So the U.S. Senate appears on the brink of passing the Employment Non-Discrimination Act which would bar businesses from taking into consideration sexual orientation when making decisions of who to hire, who to fire, and who to promote. And all the usual arguments are being trotted out as the usual suspects go into a frenzy. I’m not going to pick the overt haters’ arguments apart here, but what I really get tired of are the people who insist that they aren’t in favor of discriminating against anyone, for goodness sake. And then they say, “However…”
In most action movies there’s a scene that everyone in the theatre cheers. One of the bad guys—one who has been portrayed earlier on the movie as being particularly cruel, heartless, otherwise repulsive—meets an especially grisly death, usually at the hands of the hero.
Of course we cheer, you say. He wasn’t just the bad guy, he was an extremely bad bad guy! No matter how egregious or overly cruel his final moments were, he had it coming! We’re just cheering the concept of justice.
I get it, truly I do. And I have certainly cheered many such scenes, myself.
We put warning labels on all sorts of things.
I read fan fiction with some regularity, and it has been customary for some time at most places where one can post such stuff for the authors to include “trigger warnings.” Trigger warnings didn’t start on fan fiction sites, they were first used on forums where people discussed topics such as rape, rape prevention, domestic abuse, and so forth. The original intent was to alert people who suffer from psychological trauma that the story or commentary they were about to read contained intense and graphic description of one or more common areas of trauma. Psychologist refer to events that cause a person to relive a traumatic event a “trauma trigger.”
Now, one can understand that in a discussion dedicated to a topic such as domestic abuse, that from time to time descriptions of specific cases of abuse might come up. One can also understand that among the people who might be reading content on such a site will be people who have suffered actual domestic abuse, and they are seeking information, or recommendations, or just commiseration. So the original notion of “trigger warnings” in those sorts of places makes perfect sense.
One can also understand that in a fiction-publishing setting sometimes people will write stories which include the bad guys doing bad things to the hero, or to innocent bystanders who will need to be rescued by the hero. So if one is familiar with the notion of trigger warnings, it is understandable that one might decide such warnings are warranted on some stories.
But when you see a 700-ish word story sporting three dozen trigger warnings, one suspects that perhaps someone has lost sight of the purpose. I’m sorry, there is simply no way that in 700 words you can graphically describe that many different potentially traumatic events.
The problem is two-fold. People are worried that they’ll forget to warn someone about something, and someone will be traumatized, so they figure it’s better to be safe than sorry. On the other hand, a lot of people who don’t suffer from psychological trauma get all upset if they accidentally read something which is merely distasteful to them.
Now, I understand that people have a right to not look at anything they want. I have certainly gone on a rant or two about certain themes and topics in certain works of fiction. When I run into those topics, I may get angry or disgusted. I may literally throw the book across the room. But I do not have an actual panic attack. I do not relive an actual traumatic event.
I simply stop reading the stupid book.
That sentence right there is a great example of this phenomenon. There are people putting trigger warnings on stories merely because one character calls another “stupid” once. There are people who insist that trigger warnings are needed for one character calling another stupid once. There are people who insist that the word “stupid” is completely unacceptable in any civilized conversation—as unacceptable as reaching across the table and stabbing someone in the eye.
That is unintelligent, foolish, and utterly lacking in any understanding or sense of perspective.
In other words, that is a stupid.
Yes, it is extremely rude to call another person stupid. It is also true that one could write a scene where one character heaps a lot of abuse, including using the word stupid, on another character that could be intense enough to trigger a traumatic memory for a reader who survived an extended period of verbal and emotional abuse at some point in their past.
But if the word pops up in the dialog of a scene depicting two characters engaging in verbal banter, that story doesn’t deserve a trigger warning. What makes the other scene a trigger is not merely the inclusion of the word “stupid,” but the intensity of the entire abusive behavior of the character.
Getting back to a person’s right not to read something: such a right does not entitle you to a guarantee that you will never inadvertently see, read, or hear things that you find distasteful. You are not entitled to a world in which you only see what you want. Your fellow humans are not obligated to contort their own lives, words, or artistic expressions in such a way that your delicate sensibilities can never possibly be violated.
Courtesy dictates that we observe the niceties and comport ourselves in public and social situations in a manner that won’t cause harm or humiliation. But the obligation is to refrain from behavior and speech which could reasonably be expected to cause someone pain or embarrassment. Describing an autopsy at the dinner table can reasonably be expected to cause some people to feel nauseated, so it would be rude to do it. Telling that story of the drunken, debauched weekend you and some buddies had in college during the best man’s toast for one of those buddies, in front of parents and families of both the bride and groom, can reasonably be expected to cause embarrassment and perhaps instigate an argument between the couple-to-be, so it would be both rude and stupid to do it.
