole "is problematic." I think it can be quite useful to say "this thing you did here? It lends itself easily to a reading which I think is (as fiction) a lie; this other thing would be better." Not better like "oh think of the children and cover their ears! don't show them any ugly parts of life!" Better like: actually more about life, deeper, messier, better art.

      And whether the work is published or not, I think that can be a useful thing to say.

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    6. "Fiction's job is still to tell the truth -- even if it does so in the form of a lie."
      There is no way for two authors to agree what this means.

      Fiction has to be _as involving as the author can make it_. That will involve a kind of truth--but not in a way we can all agree about how to ethically judge.

      "
      I think it's probably pretty useless to say a book as a whole "is problematic." I think it can be quite useful to say "this thing you did here? It lends itself easily to a reading which I think is (as fiction) a lie; this other thing would be better.
      "
      "

      The person offering the advice is wrong, then, because they are proposing a fake standard for "good". The action or character or sentence is either _the most interesting and involving thing the author could think of to put there_ or it isn't.

      If it is it is but lends itself to misinterpretation--it needs to stay for the work to be ethical. It needs to stay because the work is more fun, enjoyable, interesting, etc with that ambiguity.

      If it is not--it needs to be gone for the work to be ethical. Even if it is more well-meaning or more educational or more inspirational or whatever.

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    7. Your characterizations of how I would revise things to make them more ethical keep being the opposite of how I would actually revise them to be more ethical.

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    8. I mean, you are certainly on the right track with heading towards "interesting and involving" and away from "well-meaning, educational, and inspirational". Holy crap yes.

      It's just that "interesting and involving" can vary from mildly amusing entertainment to profound engagement, harrowing challenge, blissful jouissance...

      There's nothing wrong with purely formal art, that's a kind of truth. But not all art has to be purely formal. Art can engage with life. At best, messily.

      If I'm going to defend an essay on this topic, it would indeed be Kameron Hurley's "We Have Always Fought". That essay is about adding more, not hiding things. More speech. More art. Better art. The things that are missing.

      I suspect that if you were to read that, and her novel "God's War" -- which is blood-drenched from start to finish with nary a didactic moral or well-meaning inspiration in sight, but is also, clearly, morally alive -- you would have a sense of what I'm actually arguing for.

      Oh hey! I missed your second-to-last sentence!

      >"If it is not--it needs to be gone for the work to be ethical."

      There we go. You're talking about what needs to happen for a work of fiction to be ethical. Consensus! My work here is done. :-)

      (Seriously though, I'd better go home and get some sleep or I will not be in any shape to make any art, ethical or otherwise, tomorrow. I doubt I will be able to resist the temptation of checking in, but we may actually be pretty close to a complete picture of where we can agree and where we cannot. I have enjoyed this conversation thoroughly -- thanks)

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    9. (okay, I couldn't resist responding to this bit:

      >""Fiction's job is still to tell the truth -- even if it does so in the form of a lie."
      There is no way for two authors to agree what this means."

      They need not agree, to be in dialogue about it.

      Okay -- really done now!)

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    10. "Go read this" is a cheap and lazy way to deal with a debate.

      There are questions before you: either address them or admit you're wrong.

      Sleep if you need to sleep. But if you don't address these questions, you're leaving everyone where they started: the essay is stupid and everyone who agrees with it is terrible.

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  23. (Also, can I just say I'm loving the parallel surreal thread that having to fill out all these captchas adds to the conversation? I mean, "astdoom recoils"? How can you beat that?)

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    1. (If you would like to join the long line of conservatives compelled to point out their sense of whimsy: sure, go ahead.)

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