RANT: How To Tell A Feature From A Bug

I am sure all my readers are familiar with the phrase: “It’s not a bug, it’s a feature.”

As noted in the title, this is going to be a rant, and mostly, it’s a rant directed at those who cannot tell human features, which will be with us as long as we are recognizably this species, and bugs, which can be fixed and eliminated by human effort. For those of you who have figured the difference, you can tune out now. For those of you who haven’t I’m about to stomp all over your sacred cows, and if that hurts, you can take this as my invitation to enter the big scary portal marked ALL HOPE ABANDON.

Here’s your first clue: if you are upset about a problem that confronts humanity (or a large part of it), and you feel the problem you are trying to solve is so huge that it can only be solved by everyone pulling together and putting their attention on THAT problem, then it is a feature of the human condition, not a bug.

If you think there is only one way to solve the problem, and anyone doing it any other way is, of necessity, making the problem worse by doing it their way and not yours, then it is a feature, and not a bug.

So let me just tell you this: I have damned well had it up to the limits of my tolerance, patience, and silence with people who spout a continuous line of bullshit about how the only reason they haven’t saved the human race yet is because all the rest of us are “complicit” in its evils. Which stripped down to plain English means that we aren’t as smart as or as good as they are, because they know everything and the only possible reason for disagreeing with them is that we don’t care. It means that they get to decide how to use our energy and time for the best good of all humanity, and if we don’t shut up and follow, then we are the bad guys.

I am damned tired of people like this, who will tell you that Dave Ramsey is really a horrible person because he tells people they can lift themselves out of debt and doesn’t acknowledge the “structural injustices” of the system. Or people like this who hate a beauty-pageant contestant because she dared suggest self-defense could be a good thing. Or people like this who can’t stand that a successful person will give ordinary folks tips on how to adjust themselves rather than “the system” for a more successful life.

I shouldn’t even have to say this, but here goes: if you want to change the system, go ahead. Give it your best shot. Change it. But changing systems takes years of effort, and it takes a kind of patience that is ready to accept years or decades of failure and work before the system ever gets changed. If you don’t have that (and most of us don’t) and you still want to get better, then your only option — the only option that will make life better for you, no matter what any “system” looks like — is to change yourself. And that’s what most people have to hope in. That’s the change most people can make on a scale that will give them strength.

So work to change the system. It’s great. The NAACP did. Teach men not to rape. It’s part of a good and effective approach to ending sexual violence. Work for good economic laws. I’ll help. But don’t piss and moan because good people are showing women how to beat the shit out of an attacker. Don’t whine that the poverty of the world isn’t fixed because everyone won’t get on your Marxist dream-train.

Any system that depends on changing everybody everywhere by the efforts of everybody everywhere ignores the simple and basic fact that everybody everywhere never agreed on what to order for lunch. Any system that promises victory “if we all just pull together” is the moral and practical equivalent of promising that we will defeat the enemy after the enemy all drops dead. It’s opening the locked chest with the key you find inside of it. If we had that power, we would already be gods.

But we’re not. We’re just humans. And one of the strengths of humanity is that we try lots of things to solve our problems. That is one of the ways we move forward. So if you are teaching that everyone not on board with your method to solve a problem is part of the problem because they see value in a different solution? I’ve got news for you: THEY are not part of the problem. Because the problem is YOU! You are the one trying to remove an essential strength from humanity and call it good.

And we don’t need your kind in our midst. We need you to grow up and love humanity the way it is, and the way it always will be.

Come back when you’re ready.

The Unbearable Heaviness of Being Grouped

In her excellent novel, Dawn, Octavia Butler shows us a small group of humans struggling to adapt after having been rescued from a nuclear war on Earth by an alien species called the Oankali. One of the aliens says that humans have two attributes that doomed us to destroy ourselves. We are intelligent, and we are hierarchical. The hierarchies we seek to establish are the cause of our violence, and intelligence used in service of this violence gives us the ability to destroy our species.

I would add a third quality, however, that Ms. Butler may have overlooked,* and this is our tendency to groupishness. In some ways, this can be a strength. One of my favorite characters in all of science-fiction, Ambassador Delenn of Babylon 5, said, “Wherever humans go, they form communities.” Yes. We form groups. We form them because they are fun. We form them because we learn from them. We form them because they are essential to realizing certain dreams. And we form them because they make us feel safe. We form them because they reassure us that we are righteous. That we are sane. That we are not trapped in the hell of loneliness.

