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Arisia: Facing the Prejudice of Giants & How To Be a Fan of Problematic Things

I am sitting in my car dealership while my car gets its oil changed, and apparently they no longer offer free wireless, so you all get a panel report instead of more Con or Bust work (it's endless).

These two panels had a great deal of overlap—though, as moderator of both, I tried hard to make them not identical—and I was really happy with both of them.

Facing the Prejudice of Giants

Description:

The World Fantasy Award is a statuette of H. P. Lovecraft's head. Yet, as many have pointed out, Lovecraft was deeply racist and anti-Semitic. More than the rest, women, people of color, LGBT, and other minorities must deal with the uncomfortable truth that many of the Giants we honor hate(d) us, or employ problematic stereotyping in their work. How do we reconcile these contradictions? How do we respond? When should a work's status as "great literature" be reconsidered in light of its flaws?

Mark L. Amidon, Brandon Easton, Kate Nepveu (m), Daniel José Older, Julia Rios

A couple days before the con, a racist troll had said, on a public Internet venue, how much they were looking forward to coming to this panel. A thoughtful bystander brought it to my attention, I wrote to Arisia's programming & security email addresses, and in under two hours the relevant con staff had talked it over and agreed to have someone from programming advise the troll that if they came to the panel and said the kinds of things they were saying, they'd be immediately asked to leave (citing the appropriate sections of Arisia's code of conduct.

Racist troll was a no-show.

Which was good, because while I was prepared to deal with racist troll, I also checked into my hotel room ten minutes before the panel started and made it down to the appropriate room without so much as a piece of paper to scribble on. (A kind audience member gave me one.)

Despite my discombobulation, the panel went great, thanks to the other people on it. I structured the panel around three roles that we might be in where we have to react to the prejudice of giants: a reader, a writer, and a community member.

(I'm paraphrasing in all of these, to the best of my recollection, and welcome corrections or expansions from others.)

For reactions as readers, people said there's often a difference in their reactions when they discover problematic stuff in a work when they're reading for the first time as opposed to when they recognize it after the fact. Some panel members (they were all awesome but at this remove I mostly don't trust myself to remember exactly who said what) said that they're usually bracing themselves for racism or other kinds of prejudice when reading a new book anyway. The down side of this, of course, is when for some reason they weren't braced, then it's worse. Another reaction, especially to the retroactive realization, was that "so-and-so doesn't get to take this book from me." Generally people agreed that it's very contextual and very personal.

For reactions as writers, I was asking those who wrote fiction how they approached the realization that writers whose works were influential on them held problematic views, that might have seeped into the writers' works. I think it was Daniel who said that he imagines giving Lovecraft etc. the finger: working in the parts of their shared tradition that he likes but peopling his stories with characters that Lovecraft would never dream of. (He was working on an essay on Lovecraft, which I'm not sure is public yet; I didn't see it on a quick look at his site.) I also asked what concrete things they did to keep stuff out of their writing that they wouldn't want to be there. Only one person, Julia, mentioned beta readers, which surprised me a little because it was the answer I was expecting. Brandon said that he imagined how a film or show he was writing would be received by an all-white audience; what would an audience of white people see in the black characters he was creating?

For reactions as community members, I asked Julia to describe Nnedi Okorafor's blog post re: the World Fantasy Award statue. A couple of relevant things we discussed: 1) the depressingly sound strategic choice Nnedi made to ally herself with China Mieville in order to get heard and reduce some of the knee-jerk reaction; 2) that the reaction from WFC has been, IIRC, the sound of crickets chirping. (I didn't follow the discussion at the time, so I don't know if anyone put forth a serious defense of keeping Lovecraft's head; there's certainly no argument to be made on aesthetic grounds. Make all the jokes you like about the phallic nature of the Hugo, at least it's not a person.)

I'm afraid I don't remember much about the audience questions. I know they were good—oh! I think this was the panel where I told someone who was asking about a particular work and the extent of its problematicness, "Look, this is going to sound mean and I'm sorry, because I really don't intend it that way, but there is no Magical Minority Fairy who can tell you whether or not it's okay to like something." (The person was gracious enough to come up afterward and say that they'd not taken offense.) I mention this principally because I wanted to thank [personal profile] oyceter for the concept, which was one of those things I didn't know I needed until I heard it, and now can't do without.

(There was also a white-haired person waaaay at the back of the room who had their hand up for a good deal of the panel. I told them once or twice that I wasn't doing questions until the end (because I was trying to limit possible troll damage), but they left before I got to questions, which I regret. I really was going to call on you first, person in the back!)

