Archive for ‘101’

January 15, 2011

Not knowing better and other thoughts about books and race and words

Some theses on books and race, not directly related to but inspired by some of the comment that these new edits of Huckleberry Finn have caused. Feel free to apply these (in modified forms obviously) to sexism, or most other forms of discrimination. I repeat, none of this is directly related to Twain’s book. I haven’t read Huckleberry Finn. (For actual Huck Finn commentary, see here,here and here).

Thesis 1: Racism was not invented in the Twentieth century.
Things which were not perceived as racist when they were written may still have been so at the time; they did not magically come to be that way after someone proposed this revolutionary idea that we should treat all people like human beings. It also means that things a lot of us consider completely innocent now will likely be looked upon with horror in a few decades. As long as we’re moving in the direction of being nicer to a greater number of living beings, this is a good thing and does not cause me too much concern.

Thesis 2: Most of the time, they did know better.
There’s a particular defence of racism in literature that I find insulting to pretty much everyone involved. That is that people living at a particular point in time simply didn’t know better than to be racist. This is patronising to start with – “s/he doesn’t know any better” is not the sort of remark you make about someone you’re treating as an intellectual or moral equal. But it’s also only varying degrees of true. At most points in history there have been plenty of people suggesting that certain forms of behaviour were not okay – it’s one of the ways we’ve gotten to (at least) this point. I’m not suggesting that it doesn’t take effort, or that it isn’t far easier to believe what your society and the structures that make it up make it easiest to believe. But, particularly in the twentieth century, the means for knowing better have always been there, and people who chose to have had the opportunity to seek them out. To suggest that this is not the case does a tremendous disservice to all the people and movements in history that worked so hard at taking those first steps and making those thought processes available.

Thesis 3: Things that are critical of colonialism/slavery/other things associated with racism may still be racist in and of themselves.
Three words: Heart of Darkness. Strongly anti-colonialist. Frequently very beautiful (subjective, I know. But I think it is and so do many other people). Racist. I’m not a huge fan of people who dismiss it entirely for that last characteristic, but I prefer them to the sort of people who believe that because of its anti-colonial stance it simply cannot be racist and the rest of us are all just missing the point.
[Corollary: “The author once said this thing that was really progressive” is not a particularly strong defense of a work of literature.]

Thesis 4: Fraught words are fraught.
And thus we descend into lolcat speak. I’m against removing words from books. I think we need to keep them there and confront our pasts. And this is a viewpoint I’ve seen in a lot of commentary on the Huckleberry Finn debate. It’s well-meant, and to a point I agree with it. But I’d like to do this with the understanding that making those decisions for everyone is a tricky issue. No one has a right to mandate individual responses to words – certainly not in situations where the fraught histories of those words have generally been to the disadvantage of the individual whose response you are attempting to mandate. This has all gotten very convoluted.

Thesis 5: Replicating the racial politics of the forms you emulate is still racist.
Certain Tolkien Scholars, no one cares how many medieval texts you cite to prove that the portrayals of certain groups of people were *only* that way so they’d echo his literary tradition. Missing the point. Stop now.
I suspect this is an ongoing list. What else would you add?
December 19, 2009

I am promoting two things with this link


One is this post on io9 about Avatar. It is a good post.


And two, if you scroll down through the comments, is this magnificent rant by commentor Moff at 3:32 pm. Sublime.


Of all the varieties of irritating comment out there, the absolute most annoying has to be “Why can’t you just watch the movie for what it is??? Why can’t you just enjoy it? Why do you have toanalyze it???”

If you have posted such a comment, or if you are about to post such a comment, here or anywhere else, let me just advise you: Shut up. Shut the fuck up. Shut your goddamn fucking mouth. SHUT. UP.

First of all, when we analyze art, when we look for deeper meaning in it, we are enjoying it for what it is. Because that is one of the things about art, be it highbrow, lowbrow, mainstream, or avant-garde: Some sort of thought went into its making — even if the thought was, “I’m going to do this as thoughtlessly as possible”! — and as a result, some sort of thought can be gotten from its reception. That is why, among other things, artists (including, for instance, James Cameron) really like to talk about their work.

Now, that doesn’t mean you have to think about a work of art. I don’t know anyone who thinks every work they encounter ought to only be enjoyed through conscious, active analysis — or if I do, they’re pretty annoying themselves. And I know many people who prefer not to think about much of what they consume, and with them I have no argument. I also have no argument with people who disagree with another person’s thoughts about a work of art. That should go without saying. Finally, this should also go without saying, but since it apparently doesn’t: Believe me, the person who is annoying you so much by thinking about the art? They have already considered your revolutionary “just enjoy it” strategy, because it is not actually revolutionary at all. It is the default state for most of humanity.

So when you go out of your way to suggest that people should be thinking less — that not using one’s capacity for reason is an admirable position to take, and one that should be actively advocated — you are not saying anything particularly intelligent. And unless you live on a parallel version of Earth where too many people are thinking too deeply and critically about the world around them and what’s going on in their own heads, you’re not helping anything; on the contrary, you’re acting as an advocate for entropy.

And most annoyingly of all, you’re contributing to the fucking conversation yourselves when you make your stupid, stupid comments. You are basically saying, “I think people shouldn’t think so much and share their thoughts, that’s my thought that I have to share.” If you really think people should just enjoy the movie without thinking about it, then why the fuck did you (1) click on the post in the first place, and (2) bother to leave a comment? If it bugs you so much, GO WATCH A GODDAMN FUNNY CAT VIDEO.

