Patrick Ness has a problem.
What’s his problem, you ask? Why, being a white man who must shut the fuck up occasionally. We can all appreciate and sympathize with that, can’t we?
No? Didn’t think so.
Lest you claim I’m making shit up or taking shit out of context, here is Ness’ risible first paragraph.
I had intended to open this polemic with some version of this true story: earlier this summer, I was having dinner with friends and our conversation turned to the role of the veil in Islam, starting with how to explain a burkha to a son raised to believe that men and women are equal, before leading into the veil’s potential as a form of oppression against women.
Imagine this man’s skull. Imagine how very, very thick it must be to make him this terrible, this oblivious, this self-absorbed. Or maybe it’s just a lifetime of insulation, of being mollycoddled, through no merit, charm or intelligence of his own–but through the simple fact that he’s white, male, and a westerner. He’s never been said no to all his life. He’s lived however many years of it a spoiled little shit. His opinions are welcomed, valued, validated in all venues (such as, aha, The Guardian–which I incidentally find difficult to distinguish from The Daily Mail).
Then suddenly he’s told (or imagines that he might be told) that no, his opinions aren’t welcome all the time–that he might consider shutting the fuck up once in a while on issues of which he knows fuck-all about (and there are a great many of those. Like the hijab/burka, for example). That must be so tough. Oh, poor baby. Let me just hug him better with a machine gun.
Part of my hesitation is of course my own genuine impulse not to be in any way racist, a truly held wish to accommodate cultures and views not my own. There is also my desire not to have this polemic be just another tediously calculated controversy, like the ones Martin Amis seems to pull out every time he’s got a new paperback on the way.
But if I’m honest, isn’t part of it also fear? Fear of having whatever I’d say about the Islamic veil – no matter how thoughtfully I’d said it – misappropriated, misquoted or badly paraphrased in the inevitable tweeting that’s going on right this very second? Fear of having my words turned into something they aren’t, and having to suffer the consequences.
How do I put it. Ah, let a Malaysian Muslim man deal with this one.
Despite Ness’ flailing, weepy hand-wringing over the horrible things that might just happen to him if he dares to utter a word about “the Islamic veil,” the reality is that Ness got this published on The Guardian which, though of little objective worth, happens to be a national newspaper (admittedly, in a white supremacist nation). Now The Guardian will publish any dreck, but the fact that Ness is a commercially viable author who just happens to be white, male, and a US citizen might just have helped things along.
The only censorship exists in Ness’ bizarro dimension not unlike Victoria Foyt’s dystopia, where the white western man is a protected class, surrounded on all sides by uppity minorities who just don’t want him to speak his mind, and if he does speak it–well, we’re just going to misquote him, take him out of context, distort his words and otherwise damage his reputation. He has genuine impulses not to be racist, you know? Uppity minorities just shouldn’t be so harsh on him. Give him a fucking break, eh?
What I’ve done, though, by being so careful, by even perhaps keeping silent on this or any issue, is disallowed myself a real voice in the conversation. I who consider myself a brave writer, one unafraid to push boundaries, to speak truth to power, I who believe these things about myself as much as any of you, I have in this instance self-censored. In a polemic about self-censorship.
Oh you big hero you. Again, how do you become this self-absorbed? How do you dress up this image of yourself as a brave, brave writer–a fearless Mighty Whitey, here to save Muslim women from the “veil”! A man with Real Opinions! A man who’d tell it like it is, totes, if only the world hadn’t gone mad with political correctness.
Fifty years later, she’s still right. I could easily have given an impassioned 15-minute talk about China’s censorship of the internet, for example. Or how book-banning in schools remains a persistent problem in the US, even in 2012. I could have spoken of the hate tweets to Tom Daley or Louise Mensch or Fabrice Muamba. Or the disgrace of the Pussy Riot trial in Moscow. Or Great Britain’s own problems with censorship: its outdated libel laws, its alarming flair for super-injunctions, its plans for secret courts, and on and on.
Censorship has not left the world. It only finds new avenues.
Because this is the kind of risk you run by saying something like that opinion about abortion. We here would almost certainly argue for your right to hold it, but in this sectarian, connected world, we’d then maybe stop listening to you. In a way, you’d be suddenly free of censorship because you’d be able to say whatever you like, you’d just be saying it to fewer and fewer people. And importantly, you’d be left out of conversations you’d like to be having.
No, you insipid, ridiculous fungal infection. What you’re doing is that you wish you could talk about things you don’t understand, things you have no experience with, things that don’t affect you. You want to do all that and be taken seriously, because your opinion–Mighty Whitey! White Man’s Burden!–is meant to be sacrosanct.
There’s no censorship involved, Patrick Ness. What there is though is consequences. People will call you out. People will think less of you. Your “opinions on other topics be ignored” but that’s not because you’re some brave messiah; it’s because your opinions–such as your example about anti-abortion (and shut the fuck up about that, you miserable subhuman–you don’t have a uterus!)–may be shitty. They will earn scorn not necessarily due to any petty schoolyard politics (they might, but given all your examples thus far…) but because your opinions expose you as a terrible human being.
For example, if you’re a writer who wants to affect the world and engage with a large audience, would you risk being marginalised in the US by talking about your atheism? Would you risk the same marginalisation in England by talking about your devout Christianity?
