IMG_9879-300x225Always 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.

 

I love China, I really do. But I get the feeling that I might just die here. And I don’t mean, “I love it so much I’ll stay here until I’m so old I keel over.” No, I mean that in spite of China’s awesomeness, it’s basically a big death trap.

For the past two or three weeks I have been unable to stop coughing. I feel that my lungs are filled with junk. Maybe it’s the pollution. Hefei is phenomenally polluted. The only city I’ve visited that was worse was Beijing. Even Korea and Taiwan didn’t seem this bad. I read in a textbook (and I’ve no idea how accurate it was) that nearly 700,000 people a year die from pollution in China.

Much of the pollution comes from cars and buses, which seem to have absolutely no restrictions placed upon them. The buses are the worst. They pump out thick black plumes, and sometimes, if you’re inside the bus, there is a hole in the floor through which the smoke comes. I’ve seen people keel over and I’m never sure if they’re sleeping or dying from the toxins.

The first book I remember reading all by myself I have here on my desk now. It’s called Tinker and Tanker Out West and it’s weathered and beaten, like the literary equivalent of the Velveteen Rabbit. The “Tinker” in the tale is in fact a rabbit, while “Tanker” is a hippo. (T&T were series characters developed and illustrated by Richard Scarry, perhaps not the best surname for a children’s author).

Scene:

Melbourne, Australia, Friday 13th, 11:13pm-ish.

LOCATION: STUDY, INTERIOR.

Pan in on SIMON at his computer. SIMON is 28, dark-haired, with an air – no, an aura – about him, perhaps something around the eyes, that seems to say, ’24 hours later, I’m still amazed by the fact I made a conscious choice to start drinking Swedish strawberry cider last night, and, 24 hours and kilos of bacon later, I’m still amazed by how hungover I remain. You tricked me, Sweden. Again. Fuck you.’

Also, he’s really VERY HANDSOME; like Cary Grant, Billy Zane, and someone who onlookers would describe as ‘really very handsome’ all rolled into one.

Soundtrack: This Busta Rhymes – AC/DC mashup that SIMON cannot seem to stop listening to right now.

We see the small red notification informing SIMON he has received a new message appear on the Facebook taskbar. The message is one in an ongoing conversation between SIMON and his friend DARCI in New York. Regrettably, this conversation is about FRED DURST (not present in the scene). The discussion focuses on how anything can be made funny by adding FRED DURST to the equation or rather, SIMON’s half of the discussion focuses on this.

SIMON then makes a reference to the once-famous phrase ‘DON’T FAKE THE FUNK ON A NASTY DUNK‘ and how he finds it just as hilarious as the existence of FRED DURST.

We see SIMON, suddenly inspired, update his status to read ‘SIMON… NEVER FAKES THE FUNK ON A NASTY DUNK.’

Moments later another red notification sign flares into life. This time, it is the small square with rounded edges that sits at the corner of the little blue world globe, letting SIMON know someone has commented on his status. He clicks on it.

Note: Simon remains VERY HANDSOME, but the moment is about to get ugly.

Not Simon, though.

CUT TO: Focus on the screen, where one of SIMON’s friends has commented: ‘Gay.’

SIMON: does that kind of reverse whistling/suck in air thing you do when you see someone bark their shin on a car door and draws back from the computer into the cushions of his chair.

End scene.

*

Now, it was about this time we hit trouble.

Seconds after the first notification, a second friend, from the same group, left a comment on the same status: ‘Double gay.’ A third, again from the same group, left another: ‘Triple gay.’

And I just went… Really?

And that was when I realised that maybe I was about to get caught in the middle of a nasty dunk. And if so, then no matter what else I did, the one thing I could not do was fake the funk.

*

The Nasty Dunk

See, I know these people – some of them for over twenty years. They’re among my best friends. None of them are hate criminals, if that’s a term.. They’re tertiary-educated, cosmopolitan, well-traveled types. They’re not close-minded or mean or particularly bigoted, or at least, my experience of them, which is a fairly comprehensive one, says to me they are not.

On the other hand…

It took maybe twenty seconds for my brain to itemise all the 21st rules of speech and political correctness involved. Everyone involved was and is past the point of ignorance; we’re all internet users, we’ve all been exposed to the difficulties of comment culture, we’re all past the point of being surprised by online speech. And a quick Google search revealed no one had split the gay lingual atom while I wasn’t looking; there hadn’t been some mass acceptance of the term as fair game.

