Friday, February 21, 2014

The Female Marine Officer vs. WisCon’s True Feminists

This is the almost-final-draft of a section from a book about social justice warriors, identitarianism, and mobbing. For more information and links to other chapters, see How to Make a Social Justice Warrior.

The Female Marine Officer vs. WisCon’s True Feminists
• When scifi writers could disagree
• Even bigots must be free to speak
• WisCon and Elizabeth Moon: What Happened and What Can We Learn from it?

The Female Marine Officer vs. WisCon’s True Feminists

“It is everybody’s business to ensure that no one is deprived of their right to say what they wish, even if it is deemed by some to be offensive. In a plural society it is both inevitable and important that people offend others. Inevitable, because where different beliefs are deeply held clashes are unavoidable and these should be dealt with openly rather than suppressed. Important because any kind of social progress requires one to offend some deeply held sensibilities. “If liberty means anything,” as George Orwell put it, “it means the right to tell people what they do not want to hear.”” — Kenan Malik, “Self-censor and be damned!”

‘It’s now very common to hear people say, “I’m rather offended by that”, as if that gives them certain rights. It’s no more than a whine. It has no meaning, it has no purpose, it has no reason to be respected as a phrase. “I’m offended by that.” Well, so fucking what?’ —Stephen Fry

When WisCon announced Elizabeth Moon would be one of its two Guests of Honor at 2011’s WisCon 35, she seemed like an excellent choice. As the blogger called Army Sergeant noted in “In Defense of Elizabeth Moon”:

Elizabeth Moon is a pretty extraordinary woman. She made the decision to join the Marine Corps as an officer during the Vietnam War, at a time many men were unwilling to. She is the child of a single parent, and an utterly self-made woman with multiple college degrees. She is also the mother of an autistic child and has done some pretty impressive advocating for disabled children. She writes some great Military Science Fiction books, with strong female characters—because she knows from experience that women can be a lot of pretty amazing things. Moon exemplifies in many ways what I think of as feminism—that any woman can and should have the ability to be whatever she wants to be, from serving her country to being a mother-tigress.

But in October of 2010, the educational non-profit group that runs WisCon announced “SF3 has withdrawn the invitation to Elizabeth Moon to attend WisCon 35 as guest of honor.” A month before, on September 11, Moon wrote a LiveJournal post titled “Citizenship” that criticized Muslims and opposed building an Islamic center in Lower Manhattan which conservatives mislabeled “the Ground Zero Mosque.”

This paragraph in her post drew most criticism:

I can easily imagine how Muslims would react to my excusing the Crusades on the basis of Islamic aggression from 600 to 1000 C.E….(for instance, excusing the building of a church on the site of a mosque in Cordoba after the Reconquista by reminding them of the mosque built on the site of an important early Christian church in Antioch.) So I don’t give that lecture to the innocent Muslims I come in contact with. I would appreciate the same courtesy in return (and don’t get it.) The same with other points of Islam that I find appalling (especially as a free woman) and totally against those basic principles of the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution…I feel that I personally (and many others) lean over backwards to put up with these things, to let Muslims believe stuff that unfits them for citizenship, on the grounds of their personal freedom.

I was one of the first to criticize her in the comments. I said:

Freedom of religion should include the freedom to build a community center near a strip joint.

Seriously, blaming Islam for Al Qaeda is like blaming Christianity for the Ku Klux Klan or Judaism for the Stern Gang. If the site of the World Trade Center is now “sacred ground,” it’s sacred to every religion because people of every religion died there. That’s especially true for Islam: there was a mosque on the 17th floor of the WTC.

This is the nation created by Thomas Paine and Thomas Jefferson. Have we stopped fighting for the freedom for everyone to worship as they choose?

Moon said, “Nothing I wrote suggested that people should not worship as they choose (so long as their arm doesn’t reach someone else’s nose.)”

I said, “I’m a big fan of the principle you mention in parentheses. But that’s why I think they should build the cultural center there, and if they wanted to build a full-scale mosque, they should build that there. It’s not even within sight of the WTC. No one’s nose is affected.”

