Bigots, Bullies, and Enablers

Synopsis of the April Fool’s Mess: One of Locus’ April Fool’s Day columns this year announced that all Wiscon attendees would now be forced to wear burqas. “…starting with this year’s Wiscon, we’ve made burqas mandatory for all attendees. Allah Akbar!” There were also cracks about making sure burqas were available in sizes “to 5XL,” and working to “eliminate rampant lookism.”

Part of how this piece showed up on the site, as I understand it, is because of the separation between the Locus website and the magazine. The website editor apparently saw nothing wrong with the post, but as soon as the rest of the staff realized what had happened, they yanked the article site and apologized. They’re also taking steps to make sure this sort of thing doesn’t go up again.

Look, I don’t think it comes as a surprise to anyone that there are people out there who think “Islam” and can’t get beyond burqas and “Allah Akbar!” Likewise, it’s no shock to see people actively reenforcing stereotypes of feminists as fat, ugly, shrill harpies with no sense of humor. None of this is remotely new or original.

I’ve been working on an autobiographical essay, and writing a section of that piece today helped me clarify what was pissing me off as much as the incident itself. We know there will always be nasty, small-minded bigots. But once Locus pulled the article, a mass of people–mostly white men, for reasons I’m sure are entirely coincidental–rushed in to defend the article, and to decry Locus for censoring free speech.

It’s a familiar pattern, but the dynamic didn’t click until I was writing about my own experiences being bullied as a teenager.

I was a skinny, overly bright, socially inept, fashion challenged kid with glasses and a speech defect. My teenage years were utter hell. Looking back at any of those incidents of name-calling, having my books knocked out of my hands, being shoved in the hallway, tripped on the steps outside the school, having my belongings destroyed, and so on, very few of them in isolation were such a big deal. Real physical injury was relatively rare. But when those small jabs continue day after day, they add up. They whittle away at your strength and your hope, and it never, ever lets up, never stops, until you’re sitting alone in the bathroom with a syringe full of your father’s insulin, searching for a single good reason not to jab the plunger down and hopefully put an end to it all.

The backlash against the Locus article isn’t about someone taking cheap shots at Muslims and women. It’s about yet another person taking those shots, lining up to bully those who are already a popular target for abuse. And it’s about everyone else who stands around, encouraging and enabling that bullying.

25 years ago, I was told I should just ignore the bullies.

I was told I shouldn’t let it get to me. (“Why are you choosing to be offended? You’re just looking for reasons to be upset.”)

I was told they didn’t mean anything by it. (“It wasn’t intended to be racist or sexist!”)

They were just joking around. (“You people have no sense of humor!”)

That’s just how they are, and you need to learn to live with it. (“You need to be more tolerant of the people who are intolerant of you, and who are hurting you.”)

Stop making such a big deal about it. (“I don’t understand why you’re upset! …Ergo, you have no legitimate reason to be upset.”)

People complained about the Locus piece because it was hurtful. This wasn’t an example of the court jester speaking truth to power. While the author claims he was trying to write satire, what he actually wrote was another in a long line of jabs toward people who are already disproportionately targeted for a broad range of abuse in this culture.

It was bullying.

That’s what people are defending. They’re attacking Locus for not giving this person a platform with which to bully those he doesn’t like, based on an incident that happened several years ago. They’re telling the targets of ongoing bigotry that the best solution is to just ignore it.

That doesn’t work for the target of bullying. It only works for the bystanders who don’t want to deal with it. It’s a cowardly, ineffective, and downright shitty “solution.”

Yeah, I got through my teenaged years, and I survived despite the lack of support from those around me. But you know what would have helped a lot more? You know what might have saved the life of a classmate who, as far as we’ve been able to determine, killed himself as a result of bullying? If the bystanders had spoken up and told the bullies to knock that shit off.

Thank you, Locus, for taking that step.