But mentioning that you are really sad that Dry Soda has discontinued their kumquat-flavored soda* in the presence of a friend of a friend who years ago had a beloved aunt die in a tragic kumquat-related accident, and mention of the fruit always makes the person break down into sobbing? It’s not at all reasonable for you to anticipate that, so you are not rude or insensitive for doing it.
And, let’s be real, here. Even if we accepted the notion that it’s reasonable to warn about a single instance of a single word, how could you possible do that? “Warning, mentions kumquats?” The warning itself would be the trigger!
* Seriously! I like the Blood Orange flavor which they brought out to replace it, but I really do miss the Kumquat Soda.
It was 1986 and I was twenty-six years old, attending a regional science fiction convention with a bunch of my friends. One of the guests of honor was an author (we’ll call him Mr. C) that two of my friends were very fond of. I had read a couple of his short stories and thought they were good, but he hadn’t really wowed me.
But hearing Mr. C talk about the writing process, his influences, and so forth, made me much more intrigued. It didn’t hurt that when another panelist made a disparaging joke about my favorite science fiction author (who was not in attendance), Mr. C rather emphatically jumped to the defense of my favorite author.
After that panel, one of my friends commented that Mr. C’s takedown of the other panelist had been mean. It was true. Mr. C had ended the rebuttal with something along the lines, “…and it infuriates me when writers who don’t have a fraction of his understanding of how to write or a sliver of his talent make thoughtless critiques.” But, she had called my favorite author a fossil, I pointed out. Once one makes an ad hominem attack, you invite something similar in return. Since it was my favorite author being defended, I was more than a bit prejudiced.
So I wound up standing in line with one of my friends, clutching a pair of just-purchased books of Mr. C’s work, waiting for his autograph. That is the one and only time I have met Mr. C in person. He was pleasant enough, despite having had to smile, listen, and sign however hundreds of times.
After the convention, I tried to read one of the books. It was a collection of his short stories, which included the couple I had read before. They weren’t bad by any means, but after reading a few in a row, an unsatisfying feeling was developing. I sat the book down, not quite sure why I wasn’t enjoying the reading.
A few weeks later, I picked it up again and started on the next story. Again, the story itself was well written and interesting. I read another, then started on the next after that and, well, a few paragraphs in I realized that same feeling of wrongness was building up.
I did eventually finish the collection, but it took a few months, reading only a few stories at a time. And by the end I couldn’t really say that I’d enjoyed them all, but I also couldn’t put my finger on their shortcomings.
The other book was a novel. A novel for which he had won a lot of awards. It was based on one of the short stories in the previous collection. And the short story in question had been one of those I had enjoyed more than the others. Plus, I had friends who swore this book was a masterpiece. And it had garnered all those awards, so it had to be good, right?
I couldn’t finish it. I don’t think I’d even gotten a quarter of the way through before I found myself intensely disliking it.
I tried explaining what I didn’t like about it to one of my friends who loved it. As we were talking, I kept finding myself talking about abstract concepts, rather than actual events in the story. My friend said it sounded more like my baggage than the story. So I started explaining how a similar philosophical assumption underpinned one of the short stories. And that’s when I finally managed to connect the dots and say what was bothering me about all of the stories.
There was a fundamental notion forming the foundation of all the tales: if you don’t know your place and stay in it, horrible things will happen to you. A corrollary was that if you prevented someone else from achieving what was “rightfully” theirs, even more horrible things would happen to you.
When I articulated that, my friend began to argue. That wasn’t what was going on at all, he said. So then I made a guess at how the book I hadn’t finished would end. Specifically what would happen to certain characters.
My friend blinked. “How did you know?”
“Because, if you don’t know your place and stay there, forces, whether they be social, cultural, or fate, will strike you down. And if you stand in the way of someone else’s destiny—”
My friend grinned and interrupted. “Oh, wow! You’re right! That’s so messed up, because it’s like the opposite of what the main character says, but it’s really what happens!”
“Mr. C believes in hierarchical, patriarchic societies in which you behave according to societal expectations, and people who have the temerity to want to choose their own way of living are evil,” I said.
My friend shrugged and said, “You’re probably right. But I still love the stories.”