We are born into certain groups, whether we like it or not. Physical gender. Levels of physical abilities. But the fact is that we humans will make up groups to sort people in any number of ways. Some are real. Some are imaginary. And it is this tendency of humans that truly makes me fear for our species.

It isn’t just that we place ourselves in these groups. It is not even just that we seek to exclude others from our own groups. It would, in some ways, be impossible to have groups that did not exclude. It is our desire to group other people, whether they are willing to be so grouped or not, and then to rank them in an hierarchy according to what groups they have been melded with.

We’ve all played the game: “If you are this, you can’t be that.” “If you are this, you must also be that.”
You cannot be a loyal American and a Muslim.
You must be a racist if you fly the Confederate flag.
You cannot be scientifically knowledgeable and a Republican.
You cannot be a pacifist and a patriot.

What else is the current debate over the Confederate flag about? It’s about the ability to put people in groups. The Confederate flag was originally flown over the desire to put people in groups. To have a symbol for the people who wanted to ensure that the white race would always be superior to the black race. To have a symbol for those who believed that the federal government had no authority to order the sovereign states to obey it.

For those who believed the former, but not the latter, there was no special symbol, but the American flag did well enough. After all, most white people in the 1860s were quite openly convinced of white superiority. As for those who currently believe the latter, but not the former, they have no symbol. They want to use that symbol because it is potent and rich with history. Their opponents are just as concerned with the potency of the symbol, and are determined to deny its use, because they fear that it secretly means a determination to subjugate and destroy them, just as it openly did 150 years ago.

The common thread here, as I see it, is that people want absolute freedom to group. Of themselves they wish to say, “I and I alone, determine what groups I join and what they mean to me, and only we, the People of the Group, may have an opinion on the worth of the Group and the ultimate meaning of the Group.” Of others, they wish to say, “I will determine your worthiness to be admitted to my group, and what other groups you belong to, whether you acknowledge your membership in that group or not. Whether you know those groups exist or not.”

Obviously, these freedoms cannot coexist. No two people can have that kind of power over themselves and over the other. At the core of this groupishness is a terrible fear that we may be left alone with no group, and a willingness to disrespect others’ agency to form groups, lest they expel us from our group, or tear our group apart. The more a group feels itself attacked, the tighter it hangs together, because a group is in many ways a spiritual home. A place where we can escape form loneliness and be understood by the Group. Threaten that, and you threaten something very close to family. People will kill for it. Some asshole just did, because he thought that members of the Group of Black Americans threatened his Group (what he called it in his mind, I neither know nor want to) by their insistence on being fully included in the Group of Americans. Now the Groups are on the march. Active. Angry. Defending their Groups from perceived attack and mobilizing to attack Groups they perceive as potential threats. Groups they perceive as the source of this asshole.

I feel I have spent a lot of time saying little that is profound. What, after all, can I recommend, here? I don’t have much of an answer except “awareness.” Awareness that leads to love. When you see people passionately defending a group or a symbol that stands for something you hate, be aware that they are probably being honest in their claims that they are defending a love, and a home. Don’t assume they must be cherishing a hate because they know or dress like, or like the same symbol as THOSE PEOPLE. It’s true not everyone is honest. Some are monsters, I will grant, who lie about what groups they are part of and what those groups mean. Most are not. Be aware of what you are doing when you assign people to groups, and that you may be wrong. Be aware that if your Group is threatened, you may overreact. Ask yourself if that’s possible. Try to allow people the same freedom to form Groups and determine their meanings as you would want for yourself.

It’s the only lesson, or hope, that I can see.

*I say may. Steven Barnes, who certainly knew Ms. Butler better than I did (having been her student for only a week) says that Ms. Butler said that humans were hierarchical and tribal. I prefer “groupish” because it implies a more fluid construct than a tribe, which is usually something you are born into, or at least choose for the long term. However, I’m happy to give both Ms. Butler and Mr. Barnes credit for noting the really important parts of this phenomenon before I did.

The Chosen of Bob

I generally don’t speak to the various kerfuffles in F/SF Fandom, for two reasons:

1) I choose to spend my moral energy in dealing with issues closer to where I live, and closer to my heart.

