Some thoughts on race, gender and free speech

Forgive me. I don’t usually identify myself by colour or gender. I happen to be white, I happen to be male, and I happen to have issues. These most commonly present themselves when I express an opinion on social media. That place where everyone is supposed to be the same. Yet my name and my picture are a dead giveaway. They tell people everything they need to know about me. The blond hair, the blue eyes and the stubble mean that I am not expected to suffer from a sick feeling in the pit of my stomach when a total stranger decides that I deserve to be condemned because I dared to ask a question.

But expectations can be wrong. I do.

White is a quaint notion, because such a descriptor only exists to differentiate. And to differentiate between people of Caucasian origin and everybody else. We never talk about being pasty, livid or ruddy. Being white only matters because it is the opposite of black. Defining someone by their race or gender is to use language as a weapon. It gives people of one group the whip hand over those of another. To reinforce the will of those in power or to excuse the behaviours of those opposing them.

How dominant patriarchal societies evolved is lost in the mists of time. The concept of a dominant or superior race defined by colour, however, only really emerged in the 17th Century, in America. For more than 200 years that differentiation has shaped cultures, and such a silly notions still hasn’t been expunged. This relinquishment of privilege and entitlement hasn’t been easy, and it hasn’t been consistent. Britain may have abolished slavery more than 180 years ago, but indentured labour across the Empire continued well into the first half of the twentieth century; and we only have the Second World War to thank for ending those ridiculous notions of genetic superiority based on race.

Since then we have had decades to reflect, seeing abhorrent patterns of ethnic cleansing abroad, and experiencing riots and intra-cultural prejudice at home, caused in part by the failure of migrant housing and education policies. In that time I have seen racist and heterosexist abuse first hand, and I have been subjected to racial and heterosexist abuse in return (not being gay didn’t exclude me from either accusations or the physical torment associated with them). I guess that’s one positive – racism in Britain isn’t one sided, it is perpetrated by everyone.

And yes, I get that being a white person in a nation dominated by white people creates privilege. I also get that white-dominated institutions continue to resist change, usually by denying that there is a problem. That is the curse of trends. Good news follows the direction of change. We have been moving in the right direction here. Slowly and, for the best part, progressively. But we have done so because of collaboration, because of partnership between cultures and ethnicities. Progress has been difficult, and yes, we have to accept that cultural biases have slowed that progress. Genetic superiority may have been proved a myth, but the outmoded belief in social superiority remains, and the class barrier between rich and poor does not just exist, it is growing.

As our society became aware of the injustices done in the name of gender or colour we at least started to think differently. We talked less about tolerance and more about brotherhood. Positive discrimination and political correctness were terms used to describe those actions taken by society to redress the imbalances caused by prejudice. A lot of women and a few lucky non-white people even got successful on the back of it, and they moved up the ladder of social class because, for all our good intentions, classism still exists.

But it works both ways.

As our attitudes toward race and gender have improved, our treatment of the white poor has deteriorated. People forget is that as poverty increases, so too does racism. So now we have black ghettos and we have white ghettos. That’s not the kind of equity I believe in. If anything, it breeds intolerance. When you’re at the bottom of the social order you’re encouraged to believe that there is someone even lower. Slaves, illegal immigrant, foreigners – whatever term is used it becomes a desperate and clumsy tool used to make the poor and ill-educated feel better about themselves. Britain always had a white underclass, and perhaps that is the source of resentment.The postcode gangs that terrorized my childhood were white and male. They knew who I was. They knew where I lived. But over time attention has shifted towards single mothers and ethnic gangs. The poor white male has been sidelined, useful for nothing more than drinking, taking drugs, and laying about doing nothing. And that seems to be why the argument about privilege has started to unravel. Why poor white folk don’t understand black issues. Because, living in the here and now, the argument is about experience, not statistics.

IMG_0247.JPGIf you are from an ethnic minority it is more likely that you will be poor and disadvantaged. However, you are still outnumbered by poor and disadvantaged white people. And then there is the growing education gap. In a country with a rising number of ill-educated, poor, disadvantaged white men, talking about white male privilege is the proverbial red rag to a bull.

The poorly educated white man will argue there is no such thing as white privilege. Because he doesn’t see it, hasn’t learned about it, and hasn’t benefited from experiencing it.