In a comment to someone else, I added, “If any religious group owns land anywhere in the USA, they should be free to build on it. Trying to limit their First Amendment right in any way is both bigotry and un-American.”

I was trying to be precise, but I regret the choice of “bigotry” now. Words like it end discussion by making people hear only an insult. I should’ve learned that from the warriors’ example.

When she rejected my characterization, I said:

Here’s why you sound like a bigot: you talk about Muslims in general wanting what only fundamentalist Muslims want, and then you are careful to say that only fundamentalist Christians want the same things. I’ll add fundamentalist Jews, just to be thorough, like the ones who burn Bibles. 

That’s something that few muslims do, because the Qur’an teaches respect for Judaism and Christianity. Alas, there’s no similar explicit command to respect other religions in the Bible. 

Here’s what I think many people like you fail to understand: people come to the US because they know and love the values of the US. When they get here, yes, some of them discover that there are Americans who will limit where they may build religious centers. But most Muslims, like most Christians and Jews, appreciate our national commitment to freedom. When they’re frustrated, it’s because they want more freedom, not less. 

Like the freedom to build a religious center wherever it’s legal to build religious centers.

Moon replied:

Go build a church or synagogue in Mecca or Medina.

What’s the Sharia laws where it concerns Dhimmi? Are they allowed to marry muslims? Are Muslim women allowed to marry Dhimmi men? Are you familiar with the term? What if you’re not Dhimmi? What if you’re a pagan? Or an Animist or an Atheist in an Islamic county with sharia as it’s laws? What’s your social status then?

Sharia as anything other than voluntary contract rules is anathema to the constitution of the United States and the guaranteed rights of the citizens of the United States.

I said:

Saudi Arabia, land of George Bush’s buddies, is run by Wahhabbists, who in the eyes of many muslims (and me) have perverted Islam. They certainly don’t understand the Qur’an’s explicit statement, “There is no compunction in religion.”

As for the rules about dhimmi and others, that depends on the state. For the record, I don’t like state religions of any sort. Having states screws up perfectly good religions.

We agree on your last sentence.

If I was writing an essay about people who misunderstand Islam, I would quote more of our discussion and point out this bit from “Muslim Victims of 9/11 Attack”: “Among the many victims of 9/11 were several dozen innocent Muslims, ranging in age from their late 60s to a couple’s unborn child. Six of these victims were Muslim women, including one who was 7 months pregnant. Many were stockbrokers or restaurant workers, earning a living to care for their families. There were converts and immigrants, hailing from over a dozen different countries and the U.S. There were heroes: a NYPD cadet and a Marriott hotel worker, who sacrificed their lives attempting to rescue others. The Muslim victims were parents to over 30 children, who were left orphaned without one or both of their parents.”

But my subject isn’t Moon’s take on Islam. Being human means having prejudices. Her post expressing hers did not limit anyone’s freedom.

My subject is the response of fandom’s social justice warriors.

Which was all about limiting freedom.

Moon let the comments run on her post for several days, then shut them down. The firestorm blazed through the warriorverse in the usual ways. Some people called for boycotting Moon’s books, though not a word in them had changed after she wrote “Citizenship.” Many people vowed they would not attend WisCon if Moon was one of its Guests of Honor, even though no one could imagine Nisi Shawl, the other GoH, having any prejudice against Muslims. If I thought like an identitarian, I would cite this as proof of WisCon’s racism: the potential attendees were more concerned about their white guest than their black one.

For a month, WisCon held private discussions with Moon. During that time, I noted:

1. She’s being accused of racism, even though she seems to be perfectly comfortable with black Christians and completely uncomfortable with white Muslims. (Guessing her feelings about John Walker Lindh isn’t hard.)

2. She’s being mobbed rather than reasoned with. That helps no one but demagogues.

2. She’s as much a victim of Fox News and the Tea Party as anyone. People who consider themselves activists are wasting their time on the wrong target.