2) I’m not really IN Fandom yet. Not as a fan, certainly, and not as a writer, yet. So I don’t know a lot of the people who have been the targets of harassment, or who have harassed, demeaned, insulted, etc. other people. I don’t go to a lot of cons, and very few people know who I am.

But there is a phenomenon I have noticed in many, if not most, of the incidents of harassment I have read of. I have read of it over and over again in the essays and posts and rants and screeds. It’s familiar to anyone reading this: the phenomenon of “That’s Just Bob.” We all know Bob. He’s the charismatic Elder Male Writer (sometimes Fan) who assaults a woman (or belittles her in public). Then, when she cries foul, Bob’s fans try to explain that it wasn’t really a big deal and she shouldn’t feel victimized, because “That’s Just Bob.” Sorry. That’s just the way Bob is. And a lot of people have correctly pointed out that this essentially means: We value Elder Writer Bob, the Predator more than Nobody You, the Victim. Because there’s only one Bob and there’s thousands of nobody girls. And there is a lot of outrage because sexual assault shouldn’t be tolerated anywhere. I agree. And people say that the problems are Rape Culture, White Male Privilege, and Sexism. And that’s where I disagree.

Before I become the target of justifiable outrage, let me expand: I do not disagree that sexism is a problem. I do not disagree that Bob is sexist, still less that he has privilege. I disagree that sexism, privilege, and Rape Culture are the core problems with Bob’s behavior. So what is? Allow me to illustrate from my own experience, the which I can speak to very well:

Many years ago, before I had ever made a professional sale, and when I was just getting, however tenuously connected to a community, a particular Bob was mentioned at a rather well-known Clinic I attended. I had heard of this Bob, of course. Everyone had. Bob was (and is) justly famous for his unique style of writing and his iconoclastic behavior. I had read some of Bob’s work and enjoyed it. And yet, when I read about Bob in real life, it was always about him being exceedingly rude to those around him.  At the Clinic, I got to know some Friends of Bob, and they began telling stories about him. Stories of how Bob behaved around young writers. How he would ruthlessly mock their stories*, tear them to shreds, and then issue judgments about whether they would ever become successful writers (Hint: it didn’t end well for most of them). They were laughing and having a fine time, recalling the cruel things Bob had said.

I opined that it sounded like Bob was kind of a jerk.

“Well, but that’s just Bob,” I was told.

I opined that this did not make it okay for Bob to hurt people on purpose, for his own amusement.

But you don’t understand,” I was told. “Bob’s really a great guy. If Bob’s your friend, he’ll do anything for you. He’s your friend for life.”

I said that I didn’t want to worship at the throne of Bob in exchange for that.

I was told: “You know what Bob would say to that if he were here? He doesn’t care.” And I was out of the conversation.

But what I thought was: yes, exactly, Bob doesn’t care, and that is the problem, because what you have said reduces to: We value Elder Writer Bob more than you, the nobody, because Bob is a god among lesser men and he LIKES us. That’s what separates us, the Chosen of Bob, from common little nobodies like you. He has RECOGNIZED our genius, and that gives us hope that we too may one day be Bobs ourselves. We are IN, and if lesser people have to suffer the Wrath and Mockery of Bob, it is not our place to care. They are beneath us.

Is it any wonder, then, that Bob thinks sexual harassment is entertaining and his right? After all, he is applauded by his friends for mocking the very people who came to him to learn. Why should they not applaud a different form of degradation? I mean, no one said Bob’s victims were arguing with him, or challenging his credentials. If they had, then Bob’s mockery might have been somewhat justified, or at least provoked. No, the universal consensus was that their sin was… not being good enough for Bob.

And that’s why I say the core problem with Bob and those like him is not sexism. It is not sexism, and it is not the privilege that leads to failure to call Bob out on his sexism, or to report him for his harassment. No. The core problem with Bob is the Bob Privilege that leads to failure to call him out on his presumption, his rudeness, his mockery, his bullying, and his inexcusable discourtesy to anyone around him that doesn’t fit Bob’s notion of what a writer or a person should be. All of these are faults that anyone but Bob would be called out on. But Bob we worship. And since Bob is used to being worshiped, he demands the deference as a right. Of course he’s sexist, racist, and whatever-the-hell-else-ist. Because that’s the basic ingredient of every -ist that plagues humanity: the fundamental belief that you can treat people however you want because they aren’t good enough for YOU!

