Opinion: When Writers Punch – Up, Down, or Sideways

When a writer publicly calls someone out, they need to be aware of all of the implications, including the fact that the more popular the writer, the more devastating the results can be, not due to any intrinsic quality of the writer, but the number of fans.This is, I hope, my final followup to earlier pieces on reactions to Jason Sanford’s post identifying hate-speech and similar posts in a specific forum of Baen’s Bar, Politics, and the subsequent DisCon action in removing Baen’s leader, Toni Weisskopf, as an Editor Guest of Honor. I want to address a specific phenomenon, which is writers punching people who displease them via their readers, which has been directed at Jason Sanford.

When a writer publicly calls someone out, they need to be aware of all of the implications, including the fact that the more popular the writer, the more devastating the results can be, not due to any intrinsic quality of the writer, but the number of fans. The more fans, the more likely it is that the group will contain people who, emboldened by the idea of pleasing a favorite writer, can — and will — go to lengths that go far beyond the norms of civil, and sometimes legal, behavior.

This played out recently with reactions to Jason Sanford’s piece on a specific forum within the Baen’s Bar discussion boards administered by Baen Publishing, which have included web posts doxxing Sanford and calling for complaints to be made to a lengthy list of people at Sanford’s placement of employment about the post he made on his free time on a platform that has nothing to do with his employment.

As I’ve said earlier, I have a great deal of respect for Baen and hope it emerges from this watershed moment in a way that suits the bigheartedness of its founder. But in the fray, a lot of writers have been egging their followers on to do shitty things in general, and what has emerged include the above specifics.

It’s not okay to point your readers at someone and basically say “make this person miserable.” It is okay to vote with one’s pocketbook. To not buy the books of people you don’t support. That is called a boycott, and it is an established tactic. (One of my consistent practices throughout the years, though, is to read a book by each one before I make that decision, so I know what I might be missing out on. So far, no regrets.) Going beyond that is, in my opinion, is the act of someone who’s gotten carried away and is no longer seeing their target as a fellow human being, and who needs to stop and think what they are doing.

We have witnessed the results of this tactic when it happens in science fiction. Campaigns contacting employers to complain about posts made in someone’s free time, or even when they’re just suspected to be a particular blogger. People feel free to attack economically or via harassment, ignoring collateral damage in the form of their targets’ families. And let’s not forget SWATting or otherwise attempting to use the police against someone.

Someone started a baseless rumor about Sanford having had a book refused by Baen, and assorted unhinged souls have been running with that one in large and frenzied patterns that spell out “it is possible I am projecting” when seen from above, including repeatedly contacting the Ohio News Media Association to demand that Sanford stop beating his wife explain the allegations.

That one’s bizarre to the point of being more comical than serious, but there’s plenty worse, and that’s because of another phenomena. Free-floating online trolls cluster onto these situations like leeches, doing their best to drive people at best to shut down their social media, at worst to what those trolls see as an ultimate victory: suicide. They’re not in it for politics; they’re in it to feed on the festering hatred being stirred up and to use it as a justification for their own behavior.

I am not overstating things, and anyone who thinks that I am might want to go for a remedial course in Common Sense About the Way Shit is in 2021, as opposed to 40 years ago, which would be when I was first floating around on one of the first message boards. In all sorts of senses, I’ve continued to engage with the world rather than letting someone else moderate it for me, and I don’t know that I had a choice in that but have dealt with a lot of bullshit from people trying to up their visibility in one way or another. I’ve been doxxed so many times it’s lost any scare value. I learned to shoot a gun a couple of years ago because of one doofus sicking his followers on me, and in some situations I carry a taser in my bag. Given some of the stuff that’s happened, it’s not an overreaction.

A person should not have to go to these lengths in order to speak their mind; intimidation aimed at silencing someone overall, rather than a particular platform, is the true damage to free speech. I said it before and will say it again (and again and again, I suspect):

What “if you can’t stand the heat, get out of the kitchen,” aka “people who are too weak should avoid this discourse” says is “only certain people get to speak here.” And that’s shitty, no matter how many noble words you try to dress it up with.