“Whoever fights monsters should see to it that in the process he does not become a monster. And when you gaze long into an abyss the abyss also gazes into you” — Friedrich Nietzsche
Just a few years later, a controversy erupted in a forum dedicated to Mr C on the (now long defunct) Prodigy network. The controversy was about a protagonist in another of Mr. C’s novels who experimented with gay sex midway through the book. Some people were angry Mr. C had included an “abomination” as a sympathetic character. Others thought people who thought gay people were abominations were bigots.
As the arguments raged, Mr. C waded in with a rather long discussion about the sin of homosexuality, why he felt he had to include it in the book (his reasoning, as I recall, was that in any community where people amass power there will be people who must dominate, possess, and destroy others, and of course homosexuality is all about dominating and destroying each other), and then had the gall to claim that anyone who called him homophobic were themselves bigots. Because he didn’t hate any gay people. They were just sinners, and if they refused to repent and stop being gay, well, they would face consequences.
His comments were quoted far and wide. And he got angrier and angrier as people “mischaracterized” his comments. He repeated, again and again, that he didn’t hate gay people. He wound up writing (in 1990) a long essay and getting it published in a magazine that catered to the members of the church Mr. C had been raised in, in order to explain his side in context.
While the essay repeatedly said that he did not condone violence against sinful people, it talked about how just as children must be punished in order to learn right from wrong, then adults will face greater penalties when they continue to act outside the bounds of propriety. He talked abstractly about the “day of grief” that each homosexual would eventually experience if they did not repent. He talked about the horrible consequences homosexuals face if they refuse to adhere to propriety. But he was not advocating violence even then, he said. If the faithful, such as himself, had been compassionate but firm in condemning the sin, they would “keep ourselves unspotted by the blood of this generation.”
It’s an old lie that bigots of a religious persuasion tell themselves all the time. They don’t advocate or condone violence, it’s just that god’s law causes these things. And when it happens, they pretend that the people who did resort to violence never took all the words of condemnation as permission to commit violence.
Think about it: if it’s god’s will that homosexuals should experience a “day of grief”; if god’s law demands that “blood of this generation” must be shed, then the person who inflicts the violence is doing god’s will. They are a special tool of god!
Heck, it isn’t just permission to commit violence: it’s encouragement!
I had already guessed most of this about Mr. C before he began writing publicly about his reasons for opposing the decriminalization of gay sex and other topics back in 1990. And so I had already made my decision not to buy any more of his books. I didn’t post rants about him, nor try to organize boycotts of his work. If I was asked, I would say that I disagreed with what I perceived to be the underlying philosophy espoused by his work.
Once he did make his very public statements, I felt it was appropriate to go a step further and point out that Mr. C was a hypocrite and a bigot who advocated against the rights of myself and others. I would suggest that perhaps there were other writers whose works were more deserving of people’s money, but wouldn’t go further.
In the years since, he has continued to write and speak out against gay rights of all sorts, eventually becoming an officer for a large organization that says it is out to protect “traditional marriage.” They try to portray themselves as narrowly focused on marriage, but anyone paying attention to their rhetoric and some of the other causes they support, can see that they want to roll back the few rights gay people have won. He donates his own money to the cause, he has organized efforts that have raised millions of dollars for the cause. He has claimed victory for every anti-gay amendment, law, proposition, or initiative that has been passed in the last ten years.
He has, now, gone far beyond the point of simply stating his opinion and trying to persuade others to it. He has gone beyond that disingenuous tactic of saying he was opposed to violence while providing double-speak that actually encouraged it. He has helped spread distortions and outright lies about all gay, lesbian, bisexual, and transgender persons. His organization has refused to obey public disclosure laws regarding their election activities in several states. He continues to fight to prevent gays, lesbians, trans people, and bisexuals full equality before the law. He continues to put forward arguments to take away what rights have been extended.
So, for that reason, yes, I agree with the people who have been disappointed that DC Comics hired him to write a prominent new Superman series. Yes, I support the comic book shop owners who have said they will not sell comics written by him. I support the artist who decided not to illustrate his stories after learning of Mr C’s views and activities. I urge everyone I know not to buy things he writes, not to go see the movie that is being made of his most famous novel.
I re-iterate: this isn’t just about a difference of opinion regarding marriage equality. For over 20 years he has advocated for restoring laws that made it a crime for consenting adults to have gay sex in the privacy of their own homes, and against laws that protect people from being fired, evicted, or denied medical care just because they are gay. And he has done more than just advocate those things, he has taken action to make them happen. It is not hypocritical of us to advocate a voluntary boycott of his work, it is hypocritical of him and his apologists to decry a voluntary boycott while they are campaigning for laws that will take away jobs, housing, health care, and more from entire classes of people.
