Monthly Archives: January 2017

Good Offense, Bad Offense

Whenever I write about social justice and writing, whether I’m sharing my own perspective or asking for someone else’s, typically someone will come along and inform me that it’s impossible to avoid offending everyone. Therefore, apparently, my entire effort is fundamentally pointless. I was recently in an argument with a particularly belligerent person, out to save me from my futile quest of political correctness, and I realized he was misunderstanding something very basic to my goals. Contrary to his assumption, I’m actually all for offending people with my writing.

I’ve heard people say that good writing is often offensive, and I’ve heard that idea attacked by fellow social justice geeks. I actually think that attack is misguided. It’s not that the very concept of “good art offends” is wrong. It’s just normally presented as part of an overall bad argument. It’s like a seed that’s been planted in one of those tea candle holders. It won’t ever have room to properly bloom and fruit, but that’s not the seed’s fault. It’s the fault of the dumbass who planted it there.

Offense is the reaction of people who have been made to question something that they profoundly did not want to question. Sometimes that reluctance itself needs to be challenged. Some things stagnate and decay when they aren’t shaken up and re-examined regularly. Politics and religion in particular are improved by periodic interrogation. Great storytelling hacks our brains to make us think about something in a way we didn’t expect, so we should want it to occasionally offend people.

However, that principle doesn’t apply to everything. A person shouldn’t have to question their basic self-worth; their behavior or habits, sure, but not their fundamental value or basic human rights. That’s my first issue with the whole “you can’t please everybody” argument. No, I can’t please everybody. That’s why I try to prioritize pleasing people by treating them like humans, as opposed to pleasing people by tiptoing around their worldviews.

Which brings me to the core issue. The kind of offense I’ve been targeting these days really doesn’t come from any kind of intentional statement (most of the time). Instead, it comes from laziness. We have built up a vast tapestry of tropes that center around treating straight, white, heterosexual cisgender non-disabled men as normal and everyone else as subtly less human. Writers, from romance novelists to screenwriters to stand-up comics, draw from art that came before them, and often that means borrowing racist, sexist, ableist or homo/transphobic tropes. Even recognizing them takes conscious thought. Figuring out how to write without them takes serious effort. But failing to put that effort doesn’t make you the good type of offensive. It’s not thought provoking to stereotype Black women. It’s not constructive to question a disabled person’s basic worth and dignity.

Every norm eventually takes on a basic comfort; even ones that have no other redeeming quality. Challenging bigoted norms, therefore, is offensive. It isn’t even just offensive to people who are actively invested in oppression. It’s offensive to people who intellectually dislike oppression, but also have gotten comfortable with the rhythms of it. They don’t like to be confronted with the idea that their own story ideas, inspired by bigoted works, might have inherited bigotry. They really don’t want to be challenged to do the work to undo it. That’s the real reason for the ubiquitous pushback. It’s easy to tell others that the real world doesn’t have safe spaces, or that other people need to grow a thicker skin. It’s a lot harder to grow one yourself.

So to everyone out there who makes it your mission to remind people that they’re eventually going to piss off someone, or that they’ll kill themselves trying to make everyone happy, or that good art is sometimes offensive; take a moment to consider that maybe you’re the one they are willing to offend.

This rant has been brought to you by a really annoying conversation, a bad case of staircase wit, and my sudden realization that I hadn’t met my four posts a month standard. You probably picked up on that. You smart reader, you. 

An Open Letter to Kellyanne Conway

Dear Ms. Conway,

Yesterday I caught your interview with George Stephanopoulos. It was disturbing, on many levels. You dodged his very reasonable question about why Donald and press secretary Sean Spicer both lied about attendance at the inauguration, and when he did what good interviewers do, (that is, repeat the question until you gave a real answer) you accused him of harping on an issue. Even when he clarified that he agreed it shouldn’t be important, but stressed that the falsehoods were worthy of discussion, you kept treating him as if he was single handedly standing in the way of talking about real issues.

That was abusive, Ms. Conway. That was practically gaslighting.

And that wasn’t the only time you used tricks from Manipulation for Psychological Abusers 101. You used promises of future good behavior to bargain for free reign now, when past behavior clearly indicates those promises will go unfulfilled. You encouraged viewers to confuse “less bad” with “good” when you talked about Donald’s inauguration speech. True, it was not as horrendously crass as we are used to, but it was also fearmongering and an inaccurate characterization of our nation. I know you want to people to equate “he’s not being quite as nasty as we are used to” with “he’s actually fine,” because that’s a classic trick manipulative people use to convince others to trust them. It saves them from the inconvenience of a real apology.

That brings me to the one thing that made me more angry than any of the other abuser tactics. You used one of the most sadistic mindfucks of all; using your victim’s defenses against abuse as justification for that abuse.

The press criticize you, so it’s fine that you exclude them and dodge their questions. People protest you, so it’s fine that you lie and cheat and bully. You treat other people horribly, but that’s fine, because by having the audacity to stand up against their own bad treatment, they justify your abuse.

No. That’s not how this works.

We all saw this dumpster fire of an election. We saw how your candidate bullied, insulted, and incited violence at every rally. Every newscaster and journalist saw how he changed the tone of the entire election cycle. He spent more time insulting Mexicans alone than talking about concrete policies, and still had time left over for African-American communities, women, people with disabilities, Muslims, refugees…..

Let me break this down for you. Until Donald Trump makes a genuine apology for everything he has said over the past year and a half, you have no moral high ground to criticize anyone’s conduct or civility, period. Here’s what that apology would look like;

  • Admitting, without reservation, that he was crude, demeaning, and even abusive to millions of people.
  • Naming specific individuals and groups and directing individualized apologies to them.
  • Admitting that this was damaging on both a personal level and damaging to our national culture.
  • Taking full responsibility for what he said and the consequences, and apologizing for going so long without an apology.