And so that’s where I was: the term gay denotes a particular sexuality, and the term gay was being used as an insult, so, therefore, we’ve got textbook discrimination here, right on my Facebook page, where I am both the owner and the owned of any information that goes back and forth.

With acknowledgment of that fact came the confirmation of my suspicion that this was indeed a dunk I had on my hands, and, furthermore, a nasty one. My question to myself was what would constitute faking the funk, and how could I avoid such an outcome?

*

Faking the Funk

As I saw it, there were a number of options available to me, many of which would constitute faking the funk – the very situation I wanted to avoid.

Funk Fake #1: Over-seriousness.

I’m a firm believer in the use of humour and discussion to deflect and resolve conflict, especially on the internet, when disaster is never further than a LOLFAG! away. Not every situation calls for charging out, guns blazing – doing so can often be counter-productive, because it only makes people dig in their heels and sound off all the louder. I didn’t want to start a giant debate or flame war, because, given that I assumed these people were probably hanging out, and drinking a little, and working themselves into a mentality of poorly-thought-out teasing, rather than expressing any deep and true homophobia, bringing the hammer down wasn’t an option that would do any real good for anyone.

And because, really, when the shoe’s on the other foot… fuck ’em if they can’t take a joke.

Funk Fake #2: Under-seriousness.

But at the same time, if I was to just let the issue slide… that would be a tacit endorsement of speech  I don’t agree with. To engage positively with the name-calling or to say nothing would be to indirectly say ‘Hey! You can use the word gay as an insult, no matter how minor your intent or disconnected from definition, and that’s perfectly OK by me, Simon Smithson!’

It’s not as if I thought the whole world was watching with bated breath; the goings-on on my Facebook page were hardly going to carry over to influence much of anything, anywhere, ever. But still…

Would that go on my passport?

Simon Smithson: Feels OK about discriminatory insults. Facebook proves it.

I could see, in my head, a vision of trying to get back into the USA, and the staffer behind the immigration desk looking at me, looking at my passport and reading those accusing words, then looking back up at me… and slowly narrowing his eyes.

Of course, in my head, he is a member of an ethnic minority. And transgendered. And he/she’s a Scientologist. Who likes Yanni. And the film Glitter.

God.

The shame.

My shame, I mean.

Although the transgender customs official would be right to be ashamed of liking Glitter.

That fantasy aside, all I could think of was this at the 1:30 mark.

Funk Fake #3: Total and Complete Hypocrisy.

99% of humor is based on laughing at someone or something. There has to be an object, which means, no matter how you slice it, there’s potential for someone, somewhere, to be offended. And I laugh at horrible things all the time. I make inappropriate jokes, delight in the shattering of taboos, and if you show me a sacred cow, then I’ll tell you a story about how it cries during sex and also, it’s fat. And we should eat it. Because its tears make it taste sweeter.

At the same time… I pick my audience. And I’m aware of setting. Context changes everything; it’s why the line ‘that’s what she said!’ is funny; why you don’t swear in front of children. It’s why we don’t, when asked by our new girlfriend’s parents how our day was, say ‘It was retarded!’ It’s why you don’t have the same conversations with your girlfriend as you have with your grandmother.

Unless they’re both performing on stage in the same North Korean sex club at the same time.

Because we’re not idiots.

Funk Fake #4: Weird Co-Opting of a Crusader Identity.

Because, just like Ludacris, whose words I try to live by every day, especially when it comes to bitches… man, I don’t want to do that. I want to have a good time and enjoy my Jack, or, rather, my Swedish strawberry cider.

It’s midnight. On a Friday. I don’t want to set off down some moral pathway where I start to define myself as someone who voices disapproval of the possible infringement of the right of a group of people to enjoy an existence untainted by bias¹. I certainly don’t want to end up in some foggy internet netherworld of political correctness and high horses and debate over definition and intent.

Especially because it’s unpleasant and unappealing and nobody likes it.

And yet, here I am. I’ve been put here.

Goddamnit.

You dicks.

Funk Fake #5: Freedom of Speech.

Which is something I believe very strongly in. Where does my subjective truth about what is acceptable or not end and objective truth begin? Can I be justified in calling people out for expressing whatever it is they’re going to express? Isn’t that, like, Communist, or something? It’s definitely Russian, I know that much.

