This is the first of what will hopefully be a few "thank you" posts to people on the internet who've helped me out probably without realizing it. Many thanks to Sunil Patel (@ghostwritingcow) on Twitter for providing the impetus to actually write this. Today I'm saying thank you to Amal El-Mohtar (@tithenai on Twitter).
Early on in my time on Twitter & engaging with SFF Fandom, there was a controversy. I don't remember the topic, but the general outline will be familiar - an institution (maybe the Hugo awards?) did something that clearly revealed and reinforced the entrenched racism and sexism in the SFF field. Many people (mostly women) on Twitter pointed this out. Others (mostly men) suggested that it wasn't that big a deal/people were just stirring up trouble/couldn't we all get back to talking about books we loved? I was mostly with the men on this one. I wanted to engage with people who loved the books & stories I did. I knew (as did all right-thinking people, of course) that racism & sexism were bad, they were on their way out, and so people who saw them everywhere were probably just looking for them and stirring up trouble. Couldn't we just move away from the drama and back to what we loved?
And then a tweet popped up from Amal to the effect of: "Do you think we enjoy fighting these fights? Don't you think we'd rather be celebrating awesome writing?" (I have the spirit, though not the actual words of the tweet). I was following Amal because she interacted with Saladin Ahmed, whose Throne of the Crescent Moon helped bring me back to reading fantasy, and so in the strange logic of Twitter connections I took this tweet seriously and paused to think about it a bit. Amal and many of the other people pointing out the current problems didn't seem to enjoy fighting these fights. She usually tweeted about poetry and owls and pop songs from decades ago. Maybe the kerfuffles I was starting to see & get tired of were more important than I thought. Maybe they were in fact necessary to the health of the genre that I loved. Most importantly, maybe the people (like me) who wanted them all to just go away were in fact pushing aside lots of voices who did in fact want to celebrate awesome writing (that I'd probably never heard of!)
Since then, one of my guiding principles in Twitter interactions (which I'm learning to apply to other social settings), has been to ask whether the person who is upset or angry seems to enjoy that state. If they do, I unfollow in a hurry, but if (as is more common) they seem to have many other things they'd rather be doing, then I try to listen and take the concerns seriously. (And yes, as I type these words I realize that this idea is straightforward & something I should've learned before my late twenties. I'm a slow learner)
Amal, by the way, does not particularly enjoy these fights. She reviews books for NPR, responded to an unpleasant short story review (and an overall lack of diversity & critical attention to short fiction) by creating a review column picked up by Tor.com - Rich and Strange. She loves owls and good tea. She wrote my favorite original fiction in Lightspeed Magazine's Women Destroy Science Fiction anthology last year - The Lonely Sea in the Sky. She also edits Goblin Fruit, a quarterly journal of fantastic poetry, which you can support on their Patreon page. Returning to the original question, Amal has many other things she's passionate about and is doing lots of positive things to make the genre better.
I don't know whether this particular tweet had an impact on anyone other than me. I don't know whether many people other than me need to hear that message. But in case you do -
When you see drama on the internet (or elsewhere), it's worth asking whether the people who are upset seem to enjoy being upset, or if they'd rather be doing something they're more passionate about.
If it's the latter, please be quiet and listen. That's always a good first step. Later, it might also be worth letting them know that they were heard, they're not just shouting into the void, and that you appreciate them taking their time and energy to make a community better, even though it can be hard and draining.
Thank you Amal, for taking the time and energy to make our community better. I am sure that tweeting sometimes feels like shouting into the void. On at least one occasion, you persuaded someone to be quiet and listen, and also to change my attitudes about the books and authors I read, purchase, and talk about. You also wrote a great story (and tweeted with me when I mentioned I was reading it!).
(btw, if anyone has suggestions for the steps after being quiet, listening and taking people seriously, and letting them know they're heard and appreciated, tweet me or leave a comment)
**ETA (1/30/2015) - In retrospect I made some mistakes with this post. See below -
First, I didn't tell Amal I was going to post this. I wrote it, tweeted it (tagging her & someone else who'd suggesting thanking people), and the attention and retweets flooded in. At the time I was thinking "here's a surprising & delightful thing I can do, I bet it'll really make her day!". But of course it's also possible that she'd have a problem with some of what I'd said*, be in a position where she didn't want the attention, or be freaked out by some random guy on the internet writing so much about her. If I wanted to write a combination "what I've learned" and "thank you" post, I'd have been better off contacting her ahead of time to let her know & see if she was OK with this.
Second, I wasn't clear where Amal's opinions left off & mine began. I do remember seeing the tweet I reference at the beginning (do you think we enjoy being angry?), but didn't actually look it up. Everything else is my opinion & takeaway from that tweet. As the line often goes - empathy and good ideas should be credited to Amal, all mistakes my own.
This is particularly important because I was writing about anger, who is allowed to be angry, and my opinions about what voices to listen to. These are complicated and somewhat personal decisions (depending on how you use Twitter), and often used to marginalize women, people of color, and others. My opinions are almost certainly not Amal's (which I know in part because of her reaction to my tweet). Again, a mistake.
To correct this - I reached out to someone who knew Amal & asked for advice, then emailed her to apologize for the ways that I overreached and essentially put words in her mouth. I'm also updating the blog post. I'm not publicizing this in Twitter because I don't want to launch any more twitter discussion focused on Amal. (see mistake #1)
If I were doing something like this again - I'd separate the Thank You & "what I learned" elements of the post. I'd email the person to say thanks, specify that I don't expect any response, but include at the end of the email a note that I plan to post about the lesson that I've learned (without identifying information, so attention doesn't go past me, but still acknowledging that other people's behavior on Twitter led to my insight - to salve my own feelings about trying to take credit for lessons that others taught me). I may ask whether they'd like to be included in the "lesson" post, and whether they'd like it to include a larger "thank you" message. I'd wait a week, then go ahead with the "lesson" post.
Opinions? Did I make other mistakes besides imposing my own attention and not being clear about whose opinion was whose? Should I do something else to correct these mistakes? Is there a better way to do something like this?