The privileged white man will similarly deny his privilege, but for different reasons. He will argue that equal opportunity and anti-discrimination have fixed everything. That we should put these things behind us because dragging up the past serves no purpose whatsoever.

Then there are those of us in the middle. Educated, opinionated, and fluctuating between comfortable and struggling occasionally. We accept that our historic advantage exists, and we accept that we must continue to help and support change where we can. We can only do so, however, by being allowed a voice. But our voice is drowned out by the obnoxious rich and the embittered poor.

The truly privileged suffer from that terribly colonial problem: the superiority complex. They still believe, deep down, that they are better, wiser, and more able to effect change. That charity is a gift from the wealthy first world to the ineffective third world. Sure, back in the day they might have been idealists and fighters for social justice, but they haven’t seen or accepted that the world has changed around them.

The poor bask in their ignorance. They tell us that migrants (and by association, all people of colour) steal jobs. In fact, they see it. Because they are the underclass. Every person of colour in employment seems to fuel the denial that there was ever such a thing as white privilege.

Those in the middle are tarred with both the brush of white privilege and the paint of poorly educated prejudice. And because they have another perspective altogether, they are subjected to a terrible new trend: racial gagging.

How should you react when you are told that you are not entitled to your opinion? Or worse, that your opinion is invalidated by your lack of experience? Some become entrenched, reinforcing the lie that everything is fine. Others agree there is a problem, and choose to do something about it, either by asking questions, supporting those who do have experience or studying the topic so they can offer an informed opinion. I fall into the latter category, and in doing so I put my considered views forward without fear or favour. My freedom to speak is the only entitlement that I believe in. Nobody has to listen, but they have no right to deny me a point of view.

The ignorant say “I can’t be racist. I have a friend who is X, Y or Z.”

The educated say “I have studied these matters, therefore You cannot argue with me.”

I say that I have experienced being bullied, disenfranchised, othered and ostracized. I have suffered and seen abuse first hand. I have stood by those who have suffered. My empathy is crap, my sympathy is unwanted, but my understanding is very, very real. I am educated enough to have the benefit of both foresight and hindsight. And I passionately believe that my voice counts.

IMG_0248.JPGRight now we are living in an age we’ve never seen before. Post-colonial, post-capitalist, and global. It won’t take humanity too long to homogenize, but in the mean time those resistant to change choose to polarize, to set us back and make miscegenation a dirty word again (it already sounds like a dirty word because it was originally indented as an insult, and also because it sounds like misogyny). It is also why religion is rising in importance once more: the ties that bind are always cultural, and religion serves as the new point of difference. As an atheist I expect to be alienated more and more in the coming years.

I also believe my voice matters when it comes to gender and sexuality. Here my opinion is again deemed invalid, either because I am not a woman, or because I am not a member of the LGBTQI community. It would be flippant of me to hark back to the words of Sojourner Truth by saying “Ain’t I got gender?”

I am, regardless, an advocate of equitable opportunity. I do not believe that we are born equal (which, so long as biological differences and class-based hierarchies exist, we cannot be), but instead that we should all have the same chances in life. Our ability should determine the choices that we have (I differentiate between choice and opportunity here), and therefore disability is the most important thing we need to address. To me this is any physical, mental or social obstacle that stands in the way of aspiration and quality of life.

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I also support diversity which, to me, is about giving voices to those who would otherwise struggle to be heard. It’s not about me trying to be more diverse in what I do, nor about me speaking from a false perspective. Yes, I do embrace diversity in my own fiction, in my own way, but that is no substitute for the voice of those who should be heard.

I abhor labels (even as I reinvent them and apply my own), and although I agree with a fair amount of feminist theory I refuse to identify myself as feminist. Not because feminism is a dirty word, nor because I am a man, but because feminism itself is in turmoil. Outsiders cannot distinguish between first wave, second wave or third wave feminism, between ecological, philosophical and radical feminism (or, as its detractors call it, feminazism). Many of their arguments dance on the head of a pin: to embrace or to marginalise; to celebrate the vagina or to synthesize the penis; to destroy patriarchy or to create matriarchy. I’m sorry, but these are academic issues, and I’ll just stick with the basics.

