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08 August 2011 @ 12:25 pm
Oppression By Omission  
As a science fiction editor, I care very deeply about issues of representation and diversity in spec fic. The events of Racefail 09, as turbulent and painful as they were, marked a sort of turning point for SF fandom, when many voices previously shut out of the conversation because of race, ethnicity, religion, nationality, disability, and other forms of oppression began to collectively and individually speak back to the systemic under-representation and mis-representation in the genre. The subsequent "Fails" which followed in the coming months and years have showed a diverse fandom that is willing to step up and speak out about how people of color, the disabled, ethnic and religious minorities, gay and lesbian people, and others are being treated in fiction, and about the messages that are conveyed in spec fic stories about people in these groups.

All of this matters because these problematic narratives, whether they occur in spec fic, mainstream lit, or elsewhere, have the effect of supporting, reinforcing and validating the larger problematic narratives about these same groups of people in society at large, which contributes to the ongoing marginalization and oppression of people in these groups.

When people are presented, by way of example, as inherently inferior, criminal, stupid, lazy, child-like and so on, simply by being a member of a certain racial, ethnic or other class that they were born into or otherwise did not choose to be a part of, these narratives have the power to directly and indirectly hurt real people.

So back in September 2008 I launched the first issue of Expanded Horizons Magazine, and we're still going strong.

Social justice as a philosophy recognizes that resources (defined more broadly than just money) are not evenly distributed, and that people do not have equal access to these resources. Social justice is about trying to make access more equal and more fair. In spec fic, this means that we are working toward narratives which are more authentic, more respectful, and free of damaging stereotypes. One "resource" is seeing characters like oneself included, included respectfully and authentically, and included in significant numbers. Another "resource" is who has access to publication of their stories, and on what scale these stories are being marketed and read. It would be wonderful to have many books with protagonists of color, but if all of these books were written and published by white authors and editors, we still have a problem. Who gets to tell the story of a people is itself a resource.

Because this blog focuses on the issue of psi in spec fic, there is one more term which I must define, namely that which I call "oppression by omission." By this, I don't simply mean the invisibility of minorities (either "invisibility" in the larger society, or as "invisibility" within minority spaces, such as this blog post about the invisibility of Native/Indigenous people in spaces for people of color). There are countless ways in which minorities of various kinds, and those positions of relatively less social power, are not taken into account, left out of decision-making processes that have an impact on them, etc. Oppression by omission is not "you are so marginalized we do not have to consider how this will impact you," although that plays a role in it.

What I am mainly talking about here is the experience of minority groups about whom the master-narrative is "this group does not and cannot exist at all," and when one of the central ways by which oppression is occurring is through society's repeated (even ubiquitous) assertion that people like this do not and cannot exist, and that people who "claim" to be this way are mentally ill, frauds, or are otherwise incapable of accurately relating their own experiences. In some cases, anyone who even accepts the experiences of these people is considered deserving of ridicule.

When oppression by omission is occurring, the people impacted by it are very unlikely to "come out" about their experiences, not because there are explicit statutes on the books about people like them, but because the social ostracism, or perceived threat of such, is immense. In subtle and not subtle ways, most of us are taught at an early age that there is something different, or scary, or not OK about our experiences.

This ostracism, or perceived threat of such, is almost always also invisible to those who do not see these minorities in the first place. The invisibility begets invisibility; with few to no positive role-models, few to no positive and empowering stories to identify with, and relentless negative messaging (in some cases through spec fic), invisibility can become the only "safe" world we know, and we can be hesitant to challenge it.

Oppression by omission can take place on a small scale or a large one, within the larger social framework or within minority spaces, alone or in conjunction with other forms of oppression. It is different from what is usually recognized as "oppression," the more overt and visible forms. But it is not without often profound impact on the people who are thus erased.

There have been efforts aimed at challenging invisibility, even challening the oppression by omission, in certain communities. The Asexuality Visibility and Education Network has been doing this work for a decade, and recently a documentary has been made about asexuality and asexual people. Yes, asexuals face considerable oppression by omission: check out the lovely videos made by swankivy, such as here, where you can watch videos she made about her "Asexuality Top Ten." ("You can't really be asexual, you must be...")

The concept of oppression by omission is also helpful for understanding the invisibility faced by more esoteric minorities, such as Otherkin, therians, psi/sang vampyres, or even what it's like to be part of a multiple system. To some degree, transgender people also face oppression by omission, such as "genderqueer people do not exist," "transmen are really butch lesbians who took it too far," or "trans women are all cross-dressers who want to colonize women's identities and bodies." Bisexual/pansexual people also face it. The list goes on.

Now all of these experiences (and many more) are very different, and very diverse within each category. The only parallel I am drawing is that in each instance, the social master-narrative is, at least at times, one of "non-existence," and so each and every time someone tries to come forward with a counter-narrative and express his/her/hir experience of the world, for whatever reason, he/she/ze has to deal with that master-narrative in some way. It might be because someone else is shutting them down or putting them down. It might be because they have to couch their experience in other terms in order to get through someone's filters. It might be because they have to, in some sense, "test out" all the people they talk to about this aspect of their lives to see if they can accept it. It might be that they choose never to tell others, because they know that telling others is fundamentally emotionally, socially or even physically unsafe. (See this video, for example.)

