Steel and Onions

In case you missed it Saturday night, Hugo Award voters soundly rejected at least the tactics of the Sad and Rabid Puppies. No Award won in all the categories only containing puppy picks, and Guardians of the Galaxy was the only nominee appearing on either slate to win an award. Voters in the WorldCon business meeting also endorsed changing Hugo nomination rules to make it much harder for a slate to dominate in the future, though the change will need to be ratified next year.

There has been, of course, much coverage and analysis of the puppies situation in the days following the awards ceremony. It ranges from affirmation of the diversity of the field to vote geekery to distress over the awards being marked by conflict to cheaply theatrical hand-rubbing to “Look at you so-called social justicey people who are willing to deny a woman an award.” File 770 will enable you to read up on this to your heart’s content–and far, far beyond. (If you want to read just one or two posts on this, I recommend starting with Alexandra Erin’s.)

The post I want to draw your attention to today, however, is from Foz Meadows, who writes about peeling an “onion argument”.

So: inasmuch as any of the Puppies can be said to have a reasonable concern at the bottom of all their rhetoric, which often comes off as little more than “we think books about people who aren’t straight white dudes are boring”, it’s the worry that certain stories are being rewarded because they contain X character or are written by Y author rather than because they’re actually good. And given the way such books are often discussed and lauded by those who love them, where these aspects are openly stated as pros, you can see where the concern comes from. After all, the difference between saying “this book is great because it had a queer protagonist” and “this book is great because it had a well-written protagonist” seems, on the surface, pretty obvious: one is concerned with a single aspect of characterisation regardless of its execution, and the other is concerned with execution alone. So clearly, if you’re vaunting queerness (for instance) as though it’s a synonym for quality, you’re at risk of recommending mediocre stories on a tokenistic, uninformed basis.



But in order to explain why this is so, there’s six onion layers we need to unravel: context, experience, awareness, representation, language and taste.

The post does a great job breaking down what people are talking about when they’re excited about books with non-default characters and is worth reading for that alone. However, as I read it, I was most struck by how many other onion arguments I’ve seen in recent years. A few of the most fought-over:

  • Schroedinger’s rapist
  • Intent is not magic
  • People are experts in their own experience
  • Trans women are women

There are volumes of meaning and implication behind each of those short statements. More critically, we’ve spent ages breaking down the volumes of meaning and implications behind each of those short statements, only to see them generally ignored or elided in favor of engaging with the short form of each. We’ve watched people talk about how self-evidently ridiculous each statement is without ever trying to understand more than those few words.

Is it a coincidence that each of these arguments is presenting a marginalized perspective? I’m not sure. Those are the arguments I engage with most often, so it could merely be a matter of sampling. On the other hand, the fact that the long forms of these statements aren’t part of the general discourse almost certainly makes them easier to ignore. There are also many ways we go about denying that marginalized people have complicated, nuanced narratives.

Whatever the reason we often accept the simplified, easily dismissed version of these arguments, the tendency itself is something we need to be wary of.  It’s important for our own sakes as well as other people’s that we argue with what people are really saying, even if that means we have to do the work to peel away the layers.

Let’s start putting some steel to those onions, folks.

Steel and Onions
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10 thoughts on “Steel and Onions

  1. 1

    This may not be actually meaningful, but it strikes me as darkly amusing that, per their chosen user icons, the two Puppy apologists in the comments on the linked article are “guy in sunglasses trying to look tough” and “a fedora”.

    Cultural signifiers much?

  2. 2

    So if there are volumes of meaning and implications behind these statements , and one should not ignore all these volumes, why would it be sensible to ask someone whether they agree with such a statement exactly as it is phrased to 100% and without any reservations and draw conclusions if they decline to answer?
    I’m confused. (Yes, I really am.)

  3. 3

    Those are two separate questions, sonderval. (1) Why would it be sensible to ask in shorthand? (2) Why would it be sensible to draw conclusions from the answer.

