Final Thoughts on Petitiongate

I haven’t been shy about sharing my opinion on a certain petition that’s been causing some internet uproar. At the same time, it’s a fact that some intelligent people, some of whom I respect, signed the thing. (As did some people I don’t respect, and don’t consider particularly intelligent, but that’s the way it goes with just about any group.)

A part of me really wants to be done with this conversation. But I also want to understand why these people would sign something that, to me, is such blatant over-the-top fear-mongering and dog-whistling, with bonus helpings of rewritten history. I’ve spent some time trying to find people’s reasoning in their own words. I’m quoting them not because I want to point fingers or attack anyone, but to try to understand, and to process my own responses to their statements.

If I’ve misrepresented anyone’s views with these quotes, please let me know so I can make the appropriate corrections.

This is a very long post about a topic that’s already been beaten to death and brought back in zombie form and strung up as the world’s most gruesome pinata, so I totally understand and respect anyone who chooses not to wade through another round. Have some emergency kittens instead.

Paul Levinson: [O]f course this is not literally a First Amendment issue, since there’s no Congressional or local state (unconstitutional via the 14th Amendment) censorship. But it is in effect a First Amendment issue, because it would result in censorship, and therefore is inconsistent with the spirit of the First Amendment, in the same way, as say, CBS’s censorship of language at the Grammys.

Fair enough. I’ve given people crap in the past about not understanding the First Amendment. I still think it’s counterproductive to bring it up in this kind of conversation, but I can accept that signers didn’t literally think SFWA was in danger of violating the U.S. Bill of Rights. The issue is censorship.

So the question becomes, can what was proposed in the job posting for Bulletin Editor properly be called censorship?

Levinson (cont): Editors, individually or in concert, indeed engage in decisions about what to publish and what not, what to solicit as content in articles, all the time. But that doesn’t smack of censorship, and the violation of the First Amendment in spirit … which a board expressly created and convened for the sole purpose of judging whether an article meets certain linguistic etc standards does. At least, does to me, which is why I signed the petition…

I strongly object to the creation of an advisory board whose sole purpose would be to determine if the editor’s choices pass some sort of linguistic or moral muster.

If I’m understanding correctly, Levinson’s fear is that a board will be convened solely to judge linguistic and moral standards. That would be troubling to me as well, if it happened.

The job description said the editor will, “Participate in [the] proofing and review process with select volunteer and board members.” It also stated that the editor should solicit cover art and articles that fit within SFWA’s standards and vision.

To me, it’s a huge leap from that posted description to the fear of a Morality Board of Censorship. I’m guessing some of those fears come from different perspectives on what happened last year that led to the suspension of the Bulletin. Some saw what happened as an editor and two respected writers being mobbed out of their jobs by a vocal minority over a pulp cover and using the phrase “lady editor” in a column. If you subscribe to that view, and if you assume that this review process would be a continuation of that “mob,” then I suppose this fear would make sense.

I don’t want to rehash last year’s battles. But as someone who was in that last issue writing about this stuff, I will say that a lot of the characterization of what happened last year has been grossly oversimplified and distorted. What happened was the result of a series of (in my opinion) poor choices by the editor, authors, and the then-President of SFWA. (I’ll note that I like some of these people and consider them friends, but I still think they dropped the ball here.)

Robert Silverberg: Many veteran members of SFWA objected to the early text and have worked it over to keep it to the point that pre-censorship of published material is an Orwellian injury to free speech, period.

…One would hope that readers of SFWA’s magazine would not take offense at anything they read in a publication that is intended to help them in the pursuit of their professional careers, but the appropriate way of objecting to such offensive material would be to write a letter of protest to the magazine, not to force the editor to be overruled in advance by a committee that determines what might be deemed offensive.

If I’m reading this right, the fear here is similar to Levinson’s, that the Bulletin’s content would be restricted based on standards of “offensiveness.” Again, this is not what the job description said, and I assume the fear comes from a continuation of last year.

It feels like there’s been some conflation of “professional” with “unoffensive.” For example, consider a random scantily clad heroine on a cover. Is that offensive? Maybe, maybe not. But is it professional?

That depends on where it’s being published. The pin-up sensibilities of one of Seanan McGuire’s recent book covers was totally appropriate for that book. The same kind of artwork as the cover for the professional publication of a writers’ organization? Almost certainly unprofessional and inappropriate for that publication.

I agree with Silverberg that this magazine should be helpful to us as writers in pursuit of our professional careers. As such, isn’t material that’s not relevant to our careers, and/or is actively damaging (by diminishing or belittling other professional writers) inappropriate for the magazine?

Silverberg also mentioned letters to the magazine, and I agree with him that letters to the Bulletin are a good way for us to yell at each other. I also think the standards of what we publish in a letters column are different than the standards we should be using for paid articles in the Bulletin. If someone wants to write a letter decrying the fact that Jim C. Hines is OMG THE WORST THING EVER TO HAPPEN TO SF/F, that’s one thing. But the moment the Bulletin is paying someone to chew me out…? That’s a whole different story.

David Gerrold: I signed the petition for the same reason I wanted to strangle the little old lady in the brown dress who used to write memos on what we could say and do in a Star Trek script because NBC had “standards.”

I believe that that an authors’ publication should cherish freedom of speech. I also believe that freedom of speech is also the responsibility to speak well and wisely. I believe that each of us is entitled to embarrass ourselves in public as well.

And in addition to the above, I believe that freedom of speech is not a freedom from consequences and everyone else also should also have the same freedom to respond.

…The issue is that the mechanism for making sure that the Bulletin is more “inclusive” is setting off alarm bells, because of the possibility that mechanism could someday be abused — used to restrict what’s published in the bulletin.