Orson Scott Card is a hypocrite and a bigot who uses distortions and outright lies to hurt innocent people. Those are the facts.
It happens any time I write (or link to someone else’s post or article) about certain groups of people opposing gay rights, or those people doing really awful things in the name of opposing gay rights, et cetera: a direct message, private email, or (rarely) a public comment from someone explaining that “not all of us are like that.”
Sometimes it’s nothing more than that simple statement: we’re not all like that. More often it is a bit defensive. “You really shouldn’t generalize, because you make those of us who aren’t like that look bad.” The phenomenon happens so often, that advice columnist & gay rights advocate Dan Savage has started referring to those people as NALTs, for “Not All Like That.”
The thing is, that “you make those of us who aren’t like that look bad” is utterly false.
I’m not the one making them look bad. If I post a link to a story about a study that shows that nearly 75% of those who describe themselves as Evangelical Christians oppose gay rights, it isn’t me who is making those Christians who don’t oppose gay rights look bad, it’s the other Christians who are making Christians look bad.
If someone posts a piece showing how an organization is cherry-picking facts from a study which actually proves that the denial of equal rights harms the health of gays and lesbians to support their lies that being gay is unhealthy, it isn’t us who is making Christians look like liars. It’s the liar who claims to be speaking for Christ who is making Christians look like liars. It’s also the Christians who disagree with him but who are too timid to confront him about his lies who are making Christians look like liars and bigots. And it is especially those Christians who are too timid to confront their co-religionists but never hesitate to scold someone like me because they’re “not all like that” who are making Christians look like liars and bigots.
And that means, instead of scolding me for posting it, or “correcting” anyone who posts these news tidbits, you need to go scold or correct your co-religionists. Tell them you disagree. Tell them that they are lying. Speak out in public forums when they lie, and tell them they don’t speak for you.
I mean, really, my major in college was Mathematics and I posted the article which said nearly 75% of Evangelical Christians oppose gay rights. I don’t need you to tell me that nearly 75% is less than 100%. I already know that not all are like that.
I understand why people may be reluctant to confront the liars and bigots in their group. Those bigots and liars are mean, and they don’t fight fair. I get it. Really, I do. But if you’re too timid to go take them on, then keep your mouth shut. Whispering to people like me that “we aren’t all like that” doesn’t help me, it doesn’t prevent any of the meanness, nor does it further the causes of truth or justice. The only thing it does is make you feel better about being too cowardly to actually do anything about the lies and the bigotry.
And I have exactly zero desire to enable that!
If you happen to be one of those who are not like that, and are looking for something more concrete to do than whisper to people like me that you exist, may I suggest you get involved in one of these fine organizations:
I have issues with wish lists. I have said and written some stupid things about them.
Those things had more to do with my own baggage than anything else. Of course, you might ask, “How can someone have emotional baggage over the notion of wish lists?” The answer is: emotions are, by definition, non-rational. What seems trivial to you may be very painful for someone else.
My issues with wish lists are not that serious. I have this very unrealistic notion that if I care about someone enough to want to buy them a present, that I ought to know them well enough to pick something on my own. Never mind all the times I found myself at a loss for a good gift for my mom. Or something great for my husband. I know that the notion is unrealistic. I know that some of us are very hard to shop for. But whenever I go to browse someone else’s wish list, I feel guilty that I couldn’t come up with something on my own.
Other people have far more serious issues with things that many of us find innocuous. I’ve seen people driven into an uncontrollable rage—face red, unable to sit still, hands shaking with fury—over a particular novelty song, because it triggers memories of bad situations they were in where they felt endangered by another person. Or more accurately, because the song is making a joke out of a not uncommon situation where (sometimes) people suffer real harm.
Telling someone to “get over it” or “get a sense of humor” doesn’t solve anything. When we survive a bad situation, it leaves an impression. Stress causes physical changes in one’s brain which persist long after the stressor is removed. The more severe the situation, the greater the effect. When later situations trigger the memory—whether we are simply reminded of it or believe we may be in an identical situation—the brain reacts. Neurochemicals and hormones are released, and our bodies react.
You might as well tell a person going into anaphylactic shock due to a severe food allergy to “get over it.”
This isn’t to say we can’t undo any of the changes the stress has caused. Good experiences also make changes to the brain, and the right kind of reinforcement can help someone who has a severe reaction to certain triggers moderate the reaction. But it takes time and understanding.