I will not name Bob here. He is not worth naming, and I do not shame other people in public, deserved or undeserved. Besides, there are a lot of Bobs out there. I will point out, instead that if we wish to remove sexism, racism, and the other -isms from among us, I suggest we look a little harder at ourselves and the Bobs we choose to follow. Because the Bob we worship today for mocking, insulting, and bullying people we hate and despise may turn his or her wrath on us next. But more likely, Bob won’t target us; we’re the Chosen, after all. No, Bob will choose his victim, and there we’ll be. Saying nothing. Doing nothing. Because it’s not as important as sexual harassment or racism or any other sin we hate. And we know our Bob would never do those things. He’s a great guy.

Until he does.

And we, the Chosen, will have to choose.

*I do not mean, of course, that Bob or those like him should not, especially in a teaching situation, call out bad writing. One of my least favorite teachers at the Clinic called one of my stories out and ripped it to shreds. And it was painful. But he was right. And as much as he ripped it to shreds, he didn’t tell me I’d never be a decent writer. He just handed me the truth. But there is a difference between doing painful surgery on people and giggling at them as they writhe in agony.


Will the “Real” Whatever Please Shut Up? (Please, Shut Up)

Okay, it’s been a long time since I posted on this blog, despite a resolve to do at least one a week. What can I say, a big idea turned out to be more work that I had in me, and then life happened. But this blog topic is less nuanced, and I think I can fire it out there really fast:

I was recently shooting the breeze in my own thread online about a topic I would have to work to care less about when a rather Upset Young Guy™ I know barreled into the conversation with the subtlety of a chainsaw and informed me that because I was not acting in the manner of Real Fans Everywhere, my opinions on the topic had no merit, and that by merely airing my opinion… on my page, which I guess is his business because… he can see it? I dunno, where was I? Ah, yes: By merely airing my opinion, I had caused the UYG™, personally, great mental, nay, physical, anguish and distress. UYG™ proceeded to berate me for pretending to be a Real Fan and not spending the time or money to back it up. (In deference to the fact that he’s young and generally not a bad guy, I’m not being more specific than this. In deference to the fact that actions have consequences, I’m not being vaguer.)

The funny part is that he’s right: I’m not a Real Fan. I never said I was a Real Fan. I was just commenting on a few trends I’d recognized (trends that I was actually picking up by reading analysts who are likely far more Real Fans than either of us, as they get paid for this crap.) But apparently, no one who is not a Real Fan gets to talk about the topic at all, lest they get called out as ignorant or unenthusiastic by Real Fans, I guess.

The even funnier part is that he actually seems to think that I care about whether the self-appointed Real Fans respect my opinion on the topic of entertainment and how I should be enjoying it. But, then, he’s not alone: in the past few months I have seen professionals in a number of fields of study and craft, some of them quite close to my heart, rip each other to pieces in the name of what Real Fans, and Real Artists, and Real Activists, and Real People do and do not do.

And that’s not funny. That’s actually just sad.

Before I go further, a disclaimer: there is such a thing as real expertise in the world. And before you go intruding in a conversation set up by, about, and for experts with your own opinion, you’d better make sure you know what the hell you’re talking about, or damn well expect to get your head handed to you. For example, if it had been me who had barreled into a conversation UYG™ had been having with other Real Fans in a space for Real Fans, he could have said almost the same things he did say and have been totally in the right to do so.

But the Real Experts remember that they too were once novices, and they don’t look down on novices for not being experts, or question their motives for entering the field, or badmouth those taking a passing interest in the topic for expressing a feeling about it, or for passing on the opinions of those more knowledgeable than themselves, or even (gasp) for being WRONG once in awhile. Real Experts don’t take it upon themselves to be the Topic Police and run off the unworthy and uninitiated from discussing it among themselves. Because that’s not being an expert. That’s being the gatekeeper for a clique. That’s cutting your own field, or fan-base, or whatever off at the roots, because no one is going to want to be around people who act like that.

Don’t care? Figure people will always want to be Real Fans like you because you’re just That Cool? Okay. But there’s a lot of good people who won’t put up with your crap, whether its a fandom or a cause. And eventually, they’re going to welcome more people than you. Because they’re welcoming and not gatekeeping.

From Somewhere in Orbit