When Thomas Paine wrote The Rights of Man it had nothing to do with elevating the male gender over that of the female. When Sojourner Truth asked “Ain’t I a Woman?” it had nothing to do with her vagina. I believe, totally and completely, in equity: that the same basic human rights should be available to everyone regardless of colour, gender, sexual preference, religious belief or status.

And this is the heart of my issue.

When you differentiate you create exception. For example, when a bill protecting religious freedoms in Indiana is opposed only by one group of victims, then they become the exception. The bill gets “fixed” to accommodate the loudest voice instead of being reviewed to ensure that a more reasonable rule applies to everyone. As an atheist I may still be discriminated against by a rule that could end up protecting only the LGB community. I supported the LGB protest, but my atheist voice, like the Jewish voice or the Islamic voice, was not heard. Now I know that there is an argument that gay and transsexual people are “more visible” and therefore more prone to discrimination, but I’d argue that the freedom for an individual to bear the trappings of their belief – from a turban to a Hasidic beard – should not be challenged unless it presents a direct threat to social cohesion. Having a private life is no such threat.

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If you dismiss my right to speak, my right to think, or my right to question, then there is no getting around it: you are, regardless of gender or colour, a denier, an oppressor, or a suppressor. Yes, you can choose to listen or to walk away, but in doing so you are no better (or worse) than those who spent years resisting abolition, emancipation, the franchise and other inalienable human rights. You are part of the problem.

As the speaker, I too have responsibilities. If I prosthelytize or speak hatefully, then I should expect consequences. I may be entitled to satirize or ridicule, or even insult, but if that action intentionally incites hatred in others, then I should give up those freedoms. And intent is often the issue. We prejudge intent, and we are often wrong. When a white man comments on a thread or forum in which women and/or people of colour are bemoaning the attitudes of white men, he already thinks that he knows their intent. Therefore, you would think, he can expect his dissent to be seen as opposition. In truth, he probably just saw something that irked him. Some statement he disagreed with that he was itching to pass comment upon; and that is the real point of difference. If you haven’t lived your life in fear of abuse, you cannot possibly know that making a simple remark in a public place might be seen as invading personal space, of imposing white male values upon those who don’t share them. He stumbles blindly, and foolishly, into the she-lion’s den.

Which brings me back to the question I asked, right at the beginning of this piece. Just so you know. I asked the lady to explain, in her own words, what sort of things a white male reader of speculative fiction might gain from reading more diversely. It wasn’t a question for my benefit. It wasn’t a trick or a set-up. It was about supporting and giving voice to, rather than speaking as a white man on behalf of, a black woman. For me it backfired because I was tarred by my question. Judged right there by a total stranger and sentenced to ignominy. She went on to tell me how tired she was of explaining things, of how she hated having to repeat herself to racist white men.

I got that. Much as it smarted to be so lightly dismissed. She assumed that my motives were the same as those who harass and goad to defend their ignorance. My words didn’t matter because my white maleness prejudged my intentions. Nobody should have to explain themselves constantly; to repeat their views ad nauseam as a means of justifying themselves, especially to those who have already closed their minds; and yet that is exactly what I find myself doing. Again and again and again.

My belated reply to that lady who put me down: Never stop repeating your message. Never be too tired to explain your perspective. The poor white man still needs educating, the privileged white man still needs to realize that we cannot simply put these things behind us, and the white man in the middle really does have challenging questions that might help him to understand things just that little bit better.

UPDATE: It’s odd, but this post was triggered by someone blindly calling me out and judging my politics based only on what I am and not who I am. Unlike George R R Martin I am for the principle of the K Tempest Bradford challenge, because diversity is good (and for those who ask why they should do it, here is why K Tempest Bradford this they should: “reading a wide array of viewpoints is always good. You will be a more intelligent, more informed, more internally rich person for imbibing voices, points of view, ways of experiencing the world, ways of conceiving stories, ways of understanding, learning, growing that are different from your own and from the authors who get the most mainstream attention. You’ll discover that while 25 different shades of cream may seem like a wide array of diverseness, it actually is not.”

It’s not a conspiracy, but it is a campaign to be socially progressive. However, there is no smoke without fire, and knee jerk reactions that throw labels around do happen, and they have a cumulative effect. Some cry foul and claim reverse discrimination, some try hard to argue that they are not what they are accused of (which, believe me, means they care), while others just see it for what it is.

