The conversation about how to deal with harassment in the science fiction world continues apace.1 What’s fascinating is the complete inability of certain participants in the convo to take in a basic fact:
We cannot control how others perceive us.
The I’m-not-a-creeper crowd keeps going on about good intentions and how social awkwardness can be misunderstood and how people with Asperger’s struggle to learn social cues etc. etc. All of which is true but irrelevant.
Because, as Scalzi argued in detail, people are not always going to respond to you the way you want them to. No matter who you are. Even if you are Brad Pitt.2 Not everyone will like you. This has always been true and will always be true.3
And no matter how many times Genevieve Valentine and Veronica Schanoes and John Scalzi and others make that basic point there are still people arguing till they’re blue in the face, “Intentions do too matter!”
Newsflash: No, they don’t.
If we keep talking to someone when they don’t want us to, if we keep touching them when they don’t want us to, I guarantee you they don’t care what our intentions are: they just want us to stop.
You know what the argument reminds me of?
We authors who struggle to get it through our thick, thick skulls that our books will be read in ways we did not intend.
That our books will be hated by some readers, will be considered total crap, offensive, racist, sexist, or some other kind of evil, that readers do not owe us anything. They do not have to know our books exist, or read them, or finish them if they start them. They do not have to be polite when reviewing them.
We authors have zero control over how people respond to the words we have written.
Just as we people cannot control how others respond to us, to what we say, and what we wear.
What we do have control over is ourselves.
If we’re struggling to make friends, are constantly rebuffed in our attempts to make conversation with strangers, then it’s time to change ourselves, to do what we can to stop that happening.
Because, as I may have mentioned, we can’t change other people, but we can change ourselves.
Maybe it’s as basic as hygiene.
I have a friend, who has a terrible sense of smell, and grew up in the kind of household where they were not taught the basic hygiene most people are taught: to wash our underarms, between toes, belly button etc etc. To wash the not-obvious places as well as the obvious ones, to wash every single day. This friend did not know that clothes also need to be clean. So they went to school stinking. Until a teacher sat them down and gave them the instructions they weren’t getting at home. Plus soap.
Some people are unaware they smell really bad and never received any kind teacherly intervention.
Then there’s the harder stuff to fix. Many of us are socially awkward to varying degrees. How to interact with other people without freaking them out is something we’ve all had to learn. For some of us it is a lot more difficult than for others.
As for us authors:
If many readers are criticising our books for something that we didn’t intend—such as being sexist or racist—perhaps it’s time to listen. Maybe there’s something to what they’re saying?
Time to take a good look at the criticism. What exactly are they seeing in our books that we didn’t mean to be there? Read those bits again. Painful, I know. Is there anything to what they’re saying?
I know it’s hard to find yourself in the middle of a long-running conversation that you’d never heard of before. We’ve all been there. The only thing you can do is play catch up. Nisi Shawl and Cynthia Ward’s book Writing the Other and the Feminism 101 blog are great places to start.
It’s key that we start internalising that none of us can control what other people think of us. We can’t make them like our books, nor can we make them like us.
All we can control is our words and ourselves.
Honestly? That’s more than enough to be going on with.
- It’s also going on in other communities. But that’s where I’ve been following it. [↩]
- The you-wouldn’t-mind-if-it-was-Brad-Pitt-harassing-you argument drives me nuts. Not everyone thinks Brad Pitt is hot. I don’t. Besides which if it’s harassment it is definitionally something you don’t want. And, yes, good looking people can harass. Because a) as noted not everyone agrees on what constitutes “good looking” b) being good-looking does not automatically mean the whole world finds you attractive c) being good-looking can also mean that you are not used to hearing the word “no” and kind of lose it when your advances are unwanted. [↩]
- Yes, that’s a split infinitive. No, there’s no such thing in English. It’s a stupid grammar rule foisted on us by people who do not understand how English functions. [↩]