Can I balance thoughts of consequence against thoughts of censorship and find that the scales tip one way or another? Don’t we have freedom of speech on the internet, of all places? We’ve certainly got freedom of porn. All of these questions welled up before my eyes.

But then three sweet, sweet words emerged in my head: right of reply.

*

Then I figured fuck it. I’d just delete the offending comments, the writers would, I hoped, get the message, and we’d all move on with our lives.

I deleted them, and then thought Ah… damn it. Deletion isn’t really explicitly saying hey, don’t do that, but… ah well. The problem has been dealt with.

Seconds later, more comments appeared from the same people. About censorship, me being a gay little lesbian², uberhomo, quintuple gay (you skipped quadruple, idiots)… et cetera. And I thought damn it! I’ve forgotten the law of the schoolyard! Don’t fuel the fire!

And then I thought Wait, what? I’m 28 years old. These people are 28 years old. And no matter what they say about censorship, there’s no way they’d use the term gay pejoratively in, say, a job interview; they’d self-censor at the drop of a hat and jump squeaking through any hoop that was put in front of them.  They’d contort themselves into mewling pretzels to avoid the appearance of bigotry.They just think they can get away with it in this specific instance.

My next step was to write something non-engaging and non-condoning. I searched for the perfect phrase, and, again, found three simple words.

‘Dude. Not OK.’

To me, that was the perfect pitch of disapproval without judgment or self-righteousness.

It didn’t work.

So I followed it up, explaining that on my personal Facebook page, my online representation of my day to day life, I would censor who and what I pleased, and I don’t condone the use of the word gay as an insult.

Again, this didn’t work.

And I thought You know what? Harvey Milk wouldn’t put up with this bullshit.

Also, I’m getting disrespected here. And yeah, that really kind of pales in comparison to the larger issue, but still… this whole thing is really getting out of hand.

Three times, I had expressed my disapproval. I don’t know what it is about the magic power of the number three, but, there are the three aspects of God, luck runs in threes, apparently the Condor has three days… and so I said to myself The next person who mouths off… well, we’ll just see about that.

At this point, a friend from high school, and the same group, who had been previously silent, lumbered into the discussion and dropped the g word, and subsequently became a cautionary tale of the power of the block button.

A tingling taste, like raw power, or sherbet, or a delicious, fizzy mix of the two, spread across my tongue.

Before anyone had caught on, one of the earlier perpetrators commented again. “You’re so concerned about people saying gay on your stupid facebook page. That’s gay in itself.”

Boom.

Blocked.

Awesome.

And I don’t care if you are my best friend’s girlfriend.

My phone started to ring at this point, and I ignored it. More comments appeared, this time about hurt feelings.

Not from the people I’d blocked, of course.

Because they couldn’t comment any more.

I spoke to another, unrelated friend about this today.

‘Did you give them any warning?’ she laughed. ‘Maybe they didn’t know that you were going to block them.’

‘Well,’ I said.

‘They fucking know now, don’t they?’

*

This kind of censorship and debate is a new experience for me. I haven’t found myself in a situation before where I’ve felt the need to tell someone they can’t say something, or that I disagree with a public statement they’ve made, on grounds of discrimination.

I’ve certainly been told in the past that I’ve said things that are out of line.

Which is probably fair, in practical terms, if nothing else.

But it raises the question – who’s to say what’s allowable, and what isn’t? Who is to say, objectively, what can and cannot be said, in which theatre? Who is to say what the appropriate steps to engage with such discussions are?

The answer, frankly, is clear.

I am.

 

 

 

 

 

 

¹ – these are also Ludacris lyrics
² – as if I’ve never been called a lesbian before

Since I was a lad I’ve admired beat literature and its developers. My young mind was taken with the romantic image of Kerouac roaming the interior of the body politic, a mad sweating virus on the loose in the highway vein of Amerika, Ginsberg holy maniac,chanting, praying, exorcising a generation ruined by madness, Burroughs and Gysin, pushing the envelope, rubbing out the word, and di Prima, conjuring, straddling the magick/dream line, throwing us bits of tasty metamorsels and sumptuous subconscious feasts from the other side.

In Kentucky the comments sections of one of the state’s largest newspapers have been particularly aflame lately, as have posts at several of my favorite, whip-smart kidlit bloggers weighing in on the stories. The controversies in question? Books that teenagers want to read.