Memes, Ideons and the IP Volcano

Back in 2004, when I started blogging, I was working in the field of innovation. Back then, innovation was about introducing new ideas and processes. The ideas didn’t have to be original, just new to those to whine they were being introduced. We talked a lot about knowledge transfer, and the upper echelons of higher education sniffed opportunity, convincing the powers that were to invest in the transfer of knowledge from universities into business rather than from businesses to businesses.

Of course, while academia was focused on how it could make money from these opportunities, I was making it my job to give them away for free or, as was more often the case, to memorise, repeat and perpetuate revolutionary ideas from multiple sources to as wide a local audience as possible.

Often these ideas would be genuine transfers from evidence-based projects scattered across the four corners of the world. Sometimes they would be my own half-arsed meanderings, fuelled by insight, curiosity and not a little mischief. You didn’t have to quote research if you could recall that there had been several anecdotes that needed to be explored, or else you remembered that someone had done some research somewhere, and it was on the tip of your tongue.

I’d been doing it for terms in a creative context, but to have the opportunity in a business one was hard to pass up. Richard Dawkins, in his book The Selfish Gene called it the meme – that self-propagating pattern of information which replicates itself across the minds of billions of people throughout the world – embedding itself as a cultural phenomenon. It might be a tune, a fashion, a process, a habit, or an idea. All knowledge is mimetic, and therefore all ideas will eventually be propagated in some form.

Terry Pratchett, as I mentioned recently on the day he sadly died, called it the ideon, that which floats into your brain, takes a short rest, and then if you have decided not to make use of it floats off to inhabit someone else’s brain. In referencing it out of context, my words – particularly those suggesting that I had had, and failed to use, ideas which Pratchett himself made better use of – were mistaken by one person as hubris or arrogance, but nothing could have been further from the truth. Some of us are lucky enough to be ideon magnets, pulling these great ideas in from the wider memesphere and maybe even, on rare occasions, making use of them (Since my original blog I’ve been able to use far more than I used to, but still not enough). Sadly, far too many of the ideons which had inhabited my brain upped and left for pastures new long before I was able to fully realize the benefits.

My first ideons were role-playing memes. One can never truly say that they were “the first” or “the inventor” of an idea, but in my time I invented and even designed/wrote many games which drifted off to become someone else’s brainchild. In particular, I remember creating a car-combat game loosely based on Death Race 2000 (suggesting, of course, that Ib Melchior was visited by these particular ideons first) a good three years before a near-identical game-system called Car Wars was launched by Steve Jackson Games. This, along with another meme which drifted over from the Mad Max films, doubtless inspired the Games Workshop Dark Future Universe, and in the age of computer games this inspired the Carmageddon computer game which, in a strange twist of fate, then benefitted from its creators acquiring the Death Race franchise! Obviously, that particular example of memetics involved me getting infected rather than the other way around. The game I wrote and designed was never shared (or even play-tested), so I was not responsible for any propagation into the wider world whatsoever.

A harder one is the chaos-death-spiky-meme. Inspired by Michael Moorcock’s Elric and the Stormbringer RPG (yet again I was inheriting ideons), I decided to update Stormbringer into science fantasy setting, replacing Moorcock’s Young Kingdoms with a Galactic Empire in which the Mabden, Eldren and Dwarves battled the encroaching forces of the Gods of Chaos who spread across the galaxy in the name of Lord Arioch. In this case I did indeed tour the gaming circuit, going from convention to convention passing on by word of mouth my experiences with the campaign that I had somewhat prophetically called ‘Stormbringer 80,000’.

I can even recall my conversation with a Games Workshop employee I can only imagine was Rick Priestley, who was spreading the meme of his own game, Rogue Trader. I believe that was the day the chaos-death-spiky-meme floated over (or perhaps just travelled via sound waves) to Rick, whose Warhammer 40K has proved to be one of the most successful wargame brands on the planet.

Needless to say, I spent a little time wandering around moaning lots about how my idea had been pinched (it hadn’t – i had given it away freely) but then I remembered that you couldn’t copyright ideas, and that the only way to stem the tide of ideon leakage was (shock! horror!) not to communicate.

Drifting away from role-playing games, I knuckled down to have a go at writing. I plotted out my first so-great-it will-fly-from-the-shelves debut comedy novel, Flloyd – The Musical.