Mr Ness, are you a leading member of the /r/atheism subreddit by any chance? Because nobody takes anyone seriously who claims that being an atheist equals marginalization. And “the same marginalization” in the UK by being Christian? So what happens to the Muslims; do you think they’re put on a pedestal, Mr Martyr?
I like to think of myself as a fearless writer, and I’m sure that you all do, too. But are we really challenging ourselves enough to keep that true?
You aren’t fearless, Patrick Ness. What you are is an asshole who believes every single one of his opinion is righteous, heroic, and each ought to be aired to all and sundry–without anyone being mean about it, or being mean about you. You’re a man-child. An overgrown man-child in acute need of a two-by-four between the eyes. No worries; his skull’s thick enough to take it.
Getting back to Save the Pearls for a bit. I’ll still probably put up a second part of the review, but the text is so tremendously dull it’s just difficult. What interests me more is what’s happening around it–the mass outrage from the SFF genre, of which has been summarized here and here. Awesome, no?
But where were all these people when The Wind-Up Girl won awards? How about when Dan Simmons’ Song of Kali showed up in Gollancz’s Fantasy Masterworks? When will we get around to talking about Mark Lawrence’s Very Magical Nuban?
This isn’t saying every single person shredding Victoria Foyt (deservedly) voted for Bacigalupi or contributed to the reprinting of Song of Kali; nor do I believe Vandermeer or Jemisin specifically had anything to do with Bacigalupi winning or Simmons continuing to have a career, if you think I’m implying that or singling them out by linking them (in which case: nah, they’re just good synopses). But the reaction to Foyt has been so widespread that everyone’s talking about it; even Elizabeth Moon, mistress of unapologetic Islamophobia, thought it was racist! So much outrage! So many people speaking up! The irony of a genre that has praised Bacigalupi and Simmons (and Elizabeth Moon being right there in the chorus of horrified indignation) now breaking into hives at Victoria Foyt is so rank it smells a little like hypocrisy.
And Mark Lawrence? Here’s some passages from Prince of Thorns concerning the Nuban:
The Nuban once told me about a tribe in Nuba that ate the heart and the brains of their enemies. They thought it gave them their foes’ strength and cunning. I never saw the Nuban do it, but he didn’t dismiss the idea.
The black man’s naked chest glistened below the glowing point. Ugly burns marked his ribs, red flesh erupting like new-ploughed furrows. I could smell the sweet stench of roasted meat.
“He’s very black,” I said.
“He’s a Nuban is what he is,” Berrec said, scowling. He gave the poker a critical look and returned it to the fire.
The Nuban said nothing, the blackness of his face impenetrable in the dying light.
The Nuban set old Gomsty on his feet. He looked at me, his face too black to read.
Fat Burlow came up on my right, on my left the Nuban with his teeth so white in that soot-black face.
The Nuban is always “the Nuban”; despite the protagonist/serial rapist Jorg having known him for four years he never learns the Nuban’s name–or even thinks to ask. The Nuban of course sacrifices himself for Jorg, who’s lily-white, like any good house servant: Samwise to Jorg’s Frodo, but with more racism. Who writes this and believes it’s not racist? Who reads this and thinks, “Oh, that’s fine, Mark Lawrence is a swell old chap, tally grimdark ho!”
You might say the Foyt fracas blew up because Weird Tales legitimized her–but Bacigalupi was legitimized by Nightshade Books, then several genre awards. Dan Simmons is legitimized by a number of publishers, and again awards–and mark me, Song of Kali is easily just as racist as Save the Pearls if not more (I’ll dig up quotes from that one day, but on a “racist maggot” scale it’s actually more offensive than The Wind-Up Girl although the set-up does bear some similarity). Mark Lawrence is printed by Harper Voyager. It’s safe to say that more people have read Bacigalupi, Simmons, and Lawrence than they’ve read Foyt. While it’s not necessary to have excoriated Bacigalupi, Simmons, or Lawrence to be able to excoriate Foyt, genre as a whole–rather than particular individuals (many of whom have found all four whites offensive and said so)–has been remarkably quiet about those three dudes. Well, okay, maybe not about Dan Simmons, though I don’t think I’ve seen him taken to task for Song of Kali.
I’ll also note that the few people defending Foyt also cite censorship as the great evil bringing her down, a line of argument that comes up again and again whenever anyone gets up on a “PC gone mad!” horse–and the same line Ness is peddling in The Guardian. Westerners believe “censorship” means “people calling me the fuck out because I said fucking awful shit,” equating simple disapproval and backlash to fatwas (see also: Richard Morgan, who used that word in all sincerity). Americans have this thing about “free speech” as a mythical unicorn that enables them to say whatever they like whenever/wherever they want, without fear of reprisal because oh my god what are you, a communist dictator? Do you want to immigrate to China?! Censorship! Everything is censorship! My opinion is right and sacred and if you breathe that I’m ignorant or offensive–if you think my adherence to anti-abortion ideals is disgusting–why, you’re CENSORING ME!!!!
Reality is a little more like this:
I could go on at some length about the entitlement of westerners and the genital itch that drives them to have an opinion on everything–loud, proud, obnoxious opinions–but that’s another punching bag for another day.