The only other thing I have in my quick notes to myself post-panel is "evil albino." Somehow we got to talking about The Hobbit [*], and we mentioned the distinct change in the appearance of the orcs from LotR, from blue-black with dreds to albino. I said, "yeah, I know the evil albino is a thing, and I'd rather the movies didn't use visual markers of evilness at all, but still, on balance I'm glad." An audience member said that, well, people are being killed today because of the stereotypes about albinos; in discussion later, a friend pointed out that those stereotypes aren't sourced in European or American-derived cultural beliefs and have an independent existence from/are not being reinforced by Hollywood depictions, which I thought was interesting.

[*] I do not agree with the assertion of someone on the panel that The Hobbit is more racist than LotR. But I failed to recognize at that moment the issues with the dwarves and anti-Semitism (which I consider a different thing than racism, though I recognize they share some pertinent traits); I have a discussion of this in the upcoming reread post, so look for it this Thursday at Tor.com.

Anyway, great panel, awesome panelists, no troll, was super happy with it. And then I was falling over because I hadn't actually had any dinner, and got food at the hotel's Irish pub with [personal profile] oracne and then shuffled off to prepare for my early early panel the next morning.

How To Be a Fan of Problematic Things

Description:

Lord of the Rings. A Song of Ice & Fire. Scott Pilgrim vs. the World. Many of us like things that are deeply problematic! Liking these works doesn't (necessarily) make you a jerk. How can we like problematic things and not only be decent people, but good, social justice activists? How does one's background matter? How does one address the problems? This panel will discuss how to own up to the problematic things in the media you like, particularly when you feel strongly about them.

Erik Amundsen, Woodrow "asim" Hill, Kate Nepveu (m)

I may have driven some people away from this panel when I set out my rules; I saw several people leave early. Um, oh well?

Those rules were: no personal attacks, which includes that criticism of a work isn't an attack on the creator or anyone who likes it (I said something similar at the prior panel); people could give a brief description of why they thought a particular work was problematic, but I didn't want to get bogged down in debating problematicness, if people didn't agree they should just substitute some thing that they agreed had problems; and I would take questions along the way, but please wait until I asked because I wanted to get to reasonable stopping points.

(I don't moderate all panels so firmly! This one seemed to need it, or potentially to need it. Though I suppose compared to the "go down the row and each answer a pre-written question" style of moderating, it wasn't that strict at all.)

I do have my paper notes for this panel, which consist of the following outline (heavily drawn from the blog post it was inspired by):

  • How do you react—your immediate in-head feeling—when you discover something is problematic? Is it different for you if it's a revelation about something in the past or something in-progress now?
  • How do you decide if you're still a fan?
  • What then?
    • Acknowledge the problem, to yourself and others.
    • You are not the boss of other people's brains.
      • People are allowed to have different opinions, different degrees of intensity.
      • Don't have to jump in (either to defend things or to point out problems, I think), but don't shut down discussions.
    • "Favorite" rhetorical moves? E.g., "Don't be so serious"—especially combined with "but that's realistic!"

Here is where I apologize for doing something poorly as a mod. My example of feeling defensive and upset when someone pointed out a problem in a work I loved was The Blue Sword. And someone near the front made a face. Which I asked them about, if they were having the same reaction as me, but they declined to say anything. Which is entirely their right! But I was a little hyper and had slipped into conversation-mode not person-behind-table-mode and asked them a couple more times if they wanted to say something over the next few minutes, which was rude. I should not have put them on the spot like that, I apologize, and I will try not to do it again.

As for my outline, we got through all of it, I think, but I only have one additional note on paper and am completely drawing a blank on anything else from my memory, other than that everyone was thoughtful and said useful things (helpful, I know, I'm sorry). So I'll skip to the bit where I was possibly unkind to Erik.

Erik, early on, had said that there was a story of his that contained some problematic things that he didn't catch before it was published, and he wasn't going to say what it was. It was a bit off-topic, so I waited until the end and put him on the spot: why not say which one it was? This is a panel about, basically, owning your shit.

He was very gracious about it, and said that no, I was right; it's only available in print, in (X which I didn't write down, but I got the impression it wasn't easily available) and so people were unlikely to stumble across it unknowingly. He hadn't wanted to name it because he wasn't proud of it and wasn't entirely sure even now how it had got past him (other than it was a culture shock story, which is always tricky).

And—to shift time frames abruptly!—two sentences and all the links ago was when my car was done, so now I have to post this and do eight million other things. What do you all think?

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