I believe that if we truly respect each other as authors and editors that we should respect the independence of the SFWA editor to actually edit the damn thing — and respect the independence of the people whose work is published in it as well.

Not having worked in television, I don’t know what Gerrold experienced at NBC, but if he’s had previous experiences of feeling censored as a writer, I can understand how he’d be sensitive to anything that looks like it could lead to the same situation. But again, this isn’t an area where I have first-hand experience.

But Gerrold makes the same assumption here that the mechanism being described is about making the Bulletin “inclusive.” While I think inclusiveness is a good goal, and one that SFWA and SF/F in general need to work a hell of a lot harder at, that’s not what was written in the job posting.

I agree with Gerrold on freedom and responsibility for speech, and that free speech doesn’t mean freedom from consequences.

And yes, working with volunteers and Board members could theoretically evolve into a situation where a group was refusing to publish articles by This Group or That Group or whatever. As authors, we’re good at imagining “What if…” and taking it both to plausible and completely absurd conclusions.

The thing is, the setup we’ve had all along, with the President overseeing the Bulletin and the editor, could just as easily be taken along a hypothetical path of Good Intentions to those conclusions. So could an unsupervised editor, for that matter. I don’t see it as remotely likely, and more importantly, I don’t see anything in this job posting to explain why this fear has suddenly become such an urgent matter.

Gregory Benford quotes James L. Cambias: “I think it all comes down to “who decides?” Naturally, nobody wants the Bulletin to be gratuitously offensive to its readers — but what a number of people, myself included, are afraid of is that “offensiveness” will be used as a club to bash dissenting voices. This is not a purely theoretical concern, either. I would much rather have a single editor, who is personally responsible for the magazine’s content, than some nebulous, anonymous “advisory committee” enforcing their ideas of what is or isn’t offensive. At best it will result in a magazine that’s dull and unadventurous. At worst it will continue the ideological winnowing of SFWA.”

Again, I assume “not a purely theoretical concern” refers to last year’s mess. And okay, you’d prefer a single editor with power over a committee. For a lot of things, so would I. I’ve worked on committee-style writing in my day job, and it’s painful. Excruciating, at times.

But once again, there’s a chain of assumptions here to get from the posted job description to a “nebulous, anonymous ‘advisory committee'” controlling the Bulletin along ideological lines based on what is or isn’t offensive.

And nobody, as far as I can tell, bothered to ask. Nobody contacted the Board to find out what was meant by that bullet point stating that the editor will, “[p]articipate in proofing and review process with select volunteer and board members.”

ETA: It was pointed out, correctly, that Truesdale did email Steven Gould about that bullet point, asking who the “overseer(s)” would be and how they would determine “appropriate” content for the Bulletin. Gould responded:

There will be no “informal” group overseeing the editor’s selection. There may be an advisory board, but that is yet to be determined. Under the structure of SFWA (both old and new bylaws), the president is responsible for publications … We don’t have guidelines for “acceptable” articles, art, and ads other than content needs to serve the needs of the organization. Chief among those are our 5 core mission areas: to inform, support, promote, defend and advocate for professional writers … However, when content alienates portions of our membership it is =not= meeting the needs of our members or our organization and this is part of the equation the editor will be considering that when they look at articles, illustrations, and ads.

To the best of my knowledge, there was no further inquiry by any of the signers, but that’s not the same as what I originally wrote here. My apologies for that mistake.

Amy Sterling Casil: I don’t want to see “chilling effects” – there should be an open dialog. I signed it on a pure first Amendment basis, which I requested be noted.

Depending on how you view Bulletingate, I suppose you could point to chilling effects. I know there are people who have assumed the complaints were a vocal minority of thin-skinned, overreacting individuals looking for offense. If you believe that, then yes, it would be consistent to develop a fear that you could be targeted next for the slightest offense.

And here’s where I run up against a wall. Because that’s so completely different from what I saw happen last year. I saw the SFWA Bulletin publish a series of unprofessional (and yes, at times offensive) material, including a poor choice of cover art, multiple articles that — perhaps unintentionally — referred to women in demeaning ways, and a follow-up article accusing critics of being “liberal fascists,” with comparisons to Stalin and Mao, along with references to “thought control.” An article the authors were paid for, in part from my dues.

If you feel that these were appropriate for a professional writers’ organization’s publication, that’s one thing. I would disagree very strongly, but I would understand a bit better where you’re coming from.

But nobody was fired over poor word choice. Nobody was fired over a single cover. Heck, I don’t know that anyone was fired, period. The editor chose to resign (though you could argue she was pushed into it — I don’t know what went on behind the scenes … and neither to most of the other people talking about it), and while I assume the Resnick/Malzberg column is gone, I don’t know the details there.

I don’t know how to wrap this up. I trust that the people who signed that thing believed they had a real and valid basis for their fears of what might happen, but I’m not seeing it. Sure, there are individuals on every side of every spectrum who can be jerks. But I don’t see anything to suggest that people would be banned from publishing in the Bulletin for being a jerk. They might be instructed to keep their paid article on-topic and save the jerkishness for their blog, but that’s a matter of professionalism. I wouldn’t expect the Bulletin to pay me for a 3000-word chat about the awesome LEGO tower I built with my kids, either. Not because SFWA is censoring LEGO-related content, but because it just doesn’t belong in our professional publication.

I believe the creator of that petition was deliberately trying to stir up shit, but I also believe the people who signed it genuinely felt it was an important and necessary stand to take for free speech and expression.

I believe that, but I still can’t bring myself to agree with it.

Fair warning: the comment-eating goblins are standing by if things get nasty or go off the rails.