Having trouble picturing the Donald we all know doing that? Well, tough. That doesn’t change the fact that this is the only thing that would even give you the right to criticize other people’s tones. You don’t get to adjust the goalposts for him to something like;

  • Going nearly fifteen minutes without adding to the list of people he has crassly insulted.
  • Being polite to people who are knuckling under and giving him everything he wants for fear of being abused even more.
  • Giving one of those fake apologies where you explain how nothing you did was actually your fault.
  • Stating that things are going to be better in the future and expecting forgiveness on credit.

And since I’m having to explain these basic things in detail, I might as well add that if such an unlikely apology were to be given, it would only give you the right to ask for civil discourse to begin again. It would not give you the right to avoid doing any of the following;

  • Answering questions from the press, including ones that could potentially make you look bad.
  • Listening to the concerns of people, regardless of whether they voted for you or not.
  • Tolerating peaceful protests from people who decide, for any reason at all, that they aren’t happy with your actions.
  • Educating yourselves collectively on the issues, and evolving your stances.
  • Compromising and being happy with getting some of what you wanted, instead of whining that you didn’t get to steamroll over those with a slightly different take on the world.

Those are all just basic consequences of getting to live in a democracy.

Based on Donald’s past behavior, we can’t even picture him dealing with that final list of to-dos. That’s why we hate your boss, and that’s why we protest him. We are expressing anger and fear at a man who has gone out of his way to be infuriating and scary.

This has been your refresher course on Basic Decent Human Behavior. If you don’t like it, get the fuck out of here.

Sincerely,

Lane William Brown

Book Review: Ash, by Malinda Lo

ash

What it’s about: Ash is born to a fairy-believing mother and a skeptical father, in a land where fairy tales are warnings. When her parents die and she is left with a cruel stepmother, Ash finds her broken heart pulling her to the fairies’ world. If she follows it, she might never come back.

A retelling of Cinderella, with a sapphic love interest.

Praise: This book was captivating. The fairies are constructed to have a genuinely otherworldly feel. Lots of authors try that, and most don’t succeed nearly as well as Malinda Lo does here. The worldbuilding worked very well, as did the characterization of all the characters, especially the main one. I loved the romance. I loved the suspense. I loved the way the story unfurled slowly, but didn’t drag for even a paragraph.

Criticism: It’s a fairly loose Cinderella adaptation. The conclusion departs from the fairy tale a lot, and I did find that a little disappointing when I realized there wouldn’t be a shoe scene. But I got over that fairly quickly. The ending was still beautiful and satisfying in its own right, and when I closed the book I was extremely happy.

Recommended? It’s Cinderella with lesbians. Of course I recommend it!

The Last Electoral College

First, I motherfucking love this. This is the best shit.

(source here)

I suspect for many people, their New Year’s resolutions look more like New Year’s battle plans, as they use resources like this and this to figure out how to effectively combat the bigotry of the Trump administration. I’ve already seen some people put together game plans, and it’s awesome. I’ve joined a lot of action mailing lists and I’ve been working on contacting my representatives, which feels great. But I’ve decided to add my own personal, specific quest.

In 2017, I’m going to make the National Popular Vote Interstate Compact something that politicians openly talk about and campaign on.

The Electoral College had one job to do; prevent a corrupt, unqualified demagogue from taking election due to a popular vote. Last year, it did the exactly opposite of that. At best, it’s redundant, and at worst it undermines the very concept of democracy. There are two ways to get rid of it. First, there’s the constitutional amendment route, but you need an incredibly united front to do that, and in today’s politically fragmented world that is unlikely. Second, there’s the National Popular Vote Interstate Compact, or NPVIC. When they sign the compact, states agree that they will award all their electoral votes to the winner of the popular vote, as soon as 270 electoral votes worth of them are signed on. When it hits that magic number, the electoral college will automatically vote for the winner of the popular vote. It’s a clever trick that makes the college cancel itself out.

Some people have argued that this won’t work because it isn’t in the interest of red states (who tend to gain a disproportionate advantage from the Electoral College, hence George W. Bush and Donald Trump). It also won’t be in the interest of swing states, who get wined and dined every four years thanks to the electors. So far only blue states have signed it and, according to these experts, only deep blue states will, so it’s a lost cause.

To which I say, bullshit. Parties aren’t going to sign it. Elected officials are, and elected officials are selfish. They want to be re-elected. If we send a message that we are fed up with this shitty system, and promising to sign it is key to their elections, they will sign the compact.

Right now, there’s a circle of silence. Politicians don’t talk about the NPVIC, so voters don’t know about it. Because voters don’t know about it, they don’t petition, ask or vote for it. And because they don’t petition, ask or vote for it, politicians feel comfortable ignoring it, which is why they don’t bring it up.

A lot of action people have taken has centered around calling our national representatives, which is great. It’s incredibly important to do that. But we also have state governors and legislators who we can call and talk to. We will also have elections, and candidates. Virginia and New Jersey are electing new governors this year. I’ve already called candidates in my state asking them to make statements on their support of the NPVIC. I plan to go to events whenever I can and ask them about it publicly as well. And I’m going to do what I can to get other people asking politicians about this.

I’ll keep updating as I keep working on this. In the meantime, if you are reading this, please call your state governors and legislators and tell them you’re voting in 2018 and talk to them about the NPVIC. Keep yourself updated on it’s progress. This can be done.