Flloyd was a story about rock-and-roll, Norse mythology, and the rapid pace of technological change. It had seminal sequences involving a DC-Dakota landing on a rainbow, valkyries on motorbikes, and a bus-full of Norse Gods on a day-trip to Midgaard. Flloyd himself was the Norse God of the Twentieth Century, and looked a lot like Captain Sensible. At some point between completing my synopsis and completing Chapter One, I discovered the works of Tom Holt. That should have spurred me on to make use of my Ideons before they left me, but…

Bugger.

All I can say is that Tom used concepts that were just like mine and used them in a different way. Who’s Afraid of Beowulf? Was very similar, but also very different, to why I would have written.

Then I shifted to Doctor Who fiction. The chalice of unsolicited submissions, the wealth of continuity to dip and mix with was irresistible. Eighteen chapter ones and three years later I had succeeded in writing/editing close to 200 Doctor Who fanzines (only 200? I’ve been telling people 300? Oh, how the memory cheats!), inspired (and wrote the very first submission for) the Doctor Who Drabble Project (see Drabble Who?), and influenced – through conversations, debates and drinking sessions – as many as eight published Doctor Who novels, none of which were written by me. Indeed one of my greatest pleasures in the days before Doctor Who returned to our screens was to read new ‘Who’ fiction and see how many of my ideons ended up in other writers’ heads without me even communicating with them.

Then, in 2005, I wrote a Doctor Who novel as a dare. Not only did some of its plot end up in an audio drama not of my making, but it also shared some amazingly cool similarities to the TV episode The Impossible Planet. Then again, in my Doctor Who anthology, Shelf Life, I co-authored a story (Jumping the Shark) with equally strong similarities to Neil Gaiman’s first foray into official Whodom, The Doctor’s Wife.

These things happen. They really do.

This brings me to Douglas Adams, who once pointed out that Intellectual Property and Copyright only emerged as a response to linear media such as books, films or TV, which are only capable of communicating in one direction. He also said that before television came along the word interactive didn’t exist, because it wasn’t needed. Adams’ point was that the internet, as an interactive environment, would make the issue of ownership redundant. It isn’t what you create that matters, but what you do with it.

And he wasn’t wrong.

The IP Volcano

Trying to protect ideas is, frankly, a pointless exercise. You can post it to yourself in a sealed envelope if you like, but it won’t stop the meme from spreading. And using the law to ‘protect’ your ideas is merely a means of stifling the others ideas that may come along because it has been shared and slowed to mutate.

If one idea is equal to six months of legal activity, then you become limited to only handling two ideas in a given year. I had – and still have – a problem with this, because I usually have at least three new ideas between getting out of bed and having my breakfast.

I would contend that it is better to let the ideas flow. Have lots of them. Write them down, talk about them, tell people how they can change the world. If they steal your idea and do something good with it well, so what? It’s one less idea you have to worry about using, and if it succeeds it means that you have had a positive influence, made a difference.

Whenever someone does intentionally beg, steal or borrow an idea of mine with the goal of making money from it (and they have), then I try (I’m only human, I sometimes fail) to just shrug my shoulders and cross it off the list of ideas I need to do something about, and feel proud that I have achieved something for nothing.

Another good thing about having lots of ideas – and not protecting them – is that ideas beget ideas. A creative environment not bound by petty legalities or corporate bureaucracies will attract the kind of people hungry to make a difference themselves, people who will bring new ideas with them, and even more new ideas will spawn as a result. It is how the industrial revolution happened; and Hollywood; and Silicon Valley.

I call it, for obvious reasons, the IP volcano. That small trickle of unfettered ideas overspill and spread while all the new ideas bubbling at source exert a kind of… memetic pressure which will result in an explosion of ideas.

It doesn’t matter what these ideas might relate to – creativity, industry, politics, society – what matters is that they happen. Rules, protectionism and isolation stifle ideation and innovation. But if people are free to think, They they shall come…

“Enter freely, and of your own will…”

“…and leave behind a little of the happiness that you bring.”

Lovely sentiment.

Wasted on the lips of Count Dracula though.

My name is not Metabaronic, but Adrian Middleton, and this, for better or for worse, is my blog.

Continue reading “Enter freely, and of your own will…”