Mary Anne Mohanraj

An Ongoing, Erratic Diary

9 March 2009, 2:14 PM
  On Speaking Truth From Power

I've been saddened by the behavior of people I know, on both sides of the RaceFail '09 imbroglio. I think, as a professional writer/editor of color, I may be unusual in knowing quite a few of the major players on both sides. None of them are close friends. But I've had coffee with Will Shetterly (as we discussed the possibility of creating a writers' retreat in the Arizona desert), and I've had more than a few drinks and maybe a dance or two with Tempest (I can't quite remember, blame the alcohol), and I've defended Kathryn Cramer's right to childcare at conventions publically, and I've run the foundation that awarded a travel grant to Nora Jemison, and I've participated for quite a while on the Nielsen Hayden's Making Light board, and learned a lot from the information they've shared there, even if, in the end, I decided that the general atmosphere among the comments there was too toxic for my tastes, and so I walked away. On the other side of things, I helped found the Carl Brandon Society and served on its board and helped develop the Kindred and Parallax Awards, and I serve as Executive Director for DesiLit, so clearly I have a pretty strong general commitment to minority voices in literature.

I'm sure knowing so many of the players in this mess personally has influenced my responses to events. When Will starts ranting about class issues, oblivious to all other forms of oppression and inequity and violence, I sigh and go talk to someone else who isn't quite so single-minded. When Patrick outed one of his critics, my instinct was not to think that he was evil, but rather, "Oh, god, Patrick, that was a stupid and thoughtless move. Fix it!" [EDIT to correct facts: The outing was actually Will Shetterly and Kathryn Cramer; sorry, my confusion.] When Teresa rushed to Patrick's defense, and said a few intemperate things that could easily have been interpreted as actual threats -- well, I could see that interpretation writ bright in the words she said, but I was also quite sure she hadn't actually meant to be threatening. We give more leeway to the people we have relationships with (relationships in person or online, serious or casual). Maybe sometimes we give too much leeway.

Because the thing is, of course you can't expect an average online reader of such words to know how to take them. They don't have the context you do. This is no longer the editor getting drunk at a convention bar and saying something stupid to a few friends -- this is the editor saying something stupid to the internet, which means hundreds or thousands or millions of people who do not know him, and who have no reason to be particularly charitable in their interpretations of his words.

Which means, fairly or unfairly, that the words have to stand on their own. And that in turn means that those of us in positions of power -- as established writers, as editors, as publishers -- must acknowledge the added weight of our words. We have a responsibility to use great care with them. Which is at times hard to remember, especially when you were once a fan yourself, and when you are feeling attacked because someone has called you a racist (as someone once called me, in a writing workshop many years ago, and god that stung). Or when you are defensive because someone is attacking someone you know and/or love. But the responsibility is still there, to remember your position. Remember that your words carry ten times (or a hundred times, or a thousand times) the weight of the words of an average reader/writer/fan -- because you are respected, because your work is valued, because you have power. (You may not have money, but that's a separate issue altogether.)

If you are in a position of power, it is not enough to stay silent, although I wonder whether silence may sometimes be a necessary step in learning how to speak truth from power. In the end, you have a responsibility to speak when you see injustice. You can use your words for good or evil. So think carefully before you speak, and then try to speak for good.

You'll get it wrong, sometimes. That's part of living in a racist, sexist, deeply imperfect, human, world, that has shaped each and every one of us, for both good and ill. And when someone tells you you've gotten it terribly wrong, take a deep breath, step away. Consider what they're saying, and honestly evaluate whether they might be right. If they are, admit your mistake. Then go on and try to do better next time. That's all any of us can do in the end.


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