Some further thoughts on unpleasantness, pain and so on.
It would be far easier for me simply to keep my mouth shut because I am far from sure that anything I say is going to reduce anyone's hurt and I am far from sure that I am getting things right. However, the level of hurt feelings and specifically feelings of being attacked or being betrayed are such that people need to try to be kind and bring healing before a lot of those involved stop talking altogether and forever.
Some people have compared this row to the somewhat similar rows that took place in media fandom a few years ago, mostly with a slightly self-congratulatory air of 'we handled it so well, why can't sf professionals be like us?' My memory of those wars is that they ended up with a lot of people walking away and abandoning discussion forever, which is not what I would call handling it well, but I sat that one out and tried not to observe it too closely, so that I am open to correction on this.
I was tempted to sit this out too, and waited before getting involved. Sometimes you dip your toe into the water to find out the temperature and sometimes you wait so long that you are better off noticing the steam and the big bubbles.
What is really worrying is the way that this is becoming a generation clash with people over thirty-five or forty walking off in disgust and saying that they are no longer prepared to engage with the issue of racial insensitivity if people are going to talk to them like that, and people under thirty-five or so feeling betrayed and let down by people they used to look up to. I think that there is a lot of arrogance on display on both sides, and a fair bit of grand-standing; I am not guiltless of either of these traits.
Coupled with all this is the implicit assumption that those of us in the older age group who are more sympathetic to the case being made by the young, in some respects, should abandon our long-standing friendships and loyalties and stop caring about the real emotional pain of people with whom, in some cases, we have two decades of history.
It doesn't work like that and if people really feel that what has been said and done by e.g. Patrick and Teresa is so egregious that I should condemn them out of hand, well, I don't agree and it does not work like that. Do I agree with everything they have said? No, I do not. Do I think that they said everything that people have accused them of saying? No, I do not.
When Teresa fulminated yesterday that things had been said that she would find it hard to forgive, some people took that as a threat that she would act in a grossly unethical manner in a professional capacity. I thought, and said that I thought, that this was a monstrous misreading, yet people whom I respect regard it as a reasonable one. Luckily, Teresa has clarified that she did not mean this, though she has done so in a snarky manner that may yet haunt us all.
(I mention this particular point because it is one I feel strongly about. Unlike most people, I have
had a major player in the publishing industry try to destroy my career in retaliation for my whistle-blowing about their treatment of young women employees. I mostly found out about it from clients who told said person to get stuffed when they tried to persuade my clients to fire me, and from people who hired me in pursuance of their feuds with this person. On the other hand, this may have had something to do with at least one of the occasions on which a house was about to commit to publishing my trans novel of the 1980s and then withdrew - there are other issues there of course, one of which is that it has flaws and the other of which was that the world may not have been ready in the late 80s for a literary novel about trans hustlers.
Oh, and my point is also that I know more than most people about having my voice silenced. I also got blacklisted from the literary pages of a newspaper over my politics - the editor instructed the literary editor that I was never to be commissioned again. Nothing sexual, that time, but rather my criticism of American policy in the Philippines - or possibly sexual, in that I happen to know that the editor in question was an ex-punter of yet another of my ex-flatmates. But, as so often, I digress, only not really.)
The point to which I am struggling is that one of the reasons why this row has gradually configured itself as a generation clash is that our experiences have been significantly different and we mean different things by certain words. If someone accuses me of being a racist, I feel myself compared to the sort of braying red-faced right-wing thug who beat me up on an anti-Rhodesian demonstration in 1967 and my hackles rise. I feel that my personal honour and integrity have been attacked at a really fundamental level. If what they mean is that I have been insensitive to the feelings and needs of people of colour, they may well have a point, but that is not what I am hearing them saying - I am hearing them call me a skin-head with boots and braces throwing bricks through an Asian family's shop window or some Holocaust denier being sly on the television or some MP talking about our culture being swamped.
I came to my anti-racism, such as it is, through struggle and often on the street and from years of discussion with friends; it is a work in progress and a good intention and I do not claim to have got it right. But it has led me to put my body on the line, a few times, in a struggle that was not directly my own.
And I have my own oppressions to contend with, which take up a lot of my energy and time.
I would not presume to define the anti-racism of young POCs and their allies, but it results from a different history to mine.
I am also wondering whether there is a serious distinction between what is meant by my age-group - and of course I am a decade older than most of the older people actively involved in this argument- by the concept of 'close reading'. This occurred to me when I read some of the comments on cathexys
's lj and read the very negative reactions to the likes of Emma Bull's unhelpful pulling of intellectual rank at an early stage in all this, when it was a row about appropriation and not about racist insensitivity.
It seems to me that there is a difference, and I am not
saying a ranking qualitative difference, between reading closely and trying to understand a text both from its content and from its surrounding social and cultural and economic and political context and reading it closely in order to relate it to various models of what a text of the sort it is might say. I think, I know, that the training of academics and aspiring academics changed in the eighties and nineties and noughts and that my readings of texts are based differently to the readings of some younger people whose work I seriously respect, which is why my work is sometimes criticized on the basis that it is good, but lacks rigour in the shape of citations of theory.
I don't believe
in a lot of the theory on offer, which is why I don't cite it - also, there are a number of theoreticians whom I don't believe in because I only read a certain amount of them before deciding that I was going to go no further. I have a problem with much post-colonial theory, for example, because I discussed Said's Orientalism
with various Arabist chums and confirmed my instinct that it is a brilliant polemic rather than an intellectually honest argument.
OK, also, I am lazy and I don't read secondary texts much if I can help it, and my idea of rigour is soaking myself in a text until I feel I have something useful to say about it.
It's not even that I think theory-based criticism is wrong
; it is that even when I can see it as having merit, it is often only of partial relevance to the text as I read it. When I find its models applicable, it is often in terms of e.g. the author's failure to avoid possible contamination of their work by certain negative models rather than the author's active participation in those models. I think authors more often negligent than malign, and negligence is not malignity.
We should not talk as if it were.
There are actively malign texts out there - and distinctions must be made.
I agree that authors need to take responsibility for their work and be properly humble in the face of criticism, but criticism is the beginning of dialogue and I also think that critics need to be prepared to listen to authors' replies and subsequent rounds of debate. No-one in any of this whole row has come up with a clinching knock-down argument about how we should read a text; at most they have come up with serious cases to answer
I do not take my stand with those people who think that this is all a fuss about nothing and that it is simply a matter of people show-boating; I also don't think that dittoing and cheap snark are a way for either side to proceed.
I am not going to disable comments, or even moderate; I would ask though that people who comment do so in a way that is respectful of everyone in this whole row.Later
One point about reading which distinguishes my kind of close reading from both a cultural theory based reading and a cultural materialist reading is that I do regard auctorial intention as relevant and as often decipherable. It occurs to me that this is an area of aporia which is relevant to several areas of this discussion.