But the furor only grew. On October 18, N. K. Jemisin posted, “Wiscon: I'm done.” In it, she said she doubted she would go to WisCon:

The decision to keep a bigot as Guest of Honor—and the decision to delay or avoid reconsidering that decision—means that WisCon isn't actually committed to the principles of intersectionality, social justice for all, equality, or respect, which are all ostensibly part and parcel of the modern feminist movement….

I might still fly to Madison come March, but I won't be buying a WisCon membership, or attending any of its events. I'll be there to share fellowship with those friends of mine who are there….

I'm making this decision for myself, note. I'm stopping short of calling for a boycott, mostly because I had a conversation with Nisi a few hours ago as I contemplated this step, and she expressed her belief to me that boycotts don't work. I disagree; I think sometimes they can be very effective. But in this case I agree with her; I don't think a boycott will fix what's wrong with WisCon. Its problem is systemic. It needs to decide upon, and act upon, its organizational mission, whatever that is. But while it resolves this identity crisis, I'm going elsewhere.

Her implied threat of a boycott may have made WisCon act. On October 21, National Public Radio fired Juan Williams after he mentioned on air that he got nervous on airplanes with people dressed like muslims, and WisCon withdrew its invitation to Elizabeth Moon.

I disagree fiercely with Islamophobes, but the greater wrong was done by those who punish people for saying what they believe.

Frederick Douglass said, “To suppress free speech is a double wrong. It violates the rights of the hearer as well as those of the speaker.”

John Stuart Mill said, “The peculiar evil of silencing the expression of an opinion is, that it is robbing the human race; posterity as well as the existing generation; those who dissent from the opinion, still more than those who hold it. If the opinion is right, they are deprived of the opportunity of exchanging error for truth: if wrong, they lose, what is almost as great a benefit, the clearer perception and livelier impression of truth, produced by its collision with error.”

I’ll add this to Mill’s point: When you suppress speech, the issue changes from their ideas to your suppression. The danger to free speech comes whenever people forget that bad tactics are bad tactics, no matter how good they think the cause.

Frank Hague said, “We hear about constitutional rights, free speech and the free press. Every time I hear those words I say to myself, That man is a Red, that man is a Communist. You never heard a real American talk in that manner.”

Vladimir Lenin said, “When one makes a Revolution, one cannot mark time; one must always go forward—or go back. He who now talks about the freedom of the press goes backward, and halts our headlong course towards Socialism.”

Americans have a troubled relationship with free speech. Alexis De Tocqueville noted, “In America the majority raises formidable barriers around the liberty of opinion; within these barriers an author may write what he pleases, but woe to him if he goes beyond them.”

At NPR and WisCon, the majority raised its barriers.

The people who wanted to disinvite Elizabeth Moon insisted what they were doing was not censorship. In “Marginalizing vs. Silencing—My hopefully final thoughts on the WisCon/Moon fiasco”, Saladin Ahmed said “It’s not censorship or silencing—it’s marginalizing.” Tempest Bradford asked in “You People Are Out Of Your Goddamned Minds”, “You people do not even understand what censorship means, do you?”

As usual, dictionaries disagreed with them. Random House says a censor is “any person who supervises the manners or morality of others.” Wikipedia, which exists at the intersection of authority and usage, says, “Censorship is the suppression of speech or other communication which may be considered objectionable, harmful, sensitive, or inconvenient to the general body of people as determined by a government, media outlet, or other controlling body.”

When Clark University President John Basset canceled a speech by Norman G. Finkelstein, Sarah Wunsch of the ACLU wrote:

...the cancellation of his speech violates the basic principles of freedom of speech and academic freedom which are so fundamental to an institute of higher learning. The existence of an opportunity to speak at another time or in another location does not remedy the wrong of censorship.