    (1) It would be a sensible question under circumstances in which you’re fairly sure the person you’re asking is well enough steeped in the discussions to understand it. Even then, you might be better off asking another question if you’re specifically interested in only one implication or one part of the meaning, but that’s different from “sensible”.

    (2) Even if someone declines to answer a question, they often provide information about why. In the specific instance you’re asking about, “Because you’re terrible people conspiring to destroy me” provides rather a lot of information. It isn’t a direct answer, and generalizing always has its perils. Still, when having an answer is important, you work with what you’re given. You put it together with everything else you know, and you reach your conclusion. That’s basic information processing.

  4. 4

    (1) looks a little bit like victim blaming to me – “I expect you to answer a short form of a question we both agree is in truth extremely complicated, and don’t dare not to answer.”

    “Because you’re terrible people conspiring to destroy me” provides rather a lot of information. ”
    Well, if anyone were ever to answer the question with this answer, yes, that might be telling. If anyone would answer the question with “Well, I don’t do simple answers to complex questions”, that would seem not too unreasonable to me.

    “Still, when having an answer is important”
    Why would it be important to have a simple “yes-no”-answer to a question which (as all concerned parties seem to agree) contains volumes of implications and stuff, especially if the demand is for “anything less than 100.00% yes is considered as no”?

  5. 7

    @stephanie, this post makes a lot of sense to me (even though I know fairly little of that awful Puppies saga).
    I agree the first three example are often fought-over onion arguments: “Schroedinger’s rapist; Intent is not magic; People are experts in their own experience”
    But your fourth example is a deliberate swipe at Ophelia Benson and no-one else. In other forms, in other places, it may well be an onion argument. But here, where you’ve specifically devoted posts to roasting OB on the topic, it’s anything but.
    TLDR – I think Sonderval #4 made a reasonable response to something you specifically introduced.

  6. 8

    EigenSprocketUK, if you read the one, singular post I wrote about Ophelia, you’re aware that it linked to several examples of the “trans women are women” argument that have nothing to do with her and you already know how wrong your comment is. If you didn’t read it, you’re flailing in the dark and, thus, making unethical accusations. Either way, you’re wrong, and it’s far past time you get over the notion that talking about trans women and the messed-up discourse around them is always obviously about Ophelia.

  7. 9

    Yes, i did mean that post. I guess I was reading too much into the fact that the very phrase itself, in the context of this blog network and the recent events, seemed (to me, wrongly) to be be one which was drawing in the background of the OB-specific events.
    As you’ve confirmed that it definitely wasn’t, then the only two people who mis-read it were me and Sonderval. Sorry about that: I’ll withdraw. And thanks for confirming what you did intend.

  8. AMM

    In addition to the layers of meaning that reside under each of these “catch phrases” (as I call them), there is also context.

    For instance, the meaning of “intent is not magic” requires explanations, of which there are many levels, depending on the understanding of the person being explained to. However, the usual context I see it invoked in is where someone has done something offensive — racist, misogynistic, etc., — and seeks to use “I didn’t mean to be racist, etc.” as a get-out-of-jail-free card, and in that context I would interpret it as “you clearly didn’t go to any trouble to not be racist (etc.), either. (So you still deserve the criticism.)” Arguments about the meaning of “intent is not magic” or the ways in which it might or might not be true or reasonable are beside the point.

    As for “trans women are women”: the usual context where this phrase comes up is that virtually every time the subject of trans people comes up in a space that isn’t specifically for trans people, you’re going to find people arguing that trans women are not women, but simply mentally ill men who are suffering a delusion, or men who are trying to trick people into believing they are women for some nefarious purpose. In that context, when someone asks you, “do you believe that trans women are women?”, they are asking: do you believe that trans women should be treated as women and thus given the same respect that you would give to any member of the category “women”, whether it’s the Queen of England or the crazy cat lady from down the block? And anyone who has hung around an on-line community long enough to be asked that question is surely aware of that context.

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