What does psi omission look like? It really takes many forms. It can be that psi experiences are omitted from the biographies of famous people, even when these people wrote extensively about their experiences -- such as Mark Twain (for example here, and the several articles linked here) or Konstantin Tsiolkovsky. It can be the dearth, or even total lack, of non-sensationlistic non-fiction produced about the subject. It can be discourse or study that focuses exclusively on whether or not the "claims" are "real," with little to no attention paid to the narratives of the people living with these experiences (except when the purpose is sensationalism, or the entertainment of non-psi people).

It exists in the lack of realistic characters, with experiences like ours, present in "realistic fiction" on television, in books and movies, etc. -- characters who are full people (not two dimensional plot devices), characters whose role in the story is not to "do psi things" every week (or simply to be scary, or to stand there and look sexy), characters who exhibit self-determination, characters who can serve as positive role-models. It exists in the complete lack of serious support groups (in the US, anyway) for young people trying to understand their experiences in a world that denies, stigmatizes and ridicules them. It exists in "othering" language and the use of us as rhetorical sarcasm (which I will cover in more depth on this blog).

Many of these messages are created and enforced in speculative fiction. That is why it is essential to take a critical eye to what is produced and consumed in that genre, with an eye to the messages those works send to young people who identify with the psi characters in the work. Since we do exist, we do identify with the characters who are supposed to represent us, even when the representation is clearly deeply distorted. We know those people are supposed to be us. We know that most authors creating these works are unaware that we exist, because that is what everyone in this society is taught (including us). We know that the authors are usually not psi (and that even psi authors can be self-fearing and self-hating). We know that most of this material is not "aimed at" us, that we are not the target audience -- that stories about (usually fictionalized) psi people are told for the entertainment the majority, non-psi audience. We know that our mere existence is framed as "speculative." We know we're not supposed to have a "critical response" to this material (because we "don't exist"), and we know that there is no venue for us to express a critical response to the presentations of people who are "supposed to be us" (because we "don't exist").

We may even feel that until we can "prove" we exist to the right authorities in the right ways (a Sisyphean task, indeed) that we don't have the "right" to critically deconstruct the messages we consume, or that such an analysis would be pointless because "no one believes in us after all anyway" and "that's the way it should be." "Real" minorities matter; if we speak up, people will think we're whining and derailing the conversation from discussion of "real" minorities. They will think we're posers who just want "special attention."

It's hard enough for groups of people who are accepted as real (people of color, LGBT people, disabled people, any of whom can also be psi) to get their voices heard in challenging the master-narratives and offensive presentations of people in those minority groups. We don't exactly see most of the American SF world energized about challenging the racism and colonialism inherent in its "classics," and even in its contemporary works -- and no one is going to deny that people of color exist or that colonialism is a real thing (even if they think it only happened in the past).

So it's an uphill battle, because even in discussions about authentic and respectful representation of minority groups in spec fic, no one's talking about how psi stories are written. The establishment is OK with letting psi be an allegory for something else (race, gender, class, politics, etc.) and then talking about that something else -- if there is discussion at all. And there usually is no discussion at all, since psi "doesn't exist," except as wish-fulfillment fantasy, and therefore isn't worth talking about.

Meanwhile, it continues to go unchallenged that it's OK to present psi people as natural targets of government oppression and even genocide, as not having basic human and civil rights, as inherently criminal by virtue of being psi (e.g. telepathy as rape), and so on -- with no attention paid to any possible impact any of this may have on real people who identify with these groups.

My goal in making all these posts and writing about this subject is not to go on a "you all suck" crusade towards all of spec fic, but to raise awareness that this is a real issue that impacts real people (way, way more people than you know about because they keep it private For Good Reasons). Yes, this means a certain amount of showing what the problems look like and why they are problems.

Someone has to do it first.

My purpose here is essentially to demand a seat for this issue at the "table" in the discussion of how minority groups are represented in spec fic and whose interests are served by those representations. Because I believe in a spec fic that is genuinely respectful of under-represented people, and I believe in a fandom that is a fandom for everyone. We don't get legitimacy by more attempts to pass tests designed by James Randi and his ilk, or by hoping the Gatekeepers of Scientific Reality will let us through just this once -- we get it by uncovering and critiquing the narratives about us and their sources, the cultural narratives that frame how we think about ourselves as well as how others think of us, by discussing with others how these narratives are deeply damaging, and then by working together to fix that. Social narratives can and do change over time, and they can be changed.

We need new, positive narratives, in spec fic and beyond. The problematic social narratives about psi extend well outside of spec fic, though they are reinforced by spec fic and sometimes originate there (though some of these narratives are much older than the genre). It is a complex problem with many facets. However, in the short term, since spec fic is the only genre that is representing characters like us, how we are represented in spec fic matters a whole lot. And how we are represented in spec fic, as it stands, is relentlessly busted.

This is where the fight must start.
 
 
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