...Nor may complaints from those disturbed by Finkelstein’s writings about the post-Holocaust “industry” justify a decision to prevent the lecture from taking place. Indeed, even if demonstrators came to protest against Finkelstein’s views, the obligation of a university is to protect the speaker’s right to be heard and prevent disruption of the speech by others. By censoring speech because of complaints about offensiveness or the controversial nature of the speaker, the university has essentially allowed what the courts call a “heckler’s veto” over what speech can be heard.

Clark is a private school, so it has the legal right to censor. But the president of another private school, Tufts University, wrote, “While Tufts is a private institution and not technically bound by First Amendment guarantees, it is my intention to govern as President as if we were. To put it another way, I believe that students, faculty, and staff should enjoy the same rights to freedom of expression at Tufts as they would if they attended or worked at a public university….During the McCarthy era, a number of university presidents in the United States failed to defend the principle of expression. Students, faculty, and stuff paid for this equivocation as the government sought to purge University campuses of those expressing particularly unpopular opinions. We must be vigilant in defending individual liberties even if it means that from time to time we must tolerate speech that violates our standards of civility and respect.”

• When scifi writers could disagree

At “Politcal Correctness and the Death of Science Fiction Fandom”, Stephanie S. shared a quote by Isaac Asimov:

...Fears were expressed at the time that [two competing statements written on the Vietnam War and signed by opposing blocks of science fiction authors] would create storms and divisions among science fiction writers and would break up our camaraderie in a tempest of controversy. Well, if the statements have done so, I haven’t noticed it. Our mutual identification as fellow science fiction writers persists above and beyond lesser divisions.

To be specific, Poul [Anderson] knows that I am a “fuzzy-minded pinko” and I know that he is a “narrow-minded hardhat” (not that either of us would ever use such terms), but we love each other anyway, and our relations with each other in these last couple of years have not suffered at all.

I disagree with Stephanie’s politics, but I share her belief we should be able to disagree and still be friends. Shortly before he was killed, Malcolm X said, “…my dearest friends have come to include all kinds—some Christians, Jews, Buddhists, Hindus, agnostics, and even atheists! I have friends who are called capitalists, Socialists, and Communists! Some of my friends are moderates, conservatives, extremists—some are even Uncle Toms! My friends today are black, brown, red, yellow, and white!”

• Even bigots must be free to speak

Martin Niemöller is credited as saying:

They came first for the communists:
and I didn’t speak up because I wasn’t a communist.
Then they came for the trade unionists:
and I didn’t speak up because I wasn’t a trade unionist.
Then they came for the Jews:
and I didn’t speak up because I wasn’t a Jew.
Then they came for me
and by that time no one was left to speak up.

A modern version for social justice warriors would start, “They came first to censor the bigots, and I didn’t speak up because I wasn’t a bigot.”

• WisCon and Elizabeth Moon: What Happened and What Can We Learn from it?

In 2011, Armadillocon addressed the issue in a panel with Emma Bull, Stina Leicht, Scott Lynch, Lawrence Person, Cat Rambo, and Lee Thomas.

Lee Thomas seemed to be most sympathetic to WisCon’s decision. He asked a question that did not get answered: How far may an invited guest’s statements go before a con should disinvite a guest?

Scott Lynch’s position was similar. He proposed, “My con, my rules”—if WisCon wanted to disinvite a guest, that was their right.

Stina Leicht, Cat Rambo, and Emma Bull all objected to what Moon had said about Muslims, but were troubled by WisCon’s decision not to honor its invitation. Emma noted that WisCon had changed its definition of feminism to justify its actions—though she’s a socialist, she recognizes that when conservative women do things like serving on the Supreme Court or in the Marines, their progress helps women who don’t share their politics.

Lawrence Person proposed that Moon’s comments on Muslims had been misinterpreted, that she had not been saying Muslims should be treated unfairly, but that they should expect to face discrimination because every immigrant group has faced discrimination.

After the panel, someone familiar with conventions and contracts said WisCon was lucky that Moon accepted their decision. By announcing her as their GoH, they had made a public contract, so when they withdrew the offer, they put themselves in breach of contract.