August 16, 2009

Links: in case you haven’t been obsessively monitoring my sidebar

Here are some things I think you should read:

Laura Atkins on white privilege in children’s books.

Hal Duncan being amazing. John C. Wright has since deleted the post that inspired Duncan’s epic reply – which is rather a pity because some of the replies in the comments were magnificent as well. Oh well.

More epic replies – this time the Angry Black Woman on Paul DiFillipo’s comments about The Mammoth Book of Mindblowing SF

Neesha Meminger at Justine Larbelestier’s blog
. The Liar cover has generated some amazing essays, and I only wish I could keep up with them all. This is very much a 101 sort of post, but it’s a good one.

Pradipta Sarkar, who is one of my favourite people in meatspace, on how not to impress an editor.

Jai Arjun Singh, another of my favourite people both on and off the internet, on freedom from religion. Comments are worth a read too.

May 10, 2009

The serious consequences of misleading your child readers

Yesterday’s column spoke of problematic bits in children’s books that are edited out of later editions. These included casual racism, not-so-casual racism, characters smoking (the horror!) and the like. I was against said editing out.

However, the value-learnt-in-childhood-reading that has caused me the most harm growing up? Was that brushing one’s hair was a good idea. One’s curly hair.

My hair is not as curly now as it was in the days of my youth. Then I had Proper curls, now it’s an unenthusiastic wave. Most of the time, though, my hair was a disaster because I and everyone else in my life believed that the best way to keep it in order was to brush it.


(proof that some slight curliness remains)

Children’s writers (especially girls’ writers) seemed to pay a great deal of attention to little girls and their haircare. Gwendoline Lacey from Blyton’s Malory Towers was vain because she brushed her hair a hundred times a night. Kathleen (I think?) from Blyton’s Whyteleafe series had no friends because she was unattractive and didn’t brush her hair a hundred times a night. The Chalet School and Barbara involved (I have ranted about this elsewhere) Matron ordering Barbara to “slip on your dressing-­gown, sit down at the mirror and give it a good hard brush­ing. A curly crop like yours needs that twice a day if you’re to escape tangles and pullings. … start at the crown of your head and draw the bristles down with a firm, steady stroke. Go all round your head and if you do it rightly, your scalp should be tingling by the time you’ve finished.” (They were big on tingling scalps at the Chalet school. One imagines the students wandering around like so many little clouds of static).

And so (via Fusenews) Underage Reading asks the question that all of us with curls have been asking for years. Did these authors know no people with curls who could point out to them the error of their ways? Did none of them have curls themselves? Did they and all the curlyheaded people in their circles just go around sporting badly maintained shrubberies? It is all very mysterious.

Be warned therefore, writers for children. Your victims readers could spend the rest of their lives as one long, nightmarish bad hair day. And it would be all your fault.

May 10, 2008

A 101 post (of sorts)

“Feminist, Fangirl, and Maker of Fine Omelettes”

This was for quite a long time in the “about me” section of my blogger profile and so is probably familiar to some of you.

One of the things I fangirl is the internet. I have a crush on the internet. I love that it’s this huge, chaotic mess that allows for things like serious groundbreaking academic work, and really perverse football slash, and LiveJournal communities dedicated to pictures of baby animals.
Back in February, Amit Varma wrote this gloriously geeky article in the Indian Express:

The blogosphere is a meritocratic space. Each blog finds the audience it deserves. If you like economics, you’ll find tons of good economics blogs, often much better than anything you’ll see in the mainstream media, because they’re written by specialists, not generalists. You want gardening? Literature? Technology? You’ll find content in any niche you can think of.
There is a lot of junk on the internet, but readers navigate through it easily, and soon settle on a few sites they regularly visit. Information percolates so quickly that a good new blog doesn’t take much time to build a readership. You write something nice, people who like it link to you, their readers check you out, and so it grows. Marketing and hype are generally wasted, and everything is viral. If you provide compelling content, readers come. If you write rubbish, readers go. Competition is the best regulation.

And this exemplifies the stuff I love about the internet. Who wouldn’t be excited by a system that has space for pretty much anything, that is completely free, where your rewards are based purely on merit, and the like? The internet is really very sexy.

But then there’s the “feminist” thing too. I’ve been female on the internet for some years now. More, I’ve been a female who blogs under my real name. There’s a reason comments on this blog are moderated. Then there was the Kathy Sierra incident. It seems (cue shocked gasps) that the internet does not exist in a vacuum. How about race? How about that bloggers’ lunch with Bill Clinton in Harlem that somehow only white people attended?

Apparently some of those nasty meatspace power dynamics have cunningly leaked in here too. Who would have thought? And they’re there affecting who gets heard, and by how many people, and by which people, and yes, who gets book deals. And so on.

What I’m saying, or should be, is that it’s inevitable for people who are naturally excited by concepts/ideas to focus on the concept itself and stop noticing the cultural context within which the idea exists. But only if they’re the people who that cultural context is made for, who are not constantly alienated by it.( Note how I cleverly do not use that word.) Except you can’t separate things from their contexts because their contexts inevitably influence them.

Which brings me, inevitably to the Open Source Boob Project. I was going to say a lot more about this when it happened but was lazy and by the time I started lots of other people had said it for me. But to me, this is a classic case of the sort of thing I’m talking about. A world where sexuality and bodies aren’t stigmatised? Undoubtedly a good thing. Approaching women in a male dominated space and asking them if they’ll consent to participate in a Social Experiment where people can come up to them and ask to touch their breasts? Um.

Context. It’s important.

And so are omelettes.