A Case for Courtesy

sfwa boxThe controversy over the SFWA Bulletin that erupted from the SFWA forums onto the wider internet this week brought to mind something that’s been bothering me for quite some time. The total lack of courtesy and respect that seems (to me at least) to be increasing when controversial topics are discussed.

My remarks in this post are intended to be general in nature and not refer to any specific blog, comment, web site, or person. While the controversy involving the Bulletin is what prompted this post, I’m referring to more than that.

The general trend I’ve seen is that one person will post something on a topic. Someone else comments on that post, taking a different position on whatever the issue under discussion happens to be. The comments may address the issue, or they may attack the person who wrote the original post, or both. Other people join the discussion, and it’s at this point that the personal attacks tend to pick up speed. Any serious discussion of the issue at hand often gets lost in the vitriol.

Like I said, this is a general trend. There are plenty of exceptions where ideas are discussed without resorting to personal attacks. But it seems to me that the personal attacks are increasing, where anyone expressing a dissenting view experiences attacks on themselves rather than their ideas. I’ve seen topics in which this is true on both sides of a discussion.

There’s an old saying I heard in high school that has stuck with me: You catch more flies with honey than with vinegar. If you want to convince me your position is correct, or at least has some merit, don’t launch personal attacks on me or anyone else with a different view. Even if I agree with your position, I’m going to lose respect for you and probably won’t visit your blog or read your column again. On the other hand, even if I completely disagree with you, I’ll follow your blog or read your posts if you present your position without resorting to personal attacks on people who see things differently. It’s possible to disagree with someone in a courteous manner. I’ll read things in which someone does this, in part to study how they do it so I can improve my responses.

The SFF community prides itself on its tolerance. That should include tolerance for ideas with which we disagree or even find offensive. Human beings are complex. No person consists of a single viewpoint. I have many friends with whom I agree on some things but disagree on others. So do you. At least I hope so. My life is richer for this. The SFF field is richer for the variety of opinions it contains, and my life is richer for this as well. Even if I don’t agree with or like all of them.

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  1. At first I read this title “A Case For Courtney”. One of the most controversial matters ever to hit science fiction fandom was the matter of who sawed Courtney’s boat. The argument never reached a conclusion; the facts were never discovered.

    To return to the actual topic, though, some people argue for the sake of argument. The important thing is that it is an argument, not its topic. That’s what seems to be happening in some of these discussions that turn into a feud.

  2. Paul, thanks for your remarks. You raise some very valid points. And I suspect you’re right, I can’t win here. But sometimes a lost cause is the only one worth standing for. I’m simply saying personal attacks have no place in productive dialogue, whether that dialogue concerns SFWA, the gaming community, or any other group. I realize that some people won’t see it that way, and that’s their right. I think there’s a huge difference between being strident regarding an issue about which one feels strongly and personal attacks that don’t address any issues at all. Again, not everyone (or anyone) has to agree with me. But I would rather state that there’s a need to keep things civil than be silent. If that’s considered condescending, so be it. It isn’t intended to be.

    And thanks again for your input. I appreciate it.

  3. Keith,
    In my first blog entry (or my second) I wrote about how hard it is to be a critic. What you end up with in the end is a handful of enemies and no friends–only because you’ve told the truth about their work (they only remember the hurtful remarks and not the praise). What’s happened lately is all about friends and enemies. You’re asking for civility, but there are those who might accuse you (a man) of asking for such in order for the strident voices to be less strident. And there are those out there (female, mostly) who’ll take offense at that. There are a number of elephants in the SFWA livingroom that no one wants to acknowledge. The perceived sexism in the SFWA is but one. (The elephant of bullying is its progeny–he’s been around for a long, long time). There are others, too many to name, really. My last thought is this: There is no way a man can win this argument. There is no level of civility or kindness or respect that will NOT offend. “They” will just call it condescension and patronizing and take offense at that. There’s no way you can win here.

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