In researching my first two pieces about Sanford’s report and the resultant furor, I talked to a number of people who’d been driven off the Baen discussion boards over the course of the last decade. The most prominent being Mercedes Lackey, who was dogpiled on after she suggested, post 9/11, that maybe unmitigated hatred for Muslims wasn’t the best approach. The posts driving her away came not just from the fans on the boards but some of her fellow authors. [I have removed information here that I believe is either in error or incomplete. See the comments for further info. -Cat]

Lackey had a good bit to say on the subject, including an angle I hadn’t thought of, which is that it can be dangerous to your readers to be pointing them at people:

People these days are crazy. Seriously, dangerously crazy. Crazy enough to send SWAT to someone’s house over a video game (and people have died). Crazy enough to track down your boss and try to get you fired. Crazy enough to show up in person and hurt or kill you or someone you love over an online post. Don’t take my word for it, do a news search.

So suppose you unleash your fans on someone who is that crazy. And he doxxes some of them and SWATS them. At the least they have a broken down door and several hours of horror. At the worst, someone is dead. Or maybe he just tracks the harassment to its source and comes after you. And it’s you that gets SWATTED or fired or has the Drug Cops trashing your house looking to put you in jail.

(I snipped a paragraph here with points covered elsewhere in this piece. -Cat)

The very, very, very best answer to that impulse to send your hordes of minions out to do your bidding? Put your enemy in a story. You’ll get revenge, and better yet, get paid for it.

Lackey also pointed me at this excellent essay on tolerance which has, I think, good points about why groups — including communities formed around discussion groups — cannot contain members attacking other members:

We often forget (or ignore) that no right is absolute, because one person’s rights can conflict with another’s. This is why freedom of speech doesn’t protect extortion, and the right to bear arms doesn’t license armed robbery. Nor is this limited to rights involving the state; people can interfere with each other’s rights with no government involved, as when people use harassment to suppress other people’s speech. While both sides of that example say they are “exercising their free speech,” one of them is using their speech to prevent the other’s: these are not equivalent. The balance of rights has the structure of a peace treaty.

Much of the hoorah has led me to re-examine some beliefs just to make sure I wasn’t crazy, most notably my ideas about professionalism. Professionalism is something I’ve always tried to abide by. It involves a certain amount of dignity and detachedness, and it also requires not throwing verbal lumps of shit at people, particularly colleagues. I dunno, is this old-fashioned? It doesn’t mean not calling out bad behavior, it doesn’t mean I don’t often disagree with others. But I treat them with respect, overall, even when it’s hairy dude-bro looming at me to demand why I don’t do something about some matter that I have nothing to do with, because they are fellow human beings and we are all stuck here on spaceship Earth together.

Being a bad passenger and using your fans to attack a fellow voyager is unprofessional. It gets you known for being unpleasant to work with in any form, because there’s always the worry you may turn it on the person the next seat over. You’re the person that has no qualms about waving live grenades; people don’t want to be around when they don’t know where you’re going to throw it, or even if you’re going to accidentally drop it.

Perhaps a lot of the confusion between professionalism and being “authentic” has to do with the relationship between writers and social media, which can feel mandatory at times. Kacen Callendar notes:

It’s dehumanizing that I or any author should be afraid to speak about our dehumanization, about the boundaries we want and need to set for our health, dehumanizing that we should be scared our work won’t be accepted unless we play along with commodifying ourselves.

When you know that any admission of weakness will be used against you by online trolls, that something like the death of a family member or pet will signal a new barrage of harassment playing on that grief, it becomes even more fraught. And those trolls go for the most vulnerable people — any vulnerability is like blood in the water to them. Can you be authentic and armor yourself at the same time? It takes some maneuvering and a certain amount of don’t-give-a-fuck-ery, and not everyone can do it.

Overall, should any writer cry “release the kraken!” and send these folks after a supposed “enemy”? No. No, and no amount of arguing will ever convince me otherwise. Instead, they should learn to be professional perhaps, because in this heated kitchen, we’re working chefs, not home cooks, and should comport ourselves with a little goddamn dignity.

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About Cat

Cat Rambo lives, writes, and teaches by the shores of an eagle-haunted lake in the Pacific Northwest. Her 200+ fiction publications include stories in Asimov's, Clarkesworld Magazine, and the magazine of Fantasy & Science Fiction. Her story, "Five Ways to Fall in Love on Planet Porcelain," from her collection Near + Far (Hydra House Books), was a 2012 Nebula nominee. Her editorship of Fantasy Magazine earned her a World Fantasy Award nomination in 2012. She is the current President of the Science Fiction and Fantasy Writers of America (SFWA). She is currently working on Exiles of Tabat, the third book of the Tabat Quartet. A new story collection, Neither Here Nor There, appears from Hydra House this fall.
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