October 14, 2014
Always a cauldron of some fleeting controversy or another, the literary world roiled with a genuinely serious scandal over the past two weeks. A number of well-known writers and editors, including Stephen Tully Dierks and Tao Lin, were accused of sexual or emotional abuse.
One of the flashpoints in the resulting fracas was an essay posted to Hobart by Elizabeth Ellen. In the piece, Ellen offers her opinion on the ongoing reaction to the scandal.
The essay is difficult and troubling, but well-worth reading.
At its heart, it’s about how difficult it is to accurately judge someone from a distance, even someone like Stephen Tully Dierks. Ellen also makes a startling confession—that she molested several children when she herself was a child. It’s an incredibly uncomfortable and difficult moment, but the admission makes it clear that Ellen is damned serious; by copping to such a sin (unprompted!), it’s clear that she has something to lose. It was, I think, an unorthodox attempt to empathize with the alleged perpetrators in the face of what at times felt like an online mob.
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Given her unpopular opinion and the subject matter, Ellen knew her essay would not be well-received:
And one last thing: I refuse to be afraid of my fellow women. Of entering into a discourse with them for fear I will say something they don’t like. That’s not what our moms marched for. It’s certainly not what mine marched for. Let’s remember this.
The online reaction to Ellen’s piece was predictable. Self-proclaimed feminists have anonymously disparaged Ellen’s capacity as a mother on her Tumblr site, and I’m sure they’ve said far worse in email. In a widely shared piece, Mallory Ortberg self-righteously lectures Ellen, essentially telling her that she must “atone” for her sins. (There’s nothing odder than one feminist telling another how to live. And that’s the thing, to be righteous you first have to be right.)
Perversely, there were seemingly more negative tweets and comments about Ellen—who simply voiced an opinion—than there were about Dierks or Lin. It seems even feminists see a woman as an easier target.
Worse yet, Ellen has begun to suffer professional consequences. This has gone well beyond what Ortberg disingenuously calls “some Internet yelling.” On her Tumblr page, Ellen posted that Black Lawrence Press “unaccepted” a story it had previously agreed to print. They did so presumably because of her opinions on the controversy regarding Tao Lin, et al.
From an email sent to Ellen by a Black Lawrence employee:
I hate that I have to send this email, but my boss and her board have decided that they would like to remove your story, “Winter Haven, Florida, 1984” from our anthology. They were distressed by your open letter at Hobart. While I didn’t personally agree with everything you had to say, or the way you said it, I do think you had some valid points in your post. I felt that we didn’t HAVE to remove you, but after talking with my editors, this is not the kind of provocative that Black Lawrence Press wants associated with this anthology and the press. I think it took a lot of courage to write that article, and I wish you only the best of luck in the future. I think you’re a powerful writer, and I’m saddened that your fiction won’t be in this anthology, but I hope you understand.
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Think about that for a second: A writer is arbitrarily punished because of their personal opinion on an unrelated matter. If it sounds familiar, it should.
Ellen’s case is incredibly similar to that of Steven Salaita, a university professor who accepted a job from the University of Illinois only to have it revoked after the administration became aware of controversial statements he made about Israel and the recent war in Gaza.
Salaita had already resigned his previous post and was planning to move his family cross-country when he received word that he had been “un-hired.”
The wider academy and the left (myself included) have rallied around Salaita’s case; clearly the university erred. They made an obligation, and they should honor it. Similarly, Black Lawrence Press should never have reneged on their agreement to publish Ellen’s piece. Both Ellen and Salaita were punished for their thoughts, but only one is being hailed as an icon of freedom of expression.
That’s inconsistent, but worse than that, it’s wrong. I won’t defend everything Ellen said in her piece, but I will defend her right to speak, to write. If a disagreement on one issue —even one as serious as this—is enough to cause you to write off a person entirely and abjure their work, then you’ve got a pretty flimsy definition of freedom of expression.
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When I was 18, I tried to have a book banned. I was that combination of self-righteous and absolutely ignorant that can only be found in a teenager about to leave for college.
I don’t remember the exact book, but I was offended that it contained ethnic slurs. There was no place in the library for such a book, I argued. The librarian was vehement, arguing that libraries are so vibrant because they are replete with dissenting viewpoints, even those we find repellent.
Years later, I was teaching an introductory English course. The lesson: banned books. In class, my students laughed as I gave some examples of books that had been banned: The Shining, Scary Stories, Harry Potter. I’d outline the reasons each book was pulled: religious objections, obscenities, racism.
I then launched into my admission that I was once a would-be censor. My students were usually surprised, but I pitched the experience as an exercise in skepticism and reserving judgment. I told them that it’s easy to vilify something or someone instantaneously, but it’s a hell of a lot harder if you step back and see yourself amid your own failings first.
Unfortunately, that’s a lesson most of us still need to learn.