Winston Was Right
by Lucy Gillam
"Most people's idea of [free speech] is that they are free to say anything they want, but if anyone answers back, it's an outrage." - Winston Churchill
I really hesitated to "baptize" the Symposium with a column on this subject, because I suspect it will alienate a lot of people (and I want people to like my site, darnit).
However, the current events in Sentinel fandom would seem to make now the perfect time.
To those of you who've seen my rants on various boards, what I'm going to say won't come as much of a surprise. My feelings on feedback are pretty well known. But what I want to talk, er, write about today isn't why critical feedback is a Good Thing. It's about freedom of speech, fan fiction, slash fiction, and flames.
For those of you not on Senad (the slash discussion list for The Sentinel), a little background: a subscriber to Senad and SXF (the fiction list) recently flamed an author in private e-mail because the author had posted a "domestic discipline" story. The flamer had a history of similar response to this type of story, even going so far as to once call for them to be banned from the list. The author who received this particular flame spoke about it on Senad, without naming names. Others replied, comforting the writer, vilifying the flamer, and even naming her. Right now, my understanding of this situation is that the flamer has been unsubscribed from the fiction list by the administrators.
Obviously this event raises a number of questions, some of them about fiction and response, and some about the role of lists, administrators, and private e-mail. But the one I want to talk about is two recurring (and related) arguments that often arise in similar arguments over flames and critical responses. I call them the Support Your Fellows argument and the Just Delete It argument.
The Support Your Fellows argument goes something like this: as slash fans, we are marginalized. Many people, from Pat Robertson to George Lucas, would tell us that what we are doing in writing and reading these stories is wrong, sick, and perverted. Therefore, we must always support the writer's right to write what she chooses without condemnation or criticism, especially if that criticism is on moral grounds rather than ethical.
Now, I don't know if I quite agree with this argument (not the right to write part - that I agree with wholeheartedly - but the notion that because someone disapproves of something you do, you must never make any judgments of others. Total tolerance is a lovely ideal, but it pretty much makes a society unable to function) - but I can grok the spirit behind it.
What I can't help wondering, though, is why that support only extends to fiction. Not just fiction writers, mind you - the flamer in this case was a writer of well-respected fiction - but to the act of writing fiction. Our pledge to support someone's right to write whatever she wants without condemnation seems to apply only to writing fiction: we have no trouble condemning a flamer, someone who politely expresses dislike for a story, or someone who even expresses dislike for a type of story.
Don't get me wrong: I have no trouble with condemning someone for flaming. I'll admit to having lost my temper a few times, and to frequently arguing rather aggressively, but in general I have little patience for name-calling. I think it gives a bad name to passionate argument, and seldom accomplishes much. However, whenever the "freedom of speech" argument is used to defend the fiction writer's right to write whatever kind of story she chooses, I wonder what the difference between the story and non-fiction post that criticized it is. If someone can give me a concrete answer, I'd love to hear it (shameless plug for column).
The second argument that often gets made (and made, and made, and made) is "if you don't like the story/type of story/author's work, just delete it." This is an especially common argument in the case of sub-genres, like death stories, which usually carry warnings specifying the content.
Now, again, this is a concept I can get behind: my "delete" function works just fine, as does my killfile. And in general, when it comes to issues of genre, I agree it's pretty silly to read a type of story you know you won't like and then complain about it (and I'm speaking here of aesthetics, not moral or ethical issues).
However (you knew that was coming, right), this argument again reflects the double standard applied to fiction and non-fiction: if the appropriate response to a story you don't like is just to delete it without comment, why is this not the appropriate response to discussion posts you don't like? (And here Lucy pauses to shudder at the notion that the appropriate response to a post you don't agree with should be silence).
I find the "Delete Key" argument especially (I'm sorry, but I must use the word) hypocritical when brought up to silence perfectly friendly discussions about issues in fanfic. If I demanded that stories of a type I don't like or an author whose work I don't care for be removed from a fic list, I would be (rightfully) run out of town. Why, then, do the same people who would be horrified by that demand have no qualms demanding that a discussion thread which is on-topic and appropriate to the list be stopped? Do their delete keys and killfiles not work as well as mine?
To put this in the (much shorter) words of a friend, if we are going to argue for the rights of writers to write whatever they wish, that right must apply equally to fiction and non-fiction both.
Which, in an odd sort of way, makes this an appropriate inaugural column for the Symposium. This site is devoted to non-fiction about fiction, the very sort of thing which so often causes the very arguments I'm writing about. And if the Symposium fulfills its potential at all, I have no doubt that some fans won't like the very concept, much less some of the columns themselves. To them I offer two recourses: (1) take your own advice, and simply don't read the columns, or (2) write one yourself, arguing your position to the community.
And in that spirit, I challenge you to challenge me to put my money where my mouth is. Despite my having the first word, the Symposium is not just about airing my views. I've often proclaimed my commitment to the free exchange of ideas: here's your chance to make me prove it. Think I'm wrong? Think I'm screwy in the head? The Symposium is open for you to air your views. I will post anything that follows the guidelines on the main page.
Let the games begin!