As I said, not all issues are equal. My pointless wish list guilt isn’t debilitating, just annoying. I don’t know what causes it, precisely. I wouldn’t be surprised if, as a child, I had a bad experience picking out a gift for one of the more abusive/vindictive adults in my life back then. I don’t remember, all that remains is the feeling. If I have to resort to consulting someone’s wish list, I feel very guilty, with a vague sense of failure or inadequacy.
The crazy part is, when I am drawing a complete blank on someone, and then I discover that they have a wish list, I feel a great sense of relief. Reading such a list, I always discover things the person is interested in that I didn’t know before. And often it gives me ideas of things to get them in the future. So it’s a win all around!
Abuse, whether physical, emotional, verbal, or otherwise, always has consequences. Someone must pay the piper, as the old saying goes. Unfortunately, in these cases, the person who has to pay the piper isn’t the person who called the tune.
During the last 27 years I have shaved off my beard exactly twice. Both times it was for a Halloween costume. The first time, a friend who was attending one of the parties we went to had just completed medical school the year before and was in his internship. I had noticed him looking at me oddly. The first time I attributed it to this being the first time he’d seen me without a beard.
Eventually he asked, “So, how did you get your lip tore so badly it required stitches?”
I had forgotten about the scar. I didn’t think it was that noticeable even when there wasn’t facial hair to hide it.
So I told him the story of one of my dad’s worse drunken Sunday afternoons when I was 10 years old, and how he’d come to beat me badly enough to break my collar bone, split my lip, and so on. This led other people who had starting listening in to ask some questions, so I wound up talking way more about Dad’s abusive behavior than I like. The sum up is: I, my sister, and our half siblings each has our own small collection of physical scars thanks to dad’s beatings.
One of the people listening observed, “Wow! You seem so much more together than I would expect.”
I made some kind of self-deprecating comment, such as, “Oh, I’m far less sane than you realize” or something, and tried to change the subject.
One of the others started telling a story of an ex who had had a similarly abusive childhood, and how incredibly messed up he was after. A couple others chimed in with similar tales. And then one person said he had known a few people like that, who blamed every time they screwed up—particularly when they hurt people close to them—on that abusive childhood.
“It’s just an excuse to be as thoughtless and irresponsible as they’d like,” he said. And then looked at me as if the fact that I at least try to think and be responsible proves his statement.
Which I wasn’t completely comfortable with. I agree that a dysfunctional childhood isn’t an excuse for such behavior, but life is very seldom as simple as that.
My paternal grandmother doesn’t believe in mental illness. She would insist that it’s all just excuses or someone wanting attention. Never mind that for some mental illness we can point to specific physical problems in the brain, or a lack of ability to produce or regulate a particular neurochemical, she always believed that if the mentally ill person wanted to be well, they would be. This was particularly troublesome when one of my sisters began having epileptic seizures, and grandma announced that as far as she was concerned, epilepsy was in the same category as mental illness, and it wasn’t a real problem at all.
So, while I agree that a bad childhood doesn’t excuse any and all bad or troublesome behaviors a person may exhibit in adulthood, it’s no less arrogant and cruel to dismiss those experiences as totally irrelevant than my grandmother’s thoughts on epilepsy.
It is a gross oversimplification to say that people like me have “gotten over it” and everyone else is just using it as an excuse. More accurate to say that some coping strategies are more socially acceptable and less disruptive than others.
While I do think that I’ve done a fairly good job of moving past that unfortunate history, I can’t honestly take all the credit. Some of it is just luck. I inherited a certain amount of arrogance and bullheadedness from that same abusive father, reinforced by an extra dose of stubborn refusal to give up from the grandmother on Mom’s side of the family. When my parents finally divorced and we moved more than 1000 miles from Dad, I was lucky enough to find a group of sci fi geeks and music nerds my own age. That gave me a new sense of family and belonging I hadn’t had before. I’ve built a career out of a knack for language, a predilection for troubleshooting, a level of curiosity some might describe as unhealthy, and a compulsion for explaining things to anyone I can corner.
A lot of my “talents” would be exceedingly annoying characteristics in a different context.
Which isn’t to say that we are obligated to put up with behavior from someone who doesn’t seem to want to change. We all have our limits. Sometimes we have to make that cold calculation: is having this person in my life worth the effort and trouble they put me through? If the answer is “no,” then we find a way to gracefully bow out of their life. No need to make a dramatic statement, or try to convince everyone else to drop the friend. Drastic measures are only required if someone’s health or safety is in danger, or if the other person willfully pursues you and tries to drag you back into their crazy.
Because troubling or annoying behavior isn